AFC North: Matt Schaub

Quick Take: Bengals at Texans

December, 30, 2012
Five things to know about next weekend's Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans wild-card game at Reliant Stadium:

1. Another streak to end. The Bengals, who earned back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since 1981-82, can stop another dubious streak. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since Jan. 6, 1991. It was so long ago that the Bengals beat Houston when the city had the Oilers. The 21 seasons without a postseason victory is the longest current drought in the NFL. The Bengals have been to the playoffs three times since then and have been bounced in their first postseason game, including last season's 31-10 loss at Houston. Cincinnati is hoping the rematch will be different this time around considering where the teams have been headed. The Texans (12-4) have lost three of their last four games, and the Bengals (10-6) have won seven of their past eight.

2. Andy Dalton has to limit turnovers. The play that stands out from last season's playoff loss in Houston was Dalton's pass getting picked off at the line of scrimmage by J.J. Watt, who returned it for a touchdown just before halftime. That trend continued this season for Dalton, who has had four interceptions returned for touchdowns. Dalton turned the ball over 20 times in the first 15 games this season and nearly had a fumble Sunday (it was overturned on replay) in one half of work. The Texans have 29 takeaways this season, which ranks among the best in the AFC. Nine players on the Texans have intercepted passes this season. The pressure will really be on Dalton if running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis' injury is significant. His hamstring tightened in pregame warmups, which forced him to sit out the regular-season finale.

3. Sizzling defense against fizzling offense. There is not a defense in the league playing better than that of the Bengals. The Cincinnati defense has scored touchdowns the past three weeks, including returning two interceptions for scores. The Bengals have held opponents to 12.8 points over the past eight games. The Texans, meanwhile, have gone cold offensively. Houston has scored one touchdown in its last 10 quarters.

4. Applying the pressure. A big key will be how much pressure the Bengals' front four can apply on quarterback Matt Schaub. Led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks) and defensive end Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks), the Bengals set a team record with 51 sacks this season. Schaub has only been sacked 27 times this season, but 10 have come in the past three games.

5. Going deep. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green has become one of the top deep threats in the NFL. Look for Cincinnati to take advantage of a Houston secondary that has been reeling recently. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Texans have allowed opponents to complete 60 percent of passes that go 30 yards or more downfield. That includes six touchdowns over their last seven games, which is the most in the league since Week 11.
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.

Quick Take: Texans at Ravens

January, 7, 2012
Three things to know about next Sunday's Houston Texans-Baltimore Ravens divisional game:

1. Tough against the run. The second-seeded Ravens (12-4) know the third-seeded Texans (11-6) will run the ball after Houston handed it off 59 percent of the time against the Bengals in today's wild-card game. Baltimore has a strong history of shutting down the run, and this season was no different. The Ravens finished ranked No. 2 in run defense, giving up 92.6 yards on the ground. Only five defenses allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than Baltimore this season. In the previous meeting with the Texans this season, the Ravens limited Houston to 93 yards rushing and held Arian Foster to 3.3 yards per carry.

2. Pass protection will be a major factor. One of the reasons why the Texans beat the Bengals was their ability to pressure the quarterback and protect their own. After giving up seven sacks in San Diego, Baltimore allowed just two sacks of Joe Flacco over the final two games of the regular season. In the previous meeting, the Ravens shut out Connor Barwin, Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt. On defense, the Ravens led the AFC with 48 sacks and need to get more pressure on Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates than the Bengals did. Baltimore sacked Matt Schaub four times when the Ravens beat Houston on Oct. 16.

3. Dominant at home. The Ravens put themselves in position to host a playoff game for the first time in five years by going undefeated at home for the first time in their 16-year existence. Baltimore roughed up teams at M&T Bank Stadium, where it won by double digits five times this season. One of those times was a 29-14 victory over the Texans when they had Schaub at quarterback. The Ravens have won 10 consecutive games at M&T Bank Stadium, the second-longest current home win streak in the NFL.

PITTSBURGH -- Thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers game:

What it means: The Steelers ambushed the Bengals to make this a two-team race for the AFC North title. At the very least, Pittsburgh (9-3) will remain tied with the Ravens atop the division and will take a one-game lead if Baltimore loses at Cleveland on Sunday. The Bengals (7-5) essentially fall three games back of the Steelers because of the season sweep, and would only lose hold of the No. 6 seed if the Broncos win. Cincinnati's previous four losses were by a total of 21 points.

