AFC North: Carolina Panthers

ORLANDO, Fla. -- One of wide receiver Steve Smith's greatest assets is his work ethic.

That also, according to Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, may be Smith's downfall.

At least at 35, which he'll be in May.

Rivera said during Wednesday's NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meeting that Smith needs to tone down his practice habits so he won't wear down late in the season.

Before I go any further, that wasn't why the Panthers released their all-time leading receiver a few weeks ago. Rivera was just answering a question about whether Smith still has what it takes to be a top receiver for his new team, the Baltimore Ravens.

"Steve still has it,'' Rivera said. "There are some things Steve will do very well for [Baltimore]. Steve is an explosive, dynamic player. He's a veteran guy. One of the things, in my opinion, Steve needs to do is learn to tone things down. He practices very hard. He's going to give 100 percent. He's going to challenge.

"At his age, his seniority, he has to handle himself. But he still has it. He made the big catch for us in the playoffs.''

Rivera was referring to a 31-yard touchdown pass Smith caught down the left sideline to give Carolina a 7-6 lead over San Francisco in the second quarter of the NFC divisional playoff loss.

It should be noted that Smith beat the San Francisco secondary after being questionable all week with a knee injury that forced him to miss the regular-season finale.

It also should be noted that Smith's work ethic is one of the things Baltimore coach John Harbaugh wants to rub off on his young receivers.

But Rivera still believes Smith needs to tone his practice habits.

"He's going to wear himself down,'' he said. "Steve wants to take every rep. I'll give you an example. We tell Steve today's your day off. We go out there and he's in pads. He says, 'I just want to wear them out when I go through drills.' The next thing you know he's in team drills.

"That's just the way he is. He wants to do everything all the time.''

Whether Smith will tone down remains to be seen. The chip on his shoulder after being cut by Carolina has gotten bigger. He's said repeatedly he wants to be in the best shape a 35-year-old receiver can be.

And as Rivera said, "Steve will find ways to make plays.''

But sometimes you have to do less to do more.
Here are some happenings around the AFC North:

BENGALS: Tight end Jermaine Gresham is willing to reward a good deed -- a pretty good reward, in fact. On his Twitter account, Gresham said a homeless man put 50 cents in a parking meter so the Pro Bowl tight end wouldn't get a $55 ticket. Gresham gave the man $100 for helping him out.

BROWNS: Colt McCoy said he hopes to get a fair shot at competing against Brandon Weeden for the Browns' starting quarterback job. But does he expect to get it? "We'll see, I don't know," McCoy told KXAN-TV in Texas. "There are a lot of things I can control and I'm controlling those things. The things beyond that I try to do my best to not worry about those and go out there and do what I do on the field, that's the most important thing. Beyond that, I can't do anything else."

RAVENS: ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton offers a potential predicament for the Ravens next offseason: If the Ravens don't meet Ray Rice's $9 million-a-year price tag,and they don't sign QB Joe Flacco to an extension, both Rice and Flacco could be free agents next year. The Ravens have about $15 million of cap room, but all of that would be gone with a quarterback franchise tag.

STEELERS: There has been no progress in contract talks between restricted free agent Mike Wallace and the Steelers and "in fact, very little negotiation" between the sides, according to The Sports Xchange's Len Pasquarelli. Wallace, who wants a long-term deal, skipped all of the offseason camps and has yet to sign his $2.72 million tender.
It took until the fourth day of free agency, but the Cincinnati Bengals finally broke the ice in free agency.

With the second-most salary-cap space in the NFL the Bengals signed Panthers free-agent guard Travelle Wharton, according to reports by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer. There were no immediate contract details on Wharton, who had visited the Rams.

While the Bengals' first signing took longer than many expected, this is a solid first step for Cincinnati. The Bengals desperately needed to upgrade at guard and needed to someone who would boost the run game. Wharton's strength is run blocking.

