As 2019 draws to a close, we’re counting down the 15 greatest New England Patriots games of the past decade.
At No. 14: Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens, 2011 AFC Championship Game
Having demolished Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos the previous week, the Patriots were back in the AFC title game after failing to advance past the divisional round in three consecutive seasons — their only such drought under Bill Belichick.
The 2011 Pats boasted one of the NFL’s top offenses (Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch) but a defense so depleted that wide receiver Julian Edelman was seeing significant playing time at slot cornerback. New England ranked 31st in total defense, 15th in points allowed, 28th in third-down defense, tied for 21st in red zone defense and 30th in defense DVOA during the regular season.
Their opponent was a Ravens team that had, two years earlier, bulldozed the Patriots out of the playoffs with a 33-14 win at Gillette Stadium in the 2009 wild-card round. Baltimore’s defense, led by the likes of Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, was one of the NFL’s best in 2011, carrying a mediocre, Joe Flacco-led offense to 12 wins and an AFC North title.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Brady followed up arguably his best postseason performance to date (26-of-34, 363 yards, six touchdowns, one interception, 137.6 passer rating against the Broncos) with one of his worst. The face of the Patriots franchise was, in a stunning twist, outplayed by Flacco, throwing two interceptions and finishing without a touchdown pass in a playoff game for the first time since 2001.
With New England’s offense scuffling, its much-maligned defense picked up the slack, keeping Baltimore off the scoreboard in the first and fourth quarters. Neither team led by more than seven points at any stage, with kickers Stephen Gostkowski (three field goals) and Billy Cundiff (two) providing the lion’s share of scoring plays.
The Ravens took their first lead on a touchdown pass to Torrey Smith late in the third quarter and quickly tacked on a field goal after Danny Woodhead fumbled the ensuing kickoff. The Patriots responded with an 11-play, 63-yard drive that Brady capped by flipping over the goal line for a go-ahead QB-sneak touchdown, absorbing a punishing hit to the back from Lewis in the process.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes ended the next Ravens possession with a one-handed interception, but Brady tossed a pick of his own one play later, giving the ball back to Baltimore with just over seven minutes remaining. A turnover on downs followed by a swift Patriots three-and-out left time for one final Ravens surge.
Taking over on his own 21, Flacco needed just over a minute to march Baltimore into the red zone. On second-and-1 from the Patriots’ 14 with 27 seconds to play, he fired a pass to Lee Evans for what initially appeared to be a game-winning touchdown.
But Evans could not hold on. Undrafted rookie cornerback Sterling Moore swatted the ball out of the wideout’s hands in the end zone, then broke up another pass to tight end Dennis Pitta near the goal line one play later, setting up what should have been a chip-shot 32-yard field goal that would send the game to overtime.
Cundiff, who’d been voted first-team All-Pro just one year earlier, jogged onto the field, lined up his shot — and missed.
Final score: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
Cundiff’s miss never happens if Moore lets Evans catch that ball.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork flat-out dominated Baltimore’s offensive line in one of his finest games as a Patriot. Big No. 75 finished with six tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss and five hurries, playing a vital role in limiting Ravens star Ray Rice to 67 yards on 21 carries.
THEY SAID IT
“Well, I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us. I’m going to try to go out and do a better job in a couple of weeks, but I’m proud of this team, my teammates.” — Tom Brady on his performance
“I really didn’t know that I even knocked it out until after. I still thought he had caught the touchdown, and then I saw the ball rolling away a few feet later. I was just glad I made that play, because it was over after that.” — Sterling Moore on his game-saving PBU
“It’s a kick I’ve kicked probably a thousand times in my career.” — Billy Cundiff
“Look out! Look out! It’s no good! It’s no good!” — CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz as Cundiff’s field goal sailed wide left
Edelman was a true two-way player in this game. He played 27 snaps on offense, 25 on defense and several more on special teams. … The receiver Brady was trying to hit on his fourth-quarter interception? Matthew Slater, who still has just one reception in his NFL career. … Chad Ochocinco was a healthy scratch for New England. … The postgame scene included Gronkowski’s legendary “Yo Soy Fiesta” interview.
The Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XLVI, only to suffer another loss at the hands of the New York Giants. The ankle injury Gronkowski sustained in this game (thanks to longtime Patriots nemesis Bernard Pollard) clearly limited the superstar tight end against New York, as he tallied just two catches on three targets for 23 yards. It would be another three seasons before New England ended its decade-long championship drought.
The Ravens would get their revenge one year later, dispatching the Patriots 28-13 to win the 2012 AFC Championship without the need for any late-game drama.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images