AFC North: Lee Evans

If you didn't know any better, you might've thought Lee Evans showed up at Ravens practice Wednesday. Yes, the same Lee Evans who failed to make the winning catch in last season's AFC Championship Game.

But it wasn't an unexpected appearance by Evans before this season's AFC title tilt. It was actually reserve wide receiver David Reed wearing Evans' No. 83 jersey. He didn't put on the jersey Thursday or Friday.

“That’s my boy,” Reed told The Baltimore Sun. “But you know, with the circumstances that went down last year, guys were giving me a hard time about it a little bit. So I haven’t worn that jersey anymore.”

Reed didn't play in the AFC divisional playoff game because of a hamstring injury. Even if Reed plays Sunday, don't expect him to wear No. 83 or drop a pass. Reed plays special teams and nearly has as many tackles on coverage teams (four) as catches (five) this season.
Nearly every Ravens player has talked this week about hoping to play the AFC Championship Game at New England so the team could redeem itself from last year's loss. But not every player will have that shot at a second chance.

Former Ravens wide receiver Lee Evans explains how he's dealt with the failed catch in the end zone 12 months ago that cost the Ravens a trip to the Super Bowl. But moving on for Evans didn't mean moving away.

Evans, who was cut by the Ravens in March, still lives in Baltimore and has a photo of the worst moment of his football career on his wall.

"I do think about it," Evans says. "I don't think about it in a negative way, though. Right after the play, I went to the [PR] guy and basically asked him to get me a picture of it. Give me a picture of that moment, so I have it. I wanted it as a constant reminder to keep pushing, to keep going.

"I look at that picture, and basically I ask myself, 'Do I want another opportunity to do that again?'"

Just click right here to read the interesting piece by ESPN's Elizabeth Merrill.
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.
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.
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.”

Wrap up: Eagles 24, Ravens 23

September, 16, 2012

Thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

What it means: For the third straight season, the Ravens fell to 1-1 after failing to follow up a strong performance in the season opener. Baltimore, which had never trailed in the second half, couldn't stop Michael Vick on a third-and-goal, 1-yard sneak that put the Eagles ahead with 1:55 remaining. On their final drive, the Ravens never crossed midfield as Joe Flacco went 2-of-6, including an incompletion to Ray Rice on fourth down. It closed out a game filled with fights, turnovers and Eagles injuries.

Flacco falters: Flacco had a strong six quarters to begin the season, but he struggled mightily in the second half. He was 8-of-25 for 140 yards after halftime. It started with his first drive in the third quarter, when he was intercepted throwing into triple coverage. Flacco's best throw, a touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, was negated by a questionable offensive pass-interference penalty.

Tucker's strong leg: Justin Tucker delivered three long kicks: 56, 51 and 48 yards. His 56-yarder before halftime was four yards longer than his career best in college. Last season, then-Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff was 1-of-6 on kicks of more than 50 yards.

Slipping at goal line: The Ravens came up with three turnovers in the red zone, including an interception by Bernard Pollard (who was later injured and didn't return) in the end zone and a forced fumble by Lardarius Webb. But Baltimore couldn't make critical stops at the goal line. Two of the Eagles' touchdowns came from 1 yard out, including Vick's game winner.

What's next: The Ravens play their second prime-time game when they play host to the New England Patriots on Sunday night. It's a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game. But wide receiver Lee Evans and Cundiff are no longer on the Ravens. The Patriots were upset at home by the Arizona Cardinals 20-18 on Sunday.
There's something twisted in the fact that the Baltimore Ravens are trying to end their bad run with No. 3 wide receivers with a player who became available, for the most part, because he couldn't hold onto the ball.

Jacoby Jones, who signed a two-year, $7 million contract with Baltimore on Tuesday night, becomes the latest veteran trying to add depth to the Ravens' wide receiver group.

In 2010, T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught 30 passes for the Ravens as the third receiver, which was his lowest catch total since his 2001 rookie year. He ended his disappointing season by dropping a fourth-down pass that sealed Baltimore's 31-24 playoff loss at Pittsburgh.

In 2011, Lee Evans had a career-low four catches as the No. 3 wide receiver in an injury-filled year and finished his painful season by having the winning touchdown pass stripped out of his hands with 22 seconds remaining in the AFC championship game.

