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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Patriots Outlast Ravens 35-31 in Instant Classic to Reach 4th Straight AFC Championship Game

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How rare is it for a game to not only exceed expectations but immediately vault into the realm of instant classic? Tonight was one of those such gifts as the Patriots erased a pair of 14-point deficits (something they'd never done in franchise history) to beat the Ravens 35-31 at Gillette Stadium. New England advances to next Sunday's (6:40, CBS) AFC Championship Game back at Gillette vs. either the Colts or Broncos who meet tomorrow (4:40, CBS) in Denver.

It was a milestone performance for Tom Brady (33 of 50 for 367 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT) as he set the new all-time mark for playoff TD passes (46) passing Joe Montana. Bill Belichick won his 20th playoff game which tied Tom Landry for the most all-time and Julian Edelman (8 catches, 74 yards) threw the longest touchdown in playoff history by a non-quarterback (51 yards to Danny Amendola). You could make a good case that Amendola had not only his best game as a Patriot (not too tough in his underachieving time here) but he was their player of the game with two clutch touchdowns. Then again, it was a typical Pats playoff win with numerous guys making big plays.

Things couldn't have started out any better for the Ravens as they marched right down the field on their first two drives for an early 14-0 lead. Joe Flacco (28 of 45 for 292 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) was playing like Mr. January once again as he found Kamar Aiken for an easy 19-yard catch and run then the ageless but still batshit insane Steve Smith for a juggling 9-yard catch when Darrelle Revis was trying to cover him.

This was all Brady's game on offense since New England abandoned the run, would you blame them with a total of 14 yards gained on 13 rushing attempts? Jonas Gray was a surprise addition to the inactive list after being probable with an ankle injury. He'll never be Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson in terms of scrambling ability but it is still pretty remarkable how much Brady has improved in that area at the ripe old age of 37. He got the Patriots on the board with a 4-yard run.

Amendola tied it at 14 with a sick 15-yard touchdown grab that ended with him flying through the air to the pylon. Somehow, it looked like the Pats would be at least tied or possibly leading at halftime after they were so outplayed. That's when Brady threw his bi-annual brutal interception (to Daryl Smith) and Flacco took advantage by throwing a beautiful 11-yard touchdown to Owen Daniels who was barely open between three defenders with 10 seconds left in the half.

New England's defense was run over in the first half and that continued early in the third quarter as Justin Forsett (24 carries, 129 yards) made it 28-14 Ravens with a simple 16-yard touchdown catch on a swing pass. As is usually the case, Rob Gronkowski (7 catches, 108 yards) was the best receiver on the field/freak of nature and Brady hit him for a five-yard score. The Patriots forced a Ravens punt and that's when Josh McDaniels dialed up probably his best play as New England's offensive coordinator: the double throw from Brady to Edelman to a streaking Amendola. Devin McCourty intercepted Flacco on the following drive but the Pats couldn't cash that in for more points.

Baltimore took a 31-28 lead on Justin Tucker's 25-yard field goal but the Patriots did their job by holding strong in the red zone and forcing the kick. Brady saved his magic for the end: his game-winning 23-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell (5 catches, 62 yards) was perfect. You can't make a better throw and at the same time run a better route than that.

The Ravens are so resilient though and they never gave up. Duron Harmon picked off Flacco in the end zone and on the final play of the game, McCourty knocked the ball away from danger in a hail mary situation. New England improved to 2-2 vs. Baltimore in the playoffs the last few seasons while also avenging that bitter defeat in the 2013 AFC Championship Game at Gillette.

It might seem silly to want to play the Broncos next week since they are clearly better than the Colts (well at least going into tomorrow) but I think it would be so much sweeter to go through Denver than pushover Indy. Plus the storylines are way too juicy to pass up (Brady vs. Manning, Patriots handing out some payback for losing in that game last year not to mention facing Talib and Welker). We all need some rest after today's exhausting game but I'm sure we'll be ready to go for next Sunday.

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