It's kind of hard to believe that it's almost time to close the books on the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2014 and we're down to our final two. I'm hoping that there have been a few surprises along the way, as well as some causes for debate along the way, as compiling these lists is always a blast.
I struggled mightily with what to put at number two, not because of what it was, but because of what I would have to leave out. I ultimately couldn't pull the trigger on it, so I hope you'll forgive me for cheating just a bit. Our number two moment isn't so much a moment as it is a collection of moments that comprised one of the greatest games in NFL playoff history.
But first, the list so far:
20. wins a job - and our hearts - with a spectacular preseason.
19. officially arrives in a Week 6 contest against the .
18. The get embarrassed on national television with a 41-14 beatdown at the hands of the .
17. The Patriots sign .
16. Vince Wilfork and Jamie Collins help the Patriots lock up a 1st round bye against the New York Jets.
15. Chandler Jones blocks a Blair Walsh field goal attempt against the Minnesota Vikings to keep the momentum with the Patriots.
14. Rob Gronkowski officially returns to form as the Patriots destroy the Chicago Bears.
13. Darrelle Revis shuts down Calvin Johnson as the Patriots stomp the Lions.
12. Chris Jones finds redemption in the form of a last second blocked field goal against the New York Jets.
11. The Patriots avenge a Week 1 loss by obliterating the Dolphins to secure the AFC East.
10. Julian Edelman's catch and run helps lift the Patriots over the San Diego Chargers.
9. Danny Amendola hauls in a 19 yard touchdown catch on 3rd and goal against the Jets to secure a lead.
8. Jonas Gray rushes for 200+ yards and four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts.
7. LeGarrette Blount goes off - again - against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
6. Nate Solder rumbles into the end zone off a playaction pass against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
5. Rob Gronkowski bowls over the entire Colts defense on his way to the end zone and a 42-20 rout.
4. A spectacular one-handed catch caps off a 43-21 beatdown of the Denver Broncos.
3. We're on to Cincinnati.
The Number Two Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2014 can be summed up in two words.
Ask any Patriots fan who the last team he or she wanted to see in the 2014 Playoffs was, and almost every single one of them gave the same answer: Baltimore. The Ravens are just one of those teams who give New England a tremendously hard time whenever the two squads play; they are immune to New England's homefield advantage, they hit hard, and quarterback Joe Flacco is absolutely lights out in the postseason. In an AFC playoff picture that included the Steelers, the Broncos, the Colts, the Ravens, and the Bengals, it was very staunchly ABB - anybody but Baltimore - in Patriots Nation.
It's not surprising, therefore, that the Ravens went into Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers 30-17 in the Wild Card Round. Flacco was tremendous as usual, throwing for 259 yards and 2 TDs, as the Baltimore running game and defense kept the Steelers from really getting anything going. The Ravens team that traveled to Gillette on January 10th was confident, hungry, and ready to knock New England out of the postseason again. The Patriots, fresh off a bye, hadn't played a meaningful game in almost a month, and a big question mark was whether or not there would be any cobwebs to shake off.
The answer to that question appeared to be a resounding yes, as Baltimore took the opening kickoff and scored a touchdown in less than three minutes. Flacco led the Ravens offense 71 yards on just five plays that only saw one second down on the drive: Most fans hadn't even found their seats yet, and the Pats were already down a touchdown.
New England did nothing with their first possession, punting after gaining just 16 total yards and possessing the ball for a minute and 34 seconds. Baltimore got the ball back at their own 21, and Flacco decided to take his time on this scoring drive, going 79 yards on 11 plays that ate up six full minutes of game clock. To make matters worse, Baltimore didn't see it's first third down of the game until there were less than five minutes left in the quarter, a 3rd and 7 from the 9 yard line that ended in Steve Smith burning Revis to the inside for another score. Ravens 14, Patriots 0. Collective stomachs across the entire New England region dropped and dropped hard.
Brady's first pass on his next drive was incomplete, and then Blount could only pick up two yards on 2nd down. Facing a 3rd and 8 and the very strong possibility of punting yet again to a Ravens teams that this defense simply couldn't stop, Brady was able to find Gronk for 16 yards and a new set of downs. That first down seemed to settle the team, as Brady hit Gronk for 46 up the seam on the very next pass, followed by a 13 yard strike to Edelman. Two plays later, on 3rd and goal from the 4, Tommy B scrambled up the middle and into the end zone for a score. A fired up Brady roused the crowd, who responded in kind. The team had life.
Sparked by Brady, the Patriots defense finally woke up as well. The Ravens went nowhere on their next drive, forcing a punt. A promising answering drive was stalled by back-to-back sacks on Brady, and New England gave the ball back. Baltimore, however, once again couldn't get anything going, and after just four plays it was time for another punt. A nice return by Edelman set the Patriots up at their own 33.
