AFC North: Chicago Bears

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- During his nine-year tenure as head coach of the Chicago Bears, current Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith established a takeaway mentality on defense.

That’s why running back Matt Forte sees ball security as one of the major keys for Chicago’s offense Sunday against the Buccaneers.

“They’re similar to our defense now, too, with that Cover 2-type defense,” Forte said. “Obviously, they try to get pressure on the quarterback with their front four, and then they play takeaway football. That’s all they preach is takeaway, takeaway; especially when he was here. So I know he’s been teaching the same thing to them. The key is to guard the ball at all times.”

Despite Smith’s reputation for preaching the importance of taking away the ball, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently tied for 16th in the NFL in takeaways (15). The Bears are ranked fourth in the league in giveaways (20).

Tampa Bay forced three takeaways last week in its victory over the Redskins.

During Smith's tenure in Chicago, the Bears led the NFL in takeaways (310), three-and-out drives forced (485), three-and-out drive percentage (26.4), third-down percentage (34.1) and red-zone scoring efficiency (79.3). Under Smith, the Bears returned 34 of their 310 takeaways for touchdowns, including 26 interceptions returned for touchdowns, which tied for the most in the NFL during the coach’s tenure.

“As much as we know about the Chicago Bears, they know about us,” Smith said. “It’s not like we’re changing defenses or anything like that. We’re both familiar with each other, but that’s kind of the case in the league a lot. You play teams that you’re both familiar with each other, but it’s about what happens after the ball is snapped and that’s what it comes down to.”

The Bears fired Smith at the conclusion of the 2012 season, after the team finished with a 10-6 record. So while the revenge factor “probably plays a little bit into it,” according to Forte, what makes the Bucs a serious threat despite their 2-8 record is the way they’re coached.

“Just from the experience of him being here, me being on offense and watching the defense play, they want to stop the run and get turnovers,” Forte said. “That’s what they want to do, force us to try to throw the ball, and then get strips, interceptions and sacks. If we can stay out of the way of that and control the game by running the ball and converting third downs, it’ll be advantageous to us.”
Teams around the NFL can start contacting and negotiating with agents of players set to become unrestricted free agents beginning on Saturday, but deals can’t be executed until March 11 at 3 p.m. CT when the new league year starts.

As that date approaches, we take a look at Chicago’s pending free agents, and their chances of returning to the team in the first part of our weeklong series.

2014 free agent: Charles Tillman

Position: Cornerback

2013 statistics: 8 games; 52.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles.

2013 salary: $7.95 million base salary and $51,575 workout bonus -- $8,001,575 cash value.

Outlook: The Bears are expected to make a strong push to keep Tillman. Although the club does want to be younger on defense, Tillman is still viewed as a key component in the immediate future. The question boils down to whether Tillman wants to return and play for head coach Marc Trestman. The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback is expected to have multiple suitors in free agency. Tillman has strong ties to Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Bob Babich, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera from their time in Chicago. Tillman will have options.

2014 free agent: Josh McCown

Position: Quarterback

2013 statistics: 8 games, 5 starts; 1,829 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and one interception; 109.0 passer rating.

2013 salary: $840,000 base salary and $5,600 workout bonus -- $870,600 cash value.

Outlook: McCown has repeatedly expressed a desire to return to Chicago, and almost everyone in the building, ranging from general manager Phil Emery to starting quarterback Jay Cutler, say they want the reserve signal-caller back. But talks between the sides haven’t necessarily reflected what has been said publicly (that doesn’t imply talks have gone badly, but things have moved slowly). McCown holds more leverage than ever in his career after the way he played in relief of Cutler last season, but the Bears haven’t been in a hurry to get the quarterback signed to a deal. McCown will have plenty of suitors in free agency. A legitimate opportunity to compete for a starting job could lure him away from Chicago.

2014 free agent: Devin Hester

Position: Special teams returner

2013 statistics: 52 kickoff returns for 1,436 yards (27.6 average); 18 punt returns for 256 yards (14.2) and one touchdown.

2013 salary: $1,857,523 base salary and $250,000 workout bonus -- $2,107,523 cash value.

