AFC North: Mark Sanchez

When Jay Cutler agreed to a seven-year deal to stay with the Bears, it kept the best potential free agent quarterback off the market.

Say what you will about Cutler’s shortcomings, but pairing his arm and experience with a talented receiver (say ... Josh Gordon) would be enticing to any team. Especially a team that went through quarterbacks in 2013.

The Bears understood, and kept him. Now they have Cutler throwing to Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and handing off to Matt Forte, which allows the Bears to concentrate on improving their defense.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMatt Cassel on if he plans to be the Vikings' starter in 2014: "I do. That's my mentality, absolutely."
If the Browns were interested in pursuing a free agent to truly come in and take over, Cutler was the most legitimate instant starter. Not that Cutler was ever leaving Chicago, or would have ever signed with the Browns.

But Cutler staying in Chicago means the best free agent will be Mike Vick, though the Browns could take comfort in the fact that Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are also on the free agent list -- and Brandon Weeden could be. Nothing says football like a recycled Browns quarterback.

The free agent list is far from set. Guys will re-sign with their teams, a surprise or two will enter the market. But the present list is far from inspiring.

As of today the list of quarterbacks scheduled to be free agents in March are:

Carolina: Jimmy Clausen and Anderson -- Anderson brought up coming back a year ago right?

Dallas: Jon Kitna, who signed with Dallas for the season finale when Tony Romo was hurt.

Detroit: Shaun Hill.

Green Bay: Matt Flynn and Wallace.

Indianapolis: Matt Hasselbeck

Jacksonville: Chad Henne. Hey ... he beat the Browns this season!

Minnesota: Josh Freeman and Matt Cassell. Cassell is an interesting name given Josh McDaniels, who will interview this weekend, once tried to trade for Cassell in Denver.

New Orleans: Luke McCown. Oops, forgot this former Brown.

New York Giants; Curtis Painter.

New York Jets: David Garrard.

San Diego: Charlie Whitehurst.

San Francisco: McCoy

Seattle: Tarvaris Jackson

St. Louis: Kellen Clemens and Quinn.

Tampa Bay: Dan Orlovsky, who once ran out of the back of the end zone as he escaped the rush, for a safety.

Tennessee: Rusty Smith.

Washington: Rex Grossman.

Two who could become available include Matt Schaub of Houston and Mark Sanchez of the Jets. The Texans have a new coach, and Schaub’s salary cap-cost is $14.5 million in 2014. As for Sanchez, the Browns traded the pick so the Jets could take him, why not make it full circle and bring him back.

Ah ... what would an NFL offseason be without an ongoing discussion of the Cleveland Browns quarterback.
With so many injuries to the defense, the Ravens needed Joe Flacco and the offense to step up in order to win at Houston. Instead, Flacco recorded the worst performance by a quarterback in five seasons, based on ESPN's quarterback rating system.

Flacco's Total QBR, a metric that accounts for everything a quarterbacks does, was 0.3 on the 0-100 scale, the lowest rating for any quarterback with at least 30 action plays since 2008. He had never posted a Total QBR under 5.0 in his career and hadn’t recorded a game of 10.0 or worse since Week 2 of 2010 (at Cincinnati).

Flacco was 21-of-43 (48.8 percent) for 147 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions (one was deflected and returned 52 yards for a touchdown). He was also sacked four times, one of which resulted in a safety.

“We all could have done things better, starting with myself,” Flacco said after the game. “I don’t really have an answer for you. I think that’s just the way it works out. These guys are a good team. We didn’t play up to the level we expected.”

The Texans' defense played a factor in Flacco's struggles. This was the fifth time this season that Houston held an opponent to a Total Team QBR under 15.0, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Entering Week 7, no other team had more than one such game in 2012.

To put Flacco's low QBR in perspective, there had been only two quarterbacks who had recorded QBRs lower than 1.0 over the past five seasons. The Jets' Mark Sanchez did it once in 2009 (0.7 QBR) and again in 2011 (0.8), and Kyle Orton posted a QBR of 0.9 in 2010.
Sorry for the wake-up call getting posted a little late. There were technical difficulties on the site. Let's be honest here, we've all had Friday mornings when it's been tough to get things rolling. So, we can certainly relate. Now, here's the later-than-usual edition of wake-up call ...

BENGALS: Undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict is now listed as the starting weakside linebacker for the Bengals. For Burfict, a middle linebacker in college, it’s not all about playing a different position. He’s using this increased playing time to show he’s a different person than the one who plummeted from being a first-round prospect in college. “What happened in the past happened in the past,” Burfict told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “For me, what people portrayed me as at the draft, I totally wasn’t that guy. It’s not like I could go and confront media people and say ‘You guys have got the wrong person.’ Whatever they put out there, they put out there. And whatever team got me, they will see the real Vontaze. I’m just totally the opposite of that.”

BROWNS: Wide receiver Greg Little usually gets beat up by reporters and fans for his dropped passes. This time, he’s getting criticized after a touchdown grab. Shortly after the Browns’ loss to the Bengals, Little posted pictures of him celebrating his touchdown on Twitter. Fans want players to feel the pain of losing like them and not putting up a photo of them posing like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. "It's just a picture," Little told The Plain Dealer. "If I cared about every opinion I got on Twitter, I wouldn't be able to function.”

RAVENS: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron defended his play calls in Sunday’s loss at Philadelphia. He’s taken some heat for throwing the ball on all five short-yardage situations in the second half. He also pointed out that the Ravens needed more than one yard on their final two plays even though the official stat book has it listed that way. "I really felt good about the calls that we made," Cameron said, via The Baltimore Sun. "If that was a legit third-and-1, we probably would have run the football or had the chance to. I like the idea of our quarterback having the ball in his hands, five potential receivers and the possibility of him to scramble and improvise versus running the football into two unblocked guys. That was the plan, we didn't execute it. I think that's probably the issue."

