Patriots Take the Ravens' Best Shot, But Are Still Standing

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, December 4, 2007; 7:48 PM

BALTIMORE -- It's as contentious an evening as the NFL has had in some time, one that ended with the two teams cursing each other and the officials, with the Baltimore Ravens having narrowly failed to deliver the upset of the season in pro football, with the New England Patriots still undefeated and raging toward their perfect season.

It ended with four fourth-down plays in the final two minutes, a game-winning touchdown pass that was reviewed by replay officials, a 12-yard dash on fourth-and-sixth from trouble into daylight by Tom Brady, with the Ravens alleging conspiracy and the Patriots keeping alive the most compelling storyline of the this NFL season.

It was a night during which the Patriots proved to be good, clutch and lucky all in the same game-winning drive. Tom Brady on an uncharacteristically poor passing night proved he's one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history, and a national television audience was reminded that being really good isn't good enough to beat the Patriots.

The question the day after a second straight near-upset of New England is whether the field is indeed gaining on the Patriots, whether the Eagles and Ravens have provided a blueprint to the four remaining opponents on the regular season schedule.

After a string of bloodthirsty blowout victories that steered the conversation toward the merits (or lack thereof) of running up the score, the Patriots have survived consecutive cliffhangers with the Eagles and Ravens. What those two teams share is not a fear of the Patriots, but a willingness to attack them with a particularly violent abandon the Patriots had not seen the first 10 weeks of the season. Of course, a preference for mayhem runs through the DNA of both the Eagles and Ravens, which served them well in these confrontations. The Ravens had noticed in film study how teams like the Redskins and Bills had been reluctant to challenge the Patriots and vowed, no matter the consequences, to turn Monday night's game into a brawl, which thankfully is what happened.

The NFL, as hard as it tries to sanitize pro football, had to be pleased at having a prime-time game that was both a spectacle and authentic in its relentless head-knocking. It was homage to the way football used to be played every weekend, back when you could crack the quarterback and deliver a forearm to the neck. Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith was almost giddy as he sat watching, happy at last to see something that resembled the sport he played.

And in the process, the game brought honor to the Patriots because they survived a real test by trading punches with somebody their own size. The Ravens, without question, are flawed. They've lost six straight, which is how they've become 4-8. Still, if the Patriots put together the perfect regular season, if they can do what no NFL team has done and finish 16-0, they'll undoubtedly tell the story of the one they stole in Baltimore Monday night. They'll smile at the memory of surviving on a cold, blustery confrontational evening when the outcome was in doubt, right down to the final unlikely catch-and-struggle 72 inches or so from the goal line.

Champs love telling and retelling tales of the times they were bloody and woozy yet prevailed nonetheless, an honest characterization of Monday night's Ravens-Patriots clash. Brady delivered as he almost always does, on fourth down no less with his options shut down. When it was over, 27-24 in New England's favor, the Ravens felt they'd been burned by the referees and the Patriots went merrily on their way, seemingly unimpressed with themselves or what they've done so far.

"It's the third time in four weeks we've come from behind in the fourth quarter," Coach Bill Belichick said, managing to find something complimentary to say about his team, the best team in the NFL since the 1985 Chicago Bears. After ticking off a laundry list of things he thought his team did less than well, the coach added, "I'm proud of the way we played when it was on the line . . . when we had to have some plays made."

Three plays stand out: Brady being stopped cold by the Ravens on fourth and one with less than two minutes left, but being bailed out by a timeout called by the Baltimore coaches.

"I heard the whistle blow," Brady said. The room erupted in laughter, but you didn't get the sense Brady was necessarily joking. "I'd have gotten the first down" if the whistle hadn't blown, he said. "I stopped."

Thing is, how do you call the Golden Boy a liar? A superhero probably has super hearing, right? Granted a second chance, the Ravens smashed fullback Heath Evans for a one-yard loss, which also would have ended the game . . . except this time guard Russ Hochstein committed an obvious false-start penalty, wiping out the play and giving Brady a third chance, at fourth and six. You know exactly what happens if Brady is given a third chance, even if fourth-and-one becomes fourth-and-six. The Golden Boy, all his receivers covered, scooted 12 yards for the first down to keep alive the drive that would win the game, but only after another fourth-down conversion, this one on a holding penalty against the Ravens that left them bitter.

Baltimore's Derrick Mason, who played fabulously, called it a "phantom call," and said the Ravens were "playing against more than just the best team in the NFL." Terrell Suggs made similar accusations, saying the league and the refs want to ensure Brady and the Patriots win, which is nonsense. The refs didn't cause Ed Reed to fumble at the end of his interception just before the half, perhaps costing Baltimore three points. The refs didn't cause Kyle Boller, as well as he played, to throw that interception down near the goal line that cost the Ravens points, time on the clock, and allowed the Patriots to march back for a field goal. The Ravens have always been a brawling, overly emotional sort, which served them well in victory a few years ago and less well when Bart Scott costs his team field position that might have been used for a game-tying field goal attempt.

Seconds from the biggest upset of the decade in pro football, it appeared they'd found the antidote to perfection, a straight-forward, no-nonsense, time-tested formula from an era of football said to be irrelevant now. The Ravens ran the ball as if paying homage to the 1950s and hit the Patriots in the mouth as if they wanted to make it a back-alley brawl. Also, it didn't hurt that Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Willis McGahee, all University of Miami alums, dedicated themselves not only to winning, but to playing with the spirit of slain Miami alumnus Sean Taylor.

And it nearly worked.

The Patriots were down for at least a standing-eight count. Randy Moss went as far as to say, "I'm not going to lie. I think a little bit of anxiety was setting in."

To that point, the Patriots had dropped at least five passes, though some of the tosses must have fluttered in the wind, which gusted to 39 mph and was steadily 22 mph or greater. Tight end Ben Watson, specifically, dropped a touchdown pass on the opening drive that forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal that suggested it might be a different kind of night.

And the Ravens, noting that the Patriots' linebackers are old and showing some wear and tear (especially with Rosevelt Colvin now out for the season) could be run on in a smash-mouth confrontation. But finally, with everything even, the Patriots put the game in the hands of their very best player, their most trusted player, surely the MVP. The Patriots asked Tom Brady to win the game the way the 49ers used to ask Joe Montana to deliver them, the way the Broncos used to ask John Elway to deliver them.

And even the newly converted, like Randy Moss, knew what the outcome would be then, knew Baltimore had no antidote for that. "By him just being Tom Brady the confidence factor came in," Moss said. "With him making the right read, the right adjustments, giving us the right signals and things like that, with a quarterback like Tom Brady you've got to have confidence that things will work out for the best and they did."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company