Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Despite being one of the few who believes that this decade has not technically ended yet, seeing these “best of” and “worst of” lists in regards to what happened between 2000-2009 does bring back a ton of memories of what Time Magazine termed as “the decade from hell”.

However, if there is one list that raised an eyebrow, it was’s “Games of the Decade”. Now, these lists are typically created to stir up debates and ramp up hits to websites, despite the fact that is the Microsoft of online sports media. However, knowing this didn’t stop me from a peek and one look at this list made me take this brand new laptop… and just close the lid in absolute disgust.

What perturbed me about this list was that it seems as if the contributors highlighted games based on hyped-up stories, market sizes, controversies, historic end results and brand names instead of concentrating on the totality of the contests themselves. If that was the case, then only the 2008 Wimbledon Men’s Final would have been top-5 worthy and Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals wouldn’t have reached the top 40. Also, much to the chagrin of some Pittsburgh Steelers fans, last year’s very entertaining Super Bowl would have been eclipsed by at least three other Super Bowls: XXXIV (34: Titans-Rams), XXXVI (36: Rams-Patriots) and XLII (42: Patriots-Giants).

It may seem like the game you’ll read about is mentioned to counter this list and in some ways, there’s truth to that. Yet because of how overlooked this contest was by ESPN and others in the sports media world, this post actually brings up what was this Scribe’s favorite. It was not played during a postseason or for a championship, yet it should be in consideration for one the greatest games ever played. In fact, the recent string of “most watched NFL games in cable history” began with this gem on December 3rd, 2007.

For those who love a story, let me repaint the picture for you:

The New England Patriots, as history tells you, lost the last game that mattered, Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants in what is considered by some to be the best Super Bowl of all-time. The Giants’ players wearing all black en route to Glendale, the annoying Mercury Morris, Eli to Tyree, Justin Tuck’s outstanding performance, scores from Randy Moss and Plaxico Burress, etc, etc.

Why that game shines as one of the crown jewels of American sports is not just because the Giants added “and 1” to New England’s 18, but because of how absolutely brilliant the Patriots were in the first sixteen.

Those very Patriots were assaulting the NFL history books as both Tom Brady and Randy Moss broke single-season touchdown records, Wes Welker eclipsed the Patriots’ single-season receptions record and head coach Bill Belichick coached in his fourth Super Bowl in a decade, the most for any head coach in such a time span in league history.

The Patriots came to Baltimore with an 11-0 record to face a 4-7 Ravens team without its starting quarterback (the late Steve McNair placed on injured reserve), several teammates in mourning and a general state of malaise from being out of the playoff picture.

Why this game sticks out compared to the hundreds of NFL games we’ve watched is simple; it was unexpected.

Pigskin pundits and anti-Patriots fans kept talking about how the Eagles presented the blueprint in how to stop New England. Yet, something seemed a bit off about that game. If this apparent blueprint called for the quarterback to throw three interceptions along with his three touchdowns (which A.J. Feely did), then any team that copied it set itself up for an embarrassing loss against men that were on a mission as these Pats were. Philadelphia played strong run defense, but couldn’t get a hand on New England wideouts; especially Wes Welker (13 catches, 149 yards) and Jabar Gaffney (six for 87 and a touchdown). Worse enough, the Eagles didn’t run the ball enough; unless you are one of the handful of elite (including injured-at-the-time Donovan McNabb), the more a quarterback throws, the greater chances grow at some costly interceptions.

The Ravens still boast two future Hall of Famers in middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed. Yet, as the norm since arriving in Maryland from Cleveland, the offense lacked a standout star and confidence in any of their quarterbacks to expand the run-based playbook. Willis McGahee, in his first season since being traded from Buffalo, had an inspired game with 138 yards and a rushing touchdown on thirty carries to go with four catches for 21 yards.

I mention those guys first because all of them are members of “The U”, the most accomplished modern college program among NFL players and fans. All three players “lost a brother” as fellow University of Miami alum Sean Taylor was memorialized earlier that day. The start of the clip above is all you need to know about how emotion buoyed them throughout the game.

