FOXBOROUGH - With wonderboy quarterback Tom Brady at the controls, the Patriots magic bus rolled on a carpet of packed powder last night. It appears the football gods won’t stop pushing this team until it arrives in New Orleans for Super Bowl XXXVI.
More than 60,000 fanatics stopped by the stadium on a snowy evening and at 25 minutes before midnight watched as Patriots long snapper Lonie Paxton made snow angels in the end zone while teammates hoisted kicker Adam Vinatieri. Vinatieri’s 23-yard, overtime field goal gave the Pats a 16-13 victory over Oakland and thrust New England into next weekend’s AFC Championship game against the winner of today’s Pittsburgh-Baltimore game.
“These guys are going to fight for their last breath,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “It took a lot, but our guys have played like that all year. They don’t know any other way.”
Brady (32 of 52 for 312 yards) and the Pats were so sure of victory that the scoreboard actually read, “Patriots 16 . . . Raiders 13” two plays before Vinatieri’s winning kick. Now that’s destiny.
Destiny. How else to explain the reversal of a ruling in the closing minutes of regulation which stripped Oakland of certain victory and avenged a call that went against the Patriots against these same Raiders in a playoff game a quarter of a century ago?
Call it “Revenge for Ben Dreith.” In 1976, the Patriots probably would have beaten the Raiders in a December playoff game in Oakland if not for Dreith’s roughing-the-passer call on Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton. Last night Belichick challenged a play in which it appeared Brady had fumbled after being sacked by Charles Woodson.
The call was reversed by referee Walt Coleman, it was ruled an incomplete pass, New England got the ball back, and the NFL had a new controversy for the ages. Al Davis should have some interesting things to say about Coleman and Co.
“Yeah, I was throwing the ball,” said Brady, grinning slyly. “How you like that?”
Given new life, Brady (26 of 39 after halftime) didn’t fail. He moved the Patriots into position for Vinatieri’s line-drive, desperation 45-yard field goal which tied the game with 27 seconds remaining.
When regulation expired, there was another coin toss and, naturally, the Patriots won the toss and elected to receive. One more time, Brady led them down the field, setting up Vinatieri’s winning chip shot.
“Tom really did a nice job running the no-huddle offense,” said Belichick. “Those were tough conditions but when you get to this time of the year you’ve got to be at your highlest level of concentration. He came through there.”
Bring on the Steelers or Ravens. Last night’s game could have been the final game played in the 31-year history of Foxboro Stadium, but if the Ravens beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh today there will be one more game - an AFC Championship game - in Foxboro’s aluminum sports palace.
Patriots owner Bob Kraft had lobbied for a night playoff game and got exactly what he wanted, including 20-degree temperatures and a mail-order snowstorm. The crowd and the elements were supposed to be a 12th man for the Patriots, but for three and a half quarters, the veterans from Oakland performed better in Foxborough’s Winter Games.
It was as if the game were played within the plastic confines of a giant snow-globe that had been shaken with great force. Across America, fans watching in the comfort of their living rooms no doubt were amused and entertained . . . but it was rough on the 60,000-plus who sat on frozen aluminum benches, and rougher still on the uniformed mastadons who tried to find solid footing on the snow-crusted field.
The Patriots lost the pregame coin toss, New England’s first defeat of any kind in several months. Vinatieri kicked off and it was immediately apparent this would be a low-scoring contest. Players took baby steps to avoid falling, and the offensive gameplans were neutered to avoid the possibility of turnovers.
None of our other professional leagues would even consider playing a game, especially a playoff contest, under these conditions. But this is football, which is precious prime-time programming. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow will keep the NFL from making its appointed rounds. The show must go on.
Foxboro Stadium’s most famous snow game - until last night’s - was in December of 1982 when work-release inmate, Mark Henderson, plowed a patch of snow, enabling Patriots kicker John Smith to drill a winning field goal against Miami. There had been other inclement weather through the years, but never for a playoff game in Foxborough.
Trailing, 7-0, at the half, the Patriots junked the conservative gameplan. Brady looked like his old stardust self in the first drive after intermission. New England drove 62 yards in 12 plays and settled for a 23 yard-field goal by Vinatieri.
Oakland answered with a pair of field goals by Polish kicker Sebastian Janikowski. Oakland led, 13-3, early in the fourth quarter, but Brady completed nine straight passes, then ran 6 yards and across the goal line for New England’s first touchdown, making it 13-10 with 7:52 left.
Trailing, 13-10 with two minutes left, the Patriots got the ball with 2 minutes left, but it looked like it was all over when Brady fumbled.
No. Not this year. The gods are smiling on New England’s football team. Wonderboy Brady will not be beaten. The Patriots will play in the AFC Championship game a week from today. Maybe here.
Let it snow.