Ravens win too, setting up the 'Harbaugh Bowl'

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Ravens win too, setting up the 'Harbaugh Bowl'

From Comcast SportsNetFOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- Oh, brother!John Harbaugh and his Baltimore Ravens set up a family reunion at the Super Bowl, shutting down the New England Patriots 28-13 Sunday in the AFC championship game.The Ravens reached their first Super Bowl in 12 years, thanks to three touchdown passes from Joe Flacco and a defense led by Ray Lewis that made Tom Brady look downright ordinary.Next up for Harbaugh and the Ravens is younger brother Jim and the San Francisco 49ers, who beat Atlanta 28-24 earlier in the day for the NFC title."I don't know if we had a dream this big," John Harbaugh said. "We had a few dreams, we had a few fights, we had a few arguments -- just like all brothers."They'll meet in two weeks in New Orleans -- what a place for a party to celebrate the first brother-vs.-brother coaching matchup in Super Bowl history.It also will be quite a last game for Lewis, the emotional linebacker who will retire after the matchup with the 49ers, who opened as a 5-point favorite."This is our time. This is our time," said Lewis, who made 14 tackles Sunday and has 44 in three postseason games after missing 10 weeks with a torn right triceps.Driven by Lewis' pending departure from the NFL, Baltimore's defense stepped up in the playoffs. Brady was 67-0 at home when leading at halftime, but this was no contest in the second half."We've lost before. It takes a while to get over," Brady said.It also was a first for the Patriots, who hadn't lost an AFC championship at home.After they had avenged last year's AFC title game loss at Gillette Stadium, many of the Ravens gathered on the field jumping, chest-bumping and whooping before several thousand fans wearing Ravens jerseys -- mostly Lewis' No. 52 -- who remained in the stands.As in the previous two playoff wins against Indianapolis and Denver, the Ravens (13-6) were brilliant offensively in spots. This might be 17-year-veteran Lewis' team, but it's also Flacco's, and the quarterback's six road wins are the most in playoff history."It was pretty awesome," said Flacco, who has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in the playoffs. "We were here last year and thought we had it, but came up a little short. Guys came out in the second half and made plays. ... We put pressure on them like that, and it worked pretty well."Flacco, whose contract ends after the Super Bowl, is the only quarterback to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. He was dynamic with his arm and precise with his decision making. Looking much more the championship passer than Brady did, his throws of 11 and 3 yards to Anquan Boldin and 5 to Dennis Pitta all were perfect.The touchdown by Pitta capped the Ravens' best drive of the game, covering 87 yards in 10 plays and made it 14-13. It started with a 15-yard defensive pass interference penalty, and it was an indication of things to come."We've always believed in Joe," Harbaugh said. "And for Joe to come out and to have this kind of a game and this kind of a stage three weeks in a row ..."New England (13-5) lost a home AFC title matchup for the first time in five games. The loss denied Brady and coach Bill Belichick a shot at their sixth Super Bowl. They've gone 3-2, losing their last two times in the big game.Instead, it's the AFC North champion Ravens heading to the Big Easy, seeking their second NFL championship. San Francisco has won five."All these men out there, there might just be only five of us up here, but every man out there sacrificed this year for each other," Lewis said during the trophy ceremony. "And man, we did it and we're on our way to the Super Bowl. That's awesome."The Ravens have gotten there the hard way, with no postseason bye. Then again, five of the last seven Super Bowl champions took that route.The Ravens also were pushed into a second overtime in frigid Denver last weekend before eliminating Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Broncos.And now they've cast aside the league's most successful franchise of the last dozen years."I'd probably say we came up a little short in every area," Belichick said.New England, which hasn't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season, had four injuries, the scariest when running back Stevan Ridley was knocked flat by Bernard Pollard in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble. Baltimore turned that into the final touchdown, on the only short scoring drive it had, 47 yards.The Ravens gained just 130 yards in the first half.Brady guided a 13-play drive to Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Neither defense yielded a big play, and punters Zoltan Mesko and Sam Koch were the busiest guys on the field.That changed when the teams switched sides for the second quarter. Baltimore again was pinned deep, at its 10, but Flacco led a 13-play drive. Ray Rice, whose 83-yard run on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage in their wild-card round victory here three years ago, ran left untouched for the TD.Awakened by Baltimore's march, the Patriots staged a long one of their own, 79 yards, aided by a 15-yard personal foul by Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Wes Welker picked up 24 yards on a short pass, then got free in the right corner of the end zone after a mix-up in the Ravens' secondary, making it 10-7.It was 13-7 by halftime as Gostkowski connected from 25 yards, with New England outsmarting Baltimore several times. Danny Woodhead ran for 7 yards on a direct snap on fourth-and-1 in the drive. Defensive end Paul Kruger, who's good at sacks, not much in coverage -- found himself downfield on Aaron Hernandez on what became a 17-yard reception.But Brady made a mental error himself, not calling timeout quickly enough after a short scramble. So the Patriots didn't get a shot at the end zone and Gostkowski made his second kick.Shockingly for an offense that scored 557 points this season, that was it for New England."We are probably the only team in the AFC that matches up good with the boy, No. 12 over there and his coach," linebacker Terrell Suggs said of Brady and Belichick.NOTES:Brady now has 5,949 yards passing, the most in NFL history for the postseason. He threw for 320 yards Sunday but was picked off twice in the fourth quarter. ... Ridley sustained a head injury but walked off the field. Patriots CB Aqib Talib hurt his thigh and DT Kyle Love injured his knee. Backup safety Patrick Chung was helped off the field after one play. ... Baltimore beat San Francisco 16-6 in the 2011 season.

