Top 20 Games of 2011


Game 4: Ravens at Patriots AFC Championship


Two plays don’t define a game.

But don’t tell that to anyone who watched the 2011 AFC Championship.

According to the masses, two bad plays deep-sixed the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl hopes: a “drop” and a missed field goal. The first came courtesy of wide receiver Lee Evans, while Billy Cundiff botched the potential game-tying kick with seconds to go in regulation.

Funny thing, perception is. Because there were two other Ravens plays -- one of which seemed positive in real time -- that had just as much effect on the outcome of the game, yet were barely mentioned in postgame stories and highlights, or by angry fans who wanted nothing more than to see the Ravens win (or the New England Patriots lose).

Neither of these plays involved Evans or Cundiff. The same can’t be said for Joe Flacco. Although the oft-maligned Flacco had a solid afternoon overall in the biggest game of his career, the Ravens quarterback botched two big throws. Both passes should’ve ended up in Torrey Smith’s hands. One did. Both should’ve gone for touchdowns. Neither did. They were more than relevant, as the two misfires represented an 11-point swing in deciding who was going to Super Bowl XLVI.

The first mistake came early. With the Patriots up 3-0 in the first quarter, the Ravens had a first-and-10 from their own 30 and were trying to get something going after their first three possessions resulted in punts. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called for a bootleg off a fake to Ray Rice running left. It was set up perfectly. Pretty much everyone on the Patriots defense bit on the run fake and Torrey Smith blew past Devin McCourty, who was expecting safety help on the right side. There was none.

Flacco had Smith wide open 40 yards downfield, but instead of setting his feet off the rollout and making an accurate throw, he decided to heave the ball on the run. Not good. The pass was woefully underthrown. Smith, who was so open he could’ve caught the ball, pulled a sharpie out of his sock to sign it and moonwalked into the end zone, instead had to come back to the ball and make a sliding catch at the 30. The play went for 42 yards, but in reality, should have been a touchdown.

That’s cool -- the Ravens could still drive it in from there, right? Uhh, no. Baltimore would settle for a Cundiff field goal. So, it was Ravens 3, Patriots 3 when it easily could’ve been 7-3. There’s four points gone for a Baltimore team that would ultimately lose 23-20.

Trailing 13-10 in the second quarter, the Ravens were around their own 30 -- again -- when Flacco’s accuracy issues surfaced ... again. The quarterback felt pressure from his left side and managed to step up just enough to get a good look at Smith, who was WIDE open down the right side. McCourty and safety Patrick Chung had some miscommunication on the play -- a disease that afflicted pretty much every secondary in 2011 -- allowing Smith to cruise easy-breezy right by them.

Seeing his receiver running free, all Flacco had to do was put some air under the ball. Give your receiver some room to adjust to the ball. Flacco didn’t, missing Smith altogether. Baltimore would punt.

There’s seven more points John Harbaugh’s group missed out on. And once again, the Ravens lost the game by three.

The highlight package of one of the better AFC title games since the merger of 1970 is at the top of this page. Watch it. You’ll see a lot of mistakes:  Tom Brady’s two picks, Danny Woodhead’s fumble on a kick return late in the third, Harbaugh’s decision to go for a fourth-and-6 on the Ravens’ penultimate drive of the game.

Here’s the point: There are flubs in every game, and to pinpoint Baltimore’s loss on Evans and Cundiff is irresponsible. Ditto Flacco. The 2011 AFC Championship Game came down to a multitude of snaps, bad and good.

Brady, despite not playing his best game, made some big throws when he had to, like early in the fourth when he hit Wes Welker for eight yards on third-and-7 to continue a drive that culminated in the go-ahead New England touchdown. Down 23-20, Flacco answered by driving his team 65 yards in 1:29 to set up Cundiff’s potential game-tying kick.

It didn’t happen. Don’t blame Flacco. Don’t blame Cundiff, either. The outcome was on both teams, and many players, despite what everyone says. And a beautiful game it was, enough to make the final four in our Top 20 Games of 2011.

Play of the game: There were several key factors in the Evans drop, the most important of which was not Evans just flat dropping the ball. It was a strip. Patriots corner Sterling Moore made a brilliant play, knowing he was beat and making a last-ditch swipe at the ball. It was a bang-bang play, with Evans having just a split second to clamp the ball and tuck it away.

Bear in mind that Evans barely played in 2011, suffering a knee injury in preseason that kept him out of the lineup. He was active for nine games, posting only four catches the entire season. Playing wide receiver is just like playing the guitar -- you might not forget how to strum it, but the longer you’re away, the easier it is to make mistakes. Evans’ mistake happened in the blink of an eye. Watch the play again in real-time, as opposed to the slow-mo clip that we all saw ad nauseum in the highlights. The incompletion will seem less a drop by Evans and more a superb play by Moore.

(Boneheaded) Play of the game: Is there any other way to label Cundiff’s miss? In 2011, NFL kickers were lethal from less than 40 yards out, successfully converting 86.9 percent of their attempts. Cundiff himself has been effective from that range, hitting on 39 of 51 kicks (76.5 percent) from under 40 in his career. So to have a botched attempt in this situation, with a possible trip to the Super Bowl on the line, is pretty unfortunate.

Second half -- from a different view: There’s little debate that the second half of this game was pretty much, well, crazy. This was probably the best AFC Championship Game since the John Elway-led Broncos beat the Steelers in the 1997 conference final (with apologies to the 2006 game between the Patriots and Colts). The sounds from this game give it a different feel, and were featured in this Sound FX.

Best player on the field: Anquan Boldin flew under the radar in this game. Of all the talented running backs and receivers on the field -- Rice, Smith, Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez -- he was the only one to have a 100-yard day (six catches for 101 yards). Three of his six grabs went for first downs, including a 37-yard catch-and-run (complete with a sweet spin move) that set up the Ravens’ first touchdown.

Why this game is No. 4: Honestly, as high a rank as Ravens-Patriots received on this list, you can make the case it should be higher. The AFC Championship Game was a wildly entertaining affair. It was the like the football version of Raiders of the Lost Ark -- it had drama, action, humor, a love story and a touch of the supernatural. Our No. 4 game of 2011 featured plenty of offense, big coaching decisions and clutch defensive plays. And of course, special teams played a big role.

Why not Higher?: It’s tough to make a case against this instant classic. Still, with Evans’ “drop” and Cundiff’s miss from 32 yards, this game will always be recalled for mistakes, as opposed to the high level of play from the premium teams involved.

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