NFL Playoffs 2012: Patriots Defeat Ravens 23-20, Advance To Super Bowl (Foxborough, Mass.) 

(c) 2012, The Washington Post

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots ended the Baltimore Ravens' season one agonizing step shy of the Super Bowl on Sunday and continued to carve a place in history as one of the NFL's most enduring dynasties with a 23-20 victory in the AFC championship game.

New England quarterback Tom Brady failed to put on his typical display of passing exploits. But he and the Patriots made the big plays when it mattered to beat the Ravens at Gillette Stadium.

Ravens place kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds to play that would have sent the game into overtime.

The Patriots secured their fifth Super Bowl appearance with Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as coach. They'll seek their fourth Super Bowl title in two weeks in Indianapolis.

Brady threw two interceptions and didn't have a touchdown pass. But he put the Patriots ahead in the fourth quarter with a touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak, and they held on from there.

Tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a second-quarter touchdown run for the Patriots, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski provided three field goals.

Quarterback Joe Flacco had a pair of touchdown passes for the Ravens, one to tight end Dennis Pitta in the second quarter and one to wide receiver Torrey Smith in the third quarter. The Ravens led 20-16 early in the fourth quarter. But they allowed Brady's touchdown, and their three drives after that produced an interception, a fourth-down incompletion at the New England 33-yard line and Cundiff's missed kick.

The fourth-and-six misfire by Flacco with 2 minutes 46 seconds remaining came after Coach John Harbaugh decided against having Cundiff attempt a field goal of about 51 yards that would have tied the game. The Ravens got the ball back, and Flacco's second-down pass to wide receiver Lee Evans in the end zone nearly produced a touchdown with 22 seconds left. But New England safety Sterling Moore knocked the ball from Evans's hands. After a third-down incompletion, Cundiff yanked his field goal try wide left.

New England was trying to get to the Super Bowl with the same sort of offense-first formula that failed the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints in recent weeks. The Patriots ranked 31st in the league in total defense during the regular season, but played better defense in a lopsided triumph over the Denver Broncos in a conference semifinal.

Flacco and the Ravens were coming off a tumultuous week in which veteran safety Ed Reed reignited the familiar debate about Flacco's value as a quarterback. Reed said in a radio interview early in the week that Flacco looked rattled in last Sunday's victory over the Houston Texans. Other Ravens players pointed during the week to Flacco's winning ways, but the Ravens likely needed a better offensive performance Sunday to keep pace with Brady and the Patriots.

The New England defense had the upper hand in the early going, as the Ravens failed to get a first down on their first three possessions of the game. Flacco was sacked twice during that span, and the Patriots grabbed a 3-0 lead on a 29-yard field goal by Gostkowski on their second drive.

The margin could have been larger. Brady overthrew wide-open tight end Rob Gronkowski for what might have been a touchdown, one play after an interception by the Ravens was negated by an illegal-contact penalty. That led to Gostkowski's field goal.

The Patriots got the ball back again and moved into Baltimore territory. But Brady threw an interception on a leaping grab by Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb.

The Ravens finally had some success on offense after that. Smith, a rookie, was left uncovered by the New England secondary after a play-action fake. Flacco made his throw on the move and his underthrown pass cost the Ravens a touchdown but resulted in a 42-yard gain. The Ravens kept progressing, but Harbaugh opted against a fourth-and-one gamble at the New England 3-yard line in the early moments of the second quarter, and a field goal by Cundiff tied the game.

Both offenses then suddenly revved up. Green-Ellis ran for a seven-yard touchdown, but the Ravens answered with Flacco's six-yard touchdown pass to Pitta, set up by wide receiver Anquan Boldin's 37-yard catch and run. The Patriots re-captured the lead with a 35-yard Gostkowski field goal, just after Gronkowski grabbed a third-down lob by Brady but failed to keep his feet in bounds for a legal catch.

But the Ravens had to punt on their final drive before halftime, and the Patriots were content to have Brady kneel down twice and take a three-point lead into the break. They had the ball first in the third quarter and moved right back into scoring position. But the Ravens stopped Green-Ellis for no gain on a third-and-two carry from the Baltimore 6-yard line. Belichick didn't gamble, and Gostkowski's third field goal made it a 16-10 game.

The Ravens had a swift reply. Flacco kept their next drive going with third-down completions to wide receiver Lee Evans and Pitta. Then, on another third-down play, Flacco sent a short pass to his right to Smith, who eluded Moore and outraced cornerback Devin McCourty along the sideline before diving across the goal line for a 29-yard touchdown.

New England's Danny Woodhead lost a fumble on the ensuing kickoff return, but the Ravens could convert that only into a 39-yard field goal by Cundiff.

Brady got the Patriots back into the lead with 11 1/2 minutes to play, leaping over the pile at the line of scrimmage and holding the ball across the goal line on a fourth-down quarterback sneak. That came after Brady's apparent touchdown on second down was reversed by a replay review which showed that Brady had been stopped just shy of the end zone, and Green-Ellis was stopped on a third-down leap.

Flacco and Brady traded interceptions before the Ravens drove to Flacco's fourth-down incompletion.

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