AFC North: LaDainian Tomlinson

PITTSBURGH -- Calvin Johnson won’t be the only Detroit Lions player who presents serious matchup problems for the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field.

Reggie Bush has just under 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in eight games this season, and Ryan Clark said Bush is so good in open space that he reminds the Steelers' free safety of LaDainian Tomlinson.

Bush
Bush
“As far as his ability to make guys miss, I think it’s LaDainian-like,” Clark said.

That is high praise considering Tomlinson is fifth all-time in the NFL with 13,684 rushing yards and is a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Like Tomlinson was during his decorated playing career, Bush is a dual threat, and he has added balance to the Lions’ offense after signing with Detroit in the offseason.

The eighth-year veteran has rushed for 623 yards and added 343 receiving yards.

Clark said Bush is also comparable to Saints’ scatback Darren Sproles, because of his receiving and open-field skills.

“He’s a guy who’s cat-quick, extremely elusive in the open field, and so they feel like any opportunity with Reggie in space against a defender other than a corner they have an athletic advantage," Clark said. "They try to get him in space.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Bush is more than just a running back who also has good hands.

“He’s one of those few running backs that has wide receiver skills in terms of his ability to drop his weight and create separation at break points,” Tomlin said.

Many of the Steelers will play against Bush for the first time.

The only other time he faced the Steelers was during his rookie season in 2006.

Bush rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, and caught seven passes for 50 yards in helping the Saints beat the Steelers at Heinz Field.

He has never quite lived up to the hype that accompanied him to the NFL, but Bush has carved out a solid career.

And the former Southern Cal start is still one of the more feared players in the NFL when he gets into the open field.

“You have to get to him as a unit,” said Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who isn’t expected to play Sunday because of a calf injury, “because he does a great job of breaking tackles and finding a lane and taking it to the house.”
Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner has coached the NFL's leading rusher five times. Could running back Trent Richardson be the next one?

Richardson
Turner got every fantasy football owner's attention Tuesday when he indicated Richardson could carry the ball 300 times this season. All five players who cracked 300 carries last season ranked in the top six in the NFL in rushing.

"If that player is your best player, then I think it’s probably a good thing to have him in the game and give him the ball," Turner said, via The Plain Dealer. "So I would hope Trent would have that many carries. That means he’s playing healthy and playing at a pretty high level."

Under Turner, Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson all won rushing crowns and handled a major workload in doing so. Smith carried the ball 365 times in 1991 and 373 times in 1992. Williams had a whopping 383 carries in 2002. And Tomlinson ran the ball 315 times in 2007.

Few running backs have to take such a pounding these days. In the previous two seasons, only seven players have carried the ball more than 300 times. The past 10 rushing champions, however, have averaged 353 carries during their respective league-leading seasons.

Richardson did some heavy lifting as a rookie last year under coach Pat Shurmur even though the No. 3 overall pick battled injuries. He played 702 offensive snaps in 2012, which was ninth-most among NFL running backs. Richardson established himself as a workhorse despite undergoing a knee scope early in training camp, breaking his ribs in Week 6 and missing the season finale due to an ankle sprain. He finished 18th in the NFL in rushing with 950 yards but tied for fifth in the league with 11 rushing touchdowns.

Turner was asked how Richardson measured up against the likes of Smith and Tomlinson.

"Just watching him and seeing him against us when I came here in October and then watching the tape, yeah, he’s that type of runner," Turner said. "Obviously he’s the third pick in the draft. I think he has a lot of great days ahead of him. I always have a problem comparing players because each guy has his own unique style, but I think he’s capable of doing great things."
A few days before LaDainian Tomlinson made his retirement official, Ravens running back Ray Rice was involved in an emotional ceremony as well.

Rice's No. 5 high school football jersey was retired in New Rochelle, N.Y., and will hang inside the school's gym. According to the Journal News, Rice cried when he explained that he chose that number to honor his cousin, Myshaun Rice-Nichols, who wore it as a basketball player before he was a victim in a fatal car accident in 1998.

“It might be the best honor that I’ve ever had in my life," Rice said.

It will probably be a long time before Rice has to call it quits from the NFL, but it will be a challenging road for him to catch Tomlinson. Rice, 25, would have to average 1,164 yards rushing over the next eight seasons to reach Tomlinson, whose total ranks fifth all-time in the NFL.

In his first four NFL seasons, Rice has produced 6,612 total yards and 29 touchdowns. That doesn't come close to Tomlinson's totals in his first four years of 7,921 yards and 60 touchdowns.

Double Coverage: Best divisional rivalry

December, 1, 2010
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Double CoverageESPN.com IllustrationTwo of our NFL bloggers weigh in on which division boasts the better rivalry.
Two of the NFL's hottest rivalries will take center stage in Week 13. Lucky for us.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will visit the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night. The New York Jets then will visit the New England Patriots on Monday night. Combined record of the four teams: 34-10.

Millions of football fans will be tuned in to see both marquee matchups with superstars and storylines aplenty.

But which pairing represents the NFL's best divisional rivalry?

Each matchup has a history, quality quarterbacks and plenty at stake for the playoffs. A couple of feisty bloggers -- James Walker from the AFC North and Tim Graham from the AFC East -- will state a case for why his division has the better rivalry.

James Walker: Tim, I just want to apologize in advance, because I don’t think you have much of a leg to stand on comparing these two rivalries. Do you accept my apology?

Tim Graham: If that's really what you think, then the only thing to accept is your resignation. The Jets-Patriots rivalry goes back 50 years, showcases ESPN's team of the decade versus the biggest media sensation, involves espionage, features incredible player and coaching crossover and will generate significantly more attention this week than the Steelers and Ravens. Yet I don't have a leg to stand on? This should be amusing.

Walker: OK, let's get down to business. First, I'm going to tell you why the Jets-Patriots rivalry doesn't stack up to Ravens-Steelers. For starters, the Jets aren't even the Patriots’ biggest rival in the AFC. The Colts are. Indianapolis and New England have played eight straight years in much bigger games -- sometimes with the Super Bowl at stake.

Meanwhile, there is no debating the Steelers and Ravens are each other's biggest rival. Both teams have played on the biggest stages, including the AFC Championship Game in 2008, when the Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XLIII. Finally, here's another difference: Pittsburgh and Baltimore both have championships within the past decade. When both rivals are able to reach the pinnacle while beating up each other along the way, that's when a rivalry is truly special. The Ravens and Steelers have it. The Colts and Patriots have it. The Jets and Patriots? I don't think so.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Ed Mulholland/US PresswirePatriots quarterback Tom Brady said earlier this season that he hates the Jets.
Graham: Your opinion about the Colts representing a bigger rival than the Jets would be pertinent if the Patriots agreed with it. Tom Brady earlier this year declared "I hate the Jets," and he wasn't joking. The Patriots play the Jets twice a year. Division games are worth more than any other game in terms of importance. A Patriots-Colts game is more like a playoff exhibition.

You do make a good point about the Ravens and Steelers each winning a Super Bowl in the past decade. But recent titles don't necessarily make rivalries. If they did, then the Packers, Vikings and Bears don't have rivalries. Storylines and animus make rivalries. In that regard, Jets-Patriots is unsurpassed.

Walker: Brady says he hates the Jets, but a rivalry is a two-way street. How much hatred does New York really have for the Patriots? It can't be too deep-rooted. Most of New York's key people recently came from the AFC North and other teams, including head coach Rex Ryan. I'd be willing to bet Santonio Holmes hates the Ravens more than he hates the Patriots. I know Bart Scott hates the Steelers. We've talked about it several times while he was in Baltimore. Braylon Edwards? He hyped his return to Cleveland 10 times more than this week's game against New England. Do you really think key players like Edwards, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie have a feel for the Jets-Patriots rivalry? I doubt it.

But there is legitimate, two-way hatred between the Steelers and Ravens. Hines Ward hates the Ravens. Ray Lewis hates the Steelers. The markets of Pittsburgh and Baltimore simply cannot drive the point home like bigger cities New York and Boston can. For example, Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs basically told me he doesn't like the Steelers, either, which is similar to what Brady said about the Jets. Yet it didn't get any attention. The Jets-Patriots rivalry may be unsurpassed in hype. But the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is unsurpassed in substance.

Graham: Come on, James. You need to do more than take a glance at 2010 rosters to understand the Jets-Patriots rivalry. Every team has free agents who need to learn a rivalry. The point about Brady's hatred was that he never said that about the Colts, which you propose is a bigger rival for the Patriots than the Jets are.

But you want substance? How about Bill Parcells taking the Patriots to the Super Bowl and then leaving them for the Jets amid such controversial circumstances the NFL forced New York to send four draft picks to the Patriots over three years, including the first-round pick in 1999, as a penalty? How about the infamous Curtis Martin defection from the Patriots to the Jets and the infamous "poison pill" contract? How about Parcells abdicating his Jets job to Bill Belichick and then Belichick writing his resignation on a cocktail napkin moments before the Jets thought they were introducing him as their next head coach? How about the Jets blocking Belichick from joining the Patriots until he filed a federal lawsuit and then settling on the Patriots shipping five draft picks to the Jets over three years, including their 2000 first-rounder? How about Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini departing to be Jets head coach and leaving the bridge in cinders? How about the Patriots filing tampering charges against the Jets on receiver Deion Branch? How about a little thing called Spygate? How about Damien Woody, Danny Woodhead, Ty Law, Vinny Testaverde, Roman Phifer, Larry Izzo, Hank Poteat and Chris Baker (among many other role players) wearing both uniforms within the past decade? Steelers-Ravens has nothing even remotely close to a third of that rundown.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesJoe Flacco will have to constantly prove himself against the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Walker: Why you think playing for both teams makes it more of a rivalry is beyond me. I think it lessens your argument. I can't imagine Ed Reed or Lewis wearing a Steelers jersey. Ward would never sign a deal to play for the Ravens. Not in a million years. These two teams hate each other too much. Yet all these Jets and Patriots players simply flip-flop between teams at their leisure? That’s weak and not the sign of a hated rivalry, in my opinion.

Graham: That's rather Pollyanna to think Ravens would never go play for the Steelers or vice versa. Do you honestly believe if the Steelers had hired Ryan, then all of those players who followed him to the Jets wouldn't have gone to Pittsburgh? Please. Players pursue the best opportunity based on money, playing a system they love and a chance to win a title.

Here is how players switching teams make for a better rivalry: It thickens the plot. Fans who used to wear a player's jersey burn them. The expatriate player shares playbook secrets and other intelligence. That player has a chip on his shoulder and comes back to haunt his old team.

Walker: Moving onto quarterbacks. I think there are some similarities between the teams' four passers. Joe Flacco is the third-year upstart trying to get to the championship level of Ben Roethlisberger, who already has two rings. Much of Flacco's status eventually will be determined by how much success he has against Roethlisberger and the Steelers within his division. It seems the Ravens and Steelers are always in the way and have to go through each other to have a deep run in the playoffs and get to the Super Bowl. What dynamic do you see developing with Brady and a young Mark Sanchez?

Graham: I don't know if there's much of a quarterback comparison beyond the glamour element at this stage. Brady and Sanchez have a lot in common from an off-the-field standpoint. They sell a lot of jerseys, attract a lot of ladies, walk a lot of red carpets, appear in a lot of photo shoots and do a lot of cameos. But they're too far apart in experience to compare résumés.

[+] EnlargeSteelers and Ravens
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe Ravens and Steelers have competed recently in many high-profile matchups -- including the 2008 AFC Championship Game.
I see the Jets and Patriots as more of a fan base and organizational rivalry: teams from two of the greatest sports markets, with two of the NFL's most influential owners, and two of the best defensive coaches in the game -- heck, two of the most controversial coaches of this generation. Ever since Ryan took over as Jets head coach, he has been tweaking Belichick. Some thought the rivalry would wane when the Jets fired Mangini, but Ryan -- a guy who helped build the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, by the way -- came along and made it juicier.

Walker: Now is our favorite part. It's prediction time. It's no secret the Steelers and Ravens are built and play similarly. So it's usually a close game. Baltimore is going for its first series sweep since 2006, but Roethlisberger didn't play in the first meeting because of a suspension. Now he's back and is 7-2 all-time against Baltimore. But I have a feeling this is the Ravens' week. They are healthier overall, 5-0 at home and appear to be peaking at the right time. The Steelers, on the other hand, have been up and down. Both teams usually bring out the best in each other, but I'm picking the Ravens to win, 20-17. So who are you picking between the Patriots and Jets, Tim? Don't chicken out.

Graham: I predict the loser of the Jets-Patriots game will have the same record as the team that wins the Ravens-Steelers game. Predicting a score has no bearing on our debate of which rivalry is better. But I will say the Jets and Patriots provide a rare showdown between teams with the NFL's best two records. This is only the fifth time in "Monday Night Football" history two clubs with records of 9-2 or better will play, and the first game under those circumstances that doesn't involve the Joe Montana-led San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park.

This is a special game befitting a special rivalry. Your game features clubs that needed overtime to beat the Buffalo Bills. I'll expect that resignation letter by kickoff.

No room for LT in AFC North

February, 23, 2010
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Do not expect former San Diego Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson to fit within the AFC North next season. There is no room for him.

Tomlinson
Tomlinson
Currently the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have 1,000-yard rushers on their rosters. That means Tomlinson, whose skills are on the decline, would be nothing more than an overpriced backup for any of these aforementioned teams.

The future Hall of Famer likely will seek an opportunity to start or at least starter-type money in free agency. Tomlinson rushed for 730 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2009.

Tomlinson will have plenty of options, and another thing he will favor is a chance to win his first Super Bowl. That won't happen in 2010 with the Cleveland Browns, who won just five games last season. Going from an annual contender in San Diego to a rebuilding team in Cleveland would be a step down for Tomlinson, who doesn't have many years left.

All of these factors mean Tomlinson's new home will be outside the AFC North. There are better opportunities for Tomlinson elsewhere next season.

Morning take: Maualuga consistent

December, 4, 2009
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Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North:
  • Cincinnati Bengals rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga is still going strong, making all 11 starts so far in his rookie year.
Morning take: I'm no scout, but it was pretty easy for me to see at USC that Maualuga was a player. I’m still surprised every AFC North team passed on him at least once. The Browns passed twice.
Morning take: It’s early, but it looks like Baltimore hit on its first three picks. Michael Oher, Paul Kruger and Lardarius Webb are all contributing to the team's playoff run.
  • Oakland Raiders quarterback and western PA native Bruce Gradkowski is looking forward to returning home.
Morning take: Last time I remember Gradkowski against Pittsburgh, he was with the Cleveland Browns in 2008 and things didn’t go very well.
  • San Diego Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson needs 56 yards to pass Jim Brown on the career rushing list Sunday against the Browns.
Morning take: To do it in Cleveland would be a nice honor for "L.T." Against the Browns’ defense, he has a good chance to do it.

Is Jamal Lewis a Hall of Famer?

December, 3, 2009
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Jamal LewisGetty ImagesJamal Lewis has over 10,000 career rushing yards, including a 2,066 yard season in 2003, but will it be enough to get him to Canton?
Cleveland Browns running back Jamal Lewis, who plans to retire, was put on injured reserve Wednesday after suffering a concussion, ending his 10th and reportedly final season in the NFL.

With more than 10,000 career rushing yards and a Super Bowl championship with the Baltimore Ravens, is Lewis worthy of the Hall of Fame?

ESPN.com's AFC North blog checked in with several Hall of Fame voters Thursday to get an early gauge on Lewis' candidacy.

John McClain, Houston Chronicle: "I’m always open to discussion. But considering all the other backs coming out with big numbers like Jerome Bettis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Curtis Martin, Edgerrin James, etc., I think he's a long shot."

Jim Trotter, Sports Illustrated: "My initial reaction is no. But you have to keep an open mind when reviewing all candidates."

Mike Sando, ESPN.com: "I think it's going to be tough for some of the very good running backs to break through what seems to be quite a backlog of great, and borderline great, candidates at multiple positions."

Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "My immediate reaction would be no. But there's a reason we go through this whole voting process, so we can have time to look at what they did and where he came from. You can put me down for a wishy-washy [undecided]."

Joe Reedy, Cincinnati Enquirer: "I think when you look at the year-by-year numbers, along with what he meant to the Ravens' Super Bowl run in 2000 and keeping the Browns’ offense even remotely afloat the last two years, he has a legitimate candidacy. He was in only one Pro Bowl. But Lewis meant a lot to the Ravens' offense while he was there and his 2,066-yard season in 2003 and performance in the regular-season finale that year against Pittsburgh are what got the Ravens into the playoffs."

AFC North injury report

September, 18, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


Here is the final injury report for each AFC North team heading into Week 2:

Baltimore Ravens

Doubtful: S Tom Zbikowski (concussion)

Questionable: TE L.J. Smith (hamstring)

Probable: LB Tavares Gooden (knee), LB Jarret Johnson (shoulder), S Ed Reed (concussion), LB Terrell Suggs (concussion, chest)

(Editor’s note: San Diego Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson and starting center Nick Hardwick will not play Sunday.)

Cincinnati Bengals

Out: CB David Jones (foot), OG Nate Livings (knee), OT Andre Smith (foot)

Probable: OT Scott Kooistra (knee), RB Brian Leonard (chest), QB Jordan Palmer (illness)

Cleveland Browns

Out: OG Rex Hadnot (knee),

Questionable: LB David Bowens (knee), RB James Davis (shoulder), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (shoulder), RB Cedric Peerman (thigh)

Probable: RB Jerome Harrison (knee), TE Steve Heiden (knee), RB Jamal Lewis (neck), DT Shaun Rogers (foot), P Dave Zastudil (right knee)

Pittsburgh Steelers

Out: S Troy Polamalu (knee), WR Limas Sweed (foot)

Probable: CB Ike Taylor (non-injury), LB Lawrence Timmons (ankle)(ankle
AP Photo/Rob Carr



The Ravens' offense made significant strides last season, and is looking to take the next step this year under the direction of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.



Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker


BALTIMORE, Md. -- Cam Cameron has a quiet confidence about him this season. It's a type of optimism that comes from a coach feeling he knows a secret that the rest of the league has yet to discover.

The reason for Cameron's enthusiasm is the Baltimore Ravens' offense. For the first time in a long time, it was a watchable unit in 2008. The Ravens were No. 11 in points scored (24.1 per game) and No. 18 in yards (324 yards per game), which were both improvements from the previous season.

Now the engine behind it believes Baltimore's offense is ready to take the next step. As an organization, the Ravens have always been dominated by defense, but it's Cameron's goal to balance the team and put more points on the board in 2009.

"I know our personnel a lot better now and I think it's critical," Cameron said. "Everything we do is based on what our guys can do -- period. It all starts with that. We try to take what everybody does best and then blend it together. We don't really try to make guys something they aren't. There are certain things we'd prefer to do, but if it doesn't fit a player, we don't do it."








AP Photo/Gail Burton



Cam Cameron's creative offense helped the Ravens average 24.1 points per game last season.


Baltimore certainly had its limitations last year. The Ravens played a rookie quarterback and just one Pro Bowl skill player -- fullback Le'Ron McClain. But Cameron used his creativity to get the most out of his players as the Ravens advanced all the way to the AFC title game.

The Ravens incorporated a "Suggs package," which was their version of the Wildcat offense. There were tricky misdirections, the use of an unbalanced line, and a three-headed monster featuring running backs McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.

"The guy is a genius," McClain said. "He makes it all look easy. He's one of the smart ones, and I think he's one of the best [offensive coordinators] in the league."

Offensive coordinators are usually tied closely with their quarterbacks, and that is certainly the case with Cameron and second-year player Joe Flacco. Cameron protected his rookie quarterback at the start of last season and slowly began to loosen the reins.

Cameron continued to give Flacco more and more information this offseason to see what he could handle. The results are impressive.

"
He's improving at such a fast rate that I'm trying not to put any preconceived ideas on what he is," Cameron said. "I think his potential is almost limitless."

New wrinkles are constantly being added to the offense.

In Monday's 24-23 preseason victory over the New York Jets, Baltimore ran a Statue of Liberty play at the goal line for the first time. Flacco faked a quick pass, hid the ball, then gave Rice a behind-the-back handoff up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown run.

"My ballhandling was kind of wrong," Flacco said after the game. "We did a little bait-and-throw handoff and I didn't do it right. It still worked. So I'm happy."

Many of Cameron's inspirations are a product of previous stops during his career.

Cameron said he learned a variation of the Wildcat not from last year's Miami Dolphins, but way before that when he coached with Norv Turner with the Washington Redskins. In the 1990s, Turner occasionally put return specialist and former college quarterback Brian Mitchell in the backfield.

"We used to do all that stuff with Mitchell," Cameron said. "I remember one year he got two touchdowns against Denver running the option. There were some versions of it, but Brian Mitchell ... was the first time I was ever exposed to it. Then we ran a ton of versions of it in college at Indiana when I had Antwaan Randle El."

Cameron wants to get all of his players involved. So when Troy Smith returned from a viral infection last season and was the backup quarterback, Cameron went back to his college roots to incorporate Smith into the offense.

Cameron recalled that Smith ran a lot of shotgun option/handoff plays at Ohio State. So Cameron put in similar option plays for Smith to get him back in his comfort zone, and Baltimore's variation of the Wildcat offense was born.








John Sommers II/Icon SMI



Joe Flacco's "potential is almost limitless" according to Cameron.


"Troy did it right off the bat. He made it look easy," Cameron said. "We could run it every down if we wanted to. He's that good at it."

Other unconventional looks in the offense such as the unbalanced line and three-headed monster came from prior experiences.

Using an extra tackle in place of a tight end to create a run strength has been around for approximately 100 years, Cameron said. A lot of college teams use it, but you rarely see it in the NFL. Cameron implemented it at Indiana.

The three-headed monster was an idea born way before Cameron's coaching career. Cameron said that when he was a high school quarterback, his team had three very good running backs and it was his job to keep everyone happy while still winning games.

"I was fortunate enough to call my own plays in high school," Cameron said. "Basically, I had to keep all three involved, know what their strengths are and let them all get a few touchdowns. It's not as easy as it seems. Running backs want the ball and they should. The great ones do."

Before arriving in Baltimore, Cameron first tried the three-headed monster approach on a lesser scale as offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers. There he had LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.

But Tomlinson, a future Hall of Famer, was the feature back and received the bulk of the carries while Turner and Sproles fought for the scraps. Cameron is more balanced with the Ravens, where he can go with the hot hand and change his feature back depending on the game.

"As a running back, you can't be selfish," McClain said. "You never know. It could be one guy this week, and the next week we have to go out and do other stuff. So it may be my week, Willis' week or Ray's week. You got to go with the flow. You just always know that Cam has a plan."

Cameron said winning helped the system work last year. But Cameron and the Ravens are pushing to be better and not rest on last year's success.

"No matter what happened last year we came up short of our goal, which was to win the Super Bowl," Cameron said. "I think we have the right kind of veteran leadership here. We definitely have the right mindset coming from [head coach] John Harbaugh. There is nobody here that's satisfied with what happened last year, and we're not about to let any of the young players be satisfied because we're not playing for second place. Nobody else is in the league either. But here it's real."

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Now that you read every inch of analysis during the week, let's wrap up the predictions with the AFC North version of "Take Your Pick."

After a two-week hiatus, the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) will host the San Diego Chargers (9-8) in a divisional matchup at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won the first meeting, 11-10, with a late field goal by kicker Jeff Reed.

Injuries could be key in this game. For the Chargers, tailback LaDainian Tomlinson (groin) is not expected to play, making way for exciting backup Darren Sproles. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be returning from a concussion in his last game against the Cleveland Browns.

San Diego is sharp, winning five in a row, while Pittsburgh is well rested. So who has the advantage?

Take your pick.

Morning take: Ngata vs. Haynesworth

January, 8, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Haynesworth right now is the gold standard for defensive tackles. But don't be surprised if the fast-rising Ngata is playing at a similar level in a year or two.

Morning take: This is an advantage for Pittsburgh, which should still have an interesting challenge in Darren Sproles. But at least the Steelers know for sure who to prepare for.

  • The Cleveland Browns formally hired Eric Mangini to be their fourth head coach in 10 years.

Morning take: Mangini is a tireless worker and a good hire, but something still feels odd with the Browns. More on that in the next blog post.

Morning take: If the Bengals are to build off their fast finish, the healthy return of these two will be key. Expect Palmer and Rivers, two USC Trojans, to be the team's cornerstones in 2009.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson and John Clayton

This is a debate on Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between San Diego and Pittsburgh. We will tackle topics on the game. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson will debate the side of the Chargers and senior writer John Clayton will debate the side of the Steelers.

Here we go:

Which quarterback will have a bigger impact?

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Philip Rivers and the Chargers ride a five-game winning streak into Pittsburgh Sunday.

Bill Williamson: John, it's going to be San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers are the hottest team in the NFL and Rivers is one of the hottest players in the league. He's playing out of his mind. Why shouldn't he? It's the playoffs and Rivers is a late-season player.

Rivers, taken seven picks higher than Roethlisberger, has developed into one of the great late-season players. He is 14-0 in December games and he is 3-2 in the postseason. While Indianapolis' Peyton Manning got his numbers Saturday night, it was Rivers who led the Chargers to 10 points in the final minute of regulation and in overtime.

Rivers is a big-game player. Yes, Big Ben has his Super Bowl ring and he knows how to get it done in the clutch as well. But Rivers is red hot. His statistics far surpass Roethlisberger's numbers in 2008. Rivers is playing with a purpose. He is a fantastic leader. He will not be intimidated by the vaunted Pittsburgh defense or the miserable weather. Rivers has willed the Chargers to victory during this five-game win streak, and there's no reason not to think Rivers won't do it again, Mr. Clayton.

John Clayton: Billy, you can throw me all the stats you want, but Ben Roethlisberger was the first of the top three quarterbacks taken in the 2004 draft to go to the Super Bowl and win, beating Eli Manning and Philip Rivers to the punch. The 14-0 December stat is nice, but Roethlisberger did get the field goal drive to beat Rivers in Pittsburgh this year. He's a big-time player in big-time games. Rivers is a quarterback who is learning the playoffs. Last year, he learned how to win a playoff game, beating the Titans. Roethlisberger is one of the best in football in the final two possessions of the fourth quarter. He has a presence in those situations that is one of the best in football. He has a strong arm that doesn't have problems in windy conditions. I'm not going to make a pick in this game, but Roethlisberger has the edge during his career in one key stat -- wins. He's 51-20 during the regular season and he's done it against tough schedules. Drew Brees has better stats than both those guys, but don't bet against Roethlisberger in the final four minutes of any game.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Sproles

In this week's visit to the film room, we check in with Scouts Inc. to get their take on Sunday's matchup pitting San Diego Chargers tailback Darren Sproles against the top-rated defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sproles looks to be the starter this week in place of the injured LaDainian Tomlinson.

Here is comprehensive film analysis of Sproles from Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd:

The Steelers have the best defense in the NFL. However, with the uncertainty of running back LaDainian Tomlinson due to a groin injury, the Chargers will rely even more on running back Darren Sproles. Sproles is extremely quick with excellent speed and elusiveness. He has a low center of gravity, good vision, excellent balance who does his best work in open space. He is tough to find in a crowd behind his blockers due to his size, and he is a decisive cutter who gets vertical quickly. Can Sproles expose creases within Pittsburgh's defense due to his excellent burst through the hole? The key to stopping Sproles for the Steelers' defense will be its ability to control the edges, get off blocks, tackle well in open space and play under control while maintaining gap discipline and leverage within its 3-4 defenses. On top of that, without a healthy LT, the Steelers can focus even more on stopping Sproles, which gives them the edge in this matchup on Sunday.

Stephania Bell updates the status of LaDainian Tomlinson and Ben Roethlisberger.

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