THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Luck helps keep perfection alive

Email|Print| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 4, 2007

BALTIMORE - Even when they lose, they win. This is what it takes to be perfect.

When the history of this Patriots season is recited by future generations, the bards will speak of a night in Baltimore when snow swirled, passes were dropped, and the Patriots were left for dead three or four times - only to be rescued. Again. And again. And again.

Remember Walt Coleman and the tuck rule in the big snowstorm in Foxborough? The phantom play that delivered the first Super Bowl? This was kind of like that. The Patriots flat-lined a couple of times. Perhaps televisions were snapped off by angry New England fans. Maybe some of those folks went to bed thinking the Patriots actually lost. Maybe champagne bottles were uncorked by members of the 1972 Dolphins.

No. The Patriots never lose.

The Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 27-24, when Jabar Gaffney caught a disputed touchdown pass with 44 seconds left. New England improved to a perfect 12-0. But Ravens gaffes had a lot more to do with this than Gaffney's grab.

It looked like the Patriots were going to lose when they trailed, 24-17, and the Ravens took over at the New England 26 early in the fourth. Then it looked like they were going to lose when Tom Brady was stopped on a fourth-and-1 quarterback keeper with less than two minutes to play. Then it looked like the Patriots were going to lose when Heath Evans was stopped on fourth and 1.

No. No. And no.

The Patriots never lose. Most of the time they dominate. Some of the time they are clutch. And sometimes they are just plain lucky.

Last night they were clutch. And lucky.

They won because the Ravens sideline called a timeout just before a play when they stopped Brady and appeared to take possession of the ball and the game.

"I heard the whistle," Brady said. "I'd have gotten the first down if I didn't hear it blow."

I think he was kidding. He had the same look on his face that he had the night he told us that his snow-bowl playoff fumble against the Raiders was actually a forward pass.

"We called the timeout," snapped Baltimore coach Brian Billick. "If he'd gotten the first, it would have been you screaming, 'Why didn't you call timeout?' Let's make sure we don't have a revisionist history."

It wasn't just the timeout. The Patriots won because of a penalty on their own offensive line. After the dumb timeout by the Ravens gave New England a second chance on fourth down, Evans was stopped, but this time the Patriots were saved because of a false start by Russ Hochstein.

They won because Brady scrambled for 12 yards on a fourth-and-6. Then they won because of a defensive holding call on another fourth-down play, this one with less than a minute to go.

Finally, they won because Baltimore's last-second Hail Mary pass put the Ravens near the Patriots goal line as time expired.

"We just kept clawing back," Brady said. "We knew it was gonna be tough. We executed when we needed to. Those calls definitely helped out, but we didn't get those calls in the first three quarters, so it evens out."

This must be what it takes to go 19-0. You win in big-time blowouts against assorted Redskins and Bills. Then you win at home in a close one against the Eagles. Then you win thanks to nine lives in the bone-chilling winds of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The Patriots were 19-point favorites, which according to the Baltimore Sun made the Ravens the biggest home-field underdogs in modern NFL history.

Much to the surprise of another national television audience, the Ravens stayed with the Patriots in the first half and it was 10-10 at intermission. The Ravens ran through the Patriots for most of the second half and led throughout the fourth quarter. Until the final minute.

And even then it was controversial. Gaffney's catch was reviewed and upheld.

"I told him it was the best catch of his career," Brady said.

The Patriots don't have a lot of history of games in Baltimore against the Ravens. Last night was New England's first game at breathtaking M&T Bank Stadium, an edifice that makes neighboring Camden Yards look like a guard shack. The only other time the Patriots played the Ravens in Baltimore (1996), the game was at Memorial Stadium, once home of the great Orioles and Colts teams.

"Memorial Stadium will always hold a special place for me because that's where I started," said Bill Belichick, who is not the sentimental type. "Going up there to 33rd Street to watch the Orioles and Colts play, when you grow up, you kind of get weaned on to those two sports. That sticks with you for a lifetime, and it always will with me."

The coach knows his history and he knows how hard 19-0 is. Twelve and zero was last accomplished by the 2005 Colts. It was also achieved by the 1998 Broncos, the 1985 Bears, the 1934 Bears, and, of course, the vaunted '72 Dolphins.

Don Shula's '72 Dolphins are the ghosts the Patriots are chasing, and Shula was in the house, talking in the ESPN booth throughout the third quarter. He said the Patriots are a great team. He said, "If they run the table, they should be given credit for running the table."

If the Patriots run the table, the windy night in Baltimore is the one they'll remember as the one that almost got away.

But they did not lose.

This must be what perfection feels like.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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