FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Sterling Moore has lived the other side of this coin. The incredibly narrow space between a catch and an incompletion can define an era.
It can separate greatness from goat. It can mean the difference between going to a Super Bowl and going home.
Moore, the New England Patriots' rookie cornerback who came up with two game-saving breakups in the final 27 seconds of the AFC championship game Sunday at Gillette Stadium, knows it well. Until this season, Moore was an Oakland Raiders fan. He was 11 years old when, 10 years ago this week, the NFL was forced to explain the difference between a tuck and a fumble.
"I resented that play … until I got here," Moore said with a grin that was as much about relief as about joy. On Sunday, as the Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XVLI in Indianapolis on Feb. 5 against the New York Giants with a 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Moore lived on that edge between glory and desolation. He just as easily could have been like Baltimore wide receiver Lee Evans, who sat in front of his locker for what seemed an eternity, considering what he'd let slip through his hands.
In reality, Moore's breakup of an apparent touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Evans was a terrific play. While it wasn't a catch and it wasn't reviewed, Evans was just one step from making the play.
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One step from leaving Moore to wonder if he might not have a job this offseason.
"Those are the things that go through your head. You're just thinking, 'I gotta make this play, I don't want to be the reason we don't go to the Super Bowl,' " said Moore, an undrafted free agent from SMU who didn't play football until his senior year in high school in Antioch, Calif., located about 35 miles east of Oakland.
On the next play after the toss to Evans, Moore stopped a possible first-down throw to Dennis Pitta, a tight end who had six inches and 40 pounds on Moore. Moore fought through the post-up move and forced Baltimore to attempt a 32-yard field goal that was wide left and sent the Patriots to another Super Bowl.
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Moore's personal feast-or-famine moments are what it's like for so many players who bounce back and forth on rosters. Moore spent the first three weeks of the season on the Raiders' practice squad, was cut by Oakland in late September, signed with New England in October, didn't play in a game until November, got cut, signed to the Patriots' practice squad and then was promoted to regular roster again in December before finding himself in a game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Roller coaster? Moore could lead an Ohio Players revival group after this season. Even earlier in the game, Moore found himself at the wrong end of events. With 3:38 remaining in the third quarter, Ravens rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith burned Moore for a 29-yard touchdown reception that gave Baltimore a 17-16 lead.
"You can't play that position – you can't play any position in this league – if all it takes is one play," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "[If you think that way] then you're in the wrong business. We all have bad plays. Coaches have bad plays, players have bad plays. You have to bounce back and play the next play and that's what the NFL is.
"We have a competitive team. Look, we've had a lot of things that haven't been perfect out there, but we have everybody that will stand in there and fight and give it their best all the way through and that's a good place to be and that's what I like about this team. They're tough, they're competitive and they really don't lose their confidence or get down on themselves; they just go out there and keep competing and see what happens."
That's easy for a veteran coach who has been in more than his fair share of big games to say. It's another matter for a rookie in a locker room full of guys who haven't been there, but dream about it.
"So many guys talk about how long they've been in the league and never had a chance to get to that level. I didn't want to let them down," said Moore, who wasn't necessarily the leading man for the New England defense. That honor belonged to veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who was in on six tackles, including three for losses, a sack and a hit on Flacco. On Baltimore's second-to-last drive, Wilfork stopped a third-and-three run by Ray Rice and then pressured Flacco into an incompletion on fourth down.
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If this game had ended up a loss, Moore wouldn't have been the biggest culprit. As Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said after the game, he "sucked", completing 22 of 36 passes for only 239 yards and two interceptions. He had a third pick called back by a penalty.
Likewise, it's not as if Moore was the only New England defensive back who played poorly at times. With inexperienced corners Antwaun Molden and moonlighting wide receiver Julian Edelman letting receivers get open, the Patriots' secondary was peppered by 306 yards passing by Flacco, who outplayed Brady in what was the best playoff performance of his young career (22 of 36, two TDs and one interception).
But Moore, who had two interceptions in the season finale against the Buffalo Bills, was the guy who had a bull's eye on him at the end of the game.
"Oh yeah, I knew it, I knew I was the guy they were looking at," Moore said. He was the guy the Ravens went after on those two critical late plays. It was his career flashing before his eyes. He was the guy who had to figure out on his own before the Evans throw that he'd better play man-to-man coverage
"I didn't hear the call so I just said, I better man up on him," Moore said.
He chuckled at that, but again this wasn't exactly the look of a man who was completely comfortable. There's a reason it's called the razor's edge.
It's easy to get cut on every moment.
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