Rapid Reaction: Patriots 23, Ravens 20

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are some early thoughts on the New England Patriots' 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

What it means: The Patriots advance to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis for the first time since the end of the 2007 season. This also is the fifthSuper Bowl appearance under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. The pair are 3-1 in the first four Super Bowls. New England won its NFL-high 10 games in a row and, including playoffs, and improved to 9-1 at Gillette Stadium.

Defense answers call: New England's much-maligned defense stepped up when it mattered most. The Patriots got an interception and a turnover on downs in two fourth-quarter drives that sealed the game. The Patriots also got a lot of luck with Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the game. New England was ranked 31st in total defense but has stepped up in the playoffs to help lead the team to the Super Bowl.

Not sharp: Running back Danny Woodhead's fumble on a third-quarter kickoff return was big and cost New England three points. But the Patriots overall were not sharp and blew some opportunities. Brady missed several throws he usually makes, and the defense had some miscommunications. New England also made a questionable call with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Up three, the Patriots tried to take a shot and throw it deep. It was picked off by Baltimore corner Jimmy Smith. Fortunately, the Patriots survived through sloppy play.

Law Firm shines: New England's running game has gone with the hot hand all season. This time it happened to be tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He set the tone with a great first half and finished with 68 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Green-Ellis was the kind of punishing rusher who played well against Baltimore's stout defense.

Red zone woes: New England rarely struggled in the red zone this season. But Baltimore did a great job defensively of forcing field goals instead of touchdowns. The Patriots had three field goals and one touchdown in their first four trips to the red zone. That kept the score close throughout the game.

What’s next: The Patriots have two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl. They will face the winner of the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. Both will be tough matchups. New England will spend a week in Foxborough before taking their show on the road for Super Bowl week in Indianapolis.