By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots advanced to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game by defeating the Baltimore Ravens 35-31 Saturday at Gillette Stadium in an AFC Divisional playoff game. New England achieved the victory by becoming the first team in NFL history to overcome multiple 14-point deficits in a postseason game. The Patriots will now face the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium next Sunday to determine the AFC’s representative in Super Bowl XLIX. Indianapolis earned that privilege by upsetting the Denver Broncos 24-13 Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Somehow, New England’s offense was able to put up 35 points while rushing for only 14 yards — the lowest total for any team that has ever won an NFL playoff game. Quarterback Tom Brady ended up throwing the ball 50 times, completing 33 of those passes for 367 yards (a franchise playoff record) and three touchdowns. He also threw one interception, which came late in the second quarter and led to a Baltimore touchdown drive that put the Ravens up 21-14 at halftime.
However, New England’s biggest pass play came from wide receiver Julian Edelman, who played quarterback at Kent State. In the third quarter, he took a pitch from Brady and passed the ball to a wide open Danny Amendola for a 51-yard touchdown. That play tied the score at 28 and gave New England the momentum it needed to earn the victory. Credit must be given to New England’s offensive line, which gave up only two sacks to a dangerous Ravens pass rush despite the loss of center Bryan Stork to a knee injury in the second quarter. Grade: B
New England’s defense looked shaky at first, giving up touchdown drives to the Ravens on their first two possessions. It was also a bad day for cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was flagged for a holding call and a pass interference call after committing only four penalties the entire regular season. Fellow cornerback Brandon Browner also drew a pass interference penalty before leaving the game in the third quarter with a knee injury.
Despite these issues, the defense came up big when it needed to. In the third quarter, safety Devin McCourty came up with a pick to end Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco’s streak of 197 consecutive postseason passes without an interception. Then in the fourth quarter, Duron Harmon got an interception of his own to snuff out a late comeback attempt by the Ravens. New England gave up 428 total yards of offense to Baltimore, but big plays were kept to a minimum as the Ravens completed only two plays of more than 20 yards. Grade: B
The game was played in single-digit wind chill temperatures, which seemed to have an adverse effect on the kicking game. Punter Ryan Allen averaged less than 33 yards per punt and had only one punt downed inside Baltimore’s 20-yard line. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski failed to get a touchback in six kickoffs and he reached the end zone only twice. Fortunately, New England’s coverage team did a great job of keeping Baltimore return man Jacoby Jones from breaking any big returns. As a kick returner, Amendola fumbled once but was able to recover the ball. Edelman had a solid day returning punts, averaging 15 yards on three returns. Grade: C
New England’s offensive line struggled for a bit after the Stork injury, so head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made the unique decision to play only four true defensive linemen for several plays in the second half. NFL rules dictate that a team needs to play five lineman, so running back Shane Vereen reported as an ineligible receiver in order to serve as the fifth lineman. The play appeared to confuse the Ravens defense and allowed New England to make several key plays.
However, New England coaches also mismanaged the clock late in the game, choosing to have Brady take a knee three times when the Patriots acquired the ball with 1:39 remaining in regulation. The Ravens still had one time out remaining and they used that time out after the third kneel down to force the Patriots to punt with 14 seconds remaining. This allowed Baltimore to run one more play from scrimmage as time ran out, but the 52-yard Hail Mary attempt fell incomplete. Grade: B-
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.