The New England Patriots know all too well what one big play can mean in the Super Bowl.
No matter how well two teams play, the outcome is often decided by a blown coverage, a strip-sack, an interception or a missed tackle. Football is a team sport, but it all comes down to individuals playing at a high level.
The Super Bowl is more than two weeks away, but we’re already looking ahead to some of the best potential personnel matchups that could decide the outcome of the game.
Aldon Smith (San Francisco) vs. Nate Solder (New England)
Smith’s sack numbers tailed off toward the end of the season, but his lack of statistical production was due in part to the injury to Justin Smith that left him without a disruptive end to eat up blockers in front of him.
Smith is one of the best pass rushers in the league, and should the 49ers face the Patriots in the Super Bowl, there will be a battle raging on his side of the line.
Nate Solder is a terrific left tackle who has done well protecting Tom Brady’s blindside this year. At 6’8”, Solder possesses a huge reach advantage over Smith and nearly every other edge rusher that comes his way. Solder’s long arms and good hand pop would create a serious matchup disadvantage for Smith, who would need to focus on not letting Solder get into his pads.
Smith has a lot of speed and quickness for a player of his size, though, and could be disruptive against Solder if he utilizes double-moves and set up different styles of pass rush against Solder. Keeping a tall tackle on his toes with multiple moves means a mobility advantage that Smith could win.
It may not be the flashiest possible personnel matchup, but if New England and San Francisco square off, it will be a crucial matchup that could decide the game.
Corey Graham (Baltimore) vs. Julio Jones (Atlanta)
Graham would likely split time guarding both Jones and Roddy White in coverage, and he’ll be faced with a tough matchup in both scenarios.
Jones is already one of the most talented wide receivers in the league. He has size, speed and ball skills to worry even the best defenders in the league. With White and tight end Tony Gonzalez garnering attention from opposing secondaries, guarding Jones becomes a difficult task.
Graham finished the regular season with just two interceptions, but he tallied two against Peyton Manning last week, and will continue to be a key piece of Baltimore’s pass defense. He may not have to pick off passes in the Super Bowl for Baltimore to win, but if he’s faced with a matchup against Jones, he’ll certainly have to play mistake-free football.
Mike Iupati (San Francisco) vs. Haloti Ngata (Baltimore)
Few people watch the battle that rages at the line of scrimmage during a football game, but there will be plenty of action should the 49ers and Ravens face off in New Orleans.
Of all the lineman matchups to watch, Iupati versus Ngata would be the most exciting.
Ngata is a disruptive force at defensive end for Baltimore. He commands a double-team on nearly every play, and that double-team is what frees up linebackers to crash the line of scrimmage and make plays. The only way to shut down his side of the line is to effectively block him one-on-one.
With Ngata lined up at right end and Iupati at left guard, the two should square off regularly in a potential championship matchup. Iupati is a road grader with quick feet and plenty of mass, and of all the players on San Francisco’s offensive line, it’s Iupati who stands the best chance of shutting down Ngata.
Iupati weighs 331 pounds, while Ngata is listed at 340 pounds. With nearly 800 pounds between them, a showdown between the two would be a heavyweight bout for the ages.
Dunta Robinson (Atlanta) vs. Torrey Smith (Baltimore)
Smith is one of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL. Robinson happens to be pretty fast as well.
With a quality performance getting behind Denver’s secondary last week, a meeting between Baltimore and Atlanta would mean one thing for the Falcons defense: keeping Baltimore’s receivers out of the end zone.
Robinson ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the Combine in 2004, and he plays with terrific agility and fluidity. With Smith running a lot of deep routes in Baltimore’s vertical passing game, Robinson would have to stay on his toes to run with him.
Both Baltimore and Atlanta feature two of the best vertical passing games in the league, and a potential showdown between the two teams could mean a lot of fireworks and plenty of scoring.