FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - When 66 points are tallied in a playoff game, the crux becomes which team is going to put the skids on the offensive mayhem? Which defense is going to manage enough dodging of arrows and darts to fling a few stinging shots of its own? Which defense, essentially, will elevate enough to win the game?
This is what was brewing for 60 minutes between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots on Saturday evening here at Gillette Stadium. In one gripping glimpse we saw the potency of NFL offense, the central nerve of what the NFL game has become. These offenses were swift and exacting. The game was a blur of big plays and high-level offensive imagination and innovation.
We will get to the magnificence of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady later.
But let's focus first on what the New England defense managed in the Patriots' 35-31 victory that lifts them into the AFC Championship right back here next Sunday.
It was the Patriots' defense that finally found answers, that complemented Brady and the offense just enough. It was hard work and it was discouraging drudgery at times.
But a chief reason why the Patriots are one victory shy of Super Bowl XLIX is that they found a way late to solve Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco while the Ravens could not manage a chokehold that lasted on Brady.
"They (the Ravens' offense) did a good job of pressing the issue," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "We had to empty the tank and make a play."
The Ravens certainly pressed everything from the moment they received the opening kickoff. They started the game with a fancy script of offensive plays by coordinator Gary Kubiak that were spot-on and dissecting. Using misdirection in the running and passing game and operating without hesitation, Kubiak was winning and Flacco was executing. Ravens leads of 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-14 early in the third quarter were testaments.
But in the game's final 20 minutes, the Ravens only scored a field goal.
After rushing 12 times for 80 yards in the first half, the Ravens only managed 16 carries for 56 yards in the second half.
And after Flacco, with four touchdown passes in this game, had run his playoff string to 17 touchdown passes with no interceptions, the Patriots intercepted him late in the third quarter (safety Devin McCourty with 3:31 left) and again with 1:39 left in the final quarter (safety Duron Harmon).
"Those early points they had, they were kind of on this script and they were doing some things that typically they weren't going to do during the course of the game, but just wanted to see what we were going to do," Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "They got us. They hit some plays, so once the game got settled down, we really got into our game plan mode calling our plays, and we really just settled down and started playing a lot better."
Which makes me wonder why Kubiak and the Ravens did not stay in complete, off-shoot, misdirection and innovative mode the entire game? It had the Patriots wobbling.
It also seemed an affront to the Patriots. It clearly induced the Patriots' offense to counter with tricks and gadgets of its own. A double pass for a touchdown (Brady to receiver Julian Edelman to receiver Danny Amendola for 51 yards late in the third quarter that tied the game 28-28). A sneaky offensive line set where eligible receivers reported to officials late, giving the Ravens little time to counter.
You know the Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels resorted to his double pass play in part based on the way the Ravens were playing the game. Think about it -- the Patriots players said that play has been in their books and has been practiced for the last five years. You think it was just accidentally plucked? No, that was more take this, take that, more of you think that was smart, well, handle this. That is the way much of this game was played between the coaches and the players.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh gentlemanly described it this way: "The level of scheme in this game was really, really high. You know, the level of back-and-forth, the coaching ..."
The in-your-face moments.
Here are two that were decisive.
The first illustrates the magic of Brady and the gifted skills and intelligence of receiver Brandon LaFell, a fifth-year player from LSU who played his first four seasons with the Carolina Panthers.
The Patriots had the ball at the Baltimore 23 with a little more than five minutes remaining. The Ravens led 31-28. Brady walked to the line and surveyed left, right, short and deep. He wound the play clock down to nearly zero before taking the snap. He had changed the play. LaFell understood the change and had read the defense in the same manner as Brady. Their communication was executed all in a look at each other.
College QB Julian Edelman throws TD strike
The college quarterback finally got to use his arm in an NFL game -- and it came on a pretty big stage.
The Ravens were in press coverage. They showed deep safety coverage toward LaFell, early before the snap. But both Brady and LaFell begin to read that the safety on LaFell's side had began to roll toward the middle. Both Brady and LaFell knew there was no way he could recover and get there to help on a sideline route to the end zone. Brady threw a perfect, zinging pass to the front corner of the end zone. LaFell made a handsome catch.
It was the game's winning points. It was the Patriots first lead.
"That just tells you the amount of work we put in, that we work our butts off around here," LaFell said of the play, of his look-see relationship with Brady and how, between them, the eyes have it. "Our defense finally began to move Flacco off his spot. But Tom just stayed steady and we found a way."
Brady nitpicked his way to that winning score with short, quick passes on that drive. Flacco in his ensuing effort showed early similar patience before making the huge mistake with Harmon.
There was 1:39 left and Flacco and the Ravens were at the New England 36.
"I knew he liked to throw it long to (receiver) Torrey Smith," Harmon said. "I knew he was going to look for a spot to try to do that. I just thought it might be a good idea to lean that way. I saw it all the way. I was leaning that way. I got there in plenty of time."
And made the end zone pick that sealed it.
Brady and the offense sang. The Patriots' defense certainly provided a hum.
And Brady showed you just who the Patriots are when he was asked about Harbaugh's criticism of the Patriots' substitution tactics.
"Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out," Brady said. "We obviously know what we are doing and we made some pretty important plays ... they should figure it out."
Just like the Patriots' defense finally did on Flacco. Just like the Patriots have on where they are going.