Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard lived up to his intimidating reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the NFL, knocking New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley out of Sunday's AFC championship game with a devastating fourth-quarter tackle.
During the Ravens' 28-13 AFC victory at Gillette Stadium, Ridley was down on the ground for several scary minutes before finally walking off the field under his own power.
"Bernard, man, he's a hitter," Ravens free safety Ed Reed said. "He's a thumper."
The crushing tackle by the man nicknamed "Bonecrusher" provided a huge shift of momentum for the Ravens. Ridley fumbled, and the ball was recovered by defensive end Arthur Jones. That turnover led to quarterback Joe Flacco's 11-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin on the ensuing possession for the Ravens' final score.
"That was the turning point of the game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That was the turning point of the football game there. It was just a tremendous hit. It was football at its finest. It was Bernard Pollard making a great physical tackle, just as good a tackle as you're ever going to see in football right there. That just probably turned the game around right there."
The win propels the Ravens into the Super Bowl, where they will face the San Francisco 49ers after winning the AFC title game rematch with the Patriots.
Pollard shrugged off praise after his intimidating, impactful shot that rendered Ridley woozy, saying he was just doing his job and following his traditional hard-nosed approach to the game.
"That's football," Pollard said. "That's how we play the game. We're just excited to be going to New Orleans. We didn't want to have that feeling again from last year. This team, we're about hitting. We're about running fast, playing hard for four quarters."
On the tackle of Ridley, Pollard accelerated to full speed before unleashing a huge shoulder hit on the running back that separated him from the football and left him lying on the ground, obviously disoriented.
"That's just a tackle," Pollard said. "It's football. He broke the hole. Us as safeties, we have to fill where we're needed. I hope he's OK. We as players are competitive in the moment. You want that guy to be OK. That is our brother."
Pollard was flagged in the third quarter for a personal foul, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty for a hit on wide receiver Wes Welker that could put him in the crosshairs of the league office for a potential fine.
"I think it was time for us to step up, and in the second half we didn't flinch," Pollard said. "I think we came out swinging and we did a really good job as a team."
Usually one of the feistiest players on the field, Pollard was in an unusual role in the first quarter: peacemaker.
An intimidating enforcer, Pollard typically will mix it up with any player.
In this case, though, with tempers flaring, Pollard defused the situation through a conversation with Patriots linebacker Tracy White after a confrontation with other players during a punt.
"I think we did a really good job as a team coming into a hostile environment," said Pollard who finished with nine tackles. "We know what it felt like last year. We didn't want to have that feeling again walking off that field. I really believe as a team we came together. We're gracious enough to be heading to New Orleans."
Waiting patiently outside the locker room after the Ravens' win, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps and Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones paid tribute to the AFC champions.
Phelps and Jones have attended several games this season and made the trip to Foxborough to support the Ravens again.
"This is the coolest thing," Phelps said. "This is one of the most incredible things I've seen in my entire life. It's pretty special. It's an emotional time for us. It's going to be a great two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. We're fighters. They did it."
Jones wanted to thank the Ravens — especially Reed — for going to several Orioles games during their resurgent 2012 season, in which they made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
Jones visited the Ravens' training complex Friday, wishing them well before they started their road trip.
"This is good for Baltimore," Jones said. "It's one hell of a ride. I was at the Castle the other day. This is the perfect ride for Ray Lewis and this team. I'm a big supporter. They support us, and we support them. It's a love-love relationship. The city of Baltimore has been beyond great to me and my family.
"I respect them. I've gotten to know a couple of players. I have the utmost respect for these players. They risk their lives out there. Their common goal has been achieved."
Brady catches Reed with a foot
When Patriots quarterback Tom Brady slid at the end of the first half as he tried to escape from the pocket, his cleat caught Reed in the leg. Reed got up unhurt, but it obviously smarted.
Although it appeared to be unintentional on the part of Brady, Harbaugh was visibly irate and immediately complained to the officials about the lack of a penalty call.
Lewis was hit with an unnecessary roughness penalty in the first half when the inside linebacker's helmet smashed into Hernandez.
The retiring former NFL Defensive Player of the Year attempted to strike Hernandez with a shoulder on the completion over the middle.
