AFC North: New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees will make his ninth trip to the Pro Bowl after all. The New Orleans Saints quarterback will replace Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger in the annual all-star game.

It’s unclear why Roethlisberger won’t be able to play, though he did suffer a minor neck injury during last week’s playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin also said Roethlisberger may need minor surgery to clean up his knee at his season-ending press conference.

"Ben was instructed by team doctors to avoid strenuous activity due to inflammation in his knee, thus he will not play in the Pro Bowl," said Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger's agent. "His knee will not require surgery and he looks forward to an otherwise healthy offseason to improve with his teammates."

Brees, who was selected as the first alternate at the quarterback position, has been chosen to the Pro Bowl eight times during his nine seasons with the Saints -- a franchise record. He also went as an alternate in 2012 and has now passed Willie Roaf (7) for the most Pro Bowl selections in Saints history.

Brees and Roethlisberger ironically tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards this season. But Brees didn’t make the initial Pro Bowl cut since he and the Saints were too inconsistent during a disappointing 7-9 season. Brees threw for 33 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

All six QBs who were selected for the Pro Bowl made the playoffs, and the other five are still playing (Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo).

Steelers reporter Scott Brown contributed to this report.

Saints vs. Ravens preview

November, 21, 2014

When: 8:30 p.m. ET Monday Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans TV: ESPN

The New Orleans Saints (4-6) have perhaps never appeared less intimidating in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era than they do right now after limping away from a 27-10 loss at home to the Cincinnati Bengals.

But the "Monday Night Football" stage offers New Orleans its best chance to bounce back against the Baltimore Ravens (6-4). The Saints have won 14 straight prime-time games at home, including the playoffs, by nearly 20 points per game.

The Ravens, however, have dominated the woeful NFC South with a 3-0 record. They will try to make it a clean sweep coming out of their bye week.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: Jamison, the Saints' pass defense has been struggling all season -- especially on third-and-long -- and now they have big injury concerns. Is Joe Flacco capable of taking advantage like fellow up-and-down quarterback Andy Dalton did last week against the Saints?

Hensley: It certainly would follow Flacco's trend of exploiting bad secondaries this season. In four games against pass defenses ranked in the bottom 10, Flacco has completed 65.9 percent of his throws and has averaged 281.5 yards passing. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 112.0 passer rating. The Saints are the NFL's ninth-worst pass defense, and they looked even worse in allowing Dalton to regain his confidence.

The biggest concern with Flacco's inconsistency is he typically has his "down" games on the road. Since the start of the 2013 season, Flacco's passer rating on the road is 73.1, the fifth worst in the NFL over that span. Only Jason Campbell, Kirk Cousins, EJ Manuel and Geno Smith have been worse. This isn't exactly elite company. Beyond these numbers, the Ravens' ability to pick up blitzes and Flacco's poise under pressure will ultimately determine whether he keeps the Ravens in this game.

Mike, Flacco is 2-of-10 on passes of 25 yards or more over his past three games. Based on the current state of the Saints' secondary, what are the chances that Flacco gets back on track with the deep pass?

Triplett: He has a great chance -- especially if the Saints' top cornerback, Keenan Lewis, continues to be limited by a knee injury. Lewis is underrated as one of the NFL's best cover men, but the rest of the Saints' cornerbacks have been inconsistent. Now they are down to their third option at free safety with veteran Rafael Bush suffering a season-ending leg injury last week.

The Saints will have to rely heavily on their pass rush, which should be their strength, led by Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. They have been inconsistent, too, this season. But it's worth noting that Dalton's success last week came almost exclusively on quick, short throws. He attempted only four throws of 15 yards or more (completing three).

On the flip side, the Saints' passing offense has had two of its worst performances against AFC North teams this season, in losses to Cleveland and Cincinnati. But it looks like Baltimore is much stronger against the run than the pass. What do you expect in that matchup, and how will the Ravens handle tight end Jimmy Graham?