STEELERS: Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is upset that he was fined $21,000 by the NFL for his hit on Mark Sanchez, which drew a roughing-the-passer penalty. “What can you do? I was just playing ball,” Timmons told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I lowered my target like you’re supposed to do. I can’t help it if he slides or falls. It’s a tough spot to be in.” The penalty and fine were legitimate because Timmons did launch himself. But, in the end, it was worth it for the Steelers. Before that penalty, Sanchez was 4 of 5 for 80 yards and a touchdown. After that penalty, he was 6 of 22 for 58 yards.
Brandon WeedenJason Miller/Getty ImagesThe Browns made 28-year-old Brandon Weeden the oldest first-round draft selection in NFL history.


BEREA, Ohio -- No one can say whether Brandon Weeden is going to lead the Cleveland Browns from the ranks of the worst teams in the NFL. No one, and this includes Mike Holmgren as well as Pat Shurmur, can declare that Weeden is going to stop the Browns' quarterback carousel that has spanned 16 starters since the city's return to the NFL in 1999.

But, after 40 days and 10 practices with the Browns, there is one assessment of Weeden that everyone can agree upon: The rookie first-round pick has the look of a franchise quarterback.

It only takes one practice to see how Weeden has the size and the arm to live up to that billing. The building excitement with Weeden comes from the fact that his potential extends beyond physical gifts.

He has the comfort level to tell quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple about a couple of red-zone plays he "wasn't a big fan of." He has the courage to throw a deep touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin after nearly getting picked off. He has the confidence to tell reporters about his goal of winning a Super Bowl even before taking a snap in a regular-season game.

While it's way too early to predict Weeden winning championships, he has brought hope to a franchise that has recorded 10 double-digit loss seasons and no playoff victories over the past 13 years. Everyone else in the AFC North went to the postseason last season, and everyone in the division has a franchise quarterback. The only way the Browns can get out of last place is to find one of their own. That's why Weeden is the crucial piece of the Holmgren era in Cleveland.

Browns officials haven't named Weeden the starter because they want him to earn the job. Technically, he's battling Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. Unofficially, the Browns' mandatory minicamp this week has served more as a coronation than a competition.

Weeden took the first snaps with the starting offense throughout Tuesday's practice. He was the quarterback standing at the podium addressing reporters after the workout. He looks like "the guy" in Cleveland, even though Weeden himself refuses to acknowledge it.

"Not yet, just because nothing is formal," Weeden said. "We're still two months out until we play our first preseason game. I'm still working my tail off just to get better and keep learning. I'm getting more comfortable with what we are doing, but I still have a long ways to go."

The most overused term with Weeden is that he's mature. This has become a polite way to say Weeden is old. He'll turn 29 during the season, which makes him the Betty White of rookie quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
David Richard/US PresswireFrom his big arm to his confidence, Brandon Weeden is the picture of the franchise QB the Browns are aching for.
The better description for Weeden is he's grounded. He hasn't been coddled like many first-round quarterbacks. He has tasted failure as a minor-league pitcher (he went 19-26 after being drafted in the same round as Joey Votto) and only became a winning quarterback at Oklahoma State after making the climb from a third-stringer.

Weeden understands what it takes to rebound from struggles, which will serve him well this year. All rookie quarterbacks make mistakes. The successful ones don't crumble from them.

Weeden's resiliency came through Tuesday when a miscommunication with Josh Cribbs led to an interception. He came right back to hit Mohamed Massaquoi on a deep cross pattern.

"I won't make that same mistake again and if I do, shame on me," he said "I think you guys will find I'm pretty even-keeled, but I think my track record shows -- I put that one behind me. They always say, 'Wash your hands and move on.' That's kind of the approach I take, and that comes from baseball. I gave up a lot of home runs in baseball and they're very similar. So you've just got to toe the rubber, you've got to take snaps and move on and make the next play."

Shurmur was reluctant to give any glowing remarks about Weeden on Tuesday. It was kind of a game to watch him turn questions specifically about Weeden into answers that addressed the entire quarterback group.

He was even hesitant to put a timetable on naming the starting quarterback. "I think it's important to do it as quickly as possible," Shurmur said. "But yet, it needs to happen at a pace where the guys here have a chance to compete."

If Weeden's progression since his first practice on May 11 is any indication, he'll be ready to start against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 9.

"I'm leap years farther along right now than I was obviously Day 1, Day 2," Weeden said. "I think even from rookie minicamp, where I'm at right now is that I look like two totally different quarterbacks -- in my footwork, and you can tell I'm processing stuff a little bit faster and I'm not thinking quite as much."

Weeden added, "When you stop thinking so much and you just react and go through your reads one, two, three to your back, that's when you start moving the ball down the field and start getting completions and first downs."

Moving the ball down the field in short chunks isn't Weeden's forte. What stood out about him in Tuesday's practice was the amount of deep shots he took.

"Sometimes in this West Coast offense it can get labeled as an underneath route, catch-and-run route [scheme]," Weeden said, "but any time you can really step into one and let it rip, that's fun."

Weeden is entering the NFL at a time when expectations for rookie quarterbacks are at an all-time high.

Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco led their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons in 2008. Mark Sanchez helped the Jets to the AFC championship as a rookie in 2009. And Cam Newton threw for over 4,000 yards and Andy Dalton went to the Pro Bowl last year.

This doesn't faze a quarterback like Weeden, who has already said he wants to win a Super Bowl before he's done playing.

"We put the pressure on ourselves to win games," Weeden said. "We want to get to the playoffs. We want to take our team as far as we can. That's the way good quarterbacks should think."

That's exactly the way franchise quarterbacks should talk.

The stage is yours, Joe Flacco

January, 18, 2012
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Joe FlaccoKirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireTeammate Ed Reed said Joe Flacco looked "rattled a little bit" in Sunday's win over Houston.


