FOXBOROUGH - This one was better than the season-opening win over the Bills, even if it seemed unfathomable that the thrilling come-from-behind triumph could be topped.
It was much better than last week’s flawed victory over the Falcons, in which a frustrated Tom Brady became overheated on the bench at the offense’s inability to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns.
When the Patriots close the book on their 2009 season, it’s likely the 27-21 victory they scored yesterday over the Baltimore Ravens before 68,756 at Gillette Stadium will go down as a defining moment because it was forged in fortitude.
It was a hard-fought affair against a hard-edged opponent who refused to go down until the very end, when Mark Clayton dropped a fourth-and-4 pass by Joe Flacco from the New England 14 with 32 seconds left.
“It was quite a finish,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who will get set to prepare his team for a trip to Denver and a reunion with former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, now the Broncos coach.
“That was a good football game out there today,” Belichick said. “I’m really proud of our players, couldn’t be prouder of them. They stepped up, went toe to toe with a team that, offensively, already set some franchise records this early in the season. Defensively, [they are] probably as good a defense - really, clearly the best defense - in this decade. They’ve got some great football players. I thought our guys really hung in there and made enough plays to win.”
And, in that sense, it made the Patriots’ third win of the season supremely satisfying.
It didn’t matter if it was offense, defense, or special teams. The Patriots bronzed this triumph with moments in which they didn’t back down to their brash opponents, coming up with pivotal plays in each phase of the game.
Offensively, there was Brady’s 1-yard TD plunge in which the Patriots quarterback knocked heads with none other than Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
“I know Tom is a competitor and he’s really tough,” said running back Sammy Morris, who had five receptions for 35 yards, rushed six times for 21 yards, and scored on a 12-yard scamper to give the Patriots a 17-7 lead with 3:57 left in the first half. “He’s a competitor and he’s going to do what he’s got to do to help us win the game.”
The Patriots were unable to convert Brandon McGowan’s recovery of Chris Carr’s fumble at the Baltimore 12 on the opening kickoff into a touchdown, settling instead for Stephen Gostkowski’s 32-yard field goal. But Brady punched it in himself in the second quarter, setting up the score with a 5-yard keeper on the previous play.
Was he trying to send a message? “No, no, it was just something where Billy [O’Brien, who calls the offensive plays] thought we could sneak it, and the call came in from the sideline,” said Brady, who completed 21 of 32 attempts for 258 yards. “We had good blocking up front. Head to head with Ray Lewis, I mean, I certainly wasn’t thinking about that going to bed last night that that was what I was looking forward to today. But it came up and we scored.”
Brady reunited with Wes Welker (six receptions, 48 yards), who missed the last two games with a knee injury, and Randy Moss, who caught a 14-yard touchdown pass with 2:27 left in the third quarter to give the Patriots a 24-14 lead. It was Moss’s first TD catch of the season, and the first time he and Brady have found the end zone since Super Bowl XLII.
Defensively, the Patriots held the league’s second-leading offense to 14 points and 363 total yards, below Baltimore’s average of 34.3 points and 430.3 yards entering the game. The Patriots’ defense recorded a pair of fourth-down stops on the Ravens’ last two possessions; got a pair of sacks from tackle Mike Wright; a tightrope-walking interception in the second quarter by cornerback Leigh Bodden at the New England 9; and was led by Brandon Meriweather (team-high nine tackles), who outshined Baltimore’s Ed Reed as the best former University of Miami safety on the field.
“I don’t care if nobody talks about us, as long as we win games,” said Wright, when asked if the Patriots’ defense, which was ranked sixth coming into the game, is underrated. “There’s good offenses out there and especially like this one today with two great backs. They’re hard to get down. They’re hard to stop. As long as we come out with the victory at the end is all that matters.”
Special teams? If not for a 5-yard illegal motion penalty against tight end Chris Baker, who hauled in a 6-yard toss from punter Chris Hanson and lunged for the first-down marker, the Patriots would have pulled off a fake field goal in the fourth quarter.
The penalty forced the Patriots to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Gostkowski that expanded the lead to 27-21.
Just as he had all game long, Flacco, who completed 27 of 47 passes for 264 yards, tried to answer. He did so when he connected with Derrick Mason on a 20-yard TD pass that gave the Ravens a 7-3 lead with 6:59 left in the first quarter. Dwan Edwards recovered a Brady fumble (off a Terrell Suggs strip-sack) in the end zone to pull the Ravens within 17-14, then Flacco answered Brady’s TD to Moss with a 13-yard pass to Willis McGahee to pull Baltimore within 24-21 with 14:17 left.
“He was very impressive,” Meriweather said of Flacco. “He controlled the safeties well and was doing things I don’t see many quarterbacks doing. For instance, he was controlling the safeties well with his eyes and looking us off and making good reads.”
Flacco looked to be in complete control when the Ravens took over at their 20 with 3:32 left and marched 66 yards in 12 plays to the Patriots’ 14, but passes on third (Mason) and fourth downs (Clayton) were incomplete.
“Flat-out drop,” Clayton said. “It was a perfect ball. Joe put it on the money. To not come up with it is tough. It cost us the game.”
It delivered the Patriots a defining triumph that ranked as their best this season.
“Like I said, that’s a real good football team,” Belichick said. “They do a lot of things well. I felt like we had to do a lot of good things just to compete with them in all three phases of the game. It was a hard-hitting game, a tough, physical game. We’re fortunate we made a few more plays than they did today. That’s about all there is to it.”