However, Hernandez dipped his helmet as he crouched to gather himself for the impact, and that brought his helmet into Lewis' initial aiming point.
Although it didn't appear Lewis was trying to hit Hernandez that high, he was in a tough position having already committed himself to a certain hitting area.
Bad field position
The Ravens did themselves no favors in the first half in terms of starting points for the offense.
Their average field position on five drives in the first half was their own 11-yard line, while the Patriots began their drives, on average, at their own 33.
The Ravens started their drives at their 13, 10, 8, 10and 14, scoring one touchdown on a 90-yard drive that began at the 10.
In a bit of gamesmanship, Brady pretended to be talking to the sideline by pointing to his helmet as if his electronic headset were malfunctioning.
It was just a gambit, though, intended to distract the Ravens before a key fourth-and-1 conversion.
Diminutive running back Danny Woodhead caught a direct snap and ran to the left for first down prior to the Patriots' final score before halftime on a field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
The Patriots lost their top cornerback, Aqib Talib, to a thigh injury during the first half.
Talib left the game and limped to the locker room for examination.
He eventually returned to the sideline but was wearing a winter coat and appeared to be done for the day.
Patriots defensive lineman Kyle Love left the game with a knee injury and was declared questionable to return.
There's a golden rule when it comes to altercations in the NFL: The retaliator always gets caught.
After being shoved repeatedly by Patriots center Ryan Wendell following a play, Ravens inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe somewhat meekly pushed him back on the face mask and was flagged for a personal foul for illegal hands to the face.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was visibly irate at the call.
Pierce plays through pain
Ravens rookie running back Bernard Pierce didn't run like a man dealing with a sore knee Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
Despite a bone bruise in his right knee that hampered him a week ago against the Denver Broncos, Pierce was able to run hard and elude defenders during a 28-13 AFC championship game victory over the New England Patriots.
Although listed as questionable on the injury report heading into Sunday, Pierce had insisted all along tha he would play. And he played well even though dealing with some pain, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
"I think I played well," said Pierce, adding that he didn't aggravate the injury. "I had a couple nice runs, I had a couple nice blocks. I wanted to make sure I helped my team in any possible way I could.
"I was fine. I pushed through it, that's all that matters. And we're in the Super Bowl."
And Rice was impressed with Pierce's contribution as the Ravens grinded out 121 yards on 33 carries.
"He's the toughest man on earth," Rice said. "That's my man. We knew it would be tough sledding. They always do a great job against the run, but we just had to execute. Having a dual threat really helps out."
All of the Ravens' players listed as questionable were active, including Ellerbe (sprained right ankle, back), Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach (right knee, ankle), and reserve wide receiver David Reed (thigh).
The Ravens scratched defensive linemen DeAngelo Tyson and Bryan Hall.
Tyson is usually active, but the Ravens needed more depth on special teams and in the secondary as cornerback Chris Johnson was kept up for the game after being held out the previous game in Denver.
The Ravens also deactivated cornerback Asa Jackson (hamstring), who was ruled out Friday, offensive lineman Ramon Harewood, safety Omar Brown, outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton and wide receiver Deonte Thompson.
Weather conditions were ideal Sunday. Just before kickoff, it was a relatively balmy 46 degrees with excellent visibility on a clear, sunny day.
Factoring in the wind chill, it was 32 degrees on the field. Winds gusted up to 23 mph.
The Patriots scratched wide receiver Kamar Aiken, former Ravens safety Derrick Martin, cornerback Malcolm Williams, center Nick McDonald, offensive lineman Markus Zusevics, defensive end Jake Bequette and defensive lineman Marcus Forston. ... The Ravens' game captains were Lewis, former Patriots safety James Ihedigbo, quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice. Ravens senior adviser of player development O.J. Brigance served as the honorary game captain. Brigance is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's disease. "O.J.'s been our strength," Ed Reed said. "O.J. took me under his wing when I first got here. To still be the same O.J. and being a light to you and be a light for our team, you could say so much about 'Juice.' He's been like an uncle to me and like a brother. I love 'Juice.'" ... The Ravens won the coin toss and deferred.