AFC North: Billy Cundiff

General manager Ozzie Newsome recently told the Baltimore Ravens' website that the team is looking to extend the contracts of cornerback Jimmy Smith, wide receiver Torrey Smith and kicker Justin Tucker.

Which one is the likeliest to happen before the start of the 2015 season? Tucker is the best bet.

[+] EnlargeJustin Tucker
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJustin Tucker has six game-winning kicks in two seasons in the NFL.
Signing the Pro Bowl kicker to a new deal is a win for both sides. Tucker can get the money he deserves, and the Ravens can potentially solidify the position through the end of this decade.

There is no debate on whether Tucker should get a new deal. He is making $570,000 this season and received no signing bonus in 2012 when he joined as a rookie free agent. There are 24 kickers who will make more money than Tucker this season.

The Ravens could pay Tucker at a bargain rate for the next two seasons (he would likely make a little over $2 million in 2015 as a restricted free agent), but they can secure Tucker for the long term by doing a deal with him over the next year. If the Ravens sign Tucker to a six-year deal before the start of next season (like they did with cornerback Lardarius Webb when he was a restricted free agent two years ago), they can have him under contract through the 2020 season.

There is always some risk involved when giving any long-term deal. The Ravens signed kicker Billy Cundiff to a five-year, $15 million contract after he made his first Pro Bowl following the 2010 season. That didn't go exactly as planned. Cundiff played only one year of that contract before missing the game-tying chip shot in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens had to carry $1.8 million in dead money last season because of that Cundiff deal.

The situation is much different with Tucker. Cundiff was a 31-year-old journeyman at the time who had been a career 74 percent kicker before joining the Ravens. Tucker is 24 and has the best career field goal percentage of any active kicker with at least 60 attempts (91.9 percent).

Tucker's leg strength and ability to deliver in the clutch make him one of the most valuable players on the team. He has missed just once on 11 field goal tries from 50 yards and beyond. Tucker not only has six game-winning kicks in two seasons but he's also 22-of-24 in the fourth quarter, including 12-of-13 in the last two minutes of a game.

A national audience saw Tucker's ability to kick under pressure last season when he hit a 61-yarder to beat the Detroit Lions on "Monday Night Football." If there is any concern about Tucker, it's perhaps that he loves the spotlight too much. Not too many kickers do a celebratory dance after big kicks or appear in soda commercials.

So how much will it take to get a deal done with Tucker? The market value for top kickers is around $3.5 million per season. There are 10 kickers averaging more than $3 million per season. The NFL's two highest-paid kickers, Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski and Chicago's Robbie Gould, are averaging $3.7 million per year.

It would be a sound investment for the Ravens and a well-deserved reward for Tucker.
The Cleveland Browns remain in good standing on the injury front.

Quarterback Brandon Weeden practiced Tuesday, working with gloves on both hands in the part of practice open to the media.

Hoyer
Weeden
Whether Weeden is the backup or No. 3 Thursday night against Buffalo will be determined by how he looks in practice, said coach Rob Chudzinski. Weeden missed the last two games -- and probably lost his starting job -- to a sprained thumb.

Brian Hoyer will make his third start, ostensibly because it’s a short week but in reality because Hoyer has played too well not to start.

Three players are not expected to play: Outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves and defensive lineman Billy Winn. Sheard (sprained knee) and Winn (quad) were not working, and Groves (ankle) was riding the proverbial stationary bike.

Winn’s absence will be minimized by the Browns' depth on the defensive front. Sheard’s absence against Cincinnati allowed first-round pick Barkevious Mingo to open eyes with a very strong first start.

Place-kicker Billy Cundiff is dealing with a thigh strain. He missed two field goals in the win over Cincinnati. Chudzinski said he would see how Cundiff kicks in practice before making any decision regarding that position.
Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was asked if he was going to try to rattle Cleveland Browns kicker Billy Cundiff during the game by bringing up some painful memories.

"Billy and I have a good relationship, so I’m going to try and keep that the same," Suggs said. "Who knows? Maybe if he has to go out there and kill us, I may try to mess him up a little bit.”

[+] EnlargeBilly Cundiff
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonBilly Cundiff had made 11 straight field goals before missing a 32-yard attempt that would have tied the 2012 AFC Championship Game.
Cundiff returns to M&T Bank Stadium for his first regular-season game since missing that infamous 32-yard field goal in the final seconds of the 2012 AFC Championship Game.

Ravens players and fans should hold no hard feelings toward Cundiff for a couple of reasons. Cundiff should never take all of the blame for that miss, even though he hooked the short field goal very badly. If you remember, the Ravens had lost track of the downs in New England (thinking it was third down and not fourth down) and rushed the attempt. The Ravens could've called a timeout to have more time to set up for the critical kick.