The Bengals could have made a bigger splash if they had gone after someone like Ben Grubbs, but this a much better signing than Rams free-agent guard Jacob Bell (who visited the Bengals this week) or bringing back Nate Livings (who signed with the Dallas Cowboys).

Wharton, 30, was a third-round pick by Carolina in 2004. It appears that he was released reluctantly four days ago by the Panthers, who couldn't take on Wharton's $7.6 million cap figure. “It was an extremely difficult decision on Travelle,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said at the time.

Could RG3 top Cam Newton's numbers?

February, 11, 2012
Cam Newton made an immediate splash for the Carolina Panthers, breaking Peyton Manning's 13-year-old rookie passing yards record.

Could the Cleveland Browns get similar results if they draft Robert Griffin III?

ESPN Insider KC Joyner believes so. In his Insider post, Joyner says RG3 has the physical skills and track record to threaten Newton's mark of 4,051 yards.

One of the likely reasons for the statistical edge is that the Baylor Bears' offense had more pro-style tendencies than the run-heavy spread offense Newton played in at Auburn. That allowed Griffin to attack defenses in a wider variety of ways than Newton was able to and should help reduce his pro transition time.

Another edge for Griffin is that his senior season was his fourth as a starter (though it should be noted he missed most of his sophomore season due to an injury), while Newton tallied only one season as a starter at an FBS school. That level of extra training time is a highly valued trait among talent evaluators for good reason, as studies have shown it tends to bode well for NFL success.

It's debatable whether RG3 will still be on the board when the Browns are on the clock with the fourth overall pick. Knowing the possibility of the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins trading in front of them, the Browns might have to consider moving up if they are committed to RG3 as their franchise quarterback.

While Joyner presents a convincing argument on why RG3 can be the next Cam Newton, no one really knows how he'll turn out in the NFL. In many instances, a quarterback's supporting cast can determine success. Newton had the benefit of throwing to Steve Smith and handing the ball off to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

It could be tougher for a quarterback coming to the Browns at this point. Cleveland doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 receiver and doesn't have one proven running back, much less two like Carolina. That's why drafting a quarterback like Griffin can only be the first step in building the Browns' offense under coach Pat Shurmur.

Prediction time: Week 17

December, 29, 2011
Yes, it’s that time again on Thursday, when I’m asking for your predictions.

Starting now, post your predicted scores for each of the following games involving AFC North teams:
Hopefully, you remember the drill. I will put my predictions up against our blog readers.

How will I select the reader? At the top of your submission, put the total points scored in the Ravens-Bengals game, which happens to be the one I will be covering Sunday. The first reader to match my total for that game will have his or her scores posted with mine Friday on the blog.

To recap last week, I was a perfect 3-0 on my predictions while our reader (bmorecity52) went 2-1. So overall, I have a 31-10 record (.756) and the readers are 34-29 (.540).

Also, congrats to BmoreNotLess, whose picks are automatically qualified into the Friday Forecast. For the second time this season, BmoreNotLess correctly picked the total number of points for the Browns-Ravens game (34).

Hot Button: Dalton or Newton?

November, 30, 2011

While I have already written at length on why A.J. Green is the most valuable rookie,'s John Clayton and Ashley Fox debated whether Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton or Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is the NFL's top offensive rookie in this week's Hot Button.

Fox backs Dalton: "It is the only statistic that ultimately matters. Andy Dalton has it and Cam Newton doesn't: wins. Dalton has seven. Newton has three."

Clayton thinks it's Newton: "I don't think it's close. I've seen three of Dalton's games, and he's a major talent. Despite the Panthers' 3-8 record, Newton's play borders on spectacular. As long as he stays healthy, he's going to shatter the rookie record book for quarterbacks."

Here are Dalton's statistics: 218-of-363 (60.1 percent) for 2,509 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His passer rating is 81.8.

Newton's numbers are: 239-of-392 (61 percent) for 3,093 yards, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His rating is 81.1.

ESPN's KC Joyner writes that the numbers favor Dalton over Newton.

