Ravens Shock Patriots, Return To Super Bowl

Tom Brady sits on the ground following the interception that sealed the game for the Ravens.

Tom Brady sits on the ground following the interception that sealed the AFC Championship game win for the Ravens.

Remember when Tom Brady in the postseason was as sure as death or taxes? His 9-0 start to his postseason career had people all over New England thinking that this late-round diamond in the rough could never do any wrong. Three championships in his first four seasons.

None in his last eight.

Maybe it was payback. Maybe it was destiny. Whatever it was, Joe Flacco outplayed Brady, the Ravens defense outplayed that of the Patriots and as banged up as Baltimore  had been this year, it was the home team and favorite that felt the blows when it mattered most. Oh, and Ray Lewis, with the help if his good friend, God, has lived to play another day – and for the Super Bowl.

From the moment the coin hit the ground in favor of the Ravens and they deferred to the second half – stealing the Patriots’ bread and butter on their home field – it just seemed like it wasn’t meant to be. They committed fewer penalties, made less mistakes and completed a higher percentage of their passes. Most importantly, their zero turnovers, compared to three from the Patriots, were nothing less than huge. They were the team that executed better on Sunday.

Like it did towards the end if the regular season, the Patriots offense struggled to capitalize when their defense set them up with good field position and scored just 13 points – their lowest total of 2012. As the league’s No. 1 offense, the fewest points they had scored this year before yesterday were 18 in the Week 2 loss to the Cardinals.

The windy conditions at Gillette Stadium forced both teams to play conservatively and cost the Pats a couple chances at field goals they would normally attempt.

Their opening drive looked promising, but Wes Welker couldn’t haul in a deep pass from Brady when he had his defender beat by a couple if steps. They then almost caught the Baltimore special teams off guard, however, as Ryan Mallett snuck into the punt formation and forced the Ravens to burn a timeout.

A quick three-and-out by Baltimore gave New England the ball back, but only after a holding penalty called on Aqib Talib backed them up to their own 21. They had to settle for a 31-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and took a 3-0 lead on their 32nd straight red zone possession that resulted in points.

The next Baltimore drive ended quickly as well, but came at a cost as Talib hurt his thigh while breaking up a pass on third and long. Some production from last week’s star Shane Vereen on the ensuing drive and a 15-yard personal foul penalty called on Lewis were for not as Brandon Lloyd ended up dropping a tough catch on third down.

Flacco then missed an open Dennis Pitta down the field and New England couldn’t convert following a 28-yard punt return from Welker as Paul Kruger influenced the Brady pass. The Pats D allowed just one completion in the first quarter and the Ravens went 0-for-3 on third down. New England led the Ravens 3-0 after one quarter of the AFC Championship game for the second consecutive year.

As the second quarter began, Flacco would lead a 90-yard drive in his first Title Game win to put the Ravens on the board with a two-yard run by Ray Rice. Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower both missed tackles on the back as he then walked into the endzone on second down. Pitta had an 18-yard reception on third and four and Flacco took advantage of Talib’s absence, hitting Torrey Smith on a 25-yard pass to the New England 15.

Brady would answer right away, however, aided by another personal foul penalty, this time on Dannell Ellerbe. A 24-yard pass to Welker set the Pats up in good position and Brady found him again from a yard out to make it 10-7 Patriots with 4:18 left in the opening half.

Gostkowski would add a field goal before the half after a big Rob Ninkovich sack of Flacco on third down. The scoring drive was kept alive by a direct snap to Danny Woodhead on fourth and one on the edge of field goal range.

The field goal attempt came on the heels of a Brady scramble as time was running out and the Patriots couldn’t get into the endzone. Bill Belichick called their only remaining timeout from the sideline with four seconds left when it became apparent that a field goal was the most Brady and the bunch would get out of the drive.

A 13-7 halftime lead could have been more, but New England entered the break 67-0 when leading at the half with Brady at home. The one time when 67-1 is bad…

I think I may have made mention to the Ravens winning the toss and deferring. Well, I guess it didn’t matter too much as neither team could do anything with their first possession of the second half. Flacco overshot an open receiver on third and long and Welker came up with another big postseason drop for the Pats on their first possession. He has dropped six passes in the last two postseasons.

