AFC North: Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Receivers, running backs and tight ends lined up in front of the JUGS machines at practice on Wednesday and Thursday this week and waited for footballs to fly at them.

It wasn't because the Green Bay Packers had passes bouncing off their hands like Super Balls in Sunday's loss at the Buffalo Bills.

"That's something we do every week," Packers receivers coach Edgar Bennett said Thursday.

Surely, after seven drops – the most by one team in an NFL game since 2008 – that has to be a great emphasis this week.

"That's something we emphasize every week," Bennett said.

Clearly, it’s not something the Packers wanted to spend much time talking about this week. In fact, several players said they have been instructed not to talk about the Bills' game at all but rather speak only about Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay.

Dropped passes must not have been on the list of approved topics for Bennett.

“I’m going to defer all of that to coach Mike [McCarthy],” Bennett said.

So how do the players react after a case of the drops?

"Move on," said receiver Jordy Nelson, when asked about his drop that would have been a 94-yard touchdown. "That's all you can do."

And that's all he was willing to say.

The Packers haven't had to address the matter much this season. Before Sunday's game, they had the fifth-lowest drop percentage in the NFL at 3.1 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which had charged them with just 13 drops through the first 13 games. Only five teams had fewer to that point.

After Sunday's game, they ranked tied for 20th in drop percentage (4.4) and only 11 teams had more drops than their 20.

"We'll stay the course," McCarthy said. "We're really focused on the things, really the same every week, in the areas of fundamentals, and definitely handling the ball is an emphasis this week."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers structured the three-year contract that Julius Peppers signed in March in a way that would make it easy for them to move without him after only one season.

The veteran pass-rusher hopes that's not the case.

Peppers
When asked Friday whether he wants to come back to the Packers for another year, Peppers said: "Of course."

At age 34 and in his 13th NFL season, Peppers said he's not at the end of his career yet.

"I'm near the end," he said. "I'm somewhere near the end."

But not at it.

So now it will be up to the Packers to decide whether he's worth the $9.5 million he's scheduled to make in 2016. The terms of the three-year, $26 million contract that he signed last March after the Chicago Bears released him call for Peppers to be paid an $8.5 million base salary next season plus another $1 million in bonuses ($500,000 in roster bonuses and another $500,000 workout bonus). Combined with his prorated signing bonus, his salary-cap figure for next season is $12 million.

However, if they released him, that would be wiped off the books, and the Packers would only have to count the remaining $5 million of his signing-bonus proration, so they would gain $7 million in cap space.

It's also possible the deal could be renegotiated or Peppers could change his mind, say, if he gets the Super Bowl title he covets.

Peppers has given the Packers perhaps more than they initially hoped, at least in terms of playing time. Back in March, coach Mike McCarthy said he had no intention of playing Peppers the 865 snaps that the Bears did last season. However, Peppers is on pace to come close. He has averaged 53 snaps per game, which would equate to 848 plays if he were to stay healthy the rest of the season.

"I wasn't really sure the plan when I came in; I don't think any of us were," Peppers said. "It was an experiment, a project. Once we got into it, adjustments are always made to the schedule, the playing time, the position, scheme, stuff like that. I think we all have found a balance of playing time, and I think it's cool with everybody."

Peppers leads the Packers with five sacks and has shown his versatility in his new outside linebacker position by picking of two passes, both of which he returned for touchdowns.

He hasn't been listed on an injury report or missed a day of practice this season.

"Honestly, I'm taking this thing one day at a time, and at the end of the year we'll re-evaluate where I'm at where, where the team is at, which direction they're going, which direction I want to go," Peppers said. "So as of right now, I'm having fun and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."

Live blog: Steelers at Packers

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
2:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Pittsburgh Steelers' visit to the Green Bay Packers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Eddie Lacy and Jason WorildsGetty ImagesJason Worilds and the Steelers will have to stop Eddie Lacy -- one of the league's best running backs this season.
The last time the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers met, the Lombardi trophy was on the line.

In Green Bay, the memories of Super Bowl XLV are alive and well.

In Pittsburgh, all Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he remembers from that game is one thing: "We lost," he said this week.

