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Plenty of life without Moss

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By Christopher L. Gasper
October 18, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — The margin between the Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens yesterday was 3 points and one Hall of Fame-bound quarterback.

The discussion all week centered on how the Patriots’ offense would respond to the loss of wide receiver Randy Moss. In fixating on the incomparable talent the Patriots lost, many lost sight of the one they have, that rarest of NFL species, the unflappable franchise quarterback. The truth is that it doesn’t matter to whom Tom Brady is throwing. It could be Moss, Deion Branch, Cliff Branch, or Cliff Lee. If we didn’t learn that in 2006 without Branch, we learned it yesterday with Branch and minus Moss.

All those statistical analyses that said Brady had lost his fourth-quarter touch, you can toss them out with the No. 81 jerseys. Stats are for losers, and Brady is a winner.

Yesterday, with Moss in Minnesota, Brady (27 of 44 for 292 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) led the Patriots to their biggest regular-season victory since the night he, Moss, and the perfect Patriots made history against the Giants, rallying the Patriots from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to nip Baltimore, 23-20, in overtime at Gillette Stadium.

Don’t get it twisted, the Patriots’ offense was never Moss-centric. It’s always been Brady-centric. The value of a player such as Brady is he makes the players around him better. He makes average receivers good, good receivers great, and great receivers historic. Seahawks fans were probably wondering what the Patriots put in Branch’s Wheaties after he had nine catches for 98 yards and a score yesterday.

“I’m a natural-born champion, but playing with this guy, he just makes you feel a little bit more than what you really are,’’ said Branch. “I know this would never happen . . . but true enough I wish every receiver would get the opportunity to play with this guy because he’s amazing. He’s amazing.’’

The Ravens, who led, 20-10, with 14:53 left in the fourth quarter, hadn’t allowed a team to score more than 17 points this season. They entered the game with the best third-down defense in the NFL.

Brady led the Patriots to 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, and on a day when the Patriots struggled on third down (4 of 14), he completed a pair of crucial third-down passes to Branch — a 5-yard TD on third and goal in the fourth quarter out of an empty set, and a 10-yarder on third and 2 out of a three-wide receiver set in OT that set up Stephen Gostkowski’s winning field goal.

“That’s just Brady being Brady,’’ said Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

It was Brady’s seventh career comeback when trailing by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter, and the 30th time he helped his team overcome a fourth-quarter deficit, but his first fourth-quarter comeback since the 2009 opener against Buffalo.

Early on it looked like the Ravens were going to get the best of Brady, just as they did nine months ago, when he threw for only 154 yards and tossed three interceptions in a playoff loss. The Foxborough Faithful were booing Brady and his mates at halftime, just like in January. After three quarters, Brady was 11 of 20 for 136 yards and a third-quarter interception by cornerback Chris Carr that led to an Anquan Boldin 25-yard touchdown reception.

After that throw, Brady was at his best, leading the Patriots to three scores to tie the game, including a 13-play, 80-yard drive to set the stage for the Gostkowski’s 24-yard field goal with 1:51 left that forced overtime. Brady went 16 of 24 for 156 yards with a touchdown and an innocuous interception (regulation-ending Hail Mary) in the fourth quarter and OT.

“It’s Tom Brady. He’s a superstar, a [heck] of a quarterback, and the more pressure there is the more he likes it,’’ said Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson. “So, even though I hate him, he’s a great quarterback.’’

Johnson said that the offense the Patriots ran wasn’t complicated, as the team was heavy on two-tight-end sets, just efficient.

Rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez and Jets castoff running back Danny Woodhead gave the Patriots and Brady the flexibility to use a variety of formations, depending on whether Baltimore put its base defense or sub defense on the field.

The Patriots could spread the field and go to a shotgun, empty set with those two or keep Woodhead in the backfield and Hernandez closer to the line of scrimmage and go with a more traditional set and try to run the ball or set up play-action.

“They had a good scheme for us,’’ said Johnson. “If we would put nickel on the field, they would just run it. If we put big boys on the field, they’d spread it out and throw it. It’s pretty damn simple, but it works, especially if you got Tom Brady.’’

One of the questions in the absence of Moss was where the big plays would come from in the passing game. The Patriots only threw the long ball twice yesterday, both on their final possession of regulation, an incompletion to Brandon Tate with 45 seconds left and the Hail Mary on the final play of the fourth quarter.

The answer is that they’re going to come from Brady, his ability to put the ball in tight spots, look off coverage, or put a pass in a position that allows a receiver to run with it. Branch, Wes Welker, and Hernandez and fellow rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski all had receptions of more than 20 yards. Woodhead added a 19-yard reception.

“Randy Moss is such a dynamic player. I don’t know if [Branch] is a comparable guy,’’ said Carr. “You can’t really compare anybody to him . . . But they’ve proven that they can win with a Randy Moss, and they’ve proven that they can win with a Deion Branch-style.’’

What they’ve proven is that the Patriots’ offense is about who is throwing the passes and not who is catching them.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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