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Sunday, October 17, 2010
Minus Moss, Brady still wears down Ravens

By Tim Graham

Tom Brady
After a slow start, New England's Tom Brady threw for 292 yards against the Ravens.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski is a former prizefighter and looked like he'd just climbed into a ring. A black, hooded sweatshirt obscured his face while he meandered aimlessly in a corner of the Gillette Stadium visitors locker room, talking out loud to nobody after playing the New England Patriots on Sunday.

Zbikowski muttered a run-on sentence about the Patriots having two weeks to prepare with a bye week and still barely beat the Ravens at home and needed their best performance to do it and just wait until the playoffs, when the Ravens will roll them again, just like they did last year in the same building and ...

That's what Tom Brady can do to his opponents, leave them talking to themselves after a game they thought they should've won but didn't.

In boxing parlance, the Patriots outslugged the Ravens to eke out a 23-20 majority decision in overtime. The Ravens outfoxed the Patriots for much of the afternoon, but a late flurry from Brady and his menagerie of receivers put them over the top.

Zbikowski has a point about the Patriots benefiting from an extra week of prep for the Ravens, a team many considered the NFL's most complete.

But Brady went into Sunday without his haymaker for the first time in four seasons. Randy Moss, the powerhouse deep threat, was running fly patterns in the Metrodome instead.

Brady conceded in an interview that aired on the NFL Network before the game "It'd be foolish to think" the Patriots would be better without Moss, and early in the game it appeared they would miss him dearly.

The Patriots' offense couldn't find a rhythm. Through three quarters, Brady was 11-of-20 for 136 yards and no touchdowns with an interception for a 55.4 passer rating. The Ravens sacked him twice and drilled him on a couple plays and the Patriots found themselves down by 10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis claimed a team should win 80 percent of the time when it plays as well as the Ravens did Sunday.

The problem was, a 20 percent chance for Brady might not be a bad bet.

In the fourth quarter and overtime, Brady strafed the Ravens. The Patriots went no huddle. In the fourth quarter and overtime Brady completed 16-of-24 for 156 yards and one touchdown with one interception on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of regulation time. The Ravens sacked him once.

"We did a good job of frenzying him," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said, "but eventually he's going to make some plays."

In the first game since the Patriots reacquired Deion Branch in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks, he had nine receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown. Brady spread the ball around to slot receiver Wes Welker (seven catches, 53 yards), running back Danny Woodhead (five catches, 52 yards) and rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez (four catches, 61 yards).

Welker, Woodhead and Julian Edelman are among the interchangeable parts. The Patriots have gathered them like collectibles. Maybe that's because they're the size of action figures. No matter, they get the job done.

"You have those tight ends and those itty, bitty receivers running all over the place," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said.

Ravens safety Dawan Landry chuckled when asked if the Patriots were any easier to defend without Moss on the field.

"They're still the Patriots," Landry said. "They got rid of [Moss] for a reason. They feel like the guys they have can get the job done. I think they can. They'll be OK."

New England couldn't blow the top off Baltimore's defense without Moss. Brady went deep just twice, a long incompletion to Brandon Tate and the 44-yard jump ball before overtime.

New England's game plan, however, wasn't much different.

Deion Branch
Deion Branch had a huge day in his return to the Patriots.
Receivers worked the sidelines, underneath crosses, screens. They're finely tuned that way, and even though Baltimore could stick an extra defender nearer the line of scrimmage without Moss to worry about (Welker didn't have a single third-down catch for the first time since opening night 2009), versatile receivers running precision routes with a quarterback who can throw darts will keep any offense dangerous.

Moss "is one of the greatest vertical guys in the game, but they're not going to adjust their game plan to one guy," Johnson said. "You'd have to account for him because he's so good, but they're just going to plug another guy in.

"When you got that scheme and Tom Brady, you're going to be good. They're a heady team. ... I'm not going to sit here and give some epic speech about how great he is, but it's easy. They're going to attack where you're vulnerable, and that's what they did."

The Patriots have been doing that since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe nine years ago. Brady has been the common denominator, not Moss.

Defenses might have less to fear without Moss streaking up the field, leaping over a defender for a grab or making a one-handed stab in the end zone.

But if they don't stop Brady, then there's a good chance they'll be muttering to themselves about what they'll do next time in a rematch.