The stakes are much different heading into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. The Steelers (6-8) are in the midst of disappointing season, while the Packers (7-6-1) are fighting for their playoff lives.

Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discuss the rematch:

Rob Demovsky: Let's start with this question. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he doesn't regret passing on Eddie Lacy in favor of drafting running back Le'Veon Bell. Right now, Lacy looks like the better pick, but it's still too early in their careers to say anything definitive. How has Bell fit into the Steelers offense and what's the biggest reason he's only averaging 3.3 yards per carry?

Scott Brown: Bell has become a big part of the offense and he has added another dimension to it with his pass-catching abilities. He is fourth on the team in receiving, and the Steelers don't just throw screen passes or checkdowns to Bell but also use him as a receiver. Bell is still finding his way as a runner and I'd say his low rushing average is a combination of playing behind a line that is better at pass blocking as well as the adjustment he is making to the speed of the game at this level. Bell has shown flashes, such as when he hurdles a cornerback or plants a defensive end with a stiff-arm, two things he did Sunday night against the Bengals.

Rob, are you surprised at all at the success Lacy has had so early in his career and what has his emergence meant to the Packers offense?

Demovsky: The only thing that has surprised me about Lacy has been his durability. As everyone around the Steelers knows, there were major questions about his injury history coming out of Alabama. Then, early on his conditioning looked a little off -- although it was not as bad as that unflattering picture of him that was circulating during training camp. Then, he sustained a concussion and missed a game and as half. But ever since he has returned from that, there haven't been any major issues. He's managed to play through a sprained ankle the past two weeks. Whenever they get quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, they'll be tough to stop because defenses will have to respect both the run and the pass. That's something Rodgers hasn't really had since he's been the starter.

I've heard a lot of people say they think the Steelers got old in a hurry, especially on defense. Even Roethlisberger looks like an old 31. What do you see in that regard and how much, if at all, has that impacted what's happened to the Steelers this season?

Brown: Age has certainly been a factor in the decline of the defense this season, but I think it's a bit of a misconception that the Steelers' problems stem from them getting old in a hurry. There is still age on the defense, most notably in the secondary, but the Steelers have quietly gotten younger on that side of the ball -- and will continue to do so after the season. What made the Steelers consistently good before this current stretch is they always seemed to have younger players ready to step in for starters who had passed their prime. Perhaps the best example of this is James Harrison and the kind of player he turned into after the Steelers released Joey Porter following the 2006 season.

The Steelers are actually pretty young on offense and while Roethlisberger is 31, he has played every snap this season. I think the offense will step to the forefront in the coming seasons while the Steelers retool the defense and Bell and the offensive line get better.

Rob, Matt Flynn had trouble sticking with a team before he returned to Green Bay. Is it too strong to say that he saved the season -- or at least prevented the Packers from dropping out of playoff contention after Rodgers went down with the broken collarbone?

Demovsky: I'm not sure if Flynn saved their season as much as the Detroit Lions' ineptitude saved their season. Same with the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. It's not exactly like Flynn lit up a couple of defensive juggernauts. That said, it's obvious Flynn has a comfort level with the Packers offense that he did not have in Seattle or Oakland. How else can you explain why he has performed reasonably well here and so poorly in those places?

This is obviously the first meeting between these two teams since Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger said this week on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field that the only thing he remembers about that game is that his team lost. Given that the Steelers don't have the playoffs to play for this season, does avenging that Super Bowl loss give the Steelers any extra motivation this week?

Brown: They can say that it doesn't, but I'm sure they would love a little payback for that loss even if a win by the Steelers on Sunday would come on a considerably smaller stage. I have been impressed with how the Steelers have remained focused even though they only have a sliver of hope of sneaking into the playoffs -- and that's if they manage to win their final two games. The Steelers, in fact, could already be eliminated from postseason contention before kickoff Sunday depending on what happens in the 1 p.m. ET games.

If their showing against the Bengals is a guide, the Packers will get the Steelers' best effort no matter what transpires in the early games. The Steelers seemingly had nothing to play for last Sunday night and they jumped all over the Bengals and cruised to a 30-20 win. It was their most impressive win of the season as much for the circumstances under which it came as for the opponent.