"Special" victory: Pittsburgh rolled out to a 28-7 halftime lead with superior special-teams play. First-round pick Cameron Heyward blocked a Bengals field goal attempt on Cincinnati's opening drive. Stevenson Sylvester forced Brandon Tate to fumble on a kickoff return in the second quarter, which led to a touchdown. And Antonio Brown's 60-yard punt return for a touchdown -- he didn't get touched on the runback -- put the Steelers up by 21 points.

Harrison heating up: Pittsburgh outside linebacker James Harrison recorded three sacks for the second time in four games. The Steelers needed Harrison to step up because LaMarr Woodley left in the first half after re-injuring his hamstring.

Roethlisberger rebounds: Coming off a season-low in passing yards last Sunday, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 15 of 23 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating was 117.3, the fourth time it has surpassed 100 this season. The fractured right thumb doesn't seem to be a problem for Roethlisberger, who was allowed to rest for the final 10 minutes of the game because of the rout.

Flag day for Bengals: Cincinnati committed 10 penalties for 109 yards, and some of them were costly. A.J. Green's false start penalty took away a touchdown on the Bengals' opening drive, and a delay of game then negated a successful field goal. This looked like the Bengals from 2010, not 2011.

What's next: The Steelers have a quick turnaround, playing the last-place Browns on Thursday night at Heinz Field. The Bengals return home Sunday to face the Houston Texans, who lost their top two quarterbacks (Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart) to injuries in November.

Rough start for Browns ... again

November, 6, 2011
The Browns have been saying for weeks that they need to get off to faster starts. Well, there's always next week.

Cleveland is down 14-0 eight minutes into the game at Houston. After Cleveland allowed a 27-yard touchdown to Texans running back Ben Tate, Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya fumbled on his first carry. Houston converted that turnover into a 2-yard quarterback keeper by Matt Schaub.

Can't blame this one on Colt McCoy. The Browns have now been outscored 58-3 in the first quarter this season. Cleveland has been out gained 110-1 after the Texans' second touchdown.

Ravens discover knockout blow

October, 16, 2011
Ray LewisLarry French/Getty ImagesRay Lewis said blowing a big lead last season against Houston had the Ravens fired up Sunday.

BALTIMORE -- Just like last year, the Ravens have rolled out to a 4-1 start. But let's make it clear: This Baltimore team isn't like the one last year.

The 2011 Ravens are aggressive. They're fearless. And, as linebacker Ray Lewis puts it, they're ticked off.

Baltimore's 29-14 victory over the Houston Texans is further evidence that the Ravens have found that second-half knockout blow. The Ravens just don't beat teams this year. They finish them.

Joe Flacco was in attack mode, constantly looking to hit the deep throw. Ray Rice broke tackles and made the Texans look tired. And the defense dug in for the fourth quarter, shutting out Houston for the final 22 1/2 minutes.

"To have to come out and really win the fourth quarter in that kind of fashion is a huge statement," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said.

The Ravens have done this all season, outscoring teams 26-6 in the fourth quarter. It's a major turnaround from last year, when that was the soft spot for Harbaugh's team.

A year ago, Baltimore surrendered nine leads in the fourth quarter, including three that were double-digit ones. The Ravens allowed 119 points in the final quarter last season, the second-most in team history.

The reason why the Ravens struggled to finish off teams in 2010 was their conservative style. The offense went into a shut-down mode, and the defense went into a prevent one.

No one can describe the Ravens as going into cruise control. After Baltimore fell behind 14-13 midway through the third quarter, Flacco found rookie Torrey Smith for passes of 19 and 51 yards on back-to-back plays. That led to a Billy Cundiff 25-yard field goal, putting the Ravens back up 16-14.

The Ravens could've played it safe after turning the ball over twice already (Flacco had a fumble and interception), but they didn't. The next time the offense got onto the field, Flacco's first pass was a perfectly thrown 56-yard pass that went beyond the reach of cornerback Johnathan Joseph and into the hands of Anquan Boldin. That turned into another field goal as the Ravens extended the margin to 19-14 early in the fourth quarter.

None of the Ravens would say it, but Baltimore didn't take those shots last year. It wasn't easy to call them in this game, either. Flacco took some staggering hits and the deep throws only exposed him more. He had to look at the stadium's video screen to see if he completed the long pass to Boldin because the Texans had dropped him to the ground.

Still, there's no reward without a little risk, right?

