First Down/Fourth Down: Joe Flacco outplays a rattled Tom Brady
How good has Joe Flacco been during the Baltimore Ravens' playoff run?
Try this: He completed 21 of 36 passes for 240 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 106.3 QB rating in Sunday's 28-13 AFC title game upset of the Patriots ... and, statistically, it was his worst performance of the postseason.
Sunday, he outdueled Tom Brady in Foxboro to help Baltimore to the Super Bowl.
Among talk of the "HarBowl" and Ray Lewis' final game in the next two weeks, in the run up to Super Bowl XVII, there no doubt will be a lot of discussion about Flacco's place among the league's best quarterbacks.
There have been plenty of hiccups during Flacco's career in Baltimore, and therefore plenty of ammunition for those who would argue against Flacco's "elite" ability. Heck, as late as Week 15 of this season, when Baltimore took a 17-point thumping on the chin from Denver, Flacco appeared less ready than ever to take his game to the next level.
But he has been lights out in the playoffs. He took over Sunday night, throwing three touchdown passes in the second half -- in the process, becoming the first QB to ever rally and beat Brady after trailing him at halftime in Foxboro, breaking Brady's 67-game streak.
A win on Super Bowl Sunday would cement Flacco's place in Ravens' lore, if not as a top NFL QB. Aside from maybe San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, no one has played better football this playoff season.
More heroes and goats from the Ravens' victory:
First Down: Anquan Boldin.
The Patriots' defense appeared locked in early -- until Aqib Talib broke up a third-down pass intended for Boldin, then hobbled off the field with an apparent hamstring injury.
With Talib out of the lineup and no other Patriots cornerback able to match Boldin physically, the Ravens turned Boldin into their go-to target in the second half. He came through in a big way, especially in the fourth quarter, when he hauled in a pair of touchdown catches to ice the game.
The first came off a play-action from the Patriots 3; Boldin soared over top of two defenders for a terrific grab. He then abused New England safety Marquice Cole in a one-on-situation 3:43 later to bury the reeling Patriots.
Fourth Down: Tom Brady.
The Ravens tend to bring out the worst in Brady and, quite frankly, this was about as badly as the future Hall of Famer can play.
Brady finished with 320 yards passing, but he had no magic in a scoreless second half -- a downward spiral that included a pair of interceptions, one by Dannell Ellerbe, another by Cary Williams. Despite getting the Patriots out to an early lead, Brady seemed out of sorts early, as he misfired on a number of passes, both short and deep.
With the Patriots down 15 and less than nine minutes left, Brady scrambled out of the pocket but could not outrun massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Instead, he fired an aimless pass to no one in particular.
Perhaps never more than on that play, Brady appeared defeated.
First Down: Dennis Pitta.
One moment, Pitta was on the receiving end of one of the hardest hits we've seen all playoff season, courtesy of Jerod Mayo (Bernard Pollard's scary, fumble-forcing smack of Stevan Ridley might be at the top of that list).
The next, Pitta was turning Steve Gregory inside-out for a 5-yard TD, which gave Baltimore a lead it never relinquished. On a day that saw tight ends from all four teams show up huge, Pitta delivered a massive moment for his team.
Fourth Down: New England's missed opportunities.
The Patriots drove into Baltimore territory a whopping nine different times Sunday, and they made it to the red zone on five occasions. They came away with a grand total of 13 points.
On those red-zone trips, New England scored one touchdown, kicked two field goals, turned it over once and failed on a fourth-down attempt. Brady also threw a pick from the Baltimore 24, and the Patriots punted from Baltimore's side of the field thrice. The Patriots also settled for a field goal just before halftime, after some shoddy clock management cost them a chance at the end zone.
First Down: Baltimore's secondary.
The absence of Rob Gronkowski no doubt made the Ravens' job easier, but they answered the call nonetheless. Baltimore had trouble with both Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, allowing that duo to combine for 200 yards receiving. Other than a 36-yard grab by Welker late, though, all of those yards came on completions of 17 yards or less.
Williams' interception sealed the game, while Pollard's demolition of Ridley turned a tight 21-13 contest clearly in Baltimore's favor.
Brady had an off night, but the Ravens deserve plenty of credit for taking him out of his comfort zone and forcing New England's to stick with small gains.
Fourth Down: Shane Vereen ... or, the Patriots' lack of creativity.
When Gronkowski left last week's New England win over Houston, the Patriots picked the Texans apart by shifting Vereen around the field -- he caught a pair of touchdown passes and, multiple times, lined up wide against a linebacker.
Sunday, even as Brady struggled and the Patriots sputtered, Vereen was virtually nonexistent. He saw the ball on three plays in the first quarter, then did not have another touch until New England trailed by 15 in the game's closing minutes.
Once he did get back on the field, he quickly produced a 7-yard run, plus receptions of 9 and 13 yards. Which begs the question: Why didn't New England utilize him more frequently?
First Down: Aaron Hernandez (and, for the most part, Wes Welker).
Neither player broke loose (and Welker had a massive drop on 3rd-and-7 with the Patriots clinging to a 13-7 lead), but the Patriots' top two weapons did what they could on Sunday, with 17 combined receptions. Both Hernandez and Welker had spectacular catches in traffic, too, with Hernandez drawing a 15-yard penalty on Ray Lewis and Welker doing the same to Bernard Pollard.
Fourth Down: Nate Solder.
Tough to hang a "Fourth Down" nomination on a player for one play, but ... Solder's third-quarter error might have been the real turning point of the game.
Right after Flacco and Pitta had connected to put Baltimore on top, Brady found Danny Woodhead for a first down on a key 3rd-and-short. Except, Solder was called for holding on the play, despite Baltimore using just a three-man rush. The Patriots, instead of moving the chains, backed up into a 3rd-and-12. Brady's subsequent pass for Hernandez fell incomplete, New England punted and Baltimore marched for another touchdown to extend its lead to eight.