By Larry Fine
FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts (Reuters) - The Baltimore Ravens won their AFC title rematch against the New England Patriots, using a commanding second-half display to pull away for a 28-13 triumph on Sunday that booked a Super Bowl showdown against the San Francisco 49ers.
Baltimore outscored the Pats 21-0 after halftime as coach John Harbaugh gave Joe Flacco the green light to throw more against a depleted Patriots' secondary to complement the hard running by Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
"We kind of made a decision on the second half to cut it loose a little bit more," Harbaugh said. "We were running the ball with some effectiveness, but they were doing a good job on defense.
"Their front seven is as good as any in football and we had to get away from that. We had to get away from challenging them and give Joe a chance to make some plays."
Flacco, who threw for 81 yards on 6-of-12 passing in the first half, finished the game completing 21-of-36 for 240 yards and three second-half touchdowns, two to Anquan Boldin.
Along with some big stops by the Baltimore defense that halted New England drives into their territory, that added up to sweet revenge for last year's 23-20 loss to New England in the corresponding game in what was the first repeat clash between the same teams in successive AFC championships for 25 years.
Baltimore's victory also set up the first Super Bowl meeting between sibling head coaches. John Harbaugh's Ravens will face Jim Harbaugh's NFC champion 49ers, who rallied for a 28-24 road win over the Atlanta Falcons.
"I'd like to think our two teams are very similar," said John Harbaugh, at 50 the older brother by 15 months, after turning the February 3 title game in New Orleans into a family affair.
"I'd like to think when you look at the two teams you're looking at mirror images of two football teams," he said. "It's going to be a great football game."
The Ravens trailed 13-7 at halftime but punctured the Patriots' aura of invincibility and took the lead with an 87-yard drive capped by a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta in the third quarter after forcing New England to punt when their drive stalled at the Baltimore 34.
An apparent first down for the Patriots was nullified by a holding penalty that led to another New England punt, and the Ravens marched on a long drive that culminated in a three-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Boldin on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 21-13 Baltimore lead.
"I said to our players last year, don't put your heads down, we'll be back," said Ray Lewis, a 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker who is retiring after the Super Bowl.
The killer blow came on New England's ensuing possession when Stevan Ridley fumbled after a hit by safety Bernard Pollard and defensive end Arthur Jones recovered the ball on the Patriots' 47-yard line.
Four plays later, Boldin had another TD catch from 11 yards out to make it 28-13 and send the Ravens back to the Super Bowl for the first time since their sole triumph in 2001.
New England coach Bill Belichick said the Ravens thoroughly outplayed his team.
"I don't think anything was really as good as it needed to be tonight," he said. "(We) gave up too many points, didn't score enough. I'd say we probably came up a little short in every area."
Flacco finally tasted victory in the championship game after two previous losses with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
"I think it's pretty sweet having won one of these AFC championships," said Flacco, who showed his grit by notching a sixth playoff win away from home in his five-year NFL career, breaking his tie with Giants quarterback Eli Manning at the top of that postseason list.
"I think this is a special team," he said. "These are tough games to win, but we played well as a team today and that's what we're going to need to do in a couple of weeks (at the Super Bowl)."
(Editing by John O'Brien)