FOXBOROUGH – Good teams know how to finish.
When they were winning Super Bowls in the early part of the last decade, the Patriots won a lot of tough games. They beat teams on the road, at home, in blowouts, in close contests … it didn't matter the situation or the venue. That's what made New England so difficult to beat during their championship run. You just knew they would find a way to win, regardless of what obstacles they faced.
Some of that intangible, invincible quality appeared to return to Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon, as the Patriots had to go nearly an entire extra quarter to beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-20. And that killer instinct was what the Ravens, a one-loss team heading into today, desperately needed but couldn't seem to find when it mattered most.
Two plays in particular highlighted the contract between the two teams. Leading 10-7 at the end of the first half, Baltimore QB Joe Flaccoscrambled for what looked like a first down at midfield. The play was reviewed and overturned, giving the Ravens a fourth-and-inches. Head coach John Harbaughelected to punt.
Then in the fourth quarter, leading 20-17, the Ravens again faced a fourth and less than a yard from midfield. Again, Harbaugh called in his punting unit. Those two plays, particularly the second one, helped sway the momentum in New England's favor.
The Ravens started strong and had the Patriots on the ropes, but couldn't knock them out. They looked tired toward the end of the game and were playing tentatively rather than confidently.
Granted, this was Baltimore's fourth road game in six weeks, but good teams overcome that kind of adversity. Good teams know how to finish.
Which is what New England did ... with a little help from an old friend.
Deion Branchhad just shy of 100 yards receiving on nine catches, including his first touchdown since returning to the Patriots. His two grabs on the game-winning drive in overtime – the first for 23 yards, the other for 10 – put New England in position for kicker Stephen Gostkowski first game-winning field goal since his rookie season (in the playoffs at San Diego).
The sight of the former number 83, now 84, in a Patriots uniform seemed to ignite the New England offense the way he did during his first stint with the team.
"Tom [Brady] and I have been apart for four years, and it feels like we haven't missed a beat," Branch said about the chemistry between him and his quarterback.
"I've been in this situation with this team and that guy ... I haven't felt this way in four years. It's kind of crazy. I truly feel like, when we got the ball on that last drive, we knew we were going to get some points. That's the feeling we had."
"He did great," Brady raved about Branch. "You guys asked me earlier this week if there was some chemistry there. I've been throwing balls to him for a long time; he made some big time plays, [a] touchdown catch … we all kept battling and I think that was why we pulled it out."
And by all, Brady certainly meant the defense, too. Though they gave up big chunks of yardage, mostly through the air, throughout the game, the defense as a whole played with more confidence as the game wore on.
"Down 10, we fought back," nose tackle Vince Wilforkremarked afterward. "At times, we were getting booed [by the fans], but you know what, we looked right past all that stuff and just stuck together as a team. That's what we have. We're a very, very good team. We work hard every day and it's paying off a little bit.
"We stepped up when we needed to. All year, third down, we've had problems in that area. But something went off and we basically turned it around. I don't care what the clock said. We always thought we were going to win the ballgame. We stood up for one another, we played for one another, and that's a team. That ballgame could've gone either way. We both were slugging it out, back and forth, back and forth. I'm happy to be on the 'w' side this time."
"Man, that was a good win for our football team today," a relieved head coach Bill Belichicktold reporters in his post-game comments.
"I'm really proud of those kids. They played hard … 10 points down in the fourth quarter, rallied, fought through it in overtime. It was really just a heck of a job by our players. You've got to give them all the credit in the world. I know a lot of people doubted that they could do it and our second half [problems] and all of that, but you come back from behind [against] a team like Baltimore and win it at the end…
"We just had a lot of big plays out there. You can just talk about everybody. They all contributed. It was a real team effort against a real good football team. Baltimore has got a good club. They do a lot of things well. Fortunately, we were able to do one or two things a little better than they did today. I'm really proud of our team."
Just like old times.