The other part of the story is the Ravens have rebounded from that heartbreaking part of their history. The Ravens got their redemption in New England when they won the AFC Championship Game the next year and went on to capture the Super Bowl. Cundiff, meanwhile, hasn't enjoyed the same success. The former Pro Bowl kicker is on his fourth team in two seasons.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he hopes to talk to Cundiff before Sunday's game.

"Billy [Cundiff] is a very good kicker, and Billy made a lot of kicks, especially at M&T [Bank Stadium]. I don’t know if he ever missed here," Harbaugh said. "He’s kicked off really well for them so far. He’ll be another guy who is on the other side for this game, but I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”

In a way, Cundiff is coming back home, at least in a kicking sense. Baltimore is where he enjoyed his only Pro Bowl season (2010) and greatest success. Cundiff made 43 of 48 field goals at M&T Bank Stadium while he was with the Ravens, including a perfect 17-for-17 in 2012.

The Ravens had all intentions to stick with Cundiff as their kicker last season even after that dramatic playoff miss. His only competition in the preseason was undrafted rookie Justin Tucker. Cundiff had a solid training camp, but Tucker had a surprisingly spectacular one.

The Ravens decided to cut Cundiff last August, and it turned out to be the right decision. Tucker connected on 90.9 percent of his field goals, which was the second-best mark in franchise history and the second-best by a rookie kicker in NFL history. While Tucker and Cundiff didn't remain in contact, Tucker still uses some of Cundiff's technique on kickoffs.

Cundiff eventually landed with Washington at the start of last season, but he was released after missing on five of 12 field-goal attempts in the first five games. He acknowledged he didn't get back on track after the AFC Championship Game miss.

“I think that's kind of a good way to put it," Cundiff told Cleveland reporters last week. “Nothing really got back on track, but for me I continued to build on my skills. Obviously things didn't work out the way I wanted to in the AFC Championship Game. There's a lot of things you can learn from that, but also a lot of things you can learn from the road that I've traveled."

Cundiff, 33, spent training camp with the New York Jets before getting cut on Aug. 27. A week later, he was signed by Cleveland.

The Browns aren't concerned about how Cundiff will react in this reunion with Baltimore.

"He’ll approach this game as he does any other game, I’m sure," Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. "And obviously, he was with the Ravens and has the history there, but it’s no different. This game is its own game, and that’s how we’ll approach it.”
The Cleveland Browns are going with Billy Cundiff as their kicker, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The Browns have made several good moves to improve the team this year, but the new regime mishandled their kicking situation.

I didn't understand why the Browns didn't re-sign Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson in free agency. The two kickers (Shayne Graham and Brandon Bogotay) that the Browns brought in this offseason, and subsequently cut, were a downgrade from Dawson. And the same goes with Cundiff, who hasn't been the same since that crushing miss in the AFC Championship Game 21 months ago.

The new decision-makers for the Browns have turned a position of strength into one of weakness. The belief is the new regime wanted a fresh start, and Dawson represented one of the faces of the expansion-era Browns. But this team would have more stability with Dawson. The Browns have over $25 million in salary-cap space and only needed to give Dawson a one-year, $2.35 million contract (what he received from the San Francisco 49ers) to keep him. And, if the Browns were intent on parting ways with Dawson, they should've invested a draft pick in a young kicker.

What you like about the addition of Cundiff is his familiarity with the tricky weather of the AFC North. He kicked for the Browns for five games in 2009 and played for the Baltimore Ravens for 2 1/2 seasons. Cundiff, 33, was a Pro Bowl kicker in 2010 before his career derailed a year later.

After missing nine field goals in the 2011 regular season, Cundiff hooked a 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds that would have tied the AFC Championship Game. Cundiff was cut by the Ravens the next season, and he was released by the Washington Redskins in 2012 after missing five of his 12 field goal attempts (58.3 percent success rate). He is now on his fourth team in two seasons.

So, in the end, the Browns have gone from a Pro Bowl kicker in Dawson to a journeyman in Cundiff.
The Cleveland Browns will eventually add a kicker to their roster, and it looks like Tuesday will be the day.

Billy Cundiff and Dan Carpenter are among the kickers who will try out for the Browns on Tuesday, according to The Plain Dealer. Both were most recently cut by the New York Jets, who went with Nick Folk.

Cundiff has experience kicking in the AFC North, having previously played for the Ravens and Browns. But he hasn't been the same since missing a field goal in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.

Carpenter spent the past five seasons with the Miami Dolphins, making 81.9 percent of his field goals. He's been cut by three teams (Dolphins, Cardinals and Jets) over the past 19 days.

As ESPN Radio in Cleveland pointed out, other free-agent kickers include Justin Medlock, Olindo Mare and Neil Rackers. The Browns have been without a kicker on their roster since cutting Shayne Graham and Brandon Bogotay on Saturday.
Tucker/AkersUSA TODAY SportsRavens rookie kicker Justin Tucker, No. 9, has outperformed 49ers veteran David Akers.
NEW ORLEANS -- Field goal tries have decided two of the 11 most recent Super Bowls and four of them overall.