Up until this point, the running game had been rendered completely useless. So rather than keep going back to it, the Patriots decided to take almost exclusively to the air. The results were positive, as Brady was able to find small holes in the Ravens defense to chip away at the yard markers. Seven yards here. Six yards there. A quick run to keep the D honest followed by a big gain to Gronk. The drive ended when Brady hit Danny Amendola on a quick five yard out route on the Baltimore 15 and he was able to shake a tackle, elude two defenders, and dive for the end zone. Patriots 14, Ravens 14.
Unfortunately a Tom Brady interception just before halftime helped to set up yet another go-ahead score, a Flacco to Owen Daniels TD. The Patriots, who had fought so hard to regain some momentum, lost much of it as both teams headed to the locker room. New England would be receiving the ball to start the third quarter, so they could come out strong and once again tie the game.
Unfortunately, New England fell victim to a three and out to start the 2nd half and punted the ball after just 58 seconds of play. Baltimore, starting from their own 30, started the third quarter as hot as they did the first. Nine plays and 70 yards later, the Ravens were once again in the lead as a wide open Justin Forsett waltzed untouched into the end zone for Baltimore's second 14 point lead of the day. New England was able to answer right back when Brady connected with Gronk to cap off a nine play, 80 yard drive to tie Tommy B with Joe Montana for most career postseason TD passes at 45, but based on the way Baltimore was playing, the general impression was that the rest of this matchup was going to just be one long game of catch up.
The Patriots D stiffened, however, and held Baltimore to their first three and out of the game. New England got the ball back at their own 30, and a quick pass to Vereen and Edelman later, it was 1st and 10 at their own 49.
The next play saw Brady line the offense up in a simple four wide receiver set with Vereen in the backfield, Edelman and LaFell to Brady's right, and Amendola and Gronk to Brady's left. Gronk had lined up in the slot before and Amendola had lined up on the outside, so there was no reason to think something unusual was about to happen. Brady motioned Edelman across the line and behind the left side receivers, not even waiting for him to set before he took the snap. LaFell and Amendola ran identical Go Routes down the sidelines as Vereen began what looked like a wheel route to draw the linebackers over to his side. Gronk took a few steps before stopping his route and masking himself as a blocker while Brady threw what looked like a wide receiver screen to Edelman. It was a play the Patriots ran often, technically a pass but designed to allow Edelman to get into space and make some guys miss. Baltimore, seeing the throw, immediately crashed towards Edelman as he caught the ball two or three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
One of the Ravens defenders who barreled towards Edelman was defensive back Rashaan Melvin, who had drawn Amendola in coverage. As soon as Edelman made the catch, Melvin abandoned his man in order to provide tackle support, realizing too little, too late that Edelman running upfield wasn't in the cards. As Melvin began his furious backpedal, Edelman set his feet, squared his shoulders, and threw his first NFL pass - a 51 yard strike that Amendola caught in stride and took into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day. Patriots 28, Ravens 28. Another 14 point deficit erased.
Patriots fans had been wondering for years when the former Kent State quarterback was going to show off his arm. Boy did he pick a great time to do so.
But this one wasn't even close to over.
The score stayed locked at 28 through the end of the third quarter and well into the fourth before a Justin Tucker field goal put the Ravens up by three. New England got the ball back at their own 26 with just over ten minutes left to play and the chance to finally take the lead for the first time that day. After a few quick plays, disaster seemingly struck; Shane Vereen fumbled at the 49 yard line, recovered by Baltimore. However, the official review ruled the runner down by contact, and the drive continued.
Yards came in small chunks. The defense wasn't giving anything, and so Brady took what he was given. He began calling deliberately short passing routes to take advantage of soft man coverage. The longest gain on the drive to this point was nine yards as New England marched down to the Baltimore 23, already well within field goal range.
On first and 10, Brady came out in shotgun with Gronk close to the line and Brandon Bolden in the backfield. LaFell was lined up alone on the left side with Edelman and Amendola to the right. Baltimore, tired of getting burned short, cheated their DBs up close to the line for some press man coverage, linebackers filling into the line gaps. At the snap Gronk ran his patented seam route, which drew double linebacker coverage. Amendola ran into the right flat as Edelman ran a straight Go towards the end zone. LaFell stopped, faked briefly to the inside, and broke down the sideline towards the end zone. Melvin, who had been burned earlier by Amendola, lost a step on LaFell, and safety Darian Stewart had been frozen by Gronk running up the seam. Still, his recovery speed was remarkable, and he closed the gap and began to clog the throwing lane just as Brady hit LaFell perfectly in stride for the 23 yard score. For the first time all game, the Patriots had the lead.
An additional word or two about that play, if I may.
