BALTIMORE — The first clue that the Patriots were feeling good about their chances on Sunday in Baltimore came pretty early Friday morning, when coach Bill Belichick was in great spirits during his news conference.
Over the years, when Belichick is happy on Fridays, it’s a sign that things have been going well during the week.
But then Sunday night, as his teammates were adjusting their fresh-out-of-the-boxes 2013 AFC East Champions hats and pulling the matching T-shirts over their heads after a wire-to-wire 41-7 drubbing of the Ravens, Rob Ninkovich affirmed that the Patriots were feeling good – really good.
“Coming in on the bus ride in here [to M&T Bank Stadium], I felt great,” the cocaptain said. “I knew that we were going to beat these guys, and getting some hand gestures from the fans, it’s always a motivating thing.
“I was confident. I knew that we had worked hard and put the time in.”
Ninkovich did admit that he doesn’t feel that way before every game.
“Sometimes you don’t feel, whether it’s us executing enough in practice, to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got everything down.’ This week, I felt like, we have a lot of things that are clicking, we’re doing things right, we’re in the right place, we’re all on the same page with our checks and assignments, and that’s how you win in football.”
The Patriots already had clinched their fifth straight division title, and 11th of the 13-year Bill Belichick-Tom Brady partnership, before they’d even kicked off the ball against the Ravens, courtesy of the Dolphins, who were shut out in Buffalo in the 1 p.m. game.
But though not every player was willing to say whether the Patriots knew when the game began that they’d already secured their postseason berth, a couple acknowledged that they didn’t want to “back into” their spot anyway, and wanted the win to punctuate their AFC East title.
On top of that, their loss in Miami a week earlier combined with wins by both Indianapolis (in Kansas City) and Cincinnati (against the Vikings) earlier on Sunday, meant New England still needed the win to stay in the running for a first-round bye.
That the Patriots are 11-4, division champions, and in the position they are after myriad on- and off-field issues is a testament to Belichick, the coaching staff, and the players.
“It gets better every year, because you know how hard it is,” said Julian Edelman, who has five division champion hats for each of his NFL seasons. “Especially with the crazy year we’ve had, the ups and the downs, things in the offseason” — he paused here, and it’s easy to believe he was referring to the Aaron Hernandez situation — “going through the season, and we’ve had some of our big dogs getting hurt.”
Belichick was also highly complimentary of his team at his postgame news conference, which was held in a room attached to the locker room. Before he entered, there were a couple of loud cheers, no doubt players responding to the victory speech he was giving.
“I thought it was a really good job from our team today,” Belichick said. “I thought our players really prepared hard and played hard, and they played well. I’m proud of the way they played; they competed. Being able to finish and play 60 minutes is good. It’s something we need to do more of.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this football team. They earned it today, and that’s a good football team we played. But our guys earned it today. I’m happy to win, happy to win the AFC East, and hopefully we can build off this game. It’s a good one for us.”
The game had playoff implications for the Ravens as well. Though once the Bengals won the Ravens were out of the running for the AFC North crown, they were still in the driver’s seat for the second wild-card berth.
That, combined with their history against New England, made it surprising that they were so flat for much of the game.
New England was ahead, 14-0, before the end of the first quarter, on two red-zone touchdowns, a vast improvement from a week earlier, when they converted just 1 of 4 inside-the-20 opportunities against the Dolphins. Sunday the Patriots were 3 for 3.
The second touchdown, a 4-yard screen pass from Brady to Shane Vereen, who had motioned from the backfield to the right slot before the snap, was set up by the first of four turnovers the defense forced, and the first of two Logan Ryan interceptions. The Patriots were ahead, 17-0, at halftime, and in five first-half possessions (they also had a kneeldown), the Ravens never advanced past midfield.
Baltimore did get into New England territory on the opening drive of the third quarter, but went for it on fourth down from the New England 39, and Ryan batted down a Joe Flacco sideline pass intended for Jacoby Jones.
The Ravens went 0 for 3 on fourth down and were 5 for 14 (36 percent) on third down for the game.
They did score early in the fourth quarter to cut it to 20-7 and were near midfield on their next possession when Flacco threw four straight incompletions to give the ball back to the Patriots with 6:37 to play.
From that point, things just imploded for Baltimore.
The Patriots scored the game-sealing touchdown with a nine-play, 48-yard drive – all of it done with runs by LeGarrette Blount (16 carries for 76 yards, two touchdowns) and Stevan Ridley (15 carries for 54 yards). Blount got the touchdown from 7 yards out.
Baltimore pulled Flacco, who played on a sprained left MCL suffered Monday night in Detroit, for Tyrod Taylor, and on Taylor’s first play the shotgun snap got past the backup quarterback and Chandler Jones scooped up the loose ball for his first career touchdown.
With less than a minute to play, Tavon Wilson, the second-year safety who has played very little on defense but was forced into duty after Devin McCourty was knocked out with a head injury (read: concussion), picked off Taylor and returned it 74 yards for his first career touchdown.
“Every single guy,” Belichick said of the win. “You need everybody, and we had everybody. We had contributions from all three units. Every guy that was dressed, I felt, played hard.
“It wasn’t perfect. You have to have everybody doing their job in this league. You can’t win with one or two guys. There’s just too many good guys on the other side of the ball.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.