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The title is slightly misleading as the Patriots clinched the AFC East crown for the fifth straight season before they even took the field on Sunday. Thanks to the Dolphins shooting themselves in the foot with a 19-0 loss to Buffalo, the Patriots had sealed the AFC East before the opening coin toss. However the game against the Ravens was still undoubtedly a must win. By winning the game they held onto the number two seed in the AFC and still have a shot at the number one. This was a statement game for both teams. The Patriots needed the win after a tough loss last week to Miami, and Baltimore was riding a four-game winning streak and a push for the AFC North crown. The loss clinched the division for the Bengals, and put the defending Super Bowl champions in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.
- For once, the Patriots started hot out of the gate. After both teams traded three-and-outs to start the game, the Patriots fired with back-to-back touchdowns. The second of which was sparked by Logan Ryan’s first interception of the game. On the interceptions, Dont’a Hightower timed his jump perfectly to tip the pass and Ryan made a great grab going down to pick it off. Hightower has been shaky in pass coverage to say the least, but he showed great improvement Sunday in reading the plays. Ryan has shown a tremendous ability of being around the ball in his rookie season, and Sunday highlighted that trait when he nabbed two interceptions. He has been called “mature” by teammates and coaches this season, and Sunday was prime evidence of that maturity. The Patriots certainly have struggled drafting defensive backs over the years, but early indications are that Ryan was a terrific pick. He also now leads the team in interceptions with five.
- Back to the offense. It wasn’t an overly impressive day from Tom Brady. He finished 14-26 for 172 yards and a touchdown, but he managed the game perfectly. Josh McDaniels has made some questionable gameplans in the past, but their strategy and execution were terrific. I called for more of a focus on the running game last week, and it seems my calls were answered this week. Combined, the running backs ran for 34 carries and 142 yards. LeGarrette Blount ran for 76 yards on 16 carries, and found the endzone twice. Blount has been impressive in recent weeks, especially in his ability to move the pile. There have been plenty of runs that have looked dead at the start that he manages to get four or five yards through sheer power. It’s a very good sign to see him going like this as they head into the playoffs.
- Also, Stevan Ridley has shown that he is running with a chip on his shoulder. He ran the ball 15 times for only 54 yards, but they were a well-earned 54 yards. Similar to Blount he has shown the ability to make positive plays out of nothing. He also has more of a burst than Blount, and has that big play ability. The fumbles are always going to be in the back of everyone’s mind, but as long as they’re not on the field then it’s a non-issue. A tandem like Blount and Ridley in the playoffs is the exact compliment the passing game needs.
- Julian Edelman once again led the team in receiving, reeling in seven catches for 77 yards. He is now only four catches away from a 100-catch season. To put in perspective how impressive that is, keep in mind he only had 21 catches all of last season. Thanks to staying healthy, his talents have been on display.
- Dante Scarnecchia deserves a ton of credit. What he has done with the offensive line this year is nothing short of remarkable. They are at the point now where they had to move Logan Mankins and Marcus Cannon from guard to left and right tackle, respectively. Undrafted rookie free agent Josh Kline was the starting left guard. With all that the Ravens only managed two sacks on Brady, and the running game went off for 142 yards. The offensive is only going to be as good as its offensive line, and as long as Scarnecchia is coaching them I like their chances.
- We caught a real glimpse at what their game plan without Rob Gronkowski is going to be. When they have the balance between the running and passing game that they had Sunday, the play action is a dangerous weapon. Brady used the run-game to set up pass plays off of play action perfectly. They utilized multiple sets and used them perfectly. The touchdown that Shane Vereen scored was set up by James Develin being lined up at wide receiver, and he ran a go taking the defense with him. Vereen then cut underneath and scored untouched. Develin once again continues to do the little things right and is an important member of this offense. The key to all this is the balance between run and pass. If they can maintain a balance while keeping up production there is no reason this team can’t win it all. The consistency is always a question and will be the main thing to keep an eye on throughout.
- The defensive line was terrific. Chandler Jones had the fumble recovery in the end zone late for the defensive score, but also came off the edge to force Flacco into the sack by Sealver Siliga. Siliga continues to impress as he has taken firm control of the nose tackle spot. As I have always said it’s impossible to replace Vince Wilfork, the Patriots have done the absolute best they could have in finding a rotation of guys that could collectively get the job done. Siliga has given them a more Wilfork like presence which has helped in the run defense, and has allowed Chris Jones and Joe Vellano to be more of pass rushers which is their strong suit. Rob Ninkovich has been terrific ever since he came to New England and notched another sack Sunday. The pressure the defensive line created kept Flacco uncomfortable all day and also led to four turnovers.
- We all know that Logan Ryan had himself a game , but it was a great sight to see Tavon Wilson return that interception 74 yards for a touchdown. Last year Wilson played well in his rookie season, and things looked bright for him. This year he has been inactive more often than not. I don’t think he’ll be stealing too much playing time from anyone else, but it was a pleasant site to see him make the best of his opportunity.
- Brandon Spikes deserves his fair share of credit this season as well. He has been called upon to do a lot more this season then any other time in his career, and he continues to deliver. He has always been a force in the running game as he has a tremendous ability of timing the snap and attacking the ball carrier in the backfield. Similar to Hightower, he struggles from time to time in the pass defense side of things. He was called upon Sunday to mostly attack the line of scrimmage, which is where he excels, and along with the defensive line he kept Flacco moving all day.
- Devin McCourty going down is not something you want to see, and it’s something we rarely see. He hardly ever takes a play off so you of course hope he is healthy in time for the playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised if they keep him out against the Bills.
- A quick note about the refs. They were absolutely horrible Sunday. It isn’t that any team got screwed, they just seemed incredibly unorganized. The last two minutes of the first half was painful to watch. Ron Winter and his crew are some of the worst in the league and Sunday was a prime example. Even when they had to review plays that were painfully obvious they took an unbelievable amount of time in the booth. Here’s hoping those guys stay far away from the playoffs for everyone’s sake.
- To think this Patriots team still has the shot at the number one seed going into week 17 is incredible. Enough can’t be said about the job the coaching staff and the players have done. Tom Brady has done more with less than anyone in the history of the game, and this year may be his best effort yet. No better Christmas present than a beat down of the Ravens. Merry Christmas everyone!
Tags: Bill Belichick, Brandon Spikes, Chandler Jones, Chris Jones, Dante Scarnecchia, Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, James Develin, Joe Flacco, Joe Vellano, Josh Kline, Josh McDaniels, Julian Edelman, LeGarrette Blount, Logan Mankins, Logan Ryan, Marcus Cannon, Patriots, Ravens, Rob Ninkovich, Sealver Siliga, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Tom Brady