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Forty-eight hours before his team's 23--20 AFC Championship Game victory over the Ravens, Patriots owner Bob Kraft took a drive through the snow-covered streets of Foxborough, Mass., the sleepy town southwest of Boston that roars to life on Sundays in the fall and winter. Kraft stared at the scenery and spoke of the season that has shaken him, with the death in July of his wife of 48 years, Myra, to cancer, and the accompanying grief. Kraft still refers to Myra as "my sweetheart." Many New England players still call her Mama.
Football gives Kraft the peace that eludes him at nighttime, when the laughs of the locker room make way for the tears of a quiet house. "She was 19, I was 20, and on the first date she proposed," said the 70-year-old Kraft as the icy landscape sped by. "I just hope that the players, with her initials above their hearts... ." His voice quavered and went still.
Wearing an MHK patch on their jerseys in memory of Myra Hiatt Kraft, the Patriots have spent the season trying to pick up the thread, dedicating their efforts to her memory and plotting a course back to the game they reached four times in the last decade. If those teams were veteran and serious, the 2011 version is imbued with youth and emotion and, sometimes, the trouble presented by both.
For all their offensive weaponry, these Patriots have suffered lapses on defense, so many that Bill Belichick has used street free agents and offensive players to plug holes. He has coached his players hard—at times with a sharp tongue—but also praises them for their effort amid the shifting depth chart. "If you're not built for it, you won't last around here," receiver Deion Branch says of playing for Belichick. "I truly appreciate the demands of his pushing. I can't say that for everybody."
Often caricatured as a brooding presence in a gray hoodie, Belichick has struck the right chord this season in allowing his players to express themselves—be it the celebrations of his precocious tight ends or the grieving of veterans. Myra Kraft was as much a part of the rhythm of the Patriots' season as film study. She visited ailing players in the training room, invited them for dinner at the Kraft home and in 2008 surprised a large group of Patriots players with a trip to Israel.
Following their comeback victory in Week 16 against the Dolphins, the players stood in the locker room and unveiled an oil painting with the initials MHK above a group of Patriots in a huddle. Belichick hugged Kraft and handed him the game ball that day. "This has been the roughest period of my life," the owner told the team.
On Sunday at Gillette Stadium, when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal with 15 seconds left, the Patriots celebrated like the unbreakable family Kraft has tried to build, losing themselves in a round of hugs that lasted long into the New England night.
With the victory, the Patriots will return to the Super Bowl to face the Giants, who ended New England's perfect season four years ago. If the juiciest plotline is revenge, it is not the one that means most to the Pats. "From the time [Cundiff] missed the field goal, I've been shedding tears," said Branch, the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP who was drafted by New England in 2002, left for the Seahawks in '06 and returned in '10. "Mr. Kraft has done a great job keeping himself together. I can't even fathom how the guy is feeling right now, for us to have an opportunity to play for another Super Bowl without his better half. It's special, but at the same time it's bittersweet."
Said linebacker Brandon Spikes, who intercepted a Joe Flacco pass in the fourth quarter, "I told Mr. Kraft I was going to leave it all on the field for Myra. I personally wanted to come out and get that game for her [and] for him. I told him not to worry about a thing."
After the game Kraft alternated between congratulating players, choking up, pointing skyward and tapping the MHK pin on his lapel. He walked over to Rob Gronkowski's locker and greeted him with the tight end's favorite phrase: "Hey, how do you say it—what's up, Dawg?"