Skeptics pounced when a blowout loss left the New England Patriots with a 2-2 record.
Quarterback Tom Brady was over the hill, they said. Maybe Bill Belichick wasn’t a coaching genius after all.
But the Patriots never had doubts. Not when they endured grueling practices to get back on track. And not when they trailed by 14 points twice in their most important game — so far — of the season.
“There was never any panic,” special teams ace Matthew Slater said of their 35-31 divisional playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday. “I think we just turned to each other and said, `Hey, man, we’ve come too far to surrender now.’ “
Even if no team in NFL history had won a playoff game after falling behind twice by at least 14 points.
The stirring victory against a postseason nemesis was another step in the Patriots quest for a fourth Super Bowl title and their sixth appearance in that game in Brady’s 13 seasons as a starter. The Patriots are in the AFC title game for the ninth time in those 13 years and for the fourth straight season.
They’ll host Indianapolis next Sunday. The Colts advanced with a 24-13 win over the Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional game Sunday. The Patriots routed the Colts 42-20 on Nov. 16 at Indianapolis.
“Every team starts the year with great hope and we were one of those teams,” Brady said, “and we’re still standing.”
The Patriots (13-4) began the season with a 33-20 loss in Miami in which they let the Dolphins come back from a 20-10 halftime deficit. After two wins, they lost 41-14 in Kansas City after falling into a 27-0 hole that even they couldn’t overcome.
They began their comeback to a playoff berth with a 43-17 rout of Cincinnati, starting a 10-1 run that included consecutive 22-point wins over Denver and Indianapolis. They rested key players in their 17-9 loss to Buffalo in the finale after having clinched the top seed in the AFC.
Then Baltimore came to town and scored touchdowns on its first two possessions in a stadium where it was 2-1 in the playoffs. The Patriots tied it at 14 then trailed 28-14 early in the third quarter.
“I don’t think that’s a formula to win a lot of playoff games,” Belichick said of the 14-point deficits, but “they’re a tough group and they never give up, no matter what the situation is.”
Last season the Patriots overcame double-digit halftime deficits for two victories — 27-17 over Miami after trailing 17-3 and 34-31 over Denver in overtime after trailing 24-0.
“We’ve been in some games where it seemed like we were out of it and you just keep playing,” safety Devin McCourty said. “With our offense, they can always put points on the board.”
Even after the star quarterback makes what he called “a terrible play.”
With the score 14-14 with just over a minute left in the first half, Brady threw an interception to Daryl Smith and the Ravens capitalized on Joe Flacco’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Owen Daniels for a 21-14 halftime lead.
Then Baltimore made it 28-14 on Flacco’s 16-yard pass to Justin Forsett.
“Down 14 points through two stretches of the game and to be able to overcome that kind of obstacle, it speaks a lot about the character and the guys on this team,” cornerback Kyle Arrington said Sunday.
Brady made his own personal comeback after an incompletion on his first pass after Forsett’s touchdown.
He completed 17 of his remaining 22 passes. His last throw was a 23-yard touchdown to Brandon LaFell that gave the Patriots their only lead with just over five minutes left. It was Brady’s 46th scoring pass, one more than previous NFL leader Joe Montana.
“Tom’s competitive,” offensive lineman Ryan Wendell said, “but he doesn’t let anything get him down.”
College quarterback Julian Edelman also did his part, throwing a 51-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola that tied the game at 28 after taking a backward throw from Brady
“You’ve got to unload everything you’ve got to win against a team like that,” Edelman said.
But the Patriots have plenty of room for improvement. Against Baltimore, they rushed for just 14 yards, the second fewest in team playoff history, gave up 428 yards and four touchdown passes and had a five-minute deficit in time of possession.
Just a few more things to come back from.
“You know around here we’ll come in and Bill will have everything laid out on what went wrong,” McCourty said, “and what we need to do better next game. That’ll never change.”