Now, the Ravens turn to Jones, whose fumbled punt led to a Baltimore touchdown and caused the Texans to lose in the playoffs. Baltimore can only hope he has better hands in the postseason to avoid its bizarre trend of dropped passes.

Since Joe Flacco entered the NFL in 2008, the Ravens have tried four different receivers for that No. 3 spot (Evans, Houshmandzadeh, Kelley Washington and Demetrius Williams) and none has ever caught more than 34 passes in a season.
Jacoby Jones' fumbled punt in last season's playoffs set up a touchdown for the Baltimore Ravens in their 20-13 win over the Houston Texans. Now, Jones is going to try to help Baltimore this time as a member of the Ravens.

Jones, 27, reached a two-year, $7 million deal with the Ravens on Tuesday, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

While Jones failed to reach his potential in Houston, he is a great fit for the Ravens. He becomes the No. 3 target on an unproductive wide receiver group and takes over as the primary punt returner.

The Ravens have been looking at wide receivers who can also be the team's primary returner, but they didn't sign Ted Ginn Jr. or Eddie Royal in free agency. Baltimore has been wanting to take the punt return duties away from Lardarius Webb, who recently signed a six-year, $50 million deal. Jones ranked 14th in the NFL in punt returns last season with a 10.6-yard average, which was two spots higher than Webb.

A third-round pick in 2007, Jones never developed into a consistent receiver and only caught 31 passes last season when Andre Johnson was sidelined for a large part of the season with injuries. Jones was scheduled to make $3 million this season before the Texans cut him on May 1.

Jones frustrated the Texans because he showed flashes and then made costly mistakes. The Ravens are right to take the risk considering the state of their wide receiver group. Baltimore only had two wide receivers (Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith) who caught more than four passes last season. Jones underachieved with the Texans by averaging 36 catches over the past three seasons, but the Ravens would gladly take that production from a backup receiver.

The Ravens have needed a No. 3 wide receiver since cutting Lee Evans, who failed to hold onto the winning touchdown catch in the AFC Championship Game. They can only hope Jones can hold onto the ball better, especially after what Baltimore saw first-hand from him in the playoffs.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Wide receiver Lee Evans, whose failed catch cost the Ravens a trip to the Super Bowl, has agreed to a one-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported.

Evans will long be remembered as the player who had a fourth-quarter touchdown pass stripped away from him in the AFC championship game. If Evans held onto the ball, the Ravens would have taken a 27-23 lead with 22 seconds remaining.

This will be the third team in three seasons for Evans. The Ravens traded a fourth-round pick last year for Evans, who managed four catches in the regular season.

Hensley's slant: The Ravens might have considered bringing him back if they didn't add a wide receiver in the draft, but it's best for both sides that Evans moved on. Evans not only represents one of the worst moments in Ravens history but he was involved in one of the team's worst trades. The Ravens now have to figure out who will fill the No. 3 wide receiver spot on the team.

BENGALS: Newly-signed cornerback Terence Newman believes the Bengals are ready to win a Super Bowl title. "I want the ring," Newman told the team's official website. "That's all that matters right now. These guys have a good line and linebackers. They're a playoff team. They can help me and I can help them." Newman also explained that his play declined last year after suffering a hamstring injury early in the year. "I'm a rockhead about some things and I tried to play through it," he said. "I wanted to be there for my teammates and I ended up probably hurting them." Hensley's slant: In order for Newman's championship dream to happen, a couple of droughts have to end. Newman has never played in a conference championship game in his nine NFL seasons, and the Bengals haven't won a playoff game since January 1991.

BROWNS: Eric Steinbach, who started at left guard for the Browns from 2007 to 2010, wouldn't regain his job if he returned to the team, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Browns are apparently committed to guards Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao. Steinbach was released by Cleveland last month after he refused to take a pay cut. Hensley's slant: Steinbach likely won't be out of work long, even if his starting job is taken in Cleveland. Teams who don't get one of the top guards in the draft will be calling Steinbach. Potential interested teams include: the Ravens, Chargers, Seahawks, Bears and 49ers.

