There’s something to be said for finding the right matchup. The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens will look to do just that at Gillette Stadium on Saturday.
A 4:35 p.m. kickoff will mark the start of the assignments for the top-seeded Patriots and the sixth-seeded Ravens. What transpires thenceforth in the divisional round will be decided because of them.
Heading into it all, here is a closer look at six pairings that could be the difference.
Smith Sr. vs. Revis: Over a year has passed since Steve Smith Sr. posted three catches for 63 yards in a heated battle against former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. But now, the former Carolina Panthers wideout is looking to post more against a different Patriots corner in Darrelle Revis. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Smith and the 5-foot-11, 198-pound Revis have 11 Pro Bowls between them. Yet between their three career matchups, they don’t have much else. According to Pro Football Focus, 10 passes have gone in the vicinity of Smith and Revis since 2009, and only two have resulted in receptions for a total of 21 yards. Revis has recorded two interceptions and four pass deflections versus No. 89 along the way. Quarterback Joe Flacco will look to change that.
Yanda vs. Ninkovich: Marshal Yanda earned his fourth All-Pro honor for his work at right guard this season. A season-ending injury to Ravens right tackle Ricky Wagner changed his location on the offensive line, however, and the Iowa Hawkeye has looked the part in his two games since. And if he lines up off the right side for a third time in a row, he’ll do so against Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich. A stand-up and hand-down edge player in New England’s interchangeable front, Ninkovich stayed on the field for over 1,000 snaps during the 2014 regular season. The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Purdue Boilermaker managed to register eight sacks for the third straight season in the process, and his ability to set the edge off the strong side proved serviceable as well. But Ninkovich will have to be proficient in both areas opposite Yanda and Baltimore’s zone-blocking scheme, rooted in deep passes and stretch runs.
Forsett vs. Patriots Linebackers: Those stretch runs have been a key ingredient in running back Justin Forsett’s rise. The first-year Raven and seventh-year pro never had more than 619 rushing yards in one season before arriving in Baltimore after stops with the Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars, but he has notched 1,266 this season to go with eight touchdowns. The 5-foot-8, 197-pound journeyman’s vision, shift and one-cut decisiveness have seen him take off-tackle runs back through the gaps on his way upfield. And for the Patriots, Forsett’s tendencies will call upon linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower to shed second-level blocks and crash the lanes in front of him. Gap integrity will be integral for New England throughout the defensive front, and the two former top draft choices will be the safety valves overseeing it.
Suggs vs. Solder: Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is no stranger to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound pass-rusher has sacked him four times over his eight career contests against New England. And coming off a regular season in which he compiled 12 sacks, much will rest on the shoulders of Patriots left tackle Nate Solder to keep Suggs from accumulating more. Solder has given up six sacks in 2014, yet has held up well when aligned next to left guard Dan Connolly. Whether that comes down to trust, communication or footwork, both figure to have a hand in containing the 32-year-old Suggs off the blindside.
Dumervil vs. Vollmer: Suggs has company off the other side in Elvis Dumervil. Baltimore’s left outside linebacker steps in at only 5-foot-11 and 255 pounds, but those measurables have not hindered the former Denver Bronco from tying a career-best 17 sacks for the Ravens over the regular season. He added two more against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the wild-card round, and Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer will look to keep him from adding more in the divisional round. Vollmer has quietly pieced together a strong campaign for New England – one that earned him three All-Pro votes – but he’ll be facing a 3-4 rusher who’s game is built on strength and speed.
Hill vs. Gronkowski: There is a reason Rob Gronkowski was one of only two unanimous first-team All-Pro selections this year. The Patriots tight end dictated coverages and also found himself the recipient of 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games. His 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame will be a make-or-break test for Baltimore’s secondary, which has lost four cornerbacks – Jimmy Smith, Aaron Ross, Danny Gorrer and Asa Jackson – to injured reserve. But the greatest test for the Ravens won’t be on the outside; it will be where safety Will Hill resides. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Hill brings size, physicality and range to Baltimore’s back end, both at the line and in centerfield. He has gone against the likes of the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham and the San Diego Chargers’ Antonio Gates, and he will now go against another tight end from the same tier. Fellow safety Matt Elam and rookie Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley could be in line to join him as reinforcements. Baltimore’s defense has limited opposing tight ends to five touchdowns on the season.