FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots and Ravens staged an all-time classic playoff game at Gillette Stadium Saturday night, and to the elation of the fans in attendance, the Patriots pulled off a 35-31 victory.
New England moves on to the AFC Championship game for the fourth straight year, and will host the winner of Sunday’s divisional-round game between Denver and Indianapolis.
Down, 14-0, in the first quarter and 28-14 with five minutes gone in the third quarter, the Patriots clawed their way back behind timely defensive play and the right arm of Tom Brady, who attempted 50 passes with the Patriots essentially abandoning the run in the second half.
“That was a great football game,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who is now tied with Tom Landry for most postseason wins as a head coach with 20. “[The Ravens] are tough to play against in all three phases of the game and obviously took it right down to the final play.
“Hats off to our team; they worked hard this week. It certainly wasn’t our best game — we’re going to need to play better next week, but it was good to win. Really good to win.”
“Coming into the game, we knew it was going to be a tough game, we knew we were going to have to battle,” said Patriots captain Devin McCourty. “I’m not going to lie: we didn’t expect to come in and be down 14-zip, but this team is a fighting team.
“We just kept battling and battling and just waited for the game to turn on big plays and getting stops, and then our offense taking advantage was key today. That’s what playoff football is.”
The Patriots’ game-winning drive went 10 plays and 74 yards, and included one fortuitous call reversal. After picking up 15 yards on passes to receivers Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman, Brady threw to running back Shane Vereen.
Vereen appeared to fumble at the end of the play, and Baltimore recovered the ball. But referee Bill Vinovich determined Vereen was down after reviewing the play.
Given new life, the Patriots moved methodically toward the end zone, with relatively small gains until first down from the 23, when Brady (33 of 50 passing, 367 yards, 3 touchdowns, interception) hit LaFell down the left sideline for the touchdown.
“On that play, it was man to man and Tom was at the line preaching for so long, I’m thinking he’s going to change the play,” LaFell said. “I’m [thinking], ‘No, man, it’s man to man, just let me go to work.’ He had faith in me, he threw a perfect ball, and we won the game.”
Brady’s 33 completions and 367 yards are Patriots postseason records.
After the touchdown, giving the Patriots the lead for the first time all game, the in-house disc jockey began playing the 90’s classic “Jump Around” by House of Pain, and the crowd made the press box sway, something that’s rarely happened at Gillette.
Patriots second-year safety Duron Harmon picked off Joe Flacco in the end zone with just over 90 seconds to play, halting Baltimore’s march toward a go-ahead score.
“I was telling my family all week I was going to get a pick this week. I’m glad it came when it did,” a beaming Harmon said. “But I feel like I’m going to get one every week.”
Harmon called it “the biggest play of my life.”
Harmon’s interception appeared to be the game-sealing play — Brady took three knees to kill clock, but 14 seconds remained, giving the Ravens one last chance for a Hail Mary.
Flacco (28 of 45, 292 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) heaved the ball toward the crowded end zone, but it was batted down, setting off the official celebration.
Given the history between the Patriots and Ravens, a close game was expected. It turned out to be an instant classic, with two teams that don’t like each other fighting it out in a win-or-go-home situation.
“You know, what I’ll remember is how good the Ravens are,” Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater said when asked what he’ll think of when he recalls the game years from now. “The DNA of that team, the character of that team, you can’t say enough about them. They compete and make you fight for it. And I’ll remember most the character we showed and how resilient we were to beat that team.”
It’s hard to imagine the Patriots could have envisioned a worse start to the game — the Ravens, who had the ball first, advanced with alarming ease. Their first snap, a pass to an open Steve Smith, gained 19 yards. On their fourth play, a pass to Torrey Smith went for 22 yards.
And the fifth was exactly the type of pass the Patriots talked all week about, a bread-and-butter play for Baltimore: fake handoff, Flacco rolls right and finds an open Kamar Aiken, the former New England practice squadder who got the 19-yard touchdown.
Danny Amendola fumbled the ensuing kickoff, though teammate Chris Jones recovered the loose ball. The Patriots picked up a first down on their first play, a pass to Brandon Bolden, but they quickly stalled out.
The possession ended after what appeared to be an impressive diving catch by Amendola was reversed after Vinovich determined on review that Amendola had used the ground to secure the ball.
Baltimore again moved the ball with ease on its second drive, not facing a third down until the 11th and final play on the drive, a touchdown pass to Steve Smith, who beat Darrelle Revis with an inside move on the 9-yard score.
Vince Wilfork noted after the game that Baltimore’s early success came on scripted plays, plays they might not typically run — the Ravens reportedly had planned their first 15 plays — and once they had to go off script, the Patriots were able to get them off track.
“Once the game settled down, once we settled down, we started to play better,” Wilfork said.
The Patriots made one major adjustment on defense at halftime: in the first two quarters, Ravens running back Justin Forsett gashed the Patriots for 78 yards on 10 carries (7.8 yards per); in the second half, however, they contained him, as Forsett picked up 51 yards on 14 carries (3.6-yard average).
Although Wilfork did acknowledge that the Ravens had some success on the ground, the emotion of the rivalry came out when he said, “The most important thing now isn’t stats; it’s the ‘W.’ Ask the Ravens how they felt with those stats; they’re leaving here with the ‘L.’ ”
Trailing, 14-0, the Patriots came back to tie the game on a 4-yard touchdown run by Brady and a 15-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Amendola, who had arguably his best game as a member of the Patriots.
But Baltimore scored again before halftime, taking a 21-14 lead into the break after Brady underthrew a pass over the middle that ended up in the arms of linebacker Daryl Smith, and not intended receiver Rob Gronkowski.
Brady called it a “terrible decision” on his part.
The Patriots’ offense went three-and-out to open the third quarter, and the Ravens scored again when they got the ball back, to again take a two-touchdown lead (28-14).
The play of the game came when the Patriots once again tied things up. Snapping the ball from their 49, Brady lateraled to former Kent State quarterback Edelman, and Edelman stopped, set his feet, and threw a perfect spiral to Amendola on the left sideline.
Amendola was wide open to run the final 15 yards or so into the end zone.
“It’s a play we’ve been working on all year,” Amendola said. “Testament to Julian; has a great arm and is a great athlete. He put it on the money, that’s for sure.”
Brady quipped it was a prettier throw than he could pull off, and that he’ll have to make a team rule that his teammates can’t throw better than him.