Pats defeat Ravens for AFC championship

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Pats defeat Ravens for AFC championship

FOXBORO -- It's the rarely-talked-about secret of sports. Yes, history is made with heroic performances. But it's also made with never-to-be-forgotten gaffes.

The New England Patriots' dynasty is alive today because of one those gaffes.

The Pats are headed to their fifth Super Bowl in 11 years, and their seventh overall, because Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field-goal attempt with 15 seconds to play. The kick would have tied the score and sent the AFC Championship Game into overtime; instead, it sends the Patriots to Indianapolis in two weeks to face the New York Giants in a rematch of Super Bowl 42.

And how close did the Pats come to not going to Indianapolis at all? Pretty close.

"I sucked pretty bad today," quarterback Tom Brady told the Gillette Stadium crowd during the postgame awards ceremony, "but our defense saved us."

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Brady's right. He and the offense left lots of points on the field, settling for three field goals on drives that reached the Baltimore 11-, 17- and 6-yard lines. They had a chance to put the game away not once, but twice in the fourth quarter, and failed both times:

-- On the first, after a Brandon Spikes interception gave them possession on their own 46 with 7:22 left and a chance to run down the clock, Brady inexplicably went for a touchdown on the very next play. His heave in the general direction of Matthew Slater was tipped by Bernard Pollard to teammate Jimmy Smith, who made a tumbling catch in the end zone and then got up and returned it 39 yards to the Baltimore 38.

-- On the second, they failed to convert a third-and-four from their own 39 with 1:53 to play, forcing a punt and giving Baltimore the ball for a drive that nearly -- nearly -- won the game. In fact, it would have won the game had Ravens receiver Lee Evans not had a potential game-winning touchdown pass go through his hands in the corner of the end zone with 22 seconds left (thanks in no small part to Sterling Moore, who slapped it out when Evans touched the ball).

And yet they survived. Thanks not to what they did, but to what Cundiff failed to do.

"You got to make plays under pressure in this league," said coach Bill Belichick, who's now been the beneficiary of a missed kick -- remember the Bills' Scott Norwood against the Giants, when Belichick was New York's defensive coordinator, in the 1990 Super Bowl? -- twice in his career. "It's not the first time it's happened."

It was a strange way for such an emotional, evenly-played game to be decided. But the Pats will take it.

"Obviously, it was a draining game," said Belichick, "but great to come out on top like we did. All the credit's got to go the players. They went out there and played their hearts out, and sometimes good things happen when you do that . . .

"That's what I like about this team. They're tough, they're competitive. They don't get down on themselves."

There was lots to get down about, especially early on.In the bizarro world first quarter, Brady had a much-deserved 35.8 passer rating -- 7-for-12 for 57 yards with an interception, and a raft of poorly thrown balls (including a missed touchdown when he airmailed a delivery to a wide-open Rob Gronkowski at the Ravens' 5) -- but his defense held Baltimore to minus-14 yards on its first three possessions, enabling New England to escape with a 3-0 lead.

Stephen Gostkowski accounted for the points with a 29-yard field goal.

But the interception -- an acrobatic, tumbling snare by Ladarius Webb at the Ravens' 30 on a pass intended for Julian Edelman -- led to Baltimore's first score, a 20-yard field goal by Cundiff that tied the game at 3-3 early in the second quarter.

With the passing game stuttering, Brady and the Pats turned to the run. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who carried only twice (for 11 yards) in the first quarter, gained 13 yards up the middle on the first play of the Pats' next drive, and never stopped. He wound up running the ball on 5 of the drives's 10 plays, for 35 yards, and put New England in front, 10-3, on a seven-yard dash off right guard.

The Ravens, however, answered right back as Flacco -- 11-for-16 for 162 yards in the first half (and who would have had better numbers had he been able to take advantage of the numerous times he had receivers open behind the hapless New England secondary) -- got his team deep into Patriot territory with passes of 20 yards to Evans and 37 yards to Anquan Boldin. He eventually capped the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta, tying the game at 10-10.

Gostkowski put the Pats back in front, 13-10, with a 35-yard field goal late in the second quarter, and added a 24-yarder on the first drive of the third quarter to make it 16-10.

But the field goals were a symptom of a problem the New England offense hadn't had all year: Failing to convert opportunities in the red zone. The first Gostkowski field goal came after the Pats stalled at the Ravens 11, the second when the Pats stopped at the Ravens 17, and the third -- most maddeningly -- after they had reached the Ravens 6.

And Baltimore took advantage of the points New England left on the field. The Ravens went 78 yards in 11 plays for the go-ahead TD, exploiting a season-long New England defensive weakness -- inability to get off the field on third down -- along the way. Flacco completed a 13-yard pass to Evans on a third-and-11, an eight-yard pass to Pitta on a third-and-six, and a 29-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith, who broke a tackle by Moore short of the first-down marker and raced home down the right sideline, with 3:38 left in the third quarter.

