Brady's bunch march on
The New England Patriots are heading to their seventh Super Bowl after they squeezed past the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
By Rob Lancaster
Last Updated: 23/01/12 12:52am
The New England Patriots are heading to their seventh Super Bowl after they squeezed past the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 at Gillette Stadium.
Tom Brady's one-yard dive into the end zone proved to be the game-winning score in a see-saw battle for the AFC Championship, though the Pats were on the right end of a late twist in proceedings.
The Ravens moved the ball deep into New England territory in the closing stages to set up a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds remaining.
But, with the chance to level the scores and force overtime, Billy Cundiff badly snatched at his kick, sending it well wide to the left. His team-mates looked shock on the sideline, knowing their season had ended in heartbreaking fashion on the road.
In contrast, the Pats now move on to Indianapolis in a fortnight to see if they can lift the Vince Lombardi trophy for a fourth time in their history.
Brady - who was under centre for the franchise's three previous Super Bowl-winning teams, as well as the shock defeat to the New York Giants in 2008 - was the hero for New England, albeit with his legs rather than his arm.
The Pro-Bowl quarterback threw for just 239 yards and two interceptions, while two other picks were chalked off due to penalties against the Ravens.
However he came up trumps when his team needed him the most, leaping over the pile of bodies in front of him to get in on a critical fourth-and-goal play.
New England's other touchdown also came on the ground, BenJarvus Green-Ellis going in from seven yards out to make it 10-3 in the second quarter. The rest of the home team's points came from the boot of Stephen Gostkowski, including a 24-yarder that gave the Pats a 16-10 lead early in the second half.
Baltimore - who had found the end zone in the first half thanks to Joe Flacco's six-yard pass to tight end Dennis Pitta - looked to have taken control of the contest when they scored 10 unanswered points in the third quarter.
Torrey Smith went 29 yards to put Baltimore ahead for the first time, the receiver just getting in the end zone thanks to an acrobatic dive.
On the following kick-off Danny Woodhead fumbled, putting the visitors in perfect position to strike again. Crucially, though, they were only able to get three points off the turnover, courtesy of a 39-yarder from Cundiff.
New England responded by engineering an 11-play, 63-yard drive that was finished off by Brady, the Ravens having stopped their opponents on two previous attempts to run the ball in from no more than inches out.
Baltimore's hopes seemed to be over when they failed with a fourth-and-six attempt rather than going for a long-range field goal, only for their defense to give them one last chance.
Quarterback Flacco - who threw for 306 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, the Ravens' first giveaway of the play-offs - pushed them within sight of the end zone for what seemed to be at very least the tying score.
They looked to have scored a touchdown when Flacco hit Lee Evans, but the receiver had the ball batted out of his grasp at the last second.
Extra time still seemed a certainty until Cundiff fluffed his lines, allowing Brady - who moves level with Joe Montana with a 16th post-season triumph - to take a knee and end proceedings on the next play.
"I've just got to give all the credit to the players," New England coach Bill Belichick said at the presentation ceremony on the field.
"They've fought all year. Just like today it wasn't always perfect, but they fought to the final gun and came out on top."
The Patriots will now face the winners of the National Conference final between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants on February 5 at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indiana.