FOXBOROUGH - In an incredible comeback, sparked by an incredibly controversial call by referee Walt Coleman, the New England Patriots will play for the AFC championship following a 16-13 overtime victory over the Oakland Raiders on Adam Vinatieri’s 23-yard field goal into the wind and a heavy snow last night at Foxboro Stadium.
The Patriots drove 61 yards after winning the toss and receiving the ball in OT.
Quarterback Tom Brady, who had looked overmatched for much of the game, drove the Patriots into field goal territory twice late, once for Vinatieri to tie it with 27 seconds remaining in regulation from 45 yards on a low, line-drive kick. Then he got the Patriots close enough for Vinatieri to win the game.
“I line-drived it and then I had to wait a second to see if it was going to go over,” said Vinatieri of his tying field goal. “On the game-winner, I knew we had to get it down. I knew we were close in range. During the timeout, we cleared off some snow, and we did it on third down just in case something happened.”
The Patriots’ defense made two key stops in the fourth quarter, and then got the ball back with 2:06 remaining after Troy Brown’s punt return of 27 yards to the 46. He fumbled, but the Patriots recovered.
Helped by the two-minute warning, the Patriots had no timeouts left, and the ball was on the 42.
Then they were saved by the controversial call.
Charles Woodson came in untouched on a corner blitz from the defensive left side, and appeared to force Brady to fumble on first and 10. It seemed Brady had tucked the ball, which after the hit was recovered by linebacker Greg Biekert on the Oakland 48.
The officials reviewed the play and Coleman came back and ruled that Brady was going forward with his arm.
“His arm was going forward and the call was made. It was out of our hands,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
According to Coleman, “Obviously, what I saw on the field, I thought the ball came out before his arm was going forward. Then, when I got to the replay monitor and looked at it, it was obvious his arm was coming forward. He touched the ball. And they just hooked it out of his hand. His arm was coming forward, which makes it an incomplete pass.”
Oakland coach Jon Gruden didn’t see it that way.
“In my opinion it was a fumble, but obviously I don’t understand [the rule]. But I thought it was a fumble,” said Gruden.
Brady said, “Yeah, I was throwing the ball.”
Many Patriots fans could only think it was revenge for what happened in the teams’ 1976 playoff game.
The Patriots moved to the Oakland 28, but finally opted to kick.
“We didn’t have any choice. We had a lot of confidence in Adam to make it,” said Belichick. “You have to give a lot of credit to [long-snapper] Lonie [Paxton] and Kenny [Walter] for the hold. They were tough conditions.”
Late in the game and in overtime, Brady successfully executed the no-huddle.
“Tom did a nice job in the no-huddle offense there in the end,” said Belichick. “Tom did a good job. The receivers made some good catches in those conditions. At this time you have to be at the highest in concentration and alertness, and they were.”
Brady completed nine straight passes, four to Jermaine Wiggins (who had 10 catches), three to David Patten, and one to Kevin Faulk before Brady scrambled in from the 6 with 7:52 remaining to pull to within 13-10.
Belichick said he and his staff watched tapes of the Buffalo blizzard game last season, and at the last minute included plays that were successful in that game. Wiggins caught a couple of big balls in that game.
“Jermaine had a couple of big catches in that game. He’s kind of a snow plow for us,” said Belichick.
Vinatieri hit from 23 yards out with 8:39 remaining in the third quarter, but even more impressive was Sebastian Janikowski’s 38-yarder with 4:14 remaining in the third to make it 10-3.
“As the game went along, the range kind of dwindled down a little,” said Vinatieri.
After an awful first half, the Patriots took the opening kickoff in the second half, and moved the ball well.
Brady connected on two long passes to Patten, one for 25 yards and the other for 19 to the Raiders 9. But Brady overthrew Patten and Rod Rutledge in the end zone, forcing Vinatieri to boot the field goal, making it 7-3.
The Raiders did not seem deterred. The next possession saw Rich Gannon complete medium-range passes of 15, 10, and 10 yards to Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, and James Jett. The Raiders got it to the 21 before Janikowski made his first of two big second-half field goals.
After the Patriots went three and out on their next series, the Raiders again got close for Janikowski. The big play was a 22-yard pass from Gannon to Rice. Advancing to the Patriots’ 27, Janikowski hit from 45 yards to make it a 13-3 game with 1:41 remaining in the third.
Both teams struggled with the weather, but early in the second quarter, the Raiders got a break on a special teams mistake by Je’Rod Cherry, who interfered with a fair catch attempt by Woodson.
The 15-yard penalty allowed the Raiders to start their drive at midfield.
Gannon, 10 for 14 for 87 yards in the first half, certainly appeared to be much more nimble in the snow at that point than Brady. He went right to work, connecting with Charlie Garner for a 12-yard play to the New England 38. Gannon had a lot of time to throw, and he sat in the pocket and completed a 10-yard pass to Jeremy Brigham to the 27.
On third and 8, Gannon connected on a slant to Rice to the 13. Two plays later, Gannon sent a fade to the end zone for Jett, who beat Terrance Shaw and caught the ball untouched for 6 points. Janikowski added the extra point to give the Raiders a 7-0 lead with 12:14 remaining in the second.
But that was a part of the game that few will remember. They’ll only remember the Call, the snow, and the kicks.