FOXBORO -- In the waning moments of Sunday’s AFC championship, the Ravens were a muddled mess.
Coach John Harbaugh was seen shoving an assistant on the sidelines, and wide receiver Lee Evans dropped what would have been a late touchdown pass (with some help from Patriots’ defensive back Sterling Moore). And despite the fact that Baltimore had another timeout before it tried a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the game, the Ravens rushed kicker Billy Cundiff and the rest of the field-goal team onto the field as the play clock was winding down. Cundiff, clearly rattled, missed badly.
All of that stood in contrast to the Patriots, who were able to maintain their collective composure. New England never appeared to come unglued, even after suffering back-to-back body shots from the Ravens in the second half. First, Baltimore took a 17-16 lead on a 29-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith late in the third quarter. And then, Danny Woodhead fumbled the ensuing kickoff, setting the Ravens up with great field position that led to a 39-yard field goal to make it 20-16 with less than a minute to go in the third quarter.
But down the stretch, with a trip to Super Bowl XLVI on the line, New England answered. Tom Brady led the Patriots on an 11-play, 63-yard drive that allowed New England to regain the lead, while Moore came away with a pair of big pass breakups. In all, there was never the same sense of chaos permeating the Patriots’ sideline that was evident on the other side of the field.
In truth, that’s pretty much been the case all year for New England, which has managed to keep cool, even when things have gotten a little dicey. That was seen in the way the team went about their business: During the 2011 regular season, the Patriots came from behind in nine of their 13 wins, overcoming an average deficit of 8.4 points in those victories. That includes four deficits of at least nine points (or at least two scores), and one three-game stretch where they were able to overcome deficits of nine, 17 and 21 points.
They have been placed in some high-stress situations this season, and with one notable exception, they have managed to keep calm and carry on.
“Obviously, it starts from the top and trickles down from there, from our captains and our leaders. And we just have to go out there and execute,” said running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis of the in-game composure displayed by the Patriots this season. “It doesn’t matter if we’re up 21 or down 21. We still have to go out and make plays. We just have to go out here and do what we do.”
Of course, there have been moments where things didn’t go exactly as planned. That includes several instances of poor execution and mental errors in back-to-back losses (Oct. 30 against Pittsburgh and Nov. 6 against the New York Giants). But special teams’ ace Matt Slater said that even the bad moments can be turned into positives if you look at it as a learning experience.
“I think the best thing that could have happened to this football team was us losing those back-to-back games in the middle of the season,” Slater said. “Adversity, I think, is a good thing, depending on how you respond to it. And we responded to it so well, the adversity that we faced. We were sitting there, 5-3, struggling, people talking about the defense, the offense, the special teams.
“But at that point I think we really rallied together and found out what we had. The character of this football team was displayed from there on out. In hindsight, those two losses might have been the best thing that happened to this team.”
Much of the Patriots ability to excel in key moments stems from their ability to excel when it comes to situational football. Slater spoke Monday about New England’s preparation for just about any possibility, including a free kick situation. It’s happened four times in the last 23 years -- basically, the NFL’s equivalent of Halley’s Comet -- but if there’s ever a free kick involving the Patriots, they’re ready.
“It’s not a play you see often in this game, but it’s something that we’ve practiced and prepared for,” Slater said of the free kick possibility. “Coach (Bill) Belichick does a great job coaching situational football, and having us aware and learning at all times of what’s going on out there on the football field.
“You feel so prepared around here going into a football game, it’s unbelievable. You feel comfortable with everything you might see and things you might not have seen before. I think that’s what coach -- he does a great job preparing us for that.”
“Coach does a great job of putting us through a number of situations every week,” said offensive lineman Brian Waters. “So it doesn’t surprise us when we’re in certain situations, because we’ve practiced those things numerous times.”
That preparation includes hurried end-of-half and end-of-game field goal attempts, exactly the sort of situational football that ended up sinking the Ravens on Sunday. At the end of training camp practices, the sight of holder Zoltan Mesko and kicker Stephen Gostkowski running on the field to try and execute late-game field-goal attempts is commonplace.
“Our coach prepares us. He puts an extreme amount of pressure on us, so when those situations come up, practice situations become game reality. Those things become second nature to us,” said Green-Ellis. “You never know what’s going to go on around here. That’s part of coaches’ job. He keeps us even-keeled on everything.”