Hensley: You are exactly right about the Ravens' run defense. That has been a major strength of the team because of the front seven. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and nose tackle Brandon Williams clog up the middle, and rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley has great instincts. This is why the Ravens have allowed 100 rushing yards twice this season, and they are allowing 2.9 yards per rush since Week 8, the second fewest in the NFL over that span. They have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 20 straight games, the longest current streak in the NFL.

Where the Ravens are vulnerable is the deep pass. Teams have thrown six passes of more than 40 yards against the Ravens this season, and they have completed five (tied for most in the NFL). The Ravens are hoping that free safety Will Hill, who has started the past two games, develops into a ball hawk and cuts down on the big plays.

As far as Graham, the Ravens believe the best way to match up against him is to change how they match up. Coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens will use man coverage as well as zone coverage. They will jam Graham at the line and then back off. The Ravens don't want him to feel comfortable.

How committed to the run do you expect the Saints to be?

Triplett: Based on this matchup, I don't expect the Saints to be too stubborn with the run -- especially after their run game was surprisingly shut down by Cincinnati last week. But in general, the Saints have relied on the run game more this season than ever in the Payton-Brees era. They are eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and Mark Ingram had three straight 100-yard games before last week.

But the offense is really stuck in a sort of identity crisis that we haven't seen before. The efficiency stats are up: Brees leads the NFL in completion percentage and the Saints lead the NFL in third-down success. But Brees also has turned the ball over too much (10 interceptions, two fumbles). And the deep ball has been hit or miss -- even before they lost their best deep threat, Brandin Cooks, to a broken thumb. I'm guessing we will see the Saints get pretty aggressive to try to get out of their rut Monday night.

The other complicating factor is Baltimore's pass rush. How disruptive have guys such as Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and Ngata been this season?

Hensley: With the injuries to the Ravens' secondary, the only way they are going to slow down a top quarterback like Brees is to get pressure on him. Few teams can get to the quarterback like the Ravens. Over the past seven games, the Ravens have 23 sacks, which is tied for the third most in the NFL. Dumervil and Suggs get most of the attention crashing the edges. They have acknowledged there is a competition on who can get the most sacks. What often goes unnoticed is the pressure the Ravens get up the middle. Ngata and Pernell McPhee constantly collapse the pocket. It's difficult for teams to shift their protections, because the Ravens win their one-on-one battles so often. In total, these four rushers have combined for 67 quarterback hurries this season. The Ravens need to rush quarterbacks so they don't have enough time to pick apart a secondary that has started six cornerbacks in the first 10 games.

The Saints have been surprisingly vulnerable at home recently, but they have been dominant in prime-time games at the Superdome. Why is it so tough to beat the Saints in those home night games?

Triplett: It really is uncanny how dominant they are in these games. They don't just win them. They routinely score in the 40s and win by 20 points. Obviously the atmosphere has a lot to do with it. The crowd is even more frenzied from the start in night games, and the Dome is one of the louder venues in the league. The conditions obviously favor New Orleans' offense (fast track, no weather, no crowd noise). And the Saints defense probably benefits even more because of that volume, which forces a lot of timeouts and false starts.

All of that being said, it's up to the Saints to keep that crowd in a frenzy with big plays. And it was really stunning to see how lifeless both the team and the fans were last week. The Saints have lost two straight home games now, after having won 11 straight before that. And their 10 points against Cincinnati was the lowest total at home since 2006.

Bengals vs. Saints preview

November, 13, 2014
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans TV: CBS

Drew Brees was critical of himself after turning the ball over three times in the New Orleans Saints' 27-24 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. But that's nothing compared to what Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton went through.

Dalton had a passer rating of 2.0 in the Bengals' 24-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns, completing just 10 of 33 passes with three interceptions.

Both quarterbacks -- and their teams -- will be craving a bounce-back victory.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey discuss the matchup:

Triplett: I got a rare chance to watch the Bengals last week, and it obviously wasn't pretty. But they bounced back after their two previous ugly losses this season. Do you expect the same this week -- especially from Dalton?

