They didn’t play a perfect game.
But when challenged the Baltimore Ravens responded and the New England Patriots did not. The Ravens outlasted and outclassed the Patriots to come away with a 28-13 win, earning themselves a trip to the Super Bowl for the second time in team history.
The Ravens came out of the gate slowly and fell behind 13-7 by halftime. They could have panicked knowing quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were 67-0 at home when leading at halftime and they had never lost to the same team twice in the same year.
But the Ravens remained patient.
Head coach John Harbaugh stuck with a positive message going into the locker room: they were only down by six points because they held firm in the red zone in the first half and forced New England to kick field goals. Coming out of the locker room at half Belichick echoed the importance of converting in the red zone, bemoaning his team’s lost opportunities.
In the end, both coaches would be right to harp on this point. The Ravens would be 4-for-4 scoring TDs in the red zone, while Brady and the Patriots would go 1-for-4.
The demeanor of the two coaches became an outward reflection of their two teams’ performances. Belichick brooded under his cotton hoodie, pacing the sideline and looking like a forlorn, even distracted, taskmaster.
Across the field John Harbaugh was upbeat and enthusiastic. He wrapped a fatherly arm around his young daughter during the pre-game anthem and took time before the game to look into the sideline camera and congratulate his brother Jim for guiding the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens remained passionate and resilient. They held together like a family, while the Patriots resembled a bunch of men unhappily stuck in a foxhole together as the inevitable closed in around them. The Ravens looked like the more hardnosed team and the rattled Patriots looked like they wanted no part of it as the game wore on.
Even after the game, Belichick wanted no part of the media when he refused to speak, prompting the outspoken Terrell Suggs to refer to the Patriots as, “arrogant pricks.”
In one fateful sequence to end the first half, Tom Brady slid forward for a few yards in the red zone and in an act of petulant self-defense he cocked his right leg high in the air and jabbed a foot into the thigh of the onrushing Ed Reed–looking every bit like a dirty ballplayer sliding into second base flashing his spikes in the air to break up a double play.
In the aftermath of the slide however the Patriots failed to call an immediate timeout to take one more shot into the end zone, instead of scrambling around to set up the next play before they finally had to stop play at :04 and settle for a half-ending field goal.
Then, later in the game a panicked Brady would forego an easy run for a first and instead throw the ball away.
Contrast that to Joe Flacco, who steadily outplayed the lauded Brady. Flacco handled the pressure, scampering 14 yards for his own first down conversion, and eventually adjusted his approach after failing to find his normal success with the deep pass to the outside. The Ravens stuck with the ground game and Flacco found his success instead with intermediate throws between the hashes.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ defense held steady despite poor first-half field position and despite giving up 428 yards of total offense to the Patriots. They kept the pressure on Brady and kept the game close by forcing red zone field goals and then striking hard when their opportunities came.
In the end the Ravens took the win with steely nerves and a hard hitting approach that took the will out of an entire shell-shocked Patriots team that had never seen a first-half lead slip away like that before.
For John Harbaugh and the Ravens it settled a score from last year’s AFC Championship game when the team wilted to the Patriots under the pressure in the end. The win earned them a trip to New Orleans to face the Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, who also redeemed their own loss from last year’s NFC Championship game. Now it’s all about family.
Joe Flacco got off to a slow start, going just 1-for-6 and over-throwing or under-throwing the deep ball with the wind to his back. But he was patient, stepping up in the pocket to buy time and taking some big hits, including a direct shot to the chest by the nearly 400-pound Vince Wilfork. In three consecutive possessions from 6:00 left in third quarter to 5:00 into the fourth Flacco was nearly flawless as he picked on undersized Patriots safeties and racked up three TD passes over the middle, two to Anquan Boldin on back shoulder fades and one to Dennis Pitta. He won the game right there in those three series. After hitting just 6 of 12 first half pass attempts for 81 yards, he would go 15 for 24 for 159 yards and three touchdowns in the second half and finish with a 106 passer rating to Brady’s 62. He has now outplayed Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in three playoff games, with the fascinating Colin Kaepernick waiting for him in New Orleans.
Running Backs: B+
Ray Rice ran with limited success, just a 2.5-yard average on 19 carries. But they stuck with him and rotated in Bernard Pierce, whose quickness and ability to bounce it to the outside was more effective against the Patriots, netting him 52 yards on nine carries despite coming off a banged-up knee a week ago.
While the rushing totals were not high, the pair of runners seemed to break off chain-moving runs at just the right time, especially as the game wore on, to keep the Patriots honest. Rice was too much for Patriots linebackers to contain on three catches for 22 yards and single-handedly scored the first TD by making Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower miss him as he broke for the pylon. Vonta Leach was also effective as a safety valve out of the backfield.
Wide Receivers: A-
Anquan Boldin had a step on corner Aqib Talib a number of times in the first half but didn’t catch a pass on two targets. He did however cause Talib to leave the game in the first half with a tweaked hamstring and it would set up a big second half for Boldin who caught five balls for 60 yards and two touchdowns. He was simply too physical for the Patriots over the middle.