Outlook: Hester is unlikely to return to Chicago. The Bears probably aren’t interested in paying a couple of million dollars to a player who will strictly return kicks for a second straight year. Hester did a decent job adjusting to his new role in 2013, but he didn’t make the type of impact necessary to command the same kind of salary (or even a raise) in 2014. Like Tillman, Hester will have offers from around the league. A reunion with Smith in Tampa makes sense. Hester is also close with current Arizona Cardinals wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. Maybe some interest materializes on that front. A couple other undisclosed teams expressed a certain degree of interest in Hester two weeks ago at the NFL combine. Hester will land on his feet, but he probably won’t get the chance to continue his career with the Bears.

2014 free agent: Jeremiah Ratliff

Position: Defensive tackle

2013 statistics: Five games, four starts; 14.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 tackle for lost yardage.

2013 salary: $840,000 base salary -- $395,294 cash value.

Outlook: Ratliff didn’t show much in 2013, making his Chicago debut nearly a month after joining the team. But he performed well enough over the last five games of the season that the Bears would like to bring him back. The Bears met with Ratliff’s representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis recently to see about working out a deal, and the sides remain in contact about the defensive tackle’s potential return to Chicago. Other teams will likely show interest, too. At 32, Ratliff is still plenty capable of contributing at a high level. He also possesses the toughness the Bears want to instill on what’s expected to be a revamped defense. And let's be real, Ratliff is arguably a better player than even a healthy Henry Melton.

Live blog: Bears at Browns

December, 15, 2013
Join our NFL experts as they break down the Chicago Bears' visit to the Cleveland Browns. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Campbell/ForteUSA TODAY SportsJason Campbell has been steady for the Browns at quarterback, while Matt Forte's versatility poses a challenge for opposing defenses.
The Chicago Bears won a very important game over Dallas on Monday night that kept the team in the playoff hunt.

Chicago's offense under first-year coach Marc Trestman had a huge game, especially Josh McCown at quarterback. Trestman used to coach in Cleveland, and he once coached Cleveland hero Bernie Kosar at the University of Miami. He has been winning with McCown playing for Jay Cutler.

While the Bears fight for a playoff spot, the Browns fight to simply win a game. They've lost four in a row and eight of nine, including gut-wrenching losses the past two weeks to Jacksonville and New England. Cleveland is quarterbacked by Jason Campbell, the Bears' backup last season.

Bears writer Michael Wright of ESPN Chicago and Browns writer Pat McManamon look ahead to Sunday's game.

McManamon: Mike, the Bears are fourth in the league in passing offense under Trestman. He came from Canada with the reputation as an offensive wizard and produced 45 points in a frigid December game. What does he do in the passing game and in the offense to get these results and this success?

Wright: Pat, probably the most important thing Trestman and the offensive coaching staff have done is taught the importance of understanding the actual concepts of the offense as opposed to simply telling players where to go on any given play. The players know exactly what the offense wants to accomplish on a given play, and each player knows how they individually help the club to make the play work by carrying out their particular responsibilities. For instance, Brandon Marshall may not be the primary receiver on a certain play. But he'll know exactly why he needs to run a route at a particular depth to free up the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver underneath. As you know, every player knows what they're supposed to do on a particular play, but Trestman makes sure they know why, and that's played a significant role in the offense's success. And it's taught at every level, from the line to the running backs out to the receivers. That, to me, leads to a certain synergy that's paramount in offensive football.

Pat, I know the loss to New England was disappointing considering the Browns blew a 26-14 lead and the fact there were a couple of controversial calls down the stretch. But is there any feeling at all of encouragement about what the team might be able to do in the coming weeks after the way it played against the Patriots?

McManamon: Any positive in a storm, Mike, and the Browns will take it. They point to the heart the team showed in bouncing back from a bad loss to Jacksonville, and to the fact that they did not quit after that loss. They also point to Campbell, who has had three incredible games and two very average ones. The one in New England was one of the incredibles. Finally, they point to Josh Gordon, who has done so many good things the past month.

These are all building blocks -- and good building blocks. But the problem with the Browns is they've given their fans nothing but building blocks since 1999, and since 2007 they have won 27 games -- total. Fans are sick of building, tearing down and rebuilding. They show loyalty and faith every time there is a restart. They're ready to really win and not just come close. Anything that happens in the final three games won't matter a whole lot.

Let's turn to quarterback, Mike. Campbell has been shockingly good in Cleveland. Did the Bears ever see this guy in Chicago? On Chicago's side, has McCown taken the job from Cutler permanently?