The Ravens had a chance to build on their 17-16 lead when Danny Woodhead fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Emanuel Cook recovered on the New England 28. The Ravens eventually reached the 9-yard line, but this time the defense made a big third-down play -- an 12-yard sack of Flacco by James Ihedigbo -- and forced Baltimore to settle for a 39-yard field goal by Cundiff and a 20-16 advantage.

"Our defense really made some huge plays today, very important plays," said Brady.

Then it was time for the Patriots offense to morph back into the Patriots offense.

It started with a 23-yard Brady-to-Gronkowski pass that threw panic into the heart of Patriots Nation when Gronkowski appeared to suffer a serious ankle injury at the end of the play. He was limping heavily as he was helped off the field and into the clubhouse, but he would return before the end of the drive.

From there, the Pats marched downfield until they had a second-and-goal from the 1. Brady appeared to run it in for the go-ahead score; the replay, however, showed his knee was down before he reached the end zone. Green-Ellis was stuffed on third down, leaving it up to Brady again. He leaped over the line and into the end zone for the go-ahead TD with 11:33 left, making it 23-20 New England.

It was the end of the scoring. But not the end of the excitement.

And not the end of the Pats' season.

Mitchell, Hogan reportedly good to go for AFC title game

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Mitchell, Hogan reportedly good to go for AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The Patriots haven't had all of their receivers simultaneously healthy and in uniform since they acquired Michael Floyd on waivers last month. That appears as though it could change Sunday. 

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, wideouts Malcolm Mitchell (knee) and Chris Hogan (thigh) are expected to play in the AFC title game. Tight end Martellus Bennett (knee) is also expected to play, per Schefter. All three were listed as questionable on the team's injury report. 

Mitchell has not seen game action since injuring his knee mid-way through the third quarter against the Jets in Week 16. Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans last week, left the game in the third quarter and did not return. 

Patriots receiver Danny Amendola was also listed on this week's injury report with an ankle issue. Last week, he played in his first game since Week 13.

If Mitchell, Hogan and Amendola are all healthy enough to play, the Patriots will have their choice of five wideouts against the Steelers since Julian Edelman and Floyd are also physically able to suit up. 

Will they all be in uniform? That remains to be seen. The Patriots haven't taken five receivers on their 46-man game-day roster yet this season. However, because all five bring something different to the Patriots offense, perhaps Bill Belichick and his staff will find it valuable enough to activate all five.

If the Patriots opt to take the receiver-heavy route, they'll have to go lighter elsewhere -- perhaps de-activating a core special teamer -- in order to make room.

Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

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Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- There are plenty of damn good running backs in the NFL but there is only one Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers star shuffles, darts and then dashes, often with bodies crashing all around him, many of them intent on doing serious bodily harm . . . but often failing.

“He’s very unique,” said linebacker Shea McClellin. “I don’t think anyone else runs quite like he does, but it’s efficient and it works.”

Defensive end Chris Long concurred: “His style is so unique, his patience, what he’s able to do with his vision. And as far as breaking tackles, being a complete player, catching the ball, he can do all that stuff.”

Now don’t get it twisted. The Pats respect the hell out of Bell, but they’d prefer they weren’t in charge of corralling him Sunday because everyone has failed during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak. Bell, who played in eight of those games, has piled up over 1,500 yards from the line of scrimmage during that stretch -- 1,172 yards rushing, 336 yards receiving -- while scoring 9 touchdowns. 

“He’s really fun to watch unless you’re getting ready to play him,” said Long.

The respect Bell commands in Foxboro is evident when talking to the Pats running backs, who spoke glowingly about the former first-rounder and in LeGarrette Blount’s case, former teammate.

“No one can do what he does,” Blount told me. “They can try, but it won’t work.”

“That’s his style,” added Dion Lewis, himself a shifty fella. “You can’t try to do that. I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy that can do that.”

So how do the Pats accomplish something no one has been able to do over the last two-plus months? How do they slow Bell down, as they did back in Week 7, limiting him to 81 yards rushing (only 3.9 yards per carry)? 

“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.”

“If there’s space or if there’s a gap in the defense or if there’s an edge in the defense, he’s quick to take advantage of that,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told us during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s going to be able to get into that open space pretty quickly so you can’t really -- I don’t think you want to sit there and guess.”

If the Pats defenders, especially at the linebacker level, do that -- guess and attack a gap aggressively in attempt to make a splash play -- they may fill one gap but open two others. And that’s where a four-yard gain can turn into 40.

“Everyone on the field, it’s their job to get to him, gang tackle and be aggressive,” said Rob Ninkovich. “It can’t be just one time but every time you’re on the field.”

“There’s no one guy that can stop him,” added Belichick. “You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”

The Pats are a terrific tackling team, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season (actually, not since November of 2015), but the red-hot Bell will put recent history to the test.