BALTIMORE - The New England Patriots are still perfect, but looking mighty vulnerable.
New England pulled off its greatest escape thus far to become the sixth team in NFL history to start a season with 12 victories. For the second straight week, it was a struggle against a losing team, but the incredibly resourceful Patriots got an 8-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds left last night to beat the Baltimore Ravens, 27-24.
The winning drive in the final minutes covered 73 yards and required two fourth-down conversions; one on a defensive holding penalty 6 seconds before Gaffney beat Dawan Landry in the left corner of the end zone.
Driven to distraction by a Baltimore defense at times reminiscent of the 2000 unit that led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, Brady came through late - as he always seems to.
"Most of it for three quarters didn't go in our favor," Brady said. "On the road, tough environment against a team that has won a lot of games in the last few years. It was tough."
Eight days after edging the Eagles, 31-28, the Patriots barely kept alive their pursuit of the only unblemished record in NFL history, Miami's 17-0 in 1972.
With Pittsburgh (9-3) up next, the Patriots must recapture some of their record-setting ways from earlier in the season to keep their flawless record intact.
"We prepared to get their best," coach Bill Belichick said. "A lot of things that we didn't do well that we need to do - you name it, we need to improve it. Offense, defense, special teams."
As the biggest road favorite in a nonreplacement game (19 points), the Patriots nearly laid a dud in swirling winds and occasional snow flurries. They trailed for much of the game, but Brady relentlessly guided them downfield for the winning score and his 41st touchdown pass of the season. He's eight short of Peyton Manning's record with four games left.
That the Ravens (4-8), losers of five straight, would test the Patriots so severely was stunning. Indeed, if not for untimely penalties and a fumble of an interception return by Ed Reed, the Ravens might have pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
Baltimore got a brilliant effort from Willis McGahee, who rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown. Kyle Boller threw for two scores, and the Ravens managed three sacks.
But they couldn't hang on, although a 52-yard completion to Mark Clayton got them to the New England 3 as time ran out.
Cornerback Chris McAlister criticized the officiating, particularly the late holding call on rookie safety Jamaine Winborne.
"It's hard to go out there and play the Patriots and the refs at the same time," McAlister said. "They put the crown on top of them, they want them to win. They won." *