"We're not trying to hang on to win games," Flacco said. "We're going after it. We're saying: 'This is how we're going to win football games.' We're going to continue to attack teams and try to put points on the board to make it not a close game. I think at times, we can rely on our defense a little bit and try to let them close out games. I think the main thing to do in this league is put teams away when you can. That has to be done offensively. So, that's where our mindset is."

The change in the way the Ravens finish games comes from the fact that the Ravens are willing to change.

On the final play of the third quarter, Rice was stopped for a 5-yard loss on first-and-goal from the 10-yard line. Rice went to running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery and asked to switch the outside runs to more inside ones. They both talked to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who altered the running strategy in the fourth quarter.

After managing 39 yards through the first three quarters, Rice produced 62 yards in the last one on eight carries (7.8 yards per attempt). His 27-yard run in the fourth quarter set up the clinching touchdown.

"There were times when we could have blinked," said Rice, who finished with 101 yards rushing and 60 yards receiving. "We are poised, and the difference is you have guys growing up."

In the press conference to introduce Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator, he was asked what he needed to do to make this a Super Bowl defense. His response was improve during "crunch time."

The Texans moved the ball up and down the field on the Ravens in the first half, converting five of 10 third-down chances. In the second half, when it became "crunch time," Baltimore stopped Houston on five of six third downs.

The Ravens made some subtle changes on their blitzes and coverages when it became apparent that Texans quarterback Matt Schaub was going with quick-hitting passes.

"It was a little frustrating but nobody said things," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "In my opinion, the quality of a good coordinator is his halftime adjustments. Chuck came in and we narrowed it down. So, Chuck did a good job with our second-half adjustments and it paid off."

How much did it pay off? The Ravens' defense held Houston to 21 total yards on the final three possessions.

Baltimore's drive to put away teams is the result of what happened the last time the Ravens saw the Texans. Last December, the Ravens allowed Houston to score the final 21 points in regulation to send the game into overtime. Baltimore eventually won, but the lesson wasn't lost.

Ray Lewis said the players didn't review the game tape of that game because "it was just a lot of things that we didn't like seeing on film."

Said Lewis: "We took it personal coming out this week."

This wasn't as easy of a victory as many expected. The Texans were without their top two players in wide receiver Andre Johnson and linebacker Mario Williams.

But in some ways, the Ravens enjoyed the sweat. It was the second time they trailed in the second half this season and the first at home.

"This is the kind of game that we needed," Rice said. "We needed to be in a good fight against a good team."

It's these types of games where the Ravens can find their knockout punch.

Final Word: AFC North

September, 30, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Wake up, Browns: Cleveland's 2-1 start is impressive. It's even more impressive considering the Browns don't start games until the second quarter. The Browns have yet to put up a point in the first quarter this season, getting outscored 20-0 in the opening period. The offense takes its nod from quarterback Colt McCoy, who is 9-for-18 for 55 yards in the first quarter this season. Playing catch-up has to stop Sunday against Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Colt McCoy
Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIREColt McCoy and the Browns have been outscored 20-0 in the first quarter so far this season.
Keep Santonio Holmes out of the end zone: No one has hurt the Ravens more recently than wide receiver Santonio Holmes. He's scored a touchdown in seven straight games against Baltimore. His eight touchdowns in that stretch are the most by any player against the Ravens since 2007. If the Ravens want to slow down the Jets playmaker, safety Ed Reed should line up on Holmes' side of the field the entire game. It will be tough for any of Baltimore's cornerbacks to handle Holmes in single coverage.

Bring on the blitz: The Steelers have blitzed on about one-third of the opposition's pass plays, which is a little above the league average. Beating the Texans will require more of it. The key to disrupting Houston quarterback Matt Schaub is being aggressive against him. He is completing 58.3 percent of his throws when defenses rush five or more, which is significantly lower than his completion rate (71.4 percent) when defenses send four or fewer (according to ESPN Stats & Information). Getting consistent pressure has been a problem for the Steelers, who have a combined 3.5 sacks from James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

Make the gunslinger pay: The Bengals know first-hand how the Bills' Ryan Fitzpatrick will take more risks than other quarterbacks when throwing passes in tight windows. Fitzpatrick was Cincinnati's fill-in starter in 2008 and threw for 316 yards against the Bengals last season. To slow down the NFL's highest-scoring offense (37.7 points per game), defenses have to be in position when Fitzpatrick decides to gamble. The Bengals, though, have only one interception this season.

