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Snap Judgments: Patriots earn trip to Super Bowl by escaping Ravens, 23-20

01.22.12 at 6:15 pm ET
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With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Patriots snuck past the Ravens when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 15 seconds remaining. The Patriots, who won 23-20, improve to 7-1 all-time in the AFC championship game.

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After a back-and-forth battle in the first 3½ quarters, the Patriots defense came up big on two plays (a Brandon Spikes interception and Vince Wilfork breaking through the offensive line on a fourth down, disrupting Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco) and held on against a Ravens comeback attempt that ended in euphoria for New England fans.

The 31st-ranked defense at the end of the regular season continued to step up in big ways these past two playoff weeks. Here are some things that went right and some things that went wrong in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– Wilfork started the game on fire defensively, helping cut short several Ravens drives in the first quarter, including three straight three-and-outs. On Baltimore’s second offensive possession, Wilfork stopped Ricky Williams on first down for a loss of five. Two plays later, he was in the backfield again disrupting and sacking Flacco for a five-yard loss. The Patriots defensive line didn’€™t have much trouble shutting down Ray Rice and the rushing game for Baltimore in the first, holding them to a total of seven yards. Wilfork left the game briefly as his left elbow was attended to, but was back on the line in no time. He added a crucial stop on third down with less than three minutes remaining in the game that forced the Ravens to use a timeout. The Ravens went for it, and Flacco’€™s pass fell incomplete.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran well in the first half on Sunday against the Ravens, gaining 50 yards on eight carries, including a 7-yard scamper for the Patriots’€™ first touchdown of the game. Green-Ellis did a good job all day of getting the New England offense into scoring range, even if multiple long drives resulted in short field goals. He outgained Rice by 29 yards at the half, but the credit there belongs as much to the Patriots defensive line as it does to Green-Ellis and the offensive line.

– After being stopped on the 1-yard line twice, the Patriots decided to go for it on fourth-and-goal with just over 11 minutes and 30 seconds left to go in the game, trailing by four. Brady kept the ball himself and leapt over the flurry of defenders for the first Patriots touchdown since the second quarter. This score gave them a 23-20 lead, and gave Brady his first playoff touchdown since 2004.

– With 7:22 remaining in the game, inside linebacker Spikes jumped in front of a Flacco pass and made a one-handed interception in the middle of the field. The interception came at the perfect time for the Patriots defense, as the Ravens offense was pushing into New England territory. Though the Patriots almost immediately gave the ball back when Brady was picked off in the Baltimore end zone, it still proved a pivotal play in preventing Baltimore from claiming a lead.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– Coverage on Ravens receiver Torrey Smith was spotty, as the speedy rookie was open deep on several occasions. The Maryland product broke free from coverage early in the game and hauled in a 40-yard reception that put the Ravens in position for their first score of the game, a short field goal that knotted the game up at three apiece. With just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter, Smith broke a tackle in tight coverage and sprinted 29 yards to the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Ravens their first lead of the game.

– After a spectacular first half last Saturday against the Broncos, Brady experienced just the opposite in Sunday’€™s first half. The veteran quarterback didn’€™t register one passing touchdown, although he had a chance very early in the game. Brady overthrew a wide open Rob Gronkowski in the middle of the field in the Baltimore red zone. Brady also threw an interception to Lardarius Webb in the first quarter on an underthrown ball intended for Aaron Hernandez.

– Rookie offensive lineman Nate Solder, who was listed on Friday’€™s injury report as questionable with a concussion, got the start in the AFC championship game with Sebastian Vollmer still out. Solder had a hard time handling the speedy Terrell Suggs on the pass rush, allowing Brady’€™s pocket to collapse rather quickly.

– Gronkowski went down with under a minute left in the third quarter on a Bernard Pollard (yes, that Bernard Pollard) tackle. Pollard brought Gronkowski down around the waist, and fell over his left ankle. Gronkowski was taken to the locker room for X-rays. He would return early in the fourth quarter, however.

– Timely plays were not New England’€™s specialty in this AFC championship game. Brady’€™s pick in the fourth quarter just one play after Spikes’€™ interception could’€™ve killed the team morale, but the Patriots managed to hold on at the end.

Read More: AFC Championship, Patriots, Ravens, Tom Brady
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