Wright: They saw it, Pat. The problem is the Bears couldn't afford to keep Campbell. When the Bears brought him in, they paid him a $2 million signing bonus and a base salary of $1.4 million, and his cap number was $3.754 million. So when the Bears started making decisions in the offseason about some of the free-agent additions they needed to make, Campbell was more of a luxury than a priority. The Bears spent big to bring in left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett, and after losing linebackers Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach in free agency, they needed to add two more starters at linebacker. Remember, the Bears also placed the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton, which resulted in a cap hit of $8.45 million. McCown, at $840,000, was simply a cheaper option than Campbell.

Speaking of McCown, he's the first Bears quarterback to produce three consecutive 300-yard passing games. But he hasn't taken the starting job from Cutler. Trestman has made that very clear, and even McCown says that right now, he's simply playing his role until Cutler returns. So right now, the team has been on record on numerous occasions saying Cutler is the guy as soon as he's medically cleared to play.

Out here in Chicago, Campbell made his only start during a slaughter at San Francisco in which I'm not sure Cutler would have made a difference. How would you measure his play out there in Cleveland?

McManamon: Surprisingly good. Perhaps shockingly good. Campbell had a good game against Kansas City, a very good game against Baltimore and an excellent game against New England -- along with so-so outings against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh when he was dealing a painful and unspecified rib injury. Campbell returned from a concussion to a lot of uncertainty. But he stepped in against New England and threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, he brought a sense of calm to the Browns' offense that was badly needed.

It's a bit of a mystery where this Jason Campbell has come from. He is not the same guy he was in his one start in Chicago, and he is far better even than when he was starting in Oakland. He still has limitations -- a strong pass rush should give him problems -- but to call him anything but a positive in Cleveland would not be fair to him.

Mike, Chicago's one weakness might seem to be its 2-4 road record. Can the Bears win on the road, and with a game following this one in Philadelphia, don't they pretty much have to win in Cleveland if they hope to make the playoffs? Even if it means playing on the road following a Monday night game?

Wright: It's been more than a month since the Bears have won on the road (Nov. 4 at Green Bay), and they absolutely have to win Sunday to have any realistic shot of making the postseason. Because of their putrid 4-6 conference record, the Bears would lose out in any tiebreakers for an NFC wildcard. So Chicago needs to win the division to make it to the postseason. But right now, Chicago is a half-game behind the Detroit Lions, who swept the Bears this season. So they've got to win out, basically, and hope the Lions slip. If the Bears do manage to win at Cleveland, the road gets tougher at Philadelphia in a game that has been flexed to a night matchup. A win at Philadelphia would mark the team's first consecutive wins since September. But remember, Chicago still has to host the Green Bay Packers in the season finale Dec. 29. And by then, the Bears could be facing a Packers team with a healthy Aaron Rodgers back in the fold.

Pat, Josh Gordon has gone off over the past four games. What's he doing to opponents that makes him so difficult to handle, and how much of a focal point has he become to what the Browns are doing offensively now?

McManamon: First of all, a little perspective on Chicago not winning a road game since Nov. 4. The Browns have won one game since Oct. 3, home and away.

As for Gordon, he's just an amazing physical presence, with size and sprinter's speed that lets him get away from defenders. He also has amazing strength, and has learned how to avoid jams and run routes. It is rare on a play that he is not open. Teams have refused to double-cover him, and they've paid. Bill Belichick had a week to prepare, gave the job of covering Gordon to Aqib Talib, and Gordon had the best game by any receiver against New England this season. The Browns lack a run game, and Gordon can't catch every ball. But he clearly has grown into option No. 1 on almost every pass play.

James Ihedigbo and Brandon Marshall USA TODAY SportsJames Ihedigbo and the Ravens' secondary face a challenge in Bears receiver Brandon Marshall.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If the playoffs started today, the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens would be out. There are still seven games left in the season, but none of them can be squandered, so this matchup Sunday will see both teams fighting to get into contention in their respective conferences.

The Bears enter the contest without quarterback Jay Cutler and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman, while the Ravens are coming off their first victory in more than a month. Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley break down the matchup.

Michael C. Wright: Last weekend, Baltimore snapped a three-game losing streak. Does the win restore any faith in the defending Super Bowl champions' ability to return to the playoffs?

Jamison Hensley: The Ravens believe Sunday’s overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals was a good start to getting back to the postseason for a sixth straight year. Even though the Ravens knocked off the AFC North leaders, no one is boasting that this is a playoff team because it was far from a statement game. The Ravens' offense can’t run the ball, and the defense can’t get opponents off the field late in the fourth quarter. The defending Super Bowl champions definitely have some serious flaws this season.

