Patriots pushed to the limit -- and thrived

Vince Wilfork and the Patriots' defense made the stops when it needed to in New England's win. Mark L. Baer/US Presswire

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had never been in a game quite like this. It was evident when the 22-year-old Pro Bowler stood up to watch Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff line up for a 32-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining.

Leading by three points, Gronkowski followed his instincts and wanted to see Baltimore's triumph or train wreck. That's just the kind of guy "Gronk" is. Meanwhile, most of his Patriots teammates couldn't stomach the situation and looked the other way.

"I watched it, and I looked around I saw everybody not watching it," Gronkowski explained, somewhat surprised. "It's whatever way you want to take it. But I watched it, and I was glad watching it."

Cundiff shanked a chip shot wide left to give New England a 23-20 victory over Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game. The surprising finish helped the Patriots advance to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis to face the New York Giants on Feb. 5.

Many of Growkowski's teammates didn't realize they were going to the Super Bowl until the crowd at Gillette Stadium reacted. The response on the New England sideline was that of shock, disbelief and jubilation -- all wrapped into one moment.

In the end, the Patriots knew they were pushed to their limits -- and thrived. Yes, New England had three losses in the regular season. But the Patriots learned more about themselves in Sunday's heart-stopping, back-and-forth slugfest with Baltimore than all three losses combined.

New England entered this postseason going one-and-done in back-to-back seasons. This Patriots team won last week against the Denver Broncos with skill. But getting past Baltimore on Sunday took pure will.

"We are a pretty mentally tough team," Patriots receiver Wes Welker said. "We don’t even really get down or get too high or too low or anything like that. We just try to stay steady and understand that we need to make plays. No matter what the circumstances or what happens out there, we’re in it together and that’s how we’re going to win games."

How tough was this game for New England? The Patriots had to do something you didn't see from them all season: win with their 31st-ranked defense.

New England's much-maligned group held a three-point lead in the fourth quarter by stopping the Ravens on the final three possessions -- OK, maybe two? possessions -- to seal the game. New England's offense, which averaged 40.5 points in its previous four games, scored only 23 points and committed two turnovers.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was responsible for the offensive turnovers with two interceptions and admitted, "I sucked pretty bad today." New England had issues moving the ball for long stretches and also stalled in the red zone, where the Patriots were two of five.

New England's defense gave up 398 yards but stuffed the Ravens when it mattered.

"[The defense] is the real MVP of this game, without a shadow of a doubt," Patriots Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters said. "I'm sure there are some things they want to clean up. But more than anything, we put them in some bad situations and they kept us safe and clean and kept us in the game."

New England and Baltimore were unquestionably the two best teams in the AFC. The difference between them Sunday was only a missed field goal. The Patriots were just a little bit better.

There was talk of New England not beating anybody of substance all season. Before Sunday’s game, the Patriots hadn't defeated an opponent that finished with a winning record. The Denver Broncos (8-8) were the only playoff team the Patriots had beaten. New England swept Denver in two games -- once in the regular season and once in the divisional round of the playoffs.

When I mentioned this to Patriots veteran running back Kevin Faulk, he shrugged and indicated he didn't care. The Patriots have won 10 games in a row and are heading to the Super Bowl.

"We never put those teams on our schedule. The NFL schedules that," Faulk said. "So we just have to play the teams that they schedule for us. It doesn’t matter what their records are. They’re still a football team that’s in the NFL."

New England didn’t play its "A" game Sunday. The Ravens had a lot to do with it. But looking ahead, the Patriots will have to play a lot better to win their fourth Super Bowl of the Brady-Bill Belichick era.

Brady wasn’t happy with himself after the game but he did tie his childhood hero, Joe Montana, for the most playoff wins in NFL history. This was the first time in a long time Brady didn’t have much to do with New England’s postseason win. His defense was finally there to back him up after Brady carried the Patriots with an MVP-caliber season.

Despite Brady's performance, Patriots owner Robert Kraft entered the locker room Sunday night with a big smile and the AFC Championship trophy in hand. Kraft said he was comforted by something Brady told him after the game.

"Well, here's what he said to me: He said to me, 'I promise you I’m going to play a lot better in two weeks,’” Kraft said. "He's still pretty good in my book. I’ll take him over any quarterback."

The Patriots knew they were good. But it took the 18th game of the season for the Patriots to truly learn their level of toughness and resilience.

After being pushed to the limit by Baltimore, the Patriots will go to Indianapolis confidently knowing their team is championship material.