Harvey: Honestly, Mike, I'm not sure what Dalton or Bengals team to expect this week. This team is grossly inconsistent; it could either rout the Saints or get shut out. You rightfully noted that they played well after their first two losses this year -- but something about this loss felt different from the others. For starters, it was at home, and the Bengals had been nothing but solid there in the regular season stretching back to the end of the 2012 season. Until Nov. 6, they hadn't lost a regular-season game at Paul Brown Stadium in 14 tries.

This will be the first time they've headed on the road after a loss this year, and as you know, they're going to a venue that isn't easy to play as a visitor. I expect Dalton to improve off last week's game in which he had a 4.3 QBR -- the only place to go from there is up, right? But will he be enough for the team to get back on track? I'm not sure.

It seems like consistency has been the Saints' issue, as well, in this see-saw season. What must New Orleans start doing in order to rattle off a series of wins?

Triplett: In a sense, the Saints have actually been consistent since they keep losing in the same way: turning the ball over too much and breaking down on defense in the final minutes. They've been leading four of their five losses with less than two minutes remaining in regulation. But they keep allowing big plays like the 51-yard pass on fourth-and-10 that they gave up to San Francisco.

The offense is close to its usual prolific self, ranking in the top six in the league in total yards, passing, rushing and points. And Brees is still sharp in every category but one -- turnovers. He has thrown 10 interceptions and lost two fumbles, many of them very costly, and he has bluntly admitted he needs to be better.

It's still a pick-your-poison offense, though, with a lot of tough matchups, starting with tight end Jimmy Graham. I know the Bengals have struggled against tight ends all year. Will they have an answer for Graham and the rest of the Saints' weapons, like running back Mark Ingram and receiver Brandin Cooks?

Harvey: Given the headaches tight ends -- namely Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen and Dwayne Allen -- have provided, I will be quite interested to see how well they cover Graham. Most likely, nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur will draw that assignment. After getting 10 days off between games, his banged-up left shoulder should be at its healthiest point in the last four weeks. He also should have help at linebacker as Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga might be returning from injuries. If those two can play consistently in this game, perhaps the Bengals' defense will finally have two things it has been lacking all year: rhythm and effective communication. Those additions also should bolster Cincinnati's pass rush, making it tougher for the Saints to get the ball to Graham, Cooks and others.

The area to really watch, though, is how well the Bengals do versus the run. Ingram has been sharp the last three weeks, and that could be problematic for the league's second-worst rushing defense. If the run opens, the pass will surely follow. What has been working so well for Ingram and the Saints the last three weeks?

Triplett: Ingram has exploded with three straight 100-yard games after having just one previously in his career. He has been taking advantage of improved health and the opportunity to finally be a featured back while Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas are nursing injuries.

But as great as Ingram has been, it hasn't just been him. The Saints' entire run game started to come around late last season, with all three of those backs thriving. The Saints finally started to get comfortable with a new line coach and blocking scheme. And just as importantly, coach Sean Payton has shown more confidence in the run game than ever, sticking with it even when trailing in games. Ingram's averaging 27 carries over the past three games. That's almost unheard of around here.

Speaking of running backs, LSU fans down here know Jeremy Hill quite well. What's been working for him, and do you expect to see a lot of him Sunday?

Harvey: It's still a little early to fully say whether Giovani Bernard will end up playing this week. He missed the past two games with multiple injuries. If he does come back, that will eat into Hill's workload slightly. While the Bengals like to think they have a true running back rotation, Bernard still is viewed as the starter ahead of Hill.

Regardless of whether Bernard is healthy, the Saints must game plan for Hill, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He's a strong, physical runner with shifty moves who had a big day against the Jaguars two weeks ago, rushing for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He could have been strong last week, too, had the Bengals not abandoned the run so early.

Opposing quarterbacks -- specifically, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford -- have torched the Saints at times this season. How can New Orleans best prevent Dalton from having a rebound game?