San Francisco 49ers fans could do without such a finish in Super Bowl XLVII after their team's kicker, David Akers, missed 10 of his 19 tries from at least 40 yards this season.

Not that the 49ers' opponent in this Super Bowl has sailed through the playoffs on the strength of its special teams. The Baltimore Ravens have their own issues in that area.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley have covered most of the other angles heading into this game. Can they pull off an item dedicated solely to special teams or will this one bounce off the upright? You decide.

Sando: Ravens fans probably don't want to hear about Akers' struggles. They're still recovering from Billy Cundiff's missed field goal in the playoffs last season. But as I've watched the 49ers and Ravens advance through the playoffs, special-teams issues have been impossible to overlook. Here we have the Ravens, led by a former special-teams coach, allowing 104-yard and 90-yard returns for touchdowns in a close game at Denver. And here we have the 49ers, with big bucks invested in special-teams coach Brad Seely, hoping against hope that Akers can make routine field goals. Are we overreacting here, Jamison?

Hensley: Not an overreaction at all, Mike. It's kind of been a curse with Ravens head coaches. Brian Billick could never get the offense on track when he was in Baltimore after coordinating the highest-scoring offense at the time in Minnesota. The same goes for Harbaugh, who has to be irritated by the critical breakdowns on special teams after spending most of his NFL career coordinating that area of the game. It was worse for the Ravens last season, when they allowed three touchdowns on special teams.

Sando: I remember one of them well. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown in Baltimore. Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs and the New York Jets’ Joe McKnight also did the return-game scoring honors against the Ravens last season. It was the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday with that 104-yard kickoff return and 90-yard punt return this postseason.

Hensley: John Harbaugh thought the problem was fixed. The Ravens didn't allow a special-teams touchdown in the regular season and didn't allow even one yard on a return of any kind in the wild-card playoff game against Indianapolis. But lapses on special teams nearly cost the Ravens in the AFC division playoff game, where they gave up those touchdowns to Holliday. The Ravens still express confidence in their coverage teams and they have veteran experience there with Brendon Ayanbadejo, Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo. Still, those errors have to be in the back of the Ravens' minds.

Sando: The 49ers have had their own special-teams adventures, of course. We all remember Kyle Williams’ miscues dooming San Francisco to defeat in the NFC Championship Game one year ago. You might also recall Ted Ginn Jr. struggling to field the ball in the rain against New England this season. Ginn was a consistent threat in 2011, but not so much this season. He did have a 20-yard punt return against Atlanta in the NFC title game this year. Ginn has six career return touchdowns, three apiece on punts and kickoffs. He is a player to watch on special teams in this matchup. Playing the game indoors removes weather as a concern -- big for returners.

Hensley: The Ravens actually had Ginn in for a visit this offseason because they were looking to upgrade at returner. They finally decided he was too much of a risk considering his injury history. Baltimore was lucky in landing Jacoby Jones. A week after the Texans released Jones, the Ravens signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal. He has been an electric returner for the Ravens, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl this season that he didn't make. Jones is the only player in NFL history with two kickoff returns of at least 105 yards in a career. And he did it in one season. The other big pickup made by the Ravens this offseason was kicker Justin Tucker, an undrafted rookie who beat out Cundiff this summer.

Sando: Ah, yes, Cundiff. The 49ers signed him to compete with Akers before the playoffs got going. That is how desperate they had become after Akers made only 11 of his final 18 tries of the regular season. Akers, Cundiff and Green Bay’s Mason Crosby were the only qualifying kickers making less than 70 percent of their field goal tries during the regular season. Counting the playoffs, Akers has made only 9 of 19 tries from 40-plus yards. He bounced one off the upright against Atlanta, making that game the 49ers’ first under Jim Harbaugh without at least one made field goal.

Hensley: While the decision to go with Tucker over Cundiff proved to be the right one, it was still a gutsy call by Harbaugh back in the end of August. The Ravens went from Cundiff, a Pro Bowl kicker in 2010, to Tucker, an undrafted rookie out of Texas. They went from Cundiff, who had converted 89.9 percent of his kicks inside the 50 over the past two years (53-of-59) and led the NFL in touchbacks, to Tucker, who had never kicked in a regular-season game.

Sando: How the mighty have fallen. Akers set an NFL record for made field goals in 2011. He and Cundiff were both Pro Bowlers recently.

Hensley: Tucker has surpassed expectations. He connected on 90.9 percent of his field goals (30-of-33) in the regular season, which was the second-best mark by a rookie kicker in NFL history. Tucker also has been clutch with three game winners, including a 47-yarder to win the AFC divisional playoff game in double overtime. Another strength of the Ravens is at punter, and the 49ers can say the same thing.