Rob, the Steelers offense has really been on the rise since offensive coordinator Todd Haley removed the reins from the no-huddle attack. Given some of the difficulties Green Bay has had on defense do you think it will need to score a lot of points to beat the Steelers?

Demovsky: The Packers defense gave up 332 yards in the first half alone last Sunday against the Cowboys. They couldn't stop the run -- they haven't really done so since early in the season -- and they seem to have costly coverage breakdowns. When their defense has been at its best is when it has created turnovers. Those two fourth-quarter interceptions of Tony Romo sure made up for a lot of defensive mistakes. The same thing happened when they pitched a shutout in the second half against the Falcons the previous week. If Roethlisberger & Co. take care of the ball, then I expect the Steelers will force the Packers to match them in a shootout type of game.

Live blog: Browns at Packers

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
2:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Cleveland Browns' visit to the Green Bay Packers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Eddie Lacy and Brandon WeedenUSA TODAY SportsThe Packers may have to rely more on their run game, while Browns QB Brandon Weeden seeks to recover from a forgettable outing.
The Green Bay Packers have made it past a difficult stretch in which they played four playoff teams from last season in their first five games.

And they came out of it with a respectable 3-2 record.

The Cleveland Browns, despite going from Brandon Weeden to Brian Hoyer and now back to Weeden at quarterback, also aren't out of anything yet at 3-3.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Browns reporter Pat McManamon break down the matchup:

McManamon: Rob, what will Green Bay do at receiver with all those injuries, and how much will it affect the offense?

Demovsky: It's bound to have a significant impact. Randall Cobb more or less became the focal point of the passing game last season and if anything, that intensified this season. Sure, he's only a slot receiver and the Packers still have the deep threat of Jordy Nelson on the outside. But in this offense, a lot of those quick-hit passes -- especially against teams that blitz -- are directed to the inside. No team used more three-receiver sets than the Packers had until Cobb went down last week against the Ravens. They had used a three-receiver set on 90 percent of their snaps. That number likely will go down beginning this week against the Browns. They might have to rely on their new-found running game more than ever. But with fewer threats in the passing game, teams might be able to load up to stop running back Eddie Lacy.

The Browns have offensive issues of their own, Pat. Brandon Weeden's turnovers in the loss to the Lions looked like killers, especially that backhanded, underhand flip. How can they get him to play smarter?

McManamon: That backhanded, underhand flip will live for a long time in the annals of Cleveland Browns misplays since 1999, Rob. A lengthy list just got longer. As for getting him to play smarter, that's the challenge. And the challenge has gone on for 18 starts. Weeden actually started fairly well as a 29-year-old rookie, but he struggled the end of last season and this season he's played in fits and starts. Which of course won't be good enough against Green Bay. With Brian Hoyer injured, the Browns have few other options -- it's not like Tom Brady is on the streets waiting for a job -- so they will stick with Weeden. But you have to wonder whether the Browns aren't coming to the conclusion that what they see is what he'll be when it comes to this 30-year-old quarterback.

Rob, Weeden does not read the rush well and does not move well. The Packers are ninth in the league in sacks. Is that yet another bad recipe for Weeden and the Browns offense?

Demovsky: It remains to be seen whether they can keep up their sack pace. They did it without Clay Matthews last week, getting five sacks at Baltimore, but now they're going to be without another outside rusher, Nick Perry. Matthews and Perry each have three sacks on the season, which ties A.J. Hawk for the team lead. At some point, those injuries have to slow down their pass rush. The one thing that's helping them is they're playing the run very well, probably the best they have since they led the league in rushing defense in 2009. After shutting down Ray Rice last week, they're up to third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (78.2). That's putting teams in a lot of third-and-long situations, which allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to blitz. That's how Hawk got all three of his sacks against the Ravens.

Perhaps the Browns can help protect Weeden if they run the ball effectively to keep the Packers from rushing like crazy. What are their prospects for doing that?

