“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 there. That was important.”

Trailing 23-20 with 11:29 to go, the Ravens quickly marched into Patriots territory before Flacco was intercepted by Brandon Spikes. But on the very next play, Brady was picked off in the end zone when Pollard deflected the ball and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith made a diving catch and returned the ball all the way to Ravens' 38.

The Ravens drove into Patriots territory again, but on fourth -and-6 at the 33, Harbaugh opted to eschew a 50-yard field goal and go for the first down. Flacco was pressured by Vince Wilfork and threw a floater over the head of Dennis Pitta.

“We just felt like from a percentage standpoint, we probably had a better chance of getting the first down,” Harbaugh said.

At that point — trailing by three with 2:46 to play and two timeouts — the Ravens' Super Bowl dreams were on life support. But the defense forced a three-and-out for just the second time all game, and the Ravens had the ball back at their own 22 with 1:44 to play.

The stage was set for Flacco, who has been hearing criticism for weeks that he wasn't good enough to get the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He hit Anquan Boldin for 13 and 9 yards, and then on third-and-1 he completed a 29-yard pass to the veteran wide receiver to get the Ravens to the Patriots' 23.

“It wasn't me today, it was Joe Flacco,” running back Ray Rice said. “I would appreciate if some of the people that criticize him lay off him now. That's my quarterback.”

Another completion to Boldin got the ball down to the 14, but it would agonizingly get no closer. Moore separated the ball from Evans, and then knocked away a potential touchdown pass to Pitta. That's when Cundiff stepped up with a chance to prolong the season and pushed it wide left.

“When you lose, you have to suck it up like a man and as a man you got to keep moving,” inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. “We've got to keep building and remember this taste no matter how many times you go through it.”

Lewis answered one of the Ravens' primary offseason questions by saying he has “absolutely not” played his last game as a Raven. But a host of questions remain. Will safety Ed Reed or center Matt Birk retire? Will much-maligned offensive coordinator Cam Cameron be back? How will the Ravens handle their huge list of potential free agents, which includes Rice, guard Ben Grubbs and linebacker Jarret Johnson?

Those questions will have to be answered in the coming days, but the Ravens will have to get over this setback first, and that won't be easy.

“It's definitely tough to be as close as we were going to Indianapolis and not having it go our way,” Flacco said. “We played a hell of a game. They played a hell of game. They played better.”

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com