Sando: I think Andy Lee is the best punter in the NFL. And while there’s no truth to the adage that special teams comprise one-third of the game, there’s no question field position can matter a great deal in a game between evenly matched opponents. So can last-second field goals. And if this game comes down to one of those, the Ravens have to like their chances.
Brady-LewisUSA TODAY SportsTom Brady and Ray Lewis face off for the second year in a row in the AFC title game.

It’s not the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning showdown many expected in the AFC Championship Game. But the intense rivalry between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens is just as exciting.

For the second consecutive year, these familiar foes will meet at Gillette Stadium for the right to represent the AFC at the Super Bowl. Last season, New England escaped with a 23-20 victory after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard chip shot that could've forced overtime.

Is this year’s rematch the last stop for Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis? Or will Brady be denied his sixth career Super Bowl appearance? AFC East blogger James Walker and AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley examine the possibilities.

James Walker: Jamison, I feel like it was just yesterday when we watched Billy Cundiff botch an otherwise great playoff game at Gillette Stadium. You had the feeling there was still unfinished business between these two teams, even after they played in the regular season. I think it’s fitting that the Ravens and Patriots got back to this point and meet again with so much on the line. How different are the Ravens now compared to the team that made last year’s AFC title game?

[+] EnlargeBilly Cundiff
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonKicker Billy Cundiff and the Ravens walked off the field disappointed in last season's AFC title game.
Jamison Hensley: Well, James, the Ravens don't have Cundiff or wide receiver Lee Evans anymore, which is a big difference from last season. But that hasn't been the only change. The Ravens have really undergone an image makeover in the 12 months since losing the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. Last year, and actually for the past 13 seasons, the Ravens were a team defined by defense. The offense has always been in the passenger seat when it comes to the team's championship drive. That's not the case anymore. Even though the Ravens' defense finished No. 17 in the league, it has been ranked in the 20s for most of the season. The Ravens are relying on Joe Flacco and their offense more than ever. Baltimore won half of its games this season by scoring 30 or more points and was 5-0 when Flacco threw for more than 300 yards. As he's been all season, Flacco is the X factor for the Ravens. I'm sure he's going to throw the ball deep against a Patriots defense that has given up some big plays this season. Everyone knows Tom Brady is championship caliber, but is that defense at that level yet?

Walker: New England’s defense is tricky to gauge. Is it championship caliber? No. The Patriots are not going to win a championship solely based on their defense, which was ranked 25th this season. But it has improved, largely due to its young players. Rookies like linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard have really added to New England’s physicality. The Patriots are ninth against the run and ninth in points allowed. It’s the “chunk” passing plays where New England has the most trouble. I think the Ravens can have success by attacking the Patriots vertically. New England has done a good job this season of scoring touchdowns, pushing the pace on offense and holding opponents to field goals. Before you know it, opponents are down 17 or 20 points. Obviously, the Patriots’ offense is a hot topic thanks to Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. He provided New England some easy bulletin-board material by saying he doesn’t respect the Patriots’ “gimmick” offense. The Patriots will use that as motivation, even if they don’t admit it publicly. Speaking of motivation, how big is the Ray Lewis factor and how will it impact this game?

Hensley: There will always be a debate on whether Ray Lewis is the greatest middle linebacker of all time. But there's really no argument when it comes to Lewis being the greatest leader in NFL history. James, as you know from your years of covering the AFC North, Lewis has a way of motivating players and getting them to elevate their game. That's a big reason the Ravens had a top-10 defense from 1999 to 2011. His impact is being felt this season, too. The Ravens are 7-1 with Lewis and 5-5 without him. When Lewis announced before the playoffs that this was going to be "his final ride," that became the emotional rallying cry for this team. Do I think everyone is playing for Ray Lewis? Not at all. Joe Flacco wasn't thinking of Ray Lewis when he threw that desperation touchdown pass in Denver. But the Ravens are certainly playing inspired football. It helped the Ravens beat Peyton Manning and they're hoping it helps them to knock off another future Hall of Fame quarterback. James, what has impressed you the most about Tom Brady's game this year?

[+] EnlargeNew England's Dont'a Hightower
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDont'a Hightower is one of the fresh faces helping the Patriots' defense.
Walker: I’ve always argued that Brady is better than Manning, especially this time of year. People will always debate their statistics. But the biggest difference is Brady is 17-6 and Manning is 9-11 in postseason games. I think that’s telling. There is no other quarterback I’d rather have in a one-game scenario than Brady. What’s impressed me most is Brady is 35 and showing no signs of slowing down. Brady even took on more responsibility this season, running a high-tempo, no-huddle offense more often, and he flourished. Brady, in my opinion, is in a class of his own among the final four quarterbacks. Flacco’s performance last week silenced a lot of critics, but he is 0-2 in AFC title games. Jamison, Flacco is in a contract year. Is this the season he gets over the hump in the conference championship game?

