AFC North: Atlanta Falcons

Here are some observations from the Cincinnati Bengals' 34-10 preseason win at the Atlanta Falcons:
  • Judging by the first two series by the first-team offense, the Bengals are going to use two tight ends as their primary formation. It makes sense because that way both Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, two first-round picks, are on the field. Of Andy Dalton's eight drop-backs, three passes went to his tight ends. By going with two tight ends, the Bengals use a single back and no fullback.
  • Dalton didn't have much time to get into a rhythm. He was 3-of-7 for 37 yards. In his two drives, the Bengals managed 24 total yards and two first downs but never crossed midfield.
  • The Bengals played without three starters on offense, but that doesn't excuse them for hurting themselves worse with mistakes. The offense committed three penalties in the first quarter and every one came from the offensive line. Left guard Clint Boling had a false start on third down, and the other two penalties were committed by players competing for the starting center job (Kyle Cook and Trevor Robinson).
  • Rookie running back Giovani Bernard provided a glimpse of what he could do. On his first catch of the game, he nearly converted a third-and-20, gaining 16 yards on a short pass. He then ended the first half with a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal, which put the Bengals up 17-3 at halftime.
  • In the backup quarterback battle, Josh Johnson made big plays and John Skelton looked better than he has all summer. Even though Johnson isn't the most consistent thrower, he comes up with yards in big chunks, with his feet as well as his arm. Johnson had 60 yards on three runs in the first half, including a 43-yard scramble. He later connected on a 21-yard touchdown with Brandon Tate, getting the ball through tight coverage. Skelton, though, threw his best pass as a Bengal, hitting Dane Sanzenbacher on a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. He finished 4-of-5 for 72 yards, which resulted in a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
  • Speaking of Sanzenbacher, he scored two touchdowns in the preseason opener. In addition to the touchdown catch, he ran back a punt 71 yards for a score in the third quarter.
  • One of the biggest knocks on middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is his pass coverage. But he came up big on third down in the first quarter, running to the sideline to stop former Bengals tight end Chase Coffman short of the first down.
  • Starters who didn't play: WR A.J. Green (hamstring), LT Andrew Whitworth (knee), FB Chris Pressley (knee) and DE Carlos Dunlap (concussion).
In March, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco created a stir when he became the highest-paid player in NFL history. Nearly five months later, he's not even the second-highest paid player in the league.

Since Flacco signed his six-year, $120.6 million deal, he was surpassed by the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers in late April and then by the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan on Thursday.

Here's how the highest-paid list stands now: Rodgers (an average of $22 million), Ryan ($20.75 million) and Flacco ($20.1 million).

Flacco had predicted his then-NFL record contract wouldn't last long.

"I’m sure in a couple of months from now, someone is going to sign a deal, and you guys are going to be talking to them about how they are the highest-paid guy in NFL history," Flacco said after signing his contract on March 4. "That’s just the name of the game. I know that this isn’t going to hold up for that long, but that’s not a priority of mine to be the highest-paid guy. The priority of mine was to get that respect that I felt, that I feel now from this organization.”

Flacco's deal was obviously the benchmark in the negotiations between Ryan and the Falcons. Ryan will receive $59 million guaranteed, which is $7 million more than Flacco. Ryan will also make $63 million in the first three years of the deal, which is $1 million more Flacco.

But should Ryan have gotten a better deal than Flacco? Since they were both drafted in the first round in 2008, Ryan has put up better statistics in the regular season, throwing for 18,957 yards with 127 touchdowns and 60 interceptions. Flacco has passed for 17,633 yards with 102 touchdowns and 56 interceptions.

Where Flacco trumps Ryan is in the postseason. Flacco has won a Super Bowl, and Ryan has won one playoff game. Flacco has a 9-4 record in the postseason and earned Super Bowl MVP honors last season. Ryan is 1-4 in the postseason.

Still, Flacco finds himself in elite company in terms of big-money contracts for quarterbacks. He is averaging more per season than Drew Brees ($20 million), Peyton Manning ($19.2 million) and Tony Romo ($18 million).

It's fighting words around these parts if you mention that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is "elite." So, Merril Hoge's comments should really stir it up here.

