Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Questions answered
As the Patriots have been forced to grind out every win - whether opposed by their rival for the AFC's No. 1 seed or a foe whose coach would be fired less than two weeks later - the questions became more prevalent and more pressing.
We wondered, is the Patriots' beat-up defense capable of winning a game for them? Is New England capable of beating a winning team on the road? Are the Patriots capable of putting together a complete, 60-minute effort? Are the Pats physical enough to match a tough team in the trenches? Is New England good enough to take the drama out of its qualifying for a playoff berth? Is it good enough to clinch a fifth consecutive AFC East championship without needing to win its finale against Buffalo?
Sunday in Baltimore, they answered all of those the same way.
With a big, fat, emphatic yes.
It wasn't quite as one-sided as a 41-7 final score might suggest, but from start to finish the Patriots did control a Ravens team that entered in the midst of a four-game winning streak, keeping Baltimore out of the end zone until the fourth quarter and thereby collecting their most decisive win of the season without needing a standout effort from Tom Brady's offense - and without needing to rally at any point, let alone in the final moments.
As such, the Pats now have just one question to answer in the regular season, and that pertains to their playoff seeding. By way of Miami's loss earlier in the day they'd clinched Brady's 11th division crown before they even took the field Sunday, and so now they enter Gillette Stadium next Sunday knowing that if they can merely beat the Bills they'll earn a bye into the AFC's divisional round.
Depending how Denver fares they could even be the No. 1 seed, but they know now they'll be no worse than 3 or 4 - and most importantly, at 11-4 they've earned the opportunity to answer that question for themselves.
"I think our players really played hard for 60 minutes, and they really played well," coach Bill Belichick said. "Really proud of the way that they competed, being able to finish and play 60 minutes is good - something we obviously need to do more of. Couldn't be prouder of the football team. Those guys earned it today.
"Hopefully we can build off this. This is a good one for us."
The first half couldn't have gone much better for the Patriots, who continued to distance themselves from their early game struggles by scoring touchdowns on each two of their first three possessions. The game's initial score came courtesy of a LaGarrette Blount 1-yard haul, which was set up by a pass interference penalty in the end zone. Then, after Logan Ryan intercepted Joe Flacco by way of a Dont'a Hightower deflection, Brady found Shane Vereen with a pass to the flat from four yards away.
Both of those came before the end of the first quarter, and by the end of the first half the Pats tacked on a field goal to take a 17-0 advantage into intermission - and to that point the Ravens hadn't even snapped the ball in New England territory.
Some of Baltimore's struggles might've been attributable to Flacco showing some ill-effects of a knee ailment that limited him in practice all week, though it was just as much a reflection of the way the Ravens' offense has operated of late, even when their quarterback has been healthy.
They might've entered on a four-game winning streak, but three of those victories came despite scoring one touchdown or less, so it bode well for the Patriots' chances of winning Sunday that they got ahead early. So did the fact that Baltimore had yet to come back from a deficit greater than seven points to win a game this season.
And that held true despite the Patriot offense struggling immensely for most of the final three quarters. After kicking a field goal on the first play of the second period, each of New England's next seven series lasted seven plays or less, and six of them ended in punts - but thanks to another Ryan interception, thanks to three stops on fourth down, thanks to a Justin Tucker missed field goal, and thanks to three Baltimore punts, the Pats were still ahead 20-7 when their offense finally found itself again in the final seven minutes.
At that point they marched 48 yards, and chewed 4:32 off the clock, ultimately putting things away when Blount fell backward into the end zone with his second score of a 76-yard afternoon. At 27-7, the Ravens decided to pull Flacco to make sure he's available for their must-win next week, and that decision cost them 14 points when backup Tyrod Taylor couldn't handle a bad snap that Chandler Jones scooped and scored, then when he threw an interception that little-used safety Tavon Wilson returned for a touchdown.
Those were probably the first garbage-time points the Patriots have scored since pummeling the Steelers way back in Week 9, which had also been the last time they were able to breath easy in the final minutes of a contest instead of scratching and clawing and trying to escape.
Since then, doubts had developed about this team. The questions had continued to mount.
Then, Sunday, they were finally answered.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.