Patriots had angel looking out for them

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- OK. That works.

"That's what I was thinking," New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo gushed. "It doesn't matter if the score was 99-98 or 2-0. As long as we got the win, that's all we care about."

On a night when their franchise player was shockingly ordinary, when their inexperienced secondary was alternately exposed then redeemed, when their seemingly indestructible tight end glumly limped to the locker room with a gruesome-looking foot injury, the New England Patriots desperately tried to survive.

If they did, they would advance to their first Super Bowl in four seasons. If they didn't, the gritty Baltimore Ravens would steal their thunder (again) on their home field with their smashmouth football.

In the final minute of Sunday's AFC Championship Game, the Ravens and their oft-maligned quarterback, Joe Flacco, were driving down the field with Brady-like precision while the home team, clinging to a 23-20 lead, watched as its secondary backpedaled farther and farther into its own end.

With only 22 seconds left on the game clock, Flacco found veteran Lee Evans on a slant route in the corner of the end zone and delivered a perfect strike to his midsection. Patriots defender Sterling Moore, his back to the ball, appeared to be beaten on the play.

But when Evans didn't gather the ball into his body, Moore who started the season with the Oakland Raiders, spent several weeks on New England's practice squad and was released on Dec. 10 before being re-signed four days later, pawed at the ball and stripped it free.

That's what kind of season it has been in Foxborough. A guy no one had even heard of two months ago saved New England's season.

"We do that drill every day in practice," Moore said, "but it was the first time I had to use it in a game."

Moore broke up another Flacco pass on the very next play, this time deflecting the ball away from intended target Dennis Pitta.

That forced Baltimore to kick a routine 32-yard field goal to force overtime. But when kicker Billy Cundiff hooked the kick wide left, the Patriots gleefully leaped into each other's arms, clinching the victory in a most unorthodox fashion.

"Someone was smiling down on us," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, his voice breaking. "We had an angel looking out for us."'

Kraft tapped the pin on his lapel bearing the initials of his late wife, Myra, a tireless philanthropist who succumbed to cancer on July 20. The team dedicated the season to her memory, and her grieving husband acknowledged after the unlikely finish, "There were some forces at work that's beyond anything we can understand."

It's unlikely the Ravens want to hear about divine intervention. They put themselves in postion to win this game behind the sure arm of Flacco, whose numerous doubters included his own Hall of Fame teammate, safety Ed Reed. Flacco was superb most of the evening, deftly moving his team down the field with underneath routes as well as sideline bombs.

It was Brady who uncharacteristically botched several plays, including overthrowing receivers and lofting a long ball into double coverage to Matthew Slater that was tipped, then picked off. A relieved Brady declared in an interview on live television immediately following the game, "Well, I sucked pretty bad today."

"Who cares?" folk hero/tight end Rob Gronkowski retorted. "We won the game. And I don't care how we did it. It's so hard to win big games like this in the NFL."

Gronkowski caught five passes for 87 yards but no touchdowns. After hauling in a 23-yard catch, his longest of the day with 43 seconds left in the third quarter, his left ankle contorted awkwardly and he immediately retreated to the training room. Gronk later returned, although he did not catch any more balls. He was playfully evasive regarding his medical status after the game.

"It's good," he said, when asked about his foot. When told the replay made the injury look somewhat horrific, he grinned and said, "Well, there you go."

Indeed, this game was a slugfest between two physical teams that provided big plays when it mattered most. There were big hits -- and some big misses. The Patriots understand they are lucky to be the team left standing, although there were multiple references to the mettle they exhibited during critical junctures of the game when the momentum squarely favored Baltimore.

"I think mental toughness is doing your best for your team even when everything's not going right for you personally," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "That's how we define it."

Based on that description, the medal winners from this game would include Moore, as well as Brandon Spikes, who has been in and out of the lineup during his time in New England because of injuries, suspensions and various other indiscretions. But Spikes came up with a huge interception and some key stops in this game.

Then there was defensive captain Vince Wilfork, who imposed his will (and his sizable 350-pound frame) on Baltimore's offense, including smothering Flacco on a critical fourth down late in the game to force an incomplete pass. Throw in the tight end twins, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and some blue-collar running from BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

The Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl despite two interceptions and a fumble, not to mention a mediocre outing from the quarterback who personifies their tradition of excellence. This will be Brady's fifth trip, for Wilfork the third, and for a host of new, young Patriots bucks, the very first.

And in closing the karmic circle, the Patriots will face the New York Giants, the same team that ruined New England's perfect season in Super Bowl XLII and who benefited from some good fortune of their own, a muffed punt by the 49ers that set up the winning field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship Game.

"It feels like childlike joy," Mayo said. "Last night felt like the night before Christmas to me.

"Last week I got my first playoff win, now I've got my first AFC championship and now my first Super Bowl. To see guys like Rodney [Harrison] and Drew [Bledsoe] come back, that means a lot to me, to be able to contribute to that legacy."

The franchise quarterback vows to be far more efficient in the next game, which will be held on the NFL's largest stage. The secondary assures us they are a work in progress, still coming together, learning to make big plays. The chiseled tight end swears he's not injured -- at least not enough to miss the game he's been waiting to play in since he was a 6-year-old boy banging heads with his brothers in upstate New York.

"It's great to be a part of it," Gronkowski said. "Growing up through middle school and high school, I watched Tom Brady go [to the Super Bowl] many times. And now it's my turn -- our turn."

It wasn't pretty or precise or perfect. It was, in many respects, downright lucky.

"Big deal," said Brandon Spikes. "We got there, didn't we?"

Sure did. That's why it works.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.