Hensley: If Evans could've held onto that catch in the end zone, Flacco would've already been over that hump. Just like last season, I expect the Patriots will look to shut down Ray Rice and force Flacco to beat them. Flacco has been a dangerous downfield passer this postseason, averaging 20.4 yards per completion. I'm not saying he's in Brady's class, but Flacco is playing at a higher level right now. It's not about Flacco stepping up in a contract year, either. He knows he's going to get paid whether it's a long-term deal or the franchise tag. The reason Flacco is playing better is because he's more experienced. Of course, as I say this, I also want to point out that Flacco is the streakiest quarterback in the league. So, do the Patriots get the good Flacco or the bad one? We'll find out Sunday. James, how do you see this game playing out?

Walker: You’re right, Jamison. Flacco has followed up some good performances with some bad ones. But I really like the sense of urgency from both teams. Baltimore has Lewis making his last postseason run and Brady looks like a man on a mission to qualify for his sixth Super Bowl appearance and maybe a fourth title. I decided to stay away from firm predictions after the regular season. AFC East blog readers were getting upset that I was hitting on most of my picks. My final record for the season was 40-12 picking division games. So I’m going to pass. But as I wrote last weekend, Brady was winning Super Bowls when Flacco, Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick were teenagers in high school. The quarterback advantage is in New England’s favor, which makes the Patriots the favorite of the four remaining teams.

Hensley: If the Ravens and Patriots played last month, my prediction would’ve been New England in a rout. But something has happened to the Ravens since the playoffs began. The Ravens are the big underdog once again, and that will only fuel their desire to prove themselves. Four of the past five meetings between Baltimore and New England have been decided by six points or fewer. This is going to be another close game. And, just like last season, the AFC Championship Game will come down to the final drive.
One of the major storylines for Sunday's AFC Championship Game is how the Ravens get a chance to make up for the final-minute mishaps last season in New England that cost them a trip to the Super Bowl. When the Ravens meet the Patriots again Sunday, it will be 364 days since wide receiver Lee Evans failed to hold onto the ball in the end zone and kicker Billy Cundiff hooked that 32-yarder wide left.

But the Ravens have already moved past one of the most historic flops in playoff history. How? They wouldn't have moved onto the AFC Championship Game if they failed to do so.

In Saturday's double-overtime win in Denver, the Ravens got clutch performances from the players who replaced Evans and Cundiff -- wide receiver Jacoby Jones and kicker Justin Tucker. Jones scored a game-tying, 70-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation and Tucker hit a 47-yard field goal to win the game in the second overtime.

Both moments will be remembered as two of the most dramatic in playoff history. Jones became only the sixth player to score a game-tying touchdown in a playoff game with less than a minute left in regulation that eventually led to an overtime win. And Tucker's 47-yard field goal is tied for the third-longest overtime field goal in playoff history.

Tucker said he tried not to think about the fact that his kick would send the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game.

"Sure it's in the back of my mind just a little bit," he said. "I do everything I can not to let it creep in the forefront. More than anything, you stick to your routine and try to hit a straight ball and take every kick for what it's worth."
For the second straight year, the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots will face each other in Foxborough, Mass., for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Kickoff for Sunday's AFC Championship Game is 6:30 p.m. ET.

The fourth-seeded Ravens advanced Saturday by upsetting the top-seeded Denver Broncos, 38-35, in double overtime. The second-seeded Patriots moved on with a 41-28 win over the third-seeded Houston Texans on Sunday.

It was only last year when Baltimore lost to New England, 23-20, in the AFC Championship Game in a historic fourth-quarter meltdown. As if I have to remind Ravens fans, that was the game in which Lee Evans failed to hold onto a catch that would've put Baltimore ahead with 22 seconds remaining. Then, Billy Cundiff hooked a 32-yard field goal wide left in the final seconds.

The Ravens have since faced the Patriots, beating New England, 31-30, in a Week 3 game in Baltimore.

This marks the first time that the same two teams are playing in the AFC title game in back-to-back seasons since 1986-87, when the Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns both times.
There's no games with AFC North teams playing each other Sunday, so it was a tough decision on which game to cover. But I can't miss the return of Ben Roethlisberger. That means I will be in Pittsburgh for the Steelers-Chargers game. As for today, let's start with your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Ray Rice still won't complain about the lack of touches despite ranking 13th in the NFL with 198 carries this season. He didn't receive one carry in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh. "Could we have run the ball on situations? Yes. But obviously when you sit back and look at it, we definitely could have executed a lot better," Rice said, via The Baltimore Sun. "If we would have executed a lot better, I'm sure I would have gotten the touches. That wouldn't have been the question. Going forward, we are going to do as I always say, work on our execution, and my touches will definitely come."