McManamon: Running the ball would protect Weeden. But it helps to have a ... well ... a running game. At present, the Browns are in make-do mode with the running game, and as the season continues that will more and more become a problem. Since the trade of Trent Richardson the Browns have relied on aging Willis McGahee, young Bobby Rainey and fullback Chris Ogbonnaya. These guys give effort, but there's only so much they can give. McGahee can't run outside, Rainey is inexperienced and Ogbonnaya is what he is. The Browns rank 22nd in the league by running for 86.8 yards per game -- though they are averaging 3.9 yards per carry. If the Browns want to run, they will have to commit to it and pound it out, something I am not sure they can do.

Rob, the Browns have had 19 starting quarterbacks since 1999 -- and it appears next year or soon after that number will hit 20. Do the Packers and their fans realize just how fortunate they have been these many years to have Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers?

Demovsky: They should. There are only a handful of organizations who can say they've had the kind of quarterback transition that the Packers had. The 49ers with Joe Montana to Steve Young come to mind. Maybe the Colts have that now with Andrew Luck following Peyton Manning. Not only was Favre a great quarterback, but he was there week in and week out. Rodgers is pretty much the same way. Those guys rarely get injured and when they do, they still play.

Most Packers fans here are still fond of Mike Holmgren, for leading them to the Super Bowl XXXI title. His tenure with as a Browns executive was much shorter. What impact, if any, did he have on the organization?

McManamon: Let's just say the feelings for Holmgren are a lot warmer in Green Bay -- odd as that sounds -- than in Cleveland. Many fans feel Holmgren's epitaph with the Browns should be "As a president, he was a great coach." A lot of that is frustration at constant losing. Some is frustration at the job title and salary scale Randy Lerner gave Holmgren. More still that Holmgren never took on the coaching duties himself. On balance, Holmgren's tenure was no worse than many, and better than some. He and GM Tom Heckert brought in some good players who are helping the team win now. But with any regime change comes more change, and Joe Banner has gotten rid of some of Holmgren's guys -- notably Richardson. Holmgren's biggest gamble was selecting a quarterback in the first round a year ago who is now 30. But Weeden clearly would have been helped by more continuity in the front office.

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Live blog: Packers at Ravens

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Green Bay Packers' visit to the Baltimore Ravens. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
One of the biggest games of the week features two of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract just a few months after being named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. About seven weeks later, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers agreed to a seven-year, $130.75 million deal.

Over the previous four seasons, Flacco and Rodgers are the only NFL quarterbacks to pass for at least 3,600 yards and 20 touchdowns each season while throwing 12 interceptions or fewer.
But the big-money contracts have been the only similarities between these two quarterbacks this season. Flacco has yet to break out because of inexperienced targets and a struggling offensive line. Rodgers, meanwhile, is on pace for another 5,000-yard passing season.

Will these trends continue for both quarterbacks this Sunday in Baltimore? Here's how Packers team reporter Rob Demovsky and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley see the game unfolding.

Jamison Hensley: Rob, it wasn't even 20 minutes after the Ravens had beaten the Dolphins and Terrell Suggs was already bringing up Rodgers' name. It's clear that he is already on the minds of the Ravens' defense, which has been riding the strength of its pass rush. Suggs is having a career year with seven sacks in five games and Elvis Dumervil has three sacks. Will the Ravens be able to get to Rodgers on Sunday?

Rob Demovsky: The Lions couldn't get to Rodgers last Sunday, but their pass rush typically comes from the interior. The Ravens, particularly with Suggs rushing from the outside, present an entirely different challenge. You better believe he will have Rodgers' attention. This might be one of those games in which he relies on a lot of short and intermediate routes to get the ball out of his hands quickly and take some pressure off his tackles. He trusts that his receivers will get yards after the catch if he gets them the ball quickly.

Are there signs Flacco and the Ravens' offense will get things rolling, or is this going to be an issue all season?

Hensley: There have been signs of life from the Ravens' running game, but as we saw in the playoffs, the Ravens will only go as far as Flacco takes them. His numbers -- 57.7 percent completion rate, five touchdowns, eight interceptions -- have been extremely disappointing, although it's not all his fault. If the Ravens want to get their offense rolling, they need the players around Flacco to step up. Flacco's wide receivers are inexperienced outside of Torrey Smith, and the Ravens' pass protection has been awful this season. Flacco has been sacked 14 times (only seven quarterbacks have been sacked more) and has been hit 18 times the past two weeks. Baltimore is hoping the addition of left tackle Eugene Monroe, who is expected to make his Ravens debut Sunday, will solidify Flacco's blind side.

