BALTIMORE -- The New England Patriots didn't need a miraculous comeback or have to make last-minute defensive stand in order to bag their 11th win of the season, a 41-7 victory over the Baltimore Ravens Sunday afternoon.
With a stingy defense and some ball control, the Patriots were able to wipe the floor with last year's Super Bowl champions.
Here's what we can gather from Sunday's game:
1. Defense at the forefront -- Forget the defensive touchdowns for a second, which can be considered as garbage time points anyway. Instead, note the team's effort on third and fourth downs, holding the Ravens to 5 of 14 conversions on third down and 0 for 3 on fourth. There were some crucial stops that helped keep the Ravens from building up any rhythm, including two interceptions by Logan Ryan. And consider what the Patriots defense was able to accomplish in the red zone, holding the Ravens to 1 of 3 in these crucial scoring opportunities. It spoke volumes about Sunday's effort and how it deserved a special place for this team with all of the injuries New England has endured.
The takeaways were also the Patriots' first since Week 13 against the Houston Texans, ending a two-week drought.
It was the kind of performance that was commendable on a number of levels.
2. Adding up the bodies -- Devin McCourty left Sunday's game with a head injury, likely a concussion. Shane Vereen left as well with a groin injury. Steve Gregory had to leave the game temporarily. Dont'a Hightower was shaken up. Alfonzo Dennard was limited to a few snaps. And that's on top of players like Nate Solder (concussion), Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), and Josh Boyce (ankle) missing with their respective ailments.
If there's one thing Patriots fans are going to have to come to terms with, it's this talk of the "next man up." The Patriots have been preaching it for some time now after suffering season-ending injuries to Vince Wilfork, Sebastian Vollmer, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo.
"That's been the whole season, not just the whole game but the whole season," said Chandler Jones. "Everyone has to be ready and everyone has to know what they're doing. And as you can see a lot of guys stepped up and made plays."
The Patriots have clearly bought into the "next man up" philosophy.
3. Back from the dead -- Tavon Wilson may as well have been somewhere far off on the end of the bench with a book reading for most of the season. His contributions were limited to his efforts on special teams, where he was creating a niche for himself along with Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner. The 2012 second-round draft pick was having a hard time getting on the field. So with an opportunity to get some snaps on defense as the game winded down, he was able to make a highlight reel worthy play at the end of the game. Wilson picked off backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor and returned the interception 74 yards for a touchdown, putting the exclamation point on the Patriots' defensive effort Sunday.
"It was a nice play," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "I don't think it really affected the outcome much. But, once again, after the interception, he could have not done what he did, but he broke a tackle, and he finished the game and made the play that he could make. It was a good effort by him and the whole defense getting out in front and blocking and try to finish the game on a positive note."
Wilson struggled last year in pass coverage, giving up one too many big plays before he was finally yanked. The Patriots have preferred to use rookie safety Duron Harmon as the team's third safety this year. His interception and return might be one play that will finally help him regain some lost trust from Belichick and the rest of the coaches.
4. Bring back the replacement refs -- No, not really. But Sunday's effort by the officials might have been mistaken for the replacements given how referee Ron Winter's crew called the action. It was an abnormally difficult game to watch with the number of penalty flags that were flying around. The Patriots and Ravens combined for 16 penalties for 131 yards. There were the regular questionable calls -- defensive holding and pass interference at the top of the list -- and then there was a bizarre episodes in which Winter had to reverse course on one penalty. The officials hit Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones for a neutral zone infraction in the fourth quarter after initially flagging Baltimore tackle Michael Oher for a false start. (It appeared that a quick replay on the video screen at M&T Bank Stadium spurred the reversal.) The two pass interference calls, one on Patriots safety Steve Gregory and the other on Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, were just bad calls. Gregory's penalty, on a deep throw to Torrey Smith, was uncatchable and Smith's, on a Tom Brady throw to Julian Edelman, was inspired by pure theater on Edelman's part. But, even worse, was the Ravens' drive to end the second quarter, in which six penalties were called in total. Most baffling was Ryan Wendell's false start for jerking his head, something an NFL center is normally allowed to do. These guys were definitely not the NFL's A-list. And if they were, I'd be surprised if they are now.
5. Hat and T-shirt day is still special for the not-so-young guys -- Tom Brady didn't have his AFC East division champion hat and T-shirt on postgame, but he said he'd proudly wear those items all week.
The Patriots clinched their fifth straight AFC East division title when the Miami Dolphins lost to the Buffalo Bills earlier in the day Sunday. It's Brady's 11th career division title, one more than Peyton Manning and two more than his childhood hero Joe Montana. But the Patriots weren't going to feel good about breaking out the regalia without a win.
"Every year is special, but we've really earned it this year," Brady said. "The NFL has a lot of stiff competition. Winning 11 games is very hard. We have faced adversity all year. Of course, other teams have, too. But our mental toughness has really gotten us through this."
He added: "Those hats and shirts are important because of what they mean. I hope we can keep getting more and more hats and shirts."
Brady now has 147 wins as a starting quarterback, tying him with Dan Marino in fourth place on the all-time win list.