AFC North: Super Bowl


ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Mel Kiper Jr. and Trent Dilfer discuss the Baltimore Ravens' chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions.

It's quite a challenge when you look at recent history. Of the previous four defending Super Bowl champions, none won a playoff game and two (2009 Steelers and 2012 Giants) didn't even make the playoffs.

Since 2009, just one defending champ, the 2011 Packers, won their division. But Green Bay lost its first playoff game, a divisional round game to the Giants.
Mike WallaceGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesWide receiver Mike Wallace would add another dimension to New England's offense if the Patriots managed to sign him.
Here's one way the New England Patriots can get back to the Super Bowl: Sign receiver Mike Wallace, one of the best players in free agency.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowler is a restricted free agent who is ripe for the taking. Pittsburgh has salary-cap issues this offseason and cut many of its veteran players. The team also could not afford to put a franchise tag on Wallace.

A first-round pick and a good contract offer are the only things standing in the way of Wallace joining the reigning AFC champions. New England should be the first team in line to throw caution to the wind and pry Wallace from Pittsburgh next week when free agency begins.

Here are several reasons why this is a smart move for New England:

Reason No. 1: Patriots have plenty of draft picks, cap space

This is the perfect year for the Patriots to pounce. Unlike the Steelers, New England has plenty of cap room and more than enough draft picks to make a solid pitch for Wallace.

The cost for Wallace would be a first-round pick and a contract extension. New England has two first-rounders (No. 27 and No. 31) and two second-rounders. Losing one of those early picks would not hurt the Patriots. New England likely would not get an immediate, Pro Bowl-caliber player at the end of the first round anyway. Wallace would count as part of the Patriots' draft class. New England could add a top-10 receiver in his prime.

New England's best chance is to offer Wallace a front-loaded contract. The key is to provide a high amount of guaranteed money and salary in the first season, which would count against this year's cap. The Patriots have that luxury over Pittsburgh and can use it to their advantage.

The Patriots entered the offseason with more cap space than any team in the AFC East. Receiver Wes Welker's franchise tag would take up some of that, but the Patriots still can offer Wallace more than Pittsburgh. New England may have to eventually work out an extension with Welker, as a result, but the Patriots are considering that option anyway.

Reason No. 2: Patriots need a deep threat

Imagine the possibilities: Tom Brady throwing to Welker and Rob Gronkowski underneath, and Wallace and Aaron Hernandez vertically. That would be a passing attack that is tough to stop.

New England's best deep threat last year was Hernandez, its backup tight end. He was the only player who could consistently get vertical and was a threat for making huge plays.

Wallace's speed would bring a unique element to New England's offense. He is arguably the best deep threat in the NFL and has 23 receptions of 40 yards or more the past three seasons. The Patriots' offense hasn't had that type of big-play capability since Randy Moss.

There are criticisms that Wallace is a "one-trick pony." That’s debatable. But getting deep is really all the Patriots would need from Wallace. New England's other receivers and tight ends will take care of the underneath routes and allow Wallace to focus on what he does best.

Reason No. 3: It hurts a big AFC rival

The Steelers are one of the most well-run and respected franchises in the NFL. The ownership, front office and coaching are all top notch.

Therefore, Pittsburgh consistently poses one of the biggest threats to New England in the AFC. The Steelers and Patriots combined for eight Super Bowl appearances the past 11 years. If Pittsburgh didn't get "Tebowed" by the Denver Broncos in January, the Patriots would've had another tough playoff matchup against Pittsburgh. The Steelers beat New England in the regular season.

Signing Wallace away from Pittsburgh would simultaneously strengthen New England and hurt the Steelers' depth at receiver. The Steelers already released team captain and all-time leading receiver Hines Ward. In terms of leadership, Ward leaves a huge void that is tough to replace. Losing Wallace, Pittsburgh's best receiver, would be another big blow.

Pittsburgh also cut starting linebacker James Farrior, starting guard Chris Kemoeatu and veteran defensive end Aaron Smith. Years of manipulating the cap is finally catching up to the Steelers, and it could cost the team Wallace if New England or another team goes after him.

Reason No. 4: No harm, no foul

Let's say the Steelers find a way to match New England's offer. That could still work in New England's favor.

The Patriots would retain their first-round pick and cap room, while forcing Pittsburgh overpay on a front-loaded contract to keep Wallace. The Steelers, as a result, would have more issues with the cap. For the Patriots, there's no harm in trying.

