Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, right, runs from Ravens cornerback Anthony Levine as he heads for touchdown after catching a pass from Julian Edelman during an AFC divisional playoff game in January 2015. AP file photo

Editor’s note: During the coming weeks, Sun Journal staff writer Randy Whitehouse will count down the New England Patriots’ top five playoff wins of the past 20 years — in other words, the Tom Brady Era. No. 5 on the list is the Patriots’ 35-31 win over the Ravens in 2015.

On the evening of January 10, 2015, I was assigned to cover a high school hockey game in venerable Sukee Arena. It was the only game I ever covered in that tin can, which fittingly ended up housing a trailer manufacturing company after its icemaker broke and it had to close.

Also on this night, the New England Patriots were hosting the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC Divisional playoff game for the ages. The 4 p.m. kickoff allowed me to watch the first half before hustling up to Winslow for faceoff, where I’d hoped, fruitlessly as it turned out, to be able to receive updates via my phone. At least I didn’t hit a deer on the way home.

Technology let me down that night. The New England Patriots did not. Technology redeemed itself by allowing me to watch the replay in its entirety later that night on the NFL Network, possibly even legally. The Patriots redeemed themselves by rallying from two 14-point deficits to defeat the Ravens 35-31 in what remains one of the most dramatic and satisfying playoff wins of the Tom Brady Era. It also sparked the second dynastic run of the era, which lands it at No. 5 in our Patriots Playoff Countdown.

THE PATRIOTS

The Lombardi drought had reached a decade by this point, and a large number of veterans such as Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty had yet to win a ring. The “What have they won since SpyGate?” crowd was growing by the day.

Brady was 37 and still dominant, but it seemed time was running out. Jimmy Garoppolo was a rookie and already stealing some of Brady’s female admirers, if not his job. This was the season of the “They’re not good anymore” declaration by Trent Dilfer after they were routed on a Monday night in Kansas City. The running game was so spotty it looked for a couple of weeks like Jonas Gray was going to be the man.

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) spikes the football after his touchdown catch in an AFC divisional playoff game in January 2015. AP file photo

The defense had been so bad for so long many wondered if even the addition of Darrelle Revis could take it to championship level. Jerod Mayo wrecked his knee and was lost for the season, leaving the linebacking to pups Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Sealver Siliga started at defensive end. Sealver Siliga! And yes,  I had to look up how to spell his name.

What we didn’t know about the Patriots at the time of this game was how mentally tough they were. It’s not exactly revealing a secret that this team will be on the list again.

THE OPPONENT

No offense to the Denver Broncos, but the Ravens were the most feared opponent of the second half of the dynasty because they proved time and again they could beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. They gave away the 2011 AFC Championship there, then came back a year later, made Brady look silly and killed Stevan Ridley en route to the Super Bowl. Plus they had Joe Flacco, whose lone skill, throwing the ball up for grabs several times a game, exploited the Patriots’ secondary’s greatest weakness, not being able to cover anyone while the ball was in the air without committing pass interference. Admit it, when Flacco threw up a Hail Mary from midfield on this game’s final play, you thought it was going to be a touchdown. I know I did, and I didn’t actually see the play until after I knew the Patriots had won.

FRANCHISE/NFL IMPACT

Few games have had the impact on franchise and NFL history that this one had. It’s easily the most important divisional playoff game after the Tuck Rule game against the Oakland Raiders.

Don’t underestimate the psychological boost the Patriots got from winning it. Players and coaches said this win helped inspire the comeback against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, which at the time tied the largest deficit overcome to win a Super Bowl.

This game also spawned DeflateGate. Or, rather, Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh’s pride spawned DeflateGate.

New England Patriots strong safety Duron Harmon (30) intercepts a pass intended for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (82) in the second half of an AFC divisional playoff game in January 2015. AP file photo

The Patriots angered Harbaugh and the Ravens with one of Belichick’s classic “I know the rules better than you” tweaks (or troll, depending upon one’s rooting interest). Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui lined up at what the Ravens identified as a tackle, yet he was an eligible receiver because running back Shane Vereen lined up on the other side of the line in an ineligible position, essentially becoming a fifth lineman.

Hoomanawanui caught a pass and the Patriots continued lining up in funky formations until Harbaugh lost his hat, throwing a hissy fit on the sidelines that made his brother, Jim, seem well-adjusted by comparison.

Embarrassed, Harbaugh had his feelings hurt further by Brady’s post-game wisecrack that he needed to learn the rule book, so he tipped off the Indianapolis Colts, New  England’s AFC Championship opponent the following week, that the Ravens suspected the Patriots were deflating footballs. Roger Goodell saw a chance to show who’s boss, Belichick threw Brady under the bus with his “Mona Lisa Vito” press conference, Robert Kraft kowtowed to Goodell and his fellow owners and things got a little weird around the Patriots’ Holy Trinity after that. It may not be the reason Brady is in Tampa Bay now, but it certainly didn’t help.

SIGNATURE PLAY

Brady-to-Edelman-to-Amendola. It went for 51 yards and the tying touchdown, as the Pats rallied from down 28-14 to 28-28 with 4:20 left in the third quarter. That Belichick and Josh McDaniels waited until this moment to pull this play out of their bag of tricks is part of its appeal.

It’s funny to remember this is the first pass Julian Edelman, who was in his sixth year, ever threw for the Patriots. We’ve been reminded by Jim Nantz and Joe Buck and Ian Eagle so many times that he was a quarterback at Kent State that it’s annoying. Another negative is that I believe it emboldened McDaniels and Belichick to try other cute ideas in big games, like throwing the ball to Brady in the Super Bowl.

It was still worth it.

New England Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell (19) celebrates his touchdown catch with Julian Edelman, right, against the Ravens during an AFC divisional playoff game in January 2015. AP file photo

MOST UNDERRATED PLAY

It’s not often a game-winning touchdown pass is the most underrated play in a playoff game. Brady’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell loses out to the trick play in part because it came with 5:13 left in the game and the Patriots needed two more defensive stands (the first ending on a Duron Harmon interception and the last ending with a failed Hail Mary) to clinch the game.

The throw Brady made over Raven cornerback (future Patriot) Rashaan Melvin is arguably the prettiest he’s ever made. It was so perfect and had such great touch on it that even LaFell, whose hands would soon turn to stone, couldn’t drop it. It was also Brady’s 46th career playoff touchdown pass, which broke Joe Montana’s record.

UP NEXT

Look, I told you this team was mentally tough, all right?

 


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