Upon Further Review: Ravens

November, 25, 2011
Revisiting the Baltimore Ravens' 16-6 victory over the visiting San Francisco 49ers:

The Ravens defense put together another dominant performance, holding the 49ers to 170 total yards.

It's an impressive performance because the Ravens did this without Ray Lewis, who was out with a toe injury. It's even more impressive considering the Ravens did this with two undrafted players at inside linebacker.

Albert McClellan (four tackles) went from playing at Marshall two years ago to starting for Lewis on Thanksgiving night. Jameel McClain (eight tackles) took over Lewis' job of relaying the calls to the defense three years removed from being the only rookie free agent to make the Ravens in 2008.

McClellan and McClain helped limit running back Frank Gore to 39 yards on 14 carries, a 2.8-yard average. By making the 49ers one-dimensional, the Ravens were able to tie a franchise record with nine sacks.

"It's Thanksgiving man, there's a lot of turkey," said defensive end Cory Redding, who set a career-high with 2.5 sacks. "We had to go out there and eat. And that's the beauty of stopping the run. When you do that, you can pin your ears back and rush the passer."

STAT THAT STICKS: 84 -- Joe Flacco's passing yards on third downs against the 49ers. Flacco completed 7 of 10 passes on third downs and threw his only touchdown on third-and-goal.

OVERHEARD: "Just running across the field, I felt really humble. Really humble, just thankful. It's Thanksgiving, and we told our guys there is so much to be thankful for. Running across the field to my brother, he's my best friend, along with Mom and Dad and my wife. You don't put yourself in many other coaches' shoes, but you can put yourself in your brother's shoes. I'm really proud of him ... I just can't say it enough, the job that he's done building that football team. That's a good football team." -- Ravens coach John Harbaugh after winning The Harbaugh Bowl

WHAT'S NEXT: The Ravens play at Cleveland on Dec. 4. Baltimore is 2-3 on the road this season.

In a SportsNation poll that received over 6,300 responses, voters say the injury to A.J. Green has hurt his team the most. Green, however, looks like he will play Sunday against Cleveland after missing last Sunday with a hyperextended right knee.

The fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Green leads the Bengals in catches (41), receiving yards (635) and touchdowns (six).

Each AFC North team is dealing with injuries to key players. When asked which injury hurt his team the most, voters chose Green over Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

Poll results

Whose injury hurt his team the most?

Bengals WR A.J. Green: 38 percent

Browns RB Peyton Hillis: 26 percent

Ravens LB Ray Lewis: 21 percent

Steelers LB LaMarr Woodley: 15 percent

Friday Forecast: Week 12

November, 25, 2011
This is Friday Forecast, where we'll see how my predictions hold up against our readers'. This week, I will go against J Morg 05 (who matched my 30 total points this week) and jonnyplesko (who was the closest to the total points for last week's game).

Here are our predictions for the AFC North games in Week 12:

Jamison Hensley

Bengals 20, Browns 10

Steelers 27, Chiefs 6


Browns 23, Bengals 17

Steelers 45, Chiefs 13

J Morg 05

Bengals 24, Browns 6

Steelers 28, Chiefs 10


Bengals 20, Browns 10: Even though receiver A.J. Green (knee) and quarterback Andy Dalton (throwing shoulder) will play, the Bengals will lean heavily on the running game. This has been the Browns' weakness all season. Cedric Benson ran for 121 yards in the season opener against Cleveland, and backup Bernard Scott has been running hard, too. The Bengals have made it very public that they're ticked off after losing two straight, and they'll take out their anger with a punishing rushing attack that will eventually wear down Cleveland.

Steelers 27, Chiefs 6: The Chiefs have lost three straight games, falling by a whopping average of 22 points. This one shouldn't be any different. Kansas City is coming off a short week having played Monday night at New England while Pittsburgh is coming off its bye. Tyler Palko is the Chiefs' quarterback for now but he's likely a lame-duck starter (Kyle Orton will probably take over as soon as he learns the playbook). Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than any quarterback in the AFC even with a broken right thumb. This is a mismatch, plain and simple.
What's the chances of the Bengals' Andy Dalton beating out the Panthers' Cam Newton for NFL offensive rookie of the year?

