FOXBOROUGH — For an NFL rookie, Sterling Moore sure has seen a thing or two.
He was undrafted out of Southern Methodist University, made the Raiders’ practice squad, got released from the Raiders’ practice squad, was signed by the Patriots in October, started every snap against the Jets in November, then got released, signed to the practice squad and elevated to the active roster in December …
… and now, he’s a postseason hero in January.
Moore, who has seen significant time at cornerback lately with Devin McCourty often shifting to safety, made crucial plays back to back on the Ravens’ final possession of the Patriots’ 23-20 victory in the AFC Championship game.
With 27 seconds left and the Ravens facing second and 1 at the New England 14, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco threw a strike to receiver Lee Evans in the right corner of the end zone. It appeared as though Evans had caught the go-ahead touchdown and had both feet down in the end zone. But at the last possible instant, Moore punched the ball from his grasp.
The call on the field? Incomplete pass. The Ravens could not challenge the ruling.
But Moore wasn’t done. On the next play, Flacco targeted his man again, with Moore busting up the third-down pass intended for Dennis Pitta. It appeared as though he had a good handful of Pitta’s jersey, but there was no flag.
When Billy Cundiff missed what would have been a tying field goal on the next play, Moore’s performance had secured him a place in Patriots’ lore.
“It wasn’t in my mind to slap the ball out,” he said afterward. “It was just a split-second decision and I’m glad it worked out. We do that drill every day in practice [stripping the ball], but it was the first time I had to use it in a game and I just took what I learned from practice into the game.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Moore has improved as the season has progressed.
“Sterling has done a good job for us here the last few weeks,” Belichick said. “He made some plays. Not perfect out there, but he competes hard and he’s a tough kid. He’s got good ball skills. He gets around the ball.”
Evans, familiar to Patriots fans from his years with the Bills, said he thought he made the catch on second down.
“I felt like I had it, but it came out,” Evans said. “I mean, I don’t really know how to put it into words. The most disappointing part of this is, I feel like I let everybody down. This is the greatest team that I have been on, and I feel like I let everybody down. … It was a great pass by Joe, and it was a pass that was not completed by me. Nobody else can take the fall for that.”
Patriots safety James Ihedigbo had a good view of the play.
“Evans had the ball and Sterling had his back turned and just slapped it out,” said Ihedigbo. “He then goes back to back and made another amazing play by deflecting the ball and forcing them to kick that field goal.”
And when it was wide left, the Patriots were headed to their fifth Super Bowl in 11 years. It will also be Moore’s second in the past two years. How can that be for a rookie?
“I was in the stands last year,” Moore said of the Packers’ victory over the Steelers at Cowboys Stadium. “I sat way high up there and I was given a ticket of mine from a teammate at SMU, Ryan Walker. His dad had an extra ticket and gave it to me.”
It went without saying that Moore’s way to the Super Bowl this year was far more fulfilling.