Sunday January 11th, 2015

FOXBORO, Mass. -- This was the one. The win the New England Patriots so desperately needed and absolutely had to have. Yes, to advance. But not only to survive, but to prove something to themselves, too. This was the kind of test that tells the Patriots they’re ready to chase, and finally claim, that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring.

That’s how much this one meant, and even if it was only the NFL playoffs' divisional round, don’t sell it short. New England 35, Baltimore 31 was an instant classic of a game, a three-and-a-half-hour heavyweight title bout. And for the comeback-minded Patriots, it’s the outcome that makes the difference between believing they’re for real or destined for another January disappointment, the kind they’ve almost cornered the market on for most of the past decade.

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I’m convinced. It took the Patriots (13-4) almost 55 minutes of game time to battle their way to their first lead Saturday at a frosty Gillette Stadium, but once they did, they crossed a threshold of legitimacy and credibility that only a win over Baltimore (11-7) would have provided. The Ravens, their recent playoff nemesis, threw everything they had at New England, but the Patriots took it, counter-punched and found a way to win anyway, becoming the first team in NFL playoff history to advance by overcoming two different 14 point deficits -- one in each half.

And now, with their most challenging hurdle cleared, I won’t be surprised one bit if they roll in next Sunday’s AFC Championship Game back here at Gillette, no matter if their opponent is defending conference champion Denver or the No. 4-seeded Indianapolis Colts -- both of whom the Patriots defeated soundly in the regular season. If this season in New England has in store what I think it has in store, this will be the game that the Patriots look back on as the most crucial step they took toward a title. Their defining moment.

"I think tonight we showed just how tough this team really is," said Patriots veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, of the biggest comeback victory in New England’s long and storied playoff history, topping the 11-point rally at San Diego in the 2006’s divisional round. "In a playoff game, being down 14-0 [and 28-14], rallying with each other, making plays when we needed the plays. Playing good situation football. We played for 60 minutes."

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The Patriots could have wilted so many times in the wild ebb and flow of this game, especially against a Ravens team that seemed to have their number and was well on its way to re-creating its own Super Bowl run magic of two years ago. But New England refused to let this game get away, and when the outcome was hanging in the balance, it was the Patriots who made all the most meaningful plays.

Like the creative 51-yard Julian Edelman-to-Danny Amendola double-pass late in the third quarter that pulled New England into a 28-28 tie and set a record for the longest scoring throw by a non-quarterback in NFL playoff history. Like the pretty-as-a-painting Tom Brady 23-yard touchdown pass to receiver Brandon LaFell with 5:13 left to play, giving the Patriots their only lead of the game at 35-31. And like the killer end-zone interception of Joe Flacco made by New England second-year reserve safety Duron Harmon with 1:39 remaining and the Ravens driving for the go-ahead score in Patriots territory.

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The Patriots were far from perfect, but they responded every time it was absolutely mandatory on Saturday, and you could tell they came out of the crucible stronger for it. New England entered the game just 4-6 in the playoffs since its stunning 2008 Super Bowl loss to the Giants and with no sign of the invincibility they were once known for at home in the playoffs. And even though the Patriots have now qualified for four consecutive AFC title games -- tying the second-longest streak in league history -- Saturday finally produced the kind of signature playoff victory that New England has rarely managed from 2005 on.

"Coming into the game we knew it was going to be a tough game, we knew we were going to have to battle," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who batted down Joe Flacco’s last-play Hail Mary pass into the end zone, sealing New England’s 20th playoff win of the Bill Belichick-Brady era. "But I’m not going to lie, we didn’t expect to come in here and be down 14-zip. This team is a fighting team. We just kept battling and kept battling and just waited for the game to turn.

"We’ve got a veteran group. We’ve got guys that have been in crazy games. Myself, being here, we’ve been in some games where it seemed like we're out of it and you just keep playing, you know? With our offense they can always put points on the board, and defensively, we just kept telling each other, 'Just get a stop, just get a takeaway, and get those guys the ball.'"

The trickery that New England executed with Edelman and Amendola showed off the Patriots’ resourcefulness, with the ex-Kent State quarterback throwing a perfect pass to Amendola despite the cold conditions and it being the first pass he ever attempted in the NFL. The play gave the Patriots new life, trailing 28-21 with 4:20 left in the third quarter, and served notice to Baltimore that New England would not be going away, no matter how well the Ravens were playing.

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"It’s a play we’ve been working on all year," said Amendola, whose 15-yard touchdown catch late in the first half tied the game the first time, at 14-14. "It’s a testament to Julian; he has a great arm and is a great athlete. He put it on the money, that’s for sure. It was a good throw."

Said Edelman: “You’ve got to unload everything you’ve got to win against a team like that -- the Baltimore Ravens. They played a tough game. Our coaches, they’ve got the aggressiveness to call that."

Or the desperation. Whatever the motivation, it was a sign that the Patriots would not be accepting defeat. Even in a game where New England’s run defense deserted it (the Ravens ran 28 times for 136 yards, with Justin Forsett churning for 129 of those) and all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis was rendered mortal, with two costly penalties and a nine-yard touchdown pass allowed to Steve Smith.

"We played from behind, which is not the way that we want to play," Brady said. "Playing these guys from ahead was the best way to play them, and being behind twice by 14 points wasn’t necessarily in the plans. It took a lot of good execution to overcome it. A lot of guys fought through."

Watch: Joe Flacco interception ices game for Patriots

What an epic game these two AFC powerhouses put on, with Baltimore’s Flacco starting his night by completing 22 of his first 29 passes, for 231 yards and four touchdowns, before producing a pair of interceptions late in the third and fourth quarters. And Brady was even better, finishing 33-of-50 for a team playoff record 367 yards, with three touchdown passes, a four-yard touchdown run, and just one, albeit costly, interception. The game’s momentum changed so many times, and no one seemingly had it for longer than a quarter.

But in the end, it was Belichick’s team that answered the challenge and gave the Ravens a dose of their own treatment. Baltimore entered 7-4 on the road in the postseason in its John Harbaugh-Flacco era, and the Ravens were easily the scariest opponent in the AFC playoff field for New England. But it’s the Patriots who are still standing and the Ravens who are going home.

"Look, down by 14 points twice, I don’t think that’s a formula to win a lot of playoff games," Belichick said. "I’m sure there’s a lot more playoff games that have been lost by teams down by 14 points in the middle of the first quarter or middle of the third quarter than won them. But again, [I’ve] got to give our players a lot of credit. They’re resilient; they’re mentally tough and physically tough. They hang in there. We keep playing and keep fighting and find a way. I’m happy about that and that’s what I like about this team. They’re a tough group and they never give up, no matter what the situation is."

Saturday’s dramatic win proved Belichick’s team won’t play the patsy this January. The Patriots just passed their toughest test in memorable fashion, and the Ravens have been vanquished. In New England, another trip to the Super Bowl suddenly seems much, much closer, and well within reach.

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