By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts humourist
New England didn't beat Baltimore 27-24 Monday night because it's a better team.
On this night, the Patriots weren't a better team than the Ravens. Simply look at the stat sheet: Baltimore gained more yards (376 to 326); averaged more yards per play (6.3 to 5.0); and boasted nearly twice the output on the ground (166 to 90).
New England won on this Monday night for the very same reason the organization and its coach are most often criticized: their Cold, Hard, icy and utterly emotionless approach to the game of professional football.
The Patriots, at least publicly, treat football with the same inevitable yet phlegmatic melancholy that a North Atlantic iceberg treats the Titanic.
When the game was on the line, in front of a hostile crowd on a cold, howling night when they couldn't even stop one of the worst offenses in football and their big-name pass-catchers dropped a pair of TD tosses, the Patriots remained stoically devoted to the task at hand.
And the Ravens?
The choleric, sanguine, passionate, fire-and-brimstone, wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve preachers of pigskin from Baltimore?
They melted down like the nuclear core of a Russian submarine.
Here is the anatomy of the emotional shipwreck that cost Baltimore a chance to end New England's quest for history and an opportunity to win over the bleeding hearts of American football fans.
Episode 1 - Lewis empties the emotional bilge
Baltimore's "emotional leader," Ray Lewis, was in tears before kickoff as the teams paid tribute to murdered Redskins safety Sean Taylor – like Lewis, a University of Miami alum. ESPN cameras also caught Lewis leading his teammates from "the U," Willis McGahee and Ed Reed, in an emotional tribute to Taylor on the sidelines before kickoff. Certainly, there is no shame in the linebacker's reaction to the death of a young man. But it is rare to see an NFL player in tears on an NFL sideline, and it set the tone for an evening in which one team would be overwhelmed by emotion at pivotal moments of the game.
Episode 2 - Boller tosses away a chance to bring the ship to shore
Kyle Boller, who became the second straight second-rate quarterback to stare down the Patriots pass rush and shred their secondary under duress, threw away three impressive quarters worth of effort with an ill-advised deep pass into the teeth of the New England defense. It was intercepted by safety James Sanders at his own 1, and returned 42 yards. It was eerily similar to another fourth-quarter downfield pick, the one by New England's Asante Samuel that ruined a heroic effort by Philly QB A.J. Feeley a week earlier. The poor decision – by the quarterback and by the play-calling head coach Brian Billick – could not have come at a more inopportune time. The Ravens led 24-17 with just over 10 minutes to play and could have taken a two-TD lead. Instead, they lost a scoring opportunity and the Patriots responded – dispassionately – with a field goal to close within four.
Episode 3 - Captain Billick kisses reason good-bye
New England safety Rodney Harrison – a player whose own emotion has cost his teams on many occasions – taunted Baltimore coach Brian Billick after Boller's pathetic pass attempt that was intercepted by Sanders. The coach responded by – we kid you not here – blowing kisses at Harrison several times. Billick's reaction certainly made for great theater. But it came at a time when Billick should have been charting his team's next course of action at a critical point in the game – like maybe digging deep into the playbook to find a way to salvage an offense that went three-and-out on three straight fourth-quarter drives. A single first down on any one of those three drives might have won the game for Baltimore.
Episode 4 - The chain of command fails
The Baltimore defense stuffed Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on what would have been a game-winning 4th-and-1 stop in the fourth quarter. It didn't count. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan had called a timeout a micro-second before the snap. Lewis responded by going from utter joy to despair right on the field. But we're not sure which was the greater emotional meltdown: the one taking place on the field, or the one on a sideline where the first mate has the authority to call a timeout – and he calls it on a play in which his team was in perfect position to make a game-winning stop.
Episode 5 - Scott torpedoes any last hope of victory
Baltimore officially keeled over when linebacker Bart Scott was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during Tom Brady's 8-yard pass to Jabar Gaffney for what proved to be the winning score. Scott responded by whipping the flag into the stands, drawing yet another 15-yard penalty. Then his teammates all but needed a tranquilizer to drag the teary-eyed Scott off the field as he simply lost his mind on national television. You might understand his frustration: New England, on the game-winning drive, went a truly inexplicble 1 for 4 on fourth-down conversions, yet never lost the ball.
- The first failed effort was negated by Ryan's timeout.
- A second apparent failed effort on 4th and 1 was negated by a false-start penalty on New England's Russ Hochstein, meaning the play never happened.
- The lone conversion came on the ensuing 4th and 6 when Brady scrambled for a first.
- A third failed fourth-down effort, an incomplete pass into the end zone which would have meant victory for the Ravens, was overruled when CB Jamaine Winborne was called for defensive holding.
But the unusual circumstances do not justify Scott's behavior when his team still had a chance to win the game. The 30 yards in penalties called on Scott (plus five more called against Ed Reed for offsides on the extra point) allowed New England to – in one of the weirdest looking plays in memory – kick off from Baltimore's 35 and eliminated any chance for the Ravens to get the ball anywhere beyond their own 20 with less than a minute to play. In a game in which Baltimore's final Hail Mary was completed just two yards shy of victory, Scott's 30-yard mental meltdown cost his team its last chance to win.
Episode 6 - Captain Queeg loses his marbles
After Baltimore's players and coaches utterly imploded emotionally and physically in the fourth quarter, coach Brian Billick carried the stinging pain of emotion into a press conference that had the same breezy frivolity of the U.S.S. Caine's court-martial. During a confrontational, 55-second Q&A, Billick ripped one reporter who asked about Ryan's timeout, and then ripped Scott, calling one of his own crew members a "dumb football player" on national television.
The gridiron dreadnought
Victorious New England coach Bill Belichick, for his part, addressed the media in his post-game press conference with the same sunny disposition of a rusty anchor chain.
He'll be attacked for his lack of personality, for his cold, calculating approach to football. He'll be criticized for not sharing information with the media, for bottling in all his emotions, for the ruthless way in which he manages players and salaries. He'll be despised as the colorless, dispassionate captain of pro football's most feared 21st-century dreadnought.
But for seven seasons now we've seen how the alternative approach to football usually ends: in an emotional shipwreck.