AFC Championship Game Impact Players: Who Needs to Step Up
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We've seen this one before. Well, sort of.
Last season on a frigid New England evening, the hometown Patriots battled the visiting Baltimore Ravens for 60 brutal minutes of football.
On that fateful night things didn't go according to plan for either team.
All night long New England and Baltimore went back and forth, exchanging heavyweight type blows as we got to witness playoff football at it's very best.
But before the pigskin is kicked off through that cool New England air and the fans roar with excitement, let's take a look at a few players who could determine the outcome of the game.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady
Tom Brady: New England Patriots
If we are going to start with New England, then we have to start with its patriarch, Tom Brady.
After escaping last season with a victory against Baltimore, Tom Brady took to the podium and told everybody the truth.
"Well, I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us. And I'm going to try to go out and do a better job in a couple weeks."
Brady did "suck" pretty bad if you are comparing him to the Tom Brady we are used to seeing put up gaudy numbers each and every Sunday.
Brady's stat line last time around was quite ugly. Tom went 22 of 36 for 239 yards passing and tossed two interceptions to zero touchdowns. These numbers were a huge factor in why the game was so close.
Although Tom Terrific did manage to plunge in a rushing touchdown from one yard out on a crucial fourth down, overall he just wasn't himself.
Off balance, confused and pressured all night long. The Ravens defense made sure Brady felt their wrath.
That's why it goes without saying next week Tom Brady has got to be better if New England wants to walk away with a victory. The loss of Rob Gronkowski will hurt, but overall this Patriots team is better than the one we saw last season, and Tom Brady is better for it.
We all know Brady will face heat, and face it often. But if he manages to dictate the pace of the game and make the throws we are accustomed to seeing him make, Baltimore will have a very difficult time finding a way to win on Sunday.
New England Patriots: Shane Vereen
New England Patriots Running Back Shane Vereen
An incredibly elusive back, Vereen could be used as a joker next week vs Baltimore.
Listen, I'm a big supporter of Danny Woodhead but Shane Vereen represents one of the true home run threats on this New England roster. His skill set alone should create mismatches all night long for the Ravens.
Mix that in with some great play-calling, and, my friends, you get yourselves a wonderful recipe for success.
While there's no question Stevan Ridley will see the bulk of the work next Sunday, it's Shane Vereen who may pose the bigger threat to Baltimore.
That's why the Ravens have to keep on eye on number 34 all night long.
New England Patriots: Steve Gregory
New England Patriots Safety Steve Gregory
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Steve Gregory one of the starting safeties for the New England Patriots isn't a household name. He's more of your classic Bill Belichick role player, who fills a need and plays hard every snap.
But this unsung safety out of the University of Syracuse could help determine the outcome of the AFC Championship Game.
Thanks to the addition of All-Pro corner Aqib Talib, the Patriots secondary has been given a Hollywood style facelift.
Talib, who has become the clear-cut No. 1 corner in New England gives guys like Gregory the creative freedom to sniff out the ball and make big plays.
And that freedom is exactly what Gregory will need if he wants to help slow down the Ravens deep ball.
If New England wants to win this ball game, they will need to slow down that vertical assault.
Using his instincts and coverage skills, Steve Gregory should have a ton of chances to break up the long ball.
If he can step up and help take away the deep threat, Joe Flacco will be forced to look elsewhere. And that won't bode well for the Ravens' offense.
New England Patriots: Jerod Mayo
New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo
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Jerod Mayo could be the most slept-on linebacker in professional football. Coming off a rugged 147-tackle season, Mayo has served as an anchor to one of the most underrated linebacking cores in the game today.
His ability to sniff out plays and put a hat on the ball has given opposing offenses problems all year long.
If the Patriots want to slow down the grinding running attack of the Ravens, Jerod Mayo will need to get involved early and often.
By slowing down Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, the Pats would force Joe Flacco to throw a lot more then he wants to, giving their secondary more chances to make a big play.
Controlling the ground game is one battle that could lead to a team winning the war. If New England has any hope of stopping Baltimore's ground assault, Jerod Mayo has to make his presence felt all night long.
New England Patriots: Vince Wilfork
New England Patriots Vince Wilfork
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Vince Wilfork is a game-changing player.
With the strength of 10,000 men and the smarts of football scientist (that doesn't exist, does it?), Vince Wilfork could be the most disruptive defensive player on the field next Sunday.
That's why without question Big Vince has to be terrorizing the Ravens offense if New England wants to win this football game.
Crashing through the line, putting pressure on Joe Flacco, and forcing the Ravens backfield to change directions will be his priorities.
