In a New England locker room where invincibility was replaced by incredulity late Monday night, most Patriots players still weren't certain exactly how they managed to author a 27-24 comeback victory over the Baltimore Ravens that kept them unbeaten and chasing history after 12 games.
To observe that the relief exhibited in the Patriots' mostly somber dressing area was palpable would be an understatement. To suggest, however, that New England's players understood that the win was as much about good fortune as it was guts and fortitude would misrepresent the overriding mindset that the Pats felt they deserved to sneak out of here still unblemished.
"Teams are definitely stringing us out a little more than they had been," acknowledged defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. "But you know what? Check the record, [because] we're heading home 12-0. The string is still [intact]. The string, man, is still unbroken."
In part because the Ravens, despite outplaying New England most of the night and beating the Patriots along both sides of the line of scrimmage, left a little too much slack in the rope in the fourth quarter. And in part because the Patriots, who pulled the game out when Tom Brady connected with wide receiver Jabar Gaffney on an 8-yard touchdown pass with just 44 seconds remaining, got virtually every break imaginable in the closing minutes.
On at least three occasions in the final two minutes, the Patriots' pursuit of perfection seemed over. But in each instance, fate, destiny, fortune, the game officials, karma, the football gods and even a Ravens assistant coach intervened.
In a sequence that not even the greatest fiction writer could conjure up:
• Brady was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 sneak from the Baltimore 30-yard line, but the play was negated because Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan had called a timeout from the sideline a nanosecond before the snap. Baltimore coach Brian Billick declined to identify who signaled the timeout, noting only that "we called it" because the coaches "didn't like the configuration" in which the defense was aligned.
But television replays clearly showed Ryan calling the timeout and several Ravens players confirmed that. So the Brady run was ruled a no-play.
• On the ensuing snap, fullback Heath Evans was crushed by linebacker Bart Scott for a 1-yard loss. But the play was negated because Patriots right guard Russ Hochstein was called for a false-start penalty. Apprised that it was probably the most fortuitous foul of his career, the seven-year veteran backup lineman played it straight. "It's still something," Hochstein said, "that you never want to do."
Well, maybe not never, Russ.
• With 55 seconds remaining and facing a fourth-and-5 from the Ravens' 13-yard line, Brady threw incomplete for tight end Benjamin Watson, but Baltimore dime cornerback Jamaine Winborne was flagged for holding in the secondary. It was the correct call by the officials, but on the wrong player. Winborne made virtually no contact on the play but, in underneath coverage, Scott had Gaffney in a bear-hug.
"I don't know if they got the wrong guy, called out the wrong number [on the penalty], or whatever … but we'll take it," Gaffney said.
In the Baltimore locker room, where the players were embittered at having exerted so much effort in a game that basically represented the Ravens' playoffs, players clearly felt as if the victory had been taken away from them by the officials.