AFC East: AFC North

CINCINNATI -- After three weeks of seeing the Cincinnati Bengals run trick plays and trot out unique formations, opposing coaches and players are beginning to take note.

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt had his defense practice against the very receiver-to-quarterback pass the Bengals employed in their 33-7 win over Tennessee. Whisenhunt's teaching wasn't quite enough, as Mohamed Sanu was able to complete the pass to Andy Dalton, who ran for a touchdown.

The New England Patriots' preparation for Sunday night's game also has included preparing for the unexpected. During a news conference earlier this week, Bill Belichick was asked about how defending the quirky plays of the Bengals could affect the quickness with which his defense can react.

"If you don't see [a particular trick play] very often, you aren't thinking about it or maybe you're not respecting it enough, and then it comes and it hits you," Belichick said. "Then you don't see it again for another year, but the damage is done. That's the way I would characterize those plays.

"Not that there's not a way to defend them, not that there's a magic to the play, but it's a play you haven't seen that we're not practicing against, because I'm sure the ones that [the Bengals] have already run, they're probably less inclined to run those. They're probably more inclined to run a new play that they're working on, and that's the one that we'll have to react to in the game. That's the challenge of those plays. The challenge on the other side of it is execution. Some play that you don't run very much, it's calling it at the right time to get maybe a look that you think will be good against that and then being able to execute it well. The Bengals have done a very good job of executing those plays."

Belichick said the key to defending the trick play is one fundamental principle.

"It comes down to everybody doing their job," he said. "It isn't everybody's job to stop everything. It's one person's job to handle a certain responsibility, whatever that is. It's somebody else's job to handle other plays. If they're running a sweep one way, then you have to play the sweep. Somebody else has to play the reverse. One guy's not playing both plays. That's kind of the 'do your job' mentality of taking care of what you have to take care of. Somebody else has to take care of what they have to take care of.

"I've never coached a defense where you tell the players, 'Well, we don't have a reverse on this play if they run it.' That would be a touchdown. Or if they run a halfback pass, that nobody is responsible for that and that will be a touchdown. Or if they run an end around, we don't really have that play. I just don't think you could coach like that. Somebody has to be responsible for plays over there. If they start over there, then somebody has to be responsible for a play back there. If a guy reverses his field or they run a reverse or they throw a double pass or the quarterback peels out of the backfield, whatever it is, there are fundamental responsibilities, and those plays are part of the responsibilities."

Video: Pouncey's 'Free Hernandez' hats

July, 15, 2013
7/15/13
10:57
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Tim Hasselbeck weighs in on Maurkice and Mike Pouncey wearing "Free Hernandez" hats.

Countdown Live: 2013 NFL draft, Rds. 4-7

April, 27, 2013
4/27/13
10:00
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for Rounds 4-7 of the 2013 NFL draft.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at noon ET. See you there.

Countdown Live: 2013 NFL draft, Rds. 2-3

April, 26, 2013
4/26/13
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for Rounds 2 and 3 of the 2013 NFL draft.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 6 p.m. ET. See you there.

Countdown Live: 2013 NFL draft, Round 1

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.

We'll be analyzing every pick from 1 to 32. We'll get started an hour early at 7 p.m. ET, so submit your questions and comments and we'll see you there.

Live: ESPN.com #bloggermock draft

April, 23, 2013
4/23/13
11:45
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they play general manager for their divisions and execute a 2013 first-round mock draft.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at noon ET. You can also participate via Twitter using the hashtag #bloggermock. See you there.

The Patriots have reportedly signed Emmanuel Sanders, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet. I love this move -- for New England.

Sanders
Sanders
New England is short on wide receivers, and getting Sanders for a late third-round pick (Sanders’ draft slot in 2010) would make this contending team better right away. Sanders has battled injuries, but there is no shame being stuck behind Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown during his time in Pittsburgh.

Like Brown, Sanders isn’t the biggest receiver around, but he is extremely quick and very good after the catch -- which is a must in the Patriots’ timing-based offense that Tom Brady runs so very well with great precision and accurate throws.

Sanders also has some deep-ball ability, and can line up outside the numbers or in the slot, although New England is pretty set with slot options Danny Amendola and Aaron Hernandez. But we all know that Bill Belichick craves players -- at any position -- with a wide skill set and capable of contributing in many ways. Sanders fits that, and is a great potential pickup for the price.

Not only would Sanders be a strong addition to the Patriots, but the move would also weaken a fellow AFC contender. With Wallace now in Miami, wide receiver is as great of a need for Pittsburgh as any other position. Sanders appeared to be set up to show what he could do as a starter opposite Brown. New England has far more salary-cap space and overall flexibility than the Steelers.

