FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots are headed to the seventh Super Bowl in franchise history after an edge-of-your-seat, 23-20 win yesterday over the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, which was only sealed when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff pulled a tying 32-yard field goal attempt left with 11 seconds to play.
The miss was jaw-dropping for the Ravens, who stood on the sideline in disbelief, and set off a celebration at Gillette Stadium.
Vince Wilfork, who had a huge role in the game, took off his helmet, his arms outstretched, steam coming off his bald head and bare arms, a wide smile on his face.
Bill Belichick grabbed his youngest son, Brian, at his side for nearly every game the last couple of years, in a massive hug.
James Ihedigbo pointed to his mother in the stands and shouted, “We’re going to Indy!’’
As the Patriots waited to receive the Lamar Hunt Trophy given to the AFC champions, reminders of team owner Robert Kraft’s wife, Myra, who died July 20, were everywhere, from the patches on the players’ jerseys to those in the stands who waved giant “MHK’’ and “Win it for Myra’’ posters.
In the locker room afterward, there were more than a few who believed that Myra played a role in Cundiff’s miss. Cradling the silver Hunt trophy in his arm (he said he preferred the old trophy to the redesigned model), Robert Kraft touched the “MHK’’ lapel pin on his navy wool overcoat, kissed his fingers, and then pointed skyward when asked about the kick.
“We had an angel; it was pretty special,’’ Kraft said. “To win this game at home, in front of our fans, is the greatest thrill.’’
After being battered all season, the Patriots’ defense forced the Ravens’ field goal attempt. Rookie Sterling Moore, who earlier missed a tackle on Torrey Smith that led to a touchdown, bounced back mightily, breaking up the second- and third-down passes on the final drive from Joe Flacco.
An exceedingly blunt Tom Brady, on the CBS broadcast during the trophy ceremony, said, “I sucked today. Our defense won the game for us.’’
The snap and hold looked good for Cundiff’s kick, he simply misfired from a manageable distance.
“It’s a kick I’ve probably kicked a thousand times in my career. I just went out there and didn’t convert. That’s the way things go,’’ said Cundiff. “There’s really no excuse for it.’’
Belichick had little sympathy for Cundiff.
“Look, you have to make plays under pressure in this league,’’ he said. “That’s not the first one.’’
In the first half, the game was as tight as expected, though New England may have squandered some chances. The Patriots went into the locker room up, 13-10 (they had the ball with less than a minute to play and with two timeouts, but opted for two kneeldowns).
The opportunities came on the Patriots’ first three possessions: New England started at its 40, 39, and 40, but was able to score only 3 points.
In the opening minutes, the Patriots’ defense was the story. The Ravens lost the coin toss but the Patriots, as is their custom, elected to defer, and forced a three-and-out, with Dane Fletcher bringing Flacco down from behind when he tucked the ball on third down and tried to run for it.
On Baltimore’s second possession, it faced a third and 3, but Vince Wilfork pressured Flacco and Mark Anderson took him down for a 7-yard sack.
Wilfork came up huge the next time the Ravens had the ball, bringing Ricky Williams down by his jersey - while Wilfork himself was on the ground - for a 5-yard loss, and then abused center Matt Birk on third and long, getting a 5-yard sack of Flacco and forcing another punt.
“Critical plays like that, you just have to take advantage,’’ said Wilfork. “I knew going into this game Flacco was a pocket passer. He’ll stand in there, he’ll take hits, and will deliver a good football. I knew he really wasn’t going anywhere . . . everything around me worked well and it was just great defensive play from all 11, not just myself.’’
Where Brady’s first interception was wiped out by a penalty, the Patriots weren’t so lucky the second time. After Wilfork’s sack led to a Ravens punt, Brady’s pass for Julian Edelman ended up in the hands of Lardarius Webb, who made a great interception while falling.
Baltimore tied the game off the turnover, with a 42-yard pass from Flacco to rookie Torrey Smith on the first play putting the offense into New England territory quickly. When a third-down dumpoff to Anquan Boldin was just short of a first down, the Ravens took a short field goal.
The Patriots responded with something and someone that hadn’t been seen much recently: the ground game and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The running back picked up 24 yards on the first two plays from scrimmage, then later in the drive saw his helmet yanked off by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
The penalty gave the Patriots first and goal from the 7. On the next play, Brady went right back to Green-Ellis, who got some nice blocks from Logan Mankins and Wes Welker on his way to the touchdown.
The Ravens once again tied the game, getting two big plays. On first down, old foe Lee Evans, in his first season with the Ravens after beginning his career with the Bills, had a 20-yard gain. Two plays later, Boldin broke through the tackle of Kyle Arrington and ended up gaining 37 yards.
To cap the drive, Flacco hit tight end Dennis Pitta in the front of the end zone for a 6-yard score.
The Patriots added a 35-yard field goal before halftime, then upped their lead to six (16-10) on the first possession of the second half with another short field goal.
The Ravens answered right back, going 78 yards in 11 plays for their first lead, then getting the ball back when Danny Woodhead was stripped on the ensuing kickoff. The Patriots’ defense made a big stop, with Devin McCourty breaking up a pass in the end zone, and Ihedigbo sacking Flacco on third down to force a 39-yard field goal by Cundiff for a 20-16 Baltimore advantage.
The winning points were scored a few minutes into the fourth quarter. After Brady’s initial sneak on second and goal from the 1 was overturned on replay and Green-Ellis was denied on third down, Brady tried the keeper again on fourth down, going head over heels as he jumped over the pile.
“I thought it looked soft in there so I tried to take advantage of us getting an easy touchdown,’’ Brady said. “I don’t do that very often. I’m glad we had a chance to score on fourth down, that was important.’’
Of returning to the Super Bowl for the fifth time - matching the record for a starting quarterback established by John Elway - Brady said, “It’s incredible . . . You pinch yourself to get this opportunity. I’m privileged to be part of an incredible organization, to play with a great group of teammates. It’s really a privilege to play quarterback on this team.’’Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.