In order for the Ravens to reach the Super Bowl, Joe Flacco has to take them there.

He has to strong-arm Baltimore to victory over New England in Sunday's AFC Championship Game because that's how you beat the Patriots this season. New England has lost three games, and every time, the quarterback has been the deciding factor. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning exploited the AFC's worst defense by throwing for 984 yards (an average of 328 yards passing) and a total of six touchdowns.

So it's time for Flacco to step up in the playoffs. It's time for Flacco to prove he deserves that new contract. It's time for Flacco to quash his critics, as well as a critical teammate.

A feisty Flacco entered the playoffs saying if the Ravens win the Super Bowl, "I'll have nothing to do with why we won, according to you guys."

On Sunday, let's take the chip off the shoulder and put the team on his back -- because that's exactly how this game will play out.

Tom Brady and the Patriots are averaging 32.8 points per game. That means scoring three points in the final three quarters won't cut it in this playoff game.

New England will direct its focus on stopping running back Ray Rice, especially after Bill Belichick plays that 83-yard touchdown run from two years ago about 100 times this week. That means the Patriots are going to force Flacco to beat them.

"We're going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our A-game up there," Flacco said.

There's no question that Flacco is a winner. His 44 victories are the most ever by an NFL starting quarterback in his first four seasons. He's also the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first four years.

But there have been very few "A-games" when it comes to the postseason. In eight playoff games, Flacco has completed 53 percent of passes and has averaged 153.3 yards passing. He's thrown six touchdowns and seven interceptions for a quarterback rating of 31.5.

In last Sunday's 20-13 victory over Houston, Flacco completed 14 of 27 passes (51.9 percent) for 176 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It wasn't just the media that criticized Flacco after this performance. Ravens safety Ed Reed said Flacco "was kind of rattled a little bit" Sunday.



“They had a lot of guys in the box on him and they were giving it to him. I think a couple of times he needed to get rid of the ball. It just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense,” Reed told SiriusXM satellite radio Monday. “I don’t know how much of [that was] the play calling … but it just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense, you know, of times past."

Reed added, "It was just kind of like they [were] telling him [what] to do -- throw the ball or get it here, you know, get it to certain guys.”

Reed believes Flacco needs to improve his play for the Ravens to win at New England.

“He can’t play like that,” Reed said.

It's never a good sign when a teammate is talking about his quarterback this way. Just ask Mark Sanchez.

The Ravens are entering a crucial time, and this goes beyond the current postseason. Baltimore is going to have to make a decision on its level of commitment to Flacco. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said last March that he expects to sign Flacco to a long-term contract extension sometime in 2012. Flacco later responded that he doesn’t think he should have to wait that long.

The problem is, Flacco's statistics say he regressed this season. He completed a career-worst 57.6 percent of his passes. His touchdowns went down, from 25 in 2010 to 20 this season. His interceptions went up, from 10 to 12.

Asked whether it's difficult to measure Flacco's impact by statistics, coach John Harbaugh said: "I've done that many times, and I don't really feel like running down all those things right now. I can just tell you in this last game, he won, and his quarterback rating was 97. That's a winning performance, and Joe -– I told him [Sunday] night -– I thought he played very, very well. In a lot of situations in this game when he was under duress, he handled himself really well. There were plenty of things he'd like to have back and could have done better, and he'd be the first to tell you that. So, you just try to get better, you try to improve and you try to play winning football, no matter what position you play. And that's what we value around here."

The path to this season's playoffs wasn't an easy one for Flacco, who finished 15th in QBR for a reason. He played 12 games against defenses ranked in the top 10, throwing 14 touchdowns and six interceptions in those games.

There's no such excuse when it comes to taking on the Patriots' defense. New England ranked 31st in yards allowed in the regular season and gave up the most passing yards in the AFC.

"A quarterback has to do what his team needs him to do to win, and Joe has done that," Belichick said. "I don’t know how to improve much on 11-5 and 12-4, and they just keep doing it. He's been a solid guy since his rookie year in terms of managing the game and using the clock and making good decisions and those types of things."

A game manager isn't going to get the Ravens past the Patriots on Sunday. Baltimore needs Flacco to play like Brady, not like Trent Dilfer.

New England gave up the most 20-yard passes in the NFL this season: 79, which was eight more than any other defense. Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty has allowed 1,115 yards and six touchdowns this season (according to Stats LLC), and cornerback Kyle Arrington has given up 827 yards and five touchdowns.

It's clear that Flacco has to attack a vulnerable Patriots secondary and help out a Ravens defense facing Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski.

The stage is yours, Joe Flacco.
Haloti Ngata's hit on Jets quarterback Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez caused a fumble that was returned for one of three Ravens defensive touchdowns in the 34-7 win over New York on Sunday night.

Ngata
Ngata
Now, the Baltimore defensive tackle is paying the price for that big play even though no penalty flag was thrown.

Ngata was fined fined $15,000 by the NFL for roughing the passer, a league spokesman said Friday. "Specifically, on a pass play, he lowered his head and struck the opposing quarterback," the spokesman wrote in an email.

This is the third reported fine in Ngata's six-year career. He was fined $5,000 in November 2007 for throwing a punch at the head of Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, and he was fined $15,000 last season after breaking the nose of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Ray LewisPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesRay Lewis and the Ravens' defense limited the Jets to only seven first downs and 150 yards of offense.
BALTIMORE -- The scariest part about the Baltimore Ravens' defense is that it doesn't fear anything.

The Ravens aren't afraid of blitzing on every play. They're not afraid of sending a safety or a nickelback after the quarterback. They're not afraid of leaving a cornerback one-on-one with a receiver.

