- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the playoffs set to begin Saturday, let's dig into the weekend mailbag.
Walker: No playoff team is unbeatable, Mike, but the Patriots deserve to be the favorites. They were the best team in the regular season. I think the Ravens would have a better chance of beating New England than Pittsburgh, because of the matchups. But anything can happen in a one-game scenario.
Mike from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, writes: Is it me or has Ben Roethlisberger really improved as a pocket passer?
Walker: Roethlisberger has made strides in that area, Mike. That is a good observation. It's never going to be the biggest part of Roethlisberger's game. But I think his foot injury forced him to focus more on throwing from the pocket instead of running around the line of scrimmage to create big plays. It's also helped with pass protection. The offensive line has a better feel for where Roethlisberger will be, and the group has played better in the past month.
Charles Catalano via Facebook writes: Nobody thinks the Kansas City Chiefs can win, and that's how we like it. No pressure at Arrowhead Stadium.
Walker: Charles, we did a "Take your pick" on this game, and a majority picked the Ravens to win. I agree the Ravens should be the favorites. They had the better season and have more overall talent. But no road playoff game is easy. It should be a good game either way.
Jack from Baltimore writes: Do you think it will be hard for the Ravens to re-sign Haloti Ngata?
Walker: Both sides are very committed to getting a deal done, Jack. So I don't see it being an issue. The lack of a CBA might push things back. But all indications are Baltimore will make Ngata one of the highest-paid defensive linemen in the NFL, if not the highest-paid at his position.
Tim B. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: What is the biggest draft need for the Cincinnati Bengals?
Walker: Cincinnati is about to make some changes to its roster, Tim. So it remains to be seen by the time April rolls around. But right now, in January, I would identify another pass-rushing defensive end as the Bengals' most immediate need.
Will from Nashville, Tenn., writes: Should the Bengals or any AFC North team sign quarterback Vince Young?
Walker: Nope. There are questions about Young's leadership, and the quarterback situations are pretty settled throughout the division, Will. But someone will pick Young up.
Jonathan from Cincinnati writes: I was wondering why Bengals cornerback Leon Hall didn't make the All-AFC North Team?
Walker: Hall is a good player, Jonathan. But I didn't think he had as good a season as last year. He was beat for too many touchdowns, and I think the injuries to teammate Johnathan Joseph hurt Hall's production. So I gave the nod to Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor and Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden. Both players had better seasons.
Jim D. from Sarasota, Fla., writes: Why won't the Browns hire a quarterbacks coach as head coach to help Colt McCoy?
Walker: There is really no rhyme or reason to hiring first-time head coaches, Jim. There are good and bad examples from all assistant positions. John Harbaugh, for example, was a longtime special teams coach and briefly coached defensive backs. He worked out very well for Baltimore. Yet, plenty of offensive and defensive coordinators have failed. But Browns president Mike Holmgren, of all people, should know what a good head coach looks like. He just needs to find the person with the right qualities.
Doug_Berger via Twitter writes: Did Jim Harbaugh's lack of interest in the Browns have much to do with facing the Ravens and John Harbaugh twice a year?
Walker: While the Harbaughs are happy to be in separate conferences, Doug, that wasn't a big factor. Jim Harbaugh was simply too hot a name and had interest from better organizations in Miami and San Francisco, where Jim signed a five-year deal. The reality is Cleveland's opening is not all that attractive for highly sought-after coaches. It's a tough sell considering the location, lack of talent, history of instability, quarterback questions and having to beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh four times a year. Holmgren helps bring credibility. But it's pretty easy to see in league circles that Cleveland's turnaround will not happen overnight.
Joel from Bowling Green, Ohio, writes: Will the Browns switch to a 4-3 defense next year?
Walker: Good question, Joel. But it's too early to answer. Holmgren has always coached a 4-3 defense. But since he wants to stay in the front office, I don't think Holmgren is against hiring a staff that still believes in the 3-4. Either scheme can work if run properly. The Browns are built with 3-4 personnel. So there would be an adjustment period if Cleveland makes the switch. We will know more once a head coach is hired and that person establishes their philosophy.
Comment and complaint department
George A. Brownfield from Houston writes: James, I disagree with you on the All-AFC North QBs. As a Steeler fan I know I wouldn't trade Ben Roethlisberger for Joe Flacco. So that tells me you chose wrong.
