Brady gets helps from defense, Cundiff

Imagine this: The New England Patriots make yet another Super Bowl, and Tom Brady is not the main reason.

By his own assessment, Brady wasn't very good in the Patriots' 23-20 AFC championship game victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Vintage Brady doesn't need much assistance in such settings, but he got plenty of it from the Patriots' much-maligned defense, and from Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff shanking a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.

Oh, yeah, Brady's 1-yard touchdown dive in which he soared over the Ravens' touted defensive line, provided the winning points with 11:29 remaining.

"In some ways, you always beat yourself up," Brady said after throwing for 239 yards, with two interceptions and, for the first time in 36 games, no TD passes. "I've been doing this for quite a while. I'm glad we won, I'm glad we're moving on. Hopefully I can go out there and do better in a few weeks."

That would be on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis in a rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl — Brady and coach Bill Belichick's only loss in the big game after three wins: a 17-14 shocker at the hands of the New York Giants when the Patriots were going for a perfect season. New England opened as a 3-point favorite against New York (12-7), which won at San Francisco 20-17 in overtime.

The Patriots probably wouldn't have won their 10th straight game overall — the last loss was to the Giants in Foxborough — if not for their defense's newfound stinginess. New England (15-3) ranked 31st in defense this season, but played just as well as Baltimore's highly rated unit for most of Sunday.

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 most critical play came from backup cornerback Sterling Moore, who stripped Lee Evans of the ball on what could have been a winning TD catch in the dying moments. Cundiff, an All-Pro kicker in 2010, then botched his kick.

"Child-like joy. It's all about child-like joy," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Last night felt like the day before Christmas for me and I haven't had that feeling in a long time. At this level, the day before Christmas is like a regular day. But now I just feel like I got my present."

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 (13-5) looked on in stunned horror.

Cundiff had no excuse.

"It's a kick I've kicked probably a thousand times in my career. I went out there and didn't convert. That's the way things go," Cundiff said.

"I just told him that it's going to be OK," added John Harbaugh, who in each of his four seasons as Ravens coach has led them to the playoffs, but never to the Super Bowl. "You know, we'll move on. He is a great kicker. You know, and everyone has a tough moment. All of us do, so Billy will be fine."

Baltimore appeared to be in fine shape after Flacco threw his second touchdown pass of the day.

Operating against a porous secondary missing its top cornerback, Kyle Arrington, who left in the second quarter with an eye injury, Flacco gave Baltimore its first lead. His short pass on third down to explosive receiver Torrey Smith turned into a 29-yard scamper down the right sideline after Moore completely whiffed on the tackle.

Danny Woodhead's fumble on the ensuing kickoff set up Baltimore at the Patriots 28, but a third-down sack forced Cundiff to kick a 39-yard field goal, making it 20-16.

Brady brought his team right back. He took the Patriots 63 yards in 11 plays, and seemed to score on a 1-yard run. The call was overruled by replay, though, and on fourth-down, he dived just high enough over the line for the winning points.

"Every inch counts in this game and every foot counts in this game," said 12-year veteran guard Brian Waters, who joined the Patriots this year and is headed to his first Super Bowl.

On his touchdown, Brady took a huge hit from Ravens star 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."

Stephen Gostkowski's 28-yard field goal gave New England a 3-0 lead. Cundiff tied it with a 20-yarder, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran in from the 7 for a 10-3 lead after he drew a personal foul against Lardarius Webb, who ripped off the running back's helmet on a short rush. Green-Ellis pointed to the patch on his jersey honoring Myra Kraft, the late wife of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, after he scored.

In the locker room afterward, Kraft said he wasn't aware of Green-Ellis' gesture.

"They're an amazing team, they're a great brotherhood, they're a family," Kraft said.

Baltimore tied it on Flacco's 6-yard TD pass to Dennis Pitta before Gostkowski's 35-yard field goal made it 13-10. He also hit from 24 yards in the third quarter.

In the end, it came down to the Patriots making just enough big plays, and Cundiff's miss.

"It's definitely tough to be as close as we were to going to Indianapolis and not having it go our way," Flacco said.

Instead, it went New England's way.

"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."

Notes: Brady won his 16th career postseason game to tie Joe Montana for most in NFL history. ... New England's seventh Super Bowl appearance puts it one behind Pittsburgh and Dallas. ... The Patriots are 7-1 in AFC title games, 4-0 at home. ... Brady and Belichick are the first QB-coach combination to win five conference championships in the Super Bowl era. ... Baltimore was 7-0 against playoff teams this season before Sunday's loss. ... The Ravens finished 4-5 on the road. ... In three career games against the Patriots, Rice averaged 145.7 yards, nearly double what he managed Sunday.