Forty-eight hours before his team's 23--20 AFC Championship Game victory over the Ravens, Patriots owner Bob Kraft took a drive through the snow-covered streets of Foxborough, Mass., the sleepy town southwest of Boston that roars to life on Sundays in the fall and winter. Kraft stared at the scenery and spoke of the season that has shaken him, with the death in July of his wife of 48 years, Myra, to cancer, and the accompanying grief. Kraft still refers to Myra as "my sweetheart." Many New England players still call her Mama.
Football gives Kraft the peace that eludes him at nighttime, when the laughs of the locker room make way for the tears of a quiet house. "She was 19, I was 20, and on the first date she proposed," said the 70-year-old Kraft as the icy landscape sped by. "I just hope that the players, with her initials above their hearts... ." His voice quavered and went still.
Wearing an MHK patch on their jerseys in memory of Myra Hiatt Kraft, the Patriots have spent the season trying to pick up the thread, dedicating their efforts to her memory and plotting a course back to the game they reached four times in the last decade. If those teams were veteran and serious, the 2011 version is imbued with youth and emotion and, sometimes, the trouble presented by both.
For all their offensive weaponry, these Patriots have suffered lapses on defense, so many that Bill Belichick has used street free agents and offensive players to plug holes. He has coached his players hard—at times with a sharp tongue—but also praises them for their effort amid the shifting depth chart. "If you're not built for it, you won't last around here," receiver Deion Branch says of playing for Belichick. "I truly appreciate the demands of his pushing. I can't say that for everybody."
Often caricatured as a brooding presence in a gray hoodie, Belichick has struck the right chord this season in allowing his players to express themselves—be it the celebrations of his precocious tight ends or the grieving of veterans. Myra Kraft was as much a part of the rhythm of the Patriots' season as film study. She visited ailing players in the training room, invited them for dinner at the Kraft home and in 2008 surprised a large group of Patriots players with a trip to Israel.
Following their comeback victory in Week 16 against the Dolphins, the players stood in the locker room and unveiled an oil painting with the initials MHK above a group of Patriots in a huddle. Belichick hugged Kraft and handed him the game ball that day. "This has been the roughest period of my life," the owner told the team.
On Sunday at Gillette Stadium, when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal with 15 seconds left, the Patriots celebrated like the unbreakable family Kraft has tried to build, losing themselves in a round of hugs that lasted long into the New England night.
With the victory, the Patriots will return to the Super Bowl to face the Giants, who ended New England's perfect season four years ago. If the juiciest plotline is revenge, it is not the one that means most to the Pats. "From the time [Cundiff] missed the field goal, I've been shedding tears," said Branch, the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP who was drafted by New England in 2002, left for the Seahawks in '06 and returned in '10. "Mr. Kraft has done a great job keeping himself together. I can't even fathom how the guy is feeling right now, for us to have an opportunity to play for another Super Bowl without his better half. It's special, but at the same time it's bittersweet."
Said linebacker Brandon Spikes, who intercepted a Joe Flacco pass in the fourth quarter, "I told Mr. Kraft I was going to leave it all on the field for Myra. I personally wanted to come out and get that game for her [and] for him. I told him not to worry about a thing."
After the game Kraft alternated between congratulating players, choking up, pointing skyward and tapping the MHK pin on his lapel. He walked over to Rob Gronkowski's locker and greeted him with the tight end's favorite phrase: "Hey, how do you say it—what's up, Dawg?"
"What's up, Dawg?" Gronkowski responded.
"Yeah, what's up Dawg?"
Kraft then showed his 15-year-old grandson, Harry, around the room, introducing him as a future great quarterback. He handed the AFC championship trophy to linebacker Jerod Mayo.
"One more game," Kraft told him.
"Sixty more minutes," Mayo said.
Few would have guessed that this trip to the Super Bowl would hinge on the right hand of a rookie defensive back as much as the right arm of Tom Brady. The quarterback who threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns in the regular season had just a 57.5 passer rating, with no TDs and two interceptions, against a Ravens defense known to befuddle him. "I sucked pretty bad today," Brady acknowledged after the game.
Instead, the man who saved New England was 21-year-old rookie Sterling Moore, who grew up a Raiders fan in Antioch, Calif., despising the Patriots because of the infamous Tuck Rule playoff game in January 2002. "I was finally able to let it go," Moore said of that Oakland loss to the Pats.
