1. Deion Branch and wondering what might have been. It didn't take long for Tom Brady and Deion Branch to get on the same page; for someone to come into an old offense and get re-acclimated that quickly just doesn't happen a lot. I know they have a history, but you had to anticipate there would be a little bit of a learning curve. There were hardly any miscommunications in the game. One play that stood out was the third-down conversion on the game-winning drive in overtime. That was all about chemistry. It was a short little hook route, and not only does Branch have to stop and turn around, but the defender had tight coverage so Branch used his hands to push the defender by. The ball was delivered with perfect timing. Usually when there is tight coverage and the receiver uses his hands to create separation it can throw off the timing. But that play looked natural, in sync. Brady knew when to deliver the ball and when Branch would be clear from that defender. Stuff like that just doesn't happen in a week's time. Watching Branch, he's lost a touch of quickness -- he's not as quick as he was four, five years ago -- but his routes are still crisp and the chemistry he has with Brady is still obvious. Stepping back, it's understandable now why Brady was so disappointed when Branch was traded away because of the on-field relationship they have. And then watching Branch's news conference and how he spoke, I said: "How did they ever let this guy go? It's about time they brought him back." There should almost be a rule that organizations follow: Super Bowl MVPs are never allowed to leave. You think of Brady-to-Branch and those 21 catches in the two Super Bowls they won together. It's Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Cliff Clavin and Norm Peterson. Why did that partnership have to be broken up? It's a good thing to see it back together again.
2. Defense tightened up late in the game. The defense forced punts on each of the Ravens' final five drives and one thing I noticed was that the Ravens went away from the play-action pass, probably because the Patriots were doing a good job against the run. The Patriots defenders got good depth when in coverage, so Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco saw the defenders deep and then checked down to Ray Rice or to a short, crossing wide receiver. What helped the Patriots is that they tackled well on those plays. There were no broken tackles by Rice that added an extra 10 to 15 yards after the catch. Once the ball was caught, the ball carrier was brought to the ground, whether it was by Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo or someone else. They played deep to short and made the Ravens earn it.
3. Evolving offense without Moss. When Randy Moss is taken out of the Patriots' offense, it's an attack that no longer has the potential to go 40 to 50 yards in one play. Now, drives have to be sustained and completions are going to be 8, 10, 15 yards. To do that on a consistent basis is difficult and more is going to be expected from other players. Before the trade when other receivers like Danny Woodhead, Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman heard a play-call in the huddle, they probably knew the ball was going to Moss or Wes Welker and there wasn't much of a chance they'd be getting a reception on the play. That type of thinking can now be eliminated, as the Patriots are transitioning into an offense in which everyone is going to get the ball. If you're open, be ready! Along those lines, I thought the offense almost looked energized at times and it seemed players were playing harder. They weren't looking for someone else to make a play, everyone took it upon themselves to have a role in the victory. That was one of the most encouraging things offensively.
4. Ravens lose their cool again. In last week's podcast, we talked about how the Ravens' defense gets caught up emotionally with things like roughing-the-passer penalties and lacks the ability to realize what's important and move on to the next play. This time, it was the offensive side of the ball and Le'Ron McClain, who was penalized for a personal foul in overtime. It was a big play in the game because it shifted field position and set up the Patriots' game-winning drive. Jermaine Cunningham and McClain went face to face after the end of the play and McClain decided to push him. Cunningham acted like a veteran and went to the ground, drawing the penalty. The next play it's third-and-19, the New England defense holds and the Patriots are getting the ball back at their own 38. A couple of first downs and you win the game. In a game like this, every yard counts and when you give yards to teams it makes it that much easier for them to win the game. The Patriots understand this. Until the Ravens understand it, they're going to be a
team that will struggle against well-coached, disciplined football teams.
5. Role-playing Bill Belichick with the offense. There are a lot of positives on offense -- Deion Branch looked great, you still have the great Wes Welker, the tight ends are involved and everyone is going to get the ball -- but I'm going to step into Bill Belichick's shoes for a moment and talk about where improvements need to take place. When you have an offense that needs to sustain drives, mistakes are now magnified, like drops and penalties. So a holding penalty on Matt Light in the fourth quarter -- you can be sure that Belichick will be in the meeting room this week saying, "We've got to clean this up." After the Light holding penalty and then a delay of game penalty, it's first-and-25 and those situations are usually drive-killers. It comes down to one-on-one battles. So center Dan Koppen, even though he's playing against one of the best interior linemen in the league in
Haloti Ngata, needs to step up. He gave up two sacks, and like most quarterbacks, Brady doesn't want to see that up-the-middle pressure. You look at the Patriots' schedule and there are more tough interior players he'll see, like Kevin Williams and Pat Williams of the Vikings. Elsewhere, you can't have multiple drops. You heard Belichick after the game talking about Deion Branch, saying he gets open and catches the ball. Let's not make it more complicated than it needs to be: If you can't catch the ball, you won't have it thrown to you. Danny Woodhead, Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, Alge Crumpler and Aaron Hernandez all had drops.
6. More time bought with young players on defense. When the Patriots beat the Dolphins, it gave the young defenders two more weeks to develop. Now you have another week -- after beating one of the best teams in the NFL in the Ravens -- with young defenders gaining more confidence where they can get more practice reps after a victory to reaffirm some of the positive things they did in a winning effort. One example of something they can work on is with inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and how he sees play-action. He is biting up and getting sucked up too close to the line of scrimmage when offenses run the play-action pass, and this is why offenses are having easy completions over the middle and Jerod Mayo is coming over and making tackles because Spikes is vacating his zone. When Spikes can't get back in his zone responsibility, there is more separation between him and the safety, which allows the receiver or tight end to sneak behind him. He needs to continue to study pre-snap keys in recognizing the difference between the run and play-action pass. The coaches have noticed this problem and one way that makes it more black and white for Spikes is that they are sending him up the middle on run blitzes, which is why you see Spikes knifing through the line of scrimmage on early downs. Another example is with outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. He's showing up athletically in the pass rush, but still needs improvement on setting the edge in the running game. That comes with understanding the position of offensive blockers and knowing when to engage the blocker and drive him back or when to hold his ground and know when the edge is already set and when to shed the blocker. A player like cornerback Kyle Arrington can also keep learning. On that touchdown to Anquan Boldin, he sat on the route while Boldin was in full stride without a pump fake from the quarterback. That is poor technique no matter what defense you are in. These are fundamentals these players can continue to work on while this team is maintaining its position to potentially win the division. The improvement will come with another week of reps and quality coaching from Belichick and the defensive coaching staff.