Torrey Smith played through grief. Wes Welker actually played.
The NFL’s controversial, contemptible replacement refs? Once again, they got in the way.
Sunday night’s dramatic storylines included Smith, the Baltimore Ravens receiver who chose to play hours after the death of his 19-year-old brother. He compiled 127 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Welker, who had seemingly fallen out of favor as one of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s top options, reemerged with 142 yards receiving.
But a game that should be remembered for Smith, Welker and Justin Tucker’s 27-yard field goal as time expired to give the Ravens a 31-30 comeback victory instead will be better known for this: the grab. Or lunge or whatever Patriots coach Bill Belichick was trying to do after the game to get the attention of a replacement official, a move that embodied what a good chunk of the nation felt with a night — maybe three weeks — of stilted calls.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” Belichick said. “You saw the game. What, did we have 30 penalties called in the game?”
One more levy could be headed Belichick’s way via a hefty fine for his postgame antics, although he said he didn’t think that would happen. A message left with the NFL about the contact was not immediately returned.
Maybe it will take the resolution of the lockout that has kept the league’s regular refs at home to fully appreciate what Smith did here. His younger brother, Tevin, was killed after he lost control of his motorcycle in Virginia just before midnight Saturday.
The team gave Smith the option to play.
“Being a receiver, you have to have your mind clear,” Smith said. “You can’t have anything weighing on you. That’s going to cause you to drop the ball or have mistakes. I didn’t want to hurt my team.”
Smith caught his first touchdown pass early in the second quarter to trim what had been a 13-0 Patriots lead.
“I just said a quick prayer (and) took a knee,” said Smith, whose brother received a moment of silence at M&T Bank Stadium before the game. “Obviously, you play with a heavy heart. You want to play for that person. My mom, all my family, everyone’s back at the house watching. They didn’t even know I was going to play until the last minute."
Meanwhile, Welker, with the Pats playing without injured tight end Aaron Hernandez, was Brady’s top option. Welker, in the midst of seeking a contract extension, had his most yards receiving since Week 4 last season.
“I felt I’ve always been in the groove,” said Welker, a Pro Bowl selection the past four seasons. “I’m always out there trying to help the team win. We just came up a little bit short.”
A big part of the reason was Smith’s other TD catch that made it a 30-28 game with 4:01 remaining, which set up a key hold by the Ravens’ defense, a stellar drive led by QB Joe Flacco, and Tucker’s last-second boot for the win.
Fittingly, the most controversial call of the night came on whether that final field goal cleared the upright.
“It looked close,” Belichick said. “Again, you should talk to the people who made the calls. I’m just trying to coach the game.”
There were 24 penalties called. Fourteen were called against the Ravens (nearly three times what they averaged last year), the rest against a Pats squad that is traditionally one of the least penalized teams in the league. Some, especially a couple of the illegal contact and pass interference variety, appeared to be phantom calls.
“Can someone please tell these (expletive) zebras Foot Locker called and they’re needed back at work!!!” Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes wrote on Twitter following the game.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after he apparently touched an official as he attempted to call a timeout in the fourth quarter.
Harbaugh would rather people remember the resiliency of his team.
“I hope that’s who we are,” Harbaugh said. “I hope that’s how we’re defined. I hope we don’t have to do it that way all the time. . . . What would be a better story than what you just saw?”
Maybe all the drama, minus a few of the flags and whistles.