That’s when things started to go bad. The first play for the Ravens was a 15-yard pass interference call on Alfonzo Dennard. Pitta then caught a 22-yarder and Rice a 15-yarder to get the drive going. Pitta would catch consecutive passes in the red zone – one that saw him annihilated by Mayo – and one that saw him break the plane to make it 14-7. Marquice Cole was victimized a couple times on the drive in Talib’s absence.

Pitta has now scored a touchdown in each of his last three games against the Patriots as he took advantage of a mismatch against Steve Gregory in the goal-to-go situation. The pass-first approach that the Ravens instituted in the second half really began to work on this drive. They ended up out-gaining the Pats 152-50 in the crucial third quarter, on their way to scoring the game’s final 21 points. Flacco threw for 123 of his 240 yards in the frame.

The Pats then converted on third and two, but a hold was called on Nate Solder and with a miss on third and 12, the air began to leak out of Gillette.

For a second it was restored as Rice was dropped for a four-yard loss on the first play, but Flacco then connected with Smith for 23 and time began to run out on the season. A Brandon Spikes‘ offsides followed by a couple nice runs from Bernard Pierce set Baltimore up at the 19 of New England. Flacco hit Anquan Boldin with a three-yard pass four plays later as he outfought the defender to make it 21-13.

Then came the big blow. Stevan Ridley was absolutely planted by Patriot killer Bernard Pollard and fumbled for the second time in three career playoff games. Baltimore took over at the New England 47 with a chance to put it out if reach. And they did. Pollard knocked the fourth Patriot of his career out of a game. Honestly, how does this keep happening? And also, how was that not a penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit?

Flacco hit Boldin again for a six-yard TD to make it 28-13. Again, he beat Cole in the endzone. Flacco scrambled for 14 a couple plays earlier and Baltimore had scored 21 unanswered in just over 10 minutes of game time.

The season looked to be over. And that it was. Although Brady put together a decent-looking drive with contributions from Vereen and Welker in particular, a Vereen drop on third down and a misfire on fourth turned the ball back over to the Ravens with just under eight and a half left to play. Brady appeared to have a lane to scramble for the first down, but didn’t take it and then quickly ran out of time.

A window of hope did appear for a second as Baltimore continued to throw the ball instead of running to kill the clock and only used 57 seconds of game clock on their next drive. Flacco was hot at that point, but the abandonment of the run unfortunately didn’t come back to haunt them.

With just under eight minutes remaining, Brady hit Welker on a 36-yard catch and run, but on the very next play, his pass was tipped at the line by Pernell McPhee and intercepted by Ellerbe.

Ravens safety Ed Reed reacts to the clinching interception as he will be making the first Super Bowl appearance of his 11-year career.

Ravens safety Ed Reed reacts to the clinching interception as he will be making the first Super Bowl appearance of his 11-year career.

As the clock ticked down within six minutes, within five minutes, the Ravens used Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach to run the clock under three minutes before the Pats finally took a timeout. New England would get the ball back with 2:11 left and no timeouts after burning all three (eventually) on the previous Baltimore possession.

Brady began the team’s final drive with just over two minutes on the clock and no timeouts. His season ended nine plays later with him sitting on the turf, legs stretched, after throwing the game-ending interception to Cary Williams in the endzone with just over a minute remaining.

Brady finished the game with one touchdown pass and two interceptions. Unfortunately, he does not appear to be the same guy in the postseason as he was in the first few years of his career. I’m sorry to say it, but he hasn’t won a title since 2004.

Five trips inside the Baltimore 25 yielded the Pats only 13 points on the night – not what you’d expect from the league’s No. 1 offense, but then again, defense is what wins championships.

A couple kneel downs and Flacco, the huge arm from the tiny mid-major college, had led his team past the heavily-favored Patriots and back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 12 years. He finished 21-of-36 for 240 yards and three touchdowns , out-dueling Brady in the most important category: interceptions. In three playoff games this year, Flacco has thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

In his last 15 playoff games, Brady is now 8-7 since beginning his postseason career 9-0 some eight years ago. In his last three postseason meetings with the Ravens, he has thrown three touchdowns and seven interceptions. In this one, he finished 29-of-54 for 320 yards and a score. The touchdown pass to Welker was the 42nd of his postseason career, leaving him three behind the record set by Joe Montana.

