FOXBOROUGH — It was better than Christmas morning, better than New Year’s Eve, even better than the Olympics in Boston.
In a game reminiscent of their glory days from more than a decade ago, the Patriots came back from two 14-point deficits and defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 35-31, on the frozen tundra of Gillette Stadium Saturday night. New England advances to the AFC Championship game next Sunday against either Denver or Indianapolis at Gillette. The Patriots and their fans are planning on a trip to the Super Bowl in Arizona Feb. 1.
No matter where this season goes, it’s unlikely that anything will top what we saw in Bob Kraft’s frozen mansion Saturday. This struggle for survival had everything except Tom Werner chanting, “Let’s Go, Patriots!’’
No Tomato Cans this time. Patriots-Ravens had never-before-seen offensive formations, a zero-sum Pats running game, even a trickeration touchdown pass by wide receiver Julian Edelman. Trailing, 14-0, in the first quarter and 28-14 in the third, the Patriots would not be killed. They did not lead until Tom Brady feathered a 23-yard, game-winning TD pass into the arms of Brandon LaFell with 5:13 left.
After nearly four full quarters of uneven play, New England’s defense finally stopped Baltimore’s Joe Flacco when Duron Harmon picked off a Flacco pass in the end zone with 1:39 remaining. Even then, it wasn’t over. The stubborn Ravens got the ball back for one final play and Flacco’s Hail Mary heave was batted down by a pack of Patriots (including Rob Gronkowski) in the end zone.
Brady, who has played in eight conference championship games and five Super Bowls, completed 33 of 50 passes in 12-degree temperatures.
“We’re still standing,’’ said Brady. “We have a great opportunity ahead of us to play a championship game at home.’’
The victory gave Bill Belichick 20 playoff wins, tying Dallas’s Tom Landry for most in NFL history. Belichick has a chance to join Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll as the only coach with four Super Bowl trophies.
“It certainly wasn’t our best game,’’ deadpanned Belichick. “We were down by 14 points twice. That’s not a formula to win playoff games. But I give our players credit. They were resilient and physically tough. They never give up. That’s what I like about this team.’’
There is much to like about this team. It won 12 games during the regular season, copping the cheesy AFC East title for the 11th time in 12 seasons. Unlike recent years, the 2014-15 Patriots once again demonstrated that they are built for the Big Boy Football of January. The franchise had lost six of its previous 10 playoff games, but this team feels more like the old teams of Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown.
Brady and Belichick remain the constants. They’ve made their case as the best quarterback-coach duo in league history and now have a legitimate shot to win their first Super Bowl in 10 long years. Their body of work is not yet complete. Not by a long shot.
On the heels of their wild-card win in Pittsburgh last weekend, the Ravens came to New England with considerable swagger. Coach John Harbaugh and Flacco owned two playoff victories in three tries against the Patriots. All week long the Patriots heard about how the Ravens were not afraid to come to Foxborough.
And it all came true.
The game started the way they all start. The Patriots won the coin toss and deferred. That’s 13 coin-toss wins in 17 games. Genius.
The traditional Discount Doublescore formula calls for the Patriots to stuff their opponent after winning the toss, then score right before and right after half time. But the Ravens blew up the plan, going 71 yards in five plays to take a 7-0 lead before some of the Foxborough faithful had settled into their frozen seats.
Then Flacco struck again. Enjoying great pass protection, the Baltimore QB moved his men 79 yards in 11 plays over six minutes.
When Steve Smith Sr. beat Darrelle Revis for a 9-yard touchdown catch, it was 14-0 with 4:44 left in the first quarter. Cold fans booed the home team.
The Patriots responded with an eight-play, 78-yard touchdown drive capped by Brady’s 4-yard run. The score cut the deficit to 14-7 and put Brady in a tie with Curtis Martin for most rushing touchdowns (five) in Patriots playoff history.
Late in the first half, the Pats tied it on a 15-yard TD completion from Brady to Danny Amendola, but at the end of the half, Brady telegraphed a pass to Gronk and had it picked off by linebacker Daryl Smith. That was the death of the patented double-score plan.
“Just a terrible play by me,’’ said Brady. “I just made a terrible decision. I take ’em all pretty hard, especially when I give ’em one like that.’’
The Ravens took advantage, scoring another touchdown to lead, 21-14, at intermission. Baltimore scored again early in the third and led, 28-14, with 10:22 left in the quarter. There was more booing from the frozen fans.
The Patriots turned the boos to cheers with an 80-yard touchdown drive (Brady-to-Gronk 5-yard scoring pass) that cut Baltimore’s lead to 28-21 with 8:48 left in the third.
Then came the trick play. And a tie game. Near midfield, Brady dropped back and threw a backward pass to Edelman, who was a quarterback at Kent State. Edelman tossed a 51-yard strike down the left sideline to Amendola. It was the first pass of Edelman’s NFL career. With 4:20 left in the third the game was tied, but it felt like the Patriots had taken the Ravens’ best shot and survived.
“[Offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] called it at the perfect time,’’ said Brady. “Pretty sweet play. We needed it. He throws it better than I did.’’
There was a huge play that went against the Patriots at the end of the third quarter. Flacco fumbled and the Patriots appeared to take over inside the Baltimore 5, but Revis was called for holding Steve Smith and Baltimore was allowed to resume its drive. The drive stalled in the red zone, but a 25-yard field goal by Justin Tucker made it 31-28 with 10:17 left in the game.
No problem. Brady stayed in the Charlie Weis offense, dinked-and-dunked the Ravens to death, and the Patriots took their first lead on the perfectly thrown pass to LaFell. It was Brady’s 46th career playoff TD pass, an NFL record.
The Patriots are back. Still standing. Once again winning tough games in January.