AFC Championship Game: 5 Surprise Game Changers
AFC Championship Game: 5 Surprise Game Changers
In last year’s AFC championship game between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens one of the biggest plays of the game was made by someone unexpected. Cornerback Sterling Moore signed with the Oakland Raiders in 2011 as an undrafted free agent. After struggling to find a place on an NFL roster Moore found himself as the hero making a play that would help send the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Moore had been released and re-signed multiple times by the Patriots during the regular season and then suddenly found himself on the postseason roster after making two interceptions in the team’s final regular season game against the Buffalo Bills. With a three point Patriots league and time running out on the Ravens, Joe Flacco went long down the sideline aiming for wide receiver Lee Evans. Just as the ball reached Evans’ hands, the young cornerback reached out and slapped it away saving a possible game winning touchdown.
While everyone is focused on the stars of each team who could possibly make a crucial play to win the conference title it could be someone relatively unknown, like Moore, who makes the key play. Instead of focusing on star players who could make a play that decides the game, this slideshow will focus on those who are likely not to make a major impact but could decide the game. There have been many NFL players with largely forgettable careers except one play in a championship game that has made them remembered forever. There could be another one Sunday.
Brandon Bolden was signed by the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent and was not expected to make the team. But the running back impressed and was put on the week one roster. His breakout performance came in week four when he carried the ball 16 times for 137 yards against the Buffalo Bills. Just when it looked like he had passed Shane Vereen as the team’s primary backup, he was suspended for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy. If a Patriots running back will make a big difference in this game it would likely be Stevan Ridley or possibly Vereen but likely not Bolden. However, with his week four performance he certainly has shown the capability for it.
During the first offensive drive for the New England Patriots in the divisional round game against the Houston Texans, Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski fell on his previously broken forearm suffering the same injury. His replacement this week will be Michael Hoomanawanui who has played sparingly when Aaron Hernandez or Gronkowski have been out. With the Patriots dependence on their tight ends in the passing game, he certainly could make an impact Sunday.
The most dangerous man in the Baltimore Ravens offense is running back Ray Rice. The Pro Bowl back rushed for over 1,000 yards again this season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had a major impact on Sunday’s game. However, the Patriots have the ninth best rushing defense in the NFL and will be focused on stopping Rice. In their focus on him, they may focus less on his backup, rookie Bernard Pierce. With the possibility that the Patriots defense is not familiar with his running habits, Pierce could become a dangerous piece for the Ravens and be a surprising weapon for their offense.
The New England Patriots have had many key injuries on defense this year and that has given several opportunities for rookie safety Tavon Wilson. But Wilson hasn’t quite played to the level that the Patriots would like. If an injury occurs in the Patriots defensive secondary, that could force Wilson to become a key player for the team. Like Moore last year, Wilson could surprise everyone by coming through in the biggest game of the year.
JUSTIN TUCKER/STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI
Neither of the kickers in this game are experienced postseason weapons like Adam Vinatieri. Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is just a rookie though he did hit 30 of 33 kicks this year and hit the game winner last week in Denver. New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has had an up and down year going 29-35 this year. The last time these two teams met the game has come down to a Ravens kicker. In last year’s AFC championship game Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal sending the Patriots to the Super Bowl. In week three it came down to Tucker who hit a 27-yard field goal to win the game. Game winning kicks as time expires are the most exciting plays in football but quite uncommon. However, it could very well happen Sunday making one of these two the hero or the goat.
15 First-Round Prospects Who Won't Live Up to Hype
The 2015 NFL Draft class has more "bust" potential than most years. Read More