These will be the three stars of the game when the Ravens travel to Gillette Stadium to play the top-seeded New England Patriots in the AFC divisional round.
Some sports name three stars of the game after the game. I'll do that one better: I'm going to name them before the Ravens even play. These will be the three stars of the game when the Ravens travel to Gillette Stadium to play the top-seeded New England Patriots in the AFC divisional round.
1. Quarterback Joe Flacco
The playoff superlatives are piling up for the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player, spanning multiple postseasons and a lot of roster turnover around him. Flacco has gone 166 passes without an interception, the fourth-longest streak in league history. He has five straight games with a passer rating over 100, with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in those five games. He's won the most playoff games (10) of any quarterback since 2010. The list goes on.
If the Ravens are to pull yet another fast one on the top-seeded Patriots, Flacco will need to find a way to continue his postseason hot streak. With the Patriots' top cornerbacks keying on the Ravens' primary targets, Flacco will be tested in making the secondary and tertiary reads offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has trained him for since OTAs.
It could take a big day from guys such as Owen Daniels or Marlon Brown to get the ball moving through the air, but those are the Ravens' top targets in play-action, so it can be done. Yards might be hard to come by, but Flacco could earn top billing here for the third straight week with something like a 65 percent completion rate, 240 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Ravens tight end Phillip Supernaw, bless his heart, spent the week simulating the Patriots' monstrous tight end in practice. It might not make much of a difference.
Gronkowski, a first-team All-Pro, set an NFL record and became the first tight end with 10 or more touchdowns in four seasons, and basically reached that feat having been a shell of himself for the first quarter of the season. In the 11 games of the season in which he was playing at full strength, Gronkowski averaged six catches for 89 yards and almost a touchdown a game in that stretch. He went over 90 yards six times in that 11-game stretch, and was targeted 10 or more times in seven of them.
The Ravens are in the bottom half of the league in defending tight ends by yardage, and though they allowed just five tight end touchdowns this season, two of those came by New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, the best tight end they've had to cover.
Consider Gronkowski's expectations similar to those of Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown last week — even an off week will see him with around 70 yards and at least one touchdown.
Suggs said in 2010 that his hatred meter was about a 50/50 split between the Steelers and Patriots. If he plays at the same level as he did against the former, the Ravens could easily beat the latter.
When the Patriots lose playoff games, it's when they have trouble throwing downfield because the pass rush gets to quarterback Tom Brady so quickly that his primary reads and outlets are still covered near the line of scrimmage. Elvis Dumervil got a pair of sacks against the Steelers when the Ravens executed this exact game plan last week, but Suggs was a monster in every phase of the defense. The broadcasters gushed about him, and it was deserved.
The matchup at Gillette Stadium with Patriots left tackle Nate Solder could favor Suggs, but his pass rushing will just be part of his impact. Suggs will also be key in funneling running backs toward the behemoths on the inside of the defensive front.