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Patriots’ defense bails out Tom Brady to win AFC title

Tom Brady threw two interceptions had 57.5 passer rating Sunday. | Elsa~Getty Images

Tom Brady threw two interceptions and had a 57.5 passer rating Sunday. | Elsa~Getty Images

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Updated: February 25, 2012 8:12AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In their four previous games, the New England Patriots averaged 40 points, and Tom Brady had 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.

What their defense did was irrelevant.

But on Sunday, the Patriots overcame a poor performance by their franchise quarterback, and their maligned defense — ranked second-to-last in the NFL during the regular season — stepped up just enough to edge the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship Game.

“It was very evident that we didn’t hold up our end of the stick on the offense,” Patriots receiver Deion Branch said. “I know Coach doesn’t like us to say a whole lot of stuff. But I think the world needs to understand that we got a great defense, and it showed today.”

And that’s why the Patriots can’t be overlooked to win their fourth Super Bowl in the Bill Belichick Era.

But these Patriots are a badly flawed team. Don’t let the 13-3 record fool you.

The AFC East had a down year, and the Pats were 0-2 against opponents with a winning record.

After their bye, the Patriots lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) and the New York Giants (9-7) before stringing together eight consecutive victories to close out the regular season. Their most notable opponents, though, were two 8-8 teams, the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos.

Brady was brilliant during that winning streak, and he entered Sunday coming off a six-touchdown game against the Broncos.

But Brady struggled against the Ravens’ third-ranked defense, which flooded the secondary.

He was outplayed by Joe Flacco, a solid quarterback lacking notable credentials.

Both quarterbacks completed 22 of 36 passes, but in different ways.

Flacco finished with 306 passing yards with two touchdown passes and one interception for a passer rating of 95.4. Brady, meanwhile, had 239 yards with no touchdown passes and two interceptions for a 57.5 rating.

In the first quarter, Brady’s accuracy was off. He overthrew his receivers at least three times and missed a wide-open Rob Gronkowski for a sure touchdown. With three minutes left in the quarter, he missed short on a pass to receiver Julian Edelman, and Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb intercepted it.

In the fourth quarter after Brandon Spikes capitalized on Flacco’s lone blemish with a pick, Brady handed the ball right back with a forced pass into the end zone for receiver Matthew Slater.

He was spared two other interceptions because of Ravens penalties, although the latter was a free play after Terrell Suggs jumped offside in the third quarter.

So, surely, after Flacco’s fourth-down pass was off-target because defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was in his face, Brady was going to run out the last 1:53 seconds? Except his third-and-four pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez wasn’t close to being completed.

And the Ravens’ Flacco-led offense set up a 32-yard field goal, but Billy Cundiff pushed it wide left.

Asked about his play, Brady said, “Well, I sucked pretty bad today.

“But our defense saved us. I’m going to try and go out and do a better job in a couple of weeks.”

Given his track record, Brady probably will.

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