In a match-up of two teams with very contrasting styles of play, the AFC’s #2 seeded Baltimore Ravens traveled north to take on the #1 seed New England Patriots for the AFC Championship.

The Ravens played the role of spoiler before, handing the Patriots a 33-14 loss at Gillette Stadium in the 2009 wild card playoffs, but that particular match-up was different than this one.

The Patriots didn’t have a young duo of TE’s in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They also didn’t have Wes Welker, who was injured during the Patriots playoff run that year.

Still that did not faze the Ravens as they confused and frustrated Patriots QB Tom Brady in the game, much like they did in 2009. The Ravens defense picked off Brady twice and sacked him once.

The Ravens had an offensive and defensive game plan that on most afternoons contributes to a Ravens victory. Despite that however, it came down to the right foot of kicker Billy Cundiff to tie the game and send it to overtime when Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal wide left giving the Patriots the 23-20 victory and an AFC Championship in front of the home crowd.

Grading the Ravens 23-20 loss to the Patriots

 

Quarterback: A

Joe Flacco has heard the criticism all season. Ripped by the media and by Ed Reed this past week, he showed today that he can win and beat the best of the best at any given time.

The rushing attack sets up everything in this offense, but coming into this game, Flacco needed to make some throws to give the Ravens a chance to beat the Patriots. He did just that, getting out of the pocket to extend some plays, like the touchdown throw to TE Dennis Pitta when the Patriots had everyone else covered in the red zone.

Flacco made some throws in tight spaces that were right on the money on that same drive, connecting with WR’s Lee Evans and Anquan Boldin for gains of 20 and 37 yards respectively. He felt pressure, moved around and bought time, looking almost like his QB counterpart Tom Brady, stepping up or to his left and right to make throws.

He also had his head-scratching moment of the day when he threw a crucial 4th quarter interception on a drive that the Ravens ran the football effectively and moved down field. Flacco inexplicably threw into double coverage, and at least two other Patriot defenders were also in the area, ending the drive where the Ravens desperately needed points.

Still, this was a game that quieted the critics of Flacco because as the running game faltered, he drove the Ravens down field. This game is something to build on for next season.

 

Running Backs: C

The running game never really got into a good groove, even as the coaching staff mixed in backup RB Ricky Williams. The amount of running though did help to set-up the play action passing which was key in this game.

Ray Rice ran the ball 21 times for just 67 yards, while also catching a pass for 11 yards. Williams ran for 22 yards on six carries.

FB Vonta Leach was his usual bulldozing self, getting into the Patriots LB’s on numerous occasions with some good blocks.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B+

This group played very well and was in complete rhythm all day with Joe Flacco. Even when passes from Flacco were under thrown, they were being caught. Anquan Boldin had a monster game catching six passes for 101 yards, including a key 29-yard catch on a 3rd and 1 that put the Ravens in position to tie or win the game in the 4th.

Torrey Smith tied the game at 16 in the 3rd quarter with his 29-yard touchdown catch and run and finished with 82 yards receiving. Smith had a very nice game and showcased his outstanding speed. He had to come back to a ball under thrown by Flacco that turned into a 42-yard catch, the longest of the day for the Ravens.

Lee Evans emerged in this game for the Ravens, catching three passes for 39 yards, but had a ball stripped from him in the end zone that would have given the Ravens the lead late in the 4th quarter.

TE Dennis Pitta stepped up in this one, hauling in a six-yard touchdown catch and finishing the day with 41 yards receiving. He’s got very good hands and is a strong, strong kid. TE Ed Dickson caught two passes for 23 yards, but drops plagued him again in this one.

 

Offensive Line: C

The offensive line struggled early in this game, getting beat on a three-man rush by the Patriots on Mark Anderson’s sack in the 1st quarter. Flacco will help this grade though, because he made plays with his feet getting out of the ever-collapsing pocket. Tackle Michael Oher briefly left the game with an ankle injury, but Patriots DT Vince Wilfork had his number all game.

 

Defensive Line: D-

I said last week that this group needed to step up in order for the Ravens to win this game. They helped to limit Tom Brady, but struggled to contain the Patriots rushing attack which ran for 96 yards. Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody weren’t factors in this game. A healthy Ngata might have helped, but he was nursing an injury most of the season.

 

Linebackers: C

This group was quite disappointing in such a big game for the team. Terrell Suggs’s much-hyped match-up with Tom Brady was a non-factor, as he collected just five tackles and zero sacks. Suggs had zero sacks in both postseason games for the Ravens.

Ray Lewis finished with 12 tackles, but a lot of those were in coverage tackling Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Just a really quiet effort by these guys, as they got close to Brady but not enough to totally disrupt his game. Paul Kruger had the only sack for the Ravens.

 

Secondary: B+

The group gave up 239 yards through the air, but CB Lardarius Webb played very well, finishing with six tackles and an acrobatic interception in the 1st half. Safety Bernard Pollard had a solid game with 12 tackles total and deflecting a pass in the end zone that CB Jimmy Smith picked off.

They stayed close to the Patriots receivers, not allowing anything on the back end and tackled pretty well. The pressure they put on the receivers threw off the timing with Brady and his group.

 

Special Teams: C

Punter Sam Koch averaged nearly 44 yards on his four punts, but the kickoff return yardage given up was far too great in this game. Kicker Billy Cundiff hit field goals from 20 and 39-yards respectively, but the biggest one of them all, the 32-yard field goal to tie the game with 11 seconds left, went wide left.

 

Coaching: B+

A complete job by the coaching staff for this game. John Harbaugh had his men ready to play in this game. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron went to some roll-outs and play action passes for Flacco that worked well, that kept the Patriots defense off-balance. The defense as a whole unit had Tom Brady out of rhythm in the game, never quite getting that head full of steam and that kept the Ravens in the game.

 

Final Take

This one’s going to hurt for a while. The Ravens were the better overall team on this day but the Patriots are three-time Super Bowl champions, and they again found their way to the Super Bowl.

Its always tough when all game competitors fight tooth and nail with their opponent only to have one play do them in. In this game, there were two plays that fans will take from this game. A big turning point in the game being the fumble by kick returner Danny Woodhead that the Ravens recovered but only ended up getting a field goal instead of a TD. A touchdown there drastically changes the outlook of the game.

What’s frustrating is the Ravens outplayed the Patriots in almost every facet. Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady in this ballgame. Brady did not throw a touchdown, the first time in 36 games he failed to do so. Flacco threw for 2 TD’s and finished with a 95.4 passer rating.

The Ravens outgained the Patriots 398 to 330 and won the time of possession by nearly seven minutes. They outgained the Patriots in rushing yards and won the turnover battle, turning the ball over just once.

All those crucial stats and the ebb and flow of the game all come down to one play, one kick, millions of emotions running through the minds of fans and that indelibly will be the play that everyone remembers from this game.

The AFC Championship loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers took a good while to flush from the minds of fans, but I have to feel that this loss will sting just a little more.

You start to look back at all the variables of the season. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the homestretch of their careers, a perfect regular season home-record and a first-round playoff bye. Beating the hated Pittsburgh Steelers twice and then seeing them lose in their playoff game. The stars seemed to be aligning.

But it wasn’t to be.

It’s something Ravens fans should cherish and use to look forward to next season. You don’t know if or when they’ll have another opportunity to get back. One thing is for certain, Ravens players and coaches will be motivated to get back out on the field and show why they are one of the upper-echelon teams in the NFL.