They were, they are, The Team of this modern era of the NFL. They're the team that has to live up to its own (and seemingly everyone else's) lofty standards.
New England took on that pressure and made just enough plays to overcome mistakes in a 23-20 victory that the Ravens will surely lament because players other than quarterback Joe Flacco failed to exhibit big-game composure. Consequently, the Patriots will be making their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons.
Over the next couple weeks, we're going to write, report, compare and break down every measurable way in which Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the finest coach-quarterback tandem of all time. How the Patriots are the epitome of greatness. How Brady really is better than Peyton Manning. The storylines leading into Super Bowl XLVI will be plentiful and obvious. (David Tyree, anyone?)
But that stuff is for another time. Let's live in this moment.
What's so impressive about thisPatriots team is that nobody cares about legacies and all that stuff. At least not right now. What's been so remarkable about Belichick and Brady is they don't marinate in the past. Every day, every play is a new challenge, and this relentless focus on the task at hand is why thisPatriots team is so for real.
Case in point: New England's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Facing a 20-16 deficit, the Patriots lined up on a second-and-goal from the 1. Brady, who'll never be confused with Cam Newton running the football, trucked off left tackle for an apparent go-ahead touchdown. But a review of the play showed that Brady's knee had come down before he crossed the goal line and the score was erased. New England tried running the ball with tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis on third down, but Baltimore didn't give an inch. On fourth-and-goal, Brady went over the top, successfully crossed the goal line and was blown up by linebacker Ray Lewis. The hit was huge, but Brady's score was even bigger.
It turned out to be the decisive play of the game.
That wasn't about building legacies or adding to lore. It was about getting a yard and a touchdown on a day when the prolific Brady didn't throw a single touchdown pass.
We're so used to the Patriots winning pretty with flash and finesse that we overlook the fact that they're more than willing to get grime on their Uggs if that's what needs to be done.
To that effect, what about New England's defense? Sure, it's been leaky this season. In fact, it's plain gotten gashed (if giving up big yards in victories qualifies). But have you seen anything lately to make you think it's not good enough to win a Super Bowl? I don't think anyone feels the Vince Wilfork-led defensive front can be dealt with easily. There are holes in other spots, and Flacco exposed them, but the Patriots make enough plays -- especially under pressure -- to compensate.
Now, this story could've taken a completely different tone had Lee Evans seized the moment and just held onto the ball. Things might've played out differently if Billy Cundiff hadn't gotten the yips and yanked a 32-yard field goal wide left. But the Ravens simply didn't make the pressure plays -- that pressure that was supposed to be on New England.
Due to extreme success with Brady and Belichick, the Patriots will always be viewed as the team with the most pressure. So many of us believe they have something extra to uphold -- a legacy to keep intact or enhance.
But the Patriots flourish in the face of pressure. The pressure of each game, the pressure of each moment, the pressure of each opposing team -- none of it overwhelms them.
But that's just it. The Patriots truly are the bar other NFL teams are trying to reach. And they didn't get there by admiring what they have done. If there's anything we've learned about thisPatriots team, it's that they're willing to do whatever it takes. Even if that means having their Hall of Fame signal-caller put his body on the line to earn a single yard.