Moore's late-game plays save day for Pats

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Moore's late-game plays save day for Pats

FOXBORO -- Sterling Moore was in attendance for last year's Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas. But he was just a fan then.

In two weeks, the rookie will be playing in the big game, in large part because of his on-field play in Sunday's AFC Championship win over the Baltimore Ravens.

The story at Gillette Stadium was Billy Cundiff's missed 32-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide left with 11 seconds remaining. But even if he had made the clutch kick, the game wouldn't have been over. It would have tied the game at 23-23, sending it to overtime.

It was Moore's heroic defensive efforts, prior to the missed kick, that truly saved the day.

Before the kick, Baltimore had the ball at New England's 14-yard line with one timeout remaining, and a chance to put it in the end zone for the win in regulation.

On 2nd-and-1, Flacco threw a perfect pass to Lee Evans in the back-right corner of the end zone. It hit Lee in the numbers, and looked as if he made the catch, which would have ended the game. But Moore quickly reacted by batting the ball out of Evans' hands, making for an incomplete pass, and bringing up a 3rd-and-1 from the 14.

"I saw him catch it," said Moore after the game. "Honestly, I saw him catch it, and I tried to do whatever I could to get the ball out. It was the first thing I did, so, I'm glad it worked.

"It wasn't even in my mind to slap the ball out. That was just a reaction."

That reactionary type of play came up again on the very next snap, as Flacco tried to find Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta with a throw to the right side, but that was also batted away by Moore, forcing the Ravens to attempt a game-tying 32-yard field goal.

We all know how that worked out.

If it wasn't for Moore's heroics in Baltimore's final set of downs, then it would be the Ravens celebrating a trip to the Super Bowl, not the Patriots.

"Sterling has done a good job or us here the last few weeks going back to the Buffalo game and then last week against Denver," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He made some plays. Not perfect out there, but he competes hard and hes a tough kid. Hes got good ball skills. He gets around the ball."

Moore's game-saving plays showed that he was also able to put game-changing breakdowns behind him.

In the final minutes of the third quarter, Moore was beat by Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith after Smith caught a quick dump-off and spun up the right sideline. Moore couldn't make the tackle on Smith before he dove into the end zone, giving the Ravens their first lead of the game at 17-16.

"The biggest thing was just trying not to think about it," said Moore. "They just told me to put it behind you, and step up and make a play. And that's what I did."

And because of those big plays he eventually made up for his third-quarter mishap.

Moore entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent this season and was cut by the Oakland Raiders in late September. Now, he's one of the main reasons the Patriots are heading back to the Super Bowl.

"It shows just the mental toughness that he has, personally," said Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo. "He comes out every day and goes to work, and tries to show the coaches what he's capable of doing. He showed it today."

"Just the season that I've had, just to do it at this stage, is huge," said Moore. "Proving to everybody else that, you know, I can make these plays. I'm glad the Patriots gave me the opportunity. I deserve to be out there.

"I'm very fortunate, very blessed to be here," said Moore. "When I was released from the Raiders, who knew that I would be picked up. Who knew what team, when. I'm just glad to be here and have the opportunity that coach Belichick gave me."

On Sunday, Moore returned the favor.

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.