POSTED: 01:26 p.m. HST, Jan 22, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 06:28 p.m. HST, Jan 22, 2012
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. >> Tom Brady's 1-yard touchdown dive held up after the Ravens missed a chance to win, then tie the game in the final seconds, and the New England Patriots are on their way to the Super Bowl.
With New England leading by 3 points with 11 seconds left, Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt and the Patriots escaped with a 23-20 win over Baltimore in the AFC championship game on Sunday.
Two plays earlier, Joe Flacco's pass to wide receiver Lee Evans in the end zone was stripped by backup cornerback Sterling Moore.
On his touchdown with 11:29 left in the fourth quarter, Brady took a huge hit from Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis, then emphatically spiked the ball as he walked away. Earlier, Brady showed his fire by barking at Lewis following a hard tackle on a 4-yard run.
Next up as the Patriots chase their fourth Super Bowl trophy in Brady and coach Bill Belichick's tenure in New England is the winner of Sunday's NFC championship game between the Giants and 49ers. The Super Bowl is Feb. 5 in Indianapolis.
In their last trip to the big game, the Patriots had an 18-0 record when they were stunned by the Giants four years ago. They won the NFL championship for the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons. This time, they had to the Sup Bowl with a 10-game winning streak.
Brady's fifth trip to the Super Bowl will equal John Elway's achievement with Denver.
"We're going to try to go out and kick some butt in a couple of weeks," Brady said.
Moore's big play made up for getting victimized for a touchdown that gave Baltimore the lead 17-16. After Cundiff's kick hooked left, the Patriots stormed off their sideline in celebration as the chilled crowd roared. The Ravens looked on in disbelief.
A three-time NFL champion, Brady didn't throw for a touchdown for the first time in 36 games, although he did pass for 239 yards.
"Well, I (stunk) pretty bad today, but our defense saved us," Brady said. "I'm going to try to go out and do a better job in a couple of weeks, but I'm proud of this team, my teammates."
Brady needed help not only from Cundiff's botched kick in guiding the Patriots (15-3) to their fifth AFC title in 11 seasons, but from New England's maligned defense.
"We stepped up," Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "We all stepped up big time. Being in this situation is a great moment. You have to cherish this moment."
The Patriots shut down Ray Rice, the league's total yardage leader, who was limited to 78 yards. Brandon Spikes made a fourth-quarter interception of Flacco, who played well before that and threw for two touchdowns. And when the Ravens (13-5) were threatening to score a late touchdown to win their first conference title in 11 years, New England clamped down.
"It's two great football teams, two gladiators, I guess, just kind of going at each other at the end, and I'm proud of our guys," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You know, we've got 53 guys, mighty men, as we like to call them — and they fought, and we came up a little bit short, as 53. You know, 53 win and 53 lose."
With Rice a nonfactor, Baltimore had to rely on Flacco, and he delivered one of his best performances. Flacco has led the Ravens into the playoffs in all four of his pro seasons, but not to the Super Bowl. He was 22 for 36 for 306 yards and touchdowns of 6 yards to Dennis Pitta and 29 to rookie Torrey Smith.
The loss hardly could be blamed on Flacco.
Operating against a maligned secondary missing its top cornerback, Kyle Arrington, who left in the second quarter with an eye injury, Flacco gave Baltimore its first lead. His short pass on third down to explosive receiver Smith turned into a 29-yard scamper down the right sideline after Moore completely whiffed on the tackle.
Danny Woodhead's fumble on the ensuing kickoff set up Baltimore at the Patriots 28, but a third-down sack forced Cundiff to kick a 39-yard field goal, making it 20-16.
New England didn't flinch.
Brady took the Patriots 63 yards in 11 plays, and seemed to score on a 1-yard run. The call was overruled by replay, though, and on fourth-down, he dived just high enough over the line for the winning points.
"Those guys fought all year, and just like today, it wasn't always perfect, but they fought to the final gun and we came out on top," Belichick said.
Defense was particularly dominant early on — New England's 31st-ranked defense. The Patriots held Baltimore to minus-4 yards on its first three first-down runs and forced the Ravens to go three-and-out each time. Meanwhile, the Patriots put together a methodical 13-play, 50-yard drive helped greatly by an illegal contact penalty on Lardarius Webb that negated a tipped interception by Bernard Pollard.
But Brady was sacked for the first time by Paul Kruger and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 29-yard field goal.
Late in the first quarter, the Ravens changed tactics after Webb did pick off a pass intended for Julian Edelman at the Baltimore 30. Flacco rolled right on first down and threw deep down the sideline to a wide-open Smith. Had the pass not been short, Smith likely would have sprinted into the end zone. Instead, it was a 42-yard gain, not bad at all given Baltimore's previous ineptitude with the ball.
Cundiff's 20-yard field goal momentarily tied it.
Brady, perhaps peeved by his poor throw that Webb picked off, hit two passes for 29 yards on a 75-yard drive to make it 10-3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 36 yards on that series, and also drew a personal foul against Webb, who ripped off the running back's helmet on a short rush. Green-Ellis surged into the end zone from the 7, then pointed to the patch on his jersey honoring Myra Kraft, the late wife of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Going back to the pass, the Ravens tied it on a 6-yard throw to Pitta — yes, Baltimore has some dangerous tight ends, too — that concluded an 80-yard march. Flacco opened the drive with a 20-yard completion to Evans and then Anquan Boldin escaped Arrington's attempted tackle to gain 37 more yards on a reception. Flacco was finding holes in New England's coverage, particularly when he moved out of the pocket.
New England's All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski made an error at the end of a 63-yard drive, failing to keep two feet in bounds on a catch. Gostkowski's 35-yard field goal made it 13-10.
Gronkowski left for a while with a left leg problem, but soon returned.
"It's a real credit to the players," Belichick said. "I am real happy they will get to play in this game."