It seems like the Ravens have caught a break with Clay Matthews being out. How will the Packers do in his absence?

Demovsky: Losing their $66 million linebacker is a blow, no question about it. He's one of only a couple of difference-makers the Packers have on defense. But they appear better equipped to play without Matthews than they were last season, when he missed four games with a hamstring injury. That's largely because of the emergence of Mike Neal, a former defensive end who converted to outside linebacker in the offseason. Neal had his best career game, with six tackles and a sack, on Sunday against the Lions. He gave Lions left tackle Riley Reiff all kinds of problems, so Monroe will have has hands full. The Packers also have seen some signs of life from last year's first-round pick, outside linebacker Nick Perry. He had his first career two-sack game against the Lions.

However, without Matthews, defensive coordinator Dom Capers might have to send more blitzers in order to pressure Flacco. How have the Ravens handled the blitz?

Hensley: The Ravens are having problems with any type of pressure this season, whether it's blitzes or four-man rushes. The problem has been the lack of productivity on first downs. The inability to consistently run the ball has put the Ravens in second-and-long and third-and-long too often, which makes it very predictable that the Ravens are going to have to throw the ball. Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are both averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry. Rice looked better last Sunday, but his longest run is 14 yards this season. The Ravens are going to remain committed to the run. Their hope is it starts paying off more in the form of big plays.

Speaking of running games, what's been the key to the Packers's ground game this season?

Demovsky: Coach Mike McCarthy said last week that he believes a running back who makes the right reads and decision is the key to the running game, so that would lead you to believe the improvement has come largely from the running back position. To be sure, rookie Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 99 yards against the Lions, is a big part of that. He's a much more powerful runner than they've had in recent years. However, when you consider that they've had two other running backs go over 100 yards -- James Starks with 132 against the Redskins in Week 2 and rookie Johnathan Franklin with 103 in Week 3 against the Bengals -- I'm not sure how you can't give props to the offensive line, too. That group has made major strides.

What kind of a run defense will the Packers be facing Sunday?

Hensley: It really depends on which run defense shows up for the Ravens. Two weeks ago, the Ravens gave up 203 yards rushing to the Buffalo Bills. Last Sunday, Baltimore held the Dolphins to 22 yards on the ground, which is the fourth-fewest rushing yards allowed in a game in Ravens' history. The Ravens were so dominant that Miami just abandoned the run game. You couldn't have two bigger extremes, but the Buffalo game appears to be a temporary lapse. Baltimore is strong up the middle with Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty and is tough on the edges with Suggs, who is an underrated run-stopper, and Courtney Upshaw. Inside linebacker Daryl Smith has been the biggest surprise of the defense this season with his ability to anticipate where the ball is going.

The Ravens' secondary, though, is the area of the defense that has struggled the most. The Ravens gave up three 40-yard passes to Miami's Ryan Tannehill. Out of all those talented wide receivers, who should the Ravens fear the most?

Demovsky: All three receivers are dangerous in their own way. Randall Cobb works from the slot and is perfect for that role. He runs those short-to-intermediate routes precisely, much the same way Greg Jennings and Donald Driver used to. Rodgers loves to hit Cobb on the run in the middle of the field, and that attracts a lot of attention from the safeties. That often means either Jordy Nelson or James Jones could have single coverage on the outside. Nelson works the sidelines like few I've seen. He's already made two catches this year where it didn't look like there was any way he'd be able to stay in bounds, yet he got both feet in before falling out of bounds. Jones is surprisingly effective going deep. For a guy who supposedly doesn't have top-end speed, he rarely gets caught from behind.

The Packers' run defense has made significant improvements over last season and currently rank fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed. How big of a test will Ray Rice be?

