FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady’s pass deflected high into the air before floating gently downfield and into the arms of Baltimore linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
The ball — and the rematch — went to the Ravens.
A year after the New England Patriots took advantage of a dropped touchdown and a missed Baltimore field goal to advance to their fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons, the Ravens held on for a 28-13 victory on Sunday in the AFC championship game.
“You have the opportunity to win the game and we came up short,” Brady said. “There’s frustration in that we wish we could have done better. But they’re not going to give it to you. We didn’t earn it; they earned it. They played a good game.”
The Ravens and Patriots also met in the 2010 wild-card round, when Baltimore won 33-14. Last year, the Patriots won when Lee Evans dropped a potential winning touchdown in the end zone with 27 seconds left and then Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have forced overtime.
“It seems like every year it’s us and them, always fighting at the end,” New England defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “Two great organizations. And the best team won.”
The Ravens reached their first Super Bowl in 12 years, thanks to three touchdown passes from Joe Flacco and a defense led by Ray Lewis that made Brady look downright ordinary.
Next up for Coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens is younger brother Jim and the San Francisco 49ers, who beat Atlanta 28-24 for the NFC title.
“I don’t know if we had a dream this big,” John Harbaugh said. “We had a few dreams, we had a few fights, we had a few arguments — just like all brothers.”
They’ll meet in two weeks in New Orleans — what a place for a party to celebrate the first brother-vs.-brother coaching matchup in Super Bowl history.
It also will be quite a last game for Lewis, the emotional linebacker who will retire after the matchup with the 49ers, who opened as a 5-point favorite.
“This is our time. This is our time,” said Lewis, who made 14 tackles Sunday and has 44 in three postseason games after missing 10 weeks with a torn right triceps.
Driven by Lewis’ pending departure, Baltimore’s defense has stepped up in the playoffs. Brady was 67-0 at home when leading at halftime, but this was no contest in the second half.
As in the previous two playoff wins against Indianapolis and Denver, the Ravens were brilliant offensively in spots. This might be 17-year-veteran Lewis’ team, but it’s also Joe Flacco’s, and the quarterback’s six road wins are the most in playoff history.
“It was pretty awesome,” said Flacco, who has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in the playoffs. “We were here last year and thought we had it, but came up a little short. Guys came out in the second half and made plays. … We put pressure on them like that, and it worked pretty well.”
Flacco, the only quarterback to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, was dynamic with his arm and precise with his decision making. Looking much more the championship passer than Brady, his touchdown throws of 11 and 3 yards to Anquan Boldin and 5 yards to Dennis Pitta all were perfect.
New England had four injuries, the scariest when running back Stevan Ridley was knocked flat by Bernard Pollard in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble. Baltimore turned that into the final touchdown on its only short scoring drive — 47 yards.
The Ravens gained just 130 yards in the first half.
Brady guided a 13-play drive to Stephen Gostkowski’s 31-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Neither defense yielded a big play, and punters Zoltan Mesko and Sam Koch were the busiest guys on the field.
That changed when the teams switched sides for the second quarter. Baltimore again was pinned deep, at its 10, but Flacco led a 13-play drive that was capped by Ray Rice’s 2-yard TD run.
Awakened by Baltimore’s march, the Patriots staged a long one of their own, going 79 yards with the help of a personal foul by Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Wes Welker picked up 24 yards on a short pass, then got free in the right corner of the end zone after a mix-up in the Ravens’ secondary as the Patriots regained the lead, 10-7.
It was 13-7 by halftime as Gostkowski connected from 25 yards. But Brady made a mental error, not calling timeout quickly enough after a short scramble. That cost the Patriots a shot at the end zone, and they settled for Gostkowski’s kick.
Shockingly for an offense that scored 557 points this season, that was it for New England.
Flacco led Baltimore on a 10-play, 87-yard drive in the third quarter to take the lead. He then added a pair of touchdown passes to Dennis Pitta on back-to-back possessions to start the fourth.
Brady led New England down the field before three straight incompletions turned the ball over on downs. After the Patriots forced a three-and-out, Brady connected with Wes Welker for a 36-yard catch-and-run, but his next pass was tipped into the air by lineman Pernell McGee. Ellerbe waited for it to come down and then cradled it in his arms as he went to the turf, surrounded by a pair of celebrating teammates.
Brady completed 29 of 54 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown, and Welker had eight catches for 117 yards. Ridley ran for 70 yards on 18 carries before leaving the game following a fourth-quarter carry in which Pollard hit him in the head so hard that he fumbled away the ball.
“That was the turning point of the football game there on the 40-yard line,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “It was a tremendous hit. It was football at its finest. It was Bernard Pollard making a great physical tackle, just as good a tackle as you’re ever going to see in football right there. That probably turned the game around right there.”