THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Catchphrase? A combination tough to beat

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 5, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Mark Clayton wears No. 89 and the ball hit him on the “9.’’

“I got open and just dropped the ball,’’ he acknowledged. “Flat-out drop. It was a perfect ball; Joe [Flacco] put it on the money. To not come up with it is tough. It cost us the game.’’

It’s all true, every syllable of it. If the fifth-year wideout had caught the ball, the Baltimore Ravens would have had first and goal on or about the Patriots’ 4-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining, trailing by 6, and there is every reason to believe Flacco would have gotten them into the end zone, since he had just moved his team crisply from his 20 with five good-looking first downs. The Patriots performed many good works in this game, but the entire postgame discourse would have been in the coulda/shoulda/woulda category if Clayton had caught the football.

Moral of the story: In the end, it is often better to be lucky than good. New England 27, Baltimore 21 will serve as a suitable example.

But it is always best to be both lucky and good, and yesterday afternoon at Gillette Stadium the Patriots had to be good because they were playing the Ravens, who came here having played better than any team in the AFC during the season’s first three weeks. Believe this: If the Super Bowl were played yesterday and the participants had been chosen by acclamation, the NFC would have been represented by the New York Giants and the AFC would have been represented by the Baltimore Ravens based on their bodies of work in Weeks 1, 2, and 3.

So, yes, this was a very, very, very good win for the Patriots, a team working hard every week to figure out just who it is and how good it can be.

“Baltimore is as good as advertised,’’ said Patriots center Dan Koppen. “That defense knows what it’s doing. You’ve got to fight for every yard.’’

You can generally tell just how significant a game is by the reaction of the mentor. When this one was safely put away, Coach Bill shot his arm into the air and started looking for some people to lay on the ol’ man hug, starting with his son. He was practically buoyant as he trotted across the field for the postgame handshake with Ravens coach John Harbaugh, including a handshake with the one and only Ray Lewis on his “to-do’’ list. No one knows better than Bill Belichick what it means to come out on top against the 2009 Baltimore Ravens. Mark this down: Very few NFL coaches will know the feeling.

“That was quite a finish,’’ he said. “That was a good football game. I thought our guys hung in there and made enough plays to win.’’

Do the Patriots owe a vote of thanks to the Competition Committee? Absolutely. Things are infractions today that were just part of the game in the days of Sammy Baugh, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, John Elway, and even the early days of both Peyton Manning and, yup, Tom Brady. Lewis was practically apoplectic on the subject of roughing-the-passer calls on Haloti Ngata (touching Brady’s head) and Terrell Suggs (a shot at the knees), plays that kept alive scoring drives.

“Without totally going off the wall here,’’ Lewis moaned, “it is embarrassing to the game. Brady is good enough to make his own plays, [so] let him make the play . . . Both of their [first-half] touchdown drives had personal fouls on them that kept the drives alive. Did that win or lose the game? No, but it got them 14 points.’’

But the fact is the rules are the rules, and both calls were legit. Players must adapt; it’s that simple. Lewis has his facts straight, and his feelings are easy to understand. This is not the game he used to know. But it’s the one we’ve got, and if the Ravens don’t play it as it’s now written, this won’t be the last time they’ll be singing this particular song after a tough loss.

In sports, it’s never one thing, as we all know. The Ravens had their chances to win, regardless. They certainly had the opportunity for at least a valuable 3 late in the first half, but Flacco was picked off by ex-Lion Leigh Bodden at the New England 9 with 1:11 left in the second quarter.

The biggest juncture, however, occurred in the fourth quarter. Trailing, 27-21, the Ravens advanced to their 45, where it was third and 1 with the clock inside six minutes. Flacco gave it to Ray Rice, but Ty Warren sliced into the backfield, dropping the impressive running back (11 carries for 103 yards, including a 50-yarder) for no gain. With no choice but to go for it on fourth down, this time Flacco tried Willis McGahee, but he was met by a large welcoming party. The Patriots had held.

“You get a big stop like that, and you say, ‘Whooo!’ ’’ declared linebacker Gary Guyton.

What the Patriots needed then was some offense to put the game away, but what they came up with was a three-and-out (Hey, it’s Baltimore, remember?), leading to a Chris Hanson punt into the end zone, and please don’t ask me why he couldn’t have at least tried either a pooch punt or an apparent anachronism known as a corner kick.

This is when Flacco went to work. Bing, bang, boom. Clayton for 12. Derrick Mason for 11. Clayton for 9, and his own sneak for a first down. Clayton again. Then Rice, with real good YAC, and suddenly the ball was at the Patriots’ 14, third and 4.

A pass to Mason was incomplete. Now it was down to one play for the ballgame. Flacco made it. Clayton didn’t.

“The ball was on him so quick,’’ said Patriots rookie corner Darius Butler, “I don’t think he was expecting it. It bounced off him before I could make a play.’’

Fifty-nine minutes and 28 seconds of grueling, big-boy football came down to that one play. If you’re the Patriots, you say “thank you,’’ and move on. But you’d better stay humble, because at that instant winning or losing was out of your control.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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