Joe Flacco's big payday is coming after how he picked apart the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl.
The Baltimore Ravens have made their postseason names in the second halves of games this year, and their performance in the AFC championship game was no exception. Down 13-7 at halftime, the Ravens rallied in the second half to overcome the New England Patriots, 28-13, to reach their first Super Bowl in the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era.
While the focus appeared all week to be on the Ravens defense, who were tasked with stopping the Patriots' quick-moving offense, the real star of Sunday's game was the Ravens passing game, led by Flacco—though by the looks of things in the first half, that didn't seem like it was in the cards.
In the first 30 minutes, the Ravens looked much as they did in their two previous games. They were beaten out by the Patriots in third-down conversions, with 1-of-5 for Baltimore to 4-of-9 for New England, as well as in yards (130 to 214) and time of possession (11:48 to 18:12).
Their run-heavy approach yielded them a Ray Rice touchdown, but with the deeper end of the field cut off by good Patriots coverage as well as high winds, Flacco only completed six of his 12 pass attempts for 81 yards. Torrey Smith was the only Ravens wide receiver to catch a pass in the first 30 minutes (the rest were pulled down by fullbacks, running backs and tight ends) despite both Aqib Talib and Patrick Chung leaving the game with injuries.
Special teams also didn't work out in the Ravens' favor in the first half. All of their drives began within their own 15-yard line while the Patriots started work close to the Baltimore side of the field each time. To the Ravens defense's credit, however, the Patriots' repeated red-zone appearances yielded just one touchdown and two field goals.
The second half, however, saw the Ravens make a series of adjustments that ultimately tipped the scales heavily in their favor.
From the defense playing with more physicality, allowing the Patriots no additional points and forcing three turnovers (a Pernell McPhee tipped pass picked off by Dannell Ellerbe, a forced fumble on Patriots running back Stevan Ridley that ended Ridley's day and a late-game pick of Brady by Cary Williams that killed the Patriots' chances for a miracle comeback), to the offensive attack being led by Flacco's passing, everything fell into a perfect rhythm for Baltimore.
Though the run game ultimately didn't slow—the Ravens had 33 total rushes in the game, with 19 of those in the second half—it was Flacco's passing prowess that gave Baltimore 21 second-half points.
All three touchdowns in that span came from Flacco's arm—a third-quarter score to tight end Dennis Pitta and two fourth-quarter scores by Anquan Boldin—with Flacco throwing 24 times in the half for 169 of his 240 total yards. Flacco's third quarter, in particular, was his best of the game, with 11 of his total 15 second-half completions and 123 of his 169 second-half yards coming in that time.
Throughout the playoffs, it's been clear that the Ravens offense belongs to Flacco. Rice, though a premier running back, has taken a back seat to the fifth-year quarterback. Once able to open up the passing game, Flacco was nearly immaculate. He targeted a total of nine receivers in the game, with seven recording catches; Smith's four catches for 69 yards lead the way.
Boldin was again a second-half wonder. Targeted just twice in the first half, with no catches, he ended his day with five catches on eight targets for 60 yards and two crucial scores. Pitta, too, showed up in the second half, with four of his five catches coming in the final two quarters, as well as his touchdown.
The Ravens succeeded in lulling the Patriots defense into a false sense of security, making them believe that every first down would be a run play and that every pass would be a conservative filler between more runs. The Ravens masterfully picked apart the Patriots defense, taking a page out of New England's book and using it against them.
Generating turnovers was also a major advantage for the Ravens. Though the Patriots had one of the best turnover margins in the league in the regular season, they turned the ball over three times in the second half of Sunday's game, with one resulting in a Ravens touchdown. Conversely, the Ravens didn't turn the ball over, and Flacco has now thrown eight postseason touchdowns to zero interceptions.
Simply put, the Ravens have played their best football of the year in the postseason. Their defense has been sharp, especially when it comes to the red zone, while Flacco has outplayed three of the better quarterbacks in the league in his team's path to the Super Bowl. The postseason is about playing physical defense, winning the turnover battle and displaying not just offensive skill but also balance.
The Ravens, especially against the Patriots, demonstrated these three tenets perfectly, and the end result was the desired one—a trip to the Super Bowl, the one thing that has eluded the Ravens in the five years Flacco has been their quarterback and John Harbaugh their head coach.