By Cain Cawthon
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The Baltimore Ravens were brilliant on fourth downs, but the New England Patriots won the fourth quarter.
In a classic game, the Ravens and Patriots traded shots all day, but in the end it was the AFC’s top-seeded Patriots who survived a pair of 14-point Ravens leads — the first team in postseason history to do so — to win 35-31.
Joe Flacco, whose second interception of the game inside of the final two moments ended Baltimore’s best chance of late-game heroics, was on fire early. He finished the game 28-of-45 passing for 292 yards and four touchdowns. Tom Brady overcame a slow start to complete 33 of 50 passes for 367 yards with three touchdowns (plus a rushing score) and an interception.
But he had help from Julian Edelman, who threw his first career touchdown pass on a trick play, and — in his finest game as a Patriot — Danny Amendola, who caught two touchdown passes in the game after catching only one all regular season.
The Patriots will host the AFC championship game next week in Foxborough against the winner of the Indianapolis Colts-Denver Broncos game on Sunday. The victory was the 20th for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, passing Don Shula and tying him with Tom Landry for the most in NFL postseason history.
The Ravens wasted little time getting going. The Patriots sat back in a zone early and were shredded by Flacco, who hit on his first eight passes (to six different receivers) and 9 of 10 with two touchdown passes.
On the first surgical drive, Flacco found Kamar Aiken for a 19-yard catch and run for a fast 7-0 lead. Then, after a Patriots three-and-out, Ravens receiver Steve Smith — a longtime playoff assassin — caught three passes for 44 yards combined on the first two drives, including a 9-yard touchdown to give the Ravens a 14-0 lead.
The Patriots responded quickly. Brady went to work with three big passes — two to Rob Gronkowskifor first downs, and one to Edelman to put the ball at the Baltimore 1-yard line. After a first-and-goal loss of 4 yards and a drop by Edelman, Brady scrambled into the end zone to cut the Ravens’ lead in half.
Things got chippy after that, serving as a reminder that these two teams aren’t exactly on the friendliest terms. Ravens receiver Torrey Smith was flagged for an after-the-play unsportsmanlike conduct flag, and then Patriots special teamer Chris White followed that with an equally boneheaded taunting call a few plays later.
The Patriots chipped away with short, rhythm passes on their next drive, surviving shaky blocking up front and the loss of center Bryan Stork with a knee injury. During the drive, Brady set a new NFL record for career postseason pass yards, and he capped it off with a TD pass to Amendola, who made Ravens safety Matt Elam miss a tackle en route to the end zone.
Dont'a Hightower (54), Devin McCourty (32) and Logan Ryan (26), celebrate after a final Hail Mary by the Ravens was turned aside. - Image credit: Jim Davis/Global
With the game tied, the Ravens lost momentum. On a curious 3rd-and-1 call, the Ravens were stopped short of a first down when they forwent a handoff to Justin Forsett, who had rushed 10 times for 78 yards to that point, for an end-around to rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro, who was cut down for no gain.
Brady got the ball back and had a chance to do what he has done so well most of the season: lead a two-minute scoring drive. But after connecting on a few passes, Brady threw a bad interception — his eighth in four playoff games against the Ravens — to linebacker Daryl Smith.
Then Patriots corner Darrelle Revis was flagged for a huge pass interference — the first against him all season — while covering Steve Smith, who got the better of Revis on this day, setting up the Ravens in business with the 20-yard call.
Flacco got hot again, finally connecting with Owen Daniels for a back-shoulder pass to the seam in the back of the end zone for a brilliant score and a 21-14 Ravens lead with 10 seconds remaining in the half.
The Patriots took a knee, leaving the field to boos at the half.
They got the ball first to start the second half but were stopped; a missed pass-interference call against Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who clearly grabbed Gronkowski early, didn’t help matters.
The Ravens went to work quickly. Campanaro caught a 14-yard pass, helped by a huge Steve Smith block on Patriots corner Kyle Arrington. Then the Ravens — after a wasted timeout — went for it on 4th and 6 from the New England 36. It turned out to be a great call. Torrey Smith caught a fade pass on the 1, despite being interfered with by Brandon Browner.
Smith’s 15-yard taunting penalty moved the ball back from the doorstep of the end zone, but a swing pass to a wide-open Forsett — Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins was the guilty defender — allowed him to walk into the end zone, stunning the Gillette Stadium crowd with the score 28-14 Ravens.
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With the Patriots’ offensive line looking vulnerable, New England went into a quick passing game and essentially used four offensive linemen and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on the line with success. John Harbaugh ran on the field to protest a catch by Hoomanawanui in the red zone because he had lined up at left tackle. But what Harbaugh — who was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for his protest — didn’t realize was that Shane Vereen lined up on the line but declared himself ineligible. Brilliant coaching here from Belichick.
A nine-play drive — all throws — ended in Gronkowski barreling in for a 5-yard score and the Ravens’ lead cut to 28-21. Gronkowski would finish with seven catches for 108 yards — his second career postseason 100-yard game.
After a Ravens three-and-out, Edelman unleashed his first career NFL pass — a 51-yard score and a stunning play that would tie the game.
Flacco then was picked off by Patriots safety Devin McCourty three plays later, ending his interception-less streak at 197 passes — the second-longest in NFL history behind Drew Brees’ 226.
The Patriots couldn’t capitalize on the momentum, however. They went three-and-out on the ensuing possession but appeared to make another game-changing play on defense, as Flacco took a coverage sack and fumbled backward, which was recovered by Collins at the Baltimore 4-yard line. That stunning play, however, was wiped out because Revis again was penalized against Steve Smith — for defensive holding, which was a backbreaking call but a good one.
The Ravens took advantage, engineering a systematic, 16-play drive covering 73 yards and ending in a Justin Tucker 25-yard field goal and a 31-28 edge early in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots were not done. They survived a Vereen fumble (which was overturned properly on replay), used a Brady sneak to convert a first down (their first run of the second half after more than 20 straight pass plays) and converted a huge third down when Amendola reached past the sticks on a catch and run.
For the game, the Patriots rushed 13 times for 14 yards — a shocking 1.1-yard average.
The drive ended when Brady threw a gorgeous fade pass to Brandon LaFell from 23 yards out — the Patriots’ first lead of the game — with 5:13 remaining in the game. With that pass, Brady passed his boyhood idol Joe Montana for the all-time lead with 46 postseason touchdown passes.
That put the game in the hands of the Patriots’ defense, which — despite a few big plays — had come up mostly small to this point.
Flacco faced a 4th-and-3 with 2:14 left, and after a timeout to get the play call in order, he hit Daniels on a thread for 17 massive yards. In a game in which the Ravens were a mere 1-for-9 on third down, they were a miraculous 3-for-3 on fourth downs.
But just when it looked like Flacco and the Ravens might sink the Patriots, he was intercepted on a deep shot into the end zone when it looked like Torrey Smith gave up on a ball that ended up in the hands of Patriots safety Duron Harmon.
After the Ravens stopped the clock and got the ball back one more time, their final gasp — a Flacco heave into the end zone — fell incomplete as Steve Smith couldn’t come up with the game-ending pass.
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