Baltimore’s attitude would change if they can win in Chicago. The schedule suggests that this is a pivotal game. If the Ravens can change their fortunes on the road and beat the Bears, they will be at .500 entering a stretch of three straight home games against the Jets, Steelers and Vikings. The Ravens have had great success under head coach John Harbaugh in November and December, and things are set up for them to do it again this year. That is, if the Ravens can get the franchise’s first victory in Chicago.

Speaking of attitude, how are the Bears dealing with losing Cutler again?

Wright: Well, after all the second-guessing about when head coach Marc Trestman should’ve pulled Cutler or about whether the quarterback should have played in the first place, I’d say there’s a fair amount of confidence in backup Josh McCown. Before being thrust into action on Oct. 20 at Washington when Cutler tore a muscle in his groin, McCown was already one of the favorites in the locker room. General manager Phil Emery has called McCown a “glue guy,” and other players consider the 34-year-old quarterback a father figure.

In three games filling in for Cutler, McCown has completed 42 of 70 passes for 538 yards and four touchdowns, with no turnovers and a passer rating of 103.1. Obviously, in his first full start, McCown played a major role as the Bears upset the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. He has demonstrated mastery of Trestman’s offense, and the quarterback attributes that to the fact he learned the scheme from the ground up, and actually had some input in the implementation of it.

Joe Flacco received the huge contract, but clearly hasn’t been playing like a $120.6 million quarterback. What has been his biggest issue, and do you see him turning things around this season?

Hensley: Flacco takes a lot of heat because he hasn’t put up the expected numbers after signing one of the richest contracts in NFL history. But he is in a tough situation. He lost his two favorite targets when Anquan Boldin was traded and Dennis Pitta went down with a dislocated hip. Flacco has been sacked 30 times (only Ryan Tannehill and Ben Roethlisberger have been sacked more). Harbaugh applauded Flacco for making plays while scrambling. But Flacco is really running for his life.

While Flacco hasn’t had the strongest supporting cast, he also hasn’t been the same quarterback he was during the Ravens’ championship run. The biggest change is his inability to connect deep. On Sunday, Flacco was 0-for-7 with an interception on throws at least 15 yards downfield, which qualifies as the most deep attempts without a completion he has had in his career. With all of the problems on offense, the Ravens desperately need more big plays out of Flacco.

What’s the biggest concern for the Bears’ pass defense?

Wright: Where would you like to start? There are several. But the most significant right now is how the Bears will perform without one of their best players in Tillman, who on Monday was placed on the injured reserve/designated to return list. Tillman, with three interceptions and three forced fumbles, was one of the main reasons the Bears are tied for fifth in the league with 20 takeaways. Since coming into the league in 2003, Tillman ranks in the NFL’s top 10 in interceptions (36), interception-return yards (675), defensive touchdowns (nine), forced fumbles (42) and passes defended (133). That level of production is difficult to replace. But the Bears are confident in backup Zack Bowman’s ability to get the job done. Bowman started 12 games in 2009 and led the team with six interceptions. When Bowman has played this season, he has been adequate (one INT). He has size (6-foot-1, 196 pounds) similar to Tillman, which allows him to match up well with bigger receivers.

The Bears have struggled against the run, and you’d think they could be in for a long game against someone such as Ray Rice. But from what I’ve seen so far, he hasn’t been the Rice I remember from last season. What’s the deal with him?

Hensley: Rice injured his hip in Week 2 and hasn’t been the same since. He insists he’s at full strength, but the numbers say otherwise. Rice’s average of 2.5 yards per carry is worst among qualified running backs. But you can’t put all of the blame for the NFL’s 30th-ranked rushing attack on Rice. The Ravens’ offensive line has struggled to open holes, and because Flacco can’t throw the ball deep, defenses are stacking the box with eight players.

Getting some semblance of a running game is key to turning around the season, which is why the Ravens need to commit to the ground game against Chicago. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 45-12 when they gain more than 100 yards rushing. That’s the fifth-best mark in the NFL, which shows how important a running game is to the Ravens.

Baltimore has been up and down in terms of run defense. In their five losses, the Ravens have given up an average of 124.4 yards rushing. The Bears’ Matt Forte had good back-to-back games before he was shut down against the Lions. What’s the key to him rebounding against the Ravens?

