FOXBOROUGH - Can’t avoid the obvious: wide left made it official.
The snap from Morgan Cox was good. Holder Sam Koch spun those laces away from his kicker’s foot, just the way you’re supposed to. Thirty-two-yard field goals are layups in this league. But Billy Cundiff hooked it left with 11 seconds left, allowing the New England Patriots to leave the field with a 23-20 victory, the AFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in franchise history, the sixth time in the Bob Kraft stewardship, and the fifth time in the extraordinary partnership of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
In Baltimore, wide left is all they will ever remember. But in these here parts, wide left will be regarded as merely the final chapter in a gridiron adventure novel in which the Patriots, universally regarded as a frilly team completely dependent on a high-tech offense, outfought one of the league’s most rugged teams by being every bit as tough and every bit as physical as the Baltimore Ravens.
It was an old-fashioned football game, not one of your modern NFL track meets, and the Patriots won it. That’s their story, and I can assure you they will be sticking to it.
“It didn’t matter if it was 99-98 or 2-0,’’ said linebacker Jerod Mayo. “We don’t care.’’
Here’s perhaps all you need to know about how different and special this one was: They won it without the benefit of a single Tom Brady touchdown pass. But among No. 12’s least-discussed assets is his great reliability to execute a quarterback sneak, and it was his vault over center Dan Connolly on a fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 11:33 remaining that provided his team with the 23-20 lead they would nurse throughout a tense fourth quarter.
This was a day when the defense carried the offense a lot more than vice versa, which is the supposed norm. As Brady so often likes to say, boy, did they leave a lot of points on the field, especially in the first half. Gifted with field position on their own 40, their own 39, and their own 40 on their first three possessions, the Patriots came away with three points, their drives sputtering to conclusions at their own 47, the Baltimore 11, and the Baltimore 47. A second-quarter drive petered out at the Baltimore 17.
But there was a reason. They weren’t playing the Bills, the Jaguars or the Chiefs. They were playing the Baltimore Ravens, renowned for their defense and their sheer toughness and anchored by future drop-dead first-ballot Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, as well as a fearsome and massive presence in the middle of the line in the person of 330 pound (est.) Haloti Ngata. You don’t casually lah-de-dah your way up and down the field against the Ravens. No, you work for every inch of territory you can get.
“It’s a great team,’’ acknowledged Brady. “They’re tough, they’re physical, they can cover, they can rush, they can stop the run - they do a lot of things very well.’’
The flip side is that the Patriots’ defenders, being quite human, have grown tired of hearing about how they are a drag on the whole enterprise. They felt they had been hearing way too much about yardage and not enough about points allowed or their impressive ability to create turnovers. So they were willing to accept praise for their effort on a day when the Brady-led offense was rather pedestrian.
“We’re a tough group of guys,’’ said veteran defensive end Shaun Ellis, who will be going to his first Super Bowl. “We work extremely hard. We’re a brotherhood.’’
They weren’t perfect. If they were, the Ravens wouldn’t have gotten to that final second and 1 at the Patriots’ 14 with 27 seconds left, trailing by three. But that’s when rookie Sterling Moore, whose numerous comings and goings this season make him a prime target for countless national feature stories once everyone arrives in Indianapolis, saved the game on two successive plays, first stripping the ball from Lee Evans when the Ravens wide receiver had the go-ahead TD pass in his grasp on a second-down play, and again on the next play when he knocked away a Joe Flacco pass intended for tight end Dennis Pitta. Absent both those plays, Billy Cundiff never would have been needed.
And the defense did get the Ravens off the field during their penultimate possession with a fourth-down stop. Had the offense done what it usually does, the game would have been over, right then and there. But Brady and the boys went three-and-out, turning it back to the Ravens at their 21 with 1:44 to play.
By the way, give Flacco some credit. The Baltimore quarterback had a rocky start, but as the game progressed he made plays both with his arm and his legs. He did bring his team from his 21 to the Patriots’ 14 before Cundiff went wide left. If Brady had done that, we’d be composing more sonnets on his behalf.
But the story in this one was the undeniable fact that the most important game of the season required the Patriots to play the kind of down-and-dirty game people thought they were incapable of playing.
One more thing: This was a game requiring discipline. One penalty for 5 yards. How do you like that?
“We just came out and played football the way the New England Patriots are supposed to play,’’ declared defensive tackle Gerard Warren. “Hard-nosed football. Technique and assignment football.’’
And I’ll say it - just plain manly football.
Wide left? Too bad.