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 Tom Brady`s 8-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds left to beat the Baltimore Ravens 27-24 Monday night.
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 (4-8) 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 Philadelphia 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 non-replacement 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.
And New England is four wins shy of the only 16-0 regular season ever. Remaining after the Steelers are the weak Dolphins and Jets, and a Saturday night visit to the New York Giants.
That the Ravens, 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 manage to 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."
The Ravens went in front 17-10 as McGahee starred with six carries for 48 yards on a third-quarter drive. He carried two defenders into the end zone on his 17-yard TD that lifted him over 1,000 yards rushing in his first season with Baltimore.
His score also woke up the dormant Patriots offense. Brady found a rhythm at last, as did the running attack, on a 72-yard drive capped by Randy Moss` 3-yard touchdown reception.
Brady joined Manning, Dan Marino and Kurt Warner as quarterbacks who threw for at least 40 touchdowns in a season, and Moss` 17th TD tied a career high for a season.
Yet back came the stunningly resilient Ravens, who rank 26th in total offense. McGahee contributed 40 yards of a 56-yard march to Daniel Wilcox`s 1-yard TD reception, making it 24-17 with 35 seconds gone in the fourth quarter.
Could this be the night for the biggest upset of the NFL season and one of the biggest in league history? It sure looked that way after Brady was sacked on consecutive plays, then rookie Yamon Figurs returned a punt 33 yards to the New England 26.
But the Pats quickly bounced back. James Sanders intercepted Boller`s pass into the wind and returned it 42 yards. Maroney, who earlier scooted 36 yards with a short pass, this time went 43 with one. That set up Stephen Gostowski`s 38-yard field goal.
Baltimore forced a punt after its own three-and-out, but eventually punted back to New England, setting up the winning series.
The Ravens had more moments of brilliance Monday than the Pats, including their longest play of the season. It came on a 53-yard completion by Boller to Devard Darling. That first-quarter surprise, created by Boller escaping strong pressure, led to Boller`s 4-yard TD pass to Derrick Mason for a 7-3 lead. Former Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas just missed knocking down the pass.
Moments later, Brady was sacked on a blitz by Corey Ivy and the Patriots, who had outscored opponents 107-24 in first quarters this season, trailed by four after one period.
They fell behind 10-3 on Matt Stover`s 29-yard field goal. That capped a precise 55-yard drive on which the Ravens` suddenly efficient offense converted a fourth-and-6 when the swirling winds precluded a field goal try from the New England 27.
Were the Patriots getting nervous in such an unfamiliar position? Uh, not exactly.
Brady went to the no-huddle offense on a 60-yard drive helped by two defensive penalties inside the 15. Heath Evans surged in from the 1.
The Pats had a chance to break the 10-10 tie late in the half, but Brady`s long pass to Wes Welker was tipped by the receiver to Reed. He took off on a 34-yard runback, but fumbled when hit by Patrick Pass and New England recovered - only to sheepishly run out the clock.
Patriots 27, Ravens 24
New EnglandÂ Â Â 3Â Â Â 7Â Â Â 7Â Â Â 10Â Â Â - Â Â Â 27
BaltimoreÂ Â Â 7Â Â Â 3Â Â Â 7Â Â Â 7Â Â Â - Â Â Â 24
NE - FG Gostkowski 21, 10:25.
Bal - Mason 4 pass from Boller (Stover kick), 1:18.
Bal - FG Stover 29, 8:45.
NE - Evans 1 run (Gostkowski kick), 5:22.
Bal - McGahee 17 run (Stover kick), 10:05.
NE - Moss 3 pass from T.Brady (Gostkowski kick), 4:26.
Bal - Wilcox 1 pass from Boller (Stover kick), 14:25.
NE - FG Gostkowski 38, 8:41.
NE - Gaffney 8 pass from T.Brady (Gostkowski kick), :44.
A - 71,382.
NEÂ Â Â Bal
First downsÂ Â Â Â Â Â 21Â Â Â 20
Total Net YardsÂ Â Â 326Â Â Â 376
Rushes-yardsÂ Â Â 24-90Â Â Â 37-166
PassingÂ Â Â Â Â Â 236Â Â Â 210
Punt ReturnsÂ Â Â Â Â Â 1-1Â Â Â 2-35
Kickoff ReturnsÂ Â Â 4-73Â Â Â 5-104
Interceptions Ret.Â Â Â 1-42Â Â Â 1-32
Comp-Att-IntÂ Â Â Â Â Â 18-38-1Â Â Â 15-23-1
Sacked-Yards LostÂ Â Â 3-21Â Â Â 0-0
PuntsÂ Â Â Â Â Â 5-37.4Â Â Â 5-38.2
Fumbles-LostÂ Â Â 0-0Â Â Â 1-1
Penalties-YardsÂ Â Â 4-30Â Â Â 13-100
Time of PossessionÂ Â Â 27:06Â Â Â 32:54
RUSHING - New England, Maroney 13-44, Faulk 7-33, T.Brady 2-14, Evans 2-(minus 1). Baltimore, McGahee 30-138, M.Smith 6-24, Boller 1-4.
PASSING - New England, T.Brady 18-38-1-257. Baltimore, Boller 15-23-1-210.
RECEIVING - New England, Moss 4-34, Stallworth 3-68, Welker 3-18, Maroney 2-79, Watson 2-26, Faulk 2-18, Gaffney 1-8, K.Brady 1-6. Baltimore, Mason 6-67, McGahee 4-21, Wilcox 2-4, Darling 1-53, Clayton 1-52, M.Smith 1-13.
MISSED FIELD GOALS - None.