Undrafted out of SMU last spring and unremarkable in civilian clothes, the 5'10", 190-pound Moore endured the fate of many fringe players—signed and released twice by the Raiders, then signed by the Pats on Oct. 5 and elevated to the active roster on Oct. 15. He saw action against the Cowboys on Oct. 16, was released the following day, re-signed with the practice squad two days later and started three games in November. So anonymous is Moore that while he was recently shopping at a Best Buy in Mansfield, Mass., a customer asked him for help in the laptop section. Moore wasn't wearing the trademark blue company shirt, but he is familiar with them. "I used to work at Best Buy back in California," he said. "I might have [the name tag] in my room stashed away somewhere."
As an inexperienced body in a fluid defensive backfield rotation, Moore epitomizes Belichick's predicament but also his belief that, with just the right instruction, the mental and physical repetitions during the week can pay off on Sundays. Moore, though, surely shook his coach's faith at one point against Baltimore. With 3:48 left in the third quarter he let receiver Torrey Smith spin out of his tackle and race 29 yards for a diving touchdown that gave Baltimore a 17--16 lead. That mistake could have scuttled Moore's confidence and sunk New England. "Everybody was telling me, 'We know what you can do. Put that behind you and make a play for this team,' " Moore said.
In the end he made two. Down by three, the Ravens had second-and-one on the New England 14 with 27 seconds left. Moore lined up opposite receiver Lee Evans—and realized he didn't know the defensive play call. "I just decided to play man," he said.
Flacco, maligned in Baltimore and criticized by teammate Ed Reed during the week, rifled a pass to Evans in the end zone, with Moore a step behind. Just as Evans hauled in the ball, setting off a brief celebration on the Ravens' sideline, Moore chopped it out of his hands. "I felt like I had it," Evans said. "The most disappointing part of this is, I feel like I let everybody down."
While Moore said his swipe of the ball was instinct, he also acknowledged it was a play the defensive backs work on daily. "Not perfect out there, but he competes hard and he's a tough kid," Belichick said of Moore. "He's got good ball skills. He gets around the ball."
On the next play Flacco scrambled to his right and zipped a pass to tight end Dennis Pitta near the goal line, but Moore swatted the ball to the ground. That forced the Ravens to attempt a game-tying field goal.
Cundiff had hit only 75.7% of his tries during the regular season, among the worst rates in the league. But he had made his two previous attempts in the game, from 20 and 39 yards, and now rushed on for a 32-yarder as the play clock ticked down. He swung his right leg and the ball hooked left, sinking the Ravens' season. "I think we can just keep things simple," Cundiff said. "It's a kick I've kicked a thousand times in my career. I just went out there and didn't convert."
Moore did not arrive in New England in time to meet Myra Kraft, but he didn't need to ask his teammates if they believed in providence. "Everybody said she was watching," Moore said. "She probably did have something to do with that."
Last Friday, Kraft was riding to the Foxborough branch of the Hockomock YMCA, to which he and his family donated $1 million in 2006. Members swim laps, spike volleyballs and cheer for the Patriots. A picture of Bob and Myra hangs on a wall. The Pats' owner was greeted by a parade of children dressed in jerseys bearing names such as BRADY, WELKER and BRUSCHI.
For one of the figures instrumental in ending last summer's lockout, this was friendly turf. "Beat the Raisins!" a kid shouted, before someone corrected the name of the opponents.
Brady, of course, is the hero, but Kraft told them that as great as the quarterback is, even he couldn't win games alone. In two days' time Kraft would be proved right. He would stand on a chilly field with legendary Patriots and newly famous ones, bound for the sixth Super Bowl of his tenure as owner. He would laugh and joke and, at times, fight back tears.
"You watch Vince Wilfork," Kraft said of New England's titanic defensive tackle. "He used to kiss me coming off the field, and kiss my wife. This year, he kisses me twice."
MOORE EPITOMIZES BELICHICK'S BELIEF THAT, WITH JUST THE RIGHT INSTRUCTIONS, THE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL REPETITIONS DURING THE WEEK CAN PAY OFF ON SUNDAYS.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
ON TOP Brady punched in the go-ahead score from one yard out, and after the Ravens' fateful field goal miss, Belichick had the look of a happy man.
[See caption above]
SIMON BRUTY (FLACCO TACKLE)
THE CHASE IS ON Safety James Ihedigbo (44) and linebacker Rob Ninkovich (50) put the squeeze on Flacco, but late in the game the Ravens' oft-criticized quarterback had his team in position to win.
AL TIELEMANS (MOORE)
STRONG-ARMED Undrafted out of SMU last spring and a practice-squadder this fall, Moore made the critical play by chopping a TD pass out of Evans's grasp.