In ranking his top five quarterbacks in the NFL right now -- with the emphasis on right now -- Hoge has Flacco atop his standings. That's right, No. 1. The big numero uno. His other four are: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan.

Feel free to discuss this in the comments below.

EA Sports simulates San Francisco-Atlanta and Baltimore-New England.
My picks in last weekend's divisional playoff round can be summed up like this: Saturday was awful and Sunday was perfect. In other words, I split last weekend. Here's my predictions for Sunday's conference championship games (for entertainment purposes only):

Baltimore Ravens 31, New England Patriots 27: You got the feeling from the Ravens last week that they needed things to fall the right way in order to beat the Broncos. That's not the case against the Patriots. Baltimore is brimming with confidence heading into Sunday's game, and this team should be confident. The Ravens won in the playoffs in New England three years ago and they believe they should have won there in last year's AFC Championship Game if not for Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff flinching in the final minute. The biggest mismatch of the game is the Ravens' deep passing game against the Patriots secondary. I know the Patriots aren't allowing as many big plays since trading for cornerback Aqib Talib, but Joe Flacco has been almost unstoppable when throwing deep in these playoffs. The key will be Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones getting off the line against what should be physical coverage by the Patriots. Flacco won a shootout with Peyton Manning last week and he'll do the same against Tom Brady.

Atlanta Falcons 28, San Francisco 49ers 23: Home-field advantage will be a factor here. Or should I say dome-field advantage. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is 34-6 at the Georgia Dome, including the playoffs. The 49ers went 1-2 in domes this season (11-2-1 outdoors), losing at the Rams and Vikings. Where this game should be decided is inside 20-yard lines. The Falcons rank in the top 10 in red zone offense and defense. The 49ers have the 21st-ranked red zone offense and the 28th-ranked one on defense.

Wild-card record: 2-2. Season record: 34-21 (.618).

Ravens 38, Broncos 35, 2OT (my prediction: Broncos 23, Ravens 20)

49ers 45, Packers 31 (my prediction: Packers 27, 49ers 20)

Falcons 30, Seahawks 28 (my prediction: Falcons 24, Seahawks 20)

Patriots 41, Texans 28 (my prediction: Patriots 31, Texans 16)
A year after the Browns passed up wide receiver Julio Jones in the draft, there's no consensus among fans whether Cleveland should have done so.

In a SportsNation poll this week, 46 percent of the 5,959 votes say the Browns made the right move to give up the sixth overall pick to the Atlanta Falcons and 45 percent say the Browns didn't.

In exchange for giving up the pick that became Jones, the Browns got defensive tackle Phil Taylor (Atlanta's 2011 first-round pick), wide receiver Greg Little, (2011 second-round pick), fullback Owen Marecic (2011 fourth-round pick) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (2012 first-round pick). Cleveland also used a 2012 fourth-round pick in that deal as part of the package to trade up one spot for running back Trent Richardson.

Here are some comments from blog readers on this issue:

Jake, from Columbus, Ohio: The Browns did not make the wrong decision in trading away the chance to draft Jones. Phil Taylor has already made a major impact in the NFL.Of the 10 defensive linemen selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, Taylor had the most tackles at 59. While none of the other players drafted with the acquired picks has had great success, I don't believe Jones would be anywhere near his current stats if he was on the Browns.The Browns simply weren't in any position to reject the bounty of picks offered for one player when so many holes remained on both sides of the ball. The Falcons may have been one good receiver away from a Super Bowl run. The Browns were certainly not.

John, from Springfield, Ohio: I think it is too soon to be able to say for sure whether the decision to make the trade and pass on Julio Jones was good or bad. Phil Taylor could still absolutely turn out to be a Pro Bowl player. Little and Josh Gordon are still young and raw and both have the potential to be number ones. As far as Weeden it's way to soon to make any judgement but a couple 300-yard games in his first four starts is a great sign. I will go out on a limb and say Richardson is going to be a standout. I think if just two of these players or Weeden alone turns out to be a star playmaker, then the trade was a good one. If three or four turn out to be great, then it was a fantastic trade. At worst, I don't see them coming out short on the deal by much no matter what so I think it was good move at the time and still is.

Michael, from Cleveland: I do think the Browns made the right choice in not Drafting Julio Jones.The players gained in that trade are good players. I would put the Browns players on the same level as Julio Jones.

