By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff

At times yesterday it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for the Patriots defense. Well, it actually WAS a long afternoon for them, but because of overtime, not because of any failures on their part to get off the field.

Welcome Back Deion Branch!

The Patriots young and much-maligned defense appear to grow up right before our eyes yesterday, repeatedly shutting down the Ravens offense in the fourth quarter and overtime, and letting the offense get things rolling for a 23-20 comeback win at Gillette Stadium.

For some, the progress within the same game was evident and tangible. Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty for one, was called for pass interference on a play in which he was in great position, but failed to look back for the ball. Later in the game, in a nearly identical situation, McCourty this time turned to the ball, and was able to make the play, which despite similar contact to the first play, was not a pass interference play, because McCourty was playing the ball.

There were rookies all over the field on defense. In addition to McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham showed signs that he might be that outside linebacker/pass rusher that this team has been searching for, beating Michael Oher, getting pressure, getting his hands on the ball and the QB and even drawing a personal foul penalty from the Ravens which set up the winning drive. Rookie ILB Brandon spikes made an impact in the running game and was spotted in the Ravens backfield a few times. 7th round pick Brandon Deaderick started the game at defensive end, and was spotted chasing Joe Flacco out of bounds for no gain on one play. Undrafted Dane Fletcher was in the game down the stretch at inside linebacker, and even though he’s not technically rookie, (but he’s never played an NFL game before this season) Shawn Crable was even spotted coming off the edge and getting pressure on Flacco late in the game.

While the Patriots defense was impressive, why did the Ravens play right into their hands with the ultra-conservative approach they took in the fourth and OT? The passing game had shredded the defense early in the game, but they hardly tried it at all late. Instead, they tried the running game and short dumpoffs underneath, which were quickly covered up by Jerod Mayo and company.

But it was fun, wasn’t it? Even if I didn’t sit down for the last five minutes of the game and the entire overtime. It’s fun to see kids develop, while at at the same time still managing to pull out a win.

The offense seemed to need some time to get going, but once they did, they were sure fun to watch as well. Having Deion Branch and Wes Welker (who had a couple uncharacteristic drops) on opposite sides of the field gives the QB safe, reliable outlets all over the field. It seems that Aaron Hernandez is going to the deep outlet, and despite two drops in overtime, he had another impressive game.

I’m still a little uncertain about why the Patriots chose the hail-mary at the end of regulation instead of trying the 62-yard field goal, which seemed to be a no-risk proposition. It’s been explained that there is a risk of having the kick blocked and returned, (a kick that long needs to be a low liner, which is a little easier to block) which we saw can happen in the Miami game, or of having the kick fall short and being returned by the Ravens. There was also the danger of a fumbled exchange leading to a return. Still, despite all of that, it seems to me, that it was more of a high-risk, low-percentage play to snap the ball to Brady and chuck it down the field. I don’t know. We do know that in the end things worked out for the Patriots.

Deion Branch’s return was a great story and he looked right at home, (despite the #84 on his uniform) and it will be very interesting to see how the offense develops going forward with him.

In fact, at 4-1, it’s going to be interesting watching this entire team develop as the year goes on. San Diego, no matter how they’re playing, is never an easy game out there, and New England is going to need another big effort next week, just to keep pace in the AFC East.