According to NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, he doesn't have much of one. Yasinskas writes that Newton is a slam dunk to win the award with seven weeks remaining in the regular season.

Dalton has passed for 1,866 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions in leading the Bengals to a 6-3 record. Newton has thrown for 2,605 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for the 2-7 Panthers.

"Is anybody really ready to call Dalton a franchise quarterback?," Yasinskas writes. "Yeah, I know it might be a little tempting because it’s been tough to even call the Bengals a franchise for most of the time they’ve been in the league. But Dalton is not Newton. He’s not even close."

AFC North Game Balls

November, 8, 2011
We're handing out game balls after Week 9 and here is who's getting them:

OFFENSE: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Yes, the Bengals' Andy Dalton threw for three touchdowns but Flacco earned this by marching the Ravens 92 yards down the field to beat the AFC North rival Steelers at their place. Flacco, who was 28 of 47 for 300 yards, actually threw two touchdowns on the game-winning drive. Torrey Smith dropped one in the end zone before making the game-winning 26-yard catch with eight seconds remaining.

DEFENSE: Bengals cornerback Nate Clements. Cincinnati's pass defense struggled early on, but Clements finished with seven tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. The turnover highlighted a second half in which the Bengals shut out Tennessee to pull off the comeback win. With Cincinnati ahead by four points in the fourth quarter, Clements stripped the ball from tight end Jared Cook and recovered the ball in Titans territory, which led to an easy field goal.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff. Cleveland's Phil Dawson made two field goals in a losing effort, but Cundiff's performance made more of an impact. Cundiff delivered three field goals and four touchbacks in the win at Pittsburgh. His 51-yarder was the second-longest ever at Heinz Field, which is considered one of the toughest places to kick.

The results are in from our SportsNation poll and the best defensive player currently in the AFC North is ... LaMarr Woodley.

After a slow start, the Steelers outside linebacker stepped up when fellow pass-rusher James Harrison went down, recording 5.5 sacks in his past three games. He has 34 tackles, an AFC-leading seven sacks, two passes defensed and one interception (which came one play after the Titans recovering their own onside kick).

In a poll that exceeded 8,600 votes, Woodley received 39 percent in one of the most closely contested AFC North polls this season.

Here's the results:

LB LaMarr Woodley: 39 percent

DT Haloti Ngata, Ravens: 25 percent

CB Joe Haden, Browns: 19 percent

LB Rey Maualuga, Bengals: 17 percent

AFC North injury update

October, 19, 2011
A look at injuries around the AFC North:

BENGALS: Cincinnati is on its bye week.

BROWNS: The Browns and Seahawks held late practices and their injuries weren't listed in the official NFL injury report released at 6:45 p.m. ET.

RAVENS: Wide receiver Lee Evans (ankle), who has missed the past three games, told the Carroll County Times that he expects to play this season. He added that surgery isn't an option. "It’s to the point now where I can’t even answer any more questions about it," Evans told the paper. First-round pick Jimmy Smith (high ankle sprain) said he's "very optimistic" about coming back but didn't indicate a timetable to return.

STEELERS: The good news is left guard Chris Kemoeatu and right tackle Marcus Gilbert are expected to return after not being listed on the injury report. The bad news is the top two nose tackles -- Casey Hampton (shoulder) and Chris Hoke (neck) -- both didn't practice. That might lead to Steve McLendon making his first career NFL start. Defensive end Aaron Smith (foot) and linebacker James Harrison (eye) are both not expected to play. Wide receiver Mike Wallace (hamstring) didn't practice, but he's projected to play. Safety Troy Polamalu (head) wasn't listed on the injury report. ... For the Cardinals, tight end Todd Heap (hamstring) and free safety Kerry Rhodes (foot) both didn't practice.

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.