What did we learn from the Pats win in Baltimore?

What did we learn from the Pats win in Baltimore?
December 23, 2013, 12:15 pm
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The Patriots beat the Ravens last night, and did so more handedly than anyone could have imagined. The Patriots dominated the Ravens. They held them scoreless for nearly three and a half quarters. Even if the 41-7 final score was a bit deceiving, New England still went wire-to-wire, on the road, against a team that had won four straight games and desperately needed a fifth. And now, for the 10th time in the last 11 years, the Pats are AFC East Champs. They’re back in the postseason. The only question is how far they’ll go. Or for now, more specifically . . .
 
What did yesterday’s win tells us about how far they’ll go?
 
Hmmm.
 
You know, the worst thing you can say in a column like this is nothing at all. But sometimes, saying nothing is actually saying something. I think. Let’s just go with that. It’s better than the alternative.
 
The alternative is what has happened from week to week this season and pretty much every season before it. It’s the fallout from games like Carolina and Denver and Cleveland and last week in Miami, when individual wins and losses leave us feeling like something has to be said. Something grand. Something absolute.
 
The Pats lose to the Panthers, and they just don’t have it. They beat the Broncos and sky’s the limit. They beat the Browns, but lose Gronk and now the season’s over. They lose to the Dolphins and erase any doubt.
 
That’s life in the NFL. Back and forth. Up and down. The future is always crystal clear between Tuesday and Saturday, and then Sunday comes along and smashes crystal clear over the head with a bat. It alters perception, and therefore reality. And in turn, we all scramble to adjust . . . just in time for the next Sunday . . . just in time for everything to change again.
 
The truth is that it’s hard to walk away from yesterday’s Patriots win without feeling better than you did walking in. Obviously. But that’s relative to perception. After Gronk and Miami and the way the Ravens were rolling, the consensus was that the Pats had been through too much and had taken one too many hits. Or more like two or three or four too many hits. Either way, they were walking into a buzz saw in Baltimore. Limping into a buzz saw. They’d been defeated by the war of NFL attrition while the Ravens were hitting their stride at the perfect time.
 
Sunday proved all that moot.
The narrative was so real, though. We believed it. I did. But today, it’s miles away. Now, the upstart Ravens appear more likely to fall on their face next week in Cincinnati than they do to make any noise in the playoffs. And suddenly, the Patriots are reborn. At the very least, they’re back in the conversation.
 
Even if it wasn’t their most dominant offensive performance, there was a beautiful December balance between pass (36) and run (24), and a balance within the run, between LeGarette Blount (16 carries) and Stevan Ridley (15). The makeshift offensive line stepped up provided Brady enough time and opened lanes on the ground. The Pats were also three for three in the red zone. They won the turnover battle and the time of possession battle and committed fewer penalties for fewer yards.
 
On defense, what can you say? Sure, in retrospect, maybe the Ravens were a good match-up. The Pats are weakest against the run, and Baltimore has just about the worst run attack in the NFL. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that New England swallowed up Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. But what they did to Flacco, Torrey Smith and the Ravens air attack garners nothing but optimism. It’s a credit to Bill Belichick, and a reminder that as much as haters love to hate, the guy can still spin a game plan. It leaves you feeling much better this morning — potential injuries to Shane Vereen and DevinMcCourty aside — than you ever imagined you would.
 
Are the Patriots going to win the Super Bowl?
 
It would take a lot of faith and blind optimism for anyone to say that.
 
Can they win the Super Bowl?
 
That’s another question entirely. And we can find the answer on the other end of a few other questions.
 
Can the Patriots beat the Bills next week and lock up a first round bye?
 
Yes.
 
Can the Patriots beat the Bengals or the Chiefs or the Colts at home in the divisional round?
 
Yes.
 
Can they go to Denver in the AFC Championship, and beat the Broncos?
 
It won’t be easy, but the answer is yes. They can. It’s within reach.
 
And then, can they go to New York, under what we can only assume will be frigid conditions, and beat the best of what the NFC has to offer?
 
Before Sunday, you might have said no. For all the pessimism that surrounded the Pats, but also because the Seahawks sure looked like a powerhouse. Destined for homefield advantage and on the fast track to the Super Bowl. But after watching them lose, at home, to the Cardinals, all bets are off.
 
So, yes. New England can win the Super Bowl. They’re not the favorites. It won’t be a shock if they fall short. But to sit here today, after what happened yesterday, and renounce any possibility of the Lombardi trophy making its long-awaited return to New England is just as absurd as the notion of guaranteeing that it will. Saying that the Pats have no chance is a good way to show the world that you have no clue. In reality, the dream is still alive.
 
But did we really need the Ravens game to revive it?
 
Probably not. After all, the only thing that matters is getting into the playoffs. And thanks to the Dolphins, the Pats were in before they even took the field in Baltimore. Truth is that they could have lost 41-7 last night. They could have found themselves in a position where they had to play Wild Card game. Where they had to travel TO Cincy for the divisional round. Even then, you could have gone through that “Can they win the Super Bowl?” checklist and said “yes” at every turn.
 
As we learned after Carolina and Denver and Miami, one win or loss doesn’t say anything about the big picture. Nothing absolute. Nothing that can’t change completely the very next week. But now, thanks to Sunday, one thing is very much set in stone. The Pats season won’t end with the regular season. They’re back in the playoffs. Very likely three wins from another title.
 
And unlikely as it may be, it’s far from impossible.
 
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