AFC North: Andrew Luck

NFLN survey/Super Bowl QB: Steelers

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning dominated ESPN’s NFL Nation survey of which quarterback players would most want if their respective teams needed a touchdown to win the Super Bowl with two minutes left in the game.

Brady (128) and Manning (86) combined to capture roughly two-thirds of the vote among the 320 players polled by ESPN’s NFL Nation.

Ben Roethlisberger received 20 votes to finish fifth among quarterbacks behind Brady, Manning, Aaron Rodgers (32) and Drew Brees (21).

Five of Roethlisberger’s votes came from teammates, a sign of how much his play at the end of close games is valued in the Steelers’ locker room.

Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to wins 33 times, including the postseason, in games in which they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. His most famous rally came in Super Bowl XLV five years ago when Roethlisberger marched the Steelers 78 yards in eight plays for the touchdown that beat the upstart Arizona Cardinals, 27-23.

Roethlisberger capped the drive with a 6-yard pass that Santonio Holmes snared with a tip-toe catch before getting pushed out of bounds. That play delivered the Steelers’ record sixth Super Bowl title and remains frozen in time for Pittsburgh fans.

Had I been granted a vote I would have thought long and hard before giving it to Brady over Roethlisberger, and I think you could flip a coin between the two quarterbacks who have won a combined five Super Bowls.

Roethlisberger’s improvisational skills and his burning desire to win have long made him one of the best quarterbacks when the game is on the line. He has delivered every time? Of course not. But neither has Brady, who has been outdueled late in the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl losses by Eli Manning.

Eli Manning received nine votes in the anonymous survey followed by Andrew Luck (eight) and Matthew Stafford (seven) and Russell Wilson (three).

The only other quarterback to receive more than one vote? Matt McGloin, who picked up two of them.

Draw your own conclusions there.
Peyton Manning beat out the two quarterbacks with whom he will always be linked to finish first in an ESPN NFL Nation poll on the best player with which to start a franchise.

Manning received 62 votes from the more than 320 NFL players who were polled anonymously. Andrew Luck, whom the Colts traded No. 1 overall after releasing Manning in 2012, finished second with 56 votes while the Patriots’ Tom Brady came in third with 41 votes.

Quarterbacks, not surprisingly, dominated the voting for this category.

In addition to the three aforementioned signal callers, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (40) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (11) received double digits in votes.

What is surprising is that voters did not go younger at quarterback with the exception of Luck. Manning is one of the all-time greats as his position but he turns 38 in March and he could decide to go out on top if Denver wins the Super Bowl this season. Brady, meanwhile, is 36 though he too is still playing at a high level.

The only other players to receive double-digits in votes were Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (37) and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (20).

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and strong safety Troy Polamalu all received one vote.

I would have definitely gone with a quarterback had I voted in this, and my choice probably would have been between Luck and the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick. I would have also considered Johnny Manziel, who will be taken somewhere in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.

Yep, count me among those who think Johnny Football is going to be a star in the NFL.

Double Coverage: Colts at Bengals

December, 5, 2013
Maualuga-BrownAP PhotoRey Maualuga and the Cincinnati Bengals know the Indianapolis Colts will try to establish the running game with Donald Brown.
After holding off the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers last weekend, respectively, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals come into this Sunday's showdown with one another knowing the stakes have been raised.

Whichever division leader emerges victorious from Paul Brown Stadium will have the No. 3 playoff seeding, and most likely will retain it, barring a complete collapse across the final three weeks of the season. The only other reason they wouldn't retain the No. 3 seed? Because they would have the No. 2 seed. Currently, the New England Patriots have that.

Cincinnati could claim that this weekend with a win and a Patriots loss. The Bengals have a tiebreaker over New England after beating the Patriots in October.

Like Sunday's game, that one was in Cincinnati. The Bengals are 5-0 at home, providing an added layer of difficulty for the Colts. Why have the Bengals been so good there? How can the Colts prevent losing their No. 3 seed? ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Colts reporter Mike Wells have the answers to those questions and more.

Coley Harvey: Mike, there are so many different places I could go with this first question, but I really want to ask about the Colts’ rushing game. Bengals fans certainly were intrigued when the Trent Richardson trade deal went down earlier this season because they knew their team still had to face him this year, even if he was no longer playing for the division-rival Browns. He’s had a rough go of it in Indy, prompting Donald Brown’s start this past Sunday. Does Indianapolis believe Brown really is the back who will lead it through the postseason?

