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Watching The Dirigible
ESPN analyst Tony Kornheiser said English majors call it “tragic inevitability.” My thoughts, after hearing “Dazed and Confused” and “Good Times, Bad Times,” blaring throughout the Monday Night Football telecast, drifted more toward the cover of Led Zeppelin’s first album. Like the dirigible, the Baltimore Ravens’ upset bid against the New England Patriots ultimately burst into flames.
The combination of Tom Brady’s aplomb under pressure, the stupidity of the Ravens’ coaches and players, and some questionable calls by the zebras enabled the Pats to escape with a 27-24 victory at MBT Stadium. Hence, Bill Belichick’s perfect season and NFL Network’s last-weekend trump card remained intact — at least until the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the NFL’s top-ranked defense, invade Gillette Stadium next Sunday.
For the second game in a row, a middle of the pack NFL team led the vaunted Pats in the fourth quarter. Much as the Philadelphia Eagles A.J. Feeley came to realize his place in the QB pantheon the week before, the Ravens’ Kyle Boller eventually undermined a solid effort and his club’s 166 yards on the ground. With 10 minutes or so remaining from the Pats’ 30 and the team up seven, Boller became Boller, under throwing a pass by 10 yards that was picked off. A dump-off or a run into the line would have given reliable placekicker Matt Stover an opportunity to put Baltimore up two scores.
Later with the Ravens now clinging to a four-point edge with 3:50 remaining and facing a third-and-two situation, Boller threw a flair pass to William McGahee in the right flat. There, Rodney Harrison, whose conversation following the aforementioned interception prompted Ravens’ coach Brian Billick to blow kisses at the safety, and linebacker Teddy Bruschi were waiting. The point: if a team is going to take out the Pats it must maintain aggressive and smart play for 60 minutes, not 56.
What ensued was classic NFL heroics and perhaps a new level of pigskin melodrama. The combination will likely give ESPN, which drew a 12.2 overnight, its top telecast of the year with Pats TV. Brady, pursuing his NFL-best 22nd fourth quarter/OT comeback since 2001, marched his team up the field. But with about 1:48 remaining, a check-down pass to Kevin Faulk left New England perfection on the brink at the Baltimore 30.
Here’s where it really went to hell for Ravens’ rooters – a group whose ranks I belonged to for the first time last night. And where there might be evidence for the growing number of pundits and fans who maintain the NFL is conspiring to have the Pats run the table, not only as a means to goose ratings, but also give the NFL Network one last chance to deliver its message of carriage injustice against the cable industry. Should New England come calling on the New York Giants with 15-0 mark on Dec. 29, the NFL Network can bellow about how cable is depriving most pro football fans from a chance of seeing a game for the ages.
Facing fourth and one, Brady, as he did earlier in the game, went on a quick-hitting QB sneak. This time, middle linebacker Ray Lewis stuffed the attempt. Game over. But no!!! Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan called for a timeout, negating the stop. Compounding the error, NFL rules stipulate that only the head coach or players can ask for time. Moreover, a sideline view indicated that the play had already begun before the official signaled the stoppage.
Of course, Ryan’s father, Buddy, who fashioned the fearsome “46” defense of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, would have never worried about having the right player package on the field.
On the next play, the defense stopped the Pats again on fourth and one, but New England was whistled for procedure. Again, the play never happened!!!
Confronted with fourth and six, Brady made sure the third time was the charm: Taking matters into his own hands, er feet, he scrambled for a first down.
A couple of plays later, Lewis deflected a second-down pass straight up in the air. Against any other team, the ball is intercepted. Against the perfect Pats, it fell harmlessly to the turf.
On fourth down, another reprieve, this one justifiable, came in the form of a mugging, um, holding penalty by CB Jamaine Winborne against TE Benjamin Watson.
Brady capitalized on the next play, hitting Jabar Gaffney in the corner of the end zone. Or did he? Gafney appeared to juggle the ball as he got both his feet down. At least this time, there was a review—a controversial TD pass just before the half last week against the Eagles wasn’t deemed worthy of a second look.
Ravens LB Bart Scott erupted: He was called for a pair of unsportsmanlike penalties, including one for throwing the bean bag flag into the stands. Tacking on another five yards for offside on the PAT, New England easily kicked off through the end zone from the Ravens’ 35.
Boller had one last gasp, hurling a Hail Mary to Mark Clayton, who brought the ball down at the two-yard-line as time expired. ESPN’s play-by-play man Mike Tirico, in a remark best appreciated by Patriots haters and perfect-season conspirators, pointed out, perhaps facetiously, that Ravens wide-out Derrick Mason could have been called for offensive pass-interference against CB Asante Samuel if Clayton would have struck paydirt.
Post-game, some Ravens blamed the refs, with CB Samari Rolle accusing zebra Phil McKinley of saying, “Just play boy, just play” during the frantic finish. Like Mrolle, McKinley, who played seven years in the NFL, is African-American.
Pejorative, racist or not, investigations into that alleged remark and the amazing finish in Baltimore are sure to keep New England embers burning until the next installment of Pats TV — this Sunday on CBS at 4:15 p.m. (ET).