By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper

There was so much emphasis put on Ray Lewis’ retirement tour that I forgot Joe Flacco was also entering every playoff game with the possibility that it was his last as a Baltimore Raven. The chances of Baltimore letting him go are becoming increasingly slim, however. On Sunday night, Flacco had his finest hour and the Ravens beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England to advance to the Super Bowl.

Some will say the Patriots lost the game. Given the fact they were heavy favorites and playing at home, that’s a fair assessment, but it also doesn’t give the Ravens enough credit. The offense exploded in the third quarter and the defense shut down Tom Brady and New England’s prolific offense. 

At the end of the day, the Ravens proved to be the better team, just as they did last year. Only this time they were able to advance. 

Here are a few thoughts from tonight’s action. 


1. Joe Flacco grew up today. 

The thing that was supposed to be so scary about the Patriots is that their defense had steadily improved over the year and the unit was primed to contribute to a championship effort. Then the Patriots lost Aquib Talib and the secondary began to crumble. 

Flacco’s rating of 106.2 was impressive enough, but it his performance in a three-drive stretch from the midway point in the third quarter to early in the fourth was simply legendary. In this span, Flacco completed 14 of 18 passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns. He also added a 14-yard run for good measure. The stretch lasted just over 12 minutes of game time and it turned a 13-7 deficit into a 28-13 lead, which was never relinquished. 

Speaking of giving up leads..

2. The Ravens are the first team to come back in the second half against Tom Brady on the road. 

The Patriots were leading 13-7 at the half when CBS showed this graphic: Tom Brady is 67-0 in his career at home when leading at the half. That’s about as deflating a stat a team can see. But Baltimore showed remarkable resiliency. Everyone on the team adjusted at halftime and the offense came to life. The defense made opportunistic plays that allowed Baltimore to score 21 points in a short amount of time, thus putting the game to bed.

Tom Brady’s career isn’t over and the Patriots will be one of the heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl next year, but it seems like every year his force field that blocks criticism is slowly cracking. The Ravens put a minor dent into the Patriot fortress last year, but this season they broke it open.

3. Ray Lewis gets a chance to go out on top 

At halftime, it looked like Ray Lewis was not going to end his career on a high note. The legendary linebacker looked old and out of place for most of the first 30 minutes. But as Baltimore turned things around, so did Lewis.

He ended up leading the team in tackles for the third time in as many playoff games. His 14 total tackles give him 44 for the postseason, which is more than he had in 2000 when he led the Ravens to a championship and was named Super Bowl MVP. If Lewis ultimately leads Baltimore to another championship and he rides off into the sunset on top, this may end up being one of the more impressive postseasons put together by any individual player. 

4. The Bernard Pollard curse struck again.

It doesn’t matter what team he plays for. If he’s on the field with the New England Patriots, he’s going to find and take out someone. It began in 2008 when he brought Brady to his knees (and subsequently blew one of those knees out.) The Patriots missed the playoffs without their star quarterback. In 2009, as a member of the Houston Texans, he took out Wes Welker in the final game of the regular season. The Patriots lost their first playoff game. In 2011, Pollard and the Ravens lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, but he injured Rob Gronkowski so bad that the tight end was ineffective in the Super Bowl and the Patriots lost.

Then came Sunday night. In the middle of Baltimore’s 21-0 run, Stevan Ridley got popped by Pollard, knocking him out of the game and causing him to fumble in the process. Baltimore recovered and went in for the final score of the game. It seems that no matter what the scenario is, no Patriots fan wants to see Pollard on the other side of the ball. 

5. Early Super Bowl thoughts

Are you ready for the Harbowl? The national media sure is. Remember when these two teams played on Thanksgiving night in 2011 and ESPN - along with a slew of other national pundits - covered the game from about 80 different angles? Well, take that concept and multiply it by roughly 10,000 over these next two weeks. 

As most of the media struggles to decide whether Ray Lewis’ impending retirement is more important than the Harbaugh battle or not, I’d like to take this time to look at the X’s and O’s. I’ll spend much more time covering this game as time goes on, but my early impression is that the 49ers are the better team. Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense is incredibly fast and their defense is relentless. 

Ultimately, it will come down to who makes the most plays from the quarterback position. If Kaepernick can’t be stopped, there’s no way Baltimore will keep up. But if the Raven defense finds a way to confuse the kid, Flacco’s postseason experience shouldn’t allow him to be rattled.

A prediction will come as we get closer to game time.