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Patriots advance to Super Bowl, Ravens come up short

Jan 23, 2012 - 5:05 AM Foxboro, MA (Sports Network) - First, the win and a Super Bowl berth was knocked out of Lee Evans' hands. Then, Billy Cundiff pulled the Ravens' chance to tie the game wide left.

Baltimore couldn't capitalize on two good scoring chances in the final minute, and the New England Patriots held on for a 23-20 victory in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

Tom Brady's diving touchdown on fourth down early in the fourth quarter was the decisive score, and helped the Patriots advance to Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants.

It will be a rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl, which the Patriots lost to Eli Manning and the Giants on a game-winning drive in the final minute. The Giants, who ended New England's perfect season that year, beat the San Francisco 49ers in overtime later Sunday to win the NFC Championship.

Baltimore was playing in its first conference championship since the 2008 season, when it lost to Pittsburgh. It hasn't advanced to the Super Bowl since winning XXXV to conclude the 2000 season, and Sunday's failure ensured the Ravens will head into the offseason stunned.

Baltimore players were already visibly shocked when Cundiff missed the 32- yarder with 11 seconds to play. Mouths agape, they seemed to be in disbelief that the offense couldn't cash in on such a sure thing.

"That's a tough kick," said Patriots tackle Vince Wilfork. "You just don't know what you're going to get in those situations."

In reality, while Cundiff's missed kick was the Ravens' last failure, it wasn't their only one. They had multiple chances to score after Brady dove head-first over the pile with 11:29 left in the game, giving the Patriots a 23-20 lead, but came up short each time.

After Brady's touchdown, the Ravens drove into New England territory before Joe Flacco was intercepted by Brandon Spikes on a pass over the middle.

Baltimore's defense then got the ball right back thanks to an acrobatic play by its secondary. Safety Bernard Pollard stretched out to tip a deep throw by Brady, and cornerback Jimmy Smith snared the ball just before it hit the ground in the end zone, rolling over to ensure possession.

Again, the Ravens reached New England's side of the field, but the Patriots forced Baltimore into a 4th-and-6 and Flacco threw the ball away under pressure.

Baltimore had one final opportunity after the Patriots punted, taking over at its own 21 with under two minutes to play.

Flacco and receiver Anquan Boldin made the possession into a promising one, hooking up four times for significant gains. The biggest play was a short pass that Boldin turned into a 29-yard gain with a run up the left sideline. Flacco went back to Boldin on the next play for nine yards, and the receiver fumbled out of bounds to give the Ravens the ball at the New England 14 with 27 seconds remaining.

Then, it all fell apart.

Flacco threaded a pass to the right side of the end zone for Evans, who had the ball in his hands but couldn't secure it before Sterling Moore knocked it out.

Moore defended Flacco's next pass, too, a rushed throw to Dennis Pitta on third down with Cundiff waiting to attempt a kick well within his range. He made 18-of-21 kicks between 30-39 yards over the last two seasons, and had kicked field goals of 20 and 39 yards earlier in Sunday's game.

But the snap came and the hold wasn't perfect -- the laces faced to the right -- and Cundiff's kick sailed wide of the left goalpost.

"I get paid to make field goals. I don't get paid to miss field goals," Cundiff said.

The failure hit hard, particularly because the Ravens defense held the potent Patriots offense in check, just like it did two seasons ago in a wild card round victory.

New England posted 45 points in last weekend's playoff victory against Denver, and had scored fewer than 30 only four times all season.

But Sunday, the Patriots were held to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal three times, and were outgained by a 398-330 margin. Brady recorded his 16th playoff victory as a starting quarterback, tying his idol, Joe Montana, for most all- time, but threw for just 239 yards and was picked off twice.

He summed up his performance during an on-field ceremony after the contest:

"I sucked pretty bad today," Brady said, "but our defense saved us."

Both defenses were strong early in Sunday's contest. Gostkowski's 29-yard field goal provided the only points of the first quarter, and the Ravens went without a first down on their first three drives.

Cundiff kicked a 20-yarder in the first minute of the second quarter, and the next three possessions resulted in points. The Patriots scored on BenJarvus Green-Ellis' seven-yard run up the middle, Baltimore countered with Flacco's six-yard pass to Pitta near the front of the end zone, and Gostkowski's 35- yarder gave the Patriots a 13-10 halftime lead.

The Patriots kicker then made a 24-yard try on the opening drive of the third quarter, but the Ravens took their first lead of the contest on a long catch- and-run by Torrey Smith. He grabbed the short pass along the right side of the field, then ran up the sideline and held off Devin McCourty as he dove across the pylon with 3:26 to go. The touchdown was upheld after a review.

The Ravens had a chance to take control when Danny Woodhead fumbled the ball on the kickoff return, and got inside the Patriots' 10-yard line before Flacco was sacked for a big loss on third down. But they turned to Cundiff, whose 39- yard kick made it a 20-16 game in the final minute of the quarter.

Baltimore's defense nearly held in a goal line stand on the next Patriots touch, but couldn't prevent Brady from extending the ball into the end zone on 4th-and-goal from the one.

Game Notes

Flacco threw for 306 yards. He and Brady both completed 22-of-36 passes...Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington left the game in the second quarter because of an eye injury. Tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered an ankle injury in the third, but later returned...The Ravens are 1-2 all-time in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots are 7-1.