If Wilfork is successful in disrupting the Ravens' offensive flow, the Patriots defense will prevail.
During last year's AFC Championship Game Wilfork ended up with one sack, three tackles for loss and and one quarterback hit.
Production similar to that should give New England a real chance to win and win big next weekend.
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis
The leader of Baltimore Ravens Ray Lewis
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Forget the fact that Ray Lewis racked up 17 tackles Saturday versus the Broncos. The No. 1 reason Ray Lewis can help determine who wins next Sunday goes so far beyond stats.
I don't have to tell any of you just how important Ray Lewis is to his team. He's a motivating, once-in-a-generation play-maker.
A true defensive Michelangelo Ray Lewis will be a major factor in who wins this game Sunday.
For 60 minutes, Ray Lewis will have to be the guy to ignite a fire under his team. A bold, persuasive leader among men, Ray Lewis is the anchor of the Baltimore Ravens on both sides of the ball.
It will be his insightful coaching on the sidelines, the in-game defensive adjustments and pure raw energy that will help Baltimore put the brakes on a remarkable New England offense.
Slowed by injuries and inexperience, the Baltimore defense has to overachieve next week in order for the Ravens to advance.
Ray Lewis and his vocal chords can make that happen.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco
Baltimore Ravens Quarterback Joe Flacco
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Amassing 331 yards through the air to go along with three touchdowns, Joe Flacco silenced his critics for at least one week.
Over his career in Baltimore, the Ravens signal-caller has faced a ton of media and fan pressure.
Can he win the big game? Is he the quarterback of the future?
After Saturday's big win, Joe Flacco showed of all of us just how good he can be.
Blessed with a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder and great size, Flacco has all of the "tools" to be an elite player in this league.
It's his issues with consistency, making the right reads and not forcing balls into tight windows that has given Ravens fans headaches from Day 1.
It goes without saying Sunday in New England that Joe has to be on top of his game once again. Stretch the field, attack the Pats secondary and try and steer clear of turnovers.
If Joe Flacco can play even close to the level that he played this past weekend, Baltimore Ravens fans should starting packing their bags for the long trip down to New Orleans.
Baltimore Ravens: Bernard Pierce
Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce
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Just like Shane Vereen, Ravens backup running back Bernard Pierce needs to be an impact player this weekend if Baltimore wants to win.
While no one is doubting the ability of Ravens starting running back Ray Rice, it's also not a secret that his production has slowed down a bit this season.
That's where Bernard Pierce comes into play.
Yes Joe Flacco will be attacking through the air all evening long, but it's the skill set of Pierce that will be much needed in order for the Ravens to move the football at a consistent pace.
A downhill, violent style back, Bernard Pierce has the chance to control the flow of the Ravens offense.
If you want to keep Brady off the field, a heavy dose of Bernard Pierce is something Jim Caldwell needs to lean on.
Remember, people, time of possession goes hand in hand with a fantastic ground game.
Baltimore Ravens: Corey Graham
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Corey Graham
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I could have gone the Ed Reed route here, but that would be too easy.
Instead it's time to focus on another Ravens defensive back, starting cornerback Corey Graham.
The 27-year-old former University of New Hampshire standout came up huge Saturday against Denver. Intercepting Peyton Manning twice (once for a touchdown and once to seal the game), Graham proved he was more than capable of filling the void left by injured Ravens corner Lardarius Webb.
This ex-Pro Bowl special teams player (with Chicago) came to Baltimore in hopes of getting more playing time on defense. Thanks to his hard work and the injury bug, Graham has become an impact corner this postseason.
And he will need to keep that title on his desk this Sunday when he faces off against an ultra-talented New England receiving core.
Given how the Raven run their defense, Corey Graham should bounce around and cover a few different guys next week.
Forget making the big play—if Corey Graham can simply slow down his assignments and help force Brady and co. off the field, he could very well help dictate the outcome of this football game.
Baltimore Ravens: Justin Tucker
Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker
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Kickers matter. Just ask the Baltimore Ravens.
After unleashing a huge game-winning field goal this past weekend against Peyton Manning and his heavily favored Denver Broncos, Justin Tucker did his best to silence the ghosts of Billy Cundiff.
Last season's tragic missed 32-yard field goal by Cundiff still gives Ravens fans sweat-soaked nightmares.
Next week against New England, you better believe Justin Tucker will have to become an impact player in order for Baltimore to secure a win.
Will it come down to another game-winning field goal attempt? I don't think so. But what I do know is that Justin Tucker must connect on all of his attempts. Sounds like a "no-brainer" suggestion, but when a shot at the Super Bowl is on the line, you have to make plays all night long.