But worst of all for Pittsburgh, Sanders’ signing of this offer sheet forces the Steelers to make a decision they did not want to make. This is not the type of organization that wants other franchises to negotiate contracts for it -- which is essentially what New England did if Pittsburgh chooses to match, and matching could force the Steelers to further shuffle their roster and salary cap.

Also, I don’t think that the Steelers are excited about dealing a young, promising starting wide receiver for a very late third-round pick. Although they are not the clear contender the Patriots are, the Steelers are not in rebuilding mode, and who knows how much longer Ben Roethlisberger can continue playing at a high level with all the punishment he has withstood.

How will Pittsburgh respond? None of us know, but my hunch is the Steelers are not especially happy about either option presented to them.

Countdown Live: AFC Championship Game

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
2:30
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for the AFC Championship Game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. See you there.

Video: Can Ravens knock off Patriots?

January, 15, 2013
1/15/13
7:00
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Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith discuss the Patriots being favored by 9.5 points over the Ravens.
Brady-LewisUSA TODAY SportsTom Brady and Ray Lewis face off for the second year in a row in the AFC title game.

It’s not the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning showdown many expected in the AFC Championship Game. But the intense rivalry between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens is just as exciting.

For the second consecutive year, these familiar foes will meet at Gillette Stadium for the right to represent the AFC at the Super Bowl. Last season, New England escaped with a 23-20 victory after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard chip shot that could've forced overtime.

Is this year’s rematch the last stop for Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis? Or will Brady be denied his sixth career Super Bowl appearance? AFC East blogger James Walker and AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley examine the possibilities.

James Walker: Jamison, I feel like it was just yesterday when we watched Billy Cundiff botch an otherwise great playoff game at Gillette Stadium. You had the feeling there was still unfinished business between these two teams, even after they played in the regular season. I think it’s fitting that the Ravens and Patriots got back to this point and meet again with so much on the line. How different are the Ravens now compared to the team that made last year’s AFC title game?

[+] EnlargeBilly Cundiff
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonKicker Billy Cundiff and the Ravens walked off the field disappointed in last season's AFC title game.
Jamison Hensley: Well, James, the Ravens don't have Cundiff or wide receiver Lee Evans anymore, which is a big difference from last season. But that hasn't been the only change. The Ravens have really undergone an image makeover in the 12 months since losing the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. Last year, and actually for the past 13 seasons, the Ravens were a team defined by defense. The offense has always been in the passenger seat when it comes to the team's championship drive. That's not the case anymore. Even though the Ravens' defense finished No. 17 in the league, it has been ranked in the 20s for most of the season. The Ravens are relying on Joe Flacco and their offense more than ever. Baltimore won half of its games this season by scoring 30 or more points and was 5-0 when Flacco threw for more than 300 yards. As he's been all season, Flacco is the X factor for the Ravens. I'm sure he's going to throw the ball deep against a Patriots defense that has given up some big plays this season. Everyone knows Tom Brady is championship caliber, but is that defense at that level yet?

Walker: New England’s defense is tricky to gauge. Is it championship caliber? No. The Patriots are not going to win a championship solely based on their defense, which was ranked 25th this season. But it has improved, largely due to its young players. Rookies like linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard have really added to New England’s physicality. The Patriots are ninth against the run and ninth in points allowed. It’s the “chunk” passing plays where New England has the most trouble. I think the Ravens can have success by attacking the Patriots vertically. New England has done a good job this season of scoring touchdowns, pushing the pace on offense and holding opponents to field goals. Before you know it, opponents are down 17 or 20 points. Obviously, the Patriots’ offense is a hot topic thanks to Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. He provided New England some easy bulletin-board material by saying he doesn’t respect the Patriots’ “gimmick” offense. The Patriots will use that as motivation, even if they don’t admit it publicly. Speaking of motivation, how big is the Ray Lewis factor and how will it impact this game?

Hensley: There will always be a debate on whether Ray Lewis is the greatest middle linebacker of all time. But there's really no argument when it comes to Lewis being the greatest leader in NFL history. James, as you know from your years of covering the AFC North, Lewis has a way of motivating players and getting them to elevate their game. That's a big reason the Ravens had a top-10 defense from 1999 to 2011. His impact is being felt this season, too. The Ravens are 7-1 with Lewis and 5-5 without him. When Lewis announced before the playoffs that this was going to be "his final ride," that became the emotional rallying cry for this team. Do I think everyone is playing for Ray Lewis? Not at all. Joe Flacco wasn't thinking of Ray Lewis when he threw that desperation touchdown pass in Denver. But the Ravens are certainly playing inspired football. It helped the Ravens beat Peyton Manning and they're hoping it helps them to knock off another future Hall of Fame quarterback. James, what has impressed you the most about Tom Brady's game this year?