Wright: The No. 1 key would be better blocking from the offensive line. For the first time all season, the Bears on Sunday probably lost the battle at the line of scrimmage on offense. At best, Trestman said he would call it a draw. The Bears know it’s unacceptable for Forte to average 1.9 yards per carry on 17 attempts, and Trestman said one of the major contributors to the performance against the Lions was that several players missed assignments on key plays. Going into that game, the Bears knew they wouldn’t put together a strong rushing game, but thought they’d have a chance to pop three or four explosive runs against Detroit’s dominant front. Obviously that didn’t happen. But if the Bears clean up some of the execution issues up front, Forte should be able to rebound. Going into Sunday’s game, he was averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He’ll have to get back on track if Chicago expects the offense to run smoothly because it is by establishing Forte that the Bears set up their play-action passing game.

Bill Cowher wants to teach men about melanoma, a form of skin cancer that led to the death of his wife in 2010. But Cowher's name is in the headlines for another reason as well.

NFL analyst Boomer Esiason recently speculated on a couple of landing spots for Cowher, the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach who is his CBS Sports colleague.

“The only two coaching spots that I think that he would ever come out of retirement for ... one would be the New York Giants and the other one would be the Chicago Bears, because he’s that type of guy,” Esiason told WSCR-AM 670, via the Chicago Tribune. “Being so close to him over the last few years and watching him go through his total personal-life upheaval with the death of his wife and watching how he’s handled that with great dignity and professionalism, I’m just telling you, there is no dirt on that man. This guy is as good as he seems. He’s everything that you’d expect him to be.”

Cowher would instantly become the NFL's hottest coaching commodity if he makes it known he wants to coach again. But I'm not sure we'll ever see that jutting jaw on the sideline ever again. This will mark his sixth season out of coaching.

It was only December when Dan Marino, another one of Cowher's pregame show colleagues, said he didn't think Cowher would coach again.

"I would love to see [Cowher] be the Dolphins' coach or if he wanted to coach again because that would be great for the NFL, but I don't think his mindset is that he wants to coach again," Marino said told the Dolphins' official website six months ago. "And he may change that over time, but my feeling is that he's a pretty straightforward guy that tells the truth most of the time ... and he said on TV that he doesn't have any plans of coming back, and I believe him."

When he left coaching at the end of the 2006 season, his 161-99-1 record ranked him fourth among current-era coaches in career wins. He won a Super Bowl in the 2005 season after six trips to the AFC Championship Game and took the Steelers to the playoffs 10 times.
The Ravens might be hard-pressed to keep their heir apparent to general manager Ozzie Newsome.

Four teams -- the Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears, St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders -- are reportedly interested in Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta for their general manager openings. The Colts, Rams and one other team have already received permission to interview DeCosta and plan to meet with him in the next couple of days, according to The Baltimore Sun.

DeCosta has long been considered the successor-in-waiting to Newsome, the team's only general manager, who turns 56 in March but has never publicly hinted at retirement. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has rewarded DeCosta for his loyalty -- he removed his name from the Seahawks' general manager search in 2009 -- with an increase in pay and responsibility.

"I think Eric knows how highly regarded he is in Baltimore, but when you have a guy as successful as Ozzie Newsome in the job, there's not a ton of promises that you can make," Bisciotti said in March 2010. "I think Eric is smart enough to see what happened with Phil [Savage] and George [Kokinis], and he'll probably limit himself to consideration of just a handful of jobs. His relationship with Ozzie is just as solid as any relationship I've seen in the NFL. He's so happy in his job that I think it will take a perfect job to get his serious consideration. Eric is going to make a great GM someday."

The problem for the Ravens is that the perfect job could be coming DeCosta's way. With four teams in the mix, the competition for DeCosta might result in a deal that he can't refuse.

DeCosta officially became Newsome's right-hand man in the war room in 2005, when Savage left for the Cleveland Browns' general manager job. One team official said DeCosta sets up the draft and Newsome makes the final decisions.

What makes DeCosta attractive to so many teams is his age (40), track record and a thoroughness that highlights his desire for better results.

