OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Paul Kruger was selected in the 2009 NFL Draft, plays outside linebacker, and starred for the University of Utah. Dennis Pitta was drafted in 2010, plays tight end, and is a product of BYU.
Different schools, different sides of the ball.
Both, however, have played huge roles this season for the Baltimore Ravens, who square off today against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Foxborough, Mass.
Kruger, now in his fourth year with the Ravens, had nine sacks in regular-season play to lead the team, while Pitta had a career-high 61 catches.
"(Paul) is coming on really strong," Ravens' wideout/special teams player David Reed (also a former Ute) said of Kruger here last week. "He has been playing all-out. Pitta has been ballin' since he came here. He will keep playing at a high level."
Kruger and Pitta are both expected to play key roles when the Ravens meet the Patriots today at Gillette Stadium. The winner advances to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says he's not surprised by the success Kruger has enjoyed in his fourth NFL campaign.
"He's been having a tremendous year," Whittingham said. "I have been able to catch a few of his games and he has played outstanding this year. We always felt he had the potential to be a tremendous NFL player. I think he started to come into his own right now and demonstrate that.
"He left (our program) after his sophomore year so he still had some development that was going to take place and we knew that," Whittingham continued. "I think right now you're seeing what his capabilities are after having that time to develop that he missed out on in college."
Last year the Ravens lost in the AFC title game at New England, as Lee Evans dropped a crucial pass and Billy Cundiff missed a field goal, both in the closing minutes. The Ravens haven't forgotten how they felt.
"The way we left it last year didn't sit well with us," Pitta told reporters. "So we're excited to be in this position again and give it another shot."
Pitta had three catches for 55 yards in the Ravens' 38-35 double-overtime win at Denver on Jan. 12, while Kruger had three tackles.
"I've never been part of a game like that," Pitta said. "It was incredible. We knew we had a good shot at winning the game. We went into that stadium confident and really excited about getting another shot at those guys, because the first time we played them (in the regular season) we did not play well. Obviously I think we are a different football team at that point in the season as well."
Now, Pitta and the Ravens get a second shot at the Patriots in the title showdown.
"We're excited about this game," Pitta said. "It's been a long road getting back to this point. ... The Patriots are a good football team. We know that, and they've played well all season. So, I think everyone in the building is excited about this game."
Pitta has formed a strong one-two punch with fellow tight end Ed Dickson, a University of Oregon product. Both figure to be used a lot today against the Patriots.
"We've had a lot of highs and lows this season," Pitta said. "We had a three-game losing streak when nobody thought we would win another game. We're excited to be in this game and to be able to get a rematch with these guys."
John Beck, who played with Pitta at both BYU and Baltimore, first recognized Pitta's great hands during the summer following his return from an LDS Church mission. So impressed, Beck approached then-BYU head coach Gary Crowton about the possibility of finding a scholarship for the sure-handed tight end. After his career at BYU ended, Beck was talking up Pitta again, this time to the coaches and scouts in Baltimore.
"When he was coming out of BYU, I was preaching to the coaches and scouts to go get Dennis," Beck recalled. "I knew he would succeed. He is so athletic for his size and with the way he can make acrobatic catches, I knew he would impress them in camp. From Day 1 after he was drafted, he showed all those things. He was very consistent. Some guys have drops here or there — I don't think I've ever seen Dennis drop an easy one."
Kruger and Pitta, of course, are not the only Baltimore players with Utah ties.
All-pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is from Salt Lake City and went to Highland High before starring at the University of Oregon, and defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu also played for the Utes. Ngata and Kemoeatu each had two tackles against Denver.
Ngata told reporters this week he was eager to face New England again.
"I think we personally kind of wanted to play the Patriots again," Ngata said. "If we go to the Super Bowl, it would be great to go through Foxborough and win it there. It's another matchup that we're excited about and hopefully we can get it done this year.
"The feeling that we had in that locker room, I think we all wanted to get back to the AFC championship," Ngata added.
Baltimore beat New England in regular-season play back in September but this is the game that matters. New England was listed as a 91/2-point favorite earlier this week.
"I don't care. It's not important," said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. "That stuff is not important to us. We don't have to place any bets, so it really doesn't matter."
What is different about this year's AFC title game?
"It's been a little longer road for us," Pitta said. "We've had to play two games already, and last year we had the bye and got a little more rest. But we really feel good about the road that we've taken, and we're sitting here as a confident football team and excited for this game."
Contributing: Dirk Facer and Dick Harmon
49ers (12-4-1) at Falcons (14-3), 1 p.m., FOX
Ravens (12-6) at Patriots (13-4), 4:30 p.m., CBSRavens coaches with local ties
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Several members of the Baltimore coaching staff also have ties to the state of Utah. Tight ends coach Wade Harman is a former assistant at Utah State, former Utah assistant Craig Ver Steeg is a senior offensive assistant, and Bob Rogucki, a former strength and conditioning coach at Weber State, has the same role with the Ravens.Heady goes here
TextRavens coaches with local ties
Several members of the Baltimore coaching staff also have ties to the state of Utah. Tight ends coach Wade Harman is a former assistant at Utah State, former Utah assistant Craig Ver Steeg is a senior offensive assistant, and Bob Rogucki, a former strength and conditioning coach at Weber State, has the same role with the Ravens.Championship Sunday
49ers (12-4-1) at Falcons (14-3), 1 p.m., FOX
Ravens (12-6) at Patriots (13-4), 4:30 p.m., CBS