The New England Patriots put forth a performance yesterday in beating the Baltimore Ravens with 2:00 left to go in overtime by a score of 23-20 that bodes well for the season. It was almost two different games in the almost five full quarters of football played. And it also spoke to the shift in offensive strategy and clubhouse demeanor in the addition by subtraction of sending Randy Moss to Minnesota and in the addition by addition of old/new Patriot Deion Branch, Tom Brady’s favorite receiver of all time by Tom Brady’s own admission.
A defense that has ranked in the bottom 3 in the league all year got its act together. In the first three quarters it looked like the same old same old, with large gains given up by a secondary staying too far off the receivers, thereby enabling all sorts of easy catches in the middle of the field for successful third and long conversions. Brandon Merriweather also crossed the line from aggressive to cheap shot artist – inadvertent or not – in a horrific hit against excellent Ravens tight end Todd Heap that had me worried the guy might have been at least temporarily paralyzed, or worse. Todd’s a great player and seems to be a great human being from watching the HBO show Hard Knocks about training camp that covered the Ravens during his rookie year. I am happy he seems to be fine after that hit.
But in the fourth quarter and overtime period that defense shut down Baltimore, giving them only three first downs. It flat out stuffed the Ravens in those 27 minutes of football when in the first 45 Baltimore had consumed huge amounts of time grinding out long drives. By all accounts, that defense should have been tired based on the time of possession mismatch in those first three quarters, yet it came up big. It’s young. The hope has been they will learn. It seems they did, just that, with rookie cornerback Devin McCourty being the best example.
He was torched on a timing pattern early in the first quarter and called for interference, to boot. Same play in overtime, executed flawlessly by Baltimore, and he broke it up. The kid learns.
A downside to the overtime was the play of rookie Tight End Aaron Hernandez who had two successive drops and was seen on the sidelines with his head down. He’s a great talent who spit the bit and looks rattled. He will have to be bolstered. Look for Brady to go to him early next week to get his game back. The kid is good, but all I could think was “Calvin Schiraldi” who was a fantastic rookie reliever for the Boston Red Sox who spit the bit in the 1986 World Series and was never the same. Hang in there Aaron.
And now to Branch and Moss. Branch played well here for a number of years, opting to go elsewhere for more money. He was an offseason trade to Seattle after the 2006 Super Bowl win in which he was the MVP. His numbers were nowhere near as good in Seattle, and he came back in trade, and has subsequently renegotiated his contract downward. There's more to a career than money, some learn, apparently. He mentioned coming back as coming home. He mentioned Brady being so excited to have him back in the first day of practice that the receivers coach pulled Branch out of practice as Brady was too consumed with forcing the ball to him.
Brady and Branch worked together after practice in Branch's first stint in New England on cues between the two of them and the timing routes Branch would run with precision as a result. Symbiosis. Connection.
Randy Moss would run sloppy routes. He wanted out because his contract was up, the Patriots offense was going to be more designed around him as a decoy to stretch the middle to free up the aforementioned Hernandez and his rookie tight end counterpart Tony Gonzalez. So Moss got shipped off to Minnesota and aging nut job Brett Favre.
Branch in his press conference addressed the media by calling them “sir.” In his press conference, after a great day of 9 catches with 94 yards which was his best performance in six years, he spoke not of his accomplishments, but of his failing. He confessed to misreading a Brady audible that should have had him running a route when he thought it was a running play and he was therefore blocking.
He just wanted a win, he said. Didn’t matter if he had catches as long as they won, and he focused and admitted his mistake on a day when his numbers suggested one hell of a performance.
Randy Moss could get similar yards on 2 or 3 receptions. Branch’s on 9 represent 9 potential first downs to Moss’ 2 or 3. Ball control through an air attack set up more by play action freezing the middle by having to be kept honest by the run rather than a middle of the field stretched by worrying about a mercurial gazelle deciding to not take a play off and sprint like the wind.
Moss also took the press conference of the season opener to complain about his contract. To make it about how the team was not giving to HIM. Branch took it to explain how he had hurt the team when everyone wanted to talk about how he had helped the team. Moss, as ESPN Commenter Bill Simmons wrote – and admits to almost stealing from another – is the crazy hot chick you date knowing it is going to end badly. Branch you take home to mother.
So this game bodes well for the Patriots’ season. The defense came together. Young kids learned. The offense returned to its old traditions of a ground game respected enough to establish the play action passes that opens up the middle of the field, with the occasional deep threat.
It was a great day to be a New England Patriots fan, that is for sure. The team looked good, and the clubhouse communication seems to suggest a return to stability after finally getting rid of the crazy hot chick. A crazy hot chick who has met their match in the self absorbed department by teaming up with 41 year-old Brett Favre for 5 catches for 55 yards to go 2-3 on the season by beating the now 1-4 Dallas Cowboys.
Those two deserve each other
So do Deion Branch and Tom Brady.