"We even grade our lunches," DeCosta once said. "If I say it's a 6.2 lunch - all the guys know what that means: pretty good, but not great. A 7.5 is like the Pro Bowl; if I say the soup is a 7.5 today, everybody runs to get the soup."
Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:
  • Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White will provide a good test for Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Jimmy Smith.
Morning take: This is a tough matchup for Smith before the regular season. White is big and physical, and these are the type of No. 1 receivers Smith was drafted to stop.
Morning take: Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski are locks to make the team. Dan LeFevour may be expendable if Cincinnati wants to use a roster spot on another position.
Morning take: Legursky is a blue-collar player who fits the Steelers well. Tony Hills had the first chance but didn't take advantage in the preseason.
  • Young players on the Cleveland Browns will try to impress against the Chicago Bears.
Morning take: The Browns are not a deep team. So I'm curious to see which young players step up and make the team for backup roles.
If you thought the Baltimore Ravens have completely moved on from a botched draft-day trade involving the Chicago Bears, think again.

In a radio interview Tuesday on the "Waddle and Silva Show" in Chicago, Ravens coach John Harbaugh ripped the Bears for not calling in a trade, which resulted in Baltimore missing its No. 26 overall pick last April. Chicago later apologized and said it was a mistake. But the Ravens, who were expected to get an additional fourth-round pick, still aren't buying it.

"It was disappointing," Harbaugh said. "They can get mad at me if they want, but I'm not buying the mistake thing. It wasn't a mistake. They knew what they were doing.

"They put their guy on the phone. They agreed to a pick. They got their guy on the phone. They recognized he wasn't getting calls from the team behind them, and they basically stalled for over a minute, telling us they had called the trade in. They hadn't called the trade in. They said it was a mistake. Those guys have been doing it for a long time, c'mon."

The Ravens still drafted their desired target -- cornerback Jimmy Smith -- at No. 27. But they still feel shafted for doing business with the Bears.

The NFL decided not to punish Chicago by giving Baltimore additional compensation. So it's simply a tough pill the Ravens have to swallow.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North: Morning take: Optimism is running high with Kindle lately, which is a good thing. The Ravens need help with their pass rush. There is certaintly a spot open for what Kindle potentially offers.
  • According to Pro Football Focus, Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth was second in the NFL is pass-blocking efficiency.
Morning take: Whitworth is one of the league's most underrated players. Will he make Tuesday's Power Rankings or continue to be underrated? Find out later today.
  • Is Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester better than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger?
Morning take: According to the NFL Network's survey of players, Hester is better. There have been some questionable placements, and this is one of them.
  • Does Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy need more than the 2011 season to prove himself?
Morning take: Ideally, yes, a young quarterback needs time to grow with a team. But McCoy likely gets only the 2011 season and half of last season to prove he's the long-term solution.
The AFC North blog continues its series of offseason grudge matches we'd like to see during the NFL lockout.


Bout No. 1: Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco vs. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis

Analysis: Before the fight, Lewis calls Ochocinco "mopey," which gets under the skin of the receiver. Ochocinco fights back by calling Lewis a bull and says he's going to ride and tame him for 10 rounds. Instead, Ochocinco enters the ring and Lewis knocks him out quickly in 1.5 seconds, setting a new record. When Ochocinco regains consciousness, he immediately hops up and jumps over the ring ropes before Marvin "The Bull" Lewis can get his hands on him and dish out more punishment. After the fight, Ochocinco says his performance was "embarrassing."

AFC North blog pick: Lewis KO in 1.5 seconds of Round 1

Bout No. 2: Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome vs. Bears GM Jerry Angelo

Analysis: Before the fight, Newsome and Angelo agree on a 50-50 split in compensation. But in a bush-league move, Angelo "forgets" to call the boxing commission, ensuring he gets more of the purse. Highly upset, Newsome agrees to the fight anyway to prove a point and enters the ring with his angry trainer, Steve Bisciotti. Newsome uses his Hall of Fame hands to pick apart Angelo in four rounds. After the fight, Newsome and Bisciotti both say they will not do business with Angelo's camp anytime soon.

AFC North blog pick: Newsome KO in Round 4

Bout No. 3: Browns quarterback Colt McCoy vs. Ravens safety Ed Reed

Analysis: In an effort to improve his skills, the younger McCoy wants to move his training camp to the West Coast but is locked out of the facility. Therefore, "Camp Colt" takes place mostly in parking lots and second-rate gyms. McCoy tries his best, but isn't properly trained to face a future Hall of Famer like Reed, who thoroughly outclasses McCoy for 10 rounds. Reed is on top of his game and easily intercepts McCoy's punches while picking the quarterback apart. At one point, Reed is so hot that his chair catches fire underneath him between rounds. That is the only bad thing to happen to Reed during the fight.