Mike Wells: The Colts hope the demotion will turn out to be a good thing for Richardson. I know that sounds crazy considering the Colts gave up a first-round pick to acquire Richardson. Not starting should ease some of the pressure on Richardson because he’s had a problem of overthinking since he joined the team. Brown may be the starter now, but coach Chuck Pagano will go with the hot hand during the game. So all it takes is a few big runs by Richardson and he’ll be back in the mix. The trade so far is completely in Cleveland’s favor, but this setback doesn’t mean the Colts are throwing in the towel on Richardson. They really can’t afford to when you think about all they gave up to acquire him. The Bengals have excelled at playing at home. What makes them a dangerous team there?

Harvey: That’s a good question. I’d say the weather has made them dangerous. The crowd has made them pretty dangerous, too. The reason I say the weather has made them dangerous is because twice this season, coach Marvin Lewis has been accurate in his prediction of what the weather would do. Back in early October, he smartly told his players to expect a sudden rain shower late in a game against the Patriots. A fourth-quarter monsoon came right when New England got the football for the last time and attempted a comeback drive. Tom Brady couldn’t complete a pass. The rains were too hard. Eventually, Adam Jones intercepted Brady with 16 seconds remaining, clinching a big early-season Cincinnati win. Against the Browns three weeks ago, Lewis also told his players not to worry about the possibility of a delay that some weathermen had predicted. He was right. The game went along mostly smoothly, and about an hour after play, a line of strong storms moved through the area.

In addition to the advantage “meteorologist” Marvin gives them, the Bengals have had a great lift from their fans. Every game has been a sellout, and has had some moment in it that sent the crowd into a frenzy that’s barely been seen since the team moved from the old Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals are confident they’ll keep getting that energy the rest of the season.

Andrew Luck has played in some meaningful games already in his young career. Most notably this season, he gutted out a win during Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis. Because of what’s at stake in Sunday’s game, how much confidence do you think Luck’s big-game play gives the Colts, Mike?

Wells: Luck will have to carry the Colts if they expect to go into Cincy and get the victory. The former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t have much to work with on offense now that veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is out for the season with the torn ACL. Opponents have found a way to slow T.Y. Hilton down lately by sending help over the top. Tight end Coby Fleener is doing what he can to help Luck out. I’m not even going to talk about receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. The running game can’t gain any traction and the offensive line has struggled this season. That leaves Luck having to improvise and do what he can to make things work. That won’t be an easy task since the Bengals have the sixth-best defense in the league. The Bengals probably like their chances at being able to sack Luck. He’s been sacked 29 times this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, there seemed to be different stories floating around earlier this season that questioned whether Andy Dalton could win big games. Do you think he has the ability to take the Bengals to the next level?

Harvey: In all honesty, it’s tough to say, Mike. Dalton has been so inconsistent this season that it’s tough to actually believe he’ll be able to put this team on his back and be as successful as Luck has proven to be. That said, it looks like the Bengals learned something about Dalton and the rest of their offense in San Diego this past weekend. They discovered that with a little help from a solid running game, their passing game can actually produce big, explosive plays.

For a four-game stretch in October, Dalton looked like he would be able to make the Bengals an unbeatable force come the postseason. But since then, he hasn’t been as efficient and he hasn’t had the same type of prolific passing numbers. After throwing for more than 300 yards in four straight games in October, Dalton has hit the 200-yard mark just once since. Two games ago, against Cleveland, he didn’t even reach 100. If the Bengals are going to make noise in the playoffs, it’s probably not going to be because of Dalton. It most likely will be because of their defense.

Speaking of defenses, tell us about the Colts’ defense. What has contributed to its struggles this year, particularly against the run?

Wells: The Colts have struggled to stop the run all season -- 28th in the league -- and things may get worse for them. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is out two to four weeks with a partial tear of his plantar fascia. Fili Moala will start in his place. Stopping the run is just one problem for Indianapolis. The secondary has also had a difficult time stopping teams from passing on them. It all started when cornerback Greg Toler went down five games ago with a groin injury. But the defense stepped up by forcing four turnovers, including three interceptions, against Tennessee on Sunday. And there’s a chance Toler will be back in the lineup this weekend. The rest of the secondary feeds off of Toler’s energy. It’s a perfect time for Toler to return because the Colts can use his help to try to slow down receiver A.J. Green, who is averaging 91.9 yards a game receiving.

Like Pagano, Marvin Lewis is a defensive coach. What makes the Bengals' defense so successful?

Harvey: It starts with the combination of Lewis' background and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The pair of defensive gurus have established quite the formidable two-headed monster for the Bengals, coming up with a slew of adjustments and lineup tweaks that has made the unit one of the best in the league, even when it maybe shouldn't be. Injuries have ravaged the Bengals' defense, most notably at defensive tackle (Geno Atkins) and cornerback (Leon Hall). The fact Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict has come on and had an unbelievably strong sophomore season has helped, too. The former undrafted free agent leads the NFL in tackles and played last week on a bad ankle. Because of his near-reckless style of play and the fact Zimmer's scheme has produced results, the Bengals believe in their system and that has made them successful.