John, from Avon, Ohio: The Browns made a very reasonable trade at the time. No one player was going to turn the team around. Julio Jones has Matt Ryan throwing to him, plus Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez keeping defenses occupied. You probably wouldn't even know his name if the Browns had drafted him. The Browns were so weak everywhere. We needed lots of picks, and that's what we got. All of those picks are now starters, so it wasn't a complete bust of a trade.

Jack, from Newark, Ohio: It is pretty simple to see that the Browns lost on this deal. In my opinion, Cleveland's problem at the quarterback spot is directly tied to their problem at wide receiver. Colt McCoy never had a chance to succeed due to the lack of a receiver. They should have drafted Julio to give McCoy another chance, and worst-case scenario is McCoy still plays terrible and they get a early first-round pick and can get a top talent quarterback.

Keith, from Cleveland: Julio Jones is a wonderful receiver for a team that has their primary positions filled. You don't build around wide receivers. Teams that have won Super Bowls have done so by hitting on mid or late round wide receivers. Name a team in the past 10 years that has won a Super Bowl with a top 5 or top 10 pick at wide receiver? Because of that, the Browns did make the right decision.
Cleveland Browns wide receivers are dropping passes at an alarming rate for a second straight season, which leads us to revisit the team's draft-day decision in 2011. Instead of drafting wide receiver Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick, the Browns traded that selection to the Atlanta Falcons for five picks.

This is the final tally for those picks: defensive tackle Phil Taylor (Atlanta's 2011 first-round pick), wide receiver Greg Little (2011 second-round pick), fullback Owen Marecic (2011 fourth-round pick) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (2012 first-round pick). Cleveland also used a 2012 fourth-round pick in that deal as part of the package to trade up one spot for running back Trent Richardson.


With all of their current problems at wide receiver, did the Browns make the right move in the Julio Jones draft day trade with Atlanta?


Discuss (Total votes: 6,002)

Taylor showed promise before getting injured before this season. Little is known for dropping passes and posting celebratory pictures on his Twitter following losses. Marecic's role continues to get diminished in the West Coast offense. And Weeden has had an up-and-down rookie season.

The Browns have tried to find a top wide receiver in the second round of the draft instead of the first. But the results haven't panned out. Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie (no longer with the Browns) and Little have been disappointments. Josh Gordon, who was selected in the second round of the supplemental draft, hasn't made a significant impact because he's too raw.

Meanwhile, Jones has caught 16 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns this season. In comparison, Little leads all Browns wide receivers with 11 receptions for 151 yards and one touchdown. The Browns are the only team in the division who lack a young playmaker at the wide receiver position. The Bengals can go to A.J. Green, the Ravens can go deep to Torrey Smith and the Steelers can turn to either Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown.

So, in hindsight, did the Browns make the right move in not drafting Jones? Record your vote and send me your reason to my mailbag. Your comment could be used in a blog post later in the week.

Dalton looking to join Flacco and Ryan

December, 30, 2011
The Bengals' Andy Dalton can join Joe Flacco's elite rookie group by beating the Ravens quarterback Sunday.

Dalton can become the fifth quarterback ever to win 10 games or more as a rookie starter, matching the likes of Flacco and the Falcons' Matt Ryan. That's not bad for the 35th overall pick in the 2011 draft and the fifth quarterback taken.

Flacco and Ryan have continued their winning ways beyond their rookie seasons. Flacco has won 43 games since being a first-round pick in 2008, the most through a quarterback's first four seasons among those who began their careers in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). Ryan, who entered the league in 2008, has led Atlanta to 42 victories.

Video: Gruden's QB camp - Cam Newton

April, 9, 2011
Jon Gruden discusses life in the NFL with one of the draft's top quarterback prospects.

Video: Week 4 Sunday Breakdown

October, 4, 2010

Jim Basquil and Eric Allen recap the biggest stories from Sunday.

Countdown Live: Falcons-Steelers

September, 12, 2010
Join AFC North blogger James Walker, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and Scouts Inc. expert Matt Williamson as they break down the opening week clash between the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Contribute your thoughts and questions on this game and the rest of what's happening around the NFL starting at 1 p.m. ET. See you there.