FOXBOROUGH, Mass -- Another day, another Patriots celebration. The confetti fell, players hugged each other, and trophies were raised high above heads. This is the Patriots' way. Winning, Super Bowl appearances, and more winning. And the band played on. Cue the music, roll the credits.
"I sucked pretty bad today," said Tom Brady.
"It wasn't always perfect," said coach Bill Belichick.
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No, it was not. Still in what was an epic game, maybe the best single game this postseason, the Patriots were at their worst but still found a way to be the best. This is how ridiculously awesome, stupendously great this organization has gotten: they were terrible, wonderful and lucky all in one moment.
"It wasn't our best day," said guard Logan Mankins after the Patriots 23-20 win over Baltimore in the conference final.
You know how great the Patriots are? They play like that and still win. How great? They dip a toe into bizarro world where Joe Flacco outplayed Brady -- and Brady himself scored just once and was intercepted twice -- and still walked away winners. This was the Patriots making the Super Bowl in spite of Brady, not because of him, which is the equivalent of saying the Pips made Gladys Knight.
How good? The Patriots defense, the ugly sheep of the family, the scorned, the shameful, won the game thanks to a monster effort by the round mound of get-down, Vince Wilfork. How good? The Patriots revealed a new layer of mental toughness. They exchanged punches and curses and glares with Baltimore, one of the grittiest teams in the NFL. They didn't look away or flinch. They kicked back.
"That's what mental toughness is all about," said Belichick. He added: "They've never backed down."
For one game the Patriots traded in the gaudiness of Brady and the offense for a defense that slipped on a Jason mask and grabbed a chainsaw. For one game, they went from sexy to T-Rexy.
That's now 10 consecutive wins for the Patriots: a steady, if at times highly imperfect, climb towards another peak of greatness. This has not been your classic Belichick-Brady season but they are still doing what they do best: win. This is no perfect sculpture. Instead, Picasso just threw up in his mouth a little. But it's perfect enough. It's gorgeous enough. It'll do just fine.
|The Ravens played a near-perfect game until their final three possessions of the fourth quarter. Joe Flacco threw an interception, the Ravens failed to pick up a fourth down and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard FG wide left. For as great as they played the AFC's best team, Baltimore still came away with a loss.|
|By Jason Butt|
|New England Patriots|
|It wasn't pretty, but in the playoffs you're judged by if you win or lose. The Patriots won their fifth AFC title in 11 seasons, and that's all that counts. Tom Brady threw two interceptions but the Patriots ran it effectively with 96 yards and two touchdowns. The defense had a tough time stopping Ravens QB Joe Flacco (306 yards, two TDs) but made plays when it counted. DT Vince Wilfork was immense with six tackles, two for a loss and a sack.|
|By Greg Bedard|
You'll hear the Patriots say something repeatedly in the days leading to the Super Bowl. They'll talk about mental toughness and if there has been a change in this franchise towards the latter part of this season it has been from the elegance of Brady to the hardening of the defense. Don't misunderstand: Brady carried this franchise all year. He destroyed the Broncos in the divisional round almost singlehandedly but the toughness of the defense has transformed this team at just the right time.
"It is the mental toughness," said linebacker Jerod Mayo. "We've been talking about it all year."
The Patriots did get lucky but they also made their own luck. That pass from Flacco to Lee Evans with under 30 seconds left wasn't just an Evans drop. The ball was punched out of his grip by a smart defensive play. That's the making the luck part.
"It wasn't in my mind to slap the ball out," said Patriots safety Sterling Moore, "it was just a split second decision and I'm glad it worked out. We do that drill everyday in practice [stripping ball from receiver] but it was the first time I had to use it in a game and I just took what I learned from practice into the game."
It took a missed field goal from Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff (one he should have easily made) for the Patriots to lose and normally when a quarterback plays as well as Flacco did that's good enough to win. That's the luck part.
This is the scary part. The Patriots know. They know they have to play better and that is what will make them almost unbeatable in the Super Bowl. The Patriots team we saw against the Ravens isn't close to the one we'll see in two weeks. We're going to see a motivated, scary New England group that will likely be as close to perfect as possible. They will be utterly frightening and seeking revenge for the losing the last time they were there.
Brady finished the game with a measly 57.5 passer rating and again he had zero passing touchdowns. It was an incredible sight to see Brady sailing passes overhead or wildly off the mark. Have to say I've never really seen Brady that off target in a long time.
Yet this is what the Patriots now do. They no longer destroy teams. They just win and they win ugly.
But they'll take it.