[+] EnlargeNew England's Dont'a Hightower
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDont'a Hightower is one of the fresh faces helping the Patriots' defense.
Walker: I’ve always argued that Brady is better than Manning, especially this time of year. People will always debate their statistics. But the biggest difference is Brady is 17-6 and Manning is 9-11 in postseason games. I think that’s telling. There is no other quarterback I’d rather have in a one-game scenario than Brady. What’s impressed me most is Brady is 35 and showing no signs of slowing down. Brady even took on more responsibility this season, running a high-tempo, no-huddle offense more often, and he flourished. Brady, in my opinion, is in a class of his own among the final four quarterbacks. Flacco’s performance last week silenced a lot of critics, but he is 0-2 in AFC title games. Jamison, Flacco is in a contract year. Is this the season he gets over the hump in the conference championship game?

Hensley: If Evans could've held onto that catch in the end zone, Flacco would've already been over that hump. Just like last season, I expect the Patriots will look to shut down Ray Rice and force Flacco to beat them. Flacco has been a dangerous downfield passer this postseason, averaging 20.4 yards per completion. I'm not saying he's in Brady's class, but Flacco is playing at a higher level right now. It's not about Flacco stepping up in a contract year, either. He knows he's going to get paid whether it's a long-term deal or the franchise tag. The reason Flacco is playing better is because he's more experienced. Of course, as I say this, I also want to point out that Flacco is the streakiest quarterback in the league. So, do the Patriots get the good Flacco or the bad one? We'll find out Sunday. James, how do you see this game playing out?

Walker: You’re right, Jamison. Flacco has followed up some good performances with some bad ones. But I really like the sense of urgency from both teams. Baltimore has Lewis making his last postseason run and Brady looks like a man on a mission to qualify for his sixth Super Bowl appearance and maybe a fourth title. I decided to stay away from firm predictions after the regular season. AFC East blog readers were getting upset that I was hitting on most of my picks. My final record for the season was 40-12 picking division games. So I’m going to pass. But as I wrote last weekend, Brady was winning Super Bowls when Flacco, Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick were teenagers in high school. The quarterback advantage is in New England’s favor, which makes the Patriots the favorite of the four remaining teams.

Hensley: If the Ravens and Patriots played last month, my prediction would’ve been New England in a rout. But something has happened to the Ravens since the playoffs began. The Ravens are the big underdog once again, and that will only fuel their desire to prove themselves. Four of the past five meetings between Baltimore and New England have been decided by six points or fewer. This is going to be another close game. And, just like last season, the AFC Championship Game will come down to the final drive.

Bengals inactives

January, 5, 2013
1/05/13
3:11
PM ET
HOUSTON -- Here are the Cincinnati Bengals players you won't see in Sunday's wild-card game against the Houston Texans.

Bengals

NFL: Week 15 knee-jerk reactions

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
1:44
PM ET
You’ve heard the chatter by the sports pundits and on the talk shows. Heck, you might even have heard it here. So, are the knee-jerk reactions about your team based in reality? Our NFL bloggers weigh in.

NFC Knee-jerk Reactions | AFC Knee-jerk Reactions

NFL: Week 14 knee-jerk reactions

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
1:37
PM ET
You’ve heard the chatter by the sports pundits and on the talk shows. Heck, you might even have heard it here. So, are the knee-jerk reactions about your team based in reality? Our NFL bloggers weigh in.

NFC Knee-jerk Reactions | AFC Knee-jerk Reactions

NFL: Week 13 knee-jerk reactions

December, 4, 2012
12/04/12
1:42
PM ET
You’ve heard the chatter by the sports pundits and on the talk shows. Heck, you might even have heard it here. So, are the knee-jerk reactions about your team based in reality? Our NFL bloggers weigh in.

NFC Knee-jerk Reactions | AFC Knee-jerk Reactions

NFL: Week 12 knee-jerk reactions

November, 27, 2012
11/27/12
1:30
PM ET
You’ve heard the chatter by the sports pundits and on the talk shows. Heck, you might even have heard it here. So, are the knee-jerk reactions about your team based in reality? Our NFL bloggers weigh in.

NFC Knee-jerk Reactions | AFC Knee-jerk Reactions

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