STEELERS: Sunday's game marks the first NFL start for cornerback Cortez Allen and the end of Ike Taylor's streak of 135 straight games played. "Replacing Ike or stepping in for him is a big shoe to fill," Allen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I have a lot of respect for him and just what he brings to the field and outside the field he's my mentor, in a sense, as far as the game is concerned." Taylor is expected to miss the next two games with a hairline fracture to his right ankle.

BENGALS: The Bengals could be going with a new kicker Sunday. Mike Nugent didn't practice Wednesday because of a calf injury. It's serious enough that the Bengals brought in three kickers for a tryout, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Nugent has made only 82.6 percent of his field goals this season (19 of 23). This comes after he missed four field goals in his final three games last season (hitting 7 of 11), which included a playoff loss at Houston. The Bengals are trying out Josh Brown, Neil Rackers and Billy Cundiff, according to the Enquirer. Cundiff has already kicked for two AFC North teams in his career (Baltimore and Cleveland).

BROWNS: The Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw believes Browns fans should acknowledge "the rock" of the Chiefs organization when Kansas City plays at Cleveland on Sunday. Romeo Crennel, a former Browns coach, has displayed uncommon poise during a difficult time with the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide incident. "There's no cheering in the press box, or I'd be clapping out of respect and support for Romeo Crennel Sunday," Shaw wrote. "The former Browns' coach has thrown a warm arm around his football team at a time when he might need the biggest hug of all. He deserves that much from Cleveland fans when he leads his Chiefs out of the tunnel to face the Browns. More importantly, he could use it."
Joe Flacco, JJ WattUS Presswire, AP ImagesHow Baltimore's Joe Flacco, left, fares against Houston's explosive J.J. Watt could be key Sunday.


The last time we saw the Texans and Ravens square off, we were watching a divisional-round playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Terrell Suggs had six tackles and a pass defended as the Ravens' rush linebacker. Houston featured third-string rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback, and his three interceptions -- paired with multiple special-teams gaffes by Texans returner Jacoby Jones -- were big factors in a 20-13 Baltimore victory.

The Texans returned home to rave reviews for their first playoff season but also couldn’t help wonder what might have been if they'd had injured starting quarterback Matt Schaub and played a cleaner game. Baltimore advanced to the AFC Championship Game in New England, where it lost to the Patriots, but a near-catch for a touchdown by Lee Evans could have won it with 27 seconds left and a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff could have forced overtime.

This rematch doesn’t carry the same stakes but could have big implications. The winner will have the AFC’s best record at 6-1.

AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky will be watching closely.

HENSLEY: I think it's easy to say this is a battle of the two best teams in the AFC. Not really going out on a limb here because the Ravens and Texans are the only teams with winning records in this mediocre conference. I know there are going to be nine games after this one, but this is shaping up to be the Ravens' most important game of the regular season.

The result of this game could become a tiebreaker for home-field advantage or a first-round bye at the end of the season. The Ravens, who have won a league-best 14 consecutive games at home, don't want to go on the road in the playoffs. The Ravens' mindset is that they won't have to come back to Houston this year if they win there Sunday. What's the mindset of the Texans after what happened in Houston last Sunday night?

KUHARSKY: Because the Texans are so young, they've played a lot of "biggest games in franchise history." This is certainly the newest one to top the list. Their critics look at the 5-1 record and see wins over mostly softies and a pasting by the Packers on Sunday night. A victory over the Ravens validates everything they've done and regains a firm hold on Best in the AFC. A loss would create some serious concerns. They do have the cushion of playing in a terrible division they simply can't lose. But Baltimore has been an obstacle and ended the Texans' last season in the playoffs. If they meet again with such high stakes, they don't want to be traveling.

It might be a good time to draw the Ravens, too, right? I know Ray Lewis wasn't what he has been, but their first game without a leader like that and without an underrated, great corner like Lardarius Webb may make them a bit more susceptible, no?

HENSLEY: This is the most vulnerable I've seen the Ravens' defense in 13 seasons. Lewis wasn't playing like the Lewis from 10 years ago, but he was still an above-average linebacker in this league. The Ravens have given up more than 200 yards rushing in each of the past two games, and losing Lewis only makes that run defense shakier. Dannell Ellerbe, who has made seven starts since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009, will take Lewis' spot.

Though the Ravens will miss Lewis' leadership, the bigger loss is Webb. He was emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. His nine interceptions since the start of the 2011 season was tied for the league lead. So, the Ravens have taken shots to both their run and pass defenses this week. How do you see the Texans attacking the Ravens' defense Sunday?