The revolving door at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns continues on its trend-setting pace.

No NFL team has had more starting quarterbacks than the Cleveland Browns since 1999, the year the team returned to the field.

Nineteen different players -- some noble, some not so noble -- have taken the first snap. Jason Campbell becomes No. 20 on Sunday.

This season's Browns will have three different starters in the first eight games.

"It's something I'm used to," left tackle Joe Thomas said. "It's not like I've ever played with one quarterback a whole season."

Thomas joined the Browns in 2008. He hasn't missed a play since he was drafted. In that time, the Browns have had 10 starting quarterbacks, with No. 11 set to go in Kansas City on Sunday.

The teams with the fewest starters are not surprisingly among the better and most consistent teams in the league. Teams with talented quarterbacks win, and part of being a dependable player is being reliable. The best play well, and play often.

New England has had three starters -- Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady and Matt Cassel.

Green Bay has had three -- Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn when the Packers gave Rodgers a couple late-season games off.

Indianapolis has had five -- but three started games in 2011 when Peyton Manning missed a season. One could say that Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins were underpaid, because they gave the Colts the chance to go from Manning to Andrew Luck.

On the opposite end, Miami ranks second to the Browns with 18 staters since 1999, and Chicago has had 17.

The average per team is 11.3, which means the Browns will be far above average when they hit 20. Nearly double in fact.

When players shrug off the changes and call it life in the NFL -- which some Browns have done -- it's not really accurate.

It's more life in Cleveland.
As part of ESPN's #NFLRank project, Football Outsiders named Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco as the most overrated among players ranked 31-40. It's been about a week since anyone put the "overrated" label on Flacco, so the Super Bowl MVP was due to hear it again.

This is the point made by Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz:
Even if we dismiss any thought of future potential and only look at regular-season performance in 2012, Flacco was simply not as good as Andrew Luck (No. 41), Colin Kaepernick (No. 42),Robert Griffin (No. 46) or Russell Wilson (No. 47). And while those guys didn't lead their teams to the Super Bowl title, it's hard to say that they choked in the postseason.

Many of the statistics with Flacco and the NFL's young guns are comparable. I just wouldn't overlook the fact that Flacco produces big plays and plays big in critical moments.

Last season, Flacco ranked fourth in the NFL in fourth-quarter passing, which was better than Wilson (fifth), Kaepernick (seventh), RG III (17th) and Luck (29th). Flacco's 40 passes of at least 25 yards in the 2012 regular season ranked behind only Drew Brees (47).

The most valid criticism is Flacco's lack of consistency. Last year, he produced more games of fewer than 200 yards passing (six) than with more than 300 yards (five).

Flacco's trump card is victories. His 63 wins since 2008, including the regular season and playoffs, are six more than anyone else during that same span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. While some will argue Flacco hasn't necessarily played a big role in those wins, his numbers will dispute that. In those wins, Flacco has averaged 227 yards passing with 88 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

I understand the buzz about the latest wave of good young quarterbacks. But I question the assertion that they're better than Flacco when you're comparing their rookie seasons to a Super Bowl champion's five-year body of work.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made headlines recently when he told USA Today Sports that he is taking a wait-and-see approach with the new wave of quarterbacks.

"People ask me all the time about these young quarterbacks," Roethlisberger said Thursday. "Let's wait. One year does not mean a lot in this league. Let's see what happens in two, three years."

Roethlisberger has every right to say this because he's done it. After winning 14 straight games to take the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie in 2004, he helped Pittsburgh win the Super Bowl in his second season.

While many like to say the Steelers' defense carried Roethlisberger to the title that year (his passer rating was the lowest of any winning Super Bowl quarterback), Roethlisberger finished third in the NFL in 2005 in passer rating during the regular season and contributed three touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game that year.

I believe this type of underappreciation is why Roethlisberger made this statement. This month, Roethlisberger was ranked No. 61 in NFL Network's top 100 players. Eleven quarterbacks were put ahead of him. Yes, eleven. Three of the league's new young guns -- Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson -- are all higher than Roethlisberger.

I know Roethlisberger isn't a coveted fantasy football quarterback, but he wouldn't be the 12th quarterback selected if league executives were building a real football team among the current crop of players. Despite battling injuries the past two seasons, Roethlisberger is still among the best downfield passers in the game and the toughest to bring down. He's among the top six quarterbacks in the NFL right now and he's got the two Super Bowl rings to back it up.

