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.
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.