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Jack Aho is the reigning state champion in Class 2A and recently shattered a course record at Warren High School. 

But beyond posting some of the area's fastest times, cross country is also a family affair for Aho.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

“Football is life. Until it’s not.”

That message Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar relayed to his team in the week leading up to the Griffins’ Week 5 tilt against Thornton was an important one. For the 115 student-athletes who make up a team with legitimate state-title aspirations, high school football can feel like a life-and-death situation. Until it’s not.

Private First Class Aaron Toppen, a 2013 Lincoln-Way East graduate, was 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. And on that June 9, 2014, a country lost a hero, a family lost a son, a brother and an uncle, and a community lost a friend who had walked through the halls of Lincoln-Way East High School and drove his famous pick-up truck through town just a year earlier.

So when the Griffins held their annual Salute the Troops night last Friday night, before blowing out the Wildcats 42-6, Aaron’s surviving family was an easy choice to join the team as honorary captains. Aaron’s mother, two sisters, uncle, grandmother and niece were recognized before the game, all in loving memory of a fellow Griffin graduate who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country.

“Aaron’s passing was a big deal to our community,” athletic director Mark Vander Kooi said. “And we wanted to embrace his family and let them know that we cared about them, loved them and appreciated the sacrifice they made.”

When Lincoln-Way East principal Dr. Sharon Michalak contacted Aaron’s sister, Amy, about honoring her brother last week’s football game, the family jumped at the opportunity. Aaron and his family had been honored at a game in 2014, just months after Aaron’s death. And with the Griffins hosting “Salute to Troops” night, and that coinciding with the annual 5k run held in Aaron’s name the following day, the family accepted the invitation with open arms.

“It’s just amazing. The support never stops, and to hear that they want to keep Aaron’s name alive and honor him, it just really makes us feel wonderful,” Aaron’s mother, Pam, said. “It’s a way we’re getting through it, is through the support of everybody.

Many of the Griffins know the Toppen family – Amy and Amanda are also graduates – but for those unfamiliar with Aaron’s story – like the student-athletes who transferred from North – head coach Rob Zvonar made it a point to relay that message during practice week. Before the team dressed Friday night, all 115 players watched a pair of video tributes to Toppen in one of the school’s classrooms.

“It’s awesome playing in his honor,” senior Sam Diehl said. “We understand football’s just a game and that (Aaron) made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for our country, that we have more to give than just football to our community, that there are people out there we need to be more thankful of.”

Once the pregame festivities ended the Griffins put on a worthy performance. They scored touchdowns on their first six drives of the game into the third quarter. Jake Arthur threw three more touchdown passes, wide receiver Nick Zelenika topped 100 yards and the Griffins’ offense averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry.

Devin O’Rourke tallied five tackles for loss and two more sacks – he has five in the last two weeks – and the Griffins defense limited the Wildcats to only a late touchdown in the final minute. The Griffins first team defense has allowed zero points in its last six quarters and appears to be putting its early-season struggles behind them.

But the night belonged to the Toppen family and Aaron’s legacy. The night coincided with homecoming weekend, and it brought back more than a handful of Aaron’s old classmates. One of them, current Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, spoke highly of Aaron and the impact he left on the school and community.

“I always enjoyed talking in class sitting with him,” he said. “Any person that’s going to go out and fight for our country and fight for our freedom, I have unlimited respect for. So obviously it’s a sad thing to remember, but I think it’s awesome seeing the support we have out here, from the community to the school to the administration.”

The following day each member of the Griffins and the coaching staff traveled to Mokena to participate in the third annual Our Fallen Hero 5k run in Aaron’s memory. Zvonar and the seniors joked about the aches and pains they’d feel running the 3.1 miles less than 12 hours after a football game, but they also understood the importance of showing up, honoring a fellow Griffin and raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“We’re able to run if we have to, walk if we have to, do what we have to to get it done,” running back Nigel Muhammad said. “Because it’s not about us.”

Added the 285-pound Diehl: “We’re more than happy to run the 3.1 miles. Even us offensive linemen don’t mind.”

More than 600 people were expected to show up for the fundraiser run, which had raised nearly $50,000 in its first two years.

“Aaron would probably say, ‘Mom I don’t like attention, what’s going on here?’ Because he was never that type,” Pam said. “But such a tragedy has brought together a community, and like Amanda said we’re blessed to be a part of this community…We just love seeing everybody.”

Football is life. Until it’s not.

It would have been enough for Zvonar and the coaching staff to speak about who Aaron Toppen was, and the impact he left on a school, a community and a country. The Toppen family could have simply been honored at halftime. Attending the 5k could have been optional for the team to attend.

Instead, football took a back seat for a night in Frankfort. The Toppens were gracious enough to be placed front-and-center to remember a young man who gave his life to protect the freedoms of each one of the thousands in attendance that evening.

“You think back to Aaron Toppen, who a few years ago was walking the hallways of this school and in the same classroom as these guys, and going to the same homecoming dance, and this was just a little bit ago,” Zvonar said. “A young man that’s barely older than these guys and then he goes off and serves his country and fights for the rights for all of us, and pays the ultimate sacrifice. You certainly don’t let that go by unnoticed.

“You want to really make sure that that’s pointed out, that freedom doesn’t come free. And these young men have an opportunity to come out and play this great game tonight. And all these things they’re allowed to do because of the bravery of young men like Aaron Toppen. One of those situations where I know as long as Coach Vander Kooi and myself are here we’ll do everything we can to stop and talk about him.”