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Boston Gets a Gift, New York Gets a Break -- And I May Get an Ulcer
January 23, 2012  | By Eric Gould
Standing at midfield with CBS Sports' JIm Nantz Sunday night, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said into the microphone, his words reverberating throughout Gillette Stadium, "I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us."

It was blunt and accurate -- though not, perhaps, the most eloquent post-game recap by a top national sports figure. Especially with kids watching. But you had to admire the honesty and the grit of the moment, which followed a tense, last-minute 32-yard field goal attempt by Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, with the Patriots leading by three points.

Cundiff proceeded to shank it to the left, and handed the Patriots a 23-20 victory they perhaps neither earned nor fully deserved.


Hours later, on another network and another football field, another special-teams mistake led to another last-second victory. Actually, it was a victory after the last second, because it was well into overtime when Kyle Williams of the San Francisco 49ers muffed his second punt return of the day, allowing the New York Giants to pounce on the ball deep in enemy territory.

Four plays later, Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes lined up his 31-yard field goal -- only one yard closer to the goal posts than Cundiff's shanked shot -- and kicked it through the uprights to secure his team's 20-17 win in overtime.

The result: the Patriots and Giants will face each other in a Super Bowl rematch of their 2008 jaw-dropper, when the Giants ended the Patriots' perfect season, and won Super Bowl XLII, with Eli Manning's miraculous last-minute pass play that still pains Patriots fans. Fans like me, for example . . .

Given Brady's passing fireworks this year (he was among three quarterbacks to go over 5,000 yards this season, the first time that's happened in NFL history), and the six touchdowns he threw last week in a divisional playoff (another record), Sunday's game was not the one most people expected.

The Baltimore defense, one of the stingiest in the league this year, played Brady tough all afternoon long. They picked off four of his passes, with two of the interceptions negated by penalties on the Ravens.

It was a game for the Patriots to lose -- literally, as it turned out -- especially with poor play-calling by the New England brain trust, bungling a chance to get a first down, and run out the clock, with two minutes left.

From the Patriots' formation on second down on that series, everyone in the stadium knew they were going to run. And they did. Running back Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis got stuffed behind the line, leaving four yards to go for a first down.

On the next, obvious, passing down they somehow made the ingenious decision to attempt to get the first down, and win the game, by throwing a short pass in the direction of Baltimore free safety Ed Reed.

Reed has been called one of the greatest defenders ever to play the position. Often, he has been referred to as just that by none other than Patriots coach Bill Belichick -- an icon himself, with a unparalleled winning record since he arrived in New England in '00.

Reed was all over the receiver, and that pass dropped incomplete. The Patriots were forced to punt, and Gillette Stadium and the rest of the national audience watched as the Ravens, with plenty of the time left on the clock, marched down the field against a New England defense that was one of the worst in the league in yardage allowed this year.

The Ravens knocked off some large chunks of yardage, and looked likely to score at the end to win -- or at least, easily, to tie the game and send it into overtime.


And then, the unbelievable miss by Cundiff sent the Patriots off in the direction of to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis in two weeks.

It was one of those games where you wondered whether your team (for us here in Boston) won the game, or was just given a freakish gift by other team that shot itself in the foot, so to speak, on its way to tying the game.

You'd be hard pressed to find one pro NFL kicker that wouldn't routinely make that 32 yard kick, anytime, anywhere. Yet both games Sunday had their goats -- one an errant kicker, the other a fumbling punt returner -- and what matters, in the end, is that the Patriots and Giants are meeting again.

That Super Bowl won't be played on NBC until Feb. 5 -- but I'm tense already . . .

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