New England failed to score a single point in the second half of the game. Their 13 points was the lowest total they put up all year (previous: 18). It was only their second ever loss at home when leading at the half (72-2).

For the third straight season, James Ihedigbo played in an AFC Championship game. For the second straight year, he won one in Foxboro – this time for the visiting Ravens.

There was a lot of Justin Francis and Trevor Scott as well as Cole because Chandler Jones, Kyle Love and Talib all left with injuries. There is not a lot of playoff experience among that group. Jones was active, but didn’t make one tackle and his older brother, Arthur Jones, got the best of him for the second time this season. Ridley would miss the remainder of the game with a head injury.

Neither Love (knee) or Talib (thigh) would return for New England.

Boldin finished the game with five catches for 60 yards and the two touchdowns with a sigh of relief after guaranteeing a Ravens win earlier in the week. After bashing the Pats on Twitter while they were still playing in last week’s game against the Texans, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo went on to do absolutely nothing in the game. No tackles, no forced fumbles. Nothing.

Welker again led the Pats in receiving yards with eight catches for 117 and Aaron Hernandez set the bar with nine catches going for 83 yards. He was quite effective in the pass game with the absence of Rob Gronkowski.

Ridley rushed for just 70 yards on 18 carries before being knocked out of the game with what seemed to almost certainly be a concussion. Rice finished with just 48 and the score. Brady’s inability to scramble for some much-needed yards could have had a bit of an effect on the game. He did pass Brett Favre‘s record of 5,855 postseason passing yards and now has 5,949 for his career.

New England was a lot better on special teams in this one after giving up 247 return yards to Houston last week. They allowed just 43 total return yards to Jacoby Jones, a Pro Bowl return man for the Ravens and also did not let Flacco’s deep ball ability beat them.

The average starting field position for the Ravens was their own 32, while the Pats started at an average of their own 45. It’s not how you start, though. It’s how you finish. Baltimore began each of its first five drives inside the New England 15-yard line.

They also became the first team to beat the Pats at home in an AFC Championship game. Flacco improved to 2-16 when trailing at the half in a road game and also became the all-time leader in playoff road wins with his sixth. The franchise won its 13th playoff game to only seven losses. Their .650 playoff win percentage is the best all-time and their nine playoff road wins are tied for the second-most ever.

New England lost its first game of the season when rushing for better than 100 yards as a team (13-1). They had 108 yards. It is the first time ever that they have not made it to the Super Bowl as the No. 2 seed in the AFC. They fell to 9-2 when in that position.

Brady is 8-7 in his last 15 postseason games since that perfect 9-0 start to his postseason career. The total QBR’s in the game wound up like this: Brady: 45.1. Flacco: 80.2. Brady tied the all-time record with his 24th career postseason start, but I’m guessing he wanted to tie that four Super Bowl rings record instead.

This was the seventh rematch of the previous year’s AFC Title game. The winner from the previous year is now 5-2 in such games.

Lewis again led the team with 14 tackles as his farewell tour has made it all the way to New Orleans. Since 1990, No. 4 seeds are now 7-1 in Conference Championship games.

They became just the second team to ever beat Brady and Peyton Manning in the same postseason (2010 Jets). John Harbaugh won his first AFC Championship on his third try. Baltimore was also the No. 4 seed in 2000, when they won the Super Bowl.

John Harbaugh will coach in the first Super Bowl of his career. His opponent? His brother.

John Harbaugh will coach in the first Super Bowl of his career. The opponent? His little brother.

The Ravens will meet the 49ers in the Super Bowl a week from Sunday in the Super Dome. Oh, and I heard the two coaches are brothers or something. Family reunion! That’s always fun.

San Francisco is 5-0 all-time in the Super Bowl. With six, the Steelers are the only franchise to have won more Super Bowls than them.

Less than six months after losing his brother in a motorcycle accident, Smith will be playing for a Super Bowl.

The Patriots do not open up the 2013 season soon enough.

Let’s go Bruins.

 

Follow me on Twitter @RealAndyLarmand.

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