Sunday, January 11, 2015

Counter-Punching Patriots Eliminate Ravens in Heavyweight Playoff Tilt

Danny Amendola goes airborne for the pylon to score his first of two touchdown receptions.

Tom Brady threw the ball low,  and he threw the ball wide.  He threw one that ended up in the hands of an opposing player.

Brady was hardly perfect on a chilly evening in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but what separates the sure-fire first-ballot hall of fame quarterback for the New England Patriots from his contemporary playing for the Baltimore Ravens on the opposite sideline, is that he was perfect when he absolutely had to be - and Joe Flacco wasn't.

Brady threaded the needle to wide receiver Brandon LaFell along the left sidelines for a 23 yard scoring strike to give the Patriots their first lead of the game with just over five minutes left, then unheralded reserve safety Duron Harmon picked off an errant Flacco pass to preserve a 35-31 come-from-behind win over the Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Saturday evening.

A heavyweight fight from the opening bell, Baltimore slugged New England in the mouth, then the Patriots countered with a couple of haymakers of their own, and one got the feeling that this game was going to come down to which team's quarterback flinched at winning time.
Harmon comes down with his game-saving interception

That was Flacco, who tried to hit receiver Steve Smith in the end zone from 36 yards out between cornerback Logan Ryan and the strong safety Harmon on a 2nd and 6 with over a minute to play.  Certainly, Flacco was trying to take advantage of the second year corner who took over for an injured Brandon Browner, but the ball was overthrown and Harmon was in perfect position to make the game-saving theft.

The Patriots battled back from two separate 14 point deficits, collectively displaying the style of a mean counter-puncher in absorbing body shot after body shot, coming off the ropes and going toe-to-toe with a team that has become their arch-nemesis, Brady finding LaFell to send the Ravens reeling, then Harmon delivering the shot to the chin that finished them off.

With the win, the Patriots now await the winner of Sunday afternoon's game between the Denver Bronco and the Indianapolis Colts, hosting the survivor of the divisional play-in for the AFC Championship next Sunday evening - but regardless of what happens to the Patriots from this point forward, Saturday night's heavyweight tilt will be long-remembered and a source of water cooler banter for years to come.

And if one listens very carefully to head ball coach Bill Belichick, it is obvious he feels that his team turned a corner against the Ravens, one that has been difficult to navigate in the past few years.

"There's nothing like a playoff game.  There's nothing like a playoff win." Belichick ruminated after the game. "The regular season is great, but when you play these games it's single-elimination and the urgency and what's at stake for you and your team and what you've worked five-plus months for to get to this point all comes down one game, or in some cases, one play.  That just heightens everything."

"I'm just thankful that out players hung in there and made the plays they needed to make to get us a victory. belichick continued. "Hopefully we can build on that and coach better next week and play better next week."

Certainly, there is plenty to improve upon, particularly in trying to break their season-long habit of starting games slowly, forcing them to dig their way out of some pretty deep holes - but none have been so ominous as the holes that they dug for themselves on Satuday night, as the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to overcome two separate 14 point deficits to win a playoff game.

The outlook was bleak for New England right from the opening defensive series when Flacco led the Ravens to an easy-looking five-play, 71 yard drive, hitting former Patriots' receiver Kamar Aiken on a short toss in the right flat that he turned into a 19 yard touchdown by outracing a couple of out-of-position New England defenders for a quick 7-0 lead...

...the wide open pass play to Aiken made possible by the initial success of the Baltimore running game that eventually gashed the Patriots' ground defense for 136 yards at a clip of 4.9 yards per carry, generally on the stretch where Flacco could isolate the outside linebackers in no-man's land and force them to make a decision as to whether to play the run or take the receiver coming out into the flat.

The boot-action that fed off of the success of the stretch haunted the Patriots all evening, especially on fourth down and in the red zone where Flacco and the Ravens' excellent play calling caused the Patriots' defenders to look confused and perpetually out of place.

The Ravens made the score 14-0 on a Steve Smith reception on a crossing route against New England cornerback Darrelle Revis, who got a hand on the ball as it reached Smith, but the veteran pass catcher was able to hold on for the nine-yard score.

"Those early points they had, they were kind of on their script" said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, eluding to a practice that many teams employ of running their first 15-20 plays of the game off of a linear group of plays. "They were doing some things that typically they weren't going to do during the course of the game, but just wanted to see what we were going to do."

