AFC North: Nick Saban

Just a friendly reminder that the AFC North chat will start at 2 p.m. and the weekly column will get posted around noon. Here's your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: In his past five playoff games, running back Ray Rice has averaged just 70.6 yards rushing and has lost four fumbles. "You play the regular season, that's what you get paid for," Rice said, via The Baltimore Sun. "But in the playoffs, you are building a legacy. Obviously, I want to be a guy that's remembered for his playoff play. Playoffs are not about stats. Playoffs, for me, are about winning games."

BENGALS: Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is scheduled to interview for head-coaching jobs with the Cardinals and Eagles, but he doesn't sound like he is ready to leave anytime soon. "When you enter the coaching profession you necessarily don’t do it to be an assistant your whole life. Eventually you’d like to be top dog and run your own ship, when the time’s right," Gruden said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. "Every team has their issues and their problems. That’s why they’re looking. Eventually when the time is right, hopefully I’ll get a chance. If not this year, or next year, or the year after. I’ll be happy here because it’s a great place. There’s still work to do.”

STEELERS: Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher wants to coach again at some point. "It would be a challenge," Cowher told Newsday, "but I think that's probably why I would get back into it, because of the challenge." Cowher, who has been a studio analyst since retiring in 2006, doesn't believe the game has passed him by. "I did it for 27 years. You don't just forget things overnight," Cowher said. "One thing about this job is it's been really good, because it allows me to study the game and do features on the game. I want to know what I'm talking about, so I'm watching tape. It's not like I'm out of it. I know how the game is changing."

BROWNS: The Plain Dealer reported that the Browns interviewed CFL coach Marc Trestman on Tuesday and have requested permission to speak to Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who is expected to be released from the hospital Wednesday after dealing with an inner ear infection. Meanwhile, Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tuesday he's not leaving for the NFL. "How many times do you think I've been asked to put it to rest?" Saban said. "And I've put it to rest, and you continue to ask it. I kind of learned through that experience (with the Dolphins) that maybe this is where I belong, and I'm really happy and at peace with all that. So no matter how many times I say that, y'all don't believe it, so I don't even know why I keep talking about it."
Just a heads up, you can expect to see more posts this week on the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns than the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. That's just the reality of the situation. The Ravens are in the playoffs and the Browns are in a coaching search. Once the offseason gets in full swing, namely free agency and the draft, there will be more balance in terms of posts. Thanks for understanding. Here's your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Baltimore moved quarterback Joe Flacco out of the pocket more against the Indianapolis Colts, which is why he was only sacked once and hit twice. It's a strategy that they might use against a Denver Broncos team that sacked Flacco three times last month. "Whenever you have great edge pass rushers, you need to move the pocket," coach John Harbaugh said, via The Baltimore Sun. "They have been working hard on that, whether it's stepping up in the pocket making plays or stepping outside and making plays when the pass rushers lose contain and then keeping the play alive and trying to make some throws while he's doing that. Joe can run. He's faster than people think." The Ravens also released linebacker Sergio Kindle, their top pick in the 2010 draft, off their practice squad.

BENGALS: Andy Dalton isn't worried about the criticism after a second straight poor performance in the playoffs. “Not that we’re satisfied where we’re at, but we went to the playoffs in my first two years that I was here. That’s something that hasn’t happened in 30 years," Dalton said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. “To go from 4-12 before I got here to 9-7 and now 10-6, we’re getting better and going to be better next year.” As I wrote Monday, it's valid to question whether Dalton is a franchise quarterback. The 2013 season is shaping up to be a big one for Dalton.

STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Alan Robinson offers 10 ways to fix the Steelers. High on his list is to find a way to stay healthier. Some suggestions include making sure safety Troy Polamalu stays slimmer in the offseason and getting linebacker LaMarr Woodley's hamstrings in shape. “I think winning eight games with all the injuries they had is almost mind-boggling, to do as good as they do,” former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly told the paper. “To me, the No. 1 issue with this team was being decimated by injuries.”

