Over the last four years the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens have developed one of the best rivalries in the NFL. Every time the two teams faced off, the games seemed predestined to come down to the wire, dating back to the Patriots’ 27-24 victory in Baltimore in 2007 (a game they should’ve lost, which would’ve spoiled their 16-0 regular season).
Before Sunday’s AFC Championship game, the only blowout of the Pats-Ravens rivalry came in the Wild Card Round of the 2009 playoffs, when the Ravens came in to Foxborough and won 33-14 (having been present at this game, it wasn’t even that close). Not only was that game the Ravens’ first win against the Patriots in their franchise history, it was the origin of their steadfast belief that they could beat the Patriots anywhere, anytime, and after last year’s AFC Championship loss Baltimore knew they had let a trip to the Super Bowl slip through their fingers.
This season, when the Ravens struggled down the stretch of the regular season, there was widespread skepticism about their ability to make significant noise in the playoffs. A large chunk of the skepticism was directed at quarterback Joe Flacco, whose inconsistency prevented him from being recognized as an elite QB. The Ravens were also dealing with a myriad of defensive injuries (Ray Lewis, Ladarius Webb, and Terrell Suggs), and their offense relied too heavily on running back Ray Rice. But they received an extra source of motivation when Ray Lewis announced that this season would be the last in his Hall of Fame career (and that he would make his return in the playoffs despite tearing his triceps earlier in the season). Terrell Suggs also returned from injury, and the Ravens made a key change in their offensive line by moving Michael Oher from left tackle to right tackle and replacing him with Bryant McKinnie, who had been Oher’s backup. The Ravens might’ve only gone 10-6, but when the playoffs began, they were more than ready.
After trouncing the Indianapolis Colts 24-9 (in Ray Lewis’ last home game), the Ravens were heavy underdogs against the Denver Broncos (most lines had the Broncos as 9 point favorites). But in an instant classic, Baltimore pulled off an improbable upset in Denver. Joe Flacco’s touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones to tie the game in the final minute of regulation will go down as one of the greatest moments in the franchise’s history. After Peyton Manning threw an interception late in overtime, rookie kicker Justin Tucker put a 47-yard field goal through the uprights, and just like that, the Ravens got what they wanted: a chance at redemption against the Patriots in Foxborough.
They relished the chance to silence the critics, shut down one of the best offenses in recent NFL history, and give Ray Lewis one last shot at a second Super Bowl title.
The first half of Sunday’s AFC Championship game played out as expected; physical, back and forth, no boys allowed football. Most of the opening quarter was a battle of field position, with both defenses keeping their opponents out of the endzone. But the offenses finally got going in the second quarter, when Joe Flacco led the Ravens on a 13-play, 90 yard drive that culminated in a Ray Rice touchdown. The Patriots responded with a touchdown drive of their own and led 13-7 at halftime, but left four crucial points on the board when poor time management forced them to settle for a field goal at the end of the half. They also lost their best cornerback, Aquib Talib, to a hamstring injury, and he did not return. In a very telling interview right after the half ended, Ravens coach John Harbaugh still had the utmost confidence in his team despite their six-point deficit, saying that they knew it would be a close game, and that they simply had to keep playing. As it turned out, Harbaugh was wrong. The game wasn’t close. The Patriots wouldn’t score again.
If there’s one defining statistic of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, it is their turnover ratio. Year in and year out the Patriots take the ball away far more than they give it up, and 2012 was no exception. The Pats were +25 in turnover ratio during the regular season, but Sunday was a different story. The Patriots were without their best pass rusher, defensive end Chandler Jones, and they couldn’t get consistent pressure on Joe Flacco, who sliced up the Patriots secondary in the second half for three touchdown passes (two to wide receiver Anquan Boldin, one to tight end Dennis Pitta). On the other side of the ball, Tom Brady threw two interceptions, was off target on multiple occasions, and didn’t appear to have his customary killer instinct. When running back Stevan Ridley fumbled the ball at midfield in the fourth quarter (thanks to a gargantuan hit from Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who also injured Ridley on the play), the Ravens immediately scored a touchdown to go up 28-13, and the crowd at Gillette Stadium sat in stunned silence. There were still over 11 minutes left in the game, but anyone watching the game could tell that it didn’t matter. The Ravens had ripped out the Patriots’ heart, and the Patriots fans knew it.
The analysis of the game can be broken down into one sentence: the Baltimore Ravens played harder and smarter in every facet of the game than the New England Patriots did. The Ravens won the turnover battle, they didn’t give up a single long pass play (with the exception of Wes Welker’s 36 yard reception in the fourth quarter, and Brady threw an interception on the following play), and they took advantage of the Patriots’ banged up secondary. Without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots offense didn’t have enough mismatches to “dink and dunk” their way down the field the way they did the entire season. They also didn’t even attempt to throw the ball deep, even when the Ravens played in man coverage.
In the end, no Patriots fan (including this writer) can make the argument that the Patriots played well enough to win; it can be argued that they played their worst game of the season. For the second straight year, Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady in a playoff game, and now John Harbaugh leads the Ravens to the Super Bowl to meet his brother Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers, while Bill Belichick and the Patriots watch from home and wonder if their title window has finally closed. The conference championships are over, and the two-week countdown to the Super Bowl has officially begun. The storylines are abundant, from Ray Lewis’ last game, to Colin Kaepernick trying to win a title in just his 10th NFL start, to Joe Flacco and his continuing ascension into the ranks of the elite quarterbacks in the league. And of course, there’s Jim and John Harbaugh, who will coach against each other while their proud father Jack looks on and tries to decide who to root for. Football fans couldn’t ask for anything more from the biggest single game in American sports.
Bring on Super Bowl XLVII. Bring on the Harbowl.