New England also has options. The Patriots could quickly turn its attention to veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd, who is a viable Plan B. Lloyd wants to reunite with new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and would be happy to join the reigning AFC champs. Instead of the home run (Wallace), New England could settle for a triple (Lloyd).

Going after Wallace in free agency is a win-win for the Patriots, regardless of the result.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis was asked to name the winner of the quarterback matchup in the Super Bowl, and the answer might surprise you.

"Right now, you got to go with Eli Manning," Bettis told ESPN New York radio. "He's the hotter quarterback of the two when you look at their body of work. The last game they played, Eli played a lot better than Brady did. Brady left a lot of big plays on the field. The game didn't have to as close as it was. So, when you look at it, Eli is the hotter quarterback."

Bettis added, "Is he the better quarterback in a game like this? I don't know that. That has yet to be seen. But I will say it will be a shootout. That's for sure."

Manning definitely had a better conference championship game than Brady. He threw for 316 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, while Brady had 239 yards passing with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

But to say Manning is the hotter quarterback is an overstatement. In his past six games, Brady has averaged 320.1 yards, throwing 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. In the same stretch of games, Manning had 291.8 yards passing per game with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Thoughts on Kevin Colbert, GM title

August, 29, 2011
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The Pittsburgh Steelers recently promoted Kevin Colbert to general manager. He was formerly the team's director of football operations.

Here are a few thoughts:
  • This is mostly a title switch. Colbert is the team's first general manager by label. So that part is new. But Colbert had GM responsibilities since joining the team in 2000. Colbert picks the players. He goes after free agents. He makes roster cuts. If there is any difference this year, it will be minimal.
  • This may have been another perk after last year's Super Bowl appearance. Colbert signed a five-year extension in 2010 and is a major cog in Pittsburgh's three Super Bowl appearances since the 2005 season. Colbert didn't have the title after last year's contract but it was added this season.
  • The Steelers didn't make it a big deal. There was no announcement. The change is only mentioned in the team's 2011 media guide. The team's attitude is "There's nothing to see here." And I agree.

Thoughts on Bryant McKinnie, Ravens

August, 23, 2011
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The Baltimore Ravens got help on the offensive line by agreeing to a two-year contract with former Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie on Tuesday.

Here are several thoughts on the move:
  • The first thought is concerning McKinnie's health. He was released by the Vikings after reportedly weighing nearly 400 pounds. I assume McKinnie is closer to playing shape now. Otherwise, the Ravens would not have signed him. But conditioning is something to watch early in the season.
  • Baltimore has a decision to make with McKinnie and current left tackle Michael Oher. McKinnie has played left tackle his entire career. But his conditioning is in question, he's on a new team, and he has to learn a new offense in about two weeks. All of these factors could make it risky to ask McKinnie to protect quarterback Joe Flacco's blind side in Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. If McKinnie becomes a quick study, the Ravens could make the switch. Oher is much better at right tackle.
  • This move reminds me of Baltimore's decision in 2008 to sign veteran offensive tackle Willie Anderson. McKinnie, who will be 32 next month, is not the long-term solution. But the Ravens are trying to make a Super Bowl run this year and McKinnie could be a good short-term rental. Anderson gave the Ravens one good year in 2008 at age 33 before retiring. Baltimore advanced to the AFC title game that season.
  • Finally, the Ravens realized they couldn't go into the season starting a rookie offensive tackle. Third-round pick Jah Reid might eventually become a good player. But he needs to work on several things before he becomes a full-time starter. Yes, McKinnie's conditioning and work ethic are risks. But at least the Ravens know McKinnie can perform in the NFL at a high level.

Vick, Bengals would not have worked

August, 18, 2011
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Philadelphia Eagles franchise quarterback Michael Vick had some interesting comments about the Cincinnati Bengals in September's edition of GQ Magazine. Vick said he initially believed that the Bengals and Buffalo Bills were better options than the Eagles.

Vick
Vick could not have been more wrong.

Cincinnati was not the place if Vick was seeking instant playing time. In 2009, the Bengals had $100-million quarterback Carson Palmer in the fold. Barring injury, Vick would have had no chance to compete or supplant Palmer in the starting lineup. Vick eventually took the job in Philadelphia from Kevin Kolb, who was a much easier target.

