By Art Martone
FOXBORO -- It was a coming-of-age afternoon, bothoffensively and defensively, for the Patriots at Gillette Stadium . . .and they did all their growing in the span of the fourth quarter andovertime.
After falling behind 20-10 two plays into the final period, the Patriots' defense stopped five consecutive Baltimoredrives -- the last four of which occurred when any Ravens points wouldhave won the game -- to give the offense a chance to mount a comeback.
Andthe offense, after managing only seven points in three largelyineffective quarters, found its Randy Moss-less rhythm at just theright moment. The Pats rolled up exactly half their 394 total yards ontheir last six possessions, scored 10 points in the fourth quarter totie the game, and moved into position for the game-winning field goalin overtime.
The field goal -- a 35-yarder by StephenGostkowski -- came with 1:57 remaining and gave the Pats a thrilling23-20 victory over Baltimore on Sunday. The victory increases theirrecord to 4-1 and enables them to stay tied (in theloss column) for first place in the AFC East.
But that -- improving their record. staying tied with the Jets -- would have happened with any old win. This one, coming as it did against a quality opponent and with clutch performances on both offense and defense when it counted most, feels like a lot more than any old win.
"This," said veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, "is probably one of the biggest wins around here in a long, long time."
He explained: "What we displayed today was a team. When things weren't going well, we stuck together. We kept on saying, 'Hey, let's just control what we can control.' It was one play at a time and everybody got the message, so -- big win."
For all that had happened in the first three quarters, what people will take away from this one started with the Pats' first possession of the fourth.
An out-of-bounds kickoff by Billy Cundiff gave New England good field position, at its own 40, and Tom Brady went to work from there. He started the drive with an 11-yard completion to Wes Welker, got a key pass-interference penalty on a second-and-8 that put the ball on the 34, then called consecutive running plays for Danny Woodhead that gained 26 yards and moved them to the Baltimore 9. Three plays later, he threw his first touchdown pass to Deion Branch since 2005, a five-yarder that cut the Ravens' lead to 20-17.
The defense forced a three-and-out, and a 22-yard Brady-to-Branch completion on the first play moved the Pats out from deep in their own territory to their own 36. It was the start of a 13-play, 80-yard march -- the biggest of which was a 24-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on a penalty induced first-and-25 -- that stalled at the Baltimore 6. Gostkowski drilled a 24-yard field goal with just under two minutes left, tying the game at 20-20 and setting up overtime.
The Ravens never threatened it o.t.; their deepest penetration was to their own 48. It was part of a defensive effort so strong that even rookie cornerback Devin McCourty, in the first few quarters, made a key play when he deflected a Joe Flacco pass and forced an incompletion.
"I had some bad plays early in the game," he said, "but I just told myself to keep fighting."
So did the rest of his teammates.
"We stepped up when we needed to step up," Wilfork said of the defense.
And the Pats, after a couple of stalled drives, finally began moving with about four minutes left. Starting at their own 38, Brady found Branch for a 23-yard completion that put the ball on the Baltimore 39. A 10-yard pass to Branch on a third-and-two got it down to the 21, and then it was just a matter of setting it up for Gostkowski. Two runs by BenJarvus Green-Ellis put it in position at the 18, and Gostkowski kicked it through for the Pats' first overtime victory since 2003.
"That was a battle," said Brady, who led his 30th fourth-quarter comeback . . . but his first since Opening Night 2009. "I think there's a lot of things that we wish could have done better, but it feels good to win after being down 10 in the fourth quarter."
"The feeling is a really good feeling," said Wilfork.
As happy as they were for what happened in the final two quarters, there was little happiness over what transpired over the first three.
It was a sign of progress that the Patriots held Ray Rice to a two-yard gain on the game's first play; in last year's playoff rout of the Pats, remember, Rice had exploded for 83 yards and a touchdown after taking the game's opening handoff. But that was one of the few things the New England defense did right on the game's initial drive, as the Ravens -- converting a third-and-10 and a third-and-9 along the way -- took 15 plays to go from their 10 to the Pats' 8. A pass from Flacco to Derrick Mason came up two yards short of a first down, however, and Baltimore had to settle for a 26-yard Cundiff field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Flacco picked on McCourty throughout the drive as he completed five of five pass attempts for 63 yards.
The Patriots' offense, sans Moss, stumbled its way to a three-and-out on its first possession, but began clicking the second time it had the ball. It started with a 30-yard, Brady-to-Aaron Hernandez pass-and-run that got the Pats into Baltimore territory at the Ravens 36. It was followed by Branch's first reception as a Patriot in five years, an eight-yard sideline pattern that got the ball to the 28.
On a first-and-10 from the 24, Brandon Tate raced 22 yards on an end-around to get the ball to the 2. Green-Ellis punched it in on the next play to give the Patriots a 7-3 lead.
New England didn't stay in front for long, though, as the Ravens put together a 9-play, 73-yard drive -- helped immensely by two Patriot penalties -- to move back in front, 10-7. A pass interference call against McCourty on a second-and-10 Flacco pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh gave Baltimore a first down on its own 45, and Rob Ninkovich was flagged for tripping four plays later, moving the ball to the Patriots 33. The Ravens took it in from there, with Flacco finding Todd Heap for a 16-yard touchdown.
The first-half stats demonstrated New England's offensive struggles -- 121 total yards, 7 first downs, only 9 minutes and 4 seconds of ball possession -- and the Pats were fortunate to be trailing by only three. But that was their deficit, a mere three points, and they took the second-half kickoff with a chance to move into the lead.
Instead, however, a Brady pass intended for Wes Welker was intercepted over the middle by Chris Carr and returned 12 yards to the Patriots' 36. It took the Ravens three plays to take advantage of the mistake, as Flacco passed 25 yards to Anquan Bolden for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
The Pats answered quickly, getting from their 20 to the Ravens 17 in five plays (including an 18-yard run by Hernandez, a 21-yard pass from Brady to Welker and a 21-yard pass from Brady to Hernandez). But a sack of Brady pushed the ball back to the 25, and they eventually had to settle for a 38-yard Gostkowski field goal that made the score 17-10.
The Ravens appeared to salt the game away with a soul-sucking, 13-play, 84-yard drive that culminated in a 25-yard Cundiff field goal that put them in front, 20-10, early in the fourth quarter.
Key word: Appeared.
"We never gave up," said Wilfork. "I don't care what the clock said, we always believed that we were going to win that ballgame. How? We didn't know. But one thing I do know, we stood up for one another out there. We played for one another.
"That's a team."
Art Martone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.