FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Billy Cundiff looked up in disbelief as his 32-yard kick went wide left.
A usual easy field goal for Cundiff went awry as the Ravens failed to make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2000 season. One play later, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took a knee and began celebrating as New England defeated Baltimore 23-20 in the AFC championship game.
Ravens players looked on like they couldn’t believe what just happened after the missed field goal attempt. Punter Sam Koch, Cundiff’s holder, remained on his knee after the football continued past the left upright.
“When you’re at this level, and if you’re going to be a professional and it’s your job, I think you have to take it personally,” Cundiff said. “I get paid to make field goals. We’ll move on from this. It’s one of those things that will strengthen me in the end. Throughout my career, I’ve had challenging situations, and I’m still standing here today, so it’s something that will be tough for a little while.”
For the Ravens, it’s a tough pill to swallow as only Ray Lewis remains on the roster with a Super Bowl ring.
For Brady, he’s headed to his fifth Super Bowl since taking over as New England’s starting quarterback in 2001. Brady won Super Bowls in 2001, 2003 and 2004 and will be vying for his fourth championship.
“You pinch yourself to get this opportunity,” Brady said. “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.”
With 11:29 remaining in the fourth quarter, Brady jumped high and dove over both teams’ lines from the 6-inch line to score a touchdown that helped put New England up 23-20.
But the Ravens had three chances to tie or take the lead. On Baltimore’s first try, quarterback Joe Flacco threw an interception to linebacker Brandon Spikes in the middle of the field with 7:22 left.
But on the next play, Brady threw a deep pass intended for receiver Matthew Slater in the end zone to try to ice the game. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard jumped high, arched back and tipped the pass, which was then intercepted by cornerback Jimmy Smith, who made the pick just before the ball hit the ground. Smith returned the ball to Baltimore’s 38-yard line.
The Ravens then drove down the field before facing a fourth-and-6 from the Patriots’ 33. Instead of attempting a 50-yard field goal, the Ravens elected to go for it. They failed to convert as Flacco’s pass to tight end Dennis Pitta went high and out of bounds with 2:46 to play.
It’s possible Cundiff was discouraged he didn’t get a chance to attempt the 50-yarder with less than three minutes left to play. He admitted his regular-season stats — 1-of-6 from beyond 50 yards — were cause for concern.
“I didn’t really give coach a lot of confidence that I’d make that play,” Cundiff said. “Because he’s going to look at his sheet and say, ‘What are the percentages and how are they going to work in our favor?’ This year, I wasn’t as successful as I’d like to be in that range, so I probably made the decision for him pretty easy.”
After the turnover on downs, the Ravens’ defense stepped up and forced a three-and-out from New England, with Ravens safety Ed Reed knocking away a pass intended for tight end Aaron Hernandez on third down.
Flacco had one more chance and almost came through.
Flacco completed passes of 13 and 29 yards on the drive to receiver Anquan Boldin, the latter giving Baltimore the ball at the New England 23. Flacco then hit Boldin again for a nine-yard gain before fumbling the ball out of bounds. On the next play, Flacco threw a perfect ball to receiver Lee Evans, who looked to have a touchdown, only for Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore to knock it out of his hands at the last second.
Evans, who had three catches for 39 yards, was dejected over the play in the locker room.
“I feel like I let everyone down,” Evans said.
On the following play, it looked like Moore held tight end Dennis Pitta before knocking Flacco’s pass away. The play was not flagged for a penalty, however.
“I knew he was on my back pretty good,” Pitta said. “But that’s one of those plays where at the end of the game you don’t anticipate getting a call. You just fight through it.”
With it being fourth-and-1 from the New England 22, the Ravens trotted Cundiff out for the potential game-tying kick to send the AFC championship to overtime.
And he missed.
“I just told [Cundiff] that it’s going to be OK,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You know, we’ll move on. He is a great kicker. Everyone has a tough moment. All of us do. Billy will be fine.”
Flacco outplayed Brady statistically, going 22-of-36 for 306 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Brady finished 22-of-36 for 239 yards and two interceptions.
“I sucked pretty bad today but the defense saved us,” Brady said.
The Ravens never could get the ground game clicking like they had all season. Running back Ray Rice finished with only 67 yards on 21 carries.
Lewis, who seemed motivated following the loss, said he wasn’t retiring.
“For us to be here now, I am hungry again, I am thirsty again,” Lewis said. “Is this my last time as a Raven? Absolutely not, it’s just too much.”
Despite Baltimore outgaining New England 398-330, the Patriots were able to keep points off the scoreboard.
“We wanted to play big defensively and every knows the saying that defense wins championships,” Spikes said. “We did what we had to do to make plays.”
With the Patriots up 3-0 in the first quarter, thanks to a 29-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, the Ravens’ offense went three-and-out for the third consecutive time with the game moving in New England’s favor. But on New England’s ensuing possession, Brady threw an interception to Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb on a second-and-eight play intended for wideout Julian Edelman.
Flacco then found a groove, first hitting receiver Torrey Smith on a 42-yard reception, with the rookie target was wide open down the sideline. The possession ended at the Patriots 3 yard line with Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff knocking in a 20-yard try to tie the game at 3-3.
The Patriots decided to run the ball on their next possession, with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis beginning the drive with runs of 13 and 10 yards. A few plays later, Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski for a 20-yard gain in the middle of the field. Two plays later, on second-and-6 from Baltimore’s 16, Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe grabbed Green-Ellis’ facemask and ripped it off, giving the Patriots a free eight yards. On the next play, Green-Ellis ran in a touchdown to help put New England up 10-3.
Flacco followed suit with an eight-play drive that ended 80 yards later for a touchdown. On the drive, Flacco was 3-3 for 63 yards, with completions to Lee Evans (20), Anquan Boldin (37) and Dennis Pitta, whose 6-yard catch went for a touchdown.
Brady then led the Patriots down the field, but stalled after a pass to Gronkowski was ruled incomplete since the hulking tight end didn’t have both feet down in the field of play. The Patriots settled for a 35-yard field goal from Gostkowski, that ultimately gave the Patriots a 13-10 halftime lead.
The Patriots have now won 10 consecutive games entering the Super Bowl. The defense held Denver to 10 points in the divisional round and Baltimore to 20 in the conference title game.
“We’re always going to fight to the end,” Brady said. “It’s great to be a part of a team like this. It’s tough to get here, man. It’s hard to win these games.”