Three weeks separated the New England Patriots from a football game. But the top-seeded Patriots found a way to defeated the sixth-seeded Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round Saturday night in Foxborough.
The 35-31 victory started with a deficit as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco went 4-for-4 passing on the opening drive of the game, connecting with Torrey Smith for 22 yards, Steve Smith Sr. for 19 yards, Crockett Gilmore for nine yards, and former Patriots practice-squadder Kamar Aiken for 19 yards and a touchdown.
That Aiken score stood as the Ravens’ first first-quarter offensive touchdown in six games. And it continued opposite a struggling pass rush and primarily zone coverage, as Baltimore added another in the first on a nine-yard touchdown to Smith Sr. versus cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Revis had previously limited Smith two two catches on 10 targets over their initial three meetings. Though with that play, Baltimore had assumed a 14-point advantage at Gillette Stadium.
New England would answer back again on the next series when facing 3rd-and-8, though.
A high snap saw Patriots quarterback Tom Brady find Rob Gronkowski beyond the sticks for 16 yards. And just one play later, Brady found the tight end uncovered down the seam for 46 yards.
Thenceforth, Brady found his own number, rushing into the end zone from four yards out to bring the Patriots within seven.
A quick out to Danny Amendola would later send New England over the pylon for a touchdown at the 3:37 mark in the second, erasing what was a 14-point defecit. But the tie game was short-lived. Brady threw an interception to linebacker Daryl Smith, which parlayed into a Flacco touchdown toss to tight end Owen Daniels with 10 seconds left before intermission.
As the second half opened, the Ravens made the most of it. Pass interference on Patriots corner Brandon Browner ultimately set up touchdown pass to Ravens halfback Justin Forsett to give Baltimore a 28-14 lead, and New England had work to do to cut into it.
A five-yard touchdown strike from Brady to Gronkowski did just that at the 6:48 mark in the third, tying No. 12 with San Francisco 49ers great Joe Montana with 45 career postseason passing touchdowns in the process.
The Patriots would tie the game on the next offensive series, as Brady tossed a backwards pass to former Kent State QB Julian Edelman, who launched a 51-yard touchdown pass downfield to Amendola. Yet back and forth they went from there. Baltimore netted a three-point lead with a 25-yard field goal from kicker Justin Tucker, before New England netted a four-point lead with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Brady to receiver Brandon LaFell.
The pass sent Brady ahead of Montana on the all-time ranks. But the Ravens were not out of time on Saturday, piecing together a nine-play drive to bring the ball to the New England 36 with less than two minutes to go in the fourth.
Flacco would launch it deep from that point. And second-year Patriots safety Duron Harmon would intercept it.
Three kneel-downs, one punt and one Hail Mary later, the divisional round was over. Time had expired on the Ravens and the Patriots had survived, shipping head coach Bill Belichick to his 20th career playoff victory and into a tie with Dallas Cowboys legend Tom Landry.
And in turn, New England had shipped on to the AFC Championship Game.
1. New England’s Offensive Line Forced to Reassemble: Brady was sacked twice to end New England’s first drive of the second quarter, with rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and later linebacker Pernell McPhee getting to to the 14th-year Patriots quarterback But on the second, rookie center Bryan Stork took a hit to the back of his knee and headed to the locker room. He was replaced by right guard Ryan Wendell while second-year guard Josh Kline rotated in. But midway through the third, Stork was downgraded to out, and the Patriots subbed blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in to supplant Kline for a sequence of plays. Brady was not sacked again, despite the reshuffle.
2. Ravens Run Away Early: Behind Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme, Forsett picked up four first downs on his first four carries an averaged 7.8 yards per carry in the first half. He would finish the game with 24 carries for 129 yards while the Patriots searched for answers. Time began to work against Forsett and the Ravens, however, and that benefited the New England front, which struggled on the 5-foot-8 running back’s stretch plays.
3. New England’s Pass Rush Held Back: Undrafted rookie James Hurst got the start in place of an injured Eugene Monroe at left tackle for third consecutive game. Monroe, who was active for the first time since suffering an ankle injury in Week 16, was available as a reserve. Yet it was Hurst who got the first crack at Patriots right defensive end Chandler Jones after having most recently allowed five quarterback hurries in the AFC Wild Card, according to Pro Football Focus. But his issues were not realized in the box score as Flacco was never sacked.
4. Patriots Backfield Met by Ravens: With Jonas Gray inactive, core special-teamer Brandon Bolden got the start at halfback for the Patriots. Bolden proceeded to catch an 11-yard pass to open the first series, while Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount filtered in behind him. Yet collectively, New England’s ground game not a factor in the offense. The trio amassed seven carries for 11 yards in the first half. And by the time it was all over, the assortment had finished with only three more yards. No back was able to accrue more than seven.
5. Gronkowski Key: Gronkowski collected four passes for 90 yards in the first half alone. The unanimous All-Pro selection capped off the game with a total of seven catches for 108 yards and a touchdown, signifying his second career postseason 100-yard game. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder was also in for the final play of the game on defense as a safety, but what he did as a tight end was what made the difference in the Patriots’ historic comeback win.