Man, what a game that was, huh? What a game. Don't know about you, but I don't need to watch a replay, though I surely will. A day later, the many highlights are still spinning on the reels of my mind.
The Patriots' 35-31 thriller over the Ravens Saturday delivered everything an NFL playoff game is supposed to -- big plays and bigger trick plays, curious and brilliant coaching decisions, near-misses, relentless tension, and enough what-ifs to stock a couple more insufferable ESPN debate shows with topics for a year.
It's almost appropriate that it ended on an unfulfilled Hail Mary. We held our breath for most of the game. It only made sense that we'd have to do so for the final four seconds too.
If you're a Patriots fan, it was one of those outcomes that kept you awake afterward for all the right reasons. And if for some reason you could fall asleep in the hours after such an exciting and encouraging victory, well, I suspect John Harbaugh's pathetic howls in the distance about deception eventually woke you up.
I respect Harbaugh and his team. I won't underestimate them again. But their grace in defeat is non-existent, and I cannot respect their it-isn't-fair entitlement, which clearly trickles down from their head coach.
In their minds, there are two outcomes to a football game: Ravens win. Ravens got robbed.
Neither happened Saturday night.
Here's what did happen. They lost a messy game to a Patriots team that played far from a flawless game, had very little go its way, and yet emerged with a viciously fought victory that included two separate comebacks from a 14-point deficit.
In retrospect, I wish I'd paid less attention to the Ravens' desperate and annoying yelps in the aftermath of their loss, as amusing as it is to watch from afar.
Because the real story here, the one that matters, is this: The Patriots went out and won a football game that could have been lost on so many occasions. In the quest for a fourth Super Bowl championship, it is an extraordinary sign, even if they did not always perform as potential champions Saturday.
The Ravens can caterwaul about deception, which is synonymous with being outwitted in the moment. The reality is that their perceived obstacles are laughable compared to what the Patriots actually did overcome.
That was game that might have been lost in recent seasons, but their resilience -- a favorite word of Bill Belichick -- never wavered. They made the plays when they needed to be made, whether it was Julian Edelman dusting off his ol' Kent State QB skills -- how long have we waited to see that? -- or Danny Amendola gaining a measure of redemption with two touchdowns, or Tom Brady's beautifully pinpointed winning pass to Brandon LaFell for the winning score with five minutes remaining.
Brady, who surpassed Joe Montana as the all-time postseason leader in touchdown passes by tossing three while under constant siege in this game, threw a terrible interception in the first half that indirectly led to the Ravens regaining the lead just before halftime. It was the kind of mistake that could haunt an offseason, one that could lead to the loss of an opportunity that doesn't come around every season.
Instead, he rose up, set a personal postseason high for passing yards (367), and played the kind of stellar, tough game his detractors claim has been too often missing in recent postseasons. The second half -- one in which the Patriots ran the ball as exactly as often as Horace Ivory has this season -- was Brady at his best, and it came with a deficit against a ferocious pass rush. I still can't get over the perfection of that throw to LaFell.
The Patriots held it together even as certain frustrations reared up during the game and circumstances seemed to conspire against them. Darrelle Revis was called for two dubious penalties.
Brandon Browner was called for a crucial pass interference on a fourth-down play, an outcome that surprised few since the primary passing play in the Baltimore playbook is called Spider-Y-Heave-It-Up-And-Bitch-For-a-Flag-2-Banana.
C.J. Mosley's pass defense on a critical third-down play against Gronk was essentially a bear hug, and he got away with it.
The 17-yard catch by Owen Daniels with just over two minutes remaining ... the brief moment when Torrey Smith beat Logan Ryan and it looked like a sure go-ahead touchdown before Duron Harmon arrived on the scene ... The kneel-downs that didn't quite run out the clock, as if Andy Reid and not Belichick had been the one doing the math on that ... the split-second when the outcome of the Hail Mary was uncertain ...
So much went against them. So much more could have. We exhaled at the end of the victory, and while there were small laments and concerns to be carried forward, that exhale should have been a wholly satisfying one.
Baltimore is as tough on the field as it is entitled off of it. That was a hard-earned and well-deserved win for the Patriots, and games like that are part of every journey.
Some of us have a tendency to remember the Super Bowl-winning seasons as a breeze, but there were plenty of grueling games along the way. Last night's victory reminded me of the 17-14 win over the Titans in freezing weather in January 2004. That's the game that keeps me from calling Bethel Johnson a bust.
The Patriots earned the victory then, en route to their second championship of the three they would win in a four-year stretch. And they earned it last night, en route to their fourth straight AFC Championship Game appearance and the ninth of the Belichick/Brady era.
It wasn't a flawless performance. But it was a vintage one, a banner victory in what may well be another banner year. Sending Harbaugh and the Ravens off to wallow in the unfairness of it all is only a bonus. After this performance, the Patriots can sleep well, at least until later in the week, when the anticipation of another AFC Championship Game keeps us all awake.
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