It’s all on the line now. In a rematch of last season’s AFC championship, the Patriots host the Ravens for another chance to go to the Super Bowl. Looking at each position group, who has the edge? Take a look and decide for yourself.
QB: Joe Flacco vs. Patriots secondary
Things have changed since the Ravens’ quarterback faced the Patriots in Week 3. Joe Flacco torched the Patriots’ secondary that night for 382 yards and three touchdowns while guiding the Ravens to a 31-30 win in Baltimore.
Come Sunday, Flacco will see a much more refined group of defensive backs. The Patriots now have veteran Aqib Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard as the team’s starting cornerbacks while defensive back Devin McCourty has replaced Patrick Chung at safety.
Flacco will likely still attack the sidelines, as he’s accustomed to doing. Torrey Smith is his favorite target when looking down field, but he has viable options in Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta when looking over the middle. Jacoby Jones is also a home run hitter, as evidenced by his 70-yard touchdown grab against the Denver Broncos in the divisional playoff.
Flacco threw eight passes of 20 yards or more in the first matchup between the two teams and it won’t be surprising if he tests this new group this time around.
RB: Ray Rice vs. Patriots linebackers
Rice is as good a running back as there is in the NFL and the Patriots will do their best to remember that he is as dangerous a threat catching the ball out of the backfield as he is between the tackles. In addition to the 1,143 yards rushing he had this season (131 last week), he caught 61 passes for 478 yards and a touchdown.
Against the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs, he failed to record a catch for only the second time this season. You can expect him to bounce back big, especially given the attention the Patriots secondary will be giving to coverage of receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, as well as tight end Dennis Pitta.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo has the speed to keep up with Rice, but there’s a serious mismatch if the running back is one-on-one with Brandon Spikes or Dont’a Hightower. Rice’s small stature gives him cover when running inside, but he also uses his blocking well to disguise which lanes he takes while running. Fullback Vonta Leach, a Pro Bowl player, does an excellent job of getting right into the chest or hands of linebackers to block them out of plays and provide holes.
WR: Torrey Smith vs. Patriots secondary
The 23-year old Torrey Smith ran a 4.43 40-yard dash. It’s not the fastest time we’ve ever seen, nor is it anything to blow your nose at, but it makes a big difference when he’s able to replicate that speed on the field wearing pads.
Smith has an innate ability to get behind coverage, whether it’s by his blazing speed or by making a move on a defender. Between him and quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens punish secondaries that make mistakes in coverage.
He had 16 catches of 20 yards or more in the regular season and averaged 17.4 yards per reception, good for fourth in the league. He’ll likely garner the attention of top Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib and be shadowed by the likes of Devin McCourty in center field.
TE: Dennis Pitta vs. Patriots linebackers, secondary
Pitta is a critical part of the Ravens offense, a chain-moving tight end who makes tough catches over the middle of the field and serves as a go-to player for Joe Flacco on third downs.
Both the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts tried to contain Pitta in the Ravens’ first two playoff games, holding him to five catches total for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Pitta is big enough, and athletic enough, to get off the line easily against linebackers before creating havoc all over the field. He had five catches for 50 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots in Week 3.
He’ll likely be matched up against a Patriots defensive back in the team’s sub packages, drawing the attention of Kyle Arrington or the bigger Tavon Wilson, who has worked his way back into the rotation.
OL: Ravens up front vs. Patriots defensive line
The battle at the defensive end and tackle position is always worth noting, given that the Patriots like to isolate their ends in one-on-one situations to put pressure on the quarterback.
Ravens tackles Kelechi Osemele, a natural guard, and Michael Oher are solid players who have the size and footwork to deal with starting Patriots defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. A speedy end like Trevor Scott, who may play a larger role because of Jones’ ankle injury, can give each trouble.
Left guard Marshal Yanda was voted to the Pro Bowl this season. Along with veteran Center Matt Birk, Yanda will be helping against Vince Wilfork up front in the battle in the trenches. The Ravens’ offensive line is decent against the blitz and protecting Joe Flacco. Of 35 sacks allowed in the regular season, a large number can be attributed to Flacco holding the ball for too long.
QB: Tom Brady vs. Ravens secondary
Brady will do well to avoid intermediate routes across the middle of the field, especially the side occupied by veteran safety Ed Reed. At 34, the 11-year safety shows no sign of slowing down. He had 16 passes defensed this season and four interceptions. Brady certainly respects what Reed can do on the field.
Instead, he can focus his attention toward the sideline, where he can attack cornerbacks Corey Graham, a graduate of New Hampshire, and Cary Williams.
Brady targeted Brandon Lloyd 12 times in the first matchup, completing 9 passes for 108 yards. Both Ravens cornerbacks had their struggles against the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning.
RB: Stevan Ridley vs. Ravens linebackers
Ridley has shown all season he has a quick burst and surprising strength against defenses. He’ll need the latter if he hopes to break any tackles against a Ravens defense that is energized by the return of veteran Ray Lewis (17 tackles last week) and boosted by the play of Terrell Suggs (10 tackles, 2 sacks last week).
But what we’ve seen is the Ravens have had a tough time going sideline to sideline. The Patriots like to utilize stretch running plays for Ridley. If there is an emphasis on the run, and a willingness to stick with it throughout the game, Ridley is sure to make his mark by breaking it outside. He had 82 yards on 15 carries in the wild-card round against Houston, a much better run defense than the Ravens.
WR: Wes Welker vs. Ravens secondary
Welker picked up 142 yards on eight catches in Week 3 against the Ravens, working over the middle of the field on short to deep routes.
He’s shown in the past couple of weeks that you cannot underestimate him on the sidelines either because of his speed. (Tom Brady’s deep pass to Welker down the sideline against the Houston Texans is what we’ll term a tendency breaker.)
Working in the slot, Welker will likely draw the coverage of Bernard Pollard and James Ihedigbo. Both are physical up front, but both are outclassed by Welker’s ability to get off the line.
The Ravens will likely have a floating linebacker whose job will be to take away the short routes designed for Welker that help move the chains. Welker’s play in the passing game, regardless of whether or not he’s being targeted, will open up possibilities elsewhere for Tom Brady.
TE: Aaron Hernandez vs. Ravens linebackers, secondary
This could be a big game for Aaron Hernandez. He missed the first one after he rolled his ankle the week prior. Hernandez provides the same kind of chain-moving threat known for short to medium routes that the Patriots favor.
He can beat linebackers easily one-on-one and will likely draw the attention of safety Ed Reed over the top in coverage. If the Ravens are successful in containing Wes Welker, that could open up the field for Aaron Hernandez to make plays.
OL: Patriots up front vs. Ravens defensive line
The Patriots easily have one of the most solid offensive lines in the NFL but they’re going up against a team that blitzes well and disguises its defense to cause maximum confusion.
With Terrell Suggs back, Baltimore has a dynamic pass rusher that can overpower tackles. How Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer step up to the rush and pick up the blitzes will be huge.
Center Ryan Wendell will have to help with defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (51 tackles, 5 sacks) when he lines up over guards and redirect him to the weak side. Guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly need to keep the communication lines open with Wendell and protect the rush up the middle first.