Roughly 12 months ago, then New England Patriots' defensive back Sterling Moore made the biggest play of the AFC Championship game. With the Patriots leading by just three points as the end of the game approached, the Baltimore Ravens were driving towards the endzone. On second and 14 with 27 seconds to go, Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco threw the ball to the corner of the endzone where receiver Lee Evans was awaiting the football.
Evans was initially open and in position to catch the game winning touchdown. However, Moore recovered just as Evans got his hands on the ball to force it from his grasp. Flacco missed Dennis Pitta on the next play, before Billy Cundiff kicked the potential game-tying field goal wide of the posts. The Patriots would take over the football and kneel down to run out the clock.
Although Joe Flacco threw over 300 yards and two touchdowns, Tom Brady threw over 200 yards with two interceptions, Anquan Boldin had six receptions for 101 yards, Torrey Smith had three for 82 and a touchdown, Rob Gronkowski had five receptions for 87 yards and BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 68 yards with a touchdown, it was a backup safety come cornerback who was only signed during that regular season who ultimately made the biggest play of the game.
At this time of the year the smallest plays, most minute moments and seemingly irrelevent decisions can all be decisive at the end of 60 minutes of football. Even though the Patriots blew by the Houston Texans last week without needing big performances from some of their lesser known players, they should be expecting everyone on their roster to be ready to play this week if they have any chance of advancing to a second Super Bowl in a row.
Similarly, the Ravens will believe that they have improved the overall talent of their roster after relieving themselves of the services of Evans and Cundiff. However, while Evans has been replaced by the impressive Jacoby Jones and Cundiff's role is now filled by young Justin Tucker, injuries have turned role players into starters for the Ravens in certain areas. Most importantly, the two cornerbacks who intercepted Brady in last season's game, Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, are both injured.
The Ravens got solid performances from their replacement starters in Denver against the Broncos, with Corey Graham in particular making the biggest play of the first half when he intercepted Peyton Manning for a touchdown. Even against the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens needed players to turn up all around the field. Bill Belichick's side haven't really been tested like that to this point. Of course, they have only played one playoff game so far, but that has been the nature of their season so far.
Playing in arguably the weakest division from teams two to three in the whole league has taken away from the Patriots' competitive edge to some degree. Against teams like the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, there was very little stress on the team's role players.
Against the Ravens, in a massive game for both sides, they shouldn't have it so easy. The Patriots and Ravens have a recent history of playing tough, hard-hitting and closely competed games that are often decided in the dwindling moments of the football game. If that moment requires a big play from Brady, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork or Devin McCourty, they should feel fairly confident of getting exactly what the team needs. If the responsibility falls to someone else, then certain players could be under pressure.
Should Danny Woodhead miss time again this week, Shane Vereen will again have to play a big role on offense. Vereen showed up well against the Texans when thrusted into a heavier workload at the last second, but with a whole week to think about what he needs to do it's possible that he will get inside his own head. For such an inexperienced player, playing so often with the ball in his hands, that will heighten the risk of costly turnovers, nerves or a lack of focus. The Patriots mostly carry veterans on their offense, but outside of Vereen, Michael Hoomanawanui should feature more with Rob Gronkowski absent. Hoomanawanui has been solid for the team since signing, after initially being a member of the St. Louis Rams. However, he has never played a snap on this stage, nevermind a prominent role from play-to-play.
Defensively things are a little more vague. Rookie Defensive end Chandler Jones could be the x-factor, depending on his overall health and ability to impact the game. Jones faces a tough test against Bryant McKinnie, who has played well for the Ravens since returning to the starting lineup. Instead of attacking the edges, the Patriots could decide to use the downhill aggression of Dont'a Hightower in the box. Kelechi Osemele is playing left guard, having started most of the season at right tackle, so testing his ability to pick up complex blitzes will be a prominent temptation for the defense. Hightower hasn't had a great rookie season, but he has been relatively impressive. He has plenty of ability to play the position, but is yet to really make the big plays fans hoped from him. In the secondary, former starters Kyle Arrington and Patrick Chung could be more involved to help stop the Ravens' deep passing attack, but instead it is Tavon Wilson who should catch the eye. The Ravens will be very aggressive throwing downfield, which should give the Patriots' some opportunities to create turnovers if their defensive backs can make the right plays. McCourty has proven capable of doing that consistently since moving to safety earlier this season, but Steve Gregory has been quiet on the splash play front for the most part. Wilson will see some time in nickel and dime sets, and has already proven to have a nose for finding the football as a rookie. Gregory has less interceptions(three to Wilson's four) in roughly double the number of snaps on the field.