Was John Harbaugh aware that he was actually paying his opposing coach a compliment? Most likely not. In fact, if pressed, the Baltimore Ravens coach probably would have put anyone who suggested it in a headlock.
But he was.
Over a stretch of three plays in the third quarter, the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and his coaching staff did something so outlandish that Harbaugh was still trying to piece together exactly what had happened after the Patriots' 35-31 playoff win.
It was "clearly deception," Harbaugh said in his postgame press conference. The issue? The Ravens couldn't effectively cover the Patriots receivers because ... they couldn't figure out who the Patriots receivers were. Usually, that's simply a matter of finding the guys in the other uniforms who look more like sprinters than shot putters. Not Saturday, when Belichick appeared to break the rules, but didn't.
It was an odd game, indeed.
Here was Tom Brady, considered by some to be the greatest quarterback in National Football League playoff history, having arguably the greatest game of his postseason career, and he almost seemed like a sideshow.
Yes, he dropped the game-winning touchdown into the hands of Brandon LaFell feather-light, weighted only by history. (It broke Joe Montana's record for most playoff touchdown passes.)
Yes, he threw for more yards than he ever had in a playoff game (376).
But for a pivotal stretch of the second half, when the Patriots were down by 14 points (for the second time in the game) and staring at a third playoff loss to the Ravens in the past five years, it seemed more that the man on the sidelines – not the man under center – was the one pulling the strings.
Belichick has long been one of pro football's original thinkers, from his daring on fourth downs to his willingness to completely change game plans from one week to the next. But Saturday was a master class from the mind of football's Stephen Hawking, turning a game the Patriots easily could have lost (twice) into another step toward a Super Bowl. (They face the winner of Sunday's Denver Broncos-Indianapolis Colts game in the conference championship next weekend.)
Saturday was Belichickery at its finest, and the Patriots needed every inch of it.
On the third-quarter plays in question, Belichick and his offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, appeared to cheat. That's what Harbaugh and his defense thought, anyway. At first blush, it looked as if the Patriots used six receivers on the plays, which would be illegal. (You're only allowed five.)
But it just looked that way. The fifth lineman was not a thick-necked slab of beef lined up in front of Brady. He was a running back split wide like a receiver. In fact, on the plays, he wasn't doing anything. He had reported to the referees as an ineligible receiver. He was purely a decoy. But since he looked like he was a receiver, the Ravens covered him – and left the tight end lined up like an offensive lineman wide open when he sprinted downfield.
The Patriots did not score on the plays, but down 14 points at the time, the plays helped get the offense into a rhythm. They scored a touchdown later on the drive.
The next drive, Belichick and McDaniels trotted out something perhaps even better: the first-ever professional pass by Julian Edelman.
Of course, everyone knew Edelman had played quarterback at Kent State University from 2006 to 2008. But by now, Edelman had so thoroughly become a receiver – and one of Brady's favorite targets – that it seemed merely a bit of trivia. If Belichick had ever intended to use Edelman for a trick pass play, he would have done it by now.
Edelman's halfback option pass hit Danny Amendola in stride, and he ran into the end zone untouched. A 14 point deficit had become a 28-28 game.
And by the end of the game, Belichick had turned the football world on its head. On an evening when temperatures dipped into the 20s, the accepted recipe for playoff success was blunt-force football – a heavy dose of run plays. But in the second half, the Patriots handed the ball off a grand total zero times. In the first half, they ran only seven designed rushing plays and gained only 14 yards.
Never before has a winning playoff team run for so few yards.
It was as though the Patriots were punching Vince Lombardi in the face. This was no way to win playoff games. It didn't matter that the Ravens' strength was in stopping the run or that their weakness was in stopping the pass. Common sense dictated that you had to at least attempt to "establish the run" in order to win.
But Saturday night, once again, Belichick did very little according to the book.
For the Patriots, that means another chapter of playoff football.