KUHARSKY: Although they might not run first chronologically Sunday, the Texans are a run-first team. Everything they do offensively is keyed on the one-cut-and-go running of Arian Foster, who did great work running for 132 yards in that playoff game on Jan. 15. They send him left most often now, because Duane Brown and Wade Smith are steadier blockers than the guys on the right side, where they have two new starters who aren't even full time.

Spinning off that run game, we'll see play-action heavy with bootlegs and rollouts. It's always remarkable to see Owen Daniels out in space awaiting a Matt Schaub pass. Andre Johnson is certainly dangerous too, though they've not been able to feed him the ball as much as usual. He hates the talk that he's getting older and slowing down, but he hasn't looked like the same player so far this season. Two weeks ago, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie really smothered Johnson. I figured Webb would be a guy who could do similar work. If AJ sees someone like Cary Williams instead, it could be a different story.

Speaking of Schaub, let's turn to quarterbacks. He has been quite efficient this year, doing what Houston needs and not getting caught up at all in his numbers. I came into the season not sold on Joe Flacco and thinking the Ravens didn't have the right guy under center to become an offensive team. But he has done some very good work in the games I've seen and started to change my opinion. Even minus Brian Cushing, the Texans' front throws a lot at a quarterback. Green Bay might have exposed some coverage deficiencies. How's Flacco at assessing such things on the fly and taking advantage?

HENSLEY: Flacco's biggest improvement this season has been his ability to audible at the line. The Ravens are using the no-huddle more than any other time in Flacco's five seasons. It's not to the point of being Peyton Manning, but Flacco is constantly changing the play at the line. Flacco, who ran the no-huddle during his college days, is comfortable with this. He has wanted to have more control of the offense and he's now getting it.

A lot of credit goes to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who is familiar with this style from his days with the Colts. Flacco makes his mistakes when he gets pressured. His pocket awareness has improved and he can scramble for yards. But Flacco will rush and make poor throws when a defender is in his face. Left tackle Michael Oher (four sacks) and rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele (three sacks) have struggled at times keeping rushers away from Flacco. Is there any chance the Ravens slow down J.J. Watt and Houston's pass rush?

KUHARSKY: It sure seems like the key to the game for me. Watt is going to get his at some point, and it's not just sacks. Watch how he'll stop rushing when he knows he's not getting there and time his jump to bat down, or even pick off, a pass.

And although the numbers of the other guys aren't in his stratosphere, Brooks Reed, Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin are very effective rushers who will have a bearing on Flacco's pocket comfort. Force some mistakes with that rush, and I like Houston's chances. Get stonewalled and fall victim to the ball coming out super-fast, and I feel differently.

One note about the quicker Ravens offense: With Cushing out, Brice McCain, the nickelback, will have a bigger role in covering players such as Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta on routes. If the Ravens run hurry-up or no-huddle, they can potentially trap the Texans in base if they want McCain off the field. I am eager to see whether they try that. The Texans are obviously are familiar with Jim Caldwell's no-huddling.

How about special teams? Tell me how Jacoby Jones is now reliably explosive? The Texans have some serious special-teams issues.

HENSLEY: Jacoby Jones has been one of the bigger surprises this season for Baltimore. The Ravens were looking to upgrade the return game this offseason and failed to sign Eddie Royal or Ted Ginn in free agency. That's why they jumped on Jones when he was cut by the Texans. He has been average as a punt returner (9 yards per return), but he really keyed the win over the Cowboys on Sunday. His 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which tied an NFL record, was the big play in that game.

The only reason the Ravens turned to Jones on kickoffs was because rookie Deonte Thompson fumbled a kickoff the week before. If you think about it, it's kind of funny that Jones got his chance to be explosive because another player couldn't hold onto the ball, especially after Jones' problems fielding kicks in the past. But that really hasn't surfaced so far with the Ravens.

Baltimore's coverage teams are both ranked in the top half of the league, which is a big improvement from last year. In 2012, the Ravens allowed three touchdowns on returns. Another improvement is at kicker. Rookie Justin Tucker has made 12 of 13 field goals this season and has hit both attempts beyond 50 yards. If this game is close, the Ravens have a lot of confidence in Tucker to make a pressure kick. So, what are the issues with the Texans' special teams?

KUHARSKY: Well, Trindon Holliday was absolutely electric as their returner in the preseason. But it didn’t carry over and they gave up on him. You saw Holliday playing for the Broncos on Monday night. Keshawn Martin is the man now. The team averages only 9.8 yards a punt return and 18.5 yards a kick return.

Their average start after a kickoff is the league’s worst -- the 17.7-yard line. Their coverage isn’t that bad -- it’s 31st in the league instead of 32nd. Opponents start at the 26.9-yard line.

Donnie Jones is a middle-of-the-pack punter in net average. Shayne Graham has been good on field goals, hitting 11 of 12, but is tied for 24th in touchbacks playing at home in what amounts to a domed stadium.