Triplett: The Saints' secondary has been hit or miss all year, often in the same game. They actually shut down Stafford for 56 minutes before totally breaking down on a dump-off pass that turned into a 73-yard touchdown to Golden Tate in Week 7 (similar to what happened against Colin Kaepernick last week). On the flip side, with Rodgers in Week 8, his 70-yard TD came on the opening series before the Saints settled in and picked him off twice in what turned into a blowout win for New Orleans.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis' status will be huge this week as he tries to come back from a knee injury. The former Pittsburgh Steeler has become a bona fide No. 1 corner and would shadow A.J. Green. The rest of the defensive backs are all up and down. They've all been helped greatly, though, now that the Saints' pass rush has finally started to show up with 16 sacks over the past 17 quarters. That's the strength of the defense, led by pass-rushers Cam Jordan and Junior Galette.

METAIRIE, La. -- The feel-good story of the day from New Orleans Saints camp comes courtesy of an awesome gesture by coach Sean Payton.

Payton purchased 100 jerseys of Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still on Wednesday after the team announced that proceeds of his jersey sales would go toward pediatric cancer research. Still’s 4-year-old daughter is battling Stage 4 pediatric cancer.

Payton was moved by the story after he heard about it on the radio during his drive home on Tuesday night, according to a source, and he decided to purchase the jerseys out of his own pocket.

According to Bengals director of sales and public affairs Jeff Berding, Still's jersey sold more in the first 24 hours of the donation drive than any other Bengals player's jersey ever has in a single day.

Earlier this year, the Saints also reached out to support another member of their NFL fraternity. The entire team signed a giant get-well card for former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who also was battling cancer (and since has been declared cancer-free).

Browns' Fujita blasts Roger Goodell

October, 10, 2012

It's probably a safe bet that Browns linebacker Scott Fujita is going to fight his reduced one-game suspension and that he's off Roger Goodell's Christmas card list.

Responding to the NFL commissioner's letter, Fujita sent out a statement on Wednesday that called out Goodell for "an absolute abuse of power" and described Goodell's actions as "conduct detrimental" to the NFL.

In reducing Fujita's suspension from three games to one, Goodell said Tuesday he was "surprised and disappointed" in Fujita for ignoring the bounty program and permitting it to continue.

Here is Fujita's full statement:
"I'm pleased the Commissioner has finally acknowledged that I never participated in any so-called 'bounty' program, as I've said for the past 7 months. However, his condescending tone was neither accurate nor productive. Additionally, I am now purportedly being suspended for failing to confront my former defensive coordinator for his inappropriate use of language. This seems like an extremely desperate attempt to punish me. I also think it sets a bad precedent when players can be disciplined for not challenging the behavior of their superiors. This is an absolute abuse of the power that's been afforded to the Commissioner.

"For me, the issue of player health & safety is personal. For the league and the Commissioner, it's about perception & liability.

"The Commissioner says he is disappointed in me. The truth is, I’m disappointed in him. His positions on player health and safety since a 2009 congressional hearing on concussions have been inconsistent at best. He failed to acknowledge a link between concussions & post-career brain disease, pushed for an 18-game regular season, committed to a full season of Thursday night games, has continually challenged players' rights to file workers compensation claims for on-the-job injuries, and he employed incompetent replacement officials for the start of the 2012 season. His actions or lack thereof are by the league’s own definition, 'conduct detrimental.'

"My track record on the issue of player health & safety speaks for itself. And clearly, as I just listed, the Commissioner's does too."
Browns linebacker Scott Fujita has repeatedly denied that he contributed money to a pool that allegedly paid his former Saints teammates for intentionally injuring opponents. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell conceded that he couldn't prove that, which is why Fujita's suspension was reduced from three games to one Tuesday.

"While I have not found that you directly contributed to the bounty pool, there is no serious question that you were aware of the pool and its elements, including that it provided rewards for cart-offs," Goodell wrote to Fujita in a letter that was released by the league.

Fujita previously insisted that the suspension and lost salary (which is now $214,705 for one game) was secondary to clearing his name. Four months ago, Fujita said his reputation has been seriously damaged by what he called a "smear campaign." A member of the NFL Players Association executive committee, Fujita was a proponent of stronger rules in dealing with concussions and player injuries.

Will the reduced suspension satisfy Fujita? That will be known when Fujita decides to accept the suspension or appeal.