BROWNS: The Plain Dealer reported that it's unclear whether the Browns will go after big-name coaches like Alabama's Nick Saban in the team's rebooted search. According to the paper, no sources close to the search have scoffed at speculation that the Browns will go after Saban, who led Alabama to their third national championship in four seasons. The Browns are reportedly set to interview Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and CFL coach Marc Trestman. The Browns' meeting with Trestman will happen at some point, but it didn't occur Monday as previously reported by ESPN Radio in Cleveland.
It's time for your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Joe Flacco believes he'll get a new deal done with the Ravens as he heads into the final games under his rookie contract. The sides tabled talks before the start of the season. “Yeah, I always am [optimistic],” Flacco said, via The Baltimore Sun. “This is a great organization and you’re always upbeat about that.” This has been a rough month for Flacco, who has committed six turnovers in the team's three-game losing streak. He accepts full responsibility for Baltimore's longest skid since 2009. "All of it," Flacco said. "It starts with the quarterback."

BENGALS: Kyle Cook bristled at the suggestion that the center rotation with him and rookie Trevor Robinson has hurt the chemistry on the offensive line. “I don’t buy that. Are you serious? You don’t think I’ve played with these guys before?,” Cook said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. “The protection calls are the same. Unless guys are blowing up the middle I would say sure it has something to do with it. You go look at it and there are similar breakdowns no matter who is in there. We just have to eliminate them no matter what it is.” Andy Dalton has been sacked 11 times the past two games, including a season-high six times against Philadelphia.

STEELERS: While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger apologized for questioning the play-calling, running back Rashard Mendenhall didn't feel the need to do the same after returning from a one-game suspension. "I'm really not trying to go back into that," Mendenhall said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's good to be back." Head coach Mike Tomlin explained Mendenhall's actions stemmed from "frustration." But Mendenhall said, "I wouldn't use that word. There's a lot of thought that goes into everything that I do."

BROWNS: Nick Saban has been rumored as a possible candidate for the Browns' coaching job if Pat Shurmur is fired at the end of the season. But Cleveland running back Trent Richardson, who played under Saban at Alabama, isn't buying it. "I can't see him coming to the NFL," Richardson said, via the Associated Press. "I would be very shocked. How can you get tired of winning? He's got so much going there. He has no reason to leave. He gets what he needs and he treats his program like the NFL (anyway)."
The Browns (5-8) have won three straight games for the first time since the end of the 2009 season. Cleveland is coming off its most convincing win under coach Pat Shurmur.

So, is Shurmur on his way to saving his job with the Browns? All any observer can say with certainty is this: Shurmur is finally making a case for him to stay. This is more than just winning. It's how the Browns are winning.

Shurmur
Shurmur
Shurmur delivered a creative spark to the Browns' offense Sunday, when he broke out the Wildcat, the pistol formation and the wrinkle of using wide receiver Greg Little in the backfield. Two of the trick plays paid off in the red zone: Josh Cribbs' 12-yard run out of the Wildcat set up a 1-yard touchdown, and Little's 17-yard run after taking a pitch led to another 1-yard touchdown. The only move that didn't work out as planned was the pistol formation (quarterback Brandon Weeden lines up 5 yards behind center with a back behind him), which resulted in a pass knocked down at the line.

This was a drastic change from the coach who seemed to make all of the wrong choices when it came to converting third-and-1 and deciding whether to go on fourth down.

"We did some fun stuff," Shurmur told reporters after the game, "and it worked out."

All of this "fun stuff" came out on the same day a report in The Boston Globe linked Alabama coach Nick Saban, Oregon coach Chip Kelly and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to the Browns. According to The Globe, all three could surface on the Browns' coaching radar if the Browns hire current NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi to replace Tom Heckert as general manager.

There have been a handful of reports suggesting Lombardi is the front-runner for the job. Browns CEO Joe Banner called the reports "wild speculation" before adding, "They could be right or they could be wrong."

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