It’s gambler’s logic that the Texans are due to break through against the Ravens. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. If they don’t and Jacoby Jones has something to do with it, it’ll hurt a little bit extra.

It’s certainly no stretch to predict we’ll see these teams facing off again in the playoffs. In what round and where is the question, and Sunday’s winner will lead the race to be in position to host.
It's only one-quarter of the way through the season, but the Ravens look like they made the right decision at kicker.

At the end of the preseason, Baltimore chose Justin Tucker over Billy Cundiff, a 2010 Pro Bowl kicker who missed the game-tying field goal in the AFC Championship Game. It was a risk because a potential playoff team was going with an undrafted rookie who had never kicked in the NFL.

Tucker has proven to be more accurate than Cundiff and just as good as him on kickoffs. Through four games, Tucker has converted 8 of 9 field-goal attempts (88.9 percent), including one game-winner, while Cundiff has made 6-of-10 (60 percent) for the Redskins. Both Tucker and Cundiff have recorded 16 touchbacks on 25 kickoffs.

Where Tucker has been much better is on the longer field goals. Showing off a strong leg, he has made 6-of-7 beyond 40 yards. Cundiff has missed on half of his six tries from that distance.

NFL history said Cundiff wouldn't be the same kicker after that critical miss. After Scott Norwood missed a 47-yarder that would've won the Super Bowl in January 1991, he struggled with a career-worst 62.1 success rate the next season and was out of football in 1992. After Gary Anderson missed a game-clinching, 38-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of the 1998 NFC Championship Game, he hit a career-low 63.3 percent of his field goals the next season.

Cundiff was on the verge of being cut after missing his first three field-goal attempts last Sunday. He saved his job when he hit the game-winner at the end of the game.
BALTIMORE -- There were different stakes and a different kicker. Still, there was the same anxiety over a Ravens last-second field goal against the Patriots.

Eight months ago, Billy Cundiff's 32-yard field goal attempt that could have tied the AFC Championship Game hooked badly. On Sunday night, rookie Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal sliced just inside the right upright to give the Ravens a 31-30 win as time expired.

Asked if he was worried about Tucker's kick, coach John Harbaugh said, "If I was, I would not admit it."

Quarterback Joe Flacco, who was waiting his turn to speak to reporters, chimed in by saying, "I was."

Some Patriots believe the Ravens missed the field goal just like in the AFC Championship Game. Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork berated the replacement officials for not reviewing the kick.

"In a game like this, you have to," Wilfork said. "They ran off the field. So it is what it is. I’m not going to sit here and pick a fight with those guys. They have a job to do, we have a job to do. The only thing we can do is play better and try not to be in those situations."

Shortly after the game, former head of officiating Mike Pereira explained that the officials followed the right protocol.

"A FG that goes over the top of an upright is not reviewable because you cannot determine when exactly the ball is directly over the pole," Pereira posted on Twitter. "So that's the rule. I can't tell good or not. But if I had to guess, I'd say it was good."

The Ravens opted to go with Tucker over Cundiff after the undrafted rookie out-kicked the 2010 Pro Bowl player this summer. There's always been a question about Tucker's inexperience because he has never had to deal with the drama of hitting the game-winner in the NFL.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick put all of the pressure he could on Tucker. He called a timeout to try to freeze Tucker, who made the kick routinely as the whistle blew. The second attempt didn't split the uprights down the middle.

"Bottom line is it went in," Tucker said of his first winning kick in the league. "That's all I care about. It went in."
Heading into Sunday night's game against the New England Patriots -- a rematch of last season's crushing AFC Championship Game loss -- the Ravens have the R-word on their minds. But it's not revenge. It's about rebounding from last Sunday's one-point loss to Philadelphia.

The Ravens know they can't do anything Sunday to get even with the Patriots. A trip to the Super Bowl was on the line in January. This time, the winner gets to move on with a 2-1 record. Not exactly high stakes.

“I don’t think the last game we played against them has anything to do with this game," quarterback Joe Flacco said.

The players who would need to redeem themselves the most aren't around anymore. Lee Evans, who failed to catch the winning touchdown, is out of football. Billy Cundiff, who missed the tying field goal, is playing 45 minutes down the road Sunday for the Redskins.

Inside linebacker Ray Lewis said this week's game hasn't stirred up any memories from the AFC title game.

"It’s always hard to think like that when you have a totally different makeup as a team," he said. "So, we are looking at this game as a totally different game.”

The Ravens have been able to move on from tough playoff losses. They've returned to the postseason every year under coach John Harbaugh.

It's the same way with Baltimore in the regular season. The Ravens have won 13 games following losses, the longest current streak in the NFL.

"We’ve been a pretty good team since I’ve been here, and good teams are able to put their past losses in the background and forget about it and move on to the next one," Flacco said. "I think that has a lot to do with winning that next game, just being able to forget about it and still go play your best game that next week.”

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