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Patriots: Never More

Ravens’ Rally Closes Campaign

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez dives for a pass during the first half of the NFL football AFC Championship football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. The pass was incomplete. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez dives for a pass during the first half of the NFL football AFC Championship football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. The pass was incomplete. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Foxborough, Mass. — The assassin’s eye is supposed to belong to Tom Brady in these situations. He is the quarterback who puts other teams away, who takes an inch of an opening and pries it wide. He would dictate, it seemed, who played in the Super Bowl, because his New England Patriots have never lost an AFC championship game at home.

But now, look Joe Flacco in the eye. Transformations don’t happen overnight, and crowns aren’t ceded in a day. But when Brady and the Patriots provided Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens that sliver of an opening yesterday, it was Flacco who became the sniper, cool and precise. He took a tight game and blew it into a shocking 28-13 Baltimore victory with three second-half touchdown passes that put the Ravens in their second Super Bowl, and prevented Brady from playing in his sixth.

Flacco’s marvelous second half — he connected on 15 of 24 passes for 159 yards and two scores to receiver Anquan Boldin and another to tight end Dennis Pitta — ensured that the nation will hear more than a bit about the Harbaugh family for the next two weeks, because Baltimore coach John joins San Francisco coach Jim, his brother, in the Super Bowl. It extended the run of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who has played in each of the Ravens’ 17 seasons, and will conclude his career in the Super Bowl, where he has already been the MVP.

It also certainly left some in the Gillette Stadium crowd wondering how many runs Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick, have left in them as a tandem. Brady was looking to become the first quarterback to start six Super Bowls, breaking a tie with John Elway. Belichick would have joined Don Shula as the only coaches with six appearances. Yet Baltimore’s defense shut them out in the second half, creating a pair of crucial turnovers when New England was trying to come back, and they are now eight seasons removed from the last of their three championships.

They are headed home because Flacco and Harbaugh — indeed, all the Ravens — were fearless in an environment that might make other teams recoil. They are familiar with the Patriots and, if history could serve as a predictor, a one-possession game seemed in order.

Last year’s AFC championship game between these same two teams would have gone to overtime if not for Billy Cundiff’s shanked 32-yard field goal attempt, which allowed the Patriots to survive, 23-20. In Week 3 of this season, Cundiff’s replacement, Justin Tucker, converted a field goal as time expired for a 31-30 Baltimore victory. New England won in overtime in 2010 and by a field goal in 2007. Only a 2009 divisional playoff game here, a 33-14 Baltimore romp, was a blowout.

The Patriots spent much of the first half acting as if they preferred it to remain close. Their first scoring drive stalled in a spot where Brady usually converts, leaving them with a short field goal.

And with the Patriots leading 10-7, Brady had the ball at his own 43 with 2:32 showing on the clock and all his timeouts. New England cleverly used a direct snap to back Danny Woodhead on fourth-and-1, then Brady found tight end Aaron Hernandez on third and 10 to put the Patriots at the Baltimore 10 with 26 seconds and a timeout left.

What did they get out of that? One play. Brady was flushed from the pocket and slid for a five-yard gain. Rather than calling timeout with perhaps 13 or 14 seconds left, Brady gathered his offense at the line of scrimmage, trying to run a play without using the last timeout. But he couldn’t get it off, the Patriots called time with four seconds left, and another short field goal gave them just a 13-7 halftime lead.

The entire exchange was ominous for New England, encouraging for Baltimore. The Patriots had the ball for six more minutes than the Ravens. They outgained them, 214-130. They had 15 first downs to Baltimore’s 8. Yet they led by just six points?

That’s was the tenor when the second half opened. The crowd grew even more subdued when Flacco led a 10-play drive against an increasingly vulnerable New England defense. The Patriots lost defensive lineman Kevin Love to a knee injury and cornerback Aqib Talib — a key midseason acquisition who developed into their top cover man — to a thigh injury in the first quarter.

So Flacco and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell put the pressure on. The Ravens ran nine pass plays on the drive and never faced third down. When Flacco found Pitta in the flat from five yards out, the Ravens had a 14-13 lead, and Gillette Stadium grew still more tense. When Baltimore forced a punt on New England’s ensuing possession, the Patriots seemed to be the team that was searching, unable to find its footing.

Flacco, by then, was off and running. In 10 more efficient plays, he directed the Ravens to the touchdown that padded their lead — Boldin from 3 yards out, on the first play of the fourth quarter, for a 21-13 advantage. When Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard jarred the ball loose from Patriots running back Stevan Ridley with a brutal hit, the Ravens had it all: the lead, the ball and every bit of momentum. It took Flacco all of four plays to find Boldin again, this time from 11 yards out.

Brady’s final stand came with just less than seven minutes remaining. The Patriots were on the move, and he threw toward tight end Aaron Hernandez. But defensive end Pernell McPhee got his hand in the air and tipped the pass, and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe came down with the interception.

With that, the stadium began to empty. Brady would finish 29 of 54 for 320 yards and a touchdown, but with two interceptions. Flacco went 21 for 36 for 240 yards and those three scores, without a pick. For a day — and maybe into the future — Flacco was the assassin, and it is he and the Ravens who are AFC champions.