A sickening end to a sensational game

Patriots 23  Ravens 20 | AFC Championship Game

I felt an incredible sense of loss at the end of the game. And I’m not a Ravens fan or a Patriots hater. It was the feeling that the Baltimore players that had given everything had been let down by one of the quirks of football. In fact, I felt as if all neutral football fans had been let down.

Former Pro Bowl place kicker Billy Cundiff badly hooked the 32-yard field goal attempt at the dead-end of the game allowing New England to escape the task of an overtime to advance to their seventh Super Bowl in a quarter century.

It almost didn’t come down to such an air-sucking moment. Two plays prior, Joe Flacco threw a perfect pass to Lee Evans into the end zone near the right goal line pylon. Evans caught the ball, but appeared to relax for a split second — the Patriots cornerback stripped the ball, leading to Cundiff’s catastrophe.

The first half was a tight affair in which Flacco seemed to out-quarterback Tom Brady, throwing for 150 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. The second-half was a football war worthy of a championship game.

New England started the second half by converting on its third field goal from four trips to the red zone to go ahead 16-10. Flacco answered by converting on three key third-down situations, the last one a pass to Tory Smith who broke away from Sterling Moore near the right sideline, setting off a scamper down the out of bounds stripe that the video replay couldn’t convincingly overturn. Baltimore was ahead, 17-16, for the first time of the game.

Then on the ensuing kickoff, Patriot returner Danny Woodhead was having a nice return in a bit of open space when Juan Williams stripped the ball loose, giving the Ravens a chance to put an early dagger to the Pats. It looked like the second of two New England turnovers would be their undoing. But Baltimore settling for a field goal to put the Ravens up four instead of a touchdown seemed to breathe new life into the Patriots.

Once again, Brady engineered a drive into the Ravens’ red zone. At the goal line, a Brady sneak was called a TD, only to be overturned by video evidence. But Lord Brady answered with a gutsy dive over the line where while in mid-air, he extended the ball over the goal line, which resulted in him tumbling onto his head, feet skyward, and Ray Lewis’ body buried into his back.

It would be the final score of the game, but far from the final drama.

Flacco, after a stellar afternoon of passing — 22-of-36 for 282 yards (Brady was also 22-of-36 for less yards) — was leading a drive that relied on the running of Ray Rice and Ricky Williams. Flacco picked the wrong time to make a crucial error — a pass over the middle that was picked off by Brandon Spikes who followed with a 20 yard return.

It was the end of the Ravens, until the Pats got greedy. On the next play, Brady went for the kill with a bomb to the goal line. The Ravens’ Bernard Pollard tipped the ball to teammate Jimmy Smith who then ran the ball out of the endzone to the 38 yard line. The drive stalled out, however, when the Pats defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who had been in Flacco’s kitchen all afternoon, once again pressured the Ravens quarterback on a fourth-and-six situation into a throwaway. With less than three minutes remaining, New England needed a first down, not the three-and-out that they suffered.

Remarkably, Baltimore was back in business to engineer either a game-winning score or a game-tying field goal. Neither materialized. Instead, the football world had to suffer through a placekicker yanking a nine-iron shot into the left woods. The Ravens sideline was in a state of shock. Even many of the Patriot players looked more surprised than elated. They knew they had escaped with all the spoils via some very good fortune, fueled by the misfortune of a poor kicker.

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