After a couple of years of playing it safe, the Baltimore defense showed a national television audience and its former boss that the Ravens haven't just dusted off their old, aggressive game plan. They've expanded it.

Three defensive touchdowns in the Ravens' 34-17 victory over the New York Jets at M&T Bank Stadium came as the result of relentless pressure. Past Baltimore defenses prided themselves on leading the NFL in fewest yards given up or setting the record for fewest points allowed.

This Baltimore defense wants turnovers, and wants to turn them into touchdowns. The Ravens' defense outscored the Jets' offense 21-3. Actually, Baltimore's defense outscored its own offense.

So, how great can this defense become?

"We can be special," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It all depends on where we go from here."

Defenses in Baltimore are defined by championships, which means there is a ways to go before you can rank this group. All you can say is that Baltimore is on the right path.

The Ravens are relentless, and it started with the defense's first snap. Baltimore safety Ed Reed came unblocked and stripped Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez from the blind side, which led to Jameel McClain's 6-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

In the second quarter, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata crashed into Sanchez's back, forcing the ball loose and leading to a 26-yard fumble return by Jarret Johnson. In the third quarter, Suggs' pressure caused Sanchez to hurry a throw to the outside, where cornerback Lardarius Webb jumped in front of Santonio Holmes and ran back the interception 73 yards for a touchdown.

"It reminded me of the 2000 and 2006 defenses," said Jets coach Rex Ryan, who was on the Ravens' staff for both of those defenses. "They were coming after us."

This defense, though, accomplished something the defenses in 2000 (which set the NFL record for fewest points) and 2006 (which is the only Ravens defense that finished No. 1 in a season) never did -- score three touchdowns in one game. The 2000 team won Super Bowl XXXV.

It didn't matter that the special teams allowed a 107-yard kickoff return or that quarterback Joe Flacco had an interception returned for a score. What made the Baltimore defense's effort amazing was how it carried the team.

In 2000, the Ravens' defense remained strong through a five-game touchdown drought. On Sunday night, the defense didn't bend despite a 35½-minute drought for Flacco, who didn't complete a pass in the second or third quarters.

With the Ravens holding a 28-17 lead in the third quarter, Flacco fumbled to give the ball to the Jets at the Baltimore 27-yard line. On the next play, Webb once again showed there was no panic on defense when he delivered his interception return for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireThe Ravens were able to pressure Mark Sanchez all night and forced the Jets to cough up three fumbles.
"Any defense that can create turnovers and score touchdowns is pretty much unstoppable," Ngata said.

This is a drastically different look from last season, when the Ravens had a more conservative approach under defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. They didn't give up many points (third-fewest in the NFL). But they didn't put much pressure on the quarterback (the 27 sacks were a franchise low).

When Mattison left to become the defensive coordinator at the University of Michigan, Baltimore promoted secondary coach Chuck Pagano, who said the Ravens would "wreak havoc" in his first news conference.

He has lived up to those words, especially against the Jets. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens blitzed at least one defensive back on 13 of Sanchez's 38 drop-backs. Only twice this season had a quarterback taken more snaps against blitzing defensive backs (Jay Cutler and Sam Bradford, both in Week 2).

Those blitzes resulted in nearly as many turnovers (two) as completions (three).

"He's not afraid of anything," linebacker Ray Lewis said of Pagano.

The real fear must be for quarterbacks when they watch the Ravens' defense get announced before the game. You get the sense that's what pitchers must have felt when they went against the Yankees' Murderers' Row in 1927. Out of the Ravens' tunnel comes Ngata. Then Suggs. Then Reed. And of course, Lewis.

What must quarterbacks think when they watch film of the Ravens hammering Sanchez, Ben Roethlisberger and Bradford?

"Get the ball out quick or you’re going to get hit," Suggs said with a laugh.

But quarterbacks aren't getting the ball out quickly enough. Last week in St. Louis, Baltimore recorded 11 quarterback hits. On Sunday night, 10 quarterback hits were delivered by seven Ravens players.

The performance was more special because it was against Ryan, the Ravens' defensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008.

"He created us," Johnson said. "Now he had to deal with us."

Baltimore's defense could become stronger after this week's bye with the return of two injured cornerbacks, rookie first-round pick Jimmy Smith and veteran Chris Carr.

"I do sense something special with this defense and with this team," Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said. "I think there’s a spirit in this team that’s hard to describe and I wish I could put it into words for you. I saw it the first day the guys came back. We’ll see where it takes us."

Note: Harbaugh handed out game balls to Pagano; O.J. Brigance, the team's director of player development who celebrated his birthday last week while still battling ALS; and Pat Modell, the wife of former majority owner Art Modell. Pat Modell is seriously ill.


Leading Questions: AFC North

February, 23, 2011
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each AFC North team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Should the Cincinnati Bengals give into Carson Palmer’s trade demands?

After eight underachieving seasons in Cincinnati, Palmer wants out and everyone from his agent to teammates to his realtor believe Palmer is absolutely serious. So how should the Bengals handle this situation?

Cincinnati is consistently one of the NFL's more downtrodden franchises and has been through this before. In the past, players such as Takeo Spikes, Corey Dillon and Chad Ochocinco have expressed the desire to get out of Cincinnati and couldn't leave on their terms.

But Palmer's situation is different for two reasons. First, he's the franchise quarterback, the most important player on the team. Second, he's threatened to retire if he's not traded, which is something Spikes, Dillon and Ochocinco never did. These two factors up the ante tremendously in terms of putting pressure on the Bengals.

If Palmer, 31, holds firm on his demands, that leaves Dan LeFevour and Jordan Palmer as the other quarterbacks on Cincinnati's roster. The Bengals cannot start the 2011 season with either of those players under center. As more time goes by with uncertainty, it becomes more likely the Bengals must do something to get quarterback help in the draft or free agency.

