Santa Claus is coming to town Tuesday night.
The Christmas season is upon us. A time for giving. A time for joy. A time for miracles.
For the New England Patriots, their season of miracles has been underway for months. They have been giving their fans joy and happiness, along with some intense heartburn and fits of anger, since September.
Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, it was the defense that played Secret Santa. The tattered and patchwork group assembled by Ebenezer Belichick and his erstwhile assistant Matt "Cratchit" Patricia stifled the Ravens once-potent running game, forced Joe Flacco into being Joe Flacco and outscored the Ravens 14-7 in their own nest, thanks to a fumble return and interception that were both turned into touchdowns.
Football is a simple game that becomes as complicated as you choose to make it. It is played by six-year-old boys and girls in pads who tackle each other. In this world of multidimensional video analysis, complex scouting and intense and intricate game-planning, sometimes the simplest things work the best.
That was the case for the Patriots on Sunday. They outhit the Ravens. They beat up Baltimore on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The controlled the ball. They got the lead and kept it. They took away the Ravens' best weapon, their running game. They controlled the pace of the game and dictated terms to Baltimore.
Tom Brady also played within himself. He did all that was necessary and nothing more.
All of this simplicity led to a 41-7 drubbing.
Season's Beatings, Baltimore.
About the only thing Brady didn't get right was his ill-fated attempt to get a high-five from his teammates after New England's final touchdown.
But even that was rectified after the game.
Most importantly, the Patriots made zero mistakes and committed fewer turnovers. Turnovers remain the simplest and best method to determine the winner of any football game. Take the team that commits the fewest turnovers and you'll win almost every time. The only better barometer is "most points."
"There's no statistic that correlates more to winning than turnovers. Turnovers are huge. Taking care of the ball and getting the ball, that's big," a jovial Belichick mused in his post-game press conference.
Chief among those "taking care of the ball" was Stevan Ridley, who decked the halls and the Ravens on New England's last offensive scoring drive with five carries, 22 yards and a pair of crucial first downs. That drive resulted in LeGarrette Blount bowling into the end zone for a touchdown [see above] that gave New England a 27-7 advantage. Old Ebenezer should stuff Ridley's stocking will absolution for his those four fumbles earlier this season after Sunday's effort.
We began opining about the developing "Miracle in Foxborough" after last month's victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos. While the Patriots keep losing players and key pieces every week, they keep finding ways to win, for the most part, and are now 11-4. They will have the No. 2 spot in the AFC with a win over Buffalo and would be No. 1 if they win and somehow the Broncos lose to Oakland. Things get a bit more complicated if the Patriots lose.
For the Patriots this season, and last, the one piece that was missing for their puzzled fans was that elusive "big win on the road."
Well, you can cross that one off the naughty list now.
Sunday's win at Baltimore wasn't just "big," it was "super-sized with extra fries."
For the Patriots, this season has been one long bucket agenda:
- Score without Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker [and now Rob Gronkowski]. Check
- Stop the opposition without Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. Check
- Win the big game at home. [See Peyton Manning]. Check
- Win the big game on the road. Check.
The full-time contrarians, "Spygate Truthers," haters, trolls and doomsayers will now have to find another talking point.
There's always the old standby: "Brady hasn't done [expletive] since he married Giselle."
This week, even the "experts and insiders" - always a favorite target in this space, especially during baseball season - fell flat on their facade after almost universally in predicting the Patriots would lose Sunday. It appears "Tonestradamus" has some competition.
Any rational person would have followed suit, even though predicting NFL scores "for entertainment purposes only" is very irrational behavior. There's been little rationality this season for the Patriots. They have demonstrated uncommon resiliency, resolve and toughness. And Sunday they actually displayed all of those qualities for a full 60 minutes. The result was the worse home loss ever for the Ravens.
Boston's sports teams and their fans enjoy a unique ability to blend together all their triumphs and great defeats. The Bruins capture the Stanley Cup and take it to Fenway Park on a Duck Boat. The Red Sox bring the World Series Cup to midfield at Gillette Stadium. The Lombardi Trophy and the Larry O'Brien trophy show up for the Red Sox opener.
The foundation for any "Miracle in Foxborough" this time was laid on Oct. 13, when the fortunes of the Patriots and Red Sox crossed in one of the most memorable eight-hour spans in Boston sports history. Brady brought "unicorns and showponies" to life with his last-second TD pass against the Saints.
Later that night, David Ortiz hit a grand slam against the Tigers that sent Torii Hunter head first over the Red Sox bullpen wall and made bullpen cop Steve Horgan, raised arms and all, the most popular Boston Police Officer of 2013 not featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
To universally count out any group of players led by Brady and Belichick is a fool's errand. Do that this season and you're just asking for trouble.
The Patriots added another chapter their little miracle-in-the-making Sunday and prefaced it with a team outing to see the Mark Wahlberg docu-drama "Lone Survivor" on Friday. The movie details an ill-fated mission by a squad of Navy Seals against the Taliban. "The movie certainly had the messages of leadership, perseverance, preparation, and then execution," Belichick said.
It would be too easy, and very wrong, to say the Patriots were so inspired by seeing this flick they could not lose. It's also dangerous and out-of-place to mix real-life military analogies with what happens on a football field.
But it's not too much to suggest that the Ravens may have seen Disney's "Frozen" and taken that flick to heart, considering how immobile their offense was, especially inside Patriots' territory.
The Patriots stumbled into this season reeling from an embarrassing home loss in the AFC title game, the bungled off-season departure of their most prolific receiver ever and the arrest of Aaron Hernandez, who was cornerstone of their entire offensive scheme, for murder. Things were so desperate in Foxborough that the Patriots even turned to Tim Tebow for salvation, from both a football and non-football perspective.
There's little divine about the success enjoyed by the Patriots this season. It's come as the result of hard-nosed play, "mental toughness" and an inability to quit. Patricia and the oft-abused Josh McDaniels and the diabolical Belichick all deserve belated praise for their abilities to take "chicken [expletive]" and turn it into an 11-4 season.
The Patriots had clinched their 10th AFC East title in 11 years before Sunday's kickoff. But they have backed into nothing this year. "We worked to put ourselves in position to have a chance to compete at the end of the year, and we did that," Belichick said. "That's what we play for, to be able to play in the postseason. Fortunately, we have that opportunity, and now we'll see what we can do."
The rest of us can't wait to watch.
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