Defend home turf: The Ravens are 20-5 at home during the John Harbaugh era, which is the third-best mark since 2008. How dominant have the Ravens been at M&T Bank Stadium? During that time, the Ravens have more than doubled the point total of the opposition, 633-314. Baltimore is playing at home for the first time since the season opener, which was a 35-7 rout of the Steelers. revealed its most high-profile and perhaps controversial Power Rankings to date on Tuesday. This week we ranked the glamour position of quarterback, which always makes for a heated debate.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
Brett Davis/US PresswireBaltimore quarterback Joe Flacco threw 25 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions last season.
Two AFC North quarterbacks made the top 10. Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers was a no-brainer. He's played in three Super Bowls, winning two. Roethlisberger finished No. 5 in the rankings behind Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. I voted Roethlisberger fourth and Rodgers fifth, but you can make a strong case for both quarterbacks, who are at the top of their game.

But what is debatable is whether Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco deserves to be on this list.

Is Flacco a top-10 quarterback? He was tied for the final spot with Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys to make the cut. I've watched more Flacco games in person than anyone on the panel and he didn't make my top 10. I had Flacco rated No. 12 on my ballot behind Romo (No. 10) and Matt Schaub (No. 11) of the Houston Texans.

In three seasons, Flacco has yet to beat the Steelers when Roethlisberger is at quarterback and needs to perform better in the postseason. Therefore, I cannot consider him elite. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome recently echoed these sentiments.

But I've liked Flacco's skills from Day 1, and I believe he's ready for a breakthrough season in his fourth year. He has a lot of natural ability, and once he combines that with more consistency and big-game performances, he will be dangerous.

Flacco also is showing more edge and leadership in the past year, which I think is needed for any starting quarterback. Flacco has the tools. He just needs to put it all together in 2011.'s Quarterback Power Rankings

1. Tom Brady, Patriots

2. Peyton Manning, Colts

3. Drew Brees, Saints

4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers

5. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

6. Philip Rivers, Chargers

7 (tie). Michael Vick, Eagles

7 (tie). Matt Ryan, Falcons

9. Eli Manning, Giants

10. (tie) Joe Flacco, Ravens

10. (tie) Tony Romo, Cowboys

Walker's Quarterback Power Rankings

1. Tom Brady, Patriots

2. Peyton Manning, Colts

3. Drew Brees, Saints

4. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

5. Aaron Rodgers, Packers

6. Philip Rivers, Chargers

7. Michael Vick, Eagles

8. Eli Manning, Giants

9. Matt Ryan, Falcons

10. Tony Romo, Cowboys

Walker's weekend mailbag

December, 18, 2010
Let's dig into the weekend mailbag.

Bengals fan from Sardinia, Ohio, writes: With Brett Favre retiring and Tarvaris Jackson in his last year, do you think the Minnesota Vikings would be willing to trade for Carson Palmer? If so what kind of compensation do you think they would get?

Walker: The trade market for Palmer is going to be interesting because he makes $11.5 million next year. Any team willing to trade for Palmer has to pay him like an elite quarterback when that's no longer the case. The AFC North blog reported Saturday that Palmer would not accept a pay cut this offseason to stay with the rebuilding Bengals (2-11). That could increase Palmer's chances of a trade or release from Cincinnati. But the Bengals also have to be careful. If word gets out that Cincinnati is willing to release Palmer to avoid paying that high salary, teams could simply wait for the quarterback to become available and negotiate a lower salary as a free agent. That way teams won't give the Bengals any compensation.

Hank from Westbrook, ME, writes: Do you see the Bengals giving Bernard Scott more playing time in the last three games?

Walker: Scott only got four carries last week, so it's hard to say. But I agree the Bengals should use Scott more down the stretch. In all likelihood, starting running back Cedric Benson will not return to Cincinnati. I'm not sure Scott can be a feature back, but the Bengals need to find out what his strengths are. Scott is averaging 4.8 yards per carry this season.

Jon Teams from Barboursville, W.Va., writes: What is the deal with Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians? Why has he not tried to utilize the run more?

Walker: It's a combination of having various injuries on the offensive line and having quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back under center. Pittsburgh ran the ball best when it had to. For the first month of the season, tailback Rashard Mendenhall was the only consistent offensive threat the team had. The Steelers were also healthy up front. Now the entire playbook is available with Roethlisberger and they pass a lot more, and the offensive line isn't healthy and blocking as well.

Peter from Virginia writes: Which offense is in more disarray at this point: Steelers or New York Jets?

Walker: The Steelers are having offensive line issues and the Jets are having quarterback issues. Both can really stall an offense. But it's harder to overcome poor quarterback play. So I would say the Jets have bigger issues at the moment.

Will from Alexandria, Va., writes: What do you think about the Steelers' chances in the playoffs? Do you think they can beat the New England Patriots?

Walker: I think the Steelers' chances are much better if they don't play the Patriots. Otherwise, the Steelers have as good a chance as anyone if they can get healthy.

Adam Gardner from Bel Air, Md., writes: Do you think Joe Flacco will ever become the Ravens' team leader, call audibles, and be up there with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady?

Walker: I never understood the expectations for Flacco to become Manning or Brady, who are two future Hall of Famers. I think Flacco is doing fine at this stage of his career. He has three playoff wins and is having a solid third season statistically. Ray Lewis is the leader of the Ravens, and that won't change until he retires. Flacco, for now, can just play well down the stretch and lead by example.

Brandon Crawford from Sykesville, Md., writes: With the Ravens really struggling on the offensive line, how much of this can you contribute to the loss of offensive tackle Jared Gaither?

Walker: That's a good question, Brandon. I almost forgot about Gaither, because he hasn't been available to the team all season. Gaither can be solid when he wants to be and could've helped Baltimore this year. But too often the Ravens had to stay on top of Gaither, and that gets tiring for an organization. He lost too much weight in the offseason and subsequently got hurt, and I think that was the final straw. Gaither is no longer a good fit with Baltimore, and I don't expect him to return next year.

B. Susi from Orlando, Fla., writes: I know you like the Troy Reed and now the Heath Heap mash-up. But what about the terror that would be James Lewis? Now THAT would be a terrifying linebacker.

Walker: Wow, B. Susi. That's an automatic Hall of Famer. The only weakness I can think of would be...long snapping???

Troy Reed from Walkerville, AFCN, writes: Okay, I will admit it: Troy Polamalu is better than both me and Ed Reed.

Walker: What?!? No way. Please read this tweet explaining your greatness. Neither Polamalu nor Reed could do that alone. Only you can, Troy Reed. You're the best safety in NFL history!

Matt writes: Can you please comment on Brian Daboll and his status as the Cleveland Browns' offensive coordinator?

Walker: Sure, Matt. Daboll is in major trouble. A lot has been written about Eric Mangini's future because he's the head coach. But I think the verdict is pretty much in on Daboll. The offense hasn't made any progress in two years, and it has to be driving offensive guru and Browns president Mike Holmgren crazy. I think Cleveland's failure to develop second-round picks Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie also reflects poorly on Daboll.

Becky from Galloway, Ohio, writes: I was wondering why in December the "Battle for Ohio" between the Bengals vs. Browns couldn’t be played in The Shoe [at Ohio State]. It would be a sellout. Even if OSU got a million both teams would still make a tidy sum. I work with a number of Bengals and Browns fans. and we would all go no matter cost of tickets.

Walker: Interesting idea, Becky. But there are a couple of issues I see with this from the NFL's perspective. For starters, one team would be losing a home game every year. Would it be fair for the Browns or Bengals to play just seven annual home games and one at a neutral site, while other teams get eight? Also, home teams make a lot of money off concessions, parking and other things during the game-day experience. That's not something the Browns or Bengals would want to give up to Ohio State.

Comment and complaint department

Ken from Long Beach, Calif., writes: As terrible as the Oakland Raiders have been the past few seasons I would gladly trade ownership with them. Living in L.A. I have seen the freak show that is Al Davis, but one thing remains certain about him; he wants to win. I am not sure I can say that about Mike Brown. I love my Bengals but I can't wait for L.A. to get a team so I can file my fan free agency and get the heck out of Mike Brown's land of despair.

Jacob from Cincy writes: I watched DeSean Jackson take a 10-yard pass 91 yards to the house, I thought back to how we passed him up in the draft and how the guy we passed him up for has been inactive all season. Where would the Bengals be if they drafted Jackson over Jerome Simpson?

Walker: Jacob, Simpson would probably play like Jackson in Philly and Jackson would be a bust in Cincy. Just kidding. It would have made a big difference in Cincinnati's offense. Ken, so many Bengals fans are at the end of their rope. I've held firm in saying it's good fandom to stick with your team. The Bengals haven't had back-to-back winning seasons in 28 years. Why leave now?