Hensley: Rice hasn't been the same playmaking running back. He hasn't broken a run longer than 14 yards. He's fumbled twice. Some of the blame can go on the offensive line failing to open holes. Rice has also been dealing with a hip injury the past two weeks. But the Ravens need big plays from Rice and it starts with him breaking tackles. There were signs of Rice bouncing back to form last Sunday in Miami. If the Ravens are going to keep up with the Packers on the scoreboard, they're going to need big plays from Rice.

What has been the biggest improvement in the Packers run defense?

Demovsky: The Packers got bigger across the front line with the return of defensive tackle Johnny Jolly from his three-year suspension. When Jolly last played for the Packers in 2009, they led the NFL in rushing defense. With Jolly back, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has used him along with Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji up front in obvious running situations to form a massive front in their 3-4 package. Matthews plays a big part in their run defense, too. He's an underrated run defender, so his absence could be a factor there, too.

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Remember all of the uproar over Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco becoming the NFL's highest-paid player? Well, he's not anymore.

Flacco
Just 53 days after Flacco signed his record-setting agreement, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers eclipsed it Friday night. Rodgers agreed on a five-year, $110 million contract extension, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Rodgers' $22 million per-year average tops Flacco's $20.1 million average ($120.6 million over six years). Flacco accurately predicted how long his run as the highest-paid player would last.

"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.”

I wonder if Rodgers is going to celebrate in style like Flacco did.
The Pittsburgh Steelers reached a three-year deal with nose tackle Steve McLendon, thanks to a nudge from the Green Bay Packers.

A day after McLendon visited the Packers, the Steelers struck a multiyear deal with the restricted free agent that's worth a maximum of $7.25 million and includes a $1.675 million signing bonus, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

The Steelers had other options -- like re-signing Casey Hampton or giving Alameda Ta'amu a shot to start -- but keeping McLendon was the best one. Hampton turns 36 by the time the season starts and Ta'amu is a risk considering his off-the-field issue.

McLendon, 27, is hitting the prime of his career and has shown the ability to step up when Hampton has been hurt. But the Steelers committed to McLendon more on projection than on production. He has one career start and played only 139 defensive snaps last season.

The Steelers could have avoided all of this drama if they had put a second-round tender on McLendon, which would have cost the team $700,000 more this offseason. Still, in the end, the Steelers likely would've reached a multiyear deal with him anyway. The interest from the Packers just sped up the process.

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.
By winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens get to kick off the 2013 season on a Thursday night prime-time game. So, who should they face?

SportsNation

Which team should the Ravens play in the 2013 season opener?

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    11%
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    33%
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    41%
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Discuss (Total votes: 7,984)

Based on the Ravens' home schedule, the top candidates are: the Bengals, Packers, Patriots, Steelers and Texans.

In looking at the trends, my guess is the Ravens will open at home against the Patriots, which would be a rematch of the past two AFC Championship Games. In the nine years of the defending champion opening on Thursday night, only twice has the matchup been against a team in its own division, and both times it was the NFC East. Also, there was just one time when the reigning champion played a team in the other conference (Indianapolis-New Orleans in 2007).

But this blog post isn't all about history and trends. I want to know which matchup you want to see the most in the 2013 season opener. So, record your vote and send me the reason why you want to see that matchup to the AFC North mailbag. Your comment could be used in the blog later in the week.
If the Bengals learned anything from their series of breakdowns in Thursday night's 27-13 preseason loss to Green Bay, it's that they have to step up their game in the red zone.

Cincinnati's defense failed to contain the quarterback again, allowing Aaron Rodgers to run for touchdowns of 12 and 5 yards in the first quarter. Defensive end Michael Johnson ran too far upfield to create a lane on the first touchdown, and defensive end Jamaal Anderson did the same thing on the second score.

The Bengals' starting offense struggled the entire game, especially when it had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Instead of punching the ball into the end zone, Cincinnati lost 11 yards. Andy Dalton threw an incompletion on first down (no one was open), Cedric Peerman lost 2 yards on second down (center Kyle Cook was pushed back to throw off the play) and Dalton was sacked on third down when Erik Walden came unblocked from the left side. The Bengals were 26th in red zone offense last season.

The first-team offense managed a first down on five of seven drives. That came against a Green Bay defense that ranked last in the NFL last season.