In my opinion, the Bengals should trade Palmer while they can still get decent value for him. Cincinnati will be rebuilding for the next two years anyway -- with or without Palmer -- and there are plenty of teams in need of a good quarterback.

But the Bengals are standing their ground, hoping Palmer will have a change of heart. That's a dangerous assumption with free agency potentially starting next month and the NFL draft coming in April.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Are concerns about Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco legit?

As we continue the subject of quarterbacks, we move over to Baltimore. Flacco is getting drilled this offseason by media and fans for not leading the Ravens past the divisional round. Baltimore entered last season as a Super Bowl favorite and by those standards the team -- and particularly the offense -- underachieved.

Now people are starting to doubt Flacco. He has struggled in the playoffs, recording just one passer rating above 90.0 in seven career postseason games. It's no secret an organization is tied into the success and development of its quarterback. But are the expectations of Flacco, in his third season, too high too soon? The answer is, yes.

Flacco has become a victim of his own early success. He advanced to the AFC title game as a rookie and has had expectations of getting to the Super Bowl thrust upon him since.

Last season, Flacco set career-highs in passing yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (93.6) for the Ravens (12-4). But it's the second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that stands out in most people's mind.

Flacco likely must get past rival quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh for the Ravens to take that next step. But there is no shame in losing to the eventual AFC champions in the postseason.

Young quarterbacks such as Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman are viewed in a much more favorable light in their cities. Flacco has had as much career success and put up equal or better numbers than all of them. He deserves a break.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

What will the Steelers do at cornerback?

As their Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers proved, the Steelers must add quality depth in the secondary. The Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints provide the blueprint of how to beat Pittsburgh's vaunted defense: spread the Steelers out with multiple receivers.

The Steelers simply don't have enough good cornerbacks to defend three- and four-receiver sets. This also takes Pittsburgh's strongest players-- its linebackers -- off the field in favor of players such as William Gay and Anthony Madison.

Now that linebacker LaMarr Woodley received the franchise tag, veteran cornerback and pending free agent Ike Taylor is Pittsburgh's No. 1 priority. Taylor is Pittsburgh's best corner, but he's also 31 and the Steelers must gauge how much money and how many years to give to him.

The draft will also be important. Previous draft picks at corner such as Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett and Crezdon Butler have not panned out for the Steelers, who typically address this position in the middle rounds. It's time Pittsburgh invests a high draft pick at this position to increase the probability of finding a future starter.

Do not be surprised if Pittsburgh retains Taylor in free agency and spends its first- or second-round pick on a cornerback in April to fix this issue.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Are the Cleveland Browns fine without an offensive coordinator?

Pat Shurmur of the Browns has a lot on his plate this year. Not only is he a first-time head coach, but Shurmur is also taking over the role as offensive coordinator in his first season with Cleveland.

Is this a good idea?

After a brief search, the Browns decided to leave the position vacant. Shurmur is a former offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and didn't want to give up those responsibilities after becoming a head coach.

A head coach's first responsibility is to manage all 53 players. But Shurmur clearly will give more special attention to his players on offense. That's a major reason the Browns hired experienced defensive coaches such as Dick Jauron and Ray Rhodes to manage the other side of the football.

President Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert have both done a good job so far in Cleveland. But I have reservations about creating this type of setup with a rookie head coach on a rebuilding team.

Steelers and Ravens mailbag

February, 15, 2011
2/15/11
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Let's answer some questions about the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.

Ken from Washington, D.C., writes: Do you believe secondary help now becomes the biggest hole to fill for the Steelers?

James Walker: Ken, it depends on what happens with pending free agent Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh's No. 1 cornerback. If the Steelers do not re-sign Taylor to a long-term extension, then cornerback is definitely Pittsburgh’s biggest need. If the team keeps Taylor, who will be 31 in May, then it’s close between the secondary and offensive line. The Steelers also could bolster their guard and tackle positions this offseason.

Brian Kroskey from Sacramento, Calif., writes: Do you think it's likely that the Steelers will draft Mike Pouncey, Maurkice Pouncey's twin brother?

Walker: Mike Pouncey would be a good fit for the Steelers at guard, Brian. But most early projections have him rated higher than Pittsburgh’s No. 31 pick. Barring a trade, I don’t see it happening. But the Steelers have traded up in the first round before.

Dave from Birmingham, Ala., writes: Any information on the physical status of the Steelers two injured OTs Willie Colon and Max Starks?

Walker: Both players are doing well, Dave. I talked to Starks before the Super Bowl and he actually felt he was healthy enough to play in the Super Bowl if he wasn’t already placed on injured reserve. Colon is getting healthy, as well. But he’s a free agent and the Steelers have to decide if they want to bring him back.



Dennis Neal from Baltimore writes: Why must you crush our dream of having both Haloti Ngata and Nnamdi Asomugha with the Ravens?

Walker: The AFC North blog isn't the place for pipe dreams, Dennis. The Ravens cannot make Ngata the NFL's highest-paid defensive lineman and Asomugha the NFL's highest-paid corner in the same offseason. It's just not realistic. But that doesn't mean Baltimore can't pursue more affordable options like Johnathan Joseph and Champ Bailey. I think either corner would be a great acquisition.

Kurt Pfeiffer from West Chester, Pa., wants to know if he should be concerned about Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

Walker: Don't expect me to get in on the bashing Flacco bandwagon this offseason, Kurt. I think Flacco is a good, young quarterback who’s become a target for his early success. Young quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan are heroes in New York and Atlanta, respectively. Yet Flacco has done equal or more in his three seasons in terms of winning and statistics and is being criticized for falling short of this season's high expectations. It's up to Flacco to continue to show growth in his fourth season, but I think he's ahead of many young quarterbacks.

Greg from Baltimore wants to know if the Ravens will retain Donte' Stallworth instead of drafting a speedy receiver.