Second, the Eagles' foundation on offense is much stronger. Philadelphia's explosive West Coast offense compared with Cincinnati's system under former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski isn't close. Vick found the right system to learn and perfect. Philadelphia, in turn, tailored the offense to fit his strengths. Cincinnati's old offense under Bratkowski didn't have the same flexibility and creativity for Vick's unique talents.

Finally, the stability of the organization counts for something. From ownership, down to coaching and the players, Vick walked into a much better situation in Philadelphia. Vick is now leading a Super Bowl contender just two years after being released from prison. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is hitting the reset button once again and is considered one of the NFL's worst teams.

Colt McCoy sharp in preseason debut

August, 13, 2011
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CLEVELAND -- Browns second-year quarterback Colt McCoy got off to a fast start to his 2011 preseason. McCoy led Cleveland's first-team offense to two touchdown drives in the first half Saturday night against the defending champion Green Bay Packers.

Cleveland's first touchdown -- a pretty, 27-yard pass to receiver Josh Cribbs -- was against Green Bay's starting defense in the first quarter. The Browns' second touchdown was against the Packers' backups in the second quarter. McCoy played three offensive drives total and finished 9-of-10 for 135 yards and a touchdown.

Green Bay counterpart Aaron Rodgers also played well in limited action. He had two drives and finished 6-of-8 for 74 yards and a touchdown. Rodgers connected with Packers receiver Greg Jennings for a 21-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.

The Packers lead the Browns, 17-14, at halftime.

Morning take: Browns up next

August, 13, 2011
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Here are the most interesting stories Saturday in the AFC North: Morning take: The AFC North is 0-3 in the preseason. Although it doesn't count, maybe the Browns can get the division's only victory this week.
Morning take: Pittsburgh's primary goal is to avoid injuries. Fortunately for the Steelers, Taylor likely will be ready for the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.
Morning take: I spent last night trying to convince Bengals fans on Twitter that it's just the preseason. But "Bengaldom" is looking for hope and didn't get much solace in last night's performance.
Morning take: This has been a major issue for Baltimore since last season. The Ravens didn't do anything in the preseason opener to show the problem is solved.

Poll: Ravens' biggest concern?

August, 10, 2011
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The Baltimore Ravens are aiming for their second Super Bowl in franchise history. Baltimore enters the season with a talented roster, but it also has several holes.

In our latest AFC North poll, we want to know Baltimore's biggest concern entering the 2011 season.

Are Ravens fans most concerned about wide receiver? Baltimore released veteran starter Derrick Mason and was unable to land Malcom Floyd in free agency. The Ravens are left with rookie second-round pick Torrey Smith as the starter unless the team adds another veteran.

Is right tackle the biggest issue? The Ravens do not have a proven candidate to protect quarterback Joe Flacco's front side. Oniel Cousins is the front-runner and rookie third-round pick Jah Reid is in the mix.

Or are the lack of pass rush and backup quarterback larger holes. Baltimore only registered 27 sacks in 16 games last season and didn't add upgrades to the front seven. Backup quarterback Marc Bulger also retired. That leaves rookie Tyrod Taylor behind Flacco.

Cast your vote for Baltimore's biggest concern using our SportsNation poll. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Woodley
Woodley
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley was one of the NFL's best bargains in 2010. Coming off a Pro Bowl campaign one year prior, Woodley stayed quiet and played out the final year of his rookie contract for $550,000, recording 10 sacks and helping the Steelers get to Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers rewarded Woodley's patience on Friday. Woodley signed a six-year, $61.5 million extension that will make him one of the team's highest-paid players, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. The AFC North blog also has confirmed the report.

The move frees up additional cap room for the Steelers and removes the franchise tag for Woodley. Several veterans also restructured contracts to ensure Pittsburgh is in compliance with the $120 million salary cap.

Woodley, 26, has recorded double-digit sacks for three consecutive years in Pittsburgh.
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:
  • The Cincinnati Bengals are in play for free-agent safety Donte Whitner.
Morning take: This would be a good addition for the Bengals, who are in the process of remaking their secondary. Cincinnati doesn't have much speed or impact players on defense, and Whitner could add both.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu will pace himself in training camp.
Morning take: Polamalu has suffered tough injuries two straight years to his knee and Achilles. His health will be key to Pittsburgh making another Super Bowl run.
  • Can safety Tom Zbikowski fill the void left by Dawan Landry?
Morning take: Zbikowski has been a part-time starter for two years. It's his turn to take over next to Ed Reed, who should help with the transition.
  • Cleveland Browns rookie receiver Greg Little is taking advantage of early reps in training camp.
Morning take: Receivers Mohamed Massaquoi (ankle) and Josh Cribbs (knee) are both sidelined with early injuries, leaving Little to get valuable playing time. This also gives quarterback Colt McCoy a chance to develop chemistry with the rookie.
LATROBE, Pa. -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Hines Ward played with Plaxico Burress early in their careers. Now, both Steelers veterans say they would welcome Burress back to the team which drafted him 11 years ago.