And, even though Mike Wallace thinks Ryan Tannehill can be the next Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch feels Landry Jones was drafted to replace Big Ben, there's a lot of football left in him. Roethlisberger is 31 and in the prime of his career.

So, while it looks like everyone is in a rush to anoint these young quarterbacks, let's not forget that Roethlisberger is the more established quarterback, and honestly, he's a better one at this stage of their careers.
Colin Kaepernick & Terrell SuggsReutersOne of Terrell Suggs' responsibilities will be to help keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket.
NEW ORLEANS -- For his next act, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will try to accomplish what Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady could not pull off in these NFL playoffs. Kaepernick will try to lead his team past the Baltimore Ravens.

No bar appears too high for Kaepernick to clear after the second-year pro helped the 49ers overcome a 17-0 deficit at Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game. But as Super Bowl week cranks up, Ravens QB Joe Flacco has been cast as the "hot" quarterback. He has eight touchdown passes without an interception in three playoff games, placing him within statistical striking distance of 49ers greats Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Against that backdrop, NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley pick up the Kaepernick discussion from New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XLVII.

Sando: Kaepernick's NFL career began amid some questions over whether the 49ers should have traded up to draft him in the second round out of Nevada. More recently, there was debate over whether 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was wise to bench Alex Smith in favor of Kaepernick. The debate now is ... what?

Jamison, do you have a sense yet as to how the Ravens are viewing Kaepernick? Are they seeing him as a dynamic quarterback with victories over Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan in his first nine starts? Or do you get the sense Kaepernick still must earn their respect as an inexperienced QB?

Hensley: The Ravens definitely respect Kaepernick, but they know they're dealing with a different quarterback than the other ones they've faced in the past two weeks. This goes beyond his freakish athleticism. Baltimore knew it couldn't intimidate the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But I get the sense that the Ravens feel that they can rattle Kaepernick if they can hit him early.

You saw what Haloti Ngata did to Robert Griffin III this season. The problem, of course, is trying to run down Kaepernick. This is where the respect comes in. "Assignment" is the buzz word among the Ravens' defense. The players know they have to play disciplined defense. They can't have any breakdowns or missed tackles. That will result in a Kaepernick touchdown. The key is not allowing Kaepernick to get to the outside. The job of containing him will fall on Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger.

Mike, what do you think is the biggest mistake defenses have made against Kaepernick?

Sando: It's a pick-your-poison situation. Blow an assignment and Kaepernick can take it the distance, as Green Bay proved in the divisional round. Commit additional resources to containing Kaepernick on the edge and you're going to get a face full of RBs Frank Gore and LaMichael James, who combined for three touchdowns against the Falcons. Containing Kaepernick's rushes isn't enough.

Kaepernick averaged 11.5 yards per pass attempt from inside the pocket in the NFC Championship Game. He stayed in the pocket on 21 of 23 drop-backs. He had only two rushing attempts all game. But he still posted a 90-plus Total QBR score for the second time in two playoff games. No one else has more in the five-year history of the metric.

The key is making a quarterback uncomfortable. We might not call it "rattled" when it happens to Manning or Brady, but we're talking about something similar. The 49ers would not say they rattled Brady early in their Week 15 victory over the Patriots, but they affected him. They made him jumpy. That was one of the reasons they jumped to a 31-3 lead in the game.

Kaepernick did not appear comfortable on the road against Seattle. But he has led a touchdown drive immediately after each of his four interceptions this season. He plays with attitude and rushed for more than 4,000 yards in college, so he's used to taking some hits. I expect the 49ers to run the ball with Gore. There's no reason to invite trouble with a pass-happy plan early. We should see heavy doses of the 49ers’ ground game -– including some option looks featuring Kaepernick.

Hensley: The Ravens are no strangers to mobile quarterbacks. They played Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III this season. Vick ran for 34 yards on 10 carries and his longest run was 8 yards. RG III managed 34 yards rushing on seven attempts and didn't break a run longer than 13 yards. This is surprising to me because the Ravens don't have the same speed on defense they've had in previous seasons.

Sando: Kaepernick rushed for only 21 yards in the NFC Championship Game. However, the threat of his running made it tougher for the Falcons to defend the entire offense. Kaepernick has attempted 49 of his 52 postseason passes from the pocket. But the 49ers have also run more plays from the pistol formation in two postseason games (62) than they did all season (44). Kaepernick is also a threat on scrambles. Overall, he has three rushes of at least 50 yards this season, counting playoffs. Only Adrian Peterson has more.

Hensley: Ravens players said Kaepernick reminds them more of Vick than RG III. They don't think watching their tape of how they played against Washington will help them because the 49ers' blocking schemes are different. The Ravens want to force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. Even though the Ravens' cornerbacks are far from household names, Cary Williams and Corey Graham have two interceptions each in the playoffs. Since 2008, when John Harbaugh became head coach, the Ravens have 22 interceptions in the playoffs. That's twice as many picks as any other team in the league over that span.

