People laughed last season when Joe Flacco said he was one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the NFL. A year later, he got his revenge against the New England Patriots, outplaying (once again) Tom Brady and leading the Baltimore Ravens, finally to their second Super Bowl appearance.

Maybe it’s his own personal growth, but maybe the Ravens finally understood that there is more to Joe Flacco’s big arm than just playing conservative and hoping Ray Rice pulls them out of rough situations. After averaging 27.4 passing attempts in his previous playoff games, Flacco is averaging 31 in the 2012 version. After averaging 170.2 yards per game, he has 284.3 in the wins against the Colts, Broncos and Patriots, without throwing a single interception to his 8 touchdown passes.

Once again, there was much more to the Ravens winning against the Patriots in money time: Fantastic protection, not allowing the Patriots a single sack, while Tom Brady took some big hits from Rob Ninkovich, finishing with a couple of sacks. Brady was rushed outside the pocket more than once, and looked like a fish out of the water every time his protection collapsed.

Brady was 67-0 at home when leading at halftime, but the Ravens shut down the Patriots in the second half, forcing three turnovers (including two Tom Brady interceptions), a turnover on downs and two more punts. None of the Patriots were too talkative after the loss, as Brady had only this to offer: We’ve lost before. It takes a while to get over.

The Ravens’ running game worked well against one of the best rushing stuffers in the NFL: Ray Rice got his touches (22 on the day, 48 rushing yards and 22 receiving), but Bernard Pierce was the real surprise with 51 yards on 9 carries. The Ravens had a total of 121 yards on 33 carries.

Tom Brady did finish with 320 yards and a touchdown, but also threw two interceptions, completed only 53.7% of his passes while putting up a passer rating of 62.3. Once again, as it has happened to them all season, the Patriots found it very difficult to win tight games, even though they dropped their lead in the third quarter, not in the fourth.

It was pretty awesome. We were here last year and thought we had it, but came up a little short. Guys came out in the second half and made plays. We put pressure on them like that, and it worked pretty well.

Pressure made the Ravens play better. Ray Lewis, on his retirement run, simply raised the level of intensity on defense. The Ravens didn’t blitz as often, but closed down the passing lanes as Brady’s passing attempts became more and more predictable, focusing mostly on three targets: Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd. The Ravens enjoyed a much more efficient day from Flacco.

He completed 21-36, throwing three touchdown passes, all in the second half: Once in the third quarter, capping off an 87 yard drive with a touchdown pass to Dexter Pitta, beginning a series of three consecutive drives resulting in touchdown. In the fourth quarter, he found Anquan Boldin in the end zone twice, enjoying a short field to work in on those two.

Maybe it was all about turning the ball over: The Patriots did it three times, the Ravens not even once, recovering Vonta Leach’s fumble. When it was time to come up with big plays and not make mistakes, the Ravens and Joe Flacco stepped up, finally getting over the Championship game hump.

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