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.
"They just took the crown," cornerback Chris McAlister said of the officials, "and put in on [the Patriots'] heads."
Scott was assessed two 15-yard fouls following the winning touchdown, one of which came when he picked up a penalty flag and heaved it into the stands. He was so upset after the game that he could barely speak. Cornerback Samari Rolle contended that one game official had used a demeaning term in addressing him, and claimed he planned to contact his attorney about it. Biting off his words in a curt interview session, Billick agreed that "evidently" a few calls went against his upset-minded team.
A few hundred yards down the corridor that connects the locker rooms here, some New England players were also voicing their displeasure with the officiating. In fact, Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel screamed obscenities at the officiating crew as it exited the field.
The league office figures to be fielding plenty of phone calls from both organizations Tuesday morning. And a few players, like Scott, probably will receive certified letters from the league this week.
The complaints, though, won't change the outcome. Nor will the zaniness of the fourth quarter, in which the Patriots scored 10 points in the final nine minutes after struggling to locate their usual offensive synchronicity.
Although the Pats came out victorious, the late-game rally won't overshadow the reality that, in the last two weeks, New England has suddenly appeared mortal.
"Well, it wasn't perfect," conceded coach Bill Belichick.
In Week 12, the Philadelphia Eagles exposed some deficiencies in the New England defense, particularly in an aging linebacker corps. With starting outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin on injured reserve, the Pats opened Monday night's game in a four-man front instead of their base 3-4 alignment, and the Ravens pounded the ball right at them, using tailback Willis McGahee as a workhorse.
McGahee carried 30 times for 138 yards and added four receptions for 21 yards. Running mostly behind the left-side tandem of tackle Jonathan Ogden and guard Jason Brown, the Baltimore line carved out big creases. Once again the New England linebackers and safeties appeared a step slow in filling holes, and the linemen seemed to lose gap control, patience and discipline.
On defense, Ryan changed up his coverages and his rushes nicely, and for a second straight week, an opponent designed a scheme that all but eliminated Randy Moss. The Patriots' wide receiver finished with just four catches for 34 yards. Brady completed just 18 of 38 passes for 257 yards and had an efficiency rating of only 76.3.
"I think," said Ravens nickel cornerback Corey Ivy, "that the 'S' has kind of been ripped off their shirts. I mean, they're a good team and all, an excellent team. Don't get me wrong. But some of the mystique, the feeling they're unbeatable, well … hey, it's the NFL, we're all paid to play hard, and no one is above being beaten, you know? No one."
Time will tell. New England has four games remaining, including three straight home contests, beginning with a Week 13 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, another club that won't be awed by the Patriots' record or reputation. To get through a season unbeaten at any level of the sport, a team has to be both good and lucky.
Give the Patriots credit for this: Even if some guys privately conceded they were fortunate to win here Monday night, they weren't publicly buying into the popular notion they dodged a silver bullet.
"You can call it an 'escape' if you want, but that's your word," said tailback Kevin Faulk. "To us it's a win, OK? And it's win No. 12, plain and simple."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.