Whether it’s to kick off or to receive, Matthew Slater knows he’ll be on the field for the start Saturday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens.
He hopes to make it count.
“We feel it’s important that we go out there and set the tone,” said the four-time New England Patriots special-teams captain and Pro Bowler in his Wednesday news conference. “Obviously, we’re the first play of the game, and I think it’s important in a game like this where the teams are so evenly matched.”
The top-seeded Patriots and the sixth-seeded Ravens have been known to play it close on offense, defense and special teams, even if the recent box scores have suggested otherwise. Outside of New England’s 41-7 rout of Baltimore last December, and Baltimore’s 28-13 triumph over New England in the January prior, the two sides previous three meetings were all decided by three points or less.
There’s a reason why.
“You have two programs that try to approach this game and play it a certain way. And as a result, you get a physical, well-played football game usually when these two teams match up. It’s going to be a battle. It always has been, so we’ve got to get ourselves ready for the challenge.”
Slater emphasized the importance of finding some advantage in a game where there will be very few.
“If you can’t gain an edge in that third phase, it can make a huge difference,” Slater said of special teams. “I think if we can go out and set the tone early, it’d be big for us. We know that they’re going to be ready to go. We know Jacoby is going to be ready to go.”
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen will send the football off to Ravens returner Jacoby Jones at some point in the divisional round playoff tilt. Yet from there, it’ll be about keeping him in deep in his own end zone, fielding fair catches or facing tacklers.
Otherwise, it’s hard to say where he’ll end up. And that’s something New England doesn’t want to find out.
The 30-year-old wide receiver recorded just one catch for three yards in the Ravens’ 30-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Saturday, but he caught five kickoffs and brought them back for 117 return yards, marking the most of any specialist over the course of wild-card weekend. And over the course of the regular season, he averaged 30.6 yards per kick, 9.7 yards per punt, and accrued his ninth career return for a touchdown.
He accrued another in Super Bowl XLVII.
“We have to match their intensity and hopefully come out and start well,” said Slater.