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."

Curran: Patriots are likely to finish unbeaten this season

Curran: Patriots are likely to finish unbeaten this season

FOXBORO -- Resistance is futile. 

You see this team out there scampering around from drill to drill on a cloudy, late-July day, not a lollygagger to be seen, everything moving with military precision, and you know what it looks like? 

It looks like 80-something players and a coaching staff starting NFL training camp. 

What is it really? It's the first day of work for the NFL's greatest dynasty as it embarks on what will likely be a historic campaign. 

Never mind "may." Never mind "has a chance." It is LIKELY the Patriots will be the first team to ever win 19 games in a single NFL season. 

They don't want to hear that and are already dousing the thought of perfection by labeling it stupid, ridiculous, or disrespectful.

Between now and the start of the season, a parade of indignant former players, coaches and executives will snort and chortle at how absurd the conversation is. 

Frankly, they don't know what the hell they're talking about. 

That won't stop all of them from scoffing at the prospect of 19-0 the same way Curtis Strange scoffed at Tiger Woods back in 1996 when Woods said coming in "second sucks and third is worse." You'll learn, Strange said. 

Strange learned. Everybody learned. Maybe the experts should have seen it coming with Tiger. Maybe not. 

But with the 2017 Patriots, a failing to see what's likely to happen means willfully ignoring facts to do it. The Patriots went 17-2 last year. They lost to Buffalo because their third-string quarterback's thumb was dangling. They lost to Seattle on a night they handed the ball to the Seahawks repeatedly and still were at the Seattle 1-yard line with 30 seconds left with a chance to send the game to overtime but came away with nothing. 
 
They played poorly in the AFC Divisional Playoff against Houston and won by 18. They played "meh" against the Steelers in the AFC Championship and led 33-9 after three quarters. (Don't "But Le'Veon Bell" me. Would Le'Veon Bell have been covering Chris Hogan? No? Okay. Pay attention). 

In the Super Bowl, they spotted Atlanta -- a team being favorably compared to the Greatest Show on Turf Rams -- 25 points, and they wiped out that 25-point deficit in 23 minutes of play. 

Since they walked off the field in Houston, they added a Pro Bowl corner named Stephon Gilmore to play opposite their other Pro Bowl corner, Malcolm Butler. They added a wide receiver named Brandin Cooks, who caught 162 passes the past two seasons for 2,311 yards and 17 touchdowns. And they will also unveil once again the best tight end of his generation, Rob Gronkowski. 

They have a head coach who is definitely the best of the free agency era, probably the best of the Super Bowl era and arguably the best of all time. Their quarterback has even fewer qualifiers around his greatness and legacy. 

The crème de la crème of the rest of the league is sludge. Smug Aaron Rodgers is tethered to the moon-faced buffoon in Green Bay, Mike McCarthy, a head coach who could overcomplicate ordering coffee. In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger is fat and fresh off an offseason spent contemplating retirement and Ring Dings. The Cowboys' maturity issues start with their 70-something owner and cascade right down to their enabled superstars Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant. Denver? Trevor Simien. Atlanta? Their motto this year is "Embrace the Suck." What does that even mean? That they enjoyed the Red Wedding that was the second half of the Super Bowl so much, they just want to roll around in humiliation for another year? Dear God. 

My point with all that is that there is no Peyton Manning out there to be the Frazier to Brady's Ali. And while there may be a coach out there with gray matter who could battle Belichick, that coach hasn't spent 18 seasons collecting assistants and coordinators and creating a program where they can tell a player to shit in the corner and the player asks, "What color?"

Don't fight it. Don't scoff at it. Don't be like those people who, in 2001 and 2002 were still saying Tom Brady was a product of the system and that the Patriots would rue the day they traded Drew Bledsoe within the division. Open your eyes. Think critically. What do you see.