Ray Lewis and his Baltimore Ravens will be the old foe Tom Brady faces Sunday night, a rematch of last season's thrilling 23-20 Patriots win.
Unlike last year, however, Baltimore is a surprise player in this iteration of the conference championship. The Ravens slogged through long stretches of the regular season, having found their form only in the past few weeks.
That's been a formula for playoff success in recent years (see: Giants, New York), but isn't necessarily practical. The Ravens are facing a polished, well-oiled machine this weekend in Foxborough, and if they can't keep up their current form, there's a chance they get embarrassed. God knows, they wouldn't be the first.
Here are three matchups that could potentially swing the outcome.
CB Cary Williams vs. WR Brandon Lloyd
The Patriots have long been able to overcome injuries. And they looked just fine without Rob Gronkowski this season—last week included. But against a reinvigorated Ravens defense—a unit that, historically, plays New England well—they'll need to be sharp.
Cary Williams has been a weak link in Baltimore's secondary all season, and again, last week was no exception. Pro Football Focus gave him a minus-2.5 rating in pass coverage against Denver, as he was repeatedly beat by the Broncos receivers.
Baltimore has been susceptible to getting beat outside the numbers all season. Per Football Outsiders, it ranked 20th and 30th against opposing No. 1 and 2 receivers, respectively. That contrasts diametrically with their sixth-, ninth- and seventh-ranked performances against "other" receivers: tight ends and running backs (through the air).
Without Rob Gronkowski, New England will be hard-pressed to beat Baltimore at its game. The Patriots need Lloyd—who's famously inconsistent—to exploit one of the Ravens' biggest weaknesses.
If he can, it'll be a long game for the Baltimore defense.
LOLB Paul Kruger vs. RT Sebastian Vollmer
Kruger, who struggled mightily at the start of the season, has been a revelation in the playoffs. He wasn't superb against the Broncos, but was a bona fide playmaker against the Colts, totaling 2.5 sacks on 72 snaps.
If the Ravens want a chance at slowing down Tom Brady and Co., they'll need to get pressure on him. Like most great quarterbacks, that's always been the book on beating him.
Getting to Brady is easier said than done, however, as the Pats boast one of the best offensive lines in football.
Sebastian Vollmer—whom Kruger will likely rush against—graded out as one of the 25 best pass-blocking tackles in the NFL (h/t Pro Football Focus). He's got great mobility for his lumbering size—Vollmer is 6'8''—and understands how to use pad level to his advantage.
If he can slow down the suddenly hot Kruger and Brady has time to survey the field, the Ravens could be in for loads of trouble.
TE Dennis Pitta vs. New England LBs
New England's defense is far from a powerhouse, but it's stronger than some recent iterations. That being said, it does have one pronounced weakness.
According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots rank 29th in the league defending opposing tight ends. That could be a problem against Dennis Pitta, who has quickly become one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets.
He didn't have an amazing game against Denver—who ranks 24th defending the tight end—but was able to make a decent amount of plays. A repeat of that performance might not be enough to best New England, but it won't hold them back, either.
If he steps up and plays even better, though? Anything is possible.
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