Tom Brady got all the help he needed to get the New England Patriots into the Super Bowl.
Thank you, Billy Cundiff.
The Baltimore Ravens kicker shanked a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left and the Patriots escaped with a 23-20 victory in the AFC championship game on Sunday.
Usually, vintage Brady doesn’t need much assistance in championship settings, but the Patriots (15-3) much-maligned defense came through, and Brady’s 1-yard touchdown dive with 11:29 left proved to be the winning points.
“Well, I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us,” Brady said after throwing for 239 yards, with two interceptions and, for the first time in 36 games, no TD passes. “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.”
Brady waited out the final tense minutes on the sideline, and then celebrated with the rest of his team when Cundiff’s attempt went wide left. The Ravens looked on in stunned horror.
Cundiff had no excuse.
“It’s a kick I’ve kicked probably a thousand times in my career,” Cundiff said. “I went out there and didn’t convert. That’s the way things go.”
In their last trip to the big game, the Patriots had an 18-0 record when they were stunned by the Giants four years ago. They won the NFL championship for the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons. This time, they head to the Super Bowl with a 10-game winning streak.
Before Cundiff missed, the Ravens had a chance to go ahead two plays earlier, but wide receiver Lee Evans was stripped of the ball in the end zone by backup cornerback Sterling Moore, who earlier was victimized for a touchdown that gave Baltimore (13-5) the lead 17-16.
On his touchdown, Brady took a huge hit from Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, then emphatically spiked the ball as he walked away. Earlier, Brady showed his fire by barking at Lewis following a hard tackle on a 4-yard run.
“It’s a pretty mentally tough team,” said Brady, whose fifth trip to the Super Bowl will equal John Elway’s achievement with Denver. “There’s really some resiliency. We’ve shown that all season. Even in the games we’ve lost, the three games we lost, we fought until the end. We’re always going to fight to the end. It’s great to be a part of a team like this.”
Baltimore had the touted defense in this matchup, but New England’s unit, ranked 31st overall, was just as powerful.
“We stepped up,” Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “We all stepped up big time. Being in this situation is a great moment. You have to cherish this moment.”
The Patriots shut down Ray Rice, the league’s total yardage leader, who was limited to 78 yards. Brandon Spikes made a fourth-quarter interception of Joe Flacco, who played well before that and threw for two touchdowns. And when the Ravens were threatening to score a late touchdown to win their first conference title in 11 years, New England clamped down.
“It’s two great football teams, two gladiators, I guess, just kind of going at each other at the end,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You know, we’ve got 53 guys, mighty men, as we like to call them — and they fought, and we came up a little bit short, as 53.”
With Rice a nonfactor, Baltimore had to rely on Flacco, and he delivered one of his best performances, 22 of 36 for 306 yards and two touchdowns.