FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — They wanted the New England Patriots, told the world that they would beat them and then went into their stadium and dominated the second half as no visiting team had ever done.
It didn't seem possible when they limped into the postseason losers of four of five, or when they trailed the Denver Broncos last week by a touchdown with under a minute to go, or during Sunday night's first half, when they were having trouble getting quarterback Tom Brady off the field.
But it's reality now: The Ravens are going to the Super Bowl. Avenging last year's bitter loss to the Patriots in the AFC championship game, the Ravens took apart New England in the second half, punching their ticket to New Orleans with a thorough 28-13 victory in front of an announced 68,756 at stunned Gillette Stadium.
"We know what it felt like walking off that field losers" last season, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "They beat us, and we said we weren't going to walk off again like that."
Instead, the Ravens bounced off, one by one, celebrating with their fans who had come down to the first couple of rows at Gillette Stadium. Safety Ed Reed, who will play in his first Super Bowl and do it in his home state, sang, "We got two tickets to paradise." Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs yelled, "We came, we saw and we conquered." Defensive end Arthur Jones held up a sign that read, "AFC champions," and shouted, "Hallelujah, Hallelujah" to no one in particular.
In the Super Bowl for the second time in team history and the first time in 12 years, the Ravens will play the San Francisco 49ers, 28-24 winners over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game, Feb. 3 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The game will pit Ravens coach John Harbaugh against his younger brother, Jim, the coach of the 49ers.
"I don't know if we had a dream this big," John Harbaugh said. "We had a few dreams, we had a few fights, we had a few arguments. We'll try to stay out of that business. We'll let the two teams duke it out."
John Harbaugh's team was at its best when it absolutely had to be, steamrollering Bill Belichick's Patriots — who led 13-7 at halftime — over the final 30 minutes. Belichick had been 72-1 when leading at halftime at Gillette Stadium, including 67-0 with Brady at the helm. But they had no answers for quarterback Joe Flacco or for a Ravens defense that not only forced three turnovers in the second half, but forced several Patriots to the sidelines.
"We felt like the most physical team was going to win," said Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin. "I don't know if they know it or not, but the Ravens are a physical team. That's just the way we play, like it or not, offensively or defensively. If you think you're going to come in here and knock us around, you have another thing coming."
A week after outshining the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning and two weeks after getting the better of Indianapolis Colts phenom Andrew Luck, Flacco outplayed Brady, completing 15 of 24 passes in the second half for 159 yards and three touchdowns after the coaching staff decided in the second half to put the game on the fifth-year quarterback's shoulders.
"We realized we needed to put some pressure on them," said Flacco, who has now thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions in three playoff games. "We didn't come all the way here to play it safe."
With his team still trailing by six points about midway through the third quarter, Flacco hit tight end Dennis Pitta for a 5-yard touchdown that gave the Ravens a 14-13 lead that they never relinquished. On the first play of the fourth quarter, he found Anquan Boldin for a 3-yard score, and a little more than three minutes later, the pair connected for an 11-yard touchdown. Boldin had said during the week that the Ravens would win, and his two touchdowns made sure of that.
"For us, it wasn't a secret what we were trying to accomplish," Boldin said. "We came here last year and we left with a bitter taste in our mouths. We felt like this team took something away from us. We wanted to come back and make that right. It would have been great to do it in front of our fans in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium, but we thought the proper way was to come back here and to win at Foxborough, and we were able to do that."
Leading 28-13 with 11:13 to play, the Ravens stopped the Patriots on fourth down to get the ball back, then got interceptions on New England's final two possessions. Brady finished 29-for-54 for 320 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
"It's our time, it's our time," said Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis, whose retirement tour will go right down to the season's final day in New Orleans. "Every man out there sacrificed this year for each other. And we did it, we did it, we did it. We're on our way to the Super Bowl. That's awesome."
Lewis, who announced a couple of days before the playoff opener that this would be his "final ride," dropped to his knees on the field after the clock hit zero. Individual celebrations popped up everywhere while Flacco held the ball aloft. It was a scene that would few would have expected about a month ago.
"It's who we are," said Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (Maryland), who caught four passes for 69 yards. "That's what our city is, a tough city. You get knocked down, you've got to get back up. That's how life is. You just can't lay down and roll over. You've got to continue to fight."
Trailing 13-7 in the third quarter, the Ravens caught a break when Wes Welker dropped an easy pass from Brady that would, at the very least, have put New England in field-goal position to take a two-possession lead. The Patriots punted instead and would never score again, nor would they stop Flacco when they needed to.
Taking over at his own 13, Flacco put together his sharpest drive of the game. He hit Pitta to get the ball to midfield. Ray Rice then turned a dump-off into a 15-yard gain. An 8-yard run by rookie Bernard Pierce picked up another first down, and then Flacco hit Boldin for 12 yards. On the next play, after Pitta was drilled by Jerod Mayo following a 5-yard completion, the tight end shook free from safety Steve Gregory for a 5-yard touchdown catch.
On the drive, which covered 87 plays on 10 plays, Flacco, who completed just six of 12 passes for 81 yards in the first half, was 6-for-9 for 64 yards — and he was just getting warmed up.
After the defense gave the Ravens the ball right back, Flacco hit Torrey Smith for 23 yards. Pierce had two runs for 17 yards to get the Ravens inside the Patriots' 20. From there, Flacco hit Pitta for 6 yards and Boldin for 8. Then on second-and-goal from the 3, Flacco lofted a pass up to Boldin, who outleaped Devin McCourty for a touchdown. That gave the Ravens a 21-13 lead with under five minutes to go in the third.
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On the Patriots' next possession, a thunderous hit by Pollard on Stevan Ridley, which Harbaugh called the play of the game, caused a fumble and knocked the Patriots running back from the game. Jones recovered, and the Ravens needed just four plays to get back in the end zone.
Flacco hit Smith for 16 yards, ran for 14 yards, connected with Jacoby Jones for 6 yards and then threw a beautiful pass over the top of a defender to Boldin for an 11-yard touchdown. The score gave the Ravens a 28-13 lead with 11:13 to play and left Gillette Stadium shocked .
"The guys came out in the second half and made plays," Flacco said. "We were able to go up and down the field a handful of consecutive times and score points, and that's what we needed to do against this football team. We needed to put pressure on them like that, and it worked pretty well."
The last couple of minutes essentially morphed into a conference coronation for the Ravens. Flacco playfully shoved Harbaugh a couple of times before the coach finally pushed him back. Owner Steve Bisciotti came down to the sidelines and embraced Lewis. Flacco initially asked his teammates to settle down on the sidelines because there was still time on the clock and Brady was on the other sideline.
But there was no stopping the Ravens on this night. It seemed improbable not too long ago, but there was little doubt in the second half last night. Next stop: New Orleans.
"I have no words, man," Reed said. "I'm just grateful for our coaches. For everything we've been through since Coach Harbaugh got here, he had a vision of working us a certain way and taking us through something to build and to create this moment. We believed it, but it was just something we had to go through as men and understand each other and understand the process together."