The New England Patriots are back in the Super Bowl for the first time since 2008, but they're are about as far from that dominant team as one can get. These Patriots of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and an arrogantly cobbled-together defense aren't scary.
In fact, it's the Patriots who played frightened for much of this AFC Championship Game, beating a Baltimore Ravens team that refused to win 23-20 by the hair of its chinny chin chin. Brady and Belichick needed Lee Evans to let a sure, game-winning touchdown pass get knocked out of his hands. They needed Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff to completely seize up on a 32-yard field goal that would have tied it with 11 seconds left.
Not one, but two chokes by the other team. That's what it took for the Patriots to wheeze to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI.
How much worse most the Houston Texans feel about right now? Above all, this AFC Championship Game exposed how ripe this conference was for the taking.
At least, Brady had the sense to admit it afterwards.
"Well, I sucked pretty bad today," he told CBS' Jim Nantz. "But our defense saved us."
Brady got it half right. He stunk, but it's the Ravens' ineptitude that saved New England.
How much worse most the Houston Texans feel about right now? Above all, this AFC Championship Game exposed how ripe this conference was for the taking this year. The Texans must be kicking themselves all over again for those four turnovers in Baltimore, for even with a third-string rookie fifth-round draft pick at quarterback, it's no great stretch to argue that Houston clearly had the most talented team in the AFC playoffs.
The Texans' Bulls On Parade defense certainly looked better than the Ravens or Patriots' units ever did. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is still Joe Flacco, but he still managed to throw for more than 300 yards against the Patriots' 31st-ranked defense (in total yards allowed), he still should have walked out of Gillette Stadium with a win. The New England defense played a 5-foot-10 wide receiver at cornerback in Julian Edelman, a sign of Belichick's delusional descent into believing in his own genius above all.
The Patriots could have drafted or signed better defensive players. They should have. But Belichick coaches to prove he's the smartest of all as much as he coaches to win these days.
Flacco picked on Edelman with relish on that final drive, what should have been the game-winning drive. Evans — who made a spectacular catch in that 20-13 escape over the Texans last Sunday — couldn't hold onto a football that settled right into his arms though. Sterling Moore, a rookie defensive back from SMU, shouldn't have been able to out moxie Evans, an eight-year veteran with 381 career receptions, on the play.
"We came up a little bit short as 53," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a TV interview outside his locker room. "Fifty three win and 53 lose."
Sometimes, a few of the players on that 53-man roster lose more than others. Brady, the golden quarterback, came so close to being the goat himself.
Cundiff choked away a tie and an overtime chance that would be at best 50-50 against Brady, even as he poorly as he played. Evans gagged up a certain win.
He finished with a 57.5 quarterback rating, threw two interceptions and no touchdowns a week after torching Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos for an NFL-record six. Evans let that touchdown go through his hands, though.
More people will blame Cundiff. Kickers are always isolated and easy targets. But Cundiff choked away a tie and an overtime chance that would be at best 50-50 against Brady, even as he poorly as he played. Evans gagged up a certain win.
There's no way Moore's swipe should have dislodged that football. But it did. So Belichick and Brady sputter on, right into Indianapolis for their fifth Super Bowl together. This should be the first one since Brady was a rookie taking on The Greatest Show on Turf in 2002 that they go in as underdogs.
These aren't your dominant, dynasty Patriots.
Even after Flacco inevitably, finally went Flacco, throwing an interception right after New England retook the lead, Brady threw one right back on the very next possession. The Patriots wouldn't win as much as they'd survive.
The Patriots played uncharacteristically passive, opting to take two knees and run out the first half clock when they took over at their own 10-yard line with a minute left, despite holding two timeouts. That's an eternity in Brady time. But with a fifth Super Bowl berth so close, Belichick went more cautious than he ever has since Tom Brady became Tom Brady.
That sequence showed how spooked these Ravens had the favorite.
Belichick almost willingly settled for field goals in the red zone, didn't go for it on fourth and short. New England's usual attacking, go-for-the-throat approach was nowhere to be found.
Until the game's first telling point. Until the Patriots found themselves down 20-16 in the fourth quarter, facing a fourth and inches inside Baltimore's one-yard line.
Finally New England went for it — and Brady went up high, diving over the top of the pile for the touchdown, $18 million of quarterback selling out his body for another Super Bowl chance.
That won't be the moment everyone remembers though. Instead, a blown touchdown catch and a wide left kick will live on, right with the scene of Brady and Belichick escaping into a gloomy New England night.
They're in the Super Bowl, but they're anything but super.