Sando: Kaepernick threw a pick-six against the Packers in the divisional round, so he’s not immune to making mistakes. Overall, however, he leads the NFL in Total QBR (82.6), yards per pass attempt (8.6) and starting quarterback won-lost percentage (77.8, tied with Matt Ryan) for the regular season and playoffs combined. We all know how hot Flacco has been for Baltimore. That 8-0 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions is impressive. But Kaepernick and Kurt Warner are the only quarterbacks over the past five seasons with two single-game QBR scores in the 90s during the playoffs. Kaepernick has done it in two starts.

Hensley: The Ravens' defense has been as hot as Flacco. Baltimore has allowed four offensive touchdowns in three playoff games and none have come on the ground. In the second half of the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens shut out Tom Brady and the Patriots, the highest-scoring team in the NFL this season.

Baltimore is doing this without getting tremendous pressure on the quarterback. The Ravens have only six sacks in the postseason. That wasn't the case 14 months ago, when the Ravens sacked Alex Smith nine times. But I think we can both agree that the 49ers are a different team and definitely a different offense now.

Sando: Kaepernick is one of the biggest differences for the 49ers. He takes sacks far less frequently than Smith took them. Kaepernick is much more dangerous as a runner. He has a stronger arm. He gives the 49ers their best chance to win.

Good morning from Baltimore

January, 6, 2013
BALTIMORE -- Emotions always run high in the playoffs, but no postseason game this weekend will strike a chord like Sunday's wild-card game between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts.

This playoff game features the unwelcomed homecoming of the Colts to Baltimore, Chuck Pagano's inspiring battle against leukemia and Ray Lewis' touching farewell to the city of Baltimore.

If the Ravens win, they will play at the second-seeded Denver Broncos on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET. Because my attention will be on the Ravens today, I will provide my take on the Bengals' playoff loss on Monday.

Here are the three keys for the Ravens against the Colts:

1. Lean on Ray Rice. No one on the Ravens is more inspired to extend Ray Lewis' career than Rice, who has been groomed by Lewis to be the team's next leader. And Rice should have plenty of opportunity to make an impact. The Ravens are facing the NFL's fourth-worst run defense.

2. Force Andrew Luck into turnovers. The Ravens have to make Luck look like a rookie. In 11 wins, Luck threw 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions (82.1 passer rating). In five losses, he threw seven touchdowns and nine interceptions (65.4 rating).

3. Capitalize on special teams. The Ravens have a big advantage over the Colts here. Jacoby Jones led the NFL in kickoff returns (30.7-yard average) and was 15th on punt returns (9.2). The Colts have struggled on coverage teams, ranking 26th on punts and 22nd on kickoffs.

Final Word: AFC North

January, 4, 2013
NFC Final Word: East | West | North AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the AFC wild-card playoffs:

Return of Ray: Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who announced that he will retire at the end of the season, will play in his first game since tearing his triceps Oct. 14. The Ravens have been better against the run this season with Lewis on the field but worse against the pass, according to ESPN Stats & Information. With Lewis, Baltimore has allowed 3.8 yards per rush and 7.6 yards per pass attempt. Without Lewis, the Ravens have given up 4.1 yards per carry and 6.6 yards per throw. This will mark Lewis' 18th playoff game of his career. In the postseason, Lewis has recorded 185 tackles (an average of 10.8 per game), 13 passes defensed, six forced fumbles, two interceptions, two sacks and one touchdown.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Ray Lewis
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsRay Lewis returns from the sidelines in what could be his final game.
Fearsome foursome: What makes the Bengals' defense so effective is its ability to generate a pass rush without having to blitz. The Bengals harass quarterbacks with a front four that includes defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Cincinnati had an NFL-high 37 sacks with a four-man rush and and allowed only eight touchdown passes on such pressure, which was tied for second fewest in the league. The Bengals have to get pressure on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who has had success against Cincinnati in the past. Schaub is 2-0 against the Bengals with seven touchdowns and one interception. Of the 16 teams he has faced more than once since 2008, Schaub’s Total QBR of 89.4 against the Bengals is his best against any team.

Different coordinator, different quarterback: Joe Flacco has been a different quarterback in three games under new Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. The average distance of Flacco's passes under Caldwell has been 7.6 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's down from his average of 9.8 yards downfield in the first 13 games under Cam Cameron this season. Flacco had the worst completion percentage (40.1) on throws more than 10 yards downfield through Week 14. But, by throwing downfield less often, Flacco's efficiency has improved.

