FOXBOROUGH — The Ravens were still shellshocked and a little salty 30 minutes after losing, 35-31, to the Patriots in a wild AFC divisional-round playoff Saturday night.
Did the Patriots really just beat them with a wide receiver option pass? With a receiver-ineligible play with only four offensive linemen on the field? By only handing the ball off seven times the entire game and calling 54 passes?
What next, the Statue of Liberty? The Fumblerooski? The Annexation of Puerto Rico?
“They pulled out every trick play in the book,” Ravens defensive end Chris Canty said.
“They couldn’t just drive the ball down on us regular. They had to do something tricky,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said.
“You’ve seen one gimmick, you’ve seen them all,” Terrell Suggs said.
Gimmicks or not, the Patriots are the ones advancing to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday, against either the Broncos or Colts.
And Webb was right. The Patriots did have a tough time moving the ball against the Ravens, Brandon Bolden, Shane Vereen, and LeGarrette Blount combined for seven rushes for 14 yards in the first half, and Tom Brady didn’t hand the ball off once in the second half. Brady kept it himself four times and threw it 26 after halftime.
But the Patriots aren’t apologizing for winning with a grossly unbalanced offensive game plan, or for dusting the cobwebs off their trick plays.
“It’s the playoffs, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to win,” said right guard Ryan Wendell, who played center for half the game when Bryan Stork went down with a knee injury. “There’s no good in holding anything back right now.”
They certainly didn’t hold back in the third quarter, when they broke out their trick plays to overcome a 14-point deficit.
We’ve always wondered when, or if, the Patriots would ever use Julian Edelman’s arm. He played quarterback at Kent State, after all, and he was a pretty good baseball player in his day, too.
Finally, six years into his NFL career, the Patriots broke the glass in case of emergency.
Trailing, 28-21, with 4:28 left in the quarter, Brady swung a pass to Edelman behind the line of scrimmage, who stopped on a dime, fired a perfect 35-yard strike to Danny Amendola, who scampered the final 16 yards for the game-tying touchdown. The entire Ravens defense bit on the fake – especially Webb, who was covering Amendola.
“Testament to Julian, he has a great arm and is a great athlete,” Amendola said. “He put it on the money, that’s for sure.”
Brady said that the Ravens showed a blitz on the play, playing right into the Patriots’ hands.
“We actually got the perfect look,” Brady said. “Pretty sweet play. We needed it. It was a perfect spiral right in stride. I’ve got to make some rules that he can’t throw it better than I can, but he did.”
Edelman said the Patriots practice that play “once every couple of weeks, but I practice in the backyard with Danny all the time. We’ve been secretly practicing that for awhile.”
But the Patriots dug deeper into their bag of tricks in the third quarter with the receiver-ineligible plays. Three times the Patriots pulled backup guard Josh Kline off the field, used Shane Vereen and Michael Hoomanawanui as the fifth ineligible player, and lined up Rob Gronkowski as an eligible receiver in the left tackle spot. The Patriots picked up a couple of first downs out of the formation, and eventually drove down the field to make the score 28-21.
“I would say it was smart,” Webb said. “Hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to win. They knew the Ravens were coming here to kick their butt. You’ve just got to say it was a smart thing. They pulled it out at the right time.”
The Ravens were irate about the tactic — John Harbaugh drew a 15-yard penalty for coming out on the field to argue with the officials.
“Maybe those guys got to study the rule book and figure it out?” Brady said. “We obviously knew what we were doing. It was a real good weapon for us. Maybe we’ll have something in store next week?”
NFL rule 5.3.1 states that “an offensive player wearing the number of an eligible pass receiver is permitted to line up in the position of an ineligible pass receiver, provided that he immediately reports the change in his eligibility status to the Referee, who will inform the defensive team.”
“It’s a play that we thought would work,” Bill Belichick said. “We had six eligible receivers on the field, but only five were eligible. The one who was ineligible reported that he was ineligible. No different than on the punt team or a situation like that.”
But the last part of the rule is what had Harbaugh so upset. He said that even the officials were totally confused by the receiver-ineligible formation, and didn’t inform the Ravens in time about which player was ineligible. By the third time the Patriots ran out of the formation, referee Bill Vinovich announced to the crowd, “34 is ineligible. Don’t cover 34,” but by then the damage was done.
“They would go over and snap the ball before we even had the chance to figure out who was lined up where, and that was the deception part of it. And that was where it was clearly deception,” Harbaugh said. “That’s why I had to go and take the penalty, to get their attention so that they would understand what was going on, because they didn’t understand what was going on. That’s why guys were open, because we didn’t ID where the eligible receivers were at.
“It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing and I’m sure that they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”
The last quote sums it up perfectly. “It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before.”
But Belichick and his staff figured it out. And now the Patriots are moving on to the AFC Championship Game.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin