AFC North: Keenan Allen



The last time the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals met, both teams were missing key players, they played in a local TV blackout, and they could comfortably compete on a 60-degree, postcard-perfect Southern California afternoon.

Those were the conditions just one month ago Wednesday.

At least one of them could be the same. With ticket uncertainty rolling over into Thursday, Bengals officials have been working hard to avoid the NFL's first postseason blackout since 2002. On the field, the Bengals and Chargers have been working to get back key members of their teams, and are anticipating playing in conditions much less favorable than what they had on the West Coast.

Sunday's playoff game isn't only a rematch of the regular-season game won 17-10 by the Bengals. It also marks the first time the teams have met in the postseason since 1981, when Cincinnati beat San Diego for the AFC championship at old Riverfront Stadium. Because of a minus-59 wind chill, that game was dubbed the "Freezer Bowl." While it shouldn't feel that cold Sunday, conditions will be tough. Snow, freezing rain and rapidly dipping temperatures are in the forecast. The weather could make passing difficult for two teams that rely heavily on their quarterbacks.

To break down Sunday's game, we turn to ESPN.com NFL reporters Eric D. Williams (Chargers) and Coley Harvey (Bengals).

Harvey: One of the Bengals' biggest keys in the first meeting was running the ball. They rushed for 164 yards, having success even late in the game when San Diego clearly knew a run was coming. How can the Chargers prevent Cincinnati from having another prolific ground game?

Williams: First, the Chargers will have two players available who did not play in the first game -- outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram. Both are pretty good run defenders who should help San Diego play more physical up front. Second, the Chargers have to do a better job of maintaining their gaps and not allowing Cincinnati’s talented offensive line to create space for the running backs. Last, the Chargers have to do a better job of wrapping up BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. Both running backs finished with a lot of yards after contact, as San Diego had trouble bringing down the hard runners in the back end of the defense.

One thing I'm curious about is the Bengals' defense. The Bengals are tied for third in the league in turnovers forced with 31, and have six defensive touchdowns this season, all at Paul Brown Stadium. Why has Cincinnati’s defense been so successful at creating turnovers?

Harvey: If you ask defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- which we did Monday -- he'll say it's because his players just know they have to do whatever is necessary to pick the offense up and to put the ball back in its hands. There have been several instances when a turnover put the Bengals' defense on the wrong side of the 50, needing to come up with a stop. Defensive players say they relish those opportunities, and believe in their ability to not only hold for a field goal, but get the ball back. Cincinnati's defensive line plays a major role in helping create a lot of the fumbles and interceptions. Even after losing Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, the defensive line has still pressured opposing quarterbacks, forcing poorly thrown balls. The line and linebackers also do a great job of stripping balls and forcing timely fumbles.

I'll add that there is something slightly different about the defense at home. When it comes to turnovers, for example, 21 of the 31 forced by the defense have come at Paul Brown Stadium. As you mentioned, six have resulted in scores. Each of those scores either changed momentum or helped ice the game.

How much do you think playing the Bengals just 35 days ago will benefit the Chargers? They clearly learned something from that loss, and haven’t lost since.

Williams: That is correct -- the Chargers are on a four-game winning streak since losing to the Bengals on Dec. 1. Defensively the Chargers have been stingy, holding teams to just 18 points a contest in the past four games. San Diego has played more consistently on offense, particularly in the red zone, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. And the Chargers are playing with more confidence now than earlier in the season. Chargers coach Mike McCoy has figured out a blueprint for his team to win on both offense and defense -- a prolific, ball-control offense paired with a bend-but-don’t-break defense that keeps teams out of the end zone.

Philip Rivers finished the regular season tops in the NFL in completion percentage (69.5), fourth in touchdown passes (32) and fifth in passing yards (4,478). The Bengals did a nice job containing Rivers in the first matchup. What will it take for a repeat performance?

Harvey: It's going to take a lot of pressure, and some tight coverage both downfield and near the line of scrimmage. Bengals cornerback Terence Newman was telling reporters this week about what he felt made Rivers special -- his intelligence. As an 11-year veteran, Newman has seen it all. According to Newman, what is most impressive is Rivers' ability to use his eyes to steer linebackers or safeties one way, only to pass another because he knows he has a tight end or running back open in a soft spot the defense isn't covering. Newman stopped short of comparing Rivers to Peyton Manning, but he believes the two have much in common. Members of the Bengals' secondary know they can't just key on his eyes, they have to know where his playmakers are at all times. Members of the Bengals' line know they have to keep hounding Rivers like they have hounded quarterbacks all season.

Rivers is San Diego's household name, but how important have running back Ryan Mathews and receiver Keenan Allen been to the offense?

Williams: The Chargers leaned heavily on Mathews during the second half of the season, with good results. San Diego is 7-1 this season when Mathews has at least 19 carries. He has carried the ball at least 24 times in the past four games, all wins for San Diego. Allen finished the season with 71 receptions for a team-leading 1,046 yards, becoming the first rookie since Cincinnati’s A.J. Green to finish with 1,000 receiving yards. Green had 1,057 in 2011. Mathews keeps defenses honest with his bruising running style, and Allen emerged as Rivers’ go-to receiver when San Diego gets near the red zone. Allen is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with eight.

We've seen the good (33 touchdowns) and the bad (20 interceptions) from Andy Dalton this season. What type of performance do you expect from Dalton on Sunday? And will it matter if he does not play well?

Harvey: Because of how good this defense is, especially at home, I'm not sure it will matter if he plays well Sunday. Last week against the Ravens, Dalton threw four interceptions -- the first came 1 yard outside Baltimore's red zone -- and the defense ended up acting as an eraser and pretending the turnovers never happened. The one interception that came on Cincinnati's 21 resulted in a field goal. An interception on the following drive also resulted in a field goal. Instead of being down 14-0 early, the Bengals trailed 6-0, giving Dalton enough confidence to calm down and make plays when he needed to as the comeback began. I'm expecting another mixed bag from Dalton. Just like last week, he has shown this season that he can pass for 270 yards, three touchdowns and still have three interceptions. I wouldn't be surprised if his nerves are elevated a little at the start of the game, but as long as the defense keeps playing the way it has been and his receivers are not dropping passes, I believe Dalton will come out OK on Sunday.

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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What’s the ideal first-round scenario for each team?

Baltimore Ravens: California wide receiver Keenan Allen. Sure, the ideal scenario is Baltimore native Tavon Austin falling to the Ravens. That's just not realistic, given that he's expected to be taken in the top half of the first round. The Ravens desperately need a wide receiver after not replacing Anquan Boldin in free agency. Allen, who is the top-rated receiver on some teams' draft boards, would be a fine complement to the speedy Torrey Smith. He would have to slip past five potentially interested teams from picks Nos. 24 to 31 (Indianapolis, Minnesota, Houston, New England and San Francisco) in order for him to fall to Baltimore. Allen's strengths are size, toughness and sure hands in going over the middle. Sure sounds like Boldin, doesn't it?

Cincinnati Bengals: Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro. Finding a reliable starter next to Reggie Nelson in the back of the defense has been a challenge for the past couple of seasons. It's time for the Bengals to finally upgrade from Chris Crocker. Vaccaro is the consensus top-rated safety in the draft. He has the size to make an impact in run defense and the versatility to play man coverage. It's questionable whether Vaccaro will last until the Bengals are on the clock at No. 21. Vaccaro has been projected to go as early as No. 15 (New Orleans), No. 16 (St. Louis) or No. 17 (Pittsburgh). The big hurdle is Vaccaro getting past Dallas at No. 18. Some would say the Bengals need to get a right tackle, especially if Andre Smith is unsigned before the draft. But Cincinnati can plug in Anthony Collins in that spot. Safety is the bigger need.

Cleveland Browns: Oregon linebacker Dion Jordan or trading down. Some would say getting Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner at this spot is the ideal scenario for the Browns. While drafting a cornerback is a priority, I'm not sold on Milliner being worthy of a No. 6 overall pick, based on how draft experts break him down. The better scenario is having Jordan fall into Cleveland's laps. Jordan is a top-five talent who is a perfect fit in the Browns' new aggressive 3-4 defense. He could get taken as high as No. 2 overall by Jacksonville. Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly knows Jordan from their days at Oregon, so the Eagles may also be interested at No. 4. If Jordan is selected in the top five, the ideal scenario for Cleveland is trading down in the first round to acquire a second-round pick. The Chargers and Dolphins, both of whom are in need of a left tackle, should be interested in jumping ahead of Arizona at No. 7.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Having a choice between linebacker Jarvis Jones, Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert. These prospects are the most popular choices for the Steelers at No. 17. Which one is the ideal one? It depends on your point of view. Eifert is the safest pick and would provide insurance if Heath Miller (torn ACL) isn't the same player this season. The issue here is whether taking a tight end this high represents the best value. Jones is the biggest risk because of a poor performance at his pro day and the medical concerns, but he has the potential to be heir apparent to James Harrison. And Patterson is the wild card. He would provide much-needed height and length to the Steelers' wide receivers group and still has the speed to be an elite playmaker. The knock on Patterson is he's raw in his route-running and he disappeared for large chunks of time in college games. Patterson, Jones and Eifert all have a good shot at being there when the Steelers are on the clock.
The AFC North blog continues to look at the different positions and rank each team in terms of draft need. For Wednesday, the blog is addressing wide receivers. Mel Kiper Jr.'s top five receivers are: West Virginia's Tavon Austin, Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, California's Keenan Allen (before he was red-flagged for a drug test) and Southern California's Robert Woods.

Here's the rankings ...

1. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens traded Anquan Boldin to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick and have yet to replace him. Torrey Smith is expected to take over Boldin's role as the No. 1 receiver, but Jacoby Jones is seen more as a returner than a receiver. That leaves a big hole in the starting lineup. Team officials said Tandon Doss, David Reed and Deonte Thompson all will have shots at stepping up. But none of them have shown any promise during their limited playing time. The Ravens have been linked to wide receivers in the first round from Allen to Woods to Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton. Based on need, the Ravens should take a receiver somewhere in the first three rounds.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers: This would be a bigger need if the Steelers hadn't matched the New England Patriots' offer sheet to Emmanuel Sanders. Pittsburgh has one of the quickest receiver tandems in the league in Sanders and Antonio Brown. There's a big drop-off after them. Right now, the third receiver is either Jerricho Cotchery or Plaxico Burress. This is why some have linked the Steelers to Patterson in the first round. He's a playmaker with the ball in his hands but he tends to disappear for long stretches in games. The last wide receiver taken in the first round by the Steelers was Santonio Holmes in 2006.

3. Cleveland Browns: Josh Gordon and Greg Little are far from established, but the Browns are hopeful both will develop. The expectations for Gordon have been heightened after making 50 catches and five touchdowns. Little has the potential to be the complementary No. 2 target if he can cut down on his drops. The third receiver could be either David Nelson, who is expected to be finished rehabbing his knee by training camp, or the undersized Travis Benjamin. Like last year, the Browns will probably take a wide receiver somewhere in the middle rounds.

4. Cincinnati Bengals: You could make the case that the Bengals should rank second on this list because they don't have a proven No. 2 receiver opposite A.J. Green. Some have projected the Bengals to take a wide receiver early in the draft, and you can't rule that out. The Bengals, though, have repeatedly talked about how much they like this receiving group of Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins, Marvin Jones and Brandon Tate. As far as offense, wide receiver ranks behind offensive tackle and running back in terms of need. The Bengals may still draft a wide receiver, but it seems like it will be in the later rounds.

AFC North links: Milliner/Haden best duo?

April, 12, 2013
4/12/13
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Baltimore Ravens

For Lardarius Webb, patience remains his watchword as he makes steady progress in his rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament for the second time in four years, writes Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun. The Ravens' top cornerback ended his season in October after injuring his right knee against the Dallas Cowboys. Now, Webb forecasts a sound recovery for the upcoming season.

Garrett Downing of the team's website focuses his mock draft spotlight on receiver Keenan Allen of California.

Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer takes an in-depth look at what the Bengals should do at linebacker before the season starts.

Cleveland Browns

Alabama prospect Dee Milliner says he and Joe Haden would be the best cornerback tandem in the NFL if the Browns select Milliner in the draft, writes Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel is scheduled to visit the Browns early next week.

Browns CEO Joe Banner executed a minor trade with his former club, shipping 2012 sixth-round linebacker Emmanuel Acho to the Eagles for third-year reserve running back Dion Lewis, whom Banner helped draft in the fifth round of 2011 out of Pittsburgh. The small and shifty Lewis (5-foot-8, 190) will most likely serve as a third-down back and possible kick returner.

Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer looks back at the Browns' failed attempt to trade for the pick that would have brought them quarterback Robert Griffin III last April.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers will open their preseason schedule Aug. 10 at home against the Giants.

Bob Labriola of the team's website looks at this year's class of quarterbacks available in the draft.

UConn linebacker Sio Moore visited with the Steelers, writes Gil Brandt of NFL.com.

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AFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

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