Torrey Smith was not physical enough against either rookie Alfonzo Dennard or Kyle Arrington as he tried to beat them off the line on go-routes. After a number of failed attempts down the sides the Ravens adjusted by curling Smith into the middle of the field where he effectively found space to grab four passes for 69 yards. It was a nice adjustment. Tandon Doss drew a clear pass interference penalty but also dropped a pass.
Tight Ends: A
Dennis Pitta also helped chew up the middle of the Patriots defense, running crisp routes and piling up yards after the catch. He averaged 11 yards a catch on five receptions and a touchdown where he was too quick for former Ravens safety Derrick Martin in the end zone. Ed Dickson dropped his only target when Flacco passed up Pitta on a shorter crossing route.
Kudos to all the armchair critics who called Michael Oher a better right tackle than left tackle. He’s proved that point in the last four weeks. He didn’t commit a penalty and was steady as a pass protector and chipped in with a nice lead block on Hightower to get Pierce to the outside. Bryant McKinnie was backed into the pocket on a couple of occasions including a sack by Ninkovich on what amounted to a coverage sack, but he was steady overall.
Interior Line: A
The interior group did an excellent job controlling Vince Wilfork after the big defensive tackle nearly single-handedly beat them in last year’s championship game. Kelechi Osemele was able to get under his pads and stand him up a number of times. He also took him down with a nice backside cut block. Marsal Yanda was effective with trap blocks to steer the charging tackle away from the plays. Matt Birk was very good in executing double team blocks and peeling off in protection.
Chykie Brown had a tough day missing tackles. He also blew a coverage assignment in the end zone when Corey Graham called for a switch and Wes Welker was given a free run to the outside for a touchdown. At one point in the second half he was benched for Jimmy Smith, who played decently in limited chances. Graham had a bit of trouble keeping up with Wes Welker, but kept him well enough in check to bend but not break. He was very effective closing for tackles after the catch and run blitzing and finished with 11 tackles. Cary Williams gave up a lot of space but also broke very well on the ball and undercut a couple of routes.
Bernard Pollard missed an early tackle attempt on Aaron Hernandez but was a beast for the rest of the game in coverage and particularly as an intimidator. He has a history of delivering knockout blows against Patriots players over the years and this game was no exception. His hit on a ducking Stevan Ridley forced a game-decisive fumble and sent Ridley out of the game for good. Pollard did get flagged for a headshot to a defenseless Welker. Ed Reed missed a couple tackles but also delivered his share of blows.
Ray Lewis was credited with 14 tackles but the majority were assists and he didn’t seem to have the same presence as he did in Denver. Although, the Patriots didn’t run the ball a lot either.
Ray did get flagged for a helmet shot on a defenseless Hernandez after a catch and Dannell Ellerbe was suckered into shoving center Ryan Wendell in the facemask after the whistle. Ellerbe had trouble covering Hernandez over the middle, as the tight end torched the Ravens for 9 catches and 83 yards.
While Paul Kruger and Terrell Suggs didn’t get any sacks (no Ravens player did) they were effective against the run and did cause Brady to move his feet in the pocket. Kruger dropped an interception on a long deflection caused by Cary Williams.
Defensive Line: B
Art Jones played well, and was quick into the backfield pressuring some throws. He blew up a run on the goalline for a loss, forcing a field goal. He also came up from the bottom of the pile with Ridley’s fumble. While Haloti Ngata was mostly double teamed and occasionally blown off the ball, he did at times beat blocks to get into the backfield and registered three quarterback hits. Ma’ake Kemoeatu was not flashy but he held ground in the middle. Pernell McPhee did a good job getting his hands up into passing lanes, and batted the ball that Ellerbe would ultimately intercept.
Special Teams: B-
The Ravens’ average starting position in first half was their own 11 compared to the 33 for Pats. In the second half that disadvantage was erased with both teams each starting from their own 25 on average. After struggling to cover kicks a week ago this unit settled down, with some better tackling by James Ihedigbo, Sean Considine and Anthony Allen. Albert McClellan made a nice shoestring tackle on what was headed to be bigger than a 28-yard return by Welker. McClellan was a little chippy early and cold have drawn a flag.
John Harbaugh outcoached Bill Belichick by channeling the team’s emotions positively and not being intimidated on the road. Dean Pees continues to have success with a bend but not break defense. And Jim Caldwell should be credited with sticking with the run and trusting Flacco to use the middle of the field when the outside was not working. They found the right matchups.
Bill Leavy’s crew was better than usual. They allowed a lot of shoving in the defensive backfield well beyond the five-yard mark, which the Patriots took full advantage of, but were fair in calling pass interference and illegal blows to the head when it was obvious. The head-snapping shot by Dennis Pitta after a catch was not clearly helmet contact and they let it go. However, it was hard to explain the lack of a flag after Ed Reed signaled for a fair catch and snapper Danny Aiken proceeded to put a helmet-to-helmet shot on him – which should have been two fouls, neither of which were called. Even Aiken got up looking for the flag.