STEELERS: Stevenson Sylvester feels he is the heir apparent to inside linebacker James Farrior. "I feel like I'm the linebacker of the future," Sylvester told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I've still got a lot of work to do, but I'm confident I can do this job. I really feel good about this upcoming year." Head coach Mike Tomlin has said veteran backup Larry Foote will get the first crack at replacing Farrior, a 10-year starter who was released on March 2. Hensley's slant: Foote is the obvious front-runner because Sylvester only took 35 defensive snaps in 2011. But the player called "Sly" could surprise in training camp this year. This point could be moot if the Steelers draft Dont'a Hightower.

AFC North free-agency quick hits

March, 21, 2012
Just a look at what's happening around the AFC North, which appears to be having another quiet day:

BENGALS: No news on the Bengals' search for a new starting running back. Michael Bush wrapped up his free-agent visit Tuesday without a contract, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis met with the Bengals on Monday. The free-agent market has been slow for running backs. The only notable signings have been Peyton Hillis (Chiefs) and Mike Tolbert (Panthers).

BROWNS: The Cleveland Plain Dealer is disputing a report that says the Browns are interested in Bengals free-agent linebacker Manny Lawson. This is surprising because I thought Lawson's ability to stop the run would help the NFL's 30th-ranked run defense.

RAVENS: Baltimore free-agent wide receiver Lee Evans is visiting the Jaguars today, according to the Florida-Times Union. In other words, the Jaguars are really desperate at wide receiver. ... Also, the three-year deal for center Matt Birk is worth $8.52 million and includes a $2.1 million signing bonus.

STEELERS: The team announced it has signed tight end Wes Lyons and fullback Will Johnson, who were teammates at West Virginia from 2007 to 2009. Lyons was cut after training camp last year, and Johnson worked three jobs last year when he was out of football.

AFC North weekend mailbag

March, 4, 2012
Let's try to open some mail before another AFC North player gets the franchise tag or gets cut ...

Lance from Akron, Ohio, writes: Do the Browns get draft pick compensation if Peyton Hillis leaves?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: What it boils down to is this: Teams receive compensatory picks if the number of their unrestricted free agents who sign elsewhere (players whose contract expires and not the ones who are released) is more than the number of unrestricted free agents they sign from other teams. For example, if Hillis and five other Browns free agents sign with other teams and the Browns only sign four free agents, they will receive compensatory picks. The level of the picks assigned -- a third-rounder or a seventh-round one -- are based on the contracts signed by their former players sign and how they play in the 2012 season.

Cameron from Allen, Texas, writes: Would the Browns be at all interested in wide receiver Lee Evans? I know that he was a huge disappointment in Baltimore, but wasn't he supposed to be quite good when they signed him? Did he just have a bad (and injury-riddled) year that he can get over, or is he really just not that great?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: I believe Evans is done. His body is starting to break down, and his confidence is shot. Evans was one of the most durable wide receivers in the game, playing in the first 109 games of his career. But he has now missed 10 of his past 19 regular-season games because of injuries. His numbers have declined for the past four seasons, dropping from 63 catches in 2008 to four in 2011. The Browns definitely need a deep threat, but they need a deep threat who will get out on the field. Evans is a huge question mark.

Ryan from Elkton, Md., writes: With all the cuts the Steelers have done this week, who do you think the Ravens may try to sign to add depth or upgrade if anyone? I was thinking guard Chris Kemoeatu if we are not able to re-sign Ben Grubbs.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: Kemoeatu wouldn't be a bad addition as long as you're not counting on him to be a starter. The Ravens can't bank on Kemoeatu replacing Grubbs when the Steelers benched him in favor for Doug Legursky. Some team is going to sign Kemoeatu for depth initially and possibly give him another shot to start down the line. He was the Steelers' highest-paid offensive lineman, so he has talent. His biggest problem was being a penalty magnet, which continually held back the offense. Kemoeatu has to became a more disciplined player before he could be considered a candidate to start again.

