These teams have plenty of history and some bad blood between them. While the Patriots have had the upper hand, it was the Ravens who embarassed Brady and Co. in 2009, knocking them out of the playoffs in decisive fashion. New England managed to scratch and claw for an overtime win in 2010, but this team is predicated on its two tight ends. Let's take a look at the top matchups in the AFC Championship showdown.
1. The Boston TE Party vs. Baltimore linebackers/safeties: Considering the title of this post, this may seem a bit confusing. But it'll take an army, not an individual player, to stop New England's fantastically talented tight ends. Gronkowski is the intimidating force who can block as well as he can catch the ball. The Ravens safeties can't match his size (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) and their linebackers don't excel in coverage either. If they choose to double Gronk, it'll only make things easier for the second half of the best tight end duo - Aaron Hernandez. The former Gator is an athletic mismatch for any linebacker and has the agility and speed to match most receivers. It'll be interesting to see who matches up on Hernandez considering nobody has been able to stop him lately. He's simply too quick for Ray Lewis or Jarret Johnson, and should have no problem beating safety Bernand Pollard. Perhaps Ed Reed or rookie corner Jimmy Smith will be asked to cover Hernandez...or at least try.
2. Matt Light vs. Terrell Suggs: Both of these guys have been fixtures at their positions for the better part of a decade. Light has protected Brady’s blindside while Suggs has made his money beating offensive tackles with strength and speed. Number 72 will be tasked with stopping the Pro Bowl outside linebacker/defensive end as Suggs often lines up on the right side of the defense. Light has held up extremely well this season, most notably in last week’s blowout against Denver’s duo of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. If Light wins the one-on-one battles against Suggs, the Patriots will be in business.
3. Wes Welker vs. Lardarius Webb: The battle of the Ws will be a fun one to watch as Webb, an ascending talent, will be tasked with stopping the cat-quick Welker. Selected in the third round in 2009, Webb became the Ravens’ top corner this year with six picks. He has great speed (4.35) and has the quickness to match Welker’s. The Patriots need Welker to work from both the slot and the outside in order to open up the offense.
4. Jerod Mayo & Brandon Spikes vs. Ray Rice & Vonta Leach: This might be one of my favorite matchups to watch on Sunday. Mayo is the quiet leader of the defense while Spikes is the physical, vocal force that intimidates offenses. Rice is one of the top-three backs in the league and Leach is perhaps the best fullback. Described as one of the most violent inside linebackers by film guru Greg Cossell, Spikes’ role will be to blow up the fullback to allow Mayo to have space to make the tackle. It won’t be easy as Leach is one of the best run blockers in the league and can match Spikes in the physicality department. Stopping Rice is key to the Patriots road to victory, and no duo is more important than Mayo & Spikes.
5. Interior offensive line vs. Haloti Ngata: The trio of Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly and Brian Waters has been excellent this year (despite a down year from Mankins). However, facing Ngata is a totally different ballgame. The 6-foot-4, 330-pounder is equally nimble as he is strong and is an excellent interior pass rusher. The common misconception is that edge pressure results in sacks, but getting pressure up the middle is the key to stopping Tom Brady. The Patriots interior linemen must stop Ngata and Terrance Cody from collapsing the pocket.
6. Devin McCourty vs. Torrey Smith: Whether McCourty plays safety or corner, he’ll be instrumental in stopping the Ravens’ rookie deep threat. Smith has incredible speed and has a knack for making big plays. McCourty has been beat pretty regularly this season after a Pro Bowl rookie campaign, but he needs to play with better technique to prevent Smith from beating the Pats over the top. Smith is a limited route runner and doesn’t have the best hands. McCourty seems a bit slower this year, but still plays with physicality and has the talent to step up.