"I don’t think this game defines how we’re going to be during the year. It’s a preseason game," Dalton said after the game. "We’ve got to find ways to get motivated and get going. This film will be good to look at and see areas where we need to improve.”

Here are some other observations from the Bengals' third preseason game:
  • Dalton never had a chance to settle into the pocket and had to hurry on nearly every throw. He finished 5-of-17 for 40 yards. On third down, Dalton was 3-of-5 for 20 yards and was sacked twice for minus-17 yards.
  • Bengals cornerback Leon Hall looked sloppy and had a drive to forget on the second Packers offensive series. He should've been called for pass interference when he knocked into Jordy Nelson before the ball got to the Packers receiver at the Cincinnati 2-yard line. Hall followed that up by allowing a 19-yard catch to Greg Jennings and missed a tackle after an 18-yard reception by Jennings.
  • Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green made no impact after a long touchdown grab a week ago. He caught one of six passes thrown his way, though he didn't have any drops. Dalton should've been picked off when he underthrew Green on a fade route to the end zone in the second quarter.
  • Jeromy Miles, one of the team's core special-teams players, is making a late push to be the starting strong safety. Competing against Taylor Mays for the spot, Miles broke up two passes from Rodgers including a fourth-down throw to Jennings. This solid effort comes after recording six tackles, a forced fumble and an interception in Atlanta last week.
  • Former Bengals running back Cedric Benson had a productive return to Paul Brown Stadium. He gained 38 yards on six carries (including an 11-yard run) and caught one pass for 10 yards.

Observation deck: Browns-Packers

August, 17, 2012
8/17/12
8:15
AM ET
There were some encouraging signs from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in the Browns' 35-10 preseason victory at Green Bay.

A week after three completions and two turnovers in the preseason opener, Weeden got rid of the ball quicker and was more decisive on reads. He finished 12-of-18 for 118 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. Two of his six incompletions were drops by Josh Gordon and Greg Little.

Weeden led the Browns to scores on four of his six series (three long field goals by Phil Dawson and a one-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty), although three of the possessions began in Packers territory. And while he didn't turn the ball over, Weeden got lucky when Green Bay defenders dropped two of his throws.

Here are some of my other thoughts on the Browns' second preseason game:
  • Hardesty, who started his second game in place of the injured Trent Richardson (knee), got off to a bad start when he fumbled on the Browns' first play. He redeemed himself by gaining tough yards up the middle, rushing for 45 yards on 12 carries (3.8-yard average).
  • Like Weeden, the Browns' defense bounced back from the preseason opener. Without six starters, Cleveland gave up one completion over 11 yards to quarterback Aaron Rodgers (it was the touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson). The safety blitz by T.J. Ward was a well-timed wrinkle. The run defense clogged up the middle much better than last week. The Browns gave up 49 yards on the ground in the first half (compared to 115 last week), and 24 of those yards came on two Rodgers scrambles.
  • Colt McCoy put together his second strong performance in what may have been an audition for the Packers. McCoy was 4-of-6 for 58 yards, leading Cleveland on a 14-play scoring drive in his one series of work. If the Packers weren't interested in McCoy before this game, Thursday night should have changed their minds. Green Bay backup Graham Harrell struggled mightily with two interceptions (one was returned for a touchdown) and a safety.
  • Sheldon Brown, who was expected to get unseated as a starting cornerback this year, forced his second turnover of the preseason. He ripped the ball way from Green Bay's Randall Cobb after a catch.
  • The Browns' top cornerback, Joe Haden, had an interesting night. He was beaten early by Nelson, but Rodgers overthrew him in the end zone. When Haden blanketed Nelson moments later, Nelson leapt over him for a touchdown.
  • Dawson looked like he was in midseason form with field goals from 53, 46 and 52 yards. His night was made tougher by lineman Oniel Cousins, who committed two penalties to push back Dawson's kicks. A facemask penalty on an extra point? Really?
  • You didn't really notice rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, which is a compliment after a shaky game last week. The Browns' starting offensive line was solid. Left guard Jason Pinkston gave up a quarterback pressure on one third down, which forced Weeden to hurry a throw.

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