Joe from Cincinnati writes: "Cleveland Browns (5-8) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-11), Sunday at 1 p.m. Blasik's comment: The Bengals have better personnel than the Browns, and Colt McCoy will be a little rusty coming back. As much as I love to see the Bungles lose, this streak has to end sometime, right? Walker's score: Bengals, 17-16" -- I feel all Bengals fans knew, or at least had a sneaking suspicion, that you hate the Bengals and were extremely biased against them. But your stating how much you love to see them lose makes it woefully apparent.

Walker: Joe, when did I change my name to Amanda Blasik? We had a guest predict games this week. Please read the blog again. Also, for those who think I'm too harsh on the Bengals, read last year's coverage. For those who think I'm a Bengals homer, read this year's coverage.

David from Fontainebleau, France, writes: I think it is incredibly unlikely that the Panthers take Stanford QB Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick of the draft as you suggested they would. They just picked Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike this year. Three picks on the QB position in two drafts? I don't see it happening.

Walker: David, it's probably too early to predict the top of the draft board, but keep in mind that Clausen was a second-rounder and Pike was a sixth-rounder. Clausen hasn't showed anything for the 1-12 Panthers to get a vote of confidence for next year. Carolina also will have a new coaching staff in 2011 that's not tied to these draft picks, and a new coach always has the tendency to bring in his own players. I wouldn't rule it out.

Barry Veet from Hazleton, Pa., writes: Just wanted to tell you in my fantasy football playoffs this week I was down 61 points with only Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson left. I came back and was up 1.6 points until Schaub threw that INT in OT. Talk about an unbelievable heartbreak, losing by .4 after an improbable comeback.

Walker: Tough way to end your season, Barry. I assume Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson probably isn't your favorite player.

Will from Nashville, Tenn., writes: Hey, James. Thanks for not posting that comment comparing the Bengals and the Heat until after the Heat went on a seven-game winning streak and making me look like a fool for the question. At 9-8 when I did post the comment, the Heat were a little more disappointing and it maybe would have drawn a little better comparison to the Bengals. Way to show some respect to a loyal reader.

Walker: You are correct, Will, and my apologies. We get a lot of questions in our inbox and sometimes we can't always get to them immediately. By the time I got to yours, it was outdated.

AFC North Homer of the Week

We didn't have a strong batch of homer comments this week (good job, everyone). So we had to dig deep and find one of the runners-up from last week.


Andy from Canada writes: Hey, James. Longtime reader and much respect. I am driving down to Buffalo regardless of weather for the game this weekend and Peyton Hillis will break 200 yards rushing. Post me if I'm right, and post me if I'm wrong. I have faith. Thanks.

Walker: Andy, Hillis did get 108 rushing yards. But I'm sure you didn't anticipate his three fumbles. Nonetheless, Hillis is having a great year.

If you have any additional questions, comments or complaints, please send them to our AFC North inbox.

AFC North Week 14 decisive moment

December, 14, 2010
NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

For the past month, the most memorable play in Baltimore Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson's season was a controversial touchdown he allowed to receiver Roddy White in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

But Wilson made up for that play Monday night with a game-winning pick-six to lead the Ravens to a 34-28 overtime win over the Houston Texans. He read Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, caught the interception in stride and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown. The play propelled Baltimore to a 9-4 record and negated an embarrassing second-half collapse where the Ravens blew a 21-point lead.

Wilson was acquired in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks and the move has paid dividends. He began as a backup, then eventually replaced Fabian Washington in the starting lineup. Wilson has 37 tackles and three interceptions for Baltimore this season.

The Ravens have some concerns, particularly with their recent play in the fourth quarter. But Wilson's big interception allows Baltimore to search for answers while coming off a victory.

The Ravens will play host to the pass-heavy New Orleans Saints (10-3) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Wrap-up: Ravens 34, Texans 28 (OT)

December, 14, 2010
Here are some thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' exciting overtime victory over the Houston Texans:

What it means: It certainly wasn't pretty. But Baltimore bounced back to beat Houston after an emotional loss last week to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens blew a 21-point lead in the second half to allow Houston to force overtime. But cornerback Josh Wilson returned a 12-yard interception off Texans quarterback Matt Schaub for the game-winning touchdown. Wilson's play made up for the late, controversial touchdown he allowed earlier this season in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons. At 9-4, the Ravens currently hold the No. 5 seed in the AFC and remain one game behind Pittsburgh (10-3) in the AFC North division. Baltimore hasn't lost two games in a row all season and improved to 5-4 in regular-season games since 2007 after playing Pittsburgh the week prior.

