We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Seth Stevenson
To: Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis
That did not feel good at all.
But this victory was achieved in a rather queasy fashion. History will almost certainly forget that the dynamic Tom Brady-Bill Belichick duo reached its fifth Super Bowl together on a day when neither man brought his "A" game.
It became clear early on that bad Brady had taken the field. I recognized this iteration of Tom not-so-Terrific from previous, frustrating playoff defeats. Decision-making a tiny bit off. Lofted touch passes a teensy bit underthrown. Already wound tight, bad Brady is what happens when this robotic perfectionist over-torques his own screws.
I was 100 percent sure the Pats would lose when Brady tossed his second interception of the day. New England had just won the ball back on a Brandon Spikes pick with less than 7:30 to go in the game. It was a massive moment, and now was the time to twist the knife with a methodical, clock-killing drive. A few Wes Welker eight-yard outs. A few inside draws to Danny Woodhead. Instead, on the first snap of this key possession Brady chucked it way deep to a blanketed Matthew Slater—literally the last receiver on the Patriots' depth chart. The inevitable resultant turnover had me convinced the AFC championship belonged to Baltimore.
Who knows if the fault lies with the Pats coaching staff for radioing in the play call, or with Brady for pulling the trigger. Either way, it was exactly the wrong choice at exactly the wrong time. The kind of dumb decision I never expect from a honed Belichick squad.
On the Ravens' final drive, the Pats' central flaw was put on vivid display. Again and again Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco found holes in New England's patchwork secondary, which earlier had lost cornerback Kyle Arrington to an eye injury and which now had Julian Edelman—a college quarterback who was converted to receiver and then converted again to slot corner—covering Anquan Boldin one-on-one in space. The drive's biggest play was a short pass to Boldin that went for 29 yards and put the Ravens at the New England 23. Edelman appeared to follow the wrong receiver off the line, leaving Boldin uncovered in the flat. You can blame Bill Belichick for not signing some free agent defensive back in Week 10, by which time it had become clear the Pats secondary was a shambles. Or you can blame Coach Bill for not scheming to find a different matchup for Boldin on Sunday. Either way, the hoodied football genius seemed to submit a less than summa cum laude performance.
None of it mattered in the end. The same benevolent pro-Patriots ghosts that turned Tom Brady's snow-game fumble into a tuck, that guided all those upright-splitting Adam Vinatieri field goals, that pushed John Kasay's final kickoff out of bounds in Super Bowl XXXVIII, seemed to have returned in force to Foxboro. How did Lee Evans not squeeze that touchdown catch for an extra nanosecond? How did Billy Cundiff manage to miss wide left on a 32-yard field goal from the right hash mark? As I watched Cundiff's kick spin horribly askew, I couldn't help but wonder just a little bit if the spirit of the late Myra Kraft had waved the kick off line. With Pats of yore Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown high-fiving in the owner's box, I was left feeling uncomfortably like one of those obnoxious Yankees fans from the late 1990s. The kind who swore by the power of aura and mystique.
I wasn't quite sure whom to root for in the late game. Both defenses terrify me. But the more I saw of happy-footed Alex Smith, and the more I visualized the Giants' enormous, athletic receivers dwarfing Julian Edelman, the more I realized how much I was dreading a rematch with New York. (To say nothing of the countless David Tyree helmet catch replays I'll now be forced to watch over the next two weeks.)
At least I can look forward to another Belichick Breakdown.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.