Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have dreamed of winning a fourth Super Bowl title for five long years.
Robert Kraft has dreamed of a fitting dedication to his beloved wife who died last summer after 48 years of marriage.
The rest of the 2011 New England Patriots have dreamed of making their own indelible mark in team history by holding the Lombardi Trophy aloft.
Soon after Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler led a raucous fourth-quarter Gillette Stadium sing-along of his group’s trademark song, the Patriots moved one giant step closer toward making their biggest wish come true.
As for the Baltimore Ravens, they couldn’t have experienced a bigger nightmare.
When kicker Billy Cundiff pushed a 32-yard field goal attempt wide left with 11 seconds remaining, the Patriots sealed a spot in Super Bowl XLVI. A 23-20 victory in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game marks the first time New England has reached the NFL’s showcase game since the 2007 season. That’s when the chance for every franchise’s dream — a perfect 19-0 record — slipped away with a close loss to the New York Giants.
Even if this Patriots squad wins Feb. 5 in Indianapolis, it won’t be remembered among the all-time league greats. But its place as a special group in the hearts of Belichick and Kraft already is sealed.
“We’ve had a lot of different challenges, and those guys have stepped up and tried to meet them every week,” Belichick said of a roster that has ripped off 10 straight victories after a shaky 5-3 start. “It hasn’t been perfect, but they’ve never backed down.”
Proof of New England’s resiliency came once again Sunday through its once-maligned defense. Backup safety Sterling Moore saved the day by stripping Ravens wide receiver Lee Evans of what would have been the game-winning touchdown catch with 22 seconds remaining.
The same Sterling Moore who began his rookie season as a practice squad player in Oakland before emerging as a key member of New England’s patchwork secondary.
New England also was the more physical team, which is something that rarely happens against a Ravens club that has long made such grit its calling card.
It was the Patriots rushing the football more effectively than the Ray Rice-led Ravens. It was Brady mouthing off to tough-guy Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis after running for a first down and unleashing a Rob Gronkowski-style spike when scoring on a fourth-and-one dive to put New England back ahead for good early in the fourth quarter.
It was Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork being the equivalent of a 350-pound wrecking ball, making two critical back-to-back plays that helped prevent the Ravens from scoring with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter.
And overseeing it all was the NFL’s most successful owner. Kraft somehow managed to avoid becoming teary during the postgame Lamar Hunt Trophy ceremony when the “emotional year” he has experienced was referenced. Patriots players have worn MHK patches on their jerseys this season in memory of Myra Kraft after a cancer-related death that devastated her husband.
Kraft managed to have some fun Sunday when high-fiving Tyler, a long-time Patriots fan who was invited into his luxury suite after signing the national anthem. Kraft also believes his wife may have influenced the outcome of Sunday’s game.
“(There were) forces at work beyond anything we can understand,” Kraft said.
This much we can recognize: The Patriots could easily have fallen against Baltimore.
Brady knows it, too.
Outplayed by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, Brady said he “sucked pretty bad” after a performance that included two interceptions and no touchdown passes. Brady even privately apologized to Kraft although his overall statistics — 22 of 36 passing for 239 yards and the scoring run — were solid if not as spectacular as usual.
“He said to me, ‘I promise you I’m going to play a lot better in two weeks,’” Kraft said. “He’s still pretty good in my book. I’ll take him over any quarterback.
“He might say he (didn’t play well), but we won the game.”
The fact New England was able to survive despite a subpar outing by its best player also speaks volumes about how these Patriots truly embody the team mantra that Belichick constantly preaches.
“What I’ve learned is that most games are really won or lost right from the locker room,” said Kraft, who is heading to his sixth Super Bowl since buying the Patriots in 1994. “These guys believe they can always come back and win. I know they do.
“Look what happened tonight. I believe we would’ve won in overtime if there had been (one) because of the mental toughness and the way these guys think.”