It didn't look like it would turn out that way but anytime the Patriots and Ravens get together it usually results in a heart-pounding one-score game and that was the case in New England's 30-23 victory Monday night at Gillette Stadium.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots 11th win of the year.
Hogan's the hero – The Patriots were teetering on the brink of disaster after allowing a 23-3 lead to be whittled down to a field goal at 23-20. A pair of special teams miscues gave Baltimore great field position and the Ravens capitalized with two quick touchdowns. With 6:28 left and the Gillette Stadium crowd grown eerily quiet, Tom Brady took advantage of a Ravens coverage breakdown and threw the ultimate dagger to Chris Hogan. After Justin Tucker's field goal cut the lead to 3, the Patriots took over at their 21 badly in need of a drive. They didn't get one, but Hogan gave them something better. Lined up in the right slot, Hogan ran a simple go route and wound up sprinting into the clear when no Raven defensive backs opted to cover him. He caught Brady's rainbow in stride and raced 79 yards for a touchdown that for all intents and purposes ended things. Baltimore safety Eric Weddle later took responsibility for the breakdown, but Hogan's fifth and final catch of the night turned out to be the biggest play of the game.
Backs in business – There was plenty of pregame talk about the importance of the Patriots so-called passing backs and they were quite active in the game. In the first half James White was huge, picking up 61 yards on a slant to convert a third-and-three from deep inside Patriots territory and wound up with five touches (three catches, two runs) for a total of 84 yards. Dion Lewis did all of his damage on the ground with three carries for 14 yards, managing to help keep the Ravens defense off balance. The Ravens linebackers are quick and athletic, but the Patriots consistently got the better of those matchups. White in particular took advantage of C.J. Mosley on the aforementioned 61-yard catch-and-run by lining up out wide and grabbing a quick slant with Mosley left chasing from behind.
Add Blount to the mix – In addition to the passing game contributions, LeGarrette Blount provided a lift against the league's No. 1 rushing defense. Blount didn't pick up much yardage but he did just enough to keep things balanced and managed to move the chains in short-yardage situations. He finished with 72 yards on 18 carries for a steady 4 yards per carry. That production wasn't overly impressive but he did a great job of moving the chains and he found the end zone for the 14th time this season, matching Curtis Martin's Patriots record set in 1995 and 96. Blount also managed to go over the 1,000-yard mark (1,028) for the second time in his career, the first coming when he picked up 1,007 yards in 2010 as a rookie in Tampa.
Three's a crowd –With Eric Rowe (hamstring) on the inactive list the Patriots secondary featured a couple of different looks with the starting lineup consisting of three corners with Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Cyrus Jones. Other times the lineup swapped out Jones for Duron Harmon in a three-safety look with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. The Ravens were content to throw mostly underneath throughout the first half and this allowed the secondary to keep things in front of them and tackle well to minimize the damage. Aside from a 40-yard completion to fullback Kyle Juszczykthe Patriots did a great job of executing that plan.
Strength in numbers – With Danny Amendola out with a high ankle sprain and Jones struggling with ball security throughout his rookie season, Bill Belichick got creative in the punt return game. Chung was used alongside Jones early on and he handled a pair of Sam Koch punts, returning one 7 yards and fair catching the other. Unfortunately Belichick's decision failed to provide the necessary help to the rookie. Jones was a disaster as the returner, almost single-handedly turning the game around. With the Patriots leading 23-3, Jones had a punt deflect off his foot and the Ravens recovered at the Patriots 3. Jones nearly had the same thing happen to him earlier in the game but the ball barely missed him on that occasion. Clearly Belichick wasn't comfortable having Jones back there alone but at this point it would make sense to move in a different direction moving forward. Newcomer Griff Whalen was inactive after arriving midweek and it will be interesting to see if Belichick gives him a chance to earn the role. At this point a change needs to be made.
More concerns – The problems in the return game didn't stop there, unfortunately. After the Ravens scored off Jones' miscue he was back deep for the ensuing kickoff along with Matthew Slater. The special teams captain received the kick and was buried by Juszczyk and fumbled, allowing Baltimore's Chris Moore to recover at the 22. The Ravens quickly cashed that turnover into points as well and suddenly it was a game. On the next kickoff Belichick took no chances and put White and Lewis back deep. Lewis handled Tucker's kick and chose to take a knee, drawing a mock cheer from the frustrated Patriots fans in attendance.
Safety dance – For the third time this season the Patriots defense came up with a huge play to put points on the board with a safety. In a scoreless tie in the first quarter the Patriots were forced to punt after their second straight three-and-out to open the game, Ryan Allen's punt was allowed to drop by Ravens return man Devin Hester. Hester called for a fair catch but for some reason he allowed the ball to drop at the 15 and it rolled down to the 1 before Jonathan Jones and Matthew Slater teamed up to down it there. On the first snap, Ravens running back Kenneth Dixon was dropped in the end zone by Malcom Brown, resulting in a safety. The play gave some needed momentum to the home team early on when it appeared as if the Ravens defense was causing some problems. Dont'a Hightower was responsible for safeties in consecutive games earlier this season against Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Block party – When the Patriots traded Jamie Collins earlier this season they lost arguably the team's most athletic player, and one who opened eyes when he leaped over the Colts long snapper last season and blocked an extra point attempt. Shea McClellin proved he was capable of filling Collins' shoes at least in terms of showcasing his blocking skills. McClellin timed his leap perfectly and easily blocked Tucker's 34-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter, allowing New England to maintain its slim 2-0 lead.
Flea flicker fun – Hogan was also on the receiving end of a Patriots trick play, which is always fun when playing the Ravens. In the third quarter the Patriots marched for a touchdown that extended their lead to 23-3 with a drive that included a flea flicker from Brady to Hogan. Blount took a handoff and started to go off right tackle before turning and flipping the ball back to his quarterback, who found Hogan cutting across the middle for a 28-yard gain to the Ravens 24. Hogan was actually covered fairly well by Shareece Wright on the play but Brady was able to make the connection nonetheless.
Extra points – The Patriots won their 11th game for the seventh consecutive season. … Brady earned his 100th-career win at home against just 16 losses. He also notched the ninth 400-yard game of his career, finishing with 406 yards passing. … A win next week in Denver, or a Miami loss, would clinch the Patriots eighth consecutive AFC East division title.