Walker: I think there is a decent chance, Greg. The Ravens have met with agent Drew Rosenhaus to discuss Stallworth, Jared Gaither and some other players. Stallworth made a very good impression in Baltimore's locker room and won the Ed Block Courage Award this season for overcoming his personal hardships. I think his injury to start the season set him back in terms of production and finding a role. But either way, I anticipate Baltimore looking at speedy receivers in the draft.

LaMarr Woodley peaks in the postseason

January, 29, 2011
1/29/11
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WoodleyAl Bello/Getty ImagesLaMarr Woodley has 10 career sacks in the postseason.
PITTSBURGH -- Of all the great pass-rushers in NFL history, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley stands alone in one important category.

In the AFC Championship Game victory over the New York Jets, Woodley became the first player to record at least one sack in his first six playoff games. It's a feat even Lawrence Taylor would envy. Woodley also holds the NFL record with 10 sacks over that same postseason span.

On Feb. 6 Woodley will try to extend his historic streak in Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers. Pressuring Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be vital, and based on Woodley's postseason track record, he will be a disruptive force.

"If you compare his first eight games to his second eight, that's usually when he explodes ... and I think that just rolls over to the playoffs," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "He's a big-game player."

"It's just a habit and it comes second nature to him," teammate Ziggy Hood said of Woodley's postseason play. "He's a relentless player and he deserves everything that he gets."

This will be Woodley's second Super Bowl appearance. In Super Bowl XLIII, he sacked quarterback Kurt Warner twice in a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers are 5-1 in postseason games when Woodley records a sack.

Consistency has been the key to Woodley's success. This season he joined fellow outside linebacker James Harrison as the only two Steelers to record double-digit sacks in three consecutive seasons.

In the AFC title game, Woodley sacked Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in Pittsburgh's 24-19 win, despite being shut out in the first meeting between the teams in Week 15.

"It's either win or go home," Woodley said of his playoff mentality. "If they thought their tackles did a great job [in the regular season], well, let's see if your tackles do a great job when it really counts. And it seems like when it really counts, we’re going to show up."

It's been an interesting year for Woodley, who didn't get a contract extension with the Steelers this past offseason and is due to become one of the league's prized free agents after the Super Bowl.

The 26-year-old was one of the NFL's best bargains, making just $550,000 in the final year of his rookie deal. Woodley filled up the stat sheet and started all 18 games, including playoffs, and recorded 57 tackles, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and one pick returned for a touchdown. The Steelers also led the league in run defense and sacks and were second in total yards allowed.

The Steelers are expected to make re-signing Woodley their biggest priority. He's said and done all the right things by not holding out, never complaining about his contract and performing well on the field.

"If I'm going into this season worried about my contract, I'm not focusing on going to the Super Bowl and I'm not focused on this team," Woodley explained. "I would be selfish to think about myself and this contract situation and not focus on this team. I got guys on this team counting on me to play my best, and I'm not going to let them down."

Woodley is from Detroit but wasn't a Lions fan. The linebacker said he grew up rooting for the Dallas Cowboys -- often regarded as America's Team -- until he was 11 or 12 years old.

After that Woodley became a fan of fellow Detroit native Jerome Bettis and the Steelers, who later drafted Woodley in 2007 out of the University of Michigan. Woodley said he even wore a No. 36 jersey and played some fullback while in middle school. He missed being Bettis' teammate by two years -- the Hall of Fame finalist retired after Super Bowl XL at Ford Field.

Next week Woodley can write his own Super Bowl script wearing the jersey of one of his childhood teams (Steelers) and playing in the stadium of another (Cowboys). Woodley has a chance to extend his sack record to seven consecutive playoff games while going for his second championship in three seasons.

"It would be nice," Woodley said. "But if my streak stops, as long as we win, that's what it's all about at the end of the day."

Jets-Steelers halftime notes

January, 23, 2011
1/23/11
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers lead the Jets 24-3 at halftime.

Here are some notes at intermission:
  • The star of the first half for Pittsburgh has been starting tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Coming off a solid, 99-yard rushing performance in the first meeting between the Steelers and Jets, Mendenhall has run through and around New York already in the first half with 95 rushing yards and a touchdown. He's keeping his legs moving and breaking a lot of tackles. The offensive line also is playing tremendous football in the first half.
  • Speaking of the offensive line, Pittsburgh had a big injury in the first quarter when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey hurt his ankle. His leg was rolled on and he was carted to the back. The Steelers listed his return as questionable. But most likely backup center Doug Legursky will keep the job for the rest of the game.
  • Pittsburgh's defense is doing a great job of stuffing the run and forcing the Jets into third-and-long situations. New York has 1 yard rushing in the first half (not a misprint). That's forced Jets second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez into some tough situations where he hasn't been able to bail out his offense. Sanchez has just thrown for just 63 yards. He also fumbled during a sack by Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, which was recovered by Pittsburgh's William Gay and returned 19 yards for a touchdown.
  • Steelers receiver Hines Ward has now caught a pass in 16 straight playoff games, which is one postseason game shy of the team record held by Hall of Famer John Stallworth (17). Ward has two receptions for 14 yards in the first half.

Final Word: AFC Championship

January, 21, 2011
1/21/11
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Conference Championship Final Word: Jets-Steelers | Bears-Packers

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Jets-Steelers AFC Championship Game:

[+] EnlargeHeath Miller
AP Photo/Don WrightHeath Miller's ability to exploit matchups with linebackers could be key in Sunday's game.
Heath returns: A big missing component on offense for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their Week 15 loss to the New York Jets was starting tight end Heath Miller. He was out with a concussion and is one of Pittsburgh's most underrated players. Miller made the Pro Bowl last year and is very good in the running game and passing game. New York's strength is its two cornerbacks, so Miller must win the battle against Jets linebackers and safeties. He led the Steelers with five receptions in last week's divisional-round victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

Rookie contributions: Pittsburgh is getting a tremendous boost from its rookie class, particularly in the second half of the season. First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey made his first Pro Bowl as a rookie, and first-year receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown continue to make big plays in the passing game. Sanders, a third-round pick, caught four passes for 54 yards in his playoff debut. Brown, a sixth-round pick, caught three passes for 75 yards, which included a 58-yard reception late in the fourth quarter to set up Pittsburgh's winning touchdown against Baltimore. "To expect rookies to contribute and do the things that they do is a tall order," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said this week. "But I think the extra time and effort they've put in speaks volumes of why they've been able to do it."

