The Patriots made four consecutive stops to close out their 23-20 victory against the Ravens in the AFC Championship, and they carried their offense to the Super Bowl during a rare off-day.
Don't think the Patriots took it lightly, either. They've heard the criticism, and they were excited to make some big plays on the greatest stage they've seen all season.
"It's very big," defensive tackle Kyle Love said. "A lot of people talked about the other three defenses that are playing in these [conference] championships, and no one was talking about us. We just had to go out there and prove a point that we could play, we could stop somebody, stop teams and play hard. We're not a terrible defense like people think we are. We wanted to prove a point to the world and show everybody that we can step up and make big plays when necessary."
Love wasn't the only one who took it personal.
"It's a great feeling," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "This team and this defense have been working each week in practice to get better, and to see it happen when everyone says we're a horrible defense, we're this, we're that, just come out here and play football. Each week, prepare and come out and play. To get off the field, and get those stops and help this team, feed off the offense and the offense feed off us, that's how it's supposed to be. This was a championship game."
The defensive run started late in the fourth quarter after Danny Woodhead fumbled a kickoff to give the Ravens the ball at the New England 28-yard line just moments after they took a 17-16 lead. But after quarterback Joe Flacco ran the ball to set up a first down at the 11-yard line, the Patriots' defense held its ground and ended the threat with James Ihedigbo's sack.
Baltimore settled for a field goal to extend the lead to 20-16, but the stop was significant for the Patriots' momentum, as they survived their most crucial stretch of the game.
On the next defensive series, after Tom Brady's touchdown run gave the Patriots a 23-20 lead, linebacker Brandon Spikes made an outstanding one-handed interception in New England territory to preserve the advantage.
"People always say our defense is not that good, this and that, and we're the underdogs, but it doesn't matter," Spikes said. "Talk is cheap. You've got to play the game."
Brady didn't help them out by throwing his second interception on the very next play, and the Ravens took over at their own 38. Yet, after advancing to the Patriots' 30-yard line, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork dropped running back Ray Rice for a three-yard loss on third down to push the Ravens out of field-goal position. On fourth down, the Patriots' tight coverage across the field forced Flacco to essentially throw the ball away.
Then, on the final series of the game, after Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin beat Julian Edelman and Nate Jones for four catches and 60 yards, cornerback Sterling Moore made a pair of major plays.
Moore came in late to knock a touchdown pass from the hands of wide receiver Lee Evans on second down before breaking up a throw for tight end Dennis Pitta on third down. Without those two plays, kicker Billy Cundiff wouldn't have had the opportunity to shank his game-tying field goal bid.
And the Patriots generated some more momentum on defense, in front of the football world, just the way they wanted it to go down.
"We always tell ourselves we want it to be on us," Moore said. "We want to go out there and be the ones to shut it down. We knew we were going to have to go back out there. We were telling ourselves we were going to have to go back out there. And we wanted to be the ones to win the game. We went out and did that."