Ravens beat Patriots, 28-13, for AFC championship

986027.jpg

Ravens beat Patriots, 28-13, for AFC championship

FOXBORO -- Stat of the day (courtesy of SI's Don Banks): Prior to Sunday, there had been 11 championship-game rematches in the National Football League over the last 60 years -- games in which the same two teams met for the title two years in a row -- and, amazingly, all 11 of them were won by the defending champ,

But the 12th time was the charm for the Baltimore Ravens.

Back at Gillette Stadium for their second consecutive try at the AFC championship, the Ravens broke the spell. Taking advantage of crucial injuries to cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Patrick Chung, Joe Flacco riddled the turned-back-into-Swiss-cheese Patriots secondary for 240 yards and three touchdowns and led the Ravens -- who trailed, 13-7, at the half -- to a 28-13 victory and their first trip to the Super Bowl since 2000.

For the Patriots, the loss -- only their second in an AFC Championship Game -- came in a game they dominated in the first two quarters. But unable to convert on numerous third-and-shorts, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns, they were failed to put the game away when they had the chance . . . and the Ravens eventually made them pay.

"Look, we missed a lot of opportunities tonight," said coach Bill Belichick. "We were 1-for-3 in the red area (actually 1-for-4); we couldn't stop them (the Ravens were 4-for-4 in scoring touchdowns in the red area) . . . Nothing was really good enough."

The Patriots broke on top first, but it was a harbinger of things to come: Stephen Gostkowski kicking a 31-yard field goal with 6:25 to go in the first quarter after a 12-play drive stalled at the Baltimore 12.

"You've got to hold Tom Brady to threes and score sevens," said Baltimore running back Ray Rice (19 carries, 48 yards, 1 TD). "You've got to score touchdowns against Brady. If you're kicking field goals versus Brady, he's always going to have that opportunity to come back."

Compounding matters, the Patriots suffered a key injury when Talib, who was being counted on to stop the Ravens' explosive Torey Smith, pulledd a hamstring and had to leave the game. Flacco took advantage, hitting Smith with a 25-yard completion during a 13-play, 90-yard drive that was capped by Rice's two-yard TD run, giving Baltimore a 7-3 lead.

The Pats answered right back, going 79 yards in 11 plays of their own to move back in front, 10-7, on a one-yard scoring pass from Brady to Wes Welker. They nearly extended it further, reaching the Baltimore 4 late in the half, but with the clock winding down they -- again -- settled for a 25-yard Gostkowski field goal as time expired, making the score 13-7.

"I would have loved to get the touchdown there," said Brady.

And that field goals-instead-of-touchdowns inefficiency eventually bit them. The Ravens -- taking advantage of the depleted Pats secondary (Chung joined Talib on the sidelines when he went down on Rice's touchdown run) -- passed on all but one play as they went 87 yards in 10 plays and regained the lead, 14-13, on a five-yard pass from Flacco to Dennis Fitta with 6:14 to play in the third quarter.

Then they did it again on their next possession: 63 yards in 10 plays, with Flacco hitting Anquan Boldin -- who made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone -- from three yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 21-13.

Flacco, who had completed only 6 of his first 13 passes, had, by this time, hit 12 of his last 19 and had 207 yards with two touchdowns. He finished the night 21-of-36 for 240 yards.

"He's one of the elite quarterbacks," said Patriots safety Steve Gregory. "I know he gets a lot of flak for possibly not being that type of guy, but he is."

"I think he played phenomenal, all the way around," agreed linebacker Brandon Spikes.

The Pats' last chance evaporated when Stevan Ridley fumbled after a thunderous hit to the head by Bernard Pollard -- yes, the man who blew out Tom Brady's knee and was also the only opposing player in the vicinity when Wes Welker suffered his knee injury and Rob Gronkowski broke his ankle -- and the Ravens recovered on the Patriots' 47. Four plays later, Flacco had them in the end zone, moving ahead 28-13 on an 11-yard TD pass to Boldin.

The Pats were reduced to desperation attempts to pull out the game, but Brady -- who wound up attempting 54 passes (completing 29, for 320 yards) -- was intercepted twice, and they gave up the ball on downs on their other possession.

"We got behind there in the second half and became one-dimensional," said Brady. "We just couldn't string enough good plays together to get the ball in the end zone."

And when they couldn't, it ended . . . the game, the season, the chance at that elusive fourth Super Bowl championship in the BradyBelichick Era.

"It's hard," said Gregory. "After a loss like this, it's hard. This is just about as low as you feel . . . To get to this point is a great thing, but we fell a little short of our goal."

Bill Belichick says Brad Stevens has given him 'a lot of insight' on coaching

Bill Belichick says Brad Stevens has given him 'a lot of insight' on coaching

Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters last week that spending time with Bill Belichick can make you "feel pretty inadequate as a coach."

But Belichick raved about Stevens during a conference call on Sunday. The two spent time together on Friday night for the Hall of Fame Huddle fundraiser to benefit Belichick's foundation, and the Patriots coach explained that he's learned a lot from the Celtics boss.

"Got to know Brad ove the last couple of years," Belichick said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he's done, taking a young team, a team that we barely knew some of the players on the team, and in a couple of years has built them into a strong team last year and played very competitively in the playoffs. Fun to go over there and watch them.

"Brad and I have talked about a lot of things that are just coaching-related. Obviously the sports are different. I don't know anything about basketball, and he says he doesn't know much about football. It's really not about Xs and Os and that kind of thing. It's more the other parts of coaching: Prepartion, training, team work, team-building, confidence, communication, players and coaches relationships and so forth.

"Obviously we're in the same business in taking more people to training camp than we can keep on a roster, then managing a roster and dealing with things that happen during the year with that roster, whether it's bringing other guys onto the team, trades and so forth. We've chatted about a lot of those things. He's given me a lot of insight.

"I'd say some of the players they get are a little younger than the guys we get on average. Kids that are coming out of college after one year, we get them after three years or four. Just the trans from college to pro which he obviously has a lot of experience with. Coming to the New England area for most players, that's an adjustment, we don't get too many guys from this area. All of those things like that."

Bill Belichick says Brad Stevens has given him 'a lot of insight' on coaching

Bill Belichick says Brad Stevens has given him 'a lot of insight' on coaching

Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters last week that spending time with Bill Belichick can make you "feel pretty inadequate as a coach."

But Belichick raved about Stevens during a conference call on Sunday. The two spent time together on Friday night for the Hall of Fame Huddle fundraiser to benefit Belichick's foundation, and the Patriots coach explained that he's learned a lot from the Celtics boss.

"Got to know Brad ove the last couple of years," Belichick said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he's done, taking a young team, a team that we barely knew some of the players on the team, and in a couple of years has built them into a strong team last year and played very competitively in the playoffs. Fun to go over there and watch them.

"Brad and I have talked about a lot of things that are just coaching-related. Obviously the sports are different. I don't know anything about basketball, and he says he doesn't know much about football. It's really not about Xs and Os and that kind of thing. It's more the other parts of coaching: Prepartion, training, team work, team-building, confidence, communication, players and coaches relationships and so forth.

"Obviously we're in the same business in taking more people to training camp than we can keep on a roster, then managing a roster and dealing with things that happen during the year with that roster, whether it's bringing other guys onto the team, trades and so forth. We've chatted about a lot of those things. He's given me a lot of insight.

"I'd say some of the players they get are a little younger than the guys we get on average. Kids that are coming out of college after one year, we get them after three years or four. Just the trans from college to pro which he obviously has a lot of experience with. Coming to the New England area for most players, that's an adjustment, we don't get too many guys from this area. All of those things like that."