FOXBOROUGH –It started with the Raiders last Thursday night and continued over the weekend with Seattle and Dallas. Strong division leaders lost their Week 14 games – in Seattle's case, big-time – and in Oakland's case, also lost their grip on their division lead and their top playoff seeding.
Meanwhile, teams on the bubble like Miami, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh earned hard-fought victories to stay in the playoff hunt. The Dolphins' and Steelers' wins prevented New England from clinching either the AFC East or a first-round playoff bye, but win or lose against Baltimore Monday night, the Patriots would keep their No. 1 intact, at least for another week.
It wasn't expected to be an easy game, either, against a Ravens team that historically plays the Patriots tough, no matter where the game is played. And with the Steelers winning on the road in Buffalo, Baltimore needed a win desperately to keep pace with Pittsburgh.
However, through most of the first half, the Patriots were clearly the superior club.
Much of the talk all week had been about Baltimore's stingy defense, but it was New England's that came out firing.
DE Trey Flowers ignited the crowd with a sack on 3rd down on the Ravens' first possession. On the next Ravens series, rookie Jonathan Jones made a great athletic play to keep a Ryan Allen punt in play just in front of the goal line. Matthew Slater downed it and immediately pointed to Jones to acknowledge the great effort. That led to a safety by DT Malcom Brown on the very next play, when he plowed through the Ravens' o-line to stuff the ball carrier in the end zone.
The New England Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Monday, December 12, 2016.
The next defensive series started out poorly, as DE Shea McClellin, working on the punt coverage team, inadvertently kicked an Allen punt into the end zone for a touchback.
The defense then gave up a big play, a catch-and-run by fullback Kyle Juszczyk, with a personal foul tacked on at the end. Yet, they held Baltimore to just a field goal attempt, and McClellin atoned for his earlier miscue by bounding over the long snapper and blocking Justin Tucker's kick.
Meanwhile, on offense, Tom Brady wasn't at his sharpest in the early going. Several of his passes to open receivers were behind them or otherwise errant. He threw 11 of his 13 incompletions in the first half. However, his teammates helped him overcome that with big plays, like RB James White's 61-yard catch-and-run, LeGarrette Blount's hard yards on the ground, and rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell's contributions, including another touchdown catch (his fourth of the season).
Devin McCourty's timely INT on the Ravens' ensuing drive cemented the Patriots defense's dominance of the first half and continued a string of games in which the D has stepped to the forefront.
But the offense didn't capitalize, even with a first-and-goal from the Ravens' 2-yard line. Instead of pounding the ball with Blount, OC Josh McDaniels overthought the situation, calling for a James White sweep that lost two yards, and two Brady passes, the second of which was intercepted in the end zone. This should have easily been another Patriots touchdown to put them up 23-0. Instead, the score remained 16-0. Baltimore responded with a field goal to trim the lead to just 13 points.
New England completely controlled the first half, but it didn't necessarily show on the scoreboard.
"The whole week, we knew it was going to be a 60-minute game," TE Martellus Bennett asserted. "They're a really good team. We knew they were never going to give up. They're mentally tough and physically tough. We knew we were going to have to battle throughout the whole game. We knew there would be some ebbs and flows to the game."
"Always. Always a 12-rounder with these guys," WR Julian Edelman remarked. "That's just how it is. They're a tough football team. But definitely good to get a W."
Brady found his precision again in the second half, when he hit Bennett for a 19-yard touchdown pass, although most of the credit goes to Bennett for outmuscling the Ravens defender for the ball in the end zone. The Patriots were at that point comfortably ahead by 20 points and looking to put the game away.
When the defense forced a Baltimore punt on the ensuing possession, it appeared headed in that direction, but rookie Cyrus Jones, who's struggled all year as a punt returner, hurt his team yet again. He got dangerously close to a bouncing punt and it hit his foot. The Ravens recovered at the New England 1 and converted a touchdown a few plays later. Back to a 13-point lead.
Slater then lost the ball on the ensuing kickoff, deep in Patriots territory, and the Ravens were in business again, quickly finding the end zone once again. The tight battle that most of us expected suddenly became a reality in the early fourth quarter.
"We've got to be able to overcome mistakes," DE Chris Long admitted to reporters. "I think we did a good job of that. On defense, we could have been a little bit better at responding to those sudden changes. But overall, I think we played a good game on defense and will continue to build on that."
A Rob Ninkovich sack on 3rd-and-4 with less than seven minutes left forced the Ravens into another field goal, which trimmed New England's lead to just three points.
On the next play from scrimmage, Brady found a wide open Chris Hogan down the seam for a 79-yard pitch-and-catch touchdown that essentially iced the game for New England.
"We were going back and forth with that team. We knew it was going to be a battle, 60 minutes," Hogan maintained. "We were able to come up big, make a play, the defense stepped up. All in all, it was a good team win. We were able to fight through it. That says a lot about this team."
"That's just how the game rolls sometimes," added Edelman. "It's unfortunate. We've got to get better, learn from it. It was good to get hit in the face and be able to withstand it in the end."
Offensively, New England wasn't perfect, but still scored four touchdowns, which should be more than enough to win most games in this league. On defense, after two dominant performances against teams with losing records, the Patriots came up with an impressive effort against a playoff-caliber foe. There were mixed results on special teams as well, but overall, this was the kind of game that helps turn contenders into champions.
At 11-2, with three games to play, New England is unquestionably atop the AFC and playing more balanced football at just the right time.