It wasn't supposed to be like this. On one side, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, in the form of Tom Brady. On the other, a quarterback who, while usually good and occasionally mediocre, is almost never able to win a big game, in the form of Joe Flacco. Even last year's AFC Championship game, in which Flacco outperformed Brady, ended with the Pats going to the Super Bowl.
But something happened between last year and this year. That something is that Joe Flacco finally made the leap. He finally went from having people question if he should be called "elite," and silenced any further doubt. A week ago, he went into Denver and beat Peyton Manning on Manning's home field. This week, he did the same to Brady in Foxboro, leading his Ravens to a 28-13 win over the Patriots.
The Patriots never seemed able to find their groove after the initial coin toss, in which the Ravens won and elected to defer. That's the way the Patriots usually play it, so they start the second half with the ball. In the first half alone, they made three trips to the red zone and came away with 13 points, not 21. They also lost cornerback Aqib Talib to injury early on, leaving Kyle Arrington to cover Anquan Boldin for the rest of the game. Nothing against Arrington, but that's like going from a Cadillac to a Volkswagen, a generally good car that is known for occasionally breaking down.
At halftime, the Patriots had a 13-7 lead that no Patriots fan could have felt comfortable with. Unfortunately, the Ravens defense, despite having run over 170 plays in the previous two weeks, were on top of their game. They may not have been able to sack Brady, but they managed to deflect five passes, while forcing a fumble when Bernard Pollard literally knocked out Steven Ridley and getting two interceptions.
In addition, the Patriots punted from the 34 and 35 yard lines, rather than going for it on either drive. Meanwhile, the Ravens went on to have three scoring drives for touchdowns, giving them a 28-13 lead that wound up being the final score of the game.
So, no Super Bowl appearance for the Patriots against the 49ers. No sixth appearance by the Belichick-Brady super tandem. Instead, it's going to be the all-Harbaugh Super Bowl. It's going to be Ray Lewis' last game in the NFL and one last shot at Championship glory. And it's going to be one more year in which Brady gets older and closer to his last game, his final chance to win the biggest of big games.