Stuffing the run: Pittsburgh's run defense was by far No. 1 in the league during the regular season, allowing just 62.8 yards per game. But the Jets were able to rush for 106 yards against Pittsburgh in Week 15. Expect that to be a major focal point for the Steelers in this rematch. Pittsburgh wants to make New York one-dimensional and force the Jets to throw the ball more than they want with second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Ravens averaged just 1.9 yards per carry in the divisional round, which helped lead to quarterback Joe Flacco getting sacked five times. The Steelers want to get similar pressure on Sanchez.

Is Suisham ready? Lost in Pittsburgh's postseason run is the fact that kicker Shaun Suisham has struggled lately. Suisham joined the Steelers in Week 11 and made his first 10 field goals. But he has missed kicks in two of his past three games, including a 43-yard attempt at the end of the first half against Baltimore that could've been costly. Suisham must be ready to make the big kick if needed Sunday at Heinz Field, which is a very tough place to kick in January.

Heinz Field advantage: Speaking of Heinz Field, the Steelers caught a break last week with New York's upset over the top-seeded New England Patriots. That forced the road to the Super Bowl to travel through Pittsburgh. The Steelers haven't been their usual selves at Heinz Field, losing three times after going 6-2, 6-2 and 7-1 there the previous three seasons. Heinz Field was rocking last week and players credited the wild atmosphere for their second-half dominance against Baltimore.
Will the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense do a better job in the rematch of pressuring New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez?

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers led the NFL in sacks this season with 48. But one of the few off weeks when they were nearly shut out in that category was Week 15, when they lost to the Jets.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPressuring Jets QB Mark Sanchez will be crucial for Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.
Expect pressure to be a key component for Pittsburgh in the rematch with New York in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. The Steelers recorded just one sack against second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez in a 22-17 defeat in the first meeting.

Sanchez threw for only 170 yards and had a rushing touchdown. But he had great pass protection, throwing 29 times and only getting sacked once in addition to two quarterback hits.

"I don't think our pressures were as well as they could've been," said Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior, who was the only Steeler to record a sack in the first meeting. "That's going to be the key to this game -- getting pressure on [Sanchez], forcing him in third-and-long situations and making him win the game."

In the regular season, Sanchez used a short passing game and got rid of the ball quickly to avoid Pittsburgh's blitz packages. It was similar to the approach the Jets' AFC East rival -- the New England Patriots -- used to defeat the Steelers in Week 10.

Without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles, calf) in the regular-season meeting, Pittsburgh's blitzes were more predictable. Look for Polamalu to help the Steelers mix up their pressures and potentially confuse Sanchez. Pittsburgh was effective in that regard last week against Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who was sacked five times and threw for just 125 yards.

An early lead will be key for both teams. If the Jets score early, they would like to use a ball-control offense, which focuses heavily on their running game and allows Sanchez to make short, safe passes. If the Steelers get a sizable lead, Sanchez will be forced to drop back and try to win the game through the air, which plays right into Pittsburgh's blitzing defense.

Double Coverage: Jets at Steelers II

January, 19, 2011
1/19/11
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Troy Polamalu, Darrell RevisGetty ImagesThe AFC Championship Game should be a hard-fought grudge match featuring two of the league's best defenses, led by Troy Polamalu and Darrelle Revis.
We have an AFC East versus AFC North showdown at Heinz Field to determine who will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLV. The New York Jets (13-5) will visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) in a rematch of the Jets' 22-17 victory in Week 15.

But this time we're going to narrow our focus to the heart and soul of both teams: the defense. That is what brought the Jets and Steelers this far. The better defense Sunday likely will make the difference in the AFC Championship Game.

So which defense has the best chance to dominate? ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break it down.

James Walker: I like the fact that both of these defenses attack first and often can dictate to the opposing offenses the tempo of the game. But when you start comparing the two teams by the numbers, New York's defense doesn't stack up to Pittsburgh's. The Steelers have the advantage over the Jets in every major statistical regular-season category, including average total yards allowed (276.8 to 291.5), points allowed (14.5 to 19), total sacks (48 to 40) and forced turnovers (35 to 30). Pittsburgh's run defense also was fifth best all-time since the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966, allowing just 62.8 yards per game. The Jets allowed an average of 90.9 rushing yards per game. New York also gave up 72 more points than Pittsburgh in the regular season. And based on their average, that's about five games' worth of points for the Steelers. If you want to compare current numbers in the playoffs, the Steelers are also No. 1 in postseason defense, allowing just 126 total yards in a divisional win over Baltimore. The Jets played in two playoff games and are not in the top six. New York has allowed an average of 342 total yards in the postseason, which is a very big discrepancy of 216 total yards per game.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets head coach Rex Ryan
AP Photo/Tom E. PuskarNew York Jets head coach Rex Ryan disrupted Hall of Fame quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks.
Tim Graham: No, I don't want to compare postseason stats because the Steelers have played one game at home against a wild-card team. The Jets have played two road games against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and snuffed them both -- in two of the most intimidating stadiums for a visitor to escape in any sport. What the Jets have done the past two weeks would be a remarkable feat even for the "Steel Curtain." The Jets held Peyton Manning to 16 points and made inevitable MVP Tom Brady appear lost. The Patriots scored 21 points, but the last touchdown came against the Jets' prevent defense in garbage time. But even more significant? The Jets won in Pittsburgh five weeks ago. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took his shots against the Jets and posted a passer rating almost 20 points lower than his season average. The Jets forced more fumbles than the Steelers that night, had more sacks and even recorded a safety. As for that sterling run defense ranking you quoted, in that contest the Jets' running game surpassed the Steelers' average by 44 yards -- an increase of 59 percent.

