Raise your hand if you saw this one coming.
An undermanned Patriots team coming into one of the most hostile environments in the league? Check. A Ravens squad looking for its fifth consecutive win and fighting to keep their postseason hopes alive? Check. A 34-point trouncing of the defending Super Bowl champions? Yeah right.
The deck was decidedly stacked against the Patriots entering Sunday afternoon's re-match of each of the previous two AFC title games. In fact, all fourteen national NFL analysts chose Baltimore to win the game before kickoff. It was a classic "nobody believes in us" scenario that has galvanized underdog Patriots teams en route to convincing postseason victories in the past. Even though he would never admit it publicly, you can pretty much guarantee that head coach Bill Belichick played the no-respect card as a motivating tool for his players before game-time. In a league where double digit win seasons and clinched playoff berths are hard to come by, bulletin-board fodder is above no one.
"The experts, I know, they always have all the answers," a jubilated Logan Mankins said after the game. "They really had them when they [all] picked the winner of this game."
A normally reserved Patriots locker room let it loose after their most convincing win of the season. Players cheered loudly after a Belichick victory speech, donning their divisional champion hats and t-shirts that have become customary this time of the year. With Miami's 19-0 shutout loss to the Bills, New England clinched a record tenth divisional title in eleven years.
The Patriots didn't have to win the game to win the division as it turned out, but that didn't stop them from putting together their first collective 60 minute effort of the season. Several players said after the game that the team truly wanted to avoid "backing in" to the postseason. On the contrary, Sunday's lopsided victory proved to detractors of all sorts that this team is hitting the right gear at the right time.
The key to the game was physicality. New England committed to the rushing game early and often, handing the ball of a total of 34 times for 142 yards and two scores. LeGarette Blount and Stevan Ridley, who is now returning to a more predominant role after having spent major chunks of time in Belichick's doghouse, were an effective tandem the entire night. They ran hard through a makeshift offensive line, and had holes rushing behind Mankins, who had one of his best performances of the season despite being out of position at left tackle. Rookie Josh Kline, making his first NFL start against a vaunted front four, also turned in an incredibly steady performance and was one of the club's unsung heroes after the game. The Patriots looked to match Baltimore's physicality by utilizing bigger bodies, often opting two run out of two tight end sets or inserting fullback James Develin into the mix, rather than spreading out with three wide receivers.
But as impressive as the Patriots offense looked, especially in the first half, the defense finally put together a championship caliber performance. Having looked utterly inept at times this year on third-down, they conceded just 5-of-14 crucial conversions, good for a season-best average of 36 percent.
Joe Flacco could never get comfortable in the pocket. He was brought down four times in all, three of which came in consecutive third down stands in the first quarter. He was also picked off twice by rookie cornerback Logan Ryan, who continues to come up huge for this banged up New England secondary. Ryan now leads all rookies with five interceptions, which is particularly impressive given the fact that most of his early contributions came in sub duties. With Alfonzo Dennard's injury status in question for the upcoming week, the Patriots must feel good that they've found another legitimate cover corner who can play on the outside when called upon.
"I couldn't be prouder of this football team," Belichick said after the game. "They earned it today, and that's a good football team we played. But our guys earned it today. I'm happy to win, happy to win the AFC East, and hopefully we can build off this game. It's a good one for us."
Despite all the adversity, despite all the turnover on offense and the injuries on defense (which took a hit yet again on Sunday), the Patriots now find themselves one win away from the number two overall seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye. Despite what has been arguably Bill Belichick's most masterful coaching job to date and another MVP caliber season from the ageless Tom Brady, New England will enter the playoffs under the radar. Having to likely head into Mile High Stadium and beat Peyton Manning for the chance to go to another Super Bowl, most experts will take the inevitable MVP winner and his arsenal of offensive talent.
As the Patriots proved on Sunday, it's a scenario in which they can thrive.
Tags: AFC East, AFC title, Belichick, division, experts, Football, New England, New England Patriots, NFL, physicality, playoffs, ravens, Super Bowl, victory