Sunday, January 22, 2012
Rapid Reaction: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
By Mike Reiss
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots' 23-20 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game:
What it means: The Patriots advance to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on Feb. 5. This will be the team’s fifth Super Bowl appearance in Bill Belichick’s tenure as coach (2000-present). This is the Patriots' seventh Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Stunning end: The Ravens had a chance to win with 22 seconds left when Lee Evans dropped a touchdown pass. Then, after cornerback Sterling Moore deflected a pass on third down, Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal wide left that would have tied the game. Stunning ending.
Classic contest: Just a tremendous game. Sharp momentum swings. Big hitting. Some of the game’s greats going back and forth. At one point, quarterback Tom Brady was jawing with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. In a high-stakes contest, it was tremendous stuff. Great drama in an electric environment.
Wilfork delivers two huge defensive plays: Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork delivered two of the biggest plays of the Patriots’ season with the game on the line. With the Patriots leading 23-20 and the Ravens driving, Wilfork came up with a tackle on an inside run on third down, then bulldozed through center Matt Birk to pressure Joe Flacco into an incompletion on fourth down. That turned the ball over to the Patriots with a chance to run out the clock but they couldn't. That set up the final drama.
Brady and Belichick make history. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick become the first starting quarterback/head coach combination to advance to five Super Bowls. For Brady, he ties his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, with his 16th career postseason win as a starting quarterback. Brady’s emotions showed after he scored on fourth down at the goal-line in the fourth quarter, a play in which he took a big hit from Ray Lewis.
Turnovers & red zone kept Ravens in it: The Patriots lost the turnover battle, with two interceptions and a lost fumble on a kickoff return. The Ravens had one interception, a Joe Flacco pick in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Ravens held the Patriots to two touchdowns in five red-zone trips. Put those turnovers and the red-zone performance together, and it was a big part of why this was such a close game. The Ravens played tough.
Gronkowski’s injury a subplot: Tight end Rob Gronkowski needed help coming off the field in the third quarter with what looked like a serious left ankle injury. Safety Bernard Pollard, who Patriots fans know too well from his involvement in plays in which Tom Brady and Wes Welker tore ACLs, was in on the tackle. In a surprising turn, Gronkowski returned to the field early in the fourth quarter and the Gillette Stadium crowd erupted. Gronkowski has become a cult hero here in New England, especially with his trademark “boom” spikes after touchdowns, and this should only endear him more to Patriots fans.
What’s next: The Patriots will face the winner of the NFC Championship Game between the Giants and 49ers in San Francisco (Fox, 6:30 p.m. ET).