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A year later, Ravens’ loss reverberates

Billy Cundiff is in disbelief after missing a 32-yard field goal in the final seconds of last year’s AFC title game.

File/Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Billy Cundiff was in disbelief after missing a 32-yard field goal in the final seconds of last year’s AFC title game.

FOXBOROUGH — It started with the Patriots winning the coin toss and doing what they always do. It ended with Billy Cundiff doing something he almost never did.

The Patriots’ 23-20 victory at Gillette Stadium in last year’s AFC Championship game played out like most of the other meetings with the Ravens: close, emotional, a few big plays, plenty of hard hitting. The game on Jan. 22, 2012, just had a lot more at stake.

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Sunday’s rematch brings the same teams to the same stadium on the same weekend as a season ago. The prize to the winner is just as tantalizing: a trip to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

For the Patriots, they’re playing for the eighth Super Bowl trip in franchise history, and might have history on their side. They’re 4-0 in AFC Championship games played in Foxborough. The Ravens are seeking their second appearance in the Super Bowl, and quarterback Joe Flacco already has led his team to five road playoff wins, including one at Gillette Stadium. Baltimore beat the Patriots three years ago in the wild-card round, 33-14.

Last year’s playoff contest was the first of three games the teams will have played against each other in less than a calendar year. One team — and the majority of the 68,756 in attendance — left the stadium last Jan. 22 elated. The other team left deflated, wondering if it would get another opportunity.

It has, just a year later, in eerily similar fashion.

“Everything it took to get to that championship game last year, and then being in that game and having it be such a great football game — an epic kind of a game — and then losing it in a way that was tough . . . It’s tough to lose a game at the end like that,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We have all the respect in the world for the Patriots. We play them a lot, and they’re always tough battles. All the experiences that we’ve had against them help us going into this game.”

Both teams this week have publicly minimized last year’s game and its effect on the rematch, saying the rosters are different. Literally, that’s true. But most of the key parts have remained.

Of the Patriots’ 22 starters in last year’s game, 17 are still in the regular playing rotation. The five who won’t be in uniform: offensive linemen Matt Light (retired) and Brian Waters (didn’t play this season), tight end Rob Gronkowski (injured), defensive end Mark Anderson (signed with Buffalo), and safety James Ihedigbo, who will be on the opposite sideline after signing with the Ravens in the offseason.

The Ravens still have 18 players of the 22 who started against the Patriots last season.

Starters don’t always tell the full story, though. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (now with the Bengals) didn’t start last year’s game, but he was the Patriots’ leading rusher, with 68 yards on 15 carries. He scored the Patriots’ first of two touchdowns, on a 7-yard run in the second quarter that made the score 10-3.

Two Stephen Gostkowski field goals bookended Green-Ellis’s touchdown and gave the Patriots a 13-10 halftime lead. But the Ravens took their first lead after another Gostkowski field goal, with Torrey Smith catching a 29-yard touchdown pass from Flacco for a 17-16 lead. They pushed the lead to 20-16 on a 39-yard Cundiff field goal in the final minute of the third quarter, setting the stage for a fourth quarter that would produce unexpected plays and players.

The Patriots began what turned out to be the winning drive immediately after falling behind, 20-16. The first play was notable because of how it ended, with Gronkowski’s left leg getting pinned under the weight of tackler Bernard Pollard after a 23-yard gain. Gronkowski was forced to leave the game with a high ankle sprain, and was still hobbled two weeks later when the Patriots lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots faced two third downs on the drive, but it was a fourth-down play that got them into the end zone and in front of the Ravens. Tom Brady went up-and-over, diving in from 1 yard to help push the Patriots ahead, 23-20.

After two interceptions (one by each team) and two other drives that fizzled, the Ravens took over at their 21-yard-line with 1:44 left, still trailing, 23-20.

Flacco completed five passes on the final drive, directing the Ravens to the Patriots’ 14-yard line in seven plays, and well within Cundiff’s range for a tying field goal, which seemed to be the best-case scenario at the time for the Patriots. But with 27 seconds and one timeout left, the Ravens weren’t thinking about tying the game. They took two shots at the end zone.

The first, intended for Lee Evans, was a perfectly thrown ball that Evans grabbed cleanly, then landed his right foot inbounds. A split-second before Evans’s left foot hit the turf, Patriots reserve defensive back Sterling Moore, unable to see the ball because Evans had turned around, chopped it free with his right hand.

Incomplete pass. Play of the game, at least for a few minutes.

Evans declined to comment for this story. Moore, who began the season with the Patriots, was released, then signed by the Cowboys, doesn’t mind talking about it.

“He got me in a tough position where I didn’t see the ball coming until it got into his hands. It was a wild play,” Moore said. “I swiped at the ball, and was just reaching in there. I didn’t really know whether he had it or not.”

Evans didn’t have it, temporarily saving the Patriots from a bone-crunching loss. Another incompletion on third down (when Moore broke up another pass) left the Ravens rushing Cundiff on the field for a field goal attempt that would tie the game and likely force overtime. There were 15 seconds left, and the try would be from 32 yards.

“In my mind, we were going to overtime,” Moore said.

Except,Cundiff missed. Badly, to the left, an ugly pull that set off a celebration among Patriots players on the field, and fans in the stands.

Cundiff also declined to comment for this story; he’s a member of the 49ers, and is spending the week preparing for Sunday’s NFC Championship game at Atlanta.

He was asked about the miss a few weeks ago, though, after he joined the 49ers.

“Would I like to have that kick back? Yeah, most definitely I would,” Cundiff said. “But is it going to affect the way I think about this year’s playoffs? Absolutely not. Because this is a brand-new situation.”

It certainly is. But the Patriots are hoping the rematch result is the same, with a spot in the Super Bowl the reward.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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