Line matchup key in AFC title game

Paul Kruger has piled up 10 sacks in his past 10 games for the Ravens. Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/MCT

Linebacker Ray Lewis rejoined the Ravens' lineup during the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs after missing extended time due to a torn triceps muscle that landed him on the injured reserve list with the designation to return.

His return reunited the "Core Four" on the Ravens' defense, which also includes safety Ed Reed, linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

And while each player serves as a critical cog for the Ravens' defense, perhaps more important to the Ravens' success is a player from outside that group. No player is performing at a higher level right now than linebacker and pending free-agent Paul Kruger, whose second-half surge this season is impossible to ignore.

"His pass-rush has been -- he's really been productive on that: pressures, strip sacks, sacks, he made a lot of negative plays," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick of Kruger. "He's got quickness, he plays strong, he's long, he's got good length to be able to be disruptive, he does a good job in pass coverage. [He's a] smart player, pretty instinctive, makes kind of the right play when he needs to make it. [He's] a good complement on the other side from Suggs."

Belichick's words come in advance of his team's showdown with the Ravens, and while the Patriots will have their hands full trying to slow down Ray Rice and a recently explosive Baltimore offense, the matchup between Kruger and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer bears monitoring.