Hero of 2011 AFC Championship Game looks on from afar this year
Sterling Moore doesn't know yet if he'll watch the game at home in Dallas, or meet up with a couple teammates and head for "a Buffalo Wild Wings or something like that.''
But wherever he takes in Sunday's AFC Championship game rematch, it can't possibly rival the unique vantage point he had last year, when Baltimore and New England met at Gillette Stadium with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Now with the Cowboys, Moore was the Patriots rookie cornerback who memorably saved the day for New England against the Ravens last January, stripping the ball from Baltimore receiver Lee Evans in the end zone with 27 seconds remaining, wiping out what looked to be a game-winning 14-yard touchdown pass.
In a wild swing of emotion and momentum, the Ravens went from appearing to have pulled off a shocking upset of New England for a split second, to utter heartbreak two plays later, when kicker Billy Cundiff shanked the 32-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the game at 23-23 and brought on overtime.
Moore, an undrafted collegiate free agent, was the unlikely man in the middle of all that drama, and even a year later he still feels the razor-thin separation between the heroic role he played, and the infamy he narrowly escaped.
"Honestly, I really hate seeing that play replayed, because it always brings up how close I was to losing the game for us,'' he said in a phone interview from his home in Dallas on Tuesday. "Literally that's the thing that crosses my mind the most. When I saw the ball go by me, I really thought I had lost us the game and our chance to go to the Super Bowl. And that feeling comes back to me every time I see that ball in the air.''
Moore said he has thought of or been reminded of that play "a countless number of times'' in the subsequent year, but never more than this week, as the Ravens and Patriots head for another showdown in Foxboro, with the same prize at stake: A Super Bowl berth.
While Evans and Cundiff will forever be remembered as the goats of that game in Baltimore, Moore will probably never have to buy his own beer or clam chowder in New England after the "slap heard around the world.''
"Honestly, sometimes it feels like that's the only thing I've ever done in the NFL,'' said Moore, who actually started three of his six games with the Patriots in 2011, recording a pair of interceptions. "But I really didn't realize or understand the magnitude of that play at the moment. Really not until after [Cundiff] missed the kick and I realized we were going to the Super Bowl.
"At the time, I didn't think it was going to be the defining play of the game, because my mind was getting ready to go to overtime. I 100 percent thought he was going to make that kick and we were going into overtime. The moment didn't hit me until after it happened and what it meant became clear.''
Can you imagine being Moore this Sunday? Watching the Ravens and Patriots go at it again, knowing you've lived this rivalry not once, but twice in the past year? Moore spent the first three months of the 2012 season as a Patriot, playing in eight games for New England, including its 31-30 loss at Baltimore in Week 3, which was decided on a 27-yard field goal at the final gun by Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker. Baltimore had a rookie kicker this year in large part due to Cundiff missing that chip shot in the AFC title game, a failure he was never going to completely live down among Ravens faithful. Evans, too, did not remain with Baltimore in 2012, signing with Jacksonville but failing to make its regular-season roster.
Moore was cut by the Patriots on Halloween, and then added to their practice squad, where he languished until the cornerback-needy Cowboys signed him on Nov. 30. The former SMU standout wound up playing in Dallas' final five games of the season, including the Cowboys' painful Week 17 NFC East championship loss at Washington. He was a Patriot far longer than he was a Cowboy this season, and that gives him a vested interest in the outcome of Sunday's game.
"It's definitely a lot different, not being in the game this time, but I'm still happy for them and I'll be rooting for them as well to win,'' Moore said. "Right now, at this moment, I don't foresee it feeling weird or anything, but it might during the game, especially since I was there for so long this past season, and the fact that I played quite a bit when we played at Baltimore in Week 3. I can see where some feelings may come up during the game, but I kind of just look at it like that's the way life in the NFL is.''
Moore said his Twitter account this week has been full of people reminding him of his pivotal play in last year's AFC Championship game, almost as if his followers would think it escaped his notice that the Ravens and Patriots had both made it back to the cusp of the Super Bowl. As the rematch gets closer, his memories from that day grow a little more vivid.
"For me it seemed like that play took forever, because I didn't know whether or not he had caught the ball,'' Moore recalled. "I was just trying to reach in there and knock it away at the end, and I wasn't quite sure until I saw the ball come free after a few steps and a few swats at it.''
Moore was a bit desperate even before the play began, because he said he and safety Devin McCourty never got the defensive play call before the 2nd-and-1 snap at the New England 14, so they were playing somewhat blind, unaware of what coverage the Patriots sideline wanted them in.
