In an absolute classic, the Patriots overcame two 14-point deficits and beat the Baltimore Ravens 35-31 in an AFC Divisional Round showdown at Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady hit Brandon LaFell for a 23-yard TD with 5:13 left for the game winner and the defense, which had big problems against Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense all day, held them off down the stretch to secure the Pats' ninth trip to the AFC Championship Game since 2001. If you've caught your breath yet, take a look at this handful of takeaways from one of the best football games you will ever see.
1. Tom Brady is still the best -- A terrible interception at the end of the first half notwithstanding, the Patriots got a throwback performance from their all-time quarterback. Brady had to operate without even a whiff of a running game and went 33-for-50 for 367 yards with three TDs and also ran for a score. He led two 14-point comebacks. He marched the team down the field for a game-winning score in the fourth quarter, his 50th pass attempt winding up making the difference. He passed Joe Montana for the most postseason touchdown passes in NFL history with 46. He moved into the lead for most career postseason passing yards. He matched Montana's NFL record five career postseason fourth-quarter comebacks. And he's one game away from his sixth Super Bowl appearance. Brady put the entire team on his back and came away with his 19th career playoff win, and it was one for the ages.
2. Danny Amendola has his best game as a Patriot -- He's put up better stats in some games, but Amendola, who has been labeled a bust for the majority of his Pats' career, made one big play after another and proved as critical to the win as anyone. He caught five passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns and was able to fight for two crucial first downs, one of them on the game-winning march. Amendola has been coming on this season, carving out a role as the team's primary kick returner, and his contributions to this win proved to be invaluable.
3. Defense isn't great but holds up when it counts -- For long stretches of the game, the Patriots' defense, so good for so much of the year, was on its heels. Flacco continued his incredible run of postseason play for a while, throwing four TD passes and looking invincible at times. And the Baltimore running game chewed up the Pats with lead back Justin Forsett gaining 129 yards on 24 attempts (5.4 YPA). But the Pats were able to survive both Flacco and Forsett, an uncharacteristically lukewarm performance from Darrelle Revis, and nothing near a consistent pass rush to hold the Ravens to a field goal and then force a game-sealing interception by Duron Harmon in the fourth quarter with the game in the balance.
Standouts included Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty, who picked off Flacco in the third quarter for the first time in the Ravens QB's last seven playoff games. The Pats have a lot to shore up on that side of the ball before the AFC Championship Game next Sunday but they were able to do just enough to make it through this one.
4. Credit to the offensive line -- Center Bryan Stork went down with a knee injury late in the second quarter, moving Ryan Wendell to the middle and Josh Kline to right guard. And although Brady took his fair share of hits, he had plenty of time to operate throughout the electrifying second half with neither of Baltimore's pass rushing specialists, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, heard from all day. If Stork is unable to return next week, it's comforting to know that in a huge spot, the Pats' O-line can hang in and succeed despite getting shaken up.
5. Those tricky Patriots -- For one stretch in the third quarter, the Pats moved the ball with just four traditional offensive linemen, Michael Hoomanawanui as a hybrid tight end/tackle and Shane Vereen announced as ineligible despite lining up split out to the near side slot. The result was a touchdown drive that cut the Ravens' second two-TD lead to 28-21. Then on their next possession, Brady flipped a backward pass to Julian Edelman on the far side and the former college quarterback found Amendola streaking wide open down the sideline for an easy, 51-yard touchdown.
It was the first pass attempt of Edelman's career and he would later say that the Pats have been hanging onto the play for 10 weeks before breaking it out just for the Ravens. They say timing is everything. They're right.