Commentary

Moore's slap saves Patriots' season

Undrafted rookie poked away would-be go-ahead touchdown in closing minute

Updated: January 23, 2012, 11:05 AM ET
By Steven Krasner | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It had not been a particularly sterling game for Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore.

[+] EnlargeLee Evans
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonLee Evans had what looked to be a game-winning touchdown catch for a moment, but the ball was knocked out of his hands by Sterling Moore.
But New England is heading back to the Super Bowl, and Sterling Moore had a hand in sending the Patriots to Indianapolis, courtesy of their nail-biting 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game in Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

Moore, an undrafted rookie, actually had a large hand in the dramatic win, as in his right hand, which he used to punch the ball out of the grasp of the Ravens' Lee Evans in the end zone with 27 seconds left.

And while the Patriots ultimately survived because Baltimore's Billy Cundiff hooked a potential game-tying 32-yard field goal wide left with 15 seconds remaining, it was Moore's play that ensured New England would, at the very least, remain alive heading into overtime.

The big play not only helped propel the Pats into Super Bowl XLVI, but it also provided a little redemption for Moore, who missed a tackle in the open field, allowing Torrey Smith to get away and scamper into the end zone for a 29-yard scoring strike in the third quarter that gave the Ravens their first lead, at 17-16.

For a second, he thought Evans had scored the winning touchdown on a 14-yard strike from Joe Flacco on second down.

"I definitely thought he caught the ball," Moore admitted. "But I just tried to get my hand in there and get the ball out. That's what we're always doing in practice and in games. I just kept fighting, trying to get the ball out as good as I could. I'm always going to try to scratch at the ball until the whistle blows.

"It wasn't in my mind to slap the ball out [as the play was unfolding], it was just a split-second decision and I'm glad it worked out. We do that drill [stripping the ball] every day in practice but it was the first time I had to use it in a game. I just took what I learned in practice into the game."

Moore said there was a little miscommunication between himself and Devin McCourty in the backfield as the ball was snapped.

"It was basically like me and Dev didn't know what the play was, so we played man[-to-man coverage]. I had no idea that the ball was coming. [Evans] did a great job of not tipping off that the ball was coming. I saw him catch it, and I just did whatever I could to get the ball out," Moore said.

The play was not reviewed. Because there was less than two minutes left on the game clock, it was the officials' call on whether to take another look at it. Ravens coach John Harbaugh, for one, was "surprised" the play didn't get a second look upstairs.

"I tried to get [the officials'] attention and thought it would be looked at," Harbaugh said. "I thought they would have at least looked at it. I was surprised that they didn't look at it. Obviously, in that situation, I thought they would have looked at it."

Harbaugh said he never received an explanation from referee Alberto Riveron or anyone on the game's crew. League rules state a player must have both feet or any part of his body other than his hands on the ground before losing control of the ball. Replays seemed to show that Evans lost his grasp of the ball before his second foot was down.

"I don't even know [if I had control of the ball]. I couldn't even tell you. Obviously it wasn't a catch," Evans said.

Catch or no catch, quarterback Tom Brady was appreciative of Moore's role in breaking up the play.

"That was a great play by Sterling," Brady said. "These games come down to one or two plays. Our defense made a couple of critical plays. It comes down to the end."

Moore also made a solid play on the Ravens' next snap from the Pats' 14-yard line, breaking up a pass intended for Dennis Pitta on about the 5-yard line, forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal attempt.

He wasn't aware of the enormity of his two plays right away.

"Not at the time," Moore said. "You're just so caught up in that you've got another down [after stripping Evans]. You got to go out there and do it again, don't let them come out here and catch the ball on the next play."

And when Cundiff missed, Moore wasn't sure what to think about much of anything -- his play, the ending, the Super Bowl trip.

"It's probably going to take a while before it all sinks in," Moore said.

But what he has learned in his brief time in the NFL is that you can't let a play such as the missed tackle of Smith and his subsequent touchdown romp affect you.

"Definitely I thought, 'Man, here goes the season. It's on me.' I told everybody it was my fault. I should have made that play," Moore said.

Coach Bill Belichick, meanwhile, seemed to shrug off the third-quarter failure by Moore.

"No, you can't play that position -- you can't play any position in this league -- if all it takes is one play [to ruin your confidence]. If it does, you're in the wrong business. You have to bounce back and play the next play and that's what the NFL is," Belichick said of Moore in particular and of any NFL player in general.

"As a cornerback, you have to have a short memory," Moore agreed. "Every time I came to the sidelines it tried to creep into my mind. My teammates were trying to pick me up, telling me to put it behind me and make a play."

It has been quite a head-spinning year for Moore.

He was undrafted after playing his college ball at Southern Methodist. Oakland signed him to its practice squad and released him during the season, whereupon he was signed to New England's practice squad. Moore bounced from the practice squad to the 53-man Pats roster, but endured a release before being re-signed by the Pats.

Now he is the toast of New England.

"The season I've had, just to do it at this stage, it was huge," Moore said. "Proving to everybody else I can make these plays, I mean, I'm glad they gave me the opportunity. I feel very fortunate, very blessed just to be here right now. When I was released by the Raiders, who knew that I would be picked up."

And who knew it would be Sterling Moore who would make the play that has helped New England get a shot at claiming a fourth Super Bowl title since 2002.

Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Information from ESPN.com AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley was used in this report.

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