The NFL Players Association, which represents Fujita and the three other Saints involved, indicated that this issue hasn't been resolved.

This is the statement released by the players' union: "For more than six months, the NFL has ignored the facts, abused the process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement and failed to produce evidence that the players intended to injure anyone, ever. The only evidence that exists is the League’s gross violation of fair due process, transparency and impartiality during this process. Truth and fairness have been the casualties of the league’s refusal to admit that it might have made a mistake. We will review this decision thoroughly and review all options to protect our players’ rights with vigilance."

While Goodell couldn't prove that Fujita participated in the bounty program, he did scold the linebacker:

"Indeed, Mr. [Jonathan] Vilma testified that Coach [Gregg] Williams brought the program to the team’s defensive leaders before the 2009 season and that you supported and endorsed it. Your own comments confirm that players were encouraged to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor and cart those guys off’ the playing field.

“I am surprised and disappointed by the fact that you, a former defensive captain and a passionate advocate for player safety, ignored such a program and permitted it to continue. You made clear to me that participation in the program was voluntary and that other players could have refused to participate, as you claim to have done. If you had spoken up, perhaps other players would have refused to participate and the consequences with which we are now dealing could have been avoided."

Warning: Trying to understand retired Ravens running back Ricky Williams' train of thought can lead to headaches; or at the very least, a great deal of confusion.

Just listen to Williams' reasoning on why he believes there is a link between concussions and brain damage.

"I don't buy it," Williams told ESPN's Dan Le Batard on Tuesday. “I'm only speaking from my personal experience, because I've never allowed myself to buy it, and I haven't been affected by it. Yes, I'm aware that football is a rough sport, but instead of saying, 'Oh, I'm doomed to like brain trauma,' I said, 'What can I do about it?' And I just started taking care of my body. I found people, places and things that really helped me. Again, I don't know what's going to happen to me in 10 years, but for me I look at the other things I've learned about and the way I see the world.”

This makes you wonder if Williams is thinking clearly after 2,431 carries in the NFL. If I'm following him correctly, and I'm not totally certain that I am, the key for football players to avoid head trauma later in life is to keep in good physical shape and refuse to believe science.

"So is science like the new deity of our culture? It is, but should it be?," Williams said. "If you look at science 100 years ago, the things that they thought based on their science, we now show they had no idea of what they're talking about. I think as time goes on, the things that I've been saying are just going to be proven to be correct. The way that football is looking at it now, if you follow the trajectory, it creates the end of football. So, do we want football to die? I don't."

Williams is the one who is sounding behind the times. It's amazing that Williams can have this way of thinking, especially after spending a season in the same locker room with center Matt Birk. Three years ago, Birk pledged to donate his brain and spinal cord tissues after death to a Boston University medical school program that is looking to better understand the long-term effects of repeated concussions.

Williams certainly has the right to speak his mind and he's dealt with more blows to the head than I ever will. He said he doesn't know how many concussions he's had but he doesn't feel any effects right now. You have to wonder whether his stance on concussions and head trauma will change 10 years from now.
Browns linebacker Scott Fujita denied involvement in the Saints' bounty scandal and wants to see the evidence that the NFL is basing his three-game suspension upon. The league disciplined Fujita for his participation in the Saints' bounty system when he played for New Orleans.

Here's Fujita's first public comments about the suspension in an e-mail sent to the Associated Press on Monday:
"I disagree wholeheartedly with the discipline imposed. I've yet to hear the specifics of any allegation against me, nor have I seen any evidence that supports what the NFL alleges. I look forward to the opportunity to confront what evidence they claim to have in the appropriate forum. I have never contributed money to any so-called 'bounty' pool, and any statements to the contrary are false. To say I'm disappointed with the League would be a huge understatement."

This is consistent with Fujita's stance that he paid teammates for making big plays like sacks and interceptions, but not for trying to intentionally injure opponents. In announcing the suspensions last week, the NFL said in a statement that Fujita pledged a significant amount of money to the prohibited bounty pool during the 2009 NFL playoffs that rewarded for "cart-offs" and "knockouts" plays which resulted in injuries to players.