Beware of the tip: Andy Dalton becomes the fourth quarterback in NFL history to start a road playoff game in each of his first two seasons, joining Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Shaun King. It's a return postseason trip for Dalton to Houston, where he was undone by a batted pass at the line of scrimmage. Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt picked off Dalton's pass and returned it for a touchdown, the key moment in yet another playoff loss for Cincinnati. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dalton has had 32 passes batted down or tipped since entering the NFL, which is third most in the NFL. Five of those batted-down passes have come in two games against the Texans' defense.

Postseason panache: Quarterbacks are always aware of where Ed Reed is on the field. Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck should really be wary of the Ravens safety because he steps up in the playoffs. Reed has eight interceptions in 11 playoff games, which ranks as the most among active NFL players and is one shy of tying the all-time mark. Luck finished the regular season with 18 interceptions, one shy of league leaders Tony Romo and Drew Brees. However, Luck had seven potential interceptions dropped by defenders, most in the NFL.
This Sunday's AFC wild-card game is like six degrees of Jim Harbaugh.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh is the brother of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached Colts quarterback Andrew Luck when they were both at Stanford. So, will Jim Harbaugh give an inside scouting report to his brother?

“I hope he would share some stuff with me," Harbaugh said, drawing laughter from reporters.

Harbaugh then added, "What are you going to get? You can see it on tape. He’s a tremendous quarterback. He’s got pluses, and he has things that aren’t so plus. So, it’s like any quarterback. We’ll be looking forward to playing against him.”

It would be foolish for John Harbaugh to not call his brother. Obviously, by working with Luck every day, Jim Harbaugh can provide insight that you can't see on film.

In many ways, it would just be evening the score for the Ravens. You know Colts coach Chuck Pagano is going to draw on his knowledge from last season, when he was the Ravens' defensive coordinator.

Quick Take: Colts at Ravens

December, 30, 2012
Five things to know about next weekend's Indianapolis Colts-Baltimore Ravens AFC wild-card Game at M&T Bank Stadium:

1. No quick exits. The Ravens (10-6) are limping into the playoffs having lost four of their past five games. But coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco have never been one-and-done in the playoffs. The Ravens have won at least one playoff game for the past four seasons, and they've done it in impressive style. Under Harbaugh and Flacco, Baltimore's average margin of victory in its first playoff game has been 16.7 points. The last time the Ravens made the postseason and didn't win a playoff game was January 2007, when they fell to the Colts. Of course, Peyton Manning was the quarterback of the Colts, not Andrew Luck.

2. Ray Rice factor. It's a well-known fact that the Ravens' chances of winning increase when they put the ball in the hands of Rice. Since drafting him in 2008, the Ravens are 23-3 (.885) when Rice gets 25 or more touches. They are 12-12 (.500) when he gets 15 or fewer. Rice should be busy in the wild-card game if the Ravens attack the weakness of the Colts' defense. Indianapolis entered the final week of the regular season ranked 30th against the run, allowing 139.9 yards rushing per game and 5.1 yards per carry. The Ravens will get some insight on the Colts defense from offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who was Indianapolis' head coach from 2009 to 2011.

3. Stingy defense. There is a possibility that linebacker Ray Lewis will return this week, just 12 weeks removed from tearing his triceps on Oct. 14. Without Lewis, the Ravens have maintained a bend but don't break philosophy. This isn't the same dominant group from last season when Chuck Pagano was the defensive coordinator, but Baltimore has been among the best defenses in the red zone this season. The Ravens are 8-0 when they hold teams to 20 or fewer points. They are 2-6 when they allow more than 20 points. The Ravens tried to get their banged-up defense healthier by resting four defensive starters Sunday: Lewis, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (biceps), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (knee) and safety Bernard Pollard (chest). This veteran defense is 2-1 against rookie quarterbacks this season, beating Brandon Weeden twice and losing to the combination of Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins. Now, the Ravens get the Colts (11-5) and Luck, the No. 1 overall pick of this year's draft.

4. Protecting Flacco. The Ravens did a stellar job in not allowing a sack in Flacco's last full game a week ago. But pass protection is a big issue for Baltimore in these playoffs. Flacco was sacked eight times in the Ravens' three-game losing streak this month. While Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis aren't among the best pass rushers in the NFL anymore, the Ravens have struggled against speed rushers. Left tackle Michael Oher has allowed eight sacks this season and right tackle Kelechi Osemele has given up seven. Osemele also was injured in Sunday's regular-season finale.

