It was the feel-good game of the year in New England. It reminded Patriots fans of the good old days when the Pats won with brains and teamwork.
Playing without Randy Moss for the first time since 2006, the Sons of Bill Belichick beat the estimable Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in overtime on Sunday to improve to 4-1, a half-game behind the Jets in the AFC East.
The victory culminated two weeks of noise triggered by the stunning trade of Moss in the hours after New England defeated the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 4.
The Moss deal was a shocker. It came during the bye week, which gave folks extra time to speculate. There were reports of an altercation between Moss and one of the Patriots assistant coaches. There were reports of a Moss-Bill Belichick confrontation on the flight home from Miami. Charlie Casserly went on CBS' pre-game show last weekend and said Moss and Tom Brady had gotten into an argument regarding Brady's long hair. It bordered on the ridiculous.
Initially, many Patriots fans were upset about the Moss deal (the Pats got a third-round draft pick in return), wondering if Belichick was giving up on the 2010 season. When Belichick re-acquired Deion Branch from Seattle, Patriot spin-masters suggested that dealing Moss might actually make the Patriots a better team.
That's going to be the theme from this point forward. Moss was a great talent, but apparently shot his way out of town when he elected to cry about his contract status at the podium minutes after the Patriots beat the Bengals in their season opener at Gillette Stadium. Now, the Patriots are going to sell themselves as a throwback team of guys who go the extra yard. Goodbye Randy Moss, hello 5-foot-7 Danny Woodhead!
The clutch stuff was lacking last season. New England could not win on the road. The Pats didn't have any of the fourth-quarter magic that marked their Super Bowl run at the beginning of the decade.
It all came back Sunday afternoon at Gillette as the old-school Pats rallied from a 20-10 deficit in the fourth quarter.
"That was a battle,'' said Brady. "It was good to win, down 10 in the fourth quarter.''
Brady has not lost a regular season game at home since 2006 (23 games) and is now 8-1 in overtime games.
Branch was strong in place of Moss, who did not make a catch in the Monday night win at Miami. Playing his first game for the Pats since 2005, Branch did a lot of precision route-running and had nine catches, including a touchdown.
"Tom makes everything so much easier,'' said Branch. "It's like I never left. I truly appreciate the support in front of the fans. It feels like it's my family. Coach tried to get me the ball early. I kind of got in a groove once I got hit. I just wanted a win in my debut ... I've been away for four years and it doesn't feel like I've missed a beat.'
"I've been throwing balls to him for a long time,'' said Brady. "He made some big plays. We put him in a spot to get open and he hasn't let us down. I think that chemistry's there. I don't think there's a lot that he doesn't do well. I don't think there's any limitation.''
The Patriots haven't felt this good about themselves since the 2007 season when they went 16-0 and Moss caught 23 touchdown passes. Those Pats were stunned by the Giants in the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. Brady got hurt in the opener in 2008, and last year the Patriots were smoked at home in the first round of the playoffs ... by the Ravens.
"We were manhandled in that game,'' Brady remembered. Owner Bob Kraft said they were embarrassed. Belichick and Brady had never lost a home playoff game.
Shedding Moss now becomes a symbol of the Patriots getting back to where they once belonged.
"It hasn't felt this way in four years,'' said Branch. "It's kind of crazy.''
Brady seconded that emotion.
"There's a sign in the locker room about 'mental toughness,'" said Brady. "It's doing what you've got to do for the team. That's what we did today and I think that's something we can build on.''
"It's one of the biggest wins around here in a long, long time,'' said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, one of the guys who was there for the glory years.
Take note, NFL. Randy Moss is gone and it feels just like the old days around Foxborough. The Patriots are making fourth-quarter comebacks and they are in prime position in the AFC East and believe the best is still ahead. In a Pete Rozelle parity-drenched NFL season, these Patriots think they're as good as anybody.