FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The assassin’s eye is supposed to belong to Tom Brady in these situations. He is the quarterback who puts other teams away, who takes an inch of an opening and pries it wide.
But now, look Joe Flacco in the eye. Transformations don’t happen overnight, and crowns aren’t ceded in a day. But when Brady and his New England Patriots provided Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens that sliver of an opening Sunday, it was Flacco who was the sniper, cool and precise. He took a tight game and blew it into a shocking 28-13 Baltimore victory with three second-half touchdown passes. He put the Ravens in their second Super Bowl, prevented Brady from playing in his sixth, and kept alive the debate about where, exactly, he fits among the game’s best quarterbacks.
“We didn’t come here to play it safe and hope to win,” Flacco said.
Rather, they came here to aggressively avenge the loss in last year’s AFC title game, and in doing so alter perceptions about their quarterback. Flacco’s marvelous second half – he connected on 15 of 24 passes for 159 yards, two scores to wide receiver Anquan Boldin and another to tight end Dennis Pitta – ensured that the nation will hear more than a bit about the Harbaugh family for the next two weeks, because Baltimore Coach John joins San Francisco Coach Jim, his brother, in the Super Bowl.
“Let’s just cut that right now,” John Harbaugh joked afterward. “Let’s forget about that.”
But pick your story line here. The run of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who has played in each of the Ravens’ 17 seasons, has been extended one more game, and he will conclude his career in the Super Bowl, where he has already been the MVP. The Ravens, too, spoke afterward about all they have overcome — injuries to Lewis and safety Ed Reed, to linebacker Terrell Suggs and others, not to mention a three-game losing streak in December that caused much anxiety in Baltimore.
“This team has never wavered,” Boldin said afterward.
That was the case Sunday night, when the Ravens appeared ready to be steamrolled by Brady and the Patriots early in the game, yet trailed only 13-7 at halftime, then emphatically shut out New England in the second half.
They got a jarring hit from safety Bernard Pollard on Patriots running back Stevan Ridley, causing a fumble that was, in Harbaugh’s estimation, “the turning point in the game.” They then got a tip of a Brady pass by defensive end Pernell McPhee that turned into an interception for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe that all but sealed it, and started the Ravens’ celebration.
“Tell them to have fun at the Pro Bowl,” Suggs yelled as he came off the field, delirious. “Arrogant [expletive].”
As well as the entire evening reflected on the Ravens, who haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since they won following the 2000 season, it was jarring for the crowd at Gillette Stadium, so used to winning at this stage. Brady was looking to become the first quarterback to start six Super Bowls, which would have broken a tie with John Elway. Bill Belichick would have joined Don Shula as the only coaches with six appearances.
Yet there were cracks apparent here. Brady badly mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half, getting off only one play in the final 26 seconds and forcing the Patriots to settle for a chip-shot field goal instead of a step-on-the-throat touchdown. In the fourth quarter, on fourth down, Brady appeared to have plenty of room to run for a critical first down, yet threw feebly across the middle, incomplete. He finished 29 of 54 for 320 yards and one touchdown, but with two interceptions, as well as questions going into an eighth straight offseason without a Super Bowl title.
“It always comes to a screeching halt,” Brady said.
For Flacco, it rolls on, and that has as much to do with how he handled the Ravens’ more aggressive game plan after halftime as it does anything else. At the break, the Patriots dominated statistically — in yards (214-130), first downs (15-8) and time of possession (18:12-11:48). So Baltimore adjusted, and the Patriots didn’t.
“We realized we had to put a little more pressure on them,” Flacco said.
With Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib sidelined by a thigh injury, that became easier, and Flacco took advantage, not just with the deep routes that have defined his season and become his strength, but with underneath, drive-sustaining passes. Back-to-back touchdown drives that spanned the third and fourth quarters each lasted 10 plays, and put the Ravens up 28-13.
The way Flacco orchestrated them is what the Gillette crowd expected of Brady. But Flacco is in his fifth year in the NFL and has been at this stage three times now. The crowd might have looked to Brady. The Ravens looked to Flacco.
Asked what he learned about Flacco on Sunday — when the quarterback won a playoff game on the road for the sixth time, an NFL record — Boldin looked almost incredulous.
“What I’ve been telling you guys all along: He’s a great quarterback,” Boldin said. “I don’t know why people doubt him, because the bigger the situation the bigger he plays. And he’s proven that time and time again.”
Added Reed, who will make his first trip to the Super Bowl:“He’s a leader.” Reed recounted — again — the first play Flacco ever ran against the Ravens’ top defense in training camp. Reed, Lewis and company were coming on a blitz. Flacco read it, and calmly threw the ball out of bounds. On to the next play.
“Joe’s a great quarterback, and Joe’s proven that,” Harbaugh said. “He’s not just proven that this year. He’s proven it for five years.”
So pick your Baltimore story line — Flacco or Harbaugh, Lewis or Reed, who will play in his home town of New Orleans. They’re all pertinent now, now that the Ravens are the assassins and AFC champions.