With the prince of pro football at quarterback, the usually sharp and efficient New England Patriots have made a habit of winning an ugly sport's games in pretty fashion.
So it says a lot that Tom Brady and the Pats were able to beat the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night despite an uncharacteristically sloppy performance.
The Patriots turned the ball over three times, which is something they hadn't done in two-and-a-half seasons. They'd committed two or fewer turnovers in 45 consecutive regular-season and playoff games. Last time they coughed it up that many times in a home game? Midway through the 2013 season, when they beat the Denver Broncos 34-31 in overtime.
|Most Patriots turnovers since 2014 (50 games)|
|Monday night||Ravens||3||Won 30-23|
|Week 4, 2014||Chiefs||3||Lost 41-14|
|12 games||Various||2||8-4 record|
Two of those turnovers came on returns inside their own red zone in the second half, with both fumbles leading directly to short-field Baltimore touchdown drives. The other came on an odd Brady interception—just his second of the season—in the Baltimore end zone.
Essentially, those mistakes were responsible for a 17-point swing at minimum. Against a playoff-caliber opponent and the NFL's top-rated defense, that's usually football suicide. Few would expect even the juggernaut Patriots to overcome those errors, especially without superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is out for the year with a back injury.
And yet they did, winning 30-23 primarily because of a 406-yard, three-touchdown effort from Brady, who was naturally at his best with the pressure literally and figuratively on. Literally in that—according to Pro Football Focus—all three of his touchdown passes came under duress. Figuratively in that the difference-maker came when he delivered a 79-yard bomb to wide receiver Chris Hogan with his team's back against the wall in the fourth quarter.
At that point, it looked as though New England was going to lose. Two fumbles in a 14-second span gave Baltimore 14 points in an 86-second span, and the Ravens had added a field goal to turn what felt like a blowout into a three-point game. Those 17 unanswered Baltimore points had a short-handed and mistake-prone New England team facing a potential defeat despite having held the lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
That doesn't happen to the Patriots, at least at home. When entering the fourth quarter with a lead, they'd won on 90—ninety!—consecutive occasions.
If New England blew this one, it might have been a sign that a team lacking depth, lacking Gronk, lacking momentum—a team led by a far-from-healthy 39-year-old quarterback, the oldest position player in football—was finally falling from its own echelon.
Nope. Brady threw a picture-perfect strike, 42 yards in the air to Hogan. Hit him in stride. Threw it so beautifully it would have been hard not to catch. The fifth-year receiver strutted into the end zone to give New England a semi-comfortable 10-point lead with just over six minutes to play.
Rich Eisen @richeisen
Tom Brady won the 2016 MVP tonight. With all due respect to other worthy candidates, the race is over.2016-12-13 05:25:43
Baltimore would kick a field goal on the ensuing possession but never get the ball back, and now the Patriots own sole possession of the AFC top seed. Now Brady, who posted a 116.8 passer rating in the victory, is again the league's highest-rated quarterback.
Primarily because Brady is Brady, New England continues to win (that's four in a row and eight of nine since the two-time MVP returned from his four-game suspension to open the season) and score a lot of points (29.8 per game during that span).
Brady just might be the MVP, especially considering those special teams turnovers Monday night, along with the absence of Gronkowski and fellow top pass-catcher Danny Amendola. And the Patriots, despite all of those blemishes, just might remain the Super Bowl favorite.
Because on a night like that, nobody else beats an opponent as strong as that.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.