"We've been talking for the last couple months," Roethlisberger said. "I talked to him the other day and said, 'Would you be interested?' I'm excited for him to come when he comes here."

Roethlisberger would not divulge Burress' response. But we could find out soon, as ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports Burress is scheduled to meet with Pittsburgh as early as today. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is expected to make his pitch to bring Burress on board, and the players in the locker room seem for it.

"If he can help us win another Super Bowl, I'm for it," Ward said. "We had some great years when we were together here. He can definitely add some explosiveness to our already explosive wide-receiving corps. If he's here, I would welcome him with open arms."

The Steelers are deep at receiver, but Burress, 34, is a big-body receiver they lack. Burress wouldn't have to be a starter in Pittsburgh, and the team could play to his strength, such as in the red zone.

The biggest issue could be salary. Mortensen reports Burress is seeking a deal in the range of $5 million per season. Pittsburgh is already struggling to get under the salary cap and made several big cuts in recent days. Therefore, it seems unlikely Pittsburgh would hit that number Burress reportedly is seeking.

Poll Friday: Ochocinco's legacy?

July, 29, 2011
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The Cincinnati Bengals made a big trade Thursday, shipping colorful receiver Chad Ochocinco to the New England Patriots. In return, the Bengals got two future draft picks and can officially begin the A.J. Green era in Cincinnati.

But before we look ahead, let's reflect on the Ochocinco era with the Bengals. In our latest "Poll Friday," we ask how will you remember Ochocinco's 10 seasons in Cincinnati?

Will you most remember Ochocinco's productivity? He was one of the NFL's most dynamic receivers for a long stretch with the Bengals and finished with 751 receptions, 10,783 yards and 82 touchdowns. He also was consistent, posting seven 1,000-yard seasons.

Or will Ochocinco be remembered for his antics? The receiver filled reporters' notebooks with zany quotes and predictions that often got under coach Marvin Lewis' skin. Ochocinco also had arguably the league's best touchdown celebrations, which made him a household name.

Finally, does it come down to winning and losing for Ochocinco? The Bengals only had two playoff appearances in Ochocinco's 10 seasons and never won a playoff game. The Lewis-Ochocinco-Carson Palmer era was expected to bring postseason excitement and potentially a title to Cincinnati, but it didn't come close.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on Ochocinco's legacy with Cincinnati. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Steelers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Steelers should be fine. Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, they are well-rested and running the same offense and defense as in recent seasons. For years the Steelers have thrived on continuity, and that should come in handy this fall. Pittsburgh will not be a major player in free agency, so that's not an issue. Like the Ravens, if the Steelers had to line up and play a game next week, they could.

Biggest challenge: The Steelers were fine up until recently, when receiver Hines Ward and linebacker James Harrison both made headlines in separate incidents. Ward was arrested for driving under the influence in Georgia, and Harrison made controversial remarks about many people, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall. Pittsburgh, which has been a model organization for years, has had its share of controversies the past three seasons. This is another example of the team having to band together and handle its issues internally before they get worse.

Who's the kicker? Pittsburgh will need to find a kicker for the 2011 season. Shaun Suisham is a free agent after filling in last season for Jeff Reed, who was cut. Reed was one of the few kickers who did well in Heinz Field, which is one of the hardest stadiums to kick in. The Steelers didn't draft a kicker, which means they have a short time to search for a solution in free agency.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Starting cornerback Ike Taylor is the only big name for the Steelers. He is an unrestricted free agent and is looking for market value, which could price him out of Pittsburgh. The Steelers have several younger and cheaper alternatives at cornerback, such as Carlos Rogers and Richard Marshall. Offensive lineman Willie Colon is another interesting name. He's been a versatile starter for Pittsburgh at guard and tackle. Tailback Mewelde Moore will probably test the market as the Steelers look to get more carries for backup Isaac Redman this season.

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