With a thrilling 23-20 victory over the shell-shocked Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots are headed to their fifth Super Bowl appearance of the (for lack of a better word) "productive" Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era.
The game was a grind-it-out slugfest chocked full of big hits, heated brawls and plenty of passion. The Pats drew first blood on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, but it was clear from the get-go that Brady wasn't playing like himself. After a rough start, Joe Flacco found his groove and outplayed his seasoned counterpart. They both finished 22/36, but Flacco threw for over 300 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. Brady, in an uncharacteristically poor performance, finished with just 239 yards and tossed two interceptions without throwing a touchdown. To his credit, though, Tom Terrific delivered the go-ahead touchdown by leaping into the end zone on fourth and goal late in the game.
But in the end, the AFC championship game was Baltimore's to lose. They stood on the precipice of victory, only to let it slip right through their fingers. Wide receiver Lee Evans hauled in a pass from Flacco in the end zone, a play that would have put the Ravens ahead with under a minute left, but Sterling Moore smashed the ball out of his hands for an incompletion. Two plays later with eleven seconds remaining on the clock, former Pro Bowler Billy Cundiff shanked a 32 yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
Gillette erupted in celebration. The sullen Ravens looked on through the uprights with their jaws dropped to the turf and hollow eyes in the full thousand-yard-stare mode. In the span of just two plays, a stunning turn of events, they had gone from AFC champs to tough luck losers. They had battled all game, recovered from a halftime deficit to take a 20-16 lead deep into the fourth quarter. Their defense limited Brady, fresh off a six touchdown performance against the Broncos a week earlier, to zero passing touchdowns and held New England's juggernaut offensive attack to a pair of measley rushing TDs (the other came from BenJarvus Green-Ellis). But for all their efforts, they are going home empty-handed.
New England will face the winner of the 49er's/Giants game on February 5th in Indianapolis.