Walker: We received tons of complaints about our All-AFC North pick of Flacco over Roethlisberger this year. I think people misconstrued it as saying Flacco is the better quarterback. That's not the case. My reasoning is Roethlisberger missed a quarter of the season because of a four-game suspension, while Flacco played the full year at a pretty high level. Flacco has better numbers in terms of touchdowns, yards and completion percentage. Had Roethlisberger played the full season, his numbers would have been better and he would have been the pick.
Noah from Baltimore writes: First of all, T.O. over Anquan Boldin? Peyton Hillis over Ray Rice? Ray Rice is the most complete back in the NFL, while Peyton Hillis is just a surprise. He will fall off just like surprise Cedric Benson did. Ike Taylor over Josh Wilson? LaMarr Woodley over Paul Kruger? Haha. But, really, can you tell I'm a Ravens fan?
Walker: Noah, you were almost our AFC North "Homer of the Week" with that last comment. But it turns out you were just joking.
Ben from Pensacola, Fla, writes: As a Steelers fan, I have two holiday wishes: the Patriots getting miraculously knocked out of the playoffs very quickly, and getting the honor of sending Joe Flacco and the Ravens home with a whipping. I'd "settle" for the Patriots getting knocked out. Not being able to trash the Ravens would be disappointing, but getting annihilated in the AFC Championship Game would be brutal to watch.
Walker: Let's see how the playoffs turn out this weekend. Saturday night's game between the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts will help determine Pittsburgh's next opponent. If New York wins, we could have a third bloodbath between the Steelers and Ravens, if they advance. If the Colts win, New England would await the winner of the Ravens-Chiefs game.
Paul Taylor from Fairfield, Ohio, writes: I've been a Browns fan for a long time and I'd love to see Cleveland get a good coach instead of having to settle for unproven coaches. They need someone who will be good enough to stay 5-10 years.
Walker: Paul, I wrote this week that this could be the most important decision that Holmgren makes in his tenure with Cleveland. It was clear the Holmgren-Eric Mangini marriage was no longer going to work. But at the same time, the Browns cannot continue changing head coaches every 2-3 years. Cleveland needs to start developing continuity to compete with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, which is why Holmgren has to get this hire right.
Mike from Stow, Ohio, writes: I want to understand the logic of running the Wildcat and Cyclone so much in a 41-9 loss against the Steelers. At that point it was unnecessary. The point was to try and see how Colt McCoy would do. But they continually took him out and threw away any chance of him getting in rhythm.
Walker: Mike, I stopped trying to figure out the rhyme or reason behind Cleveland's offense about a month ago. Few things the Browns did on offense this year made sense. Holmgren could easily see that, which is why major changes are coming in Cleveland.
Brandon Crawford from Sykesville, Md., writes: Hey James, any chance you could stop talking about the boring Bengals and Browns, and start talking about the EXCITING playoffs. Thanks.
Jason from Cocoa, Fla., writes: I'm glad the Steelers got the BYE. Why? Because I wouldn't have to sift through the coaching sagas in Cleveland and Cincinnati in order to find something worthy of print. In the end, whoever coaches the Browns and Bengals doesn't matter. They're both bottom feeder teams who have to get through Pittsburgh and Baltimore on a yearly basis.
Walker: Brandon and Jason, I knew coming in that last week was going to be chaotic in the AFC North blog. Half of the division was in the playoffs, the other half had coaching issues, and there was no perfect way to balance everything. I know Steelers and Ravens fans rarely experience it, but coach firings and signings are major, national stories. They impact the entire direction of an organization. I tried to focus on that early in the week with Cleveland and Cincinnati, then shift to the Ravens and Steelers later in the week. But it was one of those situations where I couldn't please everyone.
Brett Kostoff from Cincinnati writes: James, I thought you might be interested in this story. I am selling my Bengals allegiance to the highest bidder on Ebay. I can't take it anymore!
Walker: Wow, Brett. I'm not sure what to say about that, other than I always encourage fans to stick by their teams. Check back next week to let me know how much money you made off your Bengals fandom and who you will root for next season.
Reality has set in -- good or bad -- for fans of all four teams. So we do not have a "Homer of the Week." Good job, everyone.
With the playoffs set to begin Saturday, let's dig into the weekend mailbag.Mike from Baltimore writes: Are the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are capable of beating the New England Patriots in the postseason?