Winds of change

The Baltimore Sun

Winds were gusting up to 35 mph near M&T; Bank Stadium last night - in every way imaginable. The flags atop either set of goal posts often were flapping in opposite directions, and down on the field, it was no easier to keep track of the changes.

One moment, your team had the wind at its back. The next, the bitter cold was slapping you right in the face, freezing nose hairs and whipping around passes.

One moment, your offense was acting as if it were still 2006. The next, your defense was.

And, one moment, you're on the verge of the biggest upset of the NFL season. The next, you're heading to the locker room, heads hung low for the sixth time in a row.

When the wind had finished swirling emotions last night, the Patriots won a nail-biter, 27-24, courtesy of a last-minute drive by Tom Brady and a suspect touchdown reception for Jabar Gaffney. The Patriots rode a fortunate breeze out of town, but not without scattering several truths around Baltimore.

This morning, the gust carried the echo to all corners of the NFL. The Patriots are not invincible. As far as heavyweight champs go, for much of last night, they reminded you of Mike Tyson.

Even when the Colts made their run at a perfect season in 2005, they weren't as feared as this Patriots team. From the cunning head coach to the cover-boy quarterback to the sure-handed wide receiver, the Patriots make Darth Vader seem like a Sesame Street character. How many times this season have we watched opposing teams participate in the coin flip and then immediately run for cover?

It took a team that wasn't scared. It took a team that had nothing to lose. It took Buster Douglas in cleats.

Say what you will about the Ravens and a season that has wavered between disappointing and embarrassing, they're not a team that has ever run from a fight, not a team that gives up early and not a team that's intimidated easily.

Despite whatever mixed emotions are whipping around Baltimore this morning, we didn't learn as much about the Ravens last night as we did the Patriots.

We knew the Ravens would try to make their bite match their bark, but it was the Patriots who showed they're not nearly as big as their reputation. Listening to television analysts and studying the lopsided scores each week, you'd think the Patriots had won the Vince Lombardi Trophy back in October.

The past two weeks, they showed exactly why no one in Foxborough, Mass., has any business clearing mantle space right now. First A.J. Feeley and now Kyle Boller expose the chinks in your armor? Tom Brady's smile might be perfect; the Patriots are not.

This is how the wind blows in this league. One moment, you're unstoppable and every opponent is begging for mercy in the first round. The next, you survived by the hair on your neck and every future opponent knows how vulnerable you are.

Last night's game was back and forth throughout. But early in the final quarter, after Boller gave his team a narrow lead, for once the flags atop the goal posts didn't switch directions. On the Patriots' ensuing possession, Brady was sacked twice in a row and New England had to punt. And, still, the flags didn't change directions.

A Patriots' punt and Yamon Figurs returned it 33 yards and the Ravens started inside the Pats' 30-yard line. No need to look up at the flags at this point. Tyson was against the ropes. Right?

Wrong. Pats safety James Sanders intercepted a Boller pass and returned 42 yards. After some huffing and puffing in either direction, the bell finally rang to start the final round.

One moment, the Ravens had ended the Patriots' final drive with a key defensive stop. The next, an official belatedly announced a timeout had been called and fans were forced to watch as the Pats first swallowed a penalty and then converted a first down on fourth-and-six.

A few minutes later, on fourth-and-five, the Ravens defense was called for a holding, giving the Pats first-and-goal from the 8. The wind stopped mattering. In this version, the champ wasn't going down.

One moment, Gaffney caught the game-winning touchdown pass for the Patriots. The next, after you watch the replay -Did he have possession? - you expect the wind to change directions one final time. An official speaks. The call stands. Touchdown.

One moment, you're a giant-killer.

The next, you've had the wind completely knocked out of you.

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