NFL Nation: 2012 AFC Championship Rapid Reaction


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- My thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 28-13 win over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game:

What it means: The Ravens' magical championship run continues as they head to their first Super Bowl in 12 years. One week after knocking off Peyton Manning, the Ravens beat Tom Brady as the AFC's No. 4 seed crashed the party in New Orleans and set up a family reunion in the Bayou. Welcome to the Harbaugh Bowl, where John Harbaugh's Ravens will play Jim Harbaugh's 49ers for the Lombardi Trophy. Just like the AFC divisional playoff game, quarterback Joe Flacco once again came through with a big game and the defense came up with three clutch turnovers to deliver another big upset. It's a fitting sendoff for linebacker Ray Lewis, whose final game will come in the Super Bowl.

Flacco not denied this time: Last year at Gillette Stadium, Flacco was one failed catch by Lee Evans from leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He wouldn't be stopped Sunday. After going 1-of-6 in the first quarter, Flacco completed 20 of his next 28 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns as the Ravens took a commanding 28-13 lead in the fourth quarter. It didn't hurt that the Patriots' top cornerback, Aqib Talib, injured his thigh with about five minutes left in the first quarter and didn't return.

Crushing blow: Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who is known for injuring Patriots (Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski) in his career, hurt the Patriots in a different way Sunday. His hard fourth-quarter hit on running back Stevan Ridley forced a fumble at midfield. It was Pollard's first forced fumble of the season. The Ravens converted that into a Flacco-to-Anquan Boldin touchdown pass to put the Ravens up by 15 in the fourth quarter.

Big-play Boldin: After not getting one catch in the first half, Boldin was a red zone monster in the fourth quarter. He scored on touchdowns of 3 and 11 yards. He has scored five touchdowns in seven postseason games for the Ravens.

Tip of the day: Once again, the Ravens made Tom Brady not look like Tom Brady. That was apparent in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were in Ravens territory with less than seven minutes to go. Defensive end Pernell McPhee deflected Brady's pass at the line and it was intercepted by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, which essentially sealed the victory.

Tough tight end: Even though Gronkowski was out, there was still another tight end who made an impact. With the Ravens trailing 13-7 in the third quarter, Dennis Pitta held onto a pass in the red zone despite taking a vicious shot from Jerod Mayo. On the next play, Pitta caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Flacco.

Temper, temper: The Ravens took a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter on Ray Rice's 2-yard touchdown run. But they couldn't hold on to the momentum because they couldn't control their temper. Two plays after the score, Ellerbe slapped a Patriots player in the head after getting shoved. That 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty jump-started New England's 79-yard touchdown drive.

Bad field position: All five of the Ravens' first-half drives started inside their 15-yard line, and their average drive start was been at their own 11-yard line. Baltimore’s average drive started at its own 28 during the regular season, the third best starting field position in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

What's next: After coming up short in their previous two AFC Championship Games, the Ravens got it done this time. They head to New Orleans next, where they will face the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the New England Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game:

What it means: The AFC title game was the end of the road for the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were 3-0 in this round at home, but Baltimore did a good job of controlling the pace of the game, then pulling away in the fourth quarter with timely plays to advance to the Super Bowl. New England was swept by the Ravens in two meetings this season. Brady also fell short of his goal of a sixth Super Bowl appearance. That would have set a record for a starting quarterback. Time is running out for Brady to win another championship. He will be 36 at the start of next season.

Secondary struggles: The Patriots suffered a huge injury in the first quarter and never recovered. New England No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib strained his hamstring and was knocked out of the game. Talib is New England's best cover corner, and his absence changed the way the team played defense. Without Talib, Baltimore’s offense took advantage and made plays against rookie corner Alfonzo Dennard and inconsistent teammate Kyle Arrington. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had another good outing. He threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns against New England's poor secondary.

No filling in for Gronkowski: The Patriots needed other players to step up for injured Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. New England got good contributions from tight end Aaron Hernandez (nine catches) and receivers Brandon Lloyd (seven catches) and Wes Welker (eight catches), but it wasn't enough. None of these players was able to make the big plays, especially to get in the end zone. Welker had a big drop on third down that had a chance to change the momentum of the game. New England's 13 points was its lowest total of the season.

Other injuries: In addition to Talib, the Patriots had key injuries to starting running back Stevan Ridley and defensive tackle Kyle Love. Ridley suffered a concussion after taking a devastating hit by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Love injured his knee in the first quarter and didn't return.

What’s next: The Patriots' season is over. New England will now enter the offseason trying to improve in several areas. The Patriots are in pretty good shape with the cap and in free agency. The biggest question is: What will they do with pending free agents Welker and Talib?

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