NFL playoffs 2012: Patriots defeat Ravens 23-20, advance to Super Bowl

January 22, 2012

— The New England Patriots ended the Baltimore Ravens’ season one agonizing step shy of the Super Bowl on Sunday and continued to carve a place in history as one of the NFL’s most enduring dynasties with a 23-20 victory in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots triumphed at Gillette Stadium when Ravens place kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds remaining that could have sent the game into overtime.

“It’s a kick I’ve kicked 1,000 times in my career,” Cundiff said. “I just went out there and didn’t convert. . . . There’s really no excuse for it.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady failed to put on his typical display of passing wizardry. But he and the Patriots made the big plays when it mattered, surviving when a potential game-winning touchdown catch was knocked from the hands of wide receiver Lee Evans before Cundiff’s miss.

The Patriots secured their fifth Super Bowl appearance with Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as coach. They’ll seek their fourth Super Bowl title with that pair leading the team when they play the New York Giants in two weeks in Indianapolis.

“Anything that’s associated with winning, I’m proud of,” Belichick said. “There’s no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady. He’s the best. . . . It’s nice to be able to win with him and the rest of our team.”

Brady threw two interceptions and didn’t have a touchdown pass. But he put the Patriots ahead in the fourth quarter with a touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak, and they held on from there.

“It’s incredible,” Brady said. “You watch this game. I was a kid growing up — I was a 49er fan, so I got to watch a lot of Super Bowls. You pinch yourself to get this opportunity.”

Tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a second-quarter touchdown run for the Patriots, and place kicker Stephen Gostkowski provided three field goals.

Quarterback Joe Flacco had a pair of touchdown passes for the Ravens, one to tight end Dennis Pitta in the second quarter and one to wide receiver Torrey Smith in the third quarter. The Ravens led, 20-16, early in the fourth quarter, but they allowed Brady’s touchdown, and their three drives after that produced an interception, a fourth-down incompletion at the New England 33-yard line and Cundiff’s missed kick.

The fourth-and-six misfire by Flacco with 2 minutes 46 seconds remaining came after Coach John Harbaugh decided against having Cundiff attempt a field goal of about 51 yards that would have tied the score. The Ravens got the ball back, and Flacco’s second-down pass to Evans in the end zone nearly produced a touchdown with 22 seconds left. But New England safety Sterling Moore knocked the ball from Evans’s hands.

“I threw my hands up and started running that way,” said Flacco, who connected on 22 of 36 throws for 306 yards. “And then I saw the referee give the incomplete sign pretty quick. . . . When we put ourselves down there, we have to put it on us to get a touchdown there. We’ve got to put the game to an end.”

Harbaugh said he thought Evans’s near-catch merited at least a stoppage of play for an instant replay to review to determine whether Evans had possession of the ball long enough to be awarded a touchdown. The Ravens could not challenge the play because it occurred in the final two minutes.

“I was surprised they didn’t look at it,” Harbaugh said.

An NFL spokesman said in a written statement on the league’s Web site that the replay assistant in the booth had confirmed the incomplete call without play needing to be stopped.

But Harbaugh said the game wasn’t taken from the Ravens unfairly.

“That’s the way football goes . . .” he said. “If we had played a little better, made another play or two, we’d have won the football game.”

After a third-down incompletion, Cundiff yanked his field goal try wide left.

“It was two teams that didn’t want to budge,” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “You saw a great, great effort.”

New England was trying to get to the Super Bowl with the same sort of offense-first formula that failed the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints in recent weeks. The Patriots ranked 31st in the league in total defense during the regular season, but played better defense in a lopsided triumph over the Denver Broncos in a conference semifinal.

Flacco and the Ravens were coming off a tumultuous week in which veteran safety Ed Reed reignited the familiar debate about Flacco’s value as a quarterback. Reed said in a radio interview early in the week that Flacco looked rattled in last Sunday’s victory over the Houston Texans. Other Ravens players pointed during the week to Flacco’s winning ways, but the Ravens needed a better offensive performance Sunday to keep pace with Brady and the Patriots.

The Ravens struggled early on offense and trailed, 3-0, before a 42-yard completion from Flacco to Smith late in the first quarter. Harbaugh opted against a fourth-and-one gamble at the New England 3-yard line in the early moments of the second quarter and a field goal by Cundiff tied the game.

Both offenses then revved up. Green-Ellis ran for a seven-yard touchdown but the Ravens answered with Flacco’s six-yard touchdown pass to Pitta. The Patriots recaptured the lead with a 35-yard Gostkowski field goal. Gostkowski’s 24-yarder in the third quarter made it a 16-10 game.

The Ravens had a swift reply. On a third-down play, Flacco sent a short pass to his right to Smith, who eluded Moore and outraced cornerback Devin McCourty along the sideline before diving across the goal line for a 29-yard touchdown.

“Joe showed that he is a top-five quarterback in this league,” Ravens tailback Ray Rice said. “Joe drove us today.”

New England’s Danny Woodhead lost a fumble on the ensuing kickoff return, but the Ravens could convert that only into a 39-yard field goal by Cundiff.

Brady got the Patriots back into the lead with 111 / 2 minutes to play, leaping over the pile at the line of scrimmage and holding the ball across the goal line on a fourth-down quarterback sneak. That came after Brady’s apparent touchdown on second down was reversed by a replay review, which showed that he had been stopped just shy of the end zone, and Green-Ellis was stopped on a third-down leap.

Flacco and Brady traded interceptions before the Ravens drove to Flacco’s fourth-down incompletion.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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