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Patriots' D answers pressing questions in victory over Ravens

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Brady helps to engineer another victory for Patriots (2:06)

Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden evaluate Tom Brady's performance in the Patriots' victory over the Ravens on Monday Night Football. (2:06)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The biggest thing we learned about the New England Patriots on Monday night?

Their defense has come a long way in a short time, which was critical for the team's bigger-picture Super Bowl hopes.

On a night when the Patriots looked like they were on the verge of a "Super" start-to-finish performance, costly special-teams mistakes and an uncharacteristic end-zone interception from Tom Brady late in the second quarter turned it into an unexpected dogfight in the second half against the Baltimore Ravens in a 30-23 win.

But the defense, which surprised the Ravens by playing more zone coverage than man and executed more fire-zone concepts, mostly delivered throughout.

This was arguably the biggest question entering the game, as obvious strides had been made over the past three games, but those came against lesser-caliber foes in the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams.

The Ravens, coming off a 32-point blowout of the Miami Dolphins, represented a step up. A real test with a quarterback, in Joe Flacco, who could push the ball down the field.

"We started out a little slow early in the season, but things picked up around the San Fran week. There's no excuses or things like that, but things are clicking on all cylinders. We continue to build on it," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "We're playing real good football right now, which is what New England wants to do after Thanksgiving. That's what we do here."

While the 23 points on the scoreboard might suggest the defense had its issues, consider how the dynamics of the game changed midway through the third quarter.

First, rookie Cyrus Jones had a punt touch his foot, which the Ravens recovered at the New England 3 and quickly scored a touchdown. Then Matthew Slater fumbled the ensuing kickoff return, giving the Ravens the ball on the New England 22. Four plays later, they were in for another touchdown.

In a span of 1 minute, 25 seconds, a 23-3 lead shrunk to 23-17 as the Ravens took advantage of the short fields and the Patriots had some red-zone breakdowns they'll work to correct.

But the defense, with some help from punter Ryan Allen's aptitude in pinning the Ravens deep and then a 79-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Chris Hogan to provide more margin for error, held Baltimore to two field goals the rest of the way.

This was a huge step for the still-evolving D, as the Patriots improve to 11-2.

Next stop: Denver.

"If you want to be a great defense, you have to be great when there's a little adversity and that's the next step," defensive end Chris Long said.