5. Return game. Jacoby Jones was available for the Ravens to sign this offseason because he muffed a punt that led to the Texans' playoff loss to Baltimore. Jones will have a chance to have a better showing against the Colts, who rank in the bottom half of the NFL in punt and kickoff coverage. In being named to his first Pro Bowl, Jones has three returns for touchdowns this season (two on kickoff and one on punt).

Wrap-up: Colts 17, Browns 13

October, 21, 2012

Thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 17-13 loss at the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: It was a disappointing start to the Jimmy Haslam era. The Browns lost their 11th straight road game, which ties the franchise record (1974-76). This road losing streak is the longest active one in the NFL. Cleveland (1-6) becomes the first team to lose six games this season.

Failing to convert in the fourth quarter: The Browns couldn't extend drives in the final quarter. They failed on four third downs and two fourth downs. The biggest blunder on third down was a dropped 41-yard pass by rookie receiver Josh Gordon that would have gone for a touchdown.

Giving up on the run: The expected game plan was attacking the Colts and the 29th-ranked run defense. But the Browns gave up on the run too fast, handing it off 16 times while throwing 40 passes. Rookie running back Trent Richardson (ribs) didn't play in the second half after getting drilled on a third-and-one with four minutes left in the second quarter. Unlike last week, the Browns didn't give the ball to backup Montario Hardesty. Richardson finished with eight yards on eight carries, and quarterback Brandon Weeden finished as the leading rusher (13 yards) after three quarters.

Wasted turnover: Blitzing cornerback Sheldon Brown came on the blind side to hit Andrew Luck, forcing a fumble and recovering it in the fourth quarter. Down 17-13, Cleveland didn't convert as Gordon dropped a deep third-down pass at the goal line. The Browns chose to punt on fourth-and-1 at the Colts' 41 with 6:31 remaining.

Greg Little shows off hands: Little has been rightfully criticized for dropping the ball in his first two seasons in the NFL. But he made the best grab of his career on the Browns' opening possession. Leaping over a Colts defender in the back of the end zone, Little tapped the ball in the air and caught it while getting both feet inbounds.

Not so special teams: The Browns matched the Colts' game-opening touchdown drive with a 16-play, 90-yard series. But Cleveland failed to tie the game because holder Reggie Hodges mishandled the snap on the point-after attempt. Last season, the Browns struggled with the long snaps.

Luck or RG3?: The Browns had to be confused whether they were playing Luck, the draft's top pick, or Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 overall selection. Luck showed off his athleticism by scoring the Colts' first two touchdowns on runs. He reached the end zone on runs of 3 and 5 yards.

Weeden watch: In the first matchup of rookie quarterbacks this season, Weeden more than held his own against Luck. Weeden looked decisive on his throws, completing 25 of 41 passes for 264 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

What's next: The Browns return home to play the San Diego Chargers, who are coming off a bye.
Trent RichardsonAP Photo/David KohlTrent Richardson's bruising running style might help finally turn the Browns around.

Teams shouldn't spend a top-five pick on a running back in this pass-happy age of football. Two knee surgeries in less than a year reveal that Trent Richardson is damaged goods. Even Jim Brown, the greatest runner in Browns -- and perhaps NFL -- history, took a shot at Richardson, labeling the first-round pick as "ordinary."

Two weeks into the regular season, all of this criticism seems laughable. While it's correct not to make any sweeping conclusions after a couple of games, no one can consider the Browns' drafting of Richardson a mistake at this point. His power, speed and jaw-dropping moves in the open field prove he's the key piece in turning around the NFL's worst offense over the past decade.

Richardson's attitude is the perfect jolt to a Browns franchise that has accepted last place as a way of life since returning to the league in 1999. He runs angry. Knocking off the helmet of would-be tackler Kurt Coleman in the season opener -- it flew five yards after the crushing collision -- is a great example of that. He gets ticked off. Delivering a breakout game following Rey Maualuga's lukewarm assessment of him is another warning that you don't want to challenge him.

Richardson is a violent right hook for the usually punchless Browns, who have ranked 28th or worse in offense nine times in the previous 13 years. Relying on a running back like Peyton Hillis, who missed a game because of strep throat, wasn't going to cut it. Drafting a hard-nosed playmaker like Richardson is Cleveland's best hope to change its culture of losing, even if it has yet to provide immediate results for the winless Browns (0-2).

For entertainment purposes alone, Richardson made a Browns game worth watching Sunday. Richardson totaled 109 yards rushing and 36 yards receiving against the Bengals on Sunday. Those numbers don't illustrate how impressive Richardson looked. On his 32-yard touchdown run, he took a delayed handoff and raced to the end zone without being touched. On what will go down as a 23-yard touchdown reception, Richardson caught a short pass before running through two tackles and spinning out of another to reach the end zone.

"He’s a special player," Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden said. "He’s a difference-maker."