"The thing a lot of people don't realize is that we were on the far side of the field, on the Ravens sideline, and we had no clue what the defensive play call was,'' Moore said. "Literally, I was looking back to the safety, like 'What's the play call?' And he's looking at me, and he doesn't know, and then the ball's snapped. At that point I was just hoping [Evans] would run straight, and in a sense he did. But he kind of gave me a double move, which was kind of what got me in transition. But I was just trying to stick with my man, no matter what.
"I don't even know if we got the play call from the sideline or not. I remember talking to the defensive coordinator [Matt Patricia] after the game and he came up to me and was like, 'The only thing I could think of on that play was, oh, he doesn't know what the play call is,' and we didn't.''
Watching the play live, Evans seemed to have the ball in his possession for a heartbeat, with the Gillette Stadium crowd falling silent, before Moore's quick reaction changed the outcome of the play and very likely New England and Baltimore's 2011 seasons.
"I wasn't aware of what the stadium was doing at that moment, but I've seen a lot of NFL Films from the Ravens sideline, where they all started cheering for a split second, until they realized I knocked the ball out,'' Moore said. "So I can only imagine the opposite of what that was like, and what the people in the stands were thinking at first. Even the TV announcers said he caught it for a second, and then they realized the ball was out.''
There was debate after that game on why the officials didn't ensure the play was reviewed upstairs, given it came in the final two minutes of action. But the replay was not called for, and so questions about whether Evans held the ball long enough to constitute a catch, or had his second foot down before the ball came out were voiced in the aftermath of the Patriots' thrilling win.
"I didn't have any thought about whether or not it was going to be reviewed or if he got his second foot down,'' Moore said. "At that time I was just trying to get the next play call, because I did not want to go through that again, where I didn't know the coverage call.''
Moore actually made the game's next big play, too, breaking up a 3rd-and-1 pass to tight end Dennis Pitta at the 5, on the ensuing snap. Then Cundiff came on and missed the field goal way wide left, and New England only had to run out the final 15 seconds to claim its fifth Super Bowl trip in 11 seasons. Bedlam ensued in Gillette Stadium, and the next two weeks of Moore's life became a series of appreciative moments, coming at him from every direction.
"It was funny, because I'd walk into the facility and whoever I saw, they'd shake my hand and be like, 'Thank you, thank you,' '' Moore said. "And it'd be some of the same guys every day. I'd say, 'You guys shook my hand after the game, and like every day since.' But they just kept doing it.''
What about notoriously gruff Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, the man in the hoodie? What did he say to the cornerback who nearly cost him a Super Bowl trip, but then recovered and helped ensure it?
"I know we shared a hug after that game, and after that play,'' Moore said. "But I don't think he said anything all that memorable. I know when I left for Dallas he said I had made a lot of great plays and helped them get as far as they had last year. That was special.''
Moore's play, to many, was the quintessential example of the Patriots way of playing. You play until the whistle, until the play is over, you never give up on a play, and you don't take anything for granted.
"Honestly, it might sound cliche', but they teach it that way in New England,'' Moore said. "It's never stop hustling, just do the little things, and play to the whistle. We had a drill that we used to do at the end of practice with the receivers where we were just literally playing their hands. We don't look back for the ball as a DB, it's just when their hands go up we try to break through their hands. And that's what came up late in that game, with the game and the season on the line. For me, it was the only time throughout the season that situation came up. That moment was the only chance I had to do that all season.''
Even though the Patriots went on to lose their Super Bowl rematch with the Giants, Moore said his offseason was filled with reminders of his play, including a chance meeting with Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith at a charity event.
"I talked to Jimmy Smith, and he was like, 'You cost me my ticket to the Super Bowl,' '' Moore said. "I told him I was just trying to survive out there, and if I didn't make that play, I may not even be playing any more.''
It was either going to be Moore or Evans as the goat, and that's the dog-eat-dog world that exists in the NFL, especially in the high-tension setting of the playoffs. It's that reality, Moore said, that has never led him to feel sorry for either Evans or Cundiff. It easily could have been him to wear the blame.
"Honestly, I really haven't thought about what the flip side was like for them, because it was either them or me,'' he said. "I've thought about what it would have been like for me if [Evans] had held onto that ball. But I'm definitely glad I made that play, and went to the Super Bowl because of it.''
As he watches Sunday's AFC title game unfold, he's hoping his claim to fame from last year's championship isn't the only moment of real consequence in his NFL career.
"If that's it, I'm not OK with it, because that means I didn't do much in this league,'' Moore said. "I just try to keep pushing because I don't want to be remembered for just that one play. That can't be the only thing I do. I'm hoping there's more big plays to come.''