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Ravens aren't heading to the Super Bowl, but don't blame Flacco

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Don't blame Baltimore's Joe Flacco. He didn't lose the AFC Championship Game. Billy Cundiff did. Or maybe it was Lee Evans. Take your pick.

All I know is that Flacco did not.

I know, he threw a costly interception that killed one fourth-quarter scoring drive. He underthrew a wide-open Torrey Smith, too, costing the Ravens a sure first-quarter touchdown.

But I measure quarterbacks by how they operate under pressure, and there was no more pressure on Flacco than on the Ravens' last drive ... and he responded by pushing them 65 yards in under two minutes to put them in perfect position to tie or win the ballgame.

Only they didn't, and don't ask Flacco why. Ask Evans or Cundiff.

"I think Joe played a great game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the 23-20 loss. "Obviously, he played well enough to win this game.

"I've said it many times: I think his best football is in front of him. He's our kind of guy. He's a tough, competitive guy, and he's a leader. And I just can't wait to see where this thing goes with him. We're proud to have him as our quarterback."

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They should be. Flacco outplayed New England's Tom Brady, the game's top quarterback, and delivered a performance that on another afternoon ... vs. another opponent ... would've been good enough to win. But that's where Evans and Cundiff come in, and let's start with Evans.

He's the guy who, on second-and-1 at the Patriots' 14 with 27 seconds left, dropped a perfectly-thrown Flacco pass in the right corner of the end zone. OK, so he didn't drop it as much as have the ball pulled loose by the Patriots' Sterling Moore. All I know is that it was a pass -- a catch -- Evans must make.

The pass was there. The catch was made. The ball should have been secured ... and it wasn't.

"Hey stuff like that happens," said Flacco.

Maybe. Only it shouldn't happen in a game of this magnitude at that time.

The play was so close that Flacco immediately threw his arms in the air and starting running toward the end zone, thinking he'd done what he accomplished in Pittsburgh two months earlier -- namely, pull out a last-minute victory with a perfect throw to the end zone.

Only in Pittsburgh, Torrey Smith held on to the ball; in New England, Lee Evans did not. Simple as that.

"I really don't know how to put it in words," said Evans. "It's hard to sit here and accept how or why things happened, but it's the reality. It was a great pass by Joe, and it was just a pass that was not completed by me. Nobody else can take the fall for that."

Now it's Cundiff we call to the witness stand, with the Ravens' kicker asked to answer for his failure to nail a 32-yard-field goal that ended the contest. It was a kick that, as Cundiff said, he's made "probably a thousand times in my career." But he hooked this one wide left, his first miss of a fourth-quarter field goal this season, as stunned teammates collapsed in disappointment on the field.

"I just didn't convert," said Cundiff. "That's just the way things go. There's really no excuse for it. The biggest disappointment is letting my teammates down."

Cundiff is right, of course. There was no excuse for missing. The guy made 11 of 13 tries this season on kicks from 30 to 39 yards, including a 39 yarder Sunday. But when he absolutely, positively had to come through, he choked. Pure and simple, he choked. The snap was fine. The hold was fine. The kick was not.

CBSSports.com Grades
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
A-
The Ravens played a near-perfect game until their final three possessions of the fourth quarter. Joe Flacco threw an interception, the Ravens failed to pick up a fourth down and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard FG wide left. For as great as they played the AFC's best team, Baltimore still came away with a loss.
By Jason Butt
RapidReports Correspondent
New England Patriots
New England Patriots
A
It wasn't pretty, but in the playoffs you're judged by if you win or lose. The Patriots won their fifth AFC title in 11 seasons, and that's all that counts. Tom Brady threw two interceptions but the Patriots ran it effectively with 96 yards and two touchdowns. The defense had a tough time stopping Ravens QB Joe Flacco (306 yards, two TDs) but made plays when it counted. DT Vince Wilfork was immense with six tackles, two for a loss and a sack.
By Greg Bedard
RapidReports Correspondent

Afterward, a disappointed Ray Lewis told reporters that "not one play won or lost this game," but he's wrong. Cundiff's kick lost it. So did Evans' failure to complete a catch. Joe Flacco did not, and maybe it's time we call a truce with the guy.

Granted, he didn't close what should've been a game-saving drive, but he had the Ravens in position to keep playing by completing five of his first seven passes on the series -- including a 29-yarder to Anquan Boldin that put Baltimore in business at the New England 23.

"Do you think this will change the national perception of you?" he was asked.

"I don't care," he said. "Look at the film. You look at the film, you see how I play. I pretty much play the same week. If you think I played better this week than other weeks, I think you're wrong. This is the way I play every week. I really don't care ... and I don't know if I ever will ... to prove anything. It's not really up to me. My job is to go out there and play and give our team the best shot to win."

But that's my point. He did. He had them at the 14-yard line, for crying out loud, with 15 seconds left. Cundiff would make the kick, and the Ravens would go into overtime ... and maybe, just maybe, Flacco would outlast Brady there, too, so he could tell his critics to shove it.

Only it didn't happen, and I know a lot of people who should feel responsible ... but Flacco isn't one of them.

"You all saw what he did," said linebacker Terrell Suggs. "We knew he was an outstanding player from 'jump.' One thing [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] is good at is bringing the right players in here. He silenced his critics, but he's got to realize they're going to back next year."

I don't doubt that. But for one day, at least, they're gone. As I said, Flacco played well enough to win. He had one interception where Brady threw for two. He threw for 306 yards, where Brady threw for 239. He converted nearly half of his third downs. And he produced Baltimore's longest run, a 14-yard dash that led to a field goal.

If there's a complaint, it's that when he had to produce a fourth-quarter score ... he did not. The Ravens had three fourth-quarter possessions, and while they produced yards and first downs, they did not produce a point.

Advantage: Brady.

"I don't have to back Joe right now," said Lewis. "His play speaks for itself. Joe did exactly what he came to do. He played a heck of a game in a championship football game. Joe Flacco came in here today and proved again that he is the quarterback to put us in position to go to the Super Bowl. There's nothing left for him to prove."

I don't know that I'd go that far. He must, after all, win a conference championship game to reach a Super Bowl, and he's 0-2 in that department. To move to the next level -- to be considered something more than an ordinary Joe -- Flacco must win games like this.

But last time I checked, football was a team game requiring more than one individual to make the right plays at the right time. And that didn't happen for Baltimore.

"If we played a little bit better or made a play or two," said Harbaugh, "we would've won the ballgame."

Precisely.

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