I have watched, either on TV or in person, almost every single pass that Tommy B has ever thrown. I can count the number of Tom Brady games I haven't seen happen live on one hand, and even those get recorded and watched as soon as humanly possible. I have been around for Brady's entire tenure with the New England Patriots. And I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that his touchdown pass to LaFell in this game was hands down the single most beautiful throw I have ever seen him make. It was an otherworldly throw. Everything about it was absolutely flawless, from the series of plays that set it up to the initial pre-snap read to the amount of touch he put under it to how he threaded it perfectly between two Ravens defenders to the level of stakes that was on the line on that throw to how the entire play was executed - it was simply perfect. It's the type of throw that casual fans might not appreciate as much, it might not seem like that big a deal, and it will never get the highlight reel attention that Edelman to Amendola will get over the years, but when it comes to the purest example of a true master at work on his craft, look no farther than that throw. If Brady's career ended tomorrow and I had to try and sum up his entire career in one play, this would be it. It was the Alec Shane equivalent to laying eyes upon The Mona Lisa, to seeing The Grand Canyon, to laying under the stars on a cloudless night, and I'm not even a little embarrassed to admit that writing about it now is giving me chills. For my money, you just aren't going to find a better throw than the one that ultimately sent the New England Patriots to the 2014 AFC Championship.
The real question now was whether or not the Patriots could hold the lead. The Ravens had plenty of time - over five minutes on the clock - and while they needed a touchdown, absolutely nobody thought that the game was over. A holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff meant the Ravens were starting from their own 11, and Joe Flacco got right to work. 11 yards. Nine more. A seven yard gain. a few Patriots stops. 4th and 3. 17 yards to Owen Daniels to keep the drive alive. Six more to Daniels. An incomplete pass. 2nd and 5 at the New England 46. Less than two minutes to play.
Now anybody who has ever seen Joe Flacco line up under center knows two things with absolute certainty. One, he rarely throws an interception in the postseason. And two, the notion of a deep pass down the sideline when he sees single coverage is all but completely irresistible to him. If he sees that throw available to him even Pookie has more willpower than he does. And if we know all of that, then you can bet that Bill Belichick knows that as well.
Baltimore came out in a 5WR set with Daniels in the near slot and Torrey Smith in the left slot. New England came out in what looked like a dime package Cover One, with Pat Chung and Tavon Wilson inching close to the line and Duron Harmon patrolling the middle. At the snap, Flacco saw Smith lined up in single coverage against Logan Ryan, and Smith got a good jump as he broke down the sideline. Harmon, as soon as the ball was snapped, began shuffling in Smith's direction, seeing the sideline route and knowing that Flacco wouldn't be able to contain himself, especially given that Smith had a step on Ryan. As Flacco released, Harmon broke towards the sideline and cut Smith off right as he was about to make the grab, intercepting the pass.
Gillette Stadium exploded.
All the tension, all the back-and-forth, all of the despair and triumph, all of it boomed forth in a rolling peal of drunken thunder that, to my knowledge, still hangs over Foxboro to this day. The game was over. A few runs to kill the clock, and that was all she wrote.
Or was it?
Three kneeldowns from Tommy B and a Ravens timeout, and suddenly it was time for New England to punt at their own 15 with 14 seconds to play. Flacco would have another shot at the end zone.
Allen's punt was only 41 yards, run out of bounds by Jacoby Jones at the Baltimore 48. Flacco could reach the end zone from his own 48.
Four seconds left.
Gronk is back at safety. Patriots only rushing four. Everybody deep. Takes the snap, scrambles. Sets his feet, fires. Ball in the air, has the distance. It's batted up by McCourty. Ball floating in the air. Out of the end zone, into the field of play. Hits the ground.
19 postseason wins for Brady, extending his own NFL record. 20 for Bill Belichick, tying Tom Landry for most by a coach. Back to yet another AFC Championship. Ravens going home.
Finally allowed to breathe.
What a game.
I realize that it's kind of a cop-out to have an entire game up here lumped together as a single memorable Patriots moment. But honestly - what individual moment would you have put at number 2? The easy answer is Edelman to Amendola, but then what would I have left out? The first 14 point comeback? The second one? Danny Amendola switching hands to pick up a crucial first down? The McCourty pick? The Brady toss to LaFell? The Duron Harmon interception to more or less seal it? The Hail Mary batted out of the end zone to officially secure the win? I didn't even mention all of the trick formations that got Harbaugh all rankled yet, which is an absolutely unforgivable travesty. I could have written another thousand words on this game and still left a bunch out. I also could have comprised half of this whole list out of this one game alone. There was just no way to isolate one play from this classic matchup and ignore all of the rest. So I have zero problem ranking this entire game as Number Two.
Game highlights here.
Edelman to Amendola here.
Duron Harmon pick here.
How I felt after the end of this game here.
One to go. Better go back to my list and remind myself what it's going to be.