BALTIMORE - The Baltimore Ravens handed out white towels to their fans before last night's game. They should have handed out yellow flags. In the end, they handed the game to the Patriots.
The Patriots are still undefeated, and they have the Ravens' penchant for penalties to thank for it.
In one of the wildest endings you'll ever see in a football game, the Patriots converted a fourth down on their third try to keep their hopes alive and then pulled out a 27-24 victory on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds left to become the sixth team in NFL history to start a season 12-0.
"We got away with that one," said left tackle Matt Light. "Those things happen and we were able to take advantage, but that was definitely one of the most unique, last-minute, come-from-behind, two-minute operations we've ever had around here, so we'll take it."
Gaffney juggled the ball in the left corner of the end zone as he got both feet down. The play was reviewed - at the discretion of the replay official in the booth - and stood up. It was Gaffney's only catch of the game.
"We put that play in this week," said Gaffney, who was not concerned that his catch would be overturned. "We knew that was going to work in the back of the end zone because they play great de fense.
Still, the Patriots had to sweat out a near-miracle at M&T Bank Stadium as Mark Clayton caught a 52-yard Hail Mary from Kyle Boller at the New England 3 before a gaggle of Patriots pushed him away from the goal line.
The Patriots' pursuit of perfection appeared to have come to a conclusion when the Ravens stuffed Brady on fourth and 1 from the Baltimore 30 with 1:48 left. But the Ravens offered the Patriots a reprieve when defensive coordinator Rex Ryan called a timeout before the play. Ravens coach Brian Billick said after the game they called the timeout because they felt they weren't in the right configuration.
The Patriots then were stopped again on a rush attempt by Heath Evans, but a false start penalty on Russ Hochstein negated that play.
"Tonight the false start saved our life," said Light.
"You never want to do that in that situation," said Hochstein. "I certainly didn't and we got away with it."
Given a third chance, Brady (18 of 38 for 257 yards with two touchdowns and one interception) pulled the ball down and ran 12 yards to pick up the first down. The Patriots got an additional 5 yards thanks to yet another Ravens penalty, an illegal contact call on Samari Rolle. That moved the ball to the 13.
Yet another Baltimore penalty - defensive holding on Jamaine Winborne - moved the ball to the 8, setting up Brady's climactic TD toss.
"It was like everything went in our favor right there in a three-play thing on fourth down - a timeout, a false start, illegal contact," said linebacker Adalius Thomas, who had six tackles and earned bragging rights in his return to Baltimore after signing with the Patriots in the offseason. "That was a crazy series. I had to check my blood pressure."
The flags were flying on this blustery night in Baltimore that saw the return of Thomas and a meltdown by current Raven Bart Scott. The Ravens were penalized 13 times for 100 yards. The Patriots received four penalties for 30 yards
Frustrated by the incessant flagging of his team, Scott, who drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after Gaffney's grab, tossed the official's flag into the stands, drawing another 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
"They called it a touchdown and he had bobbled it," said Scott, who also said the Ravens outplayed the Patriots for 60 minutes.
But even before Scott's tantrum, the Ravens had thrown away the game.
With the Ravens (4-8) leading, 24-17, and less than 11 minutes left, champagne corks were almost ready to start popping in South Florida. Following a 33-yard punt return by Yamon Figurs, the Ravens had the ball at the New England 26.
But after another penalty - a false start on Daniel Wilcox - pushed them back to the 30, Kyle Boller (15 of 23 for 210 yards and two touchdowns), reverted to his mistake-prone form, tossing an interception to James Sanders, who returned the ball from the 1 to the New England 43.
The Patriots got as far as the 20 before Stephen Gostkowski booted his second field goal of the night to trim the lead to 24-20 with 8:41 remaining.
Baltimore had taken a 24-17 lead 35 seconds into the fourth quarter when Boller, who was doing his best A.J. Feeley impersonation, hit Wilcox with a 1-yard touchdown pass that sent the stadium-record crowd of 71,382 into a towel-waving frenzy.
The Patriots, playing their third straight prime-time game, looked to be up past their bedtime. The defense seemed to be asleep against a Baltimore offense that has been about as high-powered as a Segway this season.
Missing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who is out for the season with a foot injury, the Patriots opened in a 4-3 defense with Jarvis Green as a defensive end and Mike Vrabel and Thomas the outside linebackers with Tedy Bruschi as the middle linebacker. However, they shifted back to a 3-4 on the Ravens' third drive. It didn't matter what defensive alignment they were in, they couldn't stop the run.
Ravens running back Willis McGahee went over the 100-yard mark on the first drive of the second half. He capped an eight-play drive with a 17-yard touchdown run that gave Baltimore a 17-10 lead.
McGahee finished with 30 carries for 138 yards, the most the Patriots defense has surrendered to a running back this season.
"They didn't do anything magic," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "They did a good job blocking.
"Some of them we played well and some of them we didn't. McGahee ran well, as he always does."
While the Patriots struggled to slow McGahee for most of the game, Ryan devised a scheme that kept Brady and the Patriots' passing attack off-balance.
Brady didn't throw a touchdown pass until there was 4:26 left in the third quarter. His 40th of the season, a 3-yarder to Moss, tied the score at 17 and made the Patriots QB the fourth player in NFL history to throw 40 TD passes in a season. It was Moss's 17th touchdown of the season, tying him with Curtis Martin for the club record.
But the longer the Patriots let the Ravens stay in the game, the more confident they got. In fact, it was the Patriots who should have considered themselves lucky to be tied, 10-10, at the half.
The Patriots dodged a bullet before the half when Ed Reed intercepted a pass that went off the hands of Wes Welker. Reed returned it 34 yards to the New England 27 before an alert Kevin Faulk stripped him of the ball. Benjamin Watson recovered the fumble.
It was that kind of night for the Patriots.
"The more chances you give us, more times than not we're going to take advantage of it," said Bruschi.