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Patriots’ defense toughens up as game goes on

FOXBOROUGH — The games played out differently, but the late-game situation on Saturday at Gillette Stadium resembled the conclusion of the 2012 AFC Championship game: with the Patriots defense on the field, trying to seal a hard-fought playoff victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

Once again, the defense did just enough to keep the Ravens out of the end zone. This time, New England didn’t need a field goal miss to advance.

Needing a touchdown after the Patriots took their first — and only — lead of the game, the Ravens drove to the Patriots’ 36-yard line with less than two minutes left. But Joe Flacco, who came into the game having not thrown a playoff interception since that game at Gillette three years ago, was picked off for the second time of the second half, this time by Duron Harmon. It came in the end zone on a deep pass intended for Torrey Smith, and helped the Patriots hold on for a 35-31 victory.

After getting the ball back with enough time for one more play, Flacco’s last-gasp pass was batted down in the end zone.


“It’s the playoffs. Every game is going to be a tough game. We played for 60 minutes. That’s how long it was going to take,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “In the playoffs, it’s going to take 60 minutes or more. Tonight we showed how tough this team really is. Being down, 14-0, in a playoff game, rallying with each other, making plays when we needed to make plays, playing good situational football.”

After giving up touchdowns on the Ravens’ first two drives, the defense responded with two forced punts that gave the Patriots the opportunity to tie the game. Two more touchdowns that bookended halftime put the Patriots into another 14-point hole, but the defense stiffened from there. There were two interceptions of Flacco and a forced punt, although the Patriots did give up a field goal.


“You’ve got to do whatever it takes. Empty the tank, do whatever it takes to make a play,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “We made a play, we were happy with that. In the playoffs, it’s a play here, a play there that always changes the outcome of the game.”

Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins wrapped up Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco for a fourth-quarter sack.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Book one for Brady Tom Brady threw — and ran — his way into the Patriots and NFL playoff record books. He also threw a key interception that put his team in a halftime hole.

Not known for his running ability — although it’s something Brady has said he’s worked on this season — he scored a touchdown on a 4-yard quarterback scramble in the first quarter. It was his fifth rushing touchdown in the playoffs, matching the team record set by Curtis Martin.

Needing three touchdowns to become the NFL’s all-time leader in playoff scoring tosses, Brady accomplished the feat, moving past Brett Favre and then Joe Montana. Brady hit Danny Amendola in the second quarter for career playoff touchdown pass No. 44, the same number as Favre. With a 5-yard scoring strike to Rob Gronkowski in the third quarter, Brady pushed into a tie with Montana.

Brady bagged the record-setter on a fourth-quarter drive that finally gave the Patriots the lead. With a perfectly thrown 23-yard pass to Brandon LaFell, Brady had playoff touchdown pass No. 46 and the Patriots had a 35-31 lead.

The touchdown pass to Amendola tied the game at 14. But Brady had a hand in the Ravens grabbing a 21-14 halftime lead. His pass intended for Gronkowski with just over a minute to go was badly underthrown and intercepted by linebacker Daryl Smith. That set up the Ravens at their 43-yard-line with 1:03 left, enough time for Joe Flacco to lead a scoring drive. His 11-yard TD pass to Owen Daniels came with 10 seconds left in the second quarter.


“Just a terrible play by me,” Brady said. “We finally tied it up, had a chance to go ahead in the two-minute drive there. I just made a terrible decision. I take them pretty hard when I give them one like that.”

Belichick on the mark

With the win, Bill Belichick tied Tom Landry for the most coaching wins in NFL postseason history. Belichick now has a 20-9 playoff record. Landry was 20-16 with the Cowboys.

If the Patriots win next Sunday and advance to the Super Bowl, Belichick will match former Dolphins coach Don Shula — who referred to the Patriots coach as “Beli-cheat” in a recent interview — with six appearances.

Stork can’t deliverProtecting Brady was of paramount importance to the Patriots, and they were forced to shuffle their offensive line in the second quarter after center Bryan Stork left with a knee injury. Stork was injured on the second of back-to-back plays that ended with a Ravens sack. He limped off the field, did not return, and was spotted limping noticeably leaving the locker room after the game.

Stork’s absence brought in Josh Kline, who took Ryan Wendell’s spot at right guard. Wendell moved from right guard to center.

The Ravens had 49 sacks in the regular season — second-most in the NFL — then added five more in their wild-card win at Pittsburgh. Baltimore sacked Brady just those two times, on consecutive snaps; the second one knocked the Patriots out of field-goal range..

Healthy returnOne benefit to having a meaningless regular-season finale followed by a first-round playoff bye was the Patriots being as healthy as they’ve been maybe all season. There were only three players listed on the final injury report for a health reason, but all three were listed as probable to play: receivers Julian Edelman (concussion) and Brandon LaFell (shoulder/toe), and running back Jonas Gray (ankle).

Gray was one of the seven inactives, the only mild surprise on the list, while Edelman and LaFell made big plays during the game.


The other six who sat against the Ravens were rookie running back James White, rookie defensive lineman Zach Moore, offensive linemen Jordan Devey and Cameron Fleming, tight end Steve Maneri, and receiver Josh Boyce.

Recovery modeThe Patriots trailed at halftime, 21-14, but it could have been worse if not for two recoveries.

After the Ravens scored a touchdown on the first possession of the game, Danny Amendola fumbled the ensuing kickoff, but Chris Jones came up with the ball at the bottom of the pile.

With the Ravens leading, 14-7, Brady connected with Edelman on a second-and-10 play, but Edelman was stripped of the ball by Courtney Upshaw. Despite five Ravens surrounding him and lunging for the ball, Edelman somehow came up with the fumble, preserving the first-down completion. The Patriots ended up scoring a touchdown on the drive to tie the game at 14.

Running on emptyFacing the league’s fourth-best run defense, the Patriots managed only 14 yards on the ground, by far a season low. Brandon Bolden (three rushes, 7 yards) was the team’s leading rusher . . . The Ravens converted their first third-down conversion, then failed on their final eight. Baltimore was 3 for 3 on fourth-down conversions, though . . . Ravens receiver Steve Smith went over the 1,000-yard mark in career playoff receiving yardage in the first half. He also suffered an injury — he quickly returned — and it brought a concerned LaFell onto the field from the sideline. Smith and LaFell were teammates with the Carolina Panthers . . . Trying to pin the Ravens deep in their territory, Ryan Allen had a 17-yard punt late in the third quarter. An Allen punt from the Baltimore 37-yard line went out of bounds at the 20 . . . For just the second time all season, kicker Stephen Gostkowski had no touchbacks on kickoffs. It also happened at Green Bay . . . Cornerback Brandon Browner left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury. He was replaced by Logan Ryan and, like Stork, did not return.

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