This Sunday, the New England Patriots, showing none of the dominance that secured their trip to the AFC Championship in their victory over the Denver Broncos last week, barely squeaked by the Baltimore Ravens to earn their fifth trip to the Super Bowl in 10 years. Despite an unusually sub-par performance by the perennially-superior Tom Brady, who managed only a 57.5 passer rating while amassing an astonishing zero touchdowns, the Patriots watched a heart attack-inducing field goal attempt by Billy Cundiff sail wide right to end the game.
The story of the day for the Patriots was their defense. Despite having an abysmal record of performance during the regular season, this squad showed last week against the Broncos that they have enough talent to make the important stops in the crucial situations. They extended that performance by mustering the needed effort to stop the Ravens twice late in the fourth quarter, with only a razor-thin three point lead, each time after a heart-breaking turnover or three-and-out by the usually reliable Patriots offense. When the game seemed destined to turn in favor of Baltimore, the defense stood loud and proud and said, "not today."
The play of the game came midway through the fourth quarter. With the Patriots down 20-16 following an impressive touchdown drive early in the third quarter by Joe Flacco and a field goal late in the third quarter, the Patriots found themselves on the one-yard line on second down. Running a keeper, Brady raced left and pushed for the end zone, initially accumulating a go-ahead touchdown until the officials overturned the play when it was proven that Brady's knee had hit the ground before the ball crossed the goal line.
So, there the Patriots sat, down by four, midway through the fourth quarter, third down, a struggling offense just one play away from needing to kick a field goal to remain down by one point.
Can the Patriots win the Super Bowl?
Then, Brady, digging deep down and finding just enough of his usual brilliance to make the difference, kept the ball one more time and dove over the defensive line, very seriously risking injury, arms outstretched, to get the ball past the goal line before crashing down into a vicious pile. Touchdown! The Patriots took the lead, 23-20, and would not let it go.
Ultimately, the game came down to one final play. Just after a heart attack-inducing missed reception in the end zone, Billy Cundiff, the Ravens' usually reliable kicker who was in the Pro Bowl just last year, pulled a 32-yard field goal attempt left with the clock winding down to the final seconds. As the ball sailed into the net, all of New England, who had surely been preparing for an overtime battle royale, breathed a collective sigh of relief... The Patriots were AFC Champions! They were headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2008!
Squaring off against either the New York Giants or the San Francisco 49ers (depending on who wins the NFC Championship game, currently ongoing at the time of this writing), the Patriots head home for a two-week respite to regroup, heal and prepare for their championship fight.
The major question for New England is whether Tom Brady can regain his usual dominance and march into Indianapolis ready for a day of glory. Otherwise, the defense must be ready to pick up a great deal of slack or risk their second consecutive Super Bowl defeat.
All of New England awaits the answer...