Richardson became first NFL rookie to record 100 yards rushing, a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same game since Samkon Gado seven years ago. He also scored two 20-yard-plus touchdowns for a team that had seven of them all of last season.

"I think I was just more comfortable with myself that, ‘Hey, I'm still able to run like I used to' and do it much better," Richardson said of his improvement from Week 1. "In my head, [I was thinking] ‘I've got to run much stronger because these guys are much stronger than the guys in college.' Hopefully I'll come out stronger next week."

Five months ago, everyone christened Andrew Luck as the next great franchise quarterback and applauded the Redskins for moving up to take Robert Griffin III. The Browns received mixed reviews when they jumped one spot up to make sure they landed Richardson.

Teams have gotten burned in the past by taking a running back that high. Before Richardson, there were five running backs selected in the top five over the previous 10 drafts: Cadillac Williams (2005), Cedric Benson (2005), Ronnie Brown (2005), Reggie Bush (2006) and Darren McFadden (2008). Only Brown has reached the Pro Bowl and only McFadden is still with the team that drafted him.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Frank Victores/US PresswireTrent Richardson celebrates his 23-yard catch-and-run TD in the third quarter against the Bengals.
Richardson's stock didn't rise when a second procedure on his left knee in less than a year sidelined him for the entire preseason. In his NFL debut, he managed 39 yards, which prompted Bengals linebacker Maualuga to say "he didn’t do nothing spectacular." Maualuga was wrong. Exactly one month after knee surgery, no matter if it's minor or not, Richardson carried the ball 19 times. In terms of toughness, that is spectacular.

Richardson can be a top-five running back in the NFL as early as next season. That isn't to say he's the next Adrian Peterson right now.

"I still think he can do some things better when he doesn’t have the football, which means we probably ought to give him the ball every time he’s in there," coach Pat Shurmur said.

Richardson still has a ways to go before he convinces everyone about his talent. Jim Brown, who was critical of Richardson after the Browns drafted him, told The Plain Dealer that he was impressed with Richardson's performance against the Bengals. But he stopped short of fully endorsing the former Alabama star.

"Richardson has to show he can consistently carry a team," Brown told the paper. "The Browns have had some players that looked like they could, and it didn't work out. (Peyton) Hillis had a lot of talent."

Brown is right in that respect. It doesn't matter how many 1,000-yard seasons Richardson records. He was drafted to turn around a franchise that regularly loses more than 10 games a season and hasn't won a playoff game since 1994. Losing hasn't been easy on Richardson, who went 36-4 in three seasons at Alabama and won two national championships.

“At some point we have to put up more points than the other team is putting up,” Richardson said. “If they score on special teams, we have to come back and score. We did a good job (offensively), but I think we can do an even better job. When we start winning, it’s going to be much better."

Based on the first couple weeks of the season, Richardson is at his best when faced with a challenge.
The best part about Brandon Weeden's less-than-stellar preseason debut on Friday is he doesn't seem rattled by his mistakes.

The worst part is all of the other quarterbacks selected in the first round in April were far more impressive than Weeden in their first games. It wasn't even close.
  • The Colts' Andrew Luck, the first overall pick, completed 10 of 16 passes for 188 yards. He threw two touchdowns for a 142.7 rating. Three of the incompletions were drops and two were throwaways.
  • The Redskins' Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 pick who was pursued by the Browns before the draft, connected on 4 of 6 throws for 70 yards. He had one touchdown for a rating of 145.8. After a choppy start (there was a muffed handoff), RG3 completed his final three passes for 58 yards, capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass.
  • The Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill, the No. 8 pick who was the only first-round quarterback who didn't start, finished 14 of 21 passing for 167 yards. He had one touchdown for a 106.6 rating.
  • Then there was Weeden, the 22nd overall pick who had one fumble, one interception (it would've been twice if a Lions cornerback hadn't dropped a pass) and no touchdowns. He was 3 of 9 for 62 yards and a rating of 19.0.

“Overall I’m upbeat about it,” Weeden said. “I think the way I felt and the plays we did make that were positive plays were good and we’ve got to build off those.”

Remember, these are just first impressions. The preseason is the time to put together observations on rookies, not draw conclusions. It's easy to forget that Weeden beat Luck, RG3 and Tannehill last season at Oklahoma State. Indeed, the previous time Weeden played a game was Jan. 2, when he beat Luck and Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl.

“You have to keep in mind, yeah, we’ve been practicing and stuff, but I haven’t played a game since Jan. 2,” Weeden said. “So the first game out you’re going to do some things that are uncharacteristic, you’re going to do some things you may not want to."

Unfortunately for Weeden, the other rookie first-round quarterbacks didn't have that same rust.