BOSTON (CBS) — More than 15 billion times last week, we all heard that we were approaching the greatest weekend of the NFL calendar.
And, well, it’d be hard to argue that it wasn’t.
Four games were played, each one incredible in its own right, and it all got started with a classic in Foxboro.
The Ravens opened up a 14-0 lead over the Patriots, and the air inside Gillette Stadium felt a whole lot like it did in the 2009 and 2010 postseasons, when the Ravens and Jets, respectively, whooped the Patriots on their home turf. Yet by now, you surely know what happened. The Patriots rallied, and then fell behind yet again, and then rallied once more in most spectacular fashion, eventually coming away with a 35-31 win to advance to the AFC Championship Game.
A lot has been said about that game in the 36 hours since it ended, but what may have been missed is the fact that it was far and away the most exciting postseason game that’s ever been played inside Gillette Stadium.
OK, so “fact” may be a stretch, but when you consider that of the most of the memorable Patriots playoff games — Snow Bowl, Super Bowl XXXVI, Super Bowl XXXVIII, the comeback against the Chargers, the loss to Peyton Manning and the Colts, Super Bowls XLII and XLVI — none of them took place inside Gillette.
To be sure, Gillette has had its fair share of decent playoff games. The Patriots narrowly edged Steve McNair’s Titans on a frigid night in ’03 before intercepting Manning four times the following week; they held Manning’s Colts to just three points the next season, leading to the famous Tedy Bruschi walk-off interview with Sal Paolantonio; they beat Eric Mangini’s Jets in ’06; they won two forgettable games vs. Jacksonville and San Diego in ’07; they used the divisional round the past three years to demolish inferior teams by an average of 23 points; and they had the consecutive championship game meetings with Baltimore, one ending in a Billy Cundiff shank, the other a fairly convincing win for Baltimore.
They’re all memorable to varying degrees, but none compare to this one. It was an all-timer.
And though it’s “on to Indianapolis,” I do believe Tuesday through Sunday will be more than enough time to handle that discussion. For now, let’s take one last run through some leftover thoughts from that thrilling Ravens-Patriots game.
–Where to start, where to start … Oh! I know. Let’s start with the Julian Edelman pass to Danny Amendola. When that play was called and then executed to perfection, it created an “Oh hell yeah” moment, the likes of which haven’t been seen in these parts since Charlie Weis was crafting plays like that on the reg. Really, in the past decade, you can count on one hand the number of wild plays employed by the Patriots, with Brady to Moss, back to Brady, then out to Gaffney being the best of the bunch.
But what struck me most, aside from the obvious jaw-dropping qualities of such a play, was how the Patriots were able to exercise so much patience with regard to utilizing Edelman in that fashion. The man has been on the team for six years, and he has not once thrown a pass in a game. He’s done it plenty in training camp and in practices, but never once have the Patriots smashed the “In case of emergency, break glass” sign that’s been attached to Edelman since the second he was drafted as a receiver by the Patriots.
By never once calling a play that had Edelman utilizing his college QB skills, such a play just wasn’t on the Ravens’ radar. That’s even more amazing, considering Dean Pees — the Ravens’ defensive coordinator — ran the Patriots’ defense during Edelman’s rookie season.
So of course, yes, praise that play for how well it was run by the players involved, and find solace that broadcasters will continue “informing” you that Edelman was a college quarterback in every single broadcast for the rest of his career. But credit Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels for resisting the temptation to use it until they absolutely needed it.
–I’m not a photographer, but I’ve dabbled. I took a course in college and I like to pretend I am a master photographer from time to time (nobody applies Instagram filters quite like me). The only thing that it’s taught me is that it’s damn near impossible to get the “perfect shot,” and that’s especially true with sports. The games happen so freaking fast, and in a game like football, where the field is humongous and there are 22 men plus a half-dozen officials running all over the place, it’s rare that you can capture one shot that tells an incredible story on its own.
So, really, take a bow, Maddie Meyer. You deserve an award.
What a shot.
–For as great as that play was, it nearly was not. My esteemed colleague Andrew Celani, referred to in these parts as “Eagle Eye Celani” for the way in which he obliterates my copious typos, noticed that had Terrell Suggs simply gotten his hands up, he could have broken up the backward pass from Brady to Edelman:
Fortunately for the Patriots, Suggs was occupied. He reached down to shove Nate Solder, who had made a cut block attempt. Suggs instinctively fought it off, and his hands were at his side. If he was a little more aware, he could have knocked that thing down, scooped it up and ran it 45 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.
–Let’s wade into the waters of #FourLinemenGate really quick. I actually led off John Harbaugh’s press conference by asking him about the plays when the Patriots employed just four offensive linemen while declaring another player to be ineligible, and boy oh boy, I was not expecting the answer he gave. He spoke for more than a full minute, uttering more than 250 words, calling it a “substitution type of trick” and “deception” and saying the league would look at it as if it were illegal.
