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."