The most surprising and most daring performance that night may have actually belonged to Kyle Boller. Once deposed as Baltimore’s quarterback of the future after three years of baffling inconsistency, Boller stood on the sidelines like a good soldier when McNair was traded from Tennessee the season before. Though the team was expected to follow up a 13-3 campaign and a near-defeat of the eventual champion Indianapolis Colts in 2006, the 2007 Ravens’ season was already a colossal disappointment. McNair’s injuries lead to Boller becoming starter and for this game, a resignation among Ravens fans set in; New England was going to annihilate these guys.

Boller wasn’t exactly Dan Fouts out there, but he was pretty composed considering the elements stirring around him that night. He completed fifteen of 23 passes for 210 yards and though he threw a fourth-quarter interception that led to a Patriots field goal, his two touchdown passes gave Baltimore leads that forced New England to respond with late game heroics.

If there was a play that defined the entire game, it was one that only seems to work in college or high school. Boller’s 52-yard Hail Mary pass that Mark Clayton actually caught was just two yards short. That last play of the game could have not only ended New England’s streak of perfection, but could have become legend if Clayton was deeper or there were two less defenders draped over him.

We all remember the penalties; the most memorable of the Ravens’ infractions was Bart Scott’s toss of official’s flag (thrown for an offside on teammate Reed). There were three Baltimore penalties on New England’s final drive, which led to Scott going bezerk. Comments after the game from the Baltimore locker room focused plenty on those flags, but even as Len Pasquarelli pointed out that the time, then-Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel wasn’t exactly happy with the officiating despite the victory. If this game needed some spice, the final three-plus minutes gave viewers an entire spice rack.

When I was watching it at the time, something told me that this was going to be a better-than-expected game. It was Monday night and at least for a few years, the Ravens played well on the national stage, strangely enough when they donned the all-black uniforms. You knew that players all over the NFL were feeling a little dour as Sean Taylor was laid to rest earlier in the day after such a violent death. Yet, the idea of the underdog getting over on the favorite once in a while is a tale as old as sports themselves. The idea that this was a trap game for New England may or may not have been reality, but the inspiration for Baltimore was ever-present through plenty of living rooms beyond Charm City.

In the most unfortunate way, the raw emotions of Lewis, Reed and McGahee - Taylor’s mentors and fellow alums – gave them one of the greatest performances of their careers. Though the alleged fanboyism of ESPN made millions of people sick of the Patriots, 17.5 million viewers (at least for the most watched program in cable history at the time) were fascinated by them for a night. As much as the words ‘drama’ and ‘must-see’ are now hackneyed on television, what happened at M&T Bank Stadium two Decembers ago provided all of that and more.

Why it’s not as recognized as other games this decade is beyond me.

Photo credits to UPI (Heath Evans photo) and the Baltimore Sun (Bart Scott photo)

YouTube props to 'footballanytime'


mindpinball said...

As a fan of the Ravens, I remember that game and feeling the same way at the beginning "the Ravens are going to get killed tonight." Yet as I watched it and saw the Ravens play so well and come so close, I admired how they played that night, and felt bad that they couldn't finish the job, i.e. hang a loss on the Patriots.

I had forgotten that Sean Taylor was memorialized earlier that day...thanks for the reminder. Chris Henry's recent death reminded me of Taylor's in that both men were reportedly turning their lives around when they passed.

Great post.

Jason Clinkscales said...

We chatted about this on Twitter a while back, obviously, but seeing how overlooked this game was bothers me as a NFL fan. I have always been a fan of the Ravens' defense, but also have a healthy respect for what New England has done over the years. Every time a person that tells me how overrated Tom Brady is, I find myself as one of his staunchest defenders... not that he needs it.

Something that I didn't elaborate too much on was the lack of 'brand names' beyond the Patriots. Networks have programmed the sports world to think that if a matchup doesn't involve two big names and/or big-time offensive powers, it doesn't merit hype. The fact that Baltimore has been the antithesis of what we're conditioned to salivate over made this even more of a great game to me.