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What we learned: Resilient Patriots hold off Ravens

The New England Patriots exploded for 496 yards against the league's No. 1 defense, staving off a Baltimore Ravens comeback attempt for a 30-23 victory on Monday night. Here's what we learned in the Week 14 finale:

  1. Relegated to a dink-and-dunk offense without Rob Gronkowski in recent games, the Patriots' attack was expected to face a litmus test against the stout defenses of the Ravens and Broncos over the next two weeks. They passed the first of those trials with flying colors, providing ample reason to believe this edition of Tom Brady's offense is set up better than any previous version to survive the unstoppable tight end's absence.

In terms of size, athleticism and blocking ability, Martellus Bennett is the closest the Pats have come to cloning Gronkowski. LeGarrette Blount is enjoying a Pro Bowl season, headlining New England's best backfield since Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk keyed a championship run over a decade ago. Led by the return of venerable assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia, the offensive line has steadily improved throughout the season. Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell give Brady reliable speed outside the numbers for the first time since Randy Moss was taking the top off of defenses. Josh McDaniels attacks the opponent's weakness as well as any play-caller in the league. Even without Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, this is a Super Bowl-caliber offense.

  1. A surgical Brady brought playoff intensity, shredding the league's stingiest defense for touchdown drives of 74 and 89 yards in the late first and early second quarters. He eclipsed 300 passing yards 40 minutes into a 60-minute contest. When the Ravens capitalized on a pair of special teams miscues to mount a serious comeback effort, Brady hit a streaking Chris Hogan in-stride for a 79-yard touchdown strike -- the quarterback's longest touchdown pass since 2013. Considering the quality of opponent, this sterling performance rates as Brady's strongest argument yet in a wide-open MVP race that includes Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott.
  1. Don't let the Ravens' 23 points and 348 total yards fool you. They needed back-to-back fumbles by punt returner Cyrus Jones and kickoff returner Matthew Slater to set Joe Flacco up on the doorstep of New England's end zone for their only two touchdowns after the Patriots had jumped out to a commanding 23-3 lead in the middle of the third quarter. Although last week's lopsided victory over Miami provided reason to believe the offense was finally ready to realize its potential down the stretch, they remained an imbalanced, checkdown-dependent attack Monday night. Of their 30 first-half plays, an astonishingly low four were runs. Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg seems to have designs on emulating Jim Bob Cooter's success with a short-passing game that functions as a surrogate for the run, but Flacco simply misses too many throws.
  1. The Ravens' coaching staff has never fully trusted a hard-charging Terrance West to carry the ground attack this season. It will be interesting to see if they turn the backfield over to Kenneth Dixon after the rookie's impressive, tackle-breaking performance in the second half. A relentless Dixon refused to go down on first contact, repeatedly carrying tacklers for extra yardage as a runner and receiver.
  1. Baltimore's defense lacks a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Dean Pees made it to the top of the NFL's rankings with a deep, well-rounded unit that limits vulnerable areas. Brady exploited a weakness in the secondary, however, picking on cornerback Shareece Wright and safety Matt Elam after Jimmy Smith and Jerraud Powers were lost to injury earlier in the game. Smith's ankle sprain looms as a liability versus the Eagles and Steelers the next two weeks. He's easily the team's best cover corner.
  1. Amendola's absence was felt acutely on kick returns. Careless rookie Cyrus Jones allowed a rolling punt to hit his foot, accounting for his fourth fumble on 13 punt returns this season. Special teams ace Matthew Slater followed suit by fumbling the kickoff return immediately after Flacco converted Jones' gaffe into a 3-yard touchdown. Expect newly signed journeyman Griff Whalen to get a look on punt returns as Jones' replacement next week.
  1. The league's premier kicker is no longer perfect -- through no fault of his own. Patriots linebacker Shea McClellin timed the snap, leaped over the long snapper and easily blocked Justin Tucker's 34-yard attempt in the first quarter.
  1. The Patriots are riding high at 11-2, and are poised to be in control of home field throughout the postseason. Better yet, Monday night's victory carries the ancillary effect of dropping the Ravens to second place in the AFC North, significantly decreasing Baltimore's chances of coming back to haunt New England in January. In five of the past seven years, one of these AFC rivals has ended the other's championship dream.
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