JW: If you want to throw away the Jets' postseason statistics, then Pittsburgh's superior regular-season numbers over 16 games still apply. There is no way to ignore both, Tim, because Pittsburgh's defense was better no matter how you cut it. In terms of Week 15, I think you're conveniently leaving out that the game was won on special teams. Brad Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was the difference. The Steelers' defense allowed just one touchdown, while Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's offense 17-13. The Steelers also racked up 377 yards against the Jets' defense, which is worse than the 342-yard postseason average I mentioned earlier. In terms of which defense can dominate the AFC title game, you have to take into account the offenses these two teams are facing. There is zero debate that Roethlisberger is a superior quarterback to New York's Mark Sanchez. In fact, if I were ranking the four remaining playoff quarterbacks, Sanchez would be dead last behind Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and even Jay Cutler. Credit Sanchez for having some success against the Colts and Patriots, but those defenses were ranked in the 20s this season. Even Jets linebacker Bart Scott admitted New England's defense "couldn't stop a nosebleed," and he's right. Sanchez has yet to face a defense in the playoffs like Pittsburgh's once it's at full strength with a healthy Troy Polamalu, who missed the first meeting. Sanchez threw for just 170 yards in Week 15, and even then Polamalu’s absence limited what Pittsburgh could do defensively. The Pro Bowl safety makes a huge difference in coverage, stopping the run and freeing up others to pressure the quarterback. The "Polamalu factor" cannot be overlooked with the Steelers' defense, and I think he's going to be a huge headache for Sanchez, especially since Sanchez didn’t get to face Polamalu in the first meeting.

TG: I didn't ignore either the Jets' regular-season or postseason statistics. We simply cannot compare the Jets' postseason numbers to the Steelers'. The sample size is too small, they haven't played the same number of games, and they've played a different caliber of opponent so far in the tournament. The Jets were road underdogs for both of their games, while the Steelers were a home favorite coming off a bye week. You cannot compare them that way. It's apples and grapefruits. You're right when you say Sanchez has yet to face a defense like the Steelers' with Polamalu on the field. But Polamalu didn't exactly look like a superstar against the Ravens -- two tackles, no passes defensed and a whiffed tackle or two. I'll grant that nobody can expect Polamalu to have two straight subpar games, but he just showed there are no guarantees he's going to take over Sunday's game. Maybe the injury is hampering him. But let me ask you: How is Roethlisberger going to solve a mystifying, multilook defense that Manning and Brady couldn't master in the past two weeks? Oh, and one Roethlisberger couldn't defeat five weeks ago? And if you're thinking about replying with "He's had five weeks to figure it out," remember that Brady had no idea what he was looking at last Sunday, and he played the Jets twice this year.

JW: Roethlisberger threw for 264 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Jets and the offense notched 25 first downs, compared to New York's 17. Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall led the game in rushing with 99 yards, one touchdown and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. It's safe to say the Steelers were not mystified in the first meeting after gaining 377 total yards of offense. If anything, I think the Jets' defense needs to make more adjustments to stop what Pittsburgh's offense was able to do well in Week 15. Roethlisberger has played against Rex Ryan's defenses plenty of times when Ryan was the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. This will have the familiarity of a division game for Roethlisberger, where Sanchez is seeing Dick LeBeau's defense for only the second time in his entire career and the first time with Polamalu in the lineup, which is a huge difference. Plus, here is the key advantage Roethlisberger has over Manning and Brady: Pittsburgh's elite defense. The Colts and Patriots need their quarterbacks to play lights out and take more risks to beat the Jets because they have shoddy defenses. This game isn't nearly as much on Roethlisberger's shoulders. He can simply play sound, complementary football with the Steel Curtain defense, which will do much better holding down the Jets' offense compared to New York's previous two playoff opponents.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger averaged just 6 yards per attempt in Week 15 versus the Jets.
TG: If the roles were reversed on this debate and I were asked to state a case for the Steelers' defense, the first words I would've written would be "Troy" and "Polamalu," and then I would have made the point that the last time the Jets played the Steelers, the Jets' offense scored one touchdown -- a fourth-down Sanchez bootleg that totally fooled the Steelers' defense. The rest was a kickoff return for a touchdown, a safety and some field goals. One touchdown surrendered would seem to support the Steelers, right? Well, it does. I'm guessing you hadn't gotten around to making that point yet. But that fact also goes to show that a dominant defense doesn't mean a team will win. The Jets did surrender more yardage, but you omitted that the Jets ran 15 fewer offensive plays and spent the fourth quarter in a prevent defense, giving the Steelers the entire middle of the field. The Steelers had the better defense in terms of yardage and still lost because the Jets' defense kept them out of the end zone when it counted. Last time I checked, a game never has been decided by yardage or league rankings.

JW: Tim, I really appreciate you repeating my points from earlier about the "Polamalu factor," the Steelers allowing just one touchdown and New York winning the first meeting via special teams on Smith's 97-yard kickoff return. I think you're finally seeing things my way. At this stage of the season the old saying still applies that "Defense wins championships." That is why both teams are here. Since the Steelers have the better defense in the regular season, the better defense in their previous meeting and the better defense in the playoffs, it's safe to say Pittsburgh's defense will be better on Sunday -- and that will be the difference in the Steelers advancing to their third Super Bowl in six seasons.

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