What I liked: Wilson's pick-six was the biggest play of the season so far for Baltimore, although this game should not have made it to overtime. The Ravens' offense got off to a fast start. The offense was aggressive early and got a touchdown run by Willis McGahee and two touchdown catches by Derrick Mason to give Baltimore a 21-7 lead at halftime. The early lead took some pressure off the defense. There were also no major injuries for Baltimore and several solid individual performances we will get to below.

What I didn't like: Baltimore had a chance to put Houston away in the second half but didn't show a killer instinct. As a result, the Ravens allowed Houston to peck away at the lead and eventually score 21 straight points. Despite a great first half, the Ravens couldn't get anything going on offense in the second half and overtime. Baltimore had several short drives and kept its defense on the field. You could see Ravens defenders were tired in the fourth quarter, as Houston began to earn chunks of yards. The Texans' last two scoring drives went for 99 and 95 yards. The Ravens' pass protection for quarterback Joe Flacco also was shaky for the second straight week, as Houston registered five sacks.

Reed makes history: Ravens rookie David Reed, who had an interesting week, delivered a big play for Baltimore to start the second half. A fifth-round pick from Utah, Reed had the longest kickoff return in Ravens history for a 103-yard touchdown to give the Ravens a 21-point lead. He broke multiple tackles by Houston to get to the end zone. According to reports, authorities raided Reed’s home last week to "investigate potential narcotics activities," police said; at this point, no charges have been filed. Baltimore made the decision to play Reed this week and it paid dividends.

Suggs still sizzling: Baltimore linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs registered at least one sack for the fifth time in six games. Suggs recorded a sack against Schaub in addition to four tackles. Coming off a down year in 2009, Suggs now is playing at a Pro Bowl level and leads the Ravens with 10 sacks.

Kicking game stellar: Baltimore's kicking game continues to excel. Punter Sam Koch pinned Houston inside the 20 five times and kicker Billy Cundiff also added two more touchbacks. Cundiff has 36 touchbacks this season.

What's next: With a short week of preparation, Baltimore has a very tough game upcoming against the New Orleans Saints (10-3) at M&T Bank Stadium. Monday's key win takes some of the pressure off the Ravens for this big game. But they need to play much better for four quarters to beat the defending Super Bowl champions.

Five things to watch: Baltimore Ravens

December, 11, 2010
Derrick MasonAP Photo/Nick WassFor an offense that should have been one of the best in the league, the Ravens are averaging just 21.7 points per game. Receiver Derrick Mason said the offense looked like "The Bad News Bears."
Coming off a heartbreaking loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens (8-4) will play their second consecutive prime-time game when they take on the Houston Texans (5-7) on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" (8:30 ET).

Here are five things to watch for Baltimore:

1. Can the Ravens bounce back? Since 2006, Baltimore is just 4-4 in regular-season games after playing Pittsburgh. There is a reason the Ravens play just .500 football after facing the Steelers. Every year these are the most emotional and physically demanding games in Baltimore's season -- and last week was no different. Pittsburgh struggled most of the game but scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to come from behind and hand the Ravens their first home loss of the season. There was plenty of frustration in Baltimore's locker room afterward. The Ravens may have blown their chance to win the AFC North and host at least one home playoff game. But they have to regroup and bounce back against Houston after a tough defeat.

2. Can the offense keep up? Baltimore's offense entered the season with high expectations. After the Ravens acquired receivers Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth to go with a strong stable of running backs, Baltimore had one of the NFL's deepest collection of skill players. But entering Week 14, Baltimore's offense is still searching for consistency. The Ravens are No. 14 in total offense and No. 17 in scoring at 21.7 points per game. Baltimore is averaging just 13.5 points the past two weeks, prompting receiver Derrick Mason to call the offense "The Bad News Bears." It's not quite that bad for the Ravens. But the offense needs to step up and counter Houston's No. 7-rated offense.

3. Stopping Foster: Baltimore is solid against the run -- rated No. 6 in the NFL -- but this may be its stiffest test this year, facing NFL rushing leader Arian Foster. He already has 1,230 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns and is averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Houston has the reputation of being a wide-open passing team. But the Texans have drastically improved their running game behind Foster this season, which makes their offense very dangerous. The Ravens have to corral Foster and keep him under 100 yards rushing.

4. More sizzle: Ravens defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose nickname is "T. Sizzle," has been on fire recently. He has 5.5 sacks the past five games and earned AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for November. Suggs had his best game of the season last week against Pittsburgh, recording five tackles, 1.5 sacks and five additional hits on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Baltimore needs similar pressure on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, and Suggs will play a major role.

