The Patriots are headed back to the Super Bowl after a 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.
Winning the coin toss and choosing to defer, the Patriots did not get off to the same fast start that they had seen against Denver-at least not on offense. Defensively, however, it was the same story as last week. Practically living in the backfield early on, the Patriots stuffed Ray Rice and put heavy pressure on Flacco early, forcing a pair of three and outs to start the game.
While the Ravens defense was able to do the same to the Patriots on their first drive, they could not hold them for a second drive. BenJarvus Green-Ellis started strong, picking up a first down before Tom Brady took over, throwing to Deion Branch, Aaron Hernandez, and Julian Edelman for 23 yards. While things nearly went awry on the next play when Wes Welker tipped a pass into the air allowing Bernard Pollard to pick it off, an illegal contact call erased the interception, allowing the Patriots to salvage three points when the drive eventually fizzled out at the 11-yard line.
The Patriots would force a third straight punt from the Ravens, but Tom Brady ended up giving the ball back just three plays later when he tried to lob a pass to Wes Welker over the top of Lardarius Webb. Webb read the pass, leapt in the air, and came down with the interception. Starting at his own 30, Joe Flacco came out firing, launching a deep ball to a wide open Torrey Smith to get to the New England 28. Facing a 3rd-and-5 to start the second quarter, however, the Ravens could not convert, and were forced to settle for a equalizing field goal.
Perhaps slightly rattled by Tom Brady's interception, New England went back to BenJarvus Green-Ellis to respond. The Ravens could not come up with an answer. Rushing for 24 yards to start the drive, BenJarvus would also get the call at the end, effectively grabbing nine yards on a face mask call and then adding the last seven as he rushed up the middle for the touchdown.
By that point, though, the game had effectively opened up, and the Ravens were quick to answer with a touchdown of their own. Once again taking advantage of a pass defense that had suddenly lost its fire, Joe Flacco picked up 57 yards with just a pair of deep balls, and after Ray Rice brought him 12 yards closer, Flacco found Dennis Pitta in the end zone to tie the game at 10-10. The final strike of the half would go to New England, however, as Brady recovered his rhythm and once again drove down field only to settle for a field goal.
Taking a 13-10 lead into the second half, the Patriots came within six yards of making it a 10-point lead, mixing runs from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Aaron Hernandez with passes to the aforementioned tight end to eat up the field bit by bit before stalling out when Green-Ellis was held stuffed on a 3rd-and-2. For the third time, New England would settle for the field goal-drilled home easily by Stephen Gostkowski.
Where New England had failed, however, Baltimore would succeed, making the Patriots pay for coming up short so often by taking their first lead of the game with another touchdown drive. Converting on 3rd-and-11 and 3rd-and-6, Flacco once again brought the Ravens into New England territory before coming to a 3rd-and-4 at the Patriots' 29-yard line. There, he hit Torrey Smith again. Making the catch a yard shy of the first, Smith spun up field, evading a tackler and managing to outrun Devin McCourty to the end zone, stretching the ball past the pylon as he fell out of bounds to make it 17-16, Baltimore.
The lead would quickly grow to 20-16 after a Danny Woodhead fumble on the kickoff cost New England a field goal. Now facing a deficit for the first time, Tom Brady once again stepped up under pressure. Finding Rob Gronkowski for 20 yards with the first play of the drive (Gronkowski would leave with an ankle injury, returning only at the goal line), Brady had another interception erased by an offside penalty, then twice moved the chains with passes to Wes Welker. With Brady finding Aaron Hernandez for five more, the team turned to Woodhead for a pair of runs that brought them within a yard on second down. The yard would not be easy to get, however, with Brady being held inches short on a sneak after a review, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis jumping into a wall of Ravens as he tried to leap over the pile. Facing a crucial fourth down, Bill Belichick elected to go for the touchdown, and sent Brady leaping, arms outstretched, over the pile to retake the lead at 23-20.
While the Patriots have been a team that lives on takeaways all year long, they had yet to force one in the Championship Game. Finally, on a first down from their own 46, it happened. Throwing over the middle, Flacco managed to squeeze the ball just past the outstretched hand of Jerod Mayo, but not quite far enough for Brandon Spikes, who snagged the ball out of the air and brought it down to midfield. Unfortunately, Tom Brady was not willing to take the gift. Just one play later, looking to all-but-end the game, Brady looked to the end zone-and a triple covered Matthew Slater. With the pass being knocked into the air, Bernard Pollard once again got his hands on the ball, picking it off his shoetops for the interception and bringing the ball back out to the 38-yard line.
The Ravens would once again make their way into New England territory before the Patriots defensive line once again made their presence known, bursting into the backfield to wrap up Ray Rice for a 3-yard loss on third down that would end up pushing Baltimore to the New England 33. Facing a long field goal-one that kicker Billy Cundiff does not typically make-the Ravens elected to throw the ball. Once again, however, in came the defensive line. With Vince Wilfork grabbing ahold of Flacco, the quarterback was forced to make a last-ditch throw to the right sideline that sailed high.
Taking over on downs, the Patriots were in a position to seal the game, but could come up with nothing, giving Baltimore the ball back with just under two minutes to go. Needing only a field goal to force overtime, Flacco and the Ravens made quick work of much of the field, getting to midfield with a minute left before Anquan Boldin seemed to guarantee at least a tie by racing to the 23-yard line after a short catch.
Facing a 2nd-and-1 from the 14-yard line, Flacco almost had the game won, hitting Lee Evans in the end zone. But, as he tried to secure the ball, Sterling Moore played the role of the hero, slapping the ball out of his arms and keeping the season alive. When the next pass also fell incomplete, all of Foxboro was expecting overtime. But in the one area where the Patriots had been perfect all night, with Stephen Gostkowski forcing touchbacks and hitting all his opportunities, Billy Cundiff came up short. Needing a make of just over 30 yards, the Ravens lined up on the right hashmark. The snap was good, the hold was good, the kick was bad. Pulling it too far to the left, Cundiff left the Ravens stunned and the Patriots celebrating both a 23-20 win, and a return to the Super Bowl.