FOXBOROUGH – The prevailing sentiment all week was that defense was going to determine the outcome of this game.
Turns out, that was the case, only it was New England's underrated unit and not Baltimore's much-ballyhooed bunch that came up the biggest when it mattered most.
Clinging to a six-point lead with about five minutes to go in the game, the Patriots twice stuffed the Ravens on fourth-down attempts – once near midfield, the other in Pats red zone.
While the Pats defense had a difficult time stopping Ravens second-year running back Ray Riceon the afternoon (11 carries for 103 yards, including a 50-yard gallop), Baltimore chose to give the ball to backup Willis McGaheeon fourth-and-one from their own 45 at the 5:17 mark. Linebacker Gary Guytonand safety Brandon McGowancombined to stop McGahee just short of the necessary spot.
The final effort came with just half a minute remaining. Baltimore had marched from their own 20-yard line down to New England's 20. On first down, quarterback Joe Flaccolobbed a pass into the end zone to Mark Claytonthat went inches too far for his outstretched arms. Former Patriot Kelley Washingtonpicked up six yards with a reception on the next play.
Flacco's next pass was defended nicely inside the 10 by the Pats secondary. Then, on fourth down, Clayton appeared to have first down yardage, but the pass bounced off his body and Patriots defenders knocked it away to end the game.
"That's situational football," stated linebacker Adalius Thomas. "Fourth-down, gotta have it. Being able to know the situation and being able to respond."
For the second week in a row, the Patriots defense has shut down an opposing offense that came into the game with a perceived advantage in terms of playmakers at the skill positions.
"We have a lot of guys on the defense who can make plays. They did it today," countered cornerback Leigh Bodden, who collected his first interception as a Patriot late in the second quarter to thwart a potential Ravens drive down at the New England 10.
Things didn't start off so well for the Pats, however. After forcing a recovering a Ravens fumble on the opening kickoff deep in Baltimore territory, the Patriots offense could only managed a field goal. The Ravens responded by assembling a 15-play, 81-yard drive that consumed 6:35 and resulted in a touchdown pass from Flacco to veteran receiver Derrick Mason.
"The first drive, we were a little uptight," safety Brandon Meriweatherconceded. "We just settled down and played our game."
New England's defense held the Ravens to just those seven points during the first 30 minutes of play, aided in part by a most unfortunate situation.
With 7:11 left in the second quarter, Ravens starting left tackle Jared Gaithercollided with his QB as the Patriots pass rush collapsed the pocket. Gaither slumped to the ground and remained there for the next several minutes as training staffs from both sides came onto the field to assist. The report from the sidelines was that Gaither had movement in all his extremities, but he was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital for further evaluation.
The prolonged stoppage in play appeared to drain the life out of the Ravens for a while.
"I hope [Gaither] is alright. Anytime you see a guy get carried off the field, the stadium gets quiet, guys weren't really into the game," wide receiver Randy Mosssaid afterward. "I hope he's alright."
New England's defense, meanwhile, came out recharged for the second half. The Pats front seven was able to get consistent pressure on Flacco for much of the game, forcing him into rushed throws and sacking him twice (a third was called back because of a penalty). That, in turn, helped the Pats secondary play more aggressively than they otherwise might have.
It's also evident that officiating played a significant role in today's game. New England was flagged nine times, but only five of those were accepted, while the Ravens committed nine infractions that resulted in 85 lost yards. And perhaps much more, according to the Ravens defensive heart and soul, linebacker Ray Lewis.
After the game, he went on a passionate tirade about a pair of roughing the passer penalties against the Ravens that resulted in the first two Patriots touchdowns.
"Did that win or lose the game? No. But it damn sure helped them get 14 points," Lewis lamented. "People work too hard for that, man. You know what I'm saying? And the embarrassing part about it is you see it constantly, constantly every week. Oh, emphasis on protecting the quarterback. Every man puts his pants on the same way. I've got kids just like [Tom] Bradygot kids. Every man has kids. Treat it with that same respect.
"But it's embarrassing to even keep a game going with momentum like that. After we go three-and-out, we stop them, and then we see a flag for a personal foul, and Brady is laughing. That ain't no personal foul if you still smiling."
Meanwhile, the Patriots defense – which has now held opponents to 17, 16, 10, and 14 points in four games (excluding the two Tom Brady turnovers that resulted in opponents' scores) – continues to find ways to help the team win, despite injuries and first-year players still getting used to the system.
"Our defense is playing great right now," observed guard Logan Mankins. "You can't say enough about those guys. We put them in a tough spot today, making them have to defend that last drive there. We should have been up 14 and they shouldn't have even been in that position. But they did a great job."
"I think we left a lot of plays out there," added Thomas. "But we won. It wasn't pretty, but at the same time, you'll take it, try to learn from the mistakes, and get better.
"We're having fun together," Meriweather concluded. "We're learning how to play with each other. We're learning what kind of player each one of us is."
Which is a main reason why the Patriots are now 3-1.