Jackie MacMullan

Efficiency experts kept it all together

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / December 5, 2007

The Patriots' mantra has been consistent, predictable, and, quite frankly, downright boring for almost eight years now.

One game at a time. One play at a time. Never look ahead. Don't incite the opposition. Coach Bill Belichick has drilled these football edicts into his team so frequently that his players often appear to be flat-lined zombies with no original thoughts or discernible emotions. The penalty for venturing outside that box, they explain in whispers when the dour man in the torn hoodie isn't looking, is not worth the tongue-lashing that follows.

So they resist pondering the future, their place in football history, or an undefeated docket. They prevent themselves from lingering over positive results. They are maddeningly constrained.

And we are reminded yet again why it all makes sense.

It may have been a wild NFL finish in Baltimore Monday night, but the boring, brainwashed football team demonstrated the discipline required to respond when the game went haywire.

It would be stating the obvious to point out that the emotionally charged Ravens did not.

The 4-8 Ravens shook New England to its very core through 3 1/2 quarters. They shredded the Patriots' 4-3 defensive front with the same acumen with which they dominated the vaunted 3-4 formation. Willis McGahee was brilliant, even if his shameless gyrations after a nifty run were grimly reminiscent of Antoine Walker's hideous 3-point wiggle. Quarterback Kyle Boller was poised and efficient.

Defensively, the Ravens badgered Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and the guys into an unthinkable pattern: three and out. They stymied one of the most feared offenses in the NFL with verve and passion and energy. They pressured Brady as well as any team has this season.

But then, when it mattered most, it all unraveled spectacularly for Baltimore. Boller's inexplicable decision to throw deep - whom was he throwing to, anyway? - with a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter was a mental error reminiscent of Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley's ill-timed pass the previous week. It was a moment that required clarity, and instead was executed with haste, and a mild sense of panic.

We can debate whether Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan had the authority to call the timeout, or whether he should have called the timeout, or whether coach Brian Billick knew he was going to call the timeout on that critical fourth-and-1 play, but to me, what transpired after the call was also significant.

The emotional response of the defensive players was telling. Disappointment and frustration would have been understandable, but the anger and disbelief they directed toward the sideline was not only disrespectful, it was counterproductive. The game was still on the line, and the Ravens' dissension was there in full view, for all to see.

Yet that lack of composure paled in comparison to Bart Scott's implosion after the Jabar Gaffney touchdown. Scott's back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were crushing to a team that, in case he forgot, was still within a field goal of sending the game into overtime.

On a night when the wind was a factor and the Ravens' kick returners had had success against New England's special teams coverage, the 35 yards of penalties (adding in an offsides by Ed Reed on the extra point) enabled Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski to boom the kickoff out of the end zone, thereby preventing the Ravens from having the opportunity to rip off a big return.

Baltimore complained loudly about the officiating after the loss. Receiver Derrick Mason told reporters, "It's kind of like the old Bulls team when they were running the table. You were playing against Jordan, Pippen, and the bunch. It was hard to beat them because everyone was on their side. That's the way it is now.

"You've got Brady and the bench. It's hard to beat them when you're playing against them and extra people."

If Mason was so concerned about the officials calling a fair game, shouldn't he have expected to be flagged himself when he shoved Randall Gay aside, then hooked Asante Samuel's left arm on the final, desperate pass to Mark Clayton? He wasn't the only one unhappy with the refs. The Patriots had their own beefs.

There's no question New England was lucky Monday night. On the Patriots' second attempt at fourth and 1, running back Heath Evans was stuffed for no gain, but the play was negated because of a false-start call against Russ Hochstein.

Brady was also fortunate that nobody picked off his throw that was tipped by linebacker Ray Lewis and converted into a pop fly that easily could have been intercepted.

But luck has nothing to do with why, on two of their final three offensive series of the night, the Ravens couldn't manufacture a first down. On their final drive, they did rip off gains of 13 and 12 yards, but the Patriots were in their prevent defense.

Luck has nothing to do with why, when Reed intercepted Brady in the second quarter, Kevin Faulk had the presence of mind to strip the ball so his team could regain possession.

And who would dare suggest Brady's engineering of the winning drive was luck, especially since it's the 27th time in his career he's orchestrated a come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter? Twenty-seven times. Chew on that number for a while.

In spite of the W, make no mistake: The Patriots have some concerns. The defense cannot give up an average of 4.5 yards a carry and expect to continue winning. The special teams had a bad night, and, at various times, so did Ellis Hobbs, Matt Light, and the normally sure-handed Benjamin Watson, who dropped a ball in the end zone. Moss also had a drop, and Gaffney, too.

The Patriots look like a weary team. They even look a little bit like a vulnerable team.

The Steelers, Jets, Dolphins, and Giants will be gunning for them in the weeks ahead. It doesn't matter what their records are. They could validate their season by beating New England - just as Baltimore could have done. The remaining opponents very likely will play beyond their capabilities, because that's what the landscape calls for as the Patriots approach the final stages of this unbeaten journey.

New England has trailed against five teams during this 12-game winning streak, but has made plays when it has needed to make them. That speaks to the Patriots' discipline, composure, and poise under pressure.

One game at a time. One play at a time. Boring? Maybe. But still the most effective football in the NFL.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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