Consider all the elements that were stacked against the Patriots: M&T Bank Stadium is one of the toughest places in the NFL to win. The Ravens were on a four-game winning streak, riding high with confidence. And the beaten-up Patriots were being held together by duct tape in some areas.
But it was even more that ranked this victory in such lofty status over the past 14 years, as it was how the Patriots achieved the end result that was so impressive. Their physicality shined, and a commitment to the running game was a change from the norm. The defense got back to its turnover-producing roots and special teams played tight against a dangerous foe.
As one would expect, there was jubilation in the locker room afterward, players donning their navy AFC East championship hats and T-shirts. This is old hat for the Patriots, as they became the first team since the NFL merger (1970) to win 10 division titles in an 11-year span, according to Elias Sports Bureau, but one got the sense that maybe this one meant a bit more than those from the past.
“Every year is special,” quarterback Tom Brady said, “but we’ve really earned it this year.”
“It gets better every year because you know how hard it is, especially with the crazy year we’ve had, having some of our big dogs get hurt,” receiver Julian Edelman added.
That’s the thing about these Patriots: Their resilience is their most admirable quality. Just when it looked like there had been too many injuries, that maybe things had finally caught up to them, they responded with a championship-type effort.
They knew what they had to do to beat the defending champion Ravens. They had to out-physical them.
“I know no one ever calls our team physical, but I think if you ask the guys that line up across from us, we’re never scared to get after it,” offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. “We want to run it. We want to hit you in pass protection. That’s just the way we play. We’re going to cut you, whatever it takes.”
If anyone was doubting it before Sunday’s game, they shouldn’t be now. The Patriots ran the ball 34 times and had 26 pass attempts, and it’s not often the pendulum swings so dramatically in that direction. In the previous four games, Brady had thrown the ball 50, 41, 52 and 55 times.
But the Patriots had success with some zone runs, stretching the Ravens’ defense, and running backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley hit the cut with authority while the revamped offensive line with Mankins at left tackle and undrafted rookie Josh Kline of Kent State, making his first career start at left guard, paved the way.
The Patriots prioritized being stronger at the line of scrimmage by using more packages with multiple tight ends, or a tight end/fullback combination, compared to their three-receiver groupings. While they took some shots down the field in the passing game, they were more calculated and situational.
Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots got physical with Joe Flacco and the Ravens.
As for the defense, the undermanned unit that lost another key contributor when safety Devin McCourty likely sustained a concussion in the third quarter, also played physical, but the real key was getting back to its turnover-producing ways. Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan had two interceptions and also a fourth-down pass breakup as the Patriots took advantage of a less-than-100 percent Joe Flacco, who didn’t have his regular zip on passes.
“We got the turnovers and that was the big thing for us,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who also had a fourth-down stop. “We didn’t have the turnovers in the last three or four weeks. We knew Flacco wouldn’t be as mobile as he was in the past.”
And as for all the experts, well, the Patriots had earned the right to gloat a bit. Whether it was observers declaring the Patriots a finesse team or picking them to lose to the Ravens, players made it clear they are aware of public perception.
“The experts, I know, they always have all the answers,” Mankins said. “They really had them when they picked the winner of this game. When they don’t mention us as physical, I always say, ‘Go ask the guy that lines up across from me if we’re physical.’”
The answer was decisive from the Ravens, as linebacker Terrell Suggs already was trying to forget what had unfolded.
“Burn the tape,” he said. “It’s not even worth looking at.”
They’ll be happily watching it in New England, of course, as this wasn’t just the best win of the Patriots’ 2013 season.
It was, without a doubt, one of the top victories in Belichick’s 14-year tenure.