By: Bob George/BosSports.net
October 18, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH -- It is one thing to be a great deep threat, and another thing to be simply great, period.

Deion Branch made his triumphant return to Foxborough as a Patriot on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. To say it was triumphant is an understatement; against a powerful Baltimore Ravens defense that pulverized the Patriots in January and played well once again on Sunday, Branch was the offensive key weapon as the Patriots were able to overcome the Ravens, 23-20 in overtime. Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 35-yard field goal to win the game just after the two-minute warning on OT, but Branch's terrific return to his original NFL home carried the day for the Patriots.

Taking a secondary heroic role was the much maligned Patriot defense, which held Baltimore and its revamped offense to three-and-outs in three of their final five drives. With three seconds gone in the fourth quarter, John Cundiff kicked a 25-yard field goal to give the Ravens a 20-10 lead. From that moment on, it was all Patriots as they scored the final 13 points of the game, and the defense limited the Ravens to only three first downs the rest of the way.

It didn't seem to matter that Randy Moss was gone, as the Baltimore safeties were playing deep anyway. Tom Brady was able to find Branch, Wes Welker and the amazing Danny Woodhead for lots of nice gains underneath. Branch led the way with nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. The nine catches were the most he has had since 2007. On the game-winning drive in overtime, Branch had two catches for 33 yards which helped set up Gostkowski's game-winning kick.

In regulation, it seemed that once again the defense would prove to be a big patsy for the Ravens. Looking at the final numbers, Joe Flacco had a passer rating which was just under 50 points higher than Brady thanks to 27 of 35 passing for 285 yards and two picks thrown by Brady. But Brady had seven more passing yards than Flacco, and one of the picks was on a Hail Mary at the end of regulation time. Flacco was padding his passing numbers thanks to defensive backs giving huge cushions to Anthony Mason and Anquan Boldin, and tight end Todd Heap running some dynamite patterns despite being cold cocked by Brandon Meriweather with a less-than-clean hit in the second quarter.

The Patriots seemed intent on not letting Ray Rice gouge them like he did in January. Rice did rush for 88 yards, but it was on 28 carries for only a 3.1 average per carry. Rice never did hurt the Patriots like he did in the playoff game, and perhaps the presence of Brandon Spikes to go along with Jerod Mayo might have helped as most of Rice's runs were between the tackles.

So, what changed for the Patriots as they were able to come from behind and win?

It really wasn't anything schematic. It was more a case of the defense finding an energy they had in the Miami game, and eventually dominating the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter and overtime. The run attack of Baltimore was a total non-factor, and Flacco was having a more difficult time finding open receivers late in the game. The cushions the defensive backs were giving the receivers weren't there anymore. Flacco spent the late part of the game mostly on the run. The Patriots did manage three sacks of Flacco. Michael Oher, the subject of the hit movie Blind Side, had three penalties during the contest, two of which were responsible for killing a second quarter drive.

The game came down to the Patriots winning the two most important quarters of the game, that being the fourth quarter and overtime. It is rare when an overtime period goes all the way to the two-minute warning, but the two teams played to a defensive stalemate until the Patriots managed to get some good field position on the final drive.

That final drive was set up by a stupid personal foul on LaRon McClain, who decked a Patriot lineman after a play was over, setting up third and 19 at the Baltimore 10. That loss of field position became critical, as it set up the best field position the Patriots had in overtime. Seven plays and 45 yards later, the Patriots had a win.

Sometimes forgotten from last season is that the Patriots did defeat the Ravens in the regular season to go along with the humiliating playoff loss. The Ravens have still never beaten the Patriots in a regular season game since moving to Baltimore from Cleveland after the 1995 season. The Patriots were totally unprepared to play the Ravens in January, but showed both this Sunday and last year that, if prepared, they can play with one of the best teams in the conference. Even with the improved Raven offense bolstered by the addition of longtime Cardinal Boldin, the Patriots were still able to put the clamps on Flacco and the Raven offense when it had to.

The Patriots passed the first test in a succession of tough games which could define their season. The Patriots will head to San Diego next weekend, then come home to face Moss and his new/old team on Halloween. This win by the Patriots should give them a world of confidence, as well as a belief that they can play with the best teams in the league and win.

That may be severely tested in San Diego, where the Chargers have one of the best offenses in the NFL and Philip Rivers at the helm. But historically the Patriots have played well against the Chargers, especially on the road. LaDainian Tomlinson is no longer a problem here, but Fresno State rookie running back Ryan Mathews looks poised to take over.

Still, the Patriots will take this tough overtime win and use it to propel them into this very difficult matchup. The defense will have to play 60 hard minutes, not just 28 minutes. They are better, but they haven't grown up yet nor have they had their seminal moment. The comeback win over Baltimore was nice, but they need to play better if they are to be considered an elite team again.

Revenge is for suckers, they say. Nah. Not on Sunday. That win felt mighty good.


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