5. Replacing Heap: Ravens starting tight end Todd Heap injured his hamstring last week and isn't expected to play against Houston. That means rookie tight end Ed Dickson is the next player up for Baltimore. The third-round pick probably will make his first career start on the NFL's biggest stage. Dickson has eight receptions for 112 yards this season. His game is not as refined as Heap's, but Dickson is a good athlete with the ability to go vertical and stretch the field.

'Big Ben' declined Pro Bowl invite

January, 20, 2010
Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers was the first Pro Bowl alternate Wednesday to replace New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But team doctors recommended Roethlisberger (shoulder) turn down the invite until he was fully recovered.

Roethlisberger hurt his right shoulder in Pittsburgh's regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins. The injury will not require surgery.

The NFL announced Wednesday that Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub will replace Brady, instead of Roethlisberger, on the AFC roster.

"His shoulder was not 100 percent from our final game in Miami," Steelers head of public relations Dave Lockett said. "Our doctors and trainers have recommended that he should allow it to heal 100 percent."

Roethlisberger became the Steelers' first quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. After winning the Super Bowl last year, Pittsburgh finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs this season via a tiebreaker.

Seven-step drop

October, 19, 2009
Posted by’s James Walker

Here are seven notes and observations from Week 6 in the AFC North:
 Jason Bridge/US Presswire
 Hines Ward and the Steelers posted 543 yards of total offense on Sunday.
  • I’m not sure if many are paying attention, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are quietly morphing into a big-play offense. In Sunday’s 27-14 win over the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh had 10 offensive plays of 20 yards or more. Steelers receiver Hines Ward (eight catches, 159 yards) had the longest play with a 52-yard touchdown reception. As Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians put it, the points didn’t reflect their season-best 543-yard performance. If not for lack of ball security, the Steelers may have scored 40 points for the first time this season. They are averaging 31 points per game the past three weeks.
  • A major reason Pittsburgh (4-2) stays in playoff contention is due to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s dominance against the division. On Sunday, Roethlisberger improved to 23-5 as a starter against the AFC North, which includes a 10-0 career mark against the Browns. It also marked the 12th time Roethlisberger recorded a 100-plus passer rating against a division foe, further proof that he gets up for these rivalry games.
  • Here is an interesting question: What is the identity of Cleveland’s offense? Six games into the season, there’s no clear answer. In Week 4, the Browns went vertical with quarterback Derek Anderson during an overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. In Week 5, Cleveland pounded the ball with Jamal Lewis to beat the Buffalo Bills. In Week 6, the Browns ran the Wildcat offense with Joshua Cribbs more than they had all season. A lack of identity has been a major problem in Cleveland since it rejoined the league in 1999, and it’s showing up again through the first six games of 2009.
  • Here is another interesting note: Former Browns receiver Braylon Edwards is 0-6 this season. He lost four games in Cleveland and now the New York Jets are 0-2 with Edwards following their blockbuster deal to land the former first-round pick. Edwards has played decent. He has eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown in two games in New York. But the Jets were in first place before Edwards arrived. So if things completely implode, the New York media might begin searching for a scapegoat.
  • The loss of defensive end Antwan Odom could impact every level of Cincinnati’s defense. Not only was he having the best year of any Bengals defensive lineman, but Odom had eight of the team’s 16 sacks. His ability to win one-on-one matchups and rush the passer helped the Bengals drop more players in coverage to defend the pass. Now, Cincinnati might have to blitz more to get pressure at the expense of giving up big plays. Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub looked comfortable Sunday ripping the Bengals' secondary for 392 yards and four touchdowns in a 28-17 victory.
  • Expect a motivated Cedric Benson this week. Cincinnati’s starting tailback is off to a great start and plays the team that gave up on him in the Chicago Bears. This is a full-circle moment for Benson. The Bears took him in the first round in 2005, but Benson never lived up to expectations in three seasons. No team was interested until the Bengals called during the 2008 season, and Benson re-established his career.
  • The Baltimore Ravens (3-3) enter the bye week in an odd spot. They’ve lost three straight, which impacts confidence. But it’s clear the Ravens are still a good team that can play with the NFL’s elite following a trio of close losses to first-place teams in the Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots and Cincinnati. Perhaps the biggest concern is Baltimore hasn’t been able to fix its leaky pass defense, which hasn’t been a one- or two-week problem. The Ravens were struggling against the pass even when they were 3-0, and it will be interesting to see if the bye provides enough time to fix those issues.