AFC North: 2012 Quick Takes

Quick Take: Ravens at Patriots

January, 15, 2012
1/15/12
5:45
PM ET
Three things to know about Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the second-seeded Baltimore Ravens (13-4) and top-seeded New England Patriots (14-3):

1. Protect Joe Flacco: The Ravens quarterback will get criticized for the fact that he completed 14 of 27 passes against the Houston Texans. But Flacco didn't get much help from the offensive line. He was sacked a season-high five times (matching his total at San Diego last month) and it was mainly against Houston's front four. New England showed an aggressive pass rush against Denver, sacking Tim Tebow five times. The Patriots ranked 14th in the NFL in the regular season with 40 sacks.

2. Cover the tight ends: The focus of the Ravens' pass defense will be slowing New England's tight ends. Rob Gronkowki and Aaron Hernandez combined for 14 catches for 200 yards and four touchdowns in the divisional playoffs. Baltimore hasn't faced many elite tight ends this year, but it has contained a few good ones. The Ravens limited the likes of San Diego's Antonio Gates (two catches for 31 yards) and San Francisco's Vernon Davis (four for 38 yards). Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham (five for 72 yards) and Pittsburgh's Heath Miller (five for 73) have had solid games against Baltimore.

3. Get the ball in Ray Rice's hands: The Ravens are 9-0 this season when Rice gets at least 20 carries in a game, even though he was held to 60 yards on 21 carries (2.9 yards per attempt) in the divisional-round win against Houston. The last time the Ravens played a postseason game in New England, Rice scored on the first offensive play of the game -- running 83 yards for a touchdown. It was the second-longest run in NFL postseason history and set the pace for a 33-14 win for the Ravens. New England ranked 24th in yards given up per carry (4.6) this season.

Quick Take: Texans at Ravens

January, 7, 2012
1/07/12
9:17
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday's Houston Texans-Baltimore Ravens divisional game:

1. Tough against the run. The second-seeded Ravens (12-4) know the third-seeded Texans (11-6) will run the ball after Houston handed it off 59 percent of the time against the Bengals in today's wild-card game. Baltimore has a strong history of shutting down the run, and this season was no different. The Ravens finished ranked No. 2 in run defense, giving up 92.6 yards on the ground. Only five defenses allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than Baltimore this season. In the previous meeting with the Texans this season, the Ravens limited Houston to 93 yards rushing and held Arian Foster to 3.3 yards per carry.

2. Pass protection will be a major factor. One of the reasons why the Texans beat the Bengals was their ability to pressure the quarterback and protect their own. After giving up seven sacks in San Diego, Baltimore allowed just two sacks of Joe Flacco over the final two games of the regular season. In the previous meeting, the Ravens shut out Connor Barwin, Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt. On defense, the Ravens led the AFC with 48 sacks and need to get more pressure on Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates than the Bengals did. Baltimore sacked Matt Schaub four times when the Ravens beat Houston on Oct. 16.

3. Dominant at home. The Ravens put themselves in position to host a playoff game for the first time in five years by going undefeated at home for the first time in their 16-year existence. Baltimore roughed up teams at M&T Bank Stadium, where it won by double digits five times this season. One of those times was a 29-14 victory over the Texans when they had Schaub at quarterback. The Ravens have won 10 consecutive games at M&T Bank Stadium, the second-longest current home win streak in the NFL.

Quick Take: Steelers at Broncos

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
11:15
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday's Pittsburgh Steelers-Denver Broncos wild-card game:

1. Get the offense back on track. Since Ben Roethlisberger sprained his left ankle, Pittsburgh has scored two touchdowns in 10 quarters with him as quarterback. With the injury, Roethlisberger hasn't been able to follow through on his passes because he is unable to put weight on his left leg -- and the results have reflected his struggles. He has completed 56 of 96 passes (58.3 percent) for 729 yards. He has thrown one touchdown and four interceptions for a 68.4 passer rating. Not getting a first-round bye really hurt the Steelers and Roethlisberger.

2. Figure out what to do with the running game. The Steelers will be without running back Rashard Mendenhall after he injured his right knee in the regular-season finale against Cleveland, which proved to be a meaningless game in terms of playoff implications for Pittsburgh. An MRI is scheduled for tomorrow. While the Steelers haven't relied on their running game much this season, Pittsburgh will need to lean on it more with Roethlisberger injured. The Steelers replaced Mendenhall with Isaac Redman, who scored a touchdown but fumbled twice in the second half. John Clay could also factor into the rotation.

3. Keep the pressure on Tim Tebow. The Steelers haven't faced a quarterback quite like Tebow all season. But the bigger problem is Tebow hasn't faced a defense like the Steelers, especially one on this type of a hot streak. Pittsburgh hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past two games (albeit against the likes of the Rams and Browns). These are the points allowed by the Steelers defense over the past six games: 9, 7 , 3, 20, 0 and 9 — an average of 8 per game.

Quick take: Bengals at Texans

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
10:41
PM ET
Three things to know about next Saturday's Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans wild-card game:

1. Improve the run defense. The Bengals entered the regular-season finale as the NFL's fifth-best run defense. But Cincinnati hardly looked like one of the league's best defensive units in giving up 191 yards rushing to the Ravens' Ray Rice. Two big touchdown runs (70 and 51) did the most damage and occurred because middle linebacker Rey Maualuga got blocked both times. The Bengals can't have the same missed assignments and poor tackling against Houston, which is the league's second-best running team. On Dec. 11 at Cincinnati, the Bengals gave up 144 yards rushing to the Texans.

2. Get wide receiver A.J. Green more involved. The Bengals’ most dangerous play is when quarterback Andy Dalton throws the deep, high-arching pass to Green, who has the athleticism to out-leap multiple defenders. But Green has disappeared from the Bengals offense the past two weeks -- which is also the time since he injured his shoulder. He has two catches in each of his past two games for a total of 51 yards. Cincinnati has to get back to attacking downfield with Green. His 11 catches of 35 yards or more are the most in the league and the most by an NFL rookie since Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14 in 1998.

3. Learn how to finish games against winning teams. If the Bengals want to win their first playoff game since the 1990 season -- it was against the Houston Oilers and not Texans -- they have to figure out how to win the fourth quarter against playoff teams. Cincinnati has come up short against Pittsburgh and twice against Baltimore in the final minutes of games. And the Bengals had their biggest collapse of the season against the Texans earlier this year. Cincinnati failed to hold a nine-point lead in the final six minutes of the game, allowing rookie third-string quarterback T.J. Yates to drive 80 yards for the winning, last-minute touchdown pass.

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