I was blown away, mostly because the tactic had nothing to do with substitution and hurrying to the line. On all three occasions, referee Bill Vinovich clearly announced which player was ineligible, and once he even announced, “Do not cover number 34.”
Then during Brady’s press conference, the quarterback asked the media if anybody had asked Harbaugh why he was so confused. I politely informed Thomas that Harbaugh called it clear deception and said the league would review the process, at which point Brady’s demeanor shifted and he stared daggers through my soul: “They’ll look at it then. (long pause) I don’t know what’s deceiving about that. (longer pause) They should figure it out. (daggers)”
Whoa, hey, Tommy Boy, don’t kill the messenger. But thanks for showing some emotion and being honest about your feelings at the podium.
Anyway, what I think this comes down to is pride. John Harbaugh is a very, very good coach. He’s won a Super Bowl, he’s been one of Belichick’s most worthy foes, and he inarguably does a great job coaching the Ravens. Yet on this occasion, he simply had no idea what the heck was going on, and he lost control of the game situation. And because like any football coach, he’s a very prideful guy, he didn’t want to admit that. So he cried foul, claiming it was a “substitution trick” when it actually had nothing to do with substitutions. When Josh Kline ran to the sidelines and Shane Vereen jogged into the huddle, the Ravens had plenty of time to get their guys on the field, and the referee clearly announced that a player had declared himself as an ineligible receiver. The Ravens just had no idea what to do. Harbaugh knew he could sell the “Belichick bends the rules!” angle to his bosses and fan base, and they’d all buy it hook, line, sinker.
But rather than cheating, all Belichick did was further prove he operates on a completely separate level than the rest of his colleagues. Plain and simple.
–You know what kills me? There are 5 million previews written about games like this one, and I’m guilty of writing some of those myself, as if I have any clue what’s going to happen. For proof that nobody should ever write or read these things, just look at the stats of Danny Amendola, Michael Hoomanawanui, Michael Campanaro and Kyle Juszczyk.
That quartet of players combined to catch 58 passes for 528 yards and three touchdowns all season.
In this one game, they combined to catch 17 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
Last week, I didn’t see too many stories saying Amendola and Juszczyk were going to be key players … because sports are crazy and we never know what’s going to happen, and that’s why we watch.
(That being said, please read my Pats-Colts preview as well as my picks column later in the week! Thank you in advance!)
–Every week, I include a screen shot of Rob Gronkowksi dragging multiple adult human men on his back during the course of play, but somehow that did not happen this week. Though he did give Rashaan Melvin an 11-yard Gronking To Remember:
This was the Ravens’ coverage of Gronkowski, the Patriots’ most dangerous weapon, on that play, by the way.
Awesome stuff by Dean Pees.
–I also include a weekly image of Julian Edelman getting violently ripped in half by an opponent, but I’ll mix it up this week and show you this picture, taken after Edelman had fumbled. You’ll just have to take my word for it that Edelman is underneath this mountain of bodies:
Somehow, Edelman came out of that pile with the football. I don’t know how. I asked him if he had any explanation as to how he emerged with the ball, and instead of answering the question, he spent about 30 seconds ripping himself for fumbling in the first place.
“I have an explanation that I can’t do that, especially in that crucial situation,” he said. “They’re a ball-stripping team, they’re a physical team, and I put the ball on the ground, which is unacceptable regardless of who you’re playing and what you’re doing. Thankfully, I was able to get up and get that ball, but you do that a few more times in this next game, sometimes it doesn’t fall your way and that can cost a game.”
It didn’t cost the Patriots this game, largely because Edelman won a 25-second wrestling match with four men. Forget about “The Pass”; the fumble recovery was Edelman’s best play of the night.
–Jamie Collins is an unbelievable athlete, and there’s not much he can’t do. So I was slightly stunned when he couldn’t catch this pass from Joe Flacco that looked to be intended for No. 91 in blue:
Furthering that thought, it was pretty amazing how differently the game could have gone if the ball had just bounced differently. There were three fumbles in this game — two by New England (Edelman and Amendola, plus one by Shane Vereen that was rightly reversed via replay) and one by Baltimore (the fullback with all of those consonants in his name) — yet none went for turnovers. Crazy game, this sport.
–Brady’s best spike since the Snow Bowl? Brady’s best spike since the Snow Bowl.
–So Bill Vinovich is apparently in line to be the referee for the Super Bowl this year. I don’t know him personally, and I haven’t closely watched too many of his games, but I’ll say this: The man was overwhelmed by the moment many times on Saturday night. He called a penalty on No. 53 of the Patriots. The Patriots don’t have a No. 53. He missed Pernell McPhee kneeing Brady in the head while the QB was down on the turf, and Brady let him know. He announced “Do not cover number 34” when his job does not require him telling him which players should and should not be covered. He put on a whiny kid voice when announcing that Vereen’s fumble was getting overturned.
Overall, I liked the way the game was officiated. In the moment, I disagreed with the pass interference on Darrelle Revis, but I understand why it was called. And for the most part, the crew let the teams play. There weren’t any chintzy holding calls on O-linemen, there weren’t any weak 15-yard facemask calls when the Ravens went for high tackles, and the flow of the game was not Hochuli’d too much by the crew.
