By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston


FOXBORO (CBS) — The divisional playoff game between the Patriots and Ravens on Saturday evening at Gillette Stadium featured a number of bizarre and unbelievable twists and turns. Among them was a rarely seen strategy employed by Tom Brady’s offense, one that helped the Patriots climb back to cut a 14-point deficit in half, and one that had Ravens head coach John Harbaugh furious on the sideline.

The strategy in question involved Bill Belichick’s offense employing four offensive linemen instead of the standard five on a number of plays midway through the third quarter. Running back Shane Vereen lined up off the right side of the formation, and he declared himself an ineligible receiver. In essence, Vereen had become the fifth lineman, though with considerably different duties.

Referee Bill Vinovich announced to the stadium that Vereen was ineligible, yet the Ravens employed at least one defender to cover him as he sprinted backward from the line of scrimmage after the snap. Michael Hoomanwanui was left open on the other side of the field, and he picked up a 16-yard reception. Two plays later, Hoomanawanui declared himself ineligible. Brady connected with Julian Edelman for a gain of 11. And once more, Vereen declared himself ineligible, with Vinovich actually announcing that the Ravens should not cover No. 34. The Ravens, however, did cover No. 34, which allowed Brady to connect with Hoomanwanui for another 14 yards.

In the middle of that sequence, the Ravens were penalized for having too many men on the field, as the team was clearly confused by the strategy that few football viewers had ever seen before. And it was after that 14-yard gain by Hoomanwanui that Harbaugh lost his composure and drew a 5-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Two plays later, Brady threw a touchdown to Rob Gronkowski, cutting the Ravens’ lead to 28-21. The Patriots went on to win 35-31.

After the season-ending loss, Harbaugh said he believes the NFL will investigate the strategy used by Belichick and how the on-field officials handled it.

“Yeah, a substitution type of trick,” Harbaugh said. “Normally, you get an opportunity to, [the officials will] give you a chance to make the proper substitutions and things like that. It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before. So maybe the league will look at that type of thing and I’m sure that they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”

Harbaugh continued: “We wanted an opportunity to be able to ID who the eligible players were, because what they were doing was they would announce the ineligible player and then Tom would take them to the line right away and snap the ball before we had a chance to even figure out who was lined up where. And that was the deception part of it, and it was clearly deception.”

Harbaugh said the officials told him after the fact that they would give him the proper time to make substitutions, but Brady’s offense never again pulled the move.

“They probably should have [given us that opportunity to substitute] during that series, but they probably didn’t understand what was happening,” Harbaugh asserted. “That’s why I had to go take a penalty to get their attention so that they would understand what was going on. Because they didn’t understand what was going on. And they said that was the right thing, that they would give us a chance to ID the eligible receivers so that we could actually get them covered. That’s why guys were open, because we couldn’t ID where the eligible receivers were at.”

Harbaugh reiterated: “Nobody’s ever seen that before.”

When told of the confusion his offense bestowed upon the opposing coach, a victorious Brady was not in an apologetic mood.

“Well [the league] will look at it, then,” Brady said. “I don’t know what’s deceiving about that. They should figure it out.”

When asked about the specifics of the strategy, Brady said, “I don’t know. Who knows? Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out. We obviously knew what we were doing and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us.”

Predictably, Belichick didn’t offer much insight into the thought process.

“It’s a play that we thought would work,” Belichick said. “We ran it three times, a couple different looks. We had six eligible receivers on the field, but only five were eligible. The one who was ineligible reported that he was ineligible. No different than on the punt team or a situation like that.”

While Josh McDaniels runs the offense and has tremendous control of play-calling, it’s safe to assume that such a rarely seen strategy could not have been used without Bill Belichick’s careful guidance. The future Hall of Fame coach has a tremendous grasp on the history of the game as well as little-known rules (Doug Flutie drop kick, anybody?), and it stands to reason that the coach kept such a trick in his back pocket for just the right time.

And this was, assuredly, the right time. Starting center Bryan Stork had left the game with a knee injury, and the often-overmatched Josh Kline was tasked with protecting Brady as an interior lineman. The Patriots, after rallying from a 14-0 deficit to tie the game, once again trailed by two touchdowns, and they needed a spark. With the season on the line, the smart move — or tricky deception, depending on your perspective — proved to be perfect.

UPDATE: A league official told ESPN.com that the plays and formations ran by the Patriots were legal.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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