FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Patriots owner Robert Kraft “shuddered” when he saw Tom Brady take a crunching hit on a 1-yard touchdown plunge. He even wondered if Brady’s back was broken.
Such a graceful dive. Such a powerful blow.
“It was scary,” Kraft said Monday, his momentary fears quickly put to rest, “but he popped right up.”
Brady shook off the body-bending force of Ray Lewis’ helmet to his lower back, spiked the ball and punched the air in celebration. He had just scored the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter of New England’s 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game Sunday.
He was OK and so are the Super Bowl-bound Patriots, who will face the New York Giants on Feb. 5.
But at the instant of impact, there was concern in the owner’s box where Kraft was sitting with friends, family members and former Patriots.
“We all shuddered up in the box,” he said. “We thought that his back might have been broken.”
Another unexpected occurrence also caught Kraft’s attention — the vertical leap of the lumbering Brady. He soared high over his offensive line, arcing his back and reaching the ball over the goal line while clutching it with both hands.
“I actually didn’t know he had that kind of rise,” Kraft said with a smile.
But as Brady was landing, the picture wasn’t as pretty.
He had his head toward the ground and his legs up in the air as if he was about to complete a somersault. Then Lewis, who had lined up a few yards behind the line, barreled in for the blow and sent Brady’s legs back from where they had come. Both players got up without jawing as their teammates prepared for the extra point.
“That’s the way the game should be played, physical,” Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater said. “This game is not a noncontact sport. So there’s going to be hits. We knew that going into the game with those guys. They play physical football and we knew we had to match that going in.
“I didn’t see it as a dirty hit at all.”
Two plays earlier, on second-and-goal at the Ravens 1-yard line, Brady ran off left guard for what officials initially ruled a touchdown. But it was reversed when replays showed his knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the goal line. On the next play, the Ravens stopped BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain.
Trailing 20-16, the Patriots decided to go for a touchdown on fourth down. They got it on Brady’s leap with 11:29 left in the game that the hard-hitting Lewis stopped — just a split-second late.
“I saw him get crunched,” wide receiver Julian Edelman said. “I’m sure if it was reversed, TB would do the same. (They’re) competitors. Whatever it takes to win that little play, that’s what guys are going to do, especially in an AFC championship game.”
Brady didn’t complain.
“It’s just the way the game was played,” safety James Ihedigbo said. “It’s two teams battling for the AFC championship. There’s going to be those type of hits and it’s all a part of the game. Tom understood that. Everyone on the field knew that. Once you stepped in between those white lines, that’s the type of game that was being played.”
Brady and Lewis had an earlier collision in the first two minutes of the third quarter, and that time, the intense leader of the three-time Super Bowl champs was angry.
On a second-and-one at the Baltimore 46, Brady carried around left tackle for a 4-yard gain. Lewis, who already had started toward him, landed lightly on his back.
Brady came up yelling. Lewis gave it back. But the confrontation was over in seconds.
“It was definitely a physical game,” Edelman said. “That’s what you expect when you play the Baltimore Ravens.”
Green-Ellis felt that early in the second quarter when linebacker Dannell Ellerbe pulled his helmet off as he was running off right guard. As bodies landed around him, Green-Ellis finished with a 1-yard gain and no damage to his unprotected head.
“It’s football,” he said. “Guys are grabbing and scratching and clawing for anything they can get. That was the helmet. That was the part he got. I was able to get away from him. I wasn’t really thinking about anything but moving forward.”
It was clear to Ihedigbo from the start that there would be plenty of blows exchanged.
With so much at stake, the officials were letting two physical teams pound each other.
“Right off the bat, we knew it’s one of those games where they were going to let us play and it was physical on both ends,” Ihedigbo said. “It was really a heavyweight boxing match.”