Still, all of those instances of Vinovich being unable to maintain composure on a Saturday night in the divisional round doesn’t inspire me to believe he’ll be great in the Super Bowl, when the entire world is watching.
–Danny Amendola — yes, that Danny Amendola — was a beast. Statistically, he’s put together some comparable performances over the past two seasons, but in terms of making an impact, he had not had this kind of night since Week 1 of 2013, his very first game in a Patriots uniform. In that game, Amendola was the guy, catching seven passes on third down alone to keep drives moving, finishing with 10 receptions for 104 yards, all despite tearing his groin in the middle of the game.
On this night, Amendola was just a monster. He broke Ladarius Webb’s tackle attempt to spring himself for a 15-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown, and he later refused to go down on a third-and-6 on the game-winning drive, fighting through Melvin’s tackle/beheading attempt:
He then dragged Anthony Levine all the way to the boundary in order to move the chains. Three plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone, owners of a 35-31 lead.
“Huge,” Brady said of that extra effort from Amendola. “Yeah, huge.”
Amendola hadn’t caught two touchdowns in a single game since he was suiting up against Iowa State in ’06 and Florida International in ’05. In his 72 career NFL games, he had never done it until Saturday night.
Which makes me think: Maybe, just maybe, the Patriots kept that guy in bubble wrap for most of the season (he had 15 receptions for 113 yards in Weeks 1-15), allowed him to use the final two weeks of the season as his own personal preseason (he caught 12 passes for 87 yards in those two games) and then incorporated him into the offense in January, giving the team a new wrinkle and a pretty damn good player to utilize.
It’s not even a crazy theory. Given Amendola’s injury history, why bother risking it in October against the Jets?
–Not to be a total bummer, but if Bryan Stork is not healthy, the Patriots are in a lot of trouble. We saw this year just how badly the team can look and how powerful the team can look based entirely on which three players are making up the interior line. When it’s Dan Connolly, Stork and Ryan Wendell, the team is a force; when it’s anyone else, Brady often operates under constant pressure from the middle of the line.
And in watching the replay of Stork getting hurt … it does not look good. In a diving attempt to sack Brady, all 260 pounds of Terrell Suggs whipped into the right knee of Stork, which was planted in the turf.
What’s especially killer about the injury is that it came after Stork had pancaked Pernell McPhee to the ground. Instead of lying on top of McPhee, Stork got back up to look for someone else to block. Instead he got caught in the crossfire, while McPhee took down Brady.
Again, the injury did not look good.
The Patriots made it work against Baltimore, but I don’t think a four-linemen/Edelman pass is going to be a viable option anymore. I don’t want to sit here and criticize Josh Kline, because he filled in to the best of his ability and it’s not his fault that he’s being put in a position he’s not best suited for. But I’ll just say this: When the Patriots had to use Kline, Belichick elected to send Kline to the sideline and use just four offensive linemen on multiple plays in a playoff game when his team was trailing. That says an awful lot.
I do think they can manage without Stork against the inferior Colts, but the Patriots have to hope this knee injury isn’t devastating and that Stork can be close to full health come Feb. 1.
–The reincarnation of Scott Zolak has been truly incredible to witness. Most everyone knew him only as the guy who threw 200 passes for the Patriots in the ’90s until he became the radio man he is today. But I write this not because of the things he says on the radio but because of the figure he’s become. Because I will tell you, if there’s one thing that got Gillette Stadium fired up on Saturday night, it was when Zolak was shown on the video board while “Your Love” by The Outfield blared over the stadium speakers.
Zo gave a wave of the towel, and the place went bananas. Then, when the game was about to start again, the Patriots called timeout. So what’d the stadium ops crew do? They put Zolak BACK on the video board, they fired up “Your Love” once again, and the place went even crazier.
I mean, if you had told me in 1996 that Scott Zolak would be someone who gets 68,000 people fired up, all while “Josie’s on a vacation far away” plays over the speakers, I would have been very, very confused.
–It is AFC Championship Game week, but you have to admit: This would be more fun if Peyton Manning were involved. I know that the Manning-Brady stuff gets overdone to the point of exhaustion, but still, come on, you know you wanted one more of these things. There’s nothing quite like witnessing Manning come to Foxboro and wilt (he’s 2-11 in his career in Massachusetts), and it would have provided some nice symmetry to last season if the Patriots could have returned the favor.
Nevertheless, we get Andrew Luck and the Colts, a team that’s lost three straight to the Patriots by a combined score of 144-66, including a 42-20 Pats win in Indy just two months ago and a 43-22 Patriots beatdown last January in the playoffs.
So I don’t expect the Colts to put up much of a fight, but then again, I didn’t think Baltimore would either. I also picked Denver to beat Indy by more than a touchdown.
So what I’m saying is … I have no idea what’s going to happen on Sunday. But I’ll probably watch.
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