Fujita received the shortest suspension among the four players disciplined and should feel lucky that the NFL Players Association is fighting for him.

Browns linebacker Scott Fujita has appealed his three-game suspension for his involvement in the Saints' bounty system, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

This doesn't come as a surprise because Fujita was expected to take this step along with the three other suspended players. Fujita is arguing in his appeals that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is without jurisdiction either to discipline the players for the conduct alleged or to determine any appeals, league sources told ESPN. The NFL feels strong that Goodell has the final authority on this matter because the action was an off-the-field issue and was considered conduct detrimental to the league.

While the players are arguing who should handle their appeal, they should feel lucky that the NFL Players Association is actively fighting for their exoneration. The union is defending four players who are accused of intentionally trying to hurt other players. Fujita, who is a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, should understand why this looks wrong.

The NFLPA probably should take the stance of helping Fujita and the other players file their appeal and then let them argue their own cases. Why protect four players when they should be concerned about protecting all of the players they targeted?
The Pittsburgh Steelers players have been the most vocal in sounding off about the suspensions handed out to four players involved in the Saints' bounty scandal.

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma received the harshest penalty, getting suspended for the entire 2012 season. In addition to Vilma, defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (now with the Green Bay Packers) was suspended eight games, defensive Will Smith four games and linebacker Scott Fujita (now with the Cleveland Browns) three games.

Steelers linebacker James Harrison was among the first to vent on Twitter:
Ridiculous, and nobody really sees why the punishments have been so severe over the past 3 4years! Lawsuits and 18 games???

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley was upset at the year-long suspension on Vilma in his Twitter post:
Vilma suspended a whole yr FOR PLAYING FOOTBALL???? cmon man!!!!!

Even Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark was critical of the discipline (even though Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year and general manager Mickey Loomis was banned for eight games) in a post on Twitter:
Wonder why the team got the least penalties in Bounty Gate! Think about who elects & reworded the commish, it's the owners of the trams!

The Steelers don't have any connection with the Saints, but they can relate to being disciplined by the NFL. The Steelers were fined a reported 13 times in the first 10 games last season, totaling $182,500. So you can understand why the Steelers players are coming to the defense of these Saints players.

Browns linebacker Scott Fujita was suspended three games for his participation in a bounty system while he was a member of the New Orleans Saints.

He was one of four players who were disciplined by the NFL on Wednesday, and he received the smallest penalty. Fujita will have the opportunity to appeal. Based on his $3.65 million salary this season, he will lose around $645,000 if the three-game suspension stands. He can participate in all offseason activities including preseason games.

Here's what the league had to say about Fujita in the official release:
The record established that Fujita, a linebacker, pledged a significant amount of money to the prohibited pay-for-performance/bounty pool during the 2009 NFL Playoffs when he played for the Saints. The pool to which he pledged paid large cash rewards for “cart-offs” and “knockouts,” plays during which an opposing player was injured.

There was talk that Fujita would be fined but not get suspended by the NFL. Fujita, a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee, previously admitted to paying teammates for big plays while in New Orleans, but not for hurting opponents and not as part of the bounty pool.

The Browns have played without Fujita before. When the team placed him on injured reserve last November with a hand injury, weakside linebacker Chris Gocong moved to Fujita's spot on the strong side and backup Kaluka Maiava started on the weak side.
The latest scandal involving the New Orleans Saints might have affected two AFC North teams, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers. ESPN's Outside the Lines is reporting that Saints general manager Mickey Loomis had the ability to eavesdrop on opposing coaches during games at the Superdome for most of the 2002 season, as well as all of the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

On Oct. 6, 2002, the Steelers lost in New Orleans, 32-29. Pittsburgh cut the margin to three points with 1:26 left, but the Saints recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock. The Steelers allowed the Saints to score on seven of their first eight drives, and quarterback Tommy Maddox was sacked three times. If Pittsburgh had won that game, the Steelers would've finished 11-4-1, earned the top seed in the AFC and received home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead, they were a third seed and had to play a divisional round game at Tennessee where they lost.

