By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO -- Reporters have been asking the Patriots all week how they remembered last season's playoff pounding by the Baltimore Ravens. Everyone -- from Belichick to Brady -- said that it's not the kind of game you just "get over."
The pain was especially fresh for New England's defense. Who could shrug off that 83-yard rushing TD by Ray Rice? It was the first play from scrimmage, the second-longest rushing TD in postseason history, and a foreshadowing of the full-throttle offensive outburst that would boot the Pats from postseason play.
But that was last year.
Painful as that loss was, the Patriots defense went into this weekend with fresh focus. They couldn't go back to the 2010 playoffs; they couldn't change history or even call it a second chance. All they could do was try and shut down Ray Rice and win a new game in a new season.
Ray Rice was limited to 88 rushing yards and zero touchdowns in New England's 23-20 win over Baltimore on Sunday. The Ravens ran for just 99 total and Joe Flacco was forced to throw. It was a complete turnaround from the 234 yards that the Patriots allowed last season. And the effort can be chalked up to New England's front line.
The D-line and linebackers were shutdown. Bill Belichick praised his defensive captains specifically in the postgame.
"Team defense. I don't think you can say anything about one guy. I thought our captains this week did a real good job, I'll say that.''
Vince Wilfork, in particular, was a monster.
The nose tackle had a huge hit on Rice in the backfield for a 1-yard loss on first down in the second quarter. He never let up. In the fourth quarter he combined with Gerard Warren to derail Flacco on a QB sneak for no gain on third-and-1. The play forced the Ravens to punt and set Stephen Gostkowski up for the game-tying field goal with just 1:51 left in regulation.
"We were on the same page,'' Wilfork said. "Communication was good as a defensive force and we just rose to the occasion. Fourth-quarter hit and we knew what to do. It seemed like everybody was on the same page. And you know what? You can win it like that."
He certainly had help. Jermaine Cunningham, a second-round rookie, had a standout night. The outside linebacker punished Rice in the first quarter for a loss of 3 yards when Rice attempted a hesitation move. It was an impressive heads-up play for a first-year player to set up a third-and-9 for his team. Cunningham also recorded his first NFL sack for a 4-yard loss in the second quarter when he bumped Flacco's arm and forced a fumble. He showed more of that awareness later on when he baited Michael Oher into a 10-yard holding penalty in the same quarter.
It appeared everybody knew what was at stake this Sunday
"The captains told each person how important this game is, what we need to do to win this ballgame and they responded,'' Wilfork said. "We just told them, 'Hey, look; this is what happened the last time we faced these guys and we're not living in the past but this is what happened.' Everybody understood. We were talking in practice and we were just after one another. It showed today.''
So why overtime?
Despite such unity up front, there were breakdowns in the young secondary. Whether it was Devin McCourty failing to set the edge, Meriweather getting beat on third-and-short, or both the corners and safeties committing stupid penalties, the Patriots front seven were basically forced into excellence because their backup was often unreliable.
That's what makes the defensive stats so impressive. Even though McCourty and Meriweather allowed Baltimore conversions on third down, New England held the Ravens to 31 percent (5-for-16) efficiency on third down overall.
"We stepped up when we needed to step up. All year on third down, we've had problems in that area. Then, something went off and we basically turned it around. It's third down and we get off the field,'' Wilfork noted. "Once we get off the field, we're a totally different defense. We never gave up. I don't care what the clock said, we always believed that we were going to win that ball game.''
Key to the win was adjustments. The Patriots were down 17-10 at the end of the third quarter and had to make a push. That's when captains like Wilfork had to rally the troops. Luckily, the soldiers fell in line.
"They responded,'' he said. "That's people looking up to you. They're not sitting back asking us questions, 'Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?' No. They put their heads down, they went to work, and it showed up today."
New England really tamped down in overtime and forced the Ravens to punt three times. The offense may have put up the points to bring the Pats back, but the defense put them in the position to get it done. Wilfork was effusively encouraged by his crew.
"We're going to need more of this going forward,'' he said. "I see this as an opening. We're far, far from where we want to be but if we keep putting weeks like this together and keep putting practices like this together like we did this week then we'll keep getting better as a team."
Better is the operative word.
They wanted to be better than the playoff Patriots of last season. They were. But more importantly, New England's defense had a better effort than Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens of this season.
Which, on this Sunday, is all they had to be.