FOXBORO, Mass. -- Several minutes before the game-winning field goal was struck by Adam Vinatieri, the score already was up on the big scoreboard in the Patriots' end zone: Patriots 16, Raiders 13.
It was a surreal (but somehow entirely fitting) moment in the final moments of what may or may not be the last game at Foxboro Stadium. When Vinatieri's 23-yard field goal actually soared through the driving snow with 8:29 gone in overtime, long snapper Lonie Paxton sprinted into the end zone, where more than four inches of the white stuff was starting to drift. And what did he do? The most hyper-kinetic snow angel on
It was that kind of game.
Just when it appeared that order has been restored to the American Football Conference, the Patriots went and threw things back into chaos. They have now won seven straight games and await the winner of Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game. If the Steelers win, New England will visit them next Sunday for the AFC title game. If the Ravens win, the title game will be Foxboro's farewell.
"I don't know if those guys in that locker room have anything left in their tanks," said a weary Bill Belichick, 'round about midnight on Saturday. "We had a lot of big plays, big runs, big throws. They just keep fighting and fighting and fighting. They don't know any other way."
In truth, the Patriots were a little lucky. OK, a lot. Referee Walt Coleman authored, on many levels, the play of the game.
When blitzing cornerback Charles Woodson blindsided Brady, karate-chopping the ball to the ground, and linebacker Greg Biekert recovered at the Raiders' 47-yard-line with 1:43 left, the game appeared to be over -- with the Raiders ahead 13-10. But the Patriots had one last chance thanks to instant replay and, after reviewing the play in which Brady appeared to pull the ball down and then fumble, Coleman inexplicably ruled it an incomplete pass.
"It was obvious," a terse Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. "I thought it was a fumble, but the officials thought otherwise.
"You can never count on anything in the NFL. Say what you want, (Brady) made some great plays when he had to."
Well, what about it? Was it a fumble or an incomplete pass?
"Uh...," Brady said when questioned. "You know, he hit me. I wasn't sure. Yeah, I was throwing the ball. How do you like that? Damn right. Damn right."
The ruling on the field was that Brady's pull-down was a continous motion -- a continuous motion forward that made it an incomplete pass.
Question on the Patriots: Is there any question that Tom Brady will be the Patriots' QB next season?
None whatsoever. The second half against the Raiders answered that -- and I think Brady proved he deserved the starting job all season long. So he did nothing different Saturday night. He struggled a bit in the first half, but with the week off he may have been rusty. But give the Pats credit for making adjustments at halftime and looking to throw. It's phenomenal that Brady had such success throwing the ball in that weather. He played with poise and confidence, as he has all season; he didn't act like a guy playing in his first playoff game. Brady is definitely the Patriots' QB of the future. He brings enthusiasm, which maybe they lacked with Drew Bledsoe. It seems that the Pats' players respond to Brady.
Question on the Raiders: Do you think Jon Gruden will be coaching the Raiders next season?
That's totally up to Al Davis. If Tampa Bay wants Gruden, Davis could hold out for some high draft picks. Or, if he's going to release Gruden, Davis could hold onto him until all the jobs are filled and then get rid of him. But if the Bucs are willing to give up enough, I think Davis will let Gruden go -- and then I think Davis would hire Dennis Green.
"When I got over to the replay monitor and looked at it (it) was obvious that his arm was coming forward," Coleman told a pool reporter afterward. "He was trying to tuck the ball and they just knocked it out of his hand. His hand was coming forward, which makes it an incomplete pass."
Instead of giving the Raiders the ball at their 42-yard-line, the call kept the Patriots' drive alive.
Brady, who suffered through a dreary first half, rallied the Patriots into field-goal position and Vinatieri's 45-yard field goal with 27 seconds left in regulation tied the game at 13-all.
"I kind of line-drived it," Vinatieri admitted afterward. "I knew it was straight, but I wasn't sure if it was long enough. When it went through, it was time to be happy."
The Raiders, who were once seen as the best team in the AFC, lost their last three regular-season games before racking up the New York Jets in last week's wild-card game. Rich Gannon, Tim Brown and Jerry Rice -- who have accumulated 110 years between them and an astounding 45 NFL seasons -- nearly got enough done on offense to win. But, at the end of the day (literally), the Raiders still hadn't won a road playoff game in 21 years.
The performance of Brady, the wunderkind who replaced injured Drew Bledsoe, may give the Patriots slight pause when they contemplate trading the franchise passer during the offseason. There were times -- much of the night under the prime-time lights -- that Brady looked like the 24-year-old he is. On a critical third down early in the fourth quarter, he had nearly 10 seconds to throw the ball and still managed to over-throw tight end Jermaine Wiggins. He missed two open receivers in the end zone -- by yards, not feet.
Still, he finished the game with 32 completions in 52 attempts for 312 yards, 238 in the second half. Ten passes went to Wiggins and another eight to wideout David
Patten, who led all receivers with 107 yards.
While it was good theater for the television audience, the steady snow made for some tough sledding, particularly for the offenses. The snow-blow patrol scurried out onto the field during timeouts, but the effect was largely cosmetic -- and comical. At one point, the accumulation on the top of Rice's helmet was about an inch and one half.
The Patriots' defense, as it has all season long, bent and bent but never completely broke down. Gannon completed 17 of 31 passes but no receiver collected more than Rice's 48 yards. Charlie Garner (17 carries, 64 yards) was neutralized by the Patriots' Antowain Smith (20 attempts, 65 yards).
The Patriots' Ty Law led the team with 10 solo tackles and two assists.
The Raiders took what seemed to be a commanding lead early in the second quarter. Je'Rod Cherry interfered with Oakland's fair catch and the Raiders started at midfield. The key play was a 12-yard slant to Rice on third-and-8 that gave Oakland a first down at the New England 13-yard-line. Gannon's 13-yard touchdown strike to third wide receiver James Jett managed to elude defensive back Terrance Shaw in the corner of the end zone.
Three third-quarter field goals, the last two by Sebastian Janikowski, seemed to wrap up the game, but suddenly Brady and the Patriots found themselves. Brady completed nine straight passes and ran in from the 6-yard-line to make it a plausible 13-10 with 7:52 remaining.
The Patriots' defense, which played well enough to win the game, bent a little but stopped the Raiders. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour, who harassed Gannon all evening, forced an incompletion on third-and-long and
the Patriots' offense was in business at its own 20 with 3:35 left in regulation.
After picking up a first down, Brady missed Patten on consecutive plays -- ending his streak at 10 straight completions -- and then missed Fred Coleman on a relatively easy slant, forcing the Patriots to punt. And so the pressure swung back to the New England defense with 2:41 left. Sure enough, they stopped Oakland and gave the Patriots' offense one last chance, which they cashed on Vinatieri's low, three-iron, game-tying shot.
The Patriots won the toss in overtime and morphed all the way to the Raiders' 28 yard-line, where they were confronted with a fourth-and-4. With the modest wind blowing in their face, the Patriots passed on a field-goal attempt.
"We just thought the percentages were better for us going for the first down," Belichick explained.
It was appropriate that Brady proceeded to pass to the wrong guy. Tight end Wiggins waved at a ball that looked overthrown, but there was Patten on his knees for the 6-yard completion. After Smith popped an 18-yard run on the next play, it was only a matter of time (three more Smith runs up the middle) before Vinatieri would get his chance to win it.
That sent the Patriots screaming to their locker room.
"Pittsburgh may be the No. 1 seed right now," said strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who was dressed stylishly in a black, full-length fur coat. "But they're not No. 1 in here right now. We definitely want a home game. We want the Super Bowl to come through here now.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.