"They got us" Wilfork continued, shaking his head sadly. "They hit us on some plays, so once the game settled down, we really got into our game plan mode, calling our plays, and we really got settled down and started playing a lot better."

The proof of that came in looking at the big picture, when after the Patriots spotted the Ravens their easy two touchdown lead, the Patriots doubled-up their long-time nemesis by a 35-17 count the rest of the way - but it wasn't even as close to being as easy as the big picture makes it sound.

After battling back to tie the score on a Brady four-yard scamper late in the opening frame and a terrific Danny Amendola catch-and-run with just under four minutes left in the first half, Brady committed his one lone faux pas, a drive killing interception on a pass intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski up the seam that was cut off by linebacker Daryl Smith with just over a minute to play in the half...

...Flacco masterfully collecting immediate dividends on the turnover, hitting tight end Owen Daniels in the back of the end zone with three Patriots draped all over him for a 21-14 halftime lead.

A short pass into the right flat again burned the Patriots' defense just minutes into the second half, running back Justin Forsett taking a short pass from Flacco and essentially walking into the end zone from 16 yards out to again build the Baltimore lead to 14.

And then, the light suddenly came on for the Patriots.

Brady, still steaming from his ill-advised pick to end the first half, responded to Baltimore's score with a checkoff to Rob Gronkowski on the ensuing Patriots series, the old gunslinger identifying single linebacker coverage on Gronkowski, the audible sending the mammoth tight end on a quick slant on first and goal from the five yard line and firing a bullet into his gut to trim the Ravens' lead by half.

Back on their heels all evening, the Patriots' defense followed Brady's lead, suddenly becoming aggressive, sending blitzers to try and disrupt the Raven's continuity on offense, and while the New England pass rush never really got to Flacco, he certainly felt the heat rise with the extra man coming at him from seemingly a different direction each play - and the previously unflappable Flacco started to flinch.

Brady got the ball back quickly as the Patriots' pass rush forced a three-and-out, hitting receiver Julian Edelaman and running back Shane Vereen with short passes to reach midfield - though a moment of trepidation occurred when Vereen lost control of the ball and was originally ruled to have fumbled, but replay amended the turnover...

...all the while setting up the Ravens' defense for their demise.  All game, Brady had been lulling the Ravens to sleep with short "juke" routes, seven yard curls into the left flat left the receiver with the chance to turn upfield for some yards after the catch - taking the snap after the reprieve from the replay officials, Brady turned and fired the ball at Edelman as a lateral.

The corner on Edelman and the linebacker up on Amendola, who was lined up to the same side, bit hard as Amendola initially set up as if he were blocking for a screen, but then released and ran past the coverage, Edelman lofting a perfect spiral to Amendola streaking down the sideline - and as fast as you can say "Trick Play", the score was tied at 28.

"He throws it better than I did. It was a perfect spiral right in stride." Brady said of Edelman's pass to Amendola in his post-game presser, laughing. "I've got to make some rules that he can't throw it better than I can, but he did.  It was pretty sweet."

Baltimore had one last bullet left in the chamber, driving down to the Patriots' nine yard line before the pressure from the pass rush forced incompletions in the end zone and the Ravens had to settle for a field goal to give them back the lead at 31-28, setting up Brady's mega-clutch game-winner to LaFell on the ensuing drive.

"It was man-to-man coverage and Jojo (LaFell) got a great release" Brady explained as he broke down the winning play. "The guy (cornerback) looked like he had his right arm kind of arm-barred and he caught it with his left - and he was able to get his right hand on it, so it was a great play."

Baltimore got the ball back twice more, but Harmon's interception in the end zone ruined the first one and Rob Gronkowski and Logan Ryan teamed up on the game ending "Hail Mary" to finish the Ravens and to send the Patriots to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game, and the ninth conference title try of the Belichick era.

The Ravens have been the albatross around the necks of the Patriots in two of those most recent games, and generally a pain their collective neck for the past half dozen-plus years, but on Saturday night in Foxborough, Brady and Belichick completed the first part of their two-game gauntlet, perhaps the toughest of the two, in what seems like an annual right of passage to the bright lights of the Super Bowl...

...and perhaps vexing the demons by vanquishing a foe that has been the source of much grief and a constant source of dark malfeasance for all of New England for the better part of a decade.

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