Felger: The seven key plays in the Patriots' victory

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Felger: The seven key plays in the Patriots' victory

By Michael Felger

I could use this column to pound my chest over the Randy MossDeion Branch thing -- but that's a little too easy isn't it?

I mean, I've only told you for about two-and-a-half years running that for all of Moss' talent, the Patriots would have a better offense when it truly counts with Branch. And for the last two-and-a-half years, you've told me I'm a moron.

Well, whaddya know? In his first game back, Branch caught 7 balls for 75 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter and overtime (he finished the day with 9 catches for 98 yards) as the Pats came back from a late, 10-point deficit to beat one of the best teams in football for their best win since the 2007 AFC Championship Game.

Too.

Easy.

Instead, in a game that had around two dozen notable plays, I'll give you seven key ones in the fourth quarter and overtime that may have slipped through the cracks in the euphoria of victory. We'll go in inverse order:

Brady to Branch for 10 yards on third-and-2 on their final possesion

Hah! I guess I can't let it go. When the Pats offense HAD to have it, when an incomplete would have meant a risky, 49-yard field-goal attempt from Stephen Gostkowski with under four minutes remaining in overtime, Brady went with the trust factor and sent it to Branch, who fought his way open against tight coverage. Catch. First down. Game over. You think Moss would have battled to the finish despite having just two catches through three quarters as Branch had? Please. The turtle would have been well inside his shell by then.

Zoltan Mesko 65-yard punt with 7:26 left in overtime

What an insanely huge mistake by the Ravens' special teams, letting Mesko's punt hit the ground and roll deep into Baltimore territory when it looked like they would get the ball near midfield with a short-field opporunity for a game-winning field goal. Instead, the ball, which had been at the Pats' 16-yard line when it was snapped, came to rest at the Baltimore 19.

The ensuing punt back to the Pats resulted in Wes Welker getting tackled at his own 38, which put Brady in good position to finally put the game away.

Devin McCourty pass breakup at around the Pats' 35-yard line with 8:16 left in overtime

This is as close as the Pats came to losing the game. The Ravens had driven to the Pats' 48-yard line and were facing a third-and-5. A first down would have put them perilously close to field-goal range. The Pats, who owned the 32nd-ranked third-down defense in the league entering the day (54.7 percent), needed another stop.

They got one from the rookie corner, who rode Todd Heap down the sidelines as he mostly faced Flacco the whole way down the field. Having his head turned was the key, as it made the contact he put on the tight end legal. McCourty got called for a bad pass interference on a similar play in the first half when he failed to turn to the ball. That's called progress.

Three-and-out stop by the Pats' defense with under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter

Really, how much confidence did you have in the Patriots to stop the Ravens at this point? I had very little. The Pats had just tied the game with a short Stephen Gostkowski field goal and it was time for the defense to step up. I know a lot of people had a lot of bad thoughts. But with Flacco suddenly jittery, the Pats did the job, forcing Flacco to throw three times to Rice, with the first sailing high, the second going for a measly four-yard gain, and the third bouncing off Rice's shoulder pads and to the ground.

To me, the defense getting stops in the fourth quarter and overtime was THE story of the game (not Branch, as much as I want him to be). Again, the Pats had the worst third-down defense in the entire NFL entering the day. They had allowed the Ravens to convert some big ones in the first half. But in the fourth quarter and overtime, the Pats held the Ravens to just 1-of-6 conversions (and that was a third-and-1).

Brady to Gronkowski for 24 yards on first-and-25 with 5:15 left in the fourth quarter

This is the play where Brady got throttled to the ground, cried for a flag, and then got up jawing with Terrell Suggs. It came with the Pats desperately needing points and with a Matt Light holding call and a delay-of-game penalty on Brady putting the offense in a deep hole. Brady and Rob Gronkowski promptly dug them out of it. It was Brady's best play of the day. It put the Pats on the way to tying the game.

Defensive stop on a Flacco QB sneak with 9:10 left in the fourth quarter

Hey, John Harbaugh, does your husband coach football, too? What a limp decision by the Baltimore coach to punt on the ensuing fourth-and-inches. It was, in fact, the second time Harbaugh did that, punting on another fourth-and-short near midfield late in the second quarter. Those two decisions came back to haunt Baltimore.

Brady to Branch for a five-yard touchdown catch with 11:02 remaining in the fourth quarter

Hah! I'm still not letting it go. Brady made another nice play on this one, buying time against a three-man rush while waiting for Branch to shake free on the back line. The play came on third down, so it was a big one. A field goal in that situation wouldn't have felt quite the same.

As for Branch, he simply got open and caught the ball.

Remember when that's all we wanted our receivers to do?

(I'll move on from this eventually . . . Okay, maybe not.)

Felger's report card will post on Tuesday morning. Email him HERE and read his mailbag on Thursday. Listen to him on the radio week days, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track. 

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

Ever since Derek Carr signed a five-year, $125 million extension with the Raiders to give him the highest average annual contract value in league history, some version of the same question has been posed over and over again. 

What does this mean for other quarterbacks looking for new deals? 

Despite the fact that Carr's average annual value surpasses the previous high set by Andrew Luck ($24.6 million), and despite the fact that Carr's contract provides him the security that alluded him while he was on his rookie contract, his recent haul may not mean much for the likes of Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins and other top-end quarterbacks.

They were already expecting monster paydays down the road that would hit (or eclipse) the $25 million range, and Carr's record-setting contract may not even serve as a suitable baseline for them, as ESPN's Dan Graziano lays out.

So if Carr's contract did little more for upper-echelon quarterbacks than confirm for them where the market was already headed, then does it mean anything for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo? 

Carr and Garoppolo were both second-round picks in 2014, but from that point, they've obviously taken very different roads as pros. Carr started 47 consecutive games in his first three years and by last season he had established himself as one of the most valuable players in the league. Garoppolo, by comparison, has started two games. 

Both players still hold loads of promise, but unless Garoppolo sees substantial playing time in 2017 and then hits the open market, he won't approach Carr's deal when his rookie contract is up.  

ESPN's Mike Reiss projected that a fair deal for Garoppolo on the open market might fall between the $19 million that was guaranteed to Chicago's Mike Glennon and Carr's contract, which includes $40 million fully guaranteed and $70 million in total guarantees, per NFL Media.

Perhaps something in the range of what Brock Osweiler received from the Texans after Osweiler started seven games for the Broncos in 2015 would be considered fair: four years, with $37 million guaranteed. Because Osweiler (before his deal or since) never seemed as polished as Garoppolo was in his two games as a starter in 2016, and because the salary cap continues to soar, the argument could be made that Garoppolo deserves something even richer. 

Though Garoppolo is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency following the 2017 season, there is a chance he doesn't get there quite that quickly. The Patriots could try to come to some kind of agreement with their backup quarterback on an extension that would keep him in New England, or they could place the franchise tag on him following the season. 

Either way, Garoppolo will get paid. But until he sees more time on the field, a deal that would pay him in the same range as his draft classmate will probably be out of reach.