Megslin from Albany, N.Y., writes: I normally love your writing, and was all ready to agree with everything you said about the Steelers linebacker James Farrior cut being the last. But then you commented that "his play had declined so much he was sharing playing time with Larry Foote." Not exactly. He still ranked as the fourth highest tackler on the team, even while playing less downs. True, with his age, he did have to get spelled with another player on some downs (like Casey Hampton typically does). However, that doesn't mean his play is so awful he needed to come off the field. I realize that's not how you intended to mean it, but as a big Farrior fan who is sad to see the defensive leader, heart of the team, and yes, Steeler starter go, I had to disagree with how you worded it.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: You can never question Farrior's leadership but you can question his play. It was really noticeable in passing situations. He couldn't cover anyone downfield. That's why he had to be taken off the field. But it was his age (37) that proved to be the biggest factor in why the Steelers chose to cut him over backup Larry Foote (31).

Kory from Hillsborough, Calif., writes: It seems like for the most part historically, kickers who have gotten the franchise tag have gone on to stink it up the following season. I attest that to the fact that kickers need 100 percent of their head into kicking but that they're thinking about their contract situation or about how unpleased they are without a long term commitment by the team. Every year, the kicker's success seems to always come down to the mindset they have out on the field. Should Bengals fans be concerned about Mike Nugent getting tagged? We're all thinking about the Shayne Graham situation that went downhill quickly.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: It's only natural for Bengals fans to think of how the franchise tag failed to work with Shayne Graham after Cincinnati placed it on Nugent on Friday. I agree with your assessment that the year-to-year nature of the tag can affect the mindset of a kicker, whose play relies heavily on their focus. But I think Nugent will handle the tag just as well as the Browns' Phil Dawson did last year. Dawson converted 24-of-29 field goal attempts, and two of those misses were the result of bad snaps. He also hit seven field goals of 50 yards or longer, and no one in the NFL had more from that distance in 2011. The tag didn't affect Dawson's play.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Peyton Hillis told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he is willing to take a "hometown discount" to stay with the Browns, but the running back thinks the team wants him to test free agency, which begins March 13.

"I've always loved this city and I still do love it and I still want to play for the Cleveland Browns," Hillis told the paper. "I'm not sure who wants me there and who doesn't want me there. It's out of my hands at this point. They've said they might want to re-sign me. If I was this horrible person, if I wasn't tough and if I was that big of a mental case, why would they still want to sign me? No matter what happens, I think I proved again and again wherever I go I think I'll make a splash.''

Hillis denied an ESPN report that said he contemplated retirement and thought about joining the CIA. He also said he fired agent Kennard McGuire because he wasn't able to get anything done with the Browns.

Hensley's slant: What's the first rule of the CIA? Oh wait, that was "Fight Club." I get those two mixed up. As far as Hillis' future, he seems like he is willing to work with the Browns to return. For some reason, I get the feeling that he could end up in New England, where the Patriots have made a living off reclamation projects.

BENGALS: Getting the franchise tag is not good for your long-term future with the Bengals, who placed the tag on kicker Mike Nugent on Friday. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the past three times the Bengals have used the franchise tag, the player has left the following year. The most recent was three years ago with kicker Shayne Graham. Hensley's slant: I believe Nugent will break this streak. He proved to be a reliable weapon for the Bengals last season, setting the team record for field goals (33). My guess is Cincinnati will reward him either this year or next with a long-term contract.

RAVENS: The Ravens cut cornerback Chris Carr and wide receiver Lee Evans on Friday. But did the team cut all ties with those high-priced veterans? Comcast SportsNet pointed out this quote from general manager Ozzie Newsome: "As we talked about when we informed Chris and Lee of these moves, this does not close the door on them coming back to the Ravens." Hensley's slant: Carr could still have value to the Ravens as the fourth cornerback, but only at a discounted price. I really can't see the Ravens bringing back Evans, who lost a step as well as all of his confidence last season.

STEELERS: The Steelers cut inside linebacker James Farrior on Friday, but replacing him won't be easy, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review's Scott Brown. "Farrior quarterbacked the defense for a decade, making on-field adjustments as skillfully as he plugged running lanes," Brown wrote. "He started all 154 games he played for the Steelers, made two Pro Bowls, earned team MVP honors in 2004 and served as a defensive captain for eight consecutive seasons." Hensley's slant: The release of Farrior was one that caught me off guard. I thought the Steelers would cut backup Larry Foote and keep Farrior. Instead, the Steelers did the reverse.