By Chris Burke
January 22, 2012

Grading out the performances in the New England Patriots' narrow 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

Quarterback: The Ravens really couldn't have asked for much more out of Joe Flacco than they got on Sunday. He made a couple of big mistakes -- overthrowing a wide-open Torrey Smith deep in the first half, then tossing a pick in the fourth quarter. But he outplayed Tom Brady and led a drive deep into New England territory late, which should have been enough to get the Ravens to overtime. Grade: B+

Running Backs: Unlike Baltimore's last playoff trip to Foxborough, Ray Rice could not find any big holes. He wound up carrying the ball 21 times for 67 yards, but the Ravens' longest run actually came from Flacco (14 yards). The offensive line's inability to pave the way didn't do Rice and Ricky Williams any favors, but this wasn't a great game for that duo. Grade: B-

Receivers: The numbers look fantastic -- seven Ravens caught passes for a total of 306 yards, plus touchdowns from Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. Smith's effort, in particular, was sensational as he hauled in a pass, spun out of a tackle, then turned on the jets to reach the end zone. The play everyone will remember, though, is Lee Evans' drop in the end zone in the final seconds on a potential game-winning play. Evans had the ball in his hands, then had it swatted out at the last possible moment. Two snaps later, Billy Cundiff missed what would have been a game-tying field goal. Grade: B-

Offensive Line: The Ravens' front settled down in the second and third quarters, but there were huge chunks of the game when New England just dominated Baltimore up front. The biggest issue for Baltimore was trying to block Vince Wilfork, who obliterated Matt Birk in a couple of one-on-one matchups. Flacco was able to sneak outside the pocket and avoid sacks on numerous occasions, otherwise the offense might have had even more trouble moving the ball. Grade: C

Defensive Line: Like their offensive counterparts, the Ravens' D-line lost a lot of battles, particularly against New England's run game, which turned in a surprisingly solid performance. Baltimore managed just one sack of Brady, which came from linebacker Paul Kruger, and Haloti Ngata was more or less neutralized. Grade: C-

Linebackers: Kruger's sack was a beauty, as he smoked Nate Solder and brought Brady down. Meanwhile, Ray Lewis had his usual tackle-heavy game -- his nine were the second-most for the Ravens. All in all, however, this unit needed to be better. Terrell Suggs struggled to make an impact, save for a couple pressures of Brady, and Lewis and the rest of Baltimore's linebacking corps had substantial problems covering crossing routes over the middle. Grade: C

Defensive Backs: Ed Reed made a couple of real nice plays in pass coverage, highlighted by a huge break-up of a third-down play late to get Baltimore the ball back. Bernard Pollard may have been the best Ravens player on Sunday, aside from Flacco. He led the team with 10 tackles (including one that nearly broke Rob Gronkowski's ankle) and turned in a dazzling tip on a Brady deep ball that led to an interception by Jimmy Smith. Lardarius Webb had a ridiculous pick of his own, reading a pass to Julian Edelman and making a leaping grab. Grade: A-

Special Teams: Well ... I think everyone knows the story here. Cundiff had a chance to send this game to OT but somehow yanked a 32-yarder way, way left. He had hit two field goals before that, but Baltimore's lack of trust in him on what would have been a 51-yard field goal also forced the Ravens to go for it on a fourth down earlier in the fourth quarter. One plus for Baltimore: The kick-coverage team forced a fumble that led to one of Cundiff's two made field goals. Grade: D

Coaching: It was all there for the taking for Baltimore, which clearly came in prepared for this one. Two head-scratchers will haunt the Ravens, though. First, Cam Cameron's draw play call on a 3rd down late in the fourth quarter -- a play that was stuffed and forced Baltimore's hand on 4th down. And secondly, what happened on the mad scramble prior to Cundiff's miss? The Baltimore kicker raced onto the field, then the Ravens barely got the snap off. Baltimore still had a timeout in its pocket. Grade: C+

Quarterback: We've seen much better performances from Tom Brady, who overthrew at least a couple of makeable big passes -- one that cost his team a touchdown in the first quarter, when he overshot Gronkowski. He also tossed two picks, the second coming on an ill-advised deep ball right after the Patriots had stopped Baltimore. But he still got the win, with the difference-making score coming on a leaping QB sneak from the 1-yard line. Grade: C

Running Backs: BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave the Patriots' offense a nice spark, ripping off 68 yards on just 15 carries. Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez also combined for 27 yards -- nothing groundbreaking, but just enough to keep Baltimore's defense off balance. Grade: B

Receivers: When Brady put the ball where he was supposed to, the Patriots' receivers and tight ends made catches. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 12 catches and 153 yards, with Wes Welker adding six grabs for 53 more yards. Still, there were no big plays from a group that's thrived on them this season. Grade: B

Offensive Line: Aside from Solder's "Ole" job against Kruger for Baltimore's lone sack and a couple of QB pressures, the Patriots' front held up well all afternoon. It's hard to keep Suggs and Co. quiet for an entire 60 minutes, but New England came close. The blocking on Green-Ellis' touchdown run was an absolute thing of beauty. Grade: A-

Defensive Line: The Ravens put up 10 points in the second quarter and another 10 in the third quarter, mostly because they were able to slow down New England's front during that time. But Wilfork came up with a couple of strong plays in the first quarter, then turned in a dominant fourth quarter -- with New England consistently coming up with pressure on Flacco, despite rushing just three and four players. Wilfork just overpowered Birk, making life miserable for Baltimore. Grade: A

Linebackers: This is basically what you can expect to get from this unit on a game-in, game-out basis -- they gave up a few plays, especially over the middle in the passing game, but also showed off some athleticism. Rob Ninkovich continues to be a handful when he blitzes, as evidenced by his pressure on Flacco that helped James Ihedigbo come up with a sack. Brandon Spikes saved New England in the fourth quarter, too, hauling in an interception to kill a Baltimore drive. Grade: C+

Defensive Backs: If you didn't recognize some of the names out there with this group, don't feel bad. The Patriots mixed and matched maybe more than any team headed to the Super Bowl ever has. Receiver Julian Edelman wound up covering Anquan Boldin in the fourth quarter, a move that resulted in a couple of Boldin catches. Patrick Chung had a breakdown early, biting on a play-action and allowing a long ball to Smith. And it was Smith who repeatedly beat Devin McCourty. Unheralded Sterling Moore may have won the game, though, by stripping Evans in the end zone, then breaking up Flacco's pass on the subsequent third down. Grade: C-

Special Teams: Danny Woodhead's fumble and a couple of rare mishits from Zoltan Mesko didn't help, but Stephen Gostkowski drilled all three of his field goals attempts -- ultimately, the difference in the game. Grade: B

Coaching: It was kind of a mixed bag from the Patriots, who were unusually passive in the first half -- kicking on 4th-and-short, taking a knee with a minute left before halftime. Somehow, all the maneuvers in the secondary ultimately worked. Grade: B-

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