FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Before we officially close the book on the New England Patriots' 35-31 win over the Ravens and fully turn attention to the AFC Championship Game, here are some picked-up pieces from review of the game (second half):
1. Between Kyle Arrington and second-year cornerback Logan Ryan, the Patriots received big-time performances from their No. 3 and 4 options on the depth chart. Add in the big game that safety Devin McCourty had -- “I think he’s one of the most underrated free safeties in the game,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said -- as well as Duron Harmon's game-sealing interception, and it’s a storyline that’s hard to miss. In a year when the team’s development of defensive backs has come under scrutiny in some media circles, almost all of their young defensive backs delivered in the biggest of spots.
2. Running back Shane Vereen, who took a hit to the helmet on the fourth-quarter play he fumbled, was on the field for three snaps after that play, and was out of the locker room quickly after the game. One thing we want to watch for this week is if he shows up on the injury report.
3. It’s late in the season, the weather gets colder, and the kickoff return becomes a bigger part of the game. Consider that Stephen Gostkowski, who had 53 touchbacks during the regular season (tied for fifth most in the NFL), didn’t have any Saturday. Of his six kickoffs, only two even made it into the end zone. In his last three games (Dec. 21, Dec. 28, Jan. 10), Gostkowski has had 14 kickoffs with only three touchbacks.
4. Arrington (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) gives up a lot on the tale of the tape against offensive tackle James Hurst (6-5, 308), but he was fearless with his run force on a Justin Forsett run for minus-1 yard (6:35, third quarter). That play helped set up third-and-11, the Patriots got the ball back and then tied the game 28-28 on the double pass on the ensuing drive. Arrington’s run force to help produce a Dont'a Hightower tackle was one of the underrated plays of the game, and he added another strong play in run support later (third quarter, 2:30, Forsett 3-yard gain).
5. The Patriots were 3 of 3 in the red zone, which was arguably the key to the game considering the Ravens entered as the NFL’s second-ranked red-zone D (23 touchdowns allowed in 54 trips).
6. Opponents were 8 of 23 against the Patriots on fourth down this season, ranking New England sixth-best in the NFL. But the Ravens, who held nothing back, finished 3 of 3.
7. The Patriots’ red-zone D had one stop in five trips, but it was a big one five minutes into the fourth quarter, holding the Ravens to a field goal after first-and-goal from the 9 (catching a break when Darrelle Revis wasn’t called for holding in the end zone) capped by a big pass breakup by safety Patrick Chung. Collinsworth was right on it beforehand: “You know Brady is not finished, so the difference between a field goal and touchdown here may be the difference in the game.”
8. Credit special teams ace Nate Ebner for drawing a holding penalty on Kamar Aiken on the kickoff return following the double-pass touchdown (4:28, third quarter). McCourty drew an illegal block in the back penalty on kickoff coverage following Brandon LaFell's touchdown catch.
9. Another aspect of the four-offensive line package that seemed to disrupt the Ravens was that it affected their substitutions. The first time the Patriots used the package, it had Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui as eligible receivers, with running back Shane Vereen declared ineligible as an additional skill-position player on the field (despite Terrell Suggs covering him). The Ravens matched in their base defense. When they tried to switch to a nickel grouping two plays later, they were caught with 12 men on the field.
10. Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s lips could be read in an animated discussion with referee Bill Vinovich as it related to the four-offensive line package. “That’s all we’re asking for,” Harbaugh appears to be saying. Harbaugh later explained he felt the defense deserved a little more time to correctly identify the ineligible players.