AFC North blog pick: Reed by unanimous decision

Bout No. 4 for middleweight title: Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall vs. Champion Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski

Analysis: Mendenhall sends out several controversial tweets before the fight, immediately losing his endorsement money. Mendenhall tries to write an apology, but it's too late. The crowd is vehemently against the running back. Zbikowski is a huge fan favorite and has looked unbeatable lately. Mendenhall lasts in the ring longer than most but is obviously distracted by his recent trials. Zbikowski gets another knockout, but this time it comes in the second round.

AFC North blog pick: Zbikowski KO in Round 2

Bout No. 5 and main event for heavyweight title: Browns running back Peyton Hillis vs. Champion Steelers linebacker James Harrison

Analysis: This is expected to be a great fight between two top heavyweights. Hillis exploded on the scene last year but suddenly has a string of bad luck after getting on the cover of "Madden NFL 12." Now Hillis can't stay healthy. He suffers thigh and rib injuries in training but wants to fight Harrison for the belt anyway. On his way to the ring, Hillis slips on a banana peel and sprains his ankle. While trying to get in the ring, Hillis also pulls his hamstring. Harrison shows no mercy and punishes a banged-up Hillis for three rounds before the running back's corner throws in the towel.

AFC North blog pick: Harrison by TKO in Round 3
Chad Ochocinco believes his "time is up" with the Cincinnati Bengals, and we agree with the 33-year-old receiver. But the question is where will the former six-time Pro Bowler land this upcoming season?

ESPN's Adam Schefter provided some potential destinations for Ochocinco, who has $6 million left on his contract in 2011. Schefter mentions the New England Patriots, Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins as candidates. All three teams could use some star power at wide receiver next season. Washington, in particular, was very interested in trading for Ochocinco a few seasons ago.

Chances are the Bengals will have a hard time this year trading Ochocinco, who has a high salary and is coming off one of his worst seasons. He caught just 67 passes for 831 yards and four touchdowns. But the Bengals appear willing to release Ochocinco, especially after investing the No. 4 overall draft pick on former Georgia receiver A.J. Green.

Cincinnati started a youth movement at receiver late last season with Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley and continued that in the draft. Ochocinco, once a star for the Bengals, now looks like the odd man out with this young group.

Also, in case you can't get enough of Ocho, SportsNation is going heavy on the Bengals receiver to get your take on this past weekend's attempt to ride a bull, which lasted just 1.5 seconds. You can vote on everything from his bull riding to facing Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.
There was no resolution to the trade snafu involving the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears. The league ruled Friday the Ravens would not get any compensation, despite the Bears botching a trade that cost the Ravens one slot in the first round.

But that doesn't mean the Ravens are willing to quietly sweep this under the rug. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti ripped the team and its owners after the ruling.

"I'm disappointed in the Bears and the McCaskeys. It is in my opinion a deviation from their great legacy," Bisciotti told Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun. "They concluded that their heartfelt and admirable apology was sufficient for our loss. All of us at the Ravens strongly disagree."

On principle, the Ravens are right to be upset. The honorable thing for the Bears to do would be to give up the pick both sides agreed upon. But everyone knows the NFL is a cutthroat and competitive business. The Ravens were cheated due to the ineptness of another team, and there's nothing that can be done other than to accept a verbal apology.

That mid-round pick could have been a non-entity for Baltimore. Or it could have been a special-teamer or eventual starter who could help the Ravens. We will never know.

But here is what we do know: Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens probably won't do business with the Bears again any time soon.
Here are the most interesting stories Saturday in the AFC North: Morning take: This is not a surprise. The Ravens were given the short end and missed their pick. But in the eyes of the league, no trade was made official so Chicago doesn't have to pay up.
Morning take: Moch had 30 career sacks at Nevada, and the Bengals hope he can be equally productive in Cincinnati. The Bengals plan to move Rey Maualuga inside and need someone else to step up at outside linebacker.
Morning take: Cornerback was probably their biggest need, but they didn't get one until the third round in Curtis Brown of Texas. This likely adds pressure to re-sign veteran Ike Taylor in free agency.
Morning take: The division is not for the weak at heart. If the Browns are going to eventually compete with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they need to start putting together a stout defense as well.