FOXBORO, Mass. -- During Bill Belichick's tenure in New England, the Patriots have gradually transformed themselves from a lunch-pail group of players who fed off other's disrespect to an offensively brilliant glamour team. The first group won Super Bowls; the second lacked a key ingredient for postseason success. They got it back Sunday to hold off the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in a win that felt more like 2001 than 2012.
After the game, emotional Patriots owner Robert Kraft said this team reminded him more of his first championship team in '01 than the '07 Patriots, who finished the regular season 16-0 and lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Kraft noted the key role the defense played in picking up the offense ... and hinted at a little bit of luck. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt wide left with 11 seconds left Sunday that would have tied the game.
The Patriots defense is an unlikely set of heroes. They ranked 31st in the NFL this season and had to listen all week to analysts who noted no team that has ranked below 25th on that side of the ball has won a championship. The defense had been plagued by injuries and made a string of below-average quarterbacks like Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman and Vince Young look like Pro Bowlers during the regular season. And at a certain point Sunday, embattled Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco seemed to get confidence and looked like he was on his way to a big game.
But that's where this Patriots defense differed from the ones that came up shy in recent postseasons. You could see their shortcomings all day -- inability to stop the Ravens on third down, an inconsistent pass rush and an erratic secondary. But they didn't get buried by their faults. They kept at it and turned weaknesses into strengths by the fourth quarter. Two plays in particular made the difference late -- Vince Wilfork blowing up Ray Rice on 3rd-and-1 to force a long fourth-down attempt by the Ravens, and cornerback Sterling Moore stripping a potential game-winning catch out of Baltimore receiver Lee Evans' hands in the end zone with 22 seconds left.
New England's secondary is also reminiscent of the unit from the Pats' 2004 Super Bowl run, when they signed cornerback Hank Poteat off the street right before the playoffs and used receiver Troy Brown in the secondary. Belichick's latest secondary experiment didn't appear to be heading in the same direction, with journeymen like Moore and Sergio Brown struggling along with receiver-turned-defender Julian Edelman (subbing for injured cornerback Kyle Arrington). Moore let Ravens receiver Torrey Smith out of his grasp for a 29-yard touchdown, but he also turned out to be the symbol of the Pats' resilience by coming back to make the play of the game in the end zone.
"I had to do something to redeem myself," Moore said. "I thought it was over. I thought this loss was going to be on me. I saw him catch the ball and slapped at it. ... It was just a split-second-decision."
Evans, who after the game said he thinks he cost his team the win, had great position and probably could have fended off Moore if he had gone to the ground after the catch. But Moore said his coaching staff has worked on that type of play, and to a man, the Pats say they're drilled to keep going through the play.
"You have to play through the play," linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "Throughout the week, the coaches put a big emphasis on playing through the whistle. ... That play Moore made says so much about this defense. We just don't give up."
Spikes was another unexpected defensive hero. He snared a Flacco pass intended for tight end Ed Dickson out of mid-air in the third quarter and came up with big tackles all game. Fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo said the return of Spikes, who missed seven games with an MCL injury, has made a huge difference.
"He brings that hat," Mayo said. "He's a big hitter and brings a lot of energy to this defense. We're a different defense with these guys on the field. It's about finding that consistency. Now that we've had the same guys out there for a few weeks we're much better."
One of the reasons the defense ranked so low during the regular season was because with opponents regularly down, the Patriots were more willing to yield yards in the middle of the field. On Sunday, they were never able to jump out to a big lead because quarterback Tom Brady wasn't nearly as sharp as he was during the regular season or last week against Denver in the division round. Brady finished 22-for-36 for 236 yards, was intercepted twice, and gave himself a terrible review after the game that wasn't just an act for the media.
"He said to me, 'I promise I'm going to play a lot better in two weeks,'" Kraft said. "He's still pretty good in my book. I'll take him over any quarterback."
Brady had his lowest career playoff completion percentage (55.9) and wasn't comfortable from the outset. He underthrew a ball that was intercepted by Lardarius Webb in the first half and made a terrible decision on a pick by Jimmy Smith in the fourth quarter.
But Brady did convert a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak at the goal line to give the Patriots their final lead, and he set the tone with his attitude.
"There's really some resiliency," Brady said. "Even in the games we've lost, we fought until the end. We're always going to fight to the end. I'm sure this next game is going to come down to the end and hopefully we have enough plays."
Of course, the play that didn't happen will stick in the heads of Ravens' fans for some time. Cundiff's miss will fit right in with Scott Norwood and other classic kicker woes. But the Ravens are a veteran group and wouldn't bury their kicker.
"As a man, I said it earlier, not one play won or lost this game," Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis said. "There is no one man who has ever lost a game. We win as a team, we lose as a team."
That's an admirable position for Lewis, considering this could be the last time Lewis gets this close to a Super Bowl. But that chemistry and team-first play is why the Ravens were right there at the end of the season. It's the same kind of approach that has helped the Patriots fight off adversity and return to the Super Bowl for the first time since '07.
New England has had prettier teams. But those teams didn't win the Super Bowl. The Patriots proved on Sunday they can win ugly. And that might be what separates this team from all the others that failed since the franchise's last championship run.