Ravens beat Patriots, 28-13, for AFC championship


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."

Haggerty: Subban looking more like a 1st-round bust than NHL goalie

Haggerty: Subban looking more like a 1st-round bust than NHL goalie

BOSTON -- Malcolm Subban still believes he can be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.

While that sort of sheer, brazen self-confidence is admirable -- especially after getting yanked from a 5-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild at TD Garden Tuesday -- pretty much all the evidence points to the contrary. Given a shot because of injuries to Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, nearly two years after getting pulled from his only other NHL appearance when he gave up three goals on six shots in St. Louis, Subban was taken out Tuesday night after allowing three goals on eight second-period shots.

He maintained a defiantly confident tone afterwards, a testament to his maturity and mental toughness.

“It sucks," said Subban, who has now allowed six goals on 22 career shots faced in two starts. “Obviously, I’m just trying to finish the game, let alone win one . . . but what can you do now, right?

"Obviously I want to be a No. 1 goaltender in the league. I was a [first-round draft choice] for a reason. I have the potential, and I just have to show it. Obviously I haven’t done that so far yet, but I think I’m getting closer to it. Honestly, I think I can do it right now. I just got to show it . . . I didn’t [do it] today, but tomorrow’s a new day.”

Given the stunningly bad quality of his two NHL starts, combined with a thoroughly pedestrian body of work at the AHL level over the last three years, there is literally zero evidence Subban is tracking to be a franchise goaltender. Meanwhile, a sizeable selection of goaltenders taken after him in the 2012 NHL Draft have proven their worth and advanced to the elite level: Matt Murray. Frederik Anderson. Connor Hellebuyck. Joonas Korpisalo.

Subban was hoping all along to break through this season in Boston, but things went south on him quickly Tuesday in his first chance to do so.

Hampered by a Bruins team not playing well in front of him, the first goal he allowed was a fluttering Charlie Coyle shot that trickled between his glove hand and the top of his leg pad. The third was a softie low and to the glove side, a power-play strike authored by Ryan Suter. Instead of hanging in and giving his team a chance to win, Subban helped put the Bruins in a hole they couldn't escape.

While Claude Julien felt the poor performance "could be a combination" of goaltending and overall defensive lapses, he didn't let Subban off the hook.

“There are some goals -- I’m not going to lie -- there are some goals that we thought our goaltenders should have had," said the coach.

But he also wasn't going to place the blame solely at Subban's feet.

"[I’m] not here to talk about a goaltender -- who’s in one of his first few games -- because he let in a couple of bad goals,” said Julien. “We were terrible in front of him . . .  and that’s the big picture. That’s more important.

“I don’t care who’s in net. I think when you have some injuries you need to be better in those situations and we weren’t good enough tonight. It doesn’t matter if Tuukka is in net and we had injuries up front, or we’re lacking players here or there. You’ve got to let the system take care of the game. If you play it the right way, you have a chance to win. When you don’t, you don’t. That’s what happened [against Minnesota].”

There’s no question the defense in front of Subban wasn’t nearly good enough. Adam McQuaid and Torey Krug in particular struggled to lock things down in the defensive zone. The wide-open shots from the slot -- like the Chris Stewart score in the second period 12 seconds after Minnesota’s opening goal -- are indicative of a hockey club that’s not sticking to the game plan once things start to get a little wonky.

But this is about a player (Subban) who should be entering the NHL stage of his career after being a first-round pick in 2012. Anybody would be hard-pressed to see him as an NHL goalie after his two Bruins appearances. Combine that with the lack of dominance at the AHL level over the last three years, and there’s a better chance that Subban will be a major first-round bust rather than a late-blooming No. 1 goaltender.

The scary part is that Subban and fellow young netminder Zane McIntyre are all the Bruins have for Wednesday night’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and perhaps longer if Rask can’t make a rapid recovery from his lower body injury.

Maybe Subban can be a bit better than he’s shown thus far, and, to be fair, the three goals allowed to Minnesota weren't all his fault. The bottom line, however, is that he should be up for doing this job right now. Tuesday was a big chance for the young goalie to make a statement that he was ready for it.

Instead he looked like the same goalie who'd been pulled from two of his first four AHL starts this season, one who's never going to truly be ready for the call in Boston.