The Cleveland Browns didn't have the same trouble when they won in New Orleans, 24-15, on Nov. 24, 2002. The Saints struggled on offense because running back Deuce McAllister was out the entire game with a sprained right ankle. The Browns improved to 6-5 in their last playoff season on the strength of William Green's 114 yards rushing and one touchdown.

The Browns were one of four teams to beat the Saints at the Superdome during the 2002 season.

The AFC North played the Saints and the rest of the NFC South in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 seasons.
Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard likes to hit. A lot. That's why it's no surprise Pollard took a shot at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the severity of the punishment handed out in the Saints' bounty scandal.

"From what I see we’re gonna be running around with helmets and flags on, and I guess in about seven years," Pollard told a Houston radio station last week, via "It’s getting out of hand. I don’t know what he’s trying to prove, I don’t know what the NFL office is trying to prove. Guys are getting hit all the time. We get hit. This is a freaking violent sport."

Pollard has no connection with the Saints and has never played for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But he is one of the hardest hitters in the NFL, and he has voiced displeasure every time it seems like the league is making the game less violent.

The problem is, the extreme punishment wasn't solely based on bounties. That's what players like Pollard are missing. It was the result of the Saints ignoring the NFL warnings.

Still, Pollard couldn't believe the league suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for a year.

“This is a game, this is a violent game. You can’t take this away," he said. "You suspend a man for a whole year? You suspend a man for a whole year and now you’re looking for players to suspend? This is outrageous. You’ve gotta be kidding me. He said he was gonna take a dollar [during] the lockout, I guarantee you he didn’t take a dollar that year. I guarantee you he got every bit of that [inaudible] mill.”

Pollard was fined $10,000 by the league last October for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jaguars running back Deji Karim. He is also known for lunging at the left knee of Tom Brady in 2008, which ended the season for the Patriots quarterback and led to a rules change.

Asked if he condones bounties in football, Pollard said: "I don’t care if you do a bounty or not, because me -- the way I'm playing -- I'm going to hit you straight in the mouth. And if you have a concussion by me hitting you in the mouth ... you know what? I don't mean to. I'm not meaning to hurt you, but this is my game. It's my life or your life. It's my family or yours."

Baltimore running back Ricky Williams plans to retire, according to ESPN's NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

When I first heard this, my initial reaction was: Will he stay retired?

Williams stunned the NFL with an early retirement in 2004. But he was back in July 2005.

He talked retirement before the 2009 season, saying he wanted to play two more seasons before calling it quits. But he played with Baltimore in 2011.

Williams, 34, even spoke about his intentions about playing next season for the Ravens after the AFC championship game loss at New England.

“My body feels good and I know I’m going to train hard and so I’m excited about next year,” Williams said last month, via the team's website. “I’ve grown a lot, kind of falling into a new role and a new city and a new organization, and I’ve gotten better. And like everyone else, I feel like I have something to build on for next year.”

So, what changed?

After the news broke about his retirement today, Williams addressed it in a cryptic Twitter message: "Thank you all, but this ain't it. I'm gonna do something really special. 'Be you and change the world.'"

If Williams does follow through with his retirement, it will be a big loss for the Ravens even though Williams isn't the same powerful running back from a few years ago.

What the Ravens lose isn't the stats that Williams produced last year. He rushed for a career-low 444 yards and scored two touchdowns.

What the Ravens lose is a reliable insurance policy for running back Ray Rice. If Rice went down for any significant amount of time, Baltimore didn't have to worry about handing the ball to Williams, one of 26 players in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards.

To be honest, Williams was underused in his first season with the Ravens. He averaged less than seven carries per game and caught 13 passes, but it was hard to get him onto the field because it meant taking Rice off of it.

The Ravens signed Williams last year to a two-year contract to replace Willis McGahee, so it appears that their preference is to have an experienced backup. Baltimore's third-string running back Anthony Allen, a seventh-round pick last year, looked like he would need another year before becoming the team's primary backup.

This means the Ravens will be searching for a second-tier running back in free agency.