AFC North: Thomas Jones
Who will win this big matchup? Here are some predictions from our division inbox and AFC North Twitter:
Tom Cheek from Baltimore writes: Baltimore is going to win this one despite being on the road at K.C., which is a tough place to play. However, look at what Baltimore did to New England last year, which is a tough place to play. Even though Kansas City leads the league in rushing, the Ravens are fifth in rush defense, which should be able to hold Jamaal Charles under 100 yards on the day.
Jason from Pasadena, MD, writes: The Ravens defense will come up big with multiple turnovers and the offense will make the Chiefs pay. I smell a nice game from Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, 31-17, Ravens.
TheNFLChick via Twitter writes: Charlie Weis hiring is a distraction. Ravens know how to win playoffs on the road...I'm taking my boys! Tell Pitt we're gunning for them!
BlacknGoldGlen via Twitter writes: Ravens will beat the Chiefs. Then it's a trip to Pittsburgh before going home to watch the Big Game on TV.
Tyson from Newark, OH, writes: I think the Ravens will win this game with ease. Not taking away from the great season the Chiefs have had. But the Ravens are a veteran team who has been down this path before; much like when the played in Miami in 2008.
Chiefs protect home!
Bryce from Tucson, AZ, writes: I am actually going to take Kansas City at home over the Ravens. The New Arrowhead has been rocking like the Arrowhead of old, which makes life extremely difficult for opponents. While I think Baltimore can handle it, Kansas City is going to be extremely excited about playing in their first playoff game (for most of them) and will just feed off the crowd's energy.
Meyers2305 via Twitter writes: Chiefs are a great team. They need to play Charles the majority of the game. Thomas Jones doesn't have it anymore! Chiefs, 27-21.
BrockDulco via Twitter writes: I'm taking the Chiefs, 14-10. Chiefs' defense is good and Arrowhead can never be discounted.
BigPaych via Twitter writes: I like the Chiefs. Dual-threat running game could wear on the older Ravens' D and win in the fourth quarter.
Ben from Pensacola, FL, writes: I'll take the Chiefs over the Ravens in a close game. The Ravens have been good on the road, but the Chiefs are just as good at home, and you have to think Arrowhead will be even louder than usual given how long it's been since K.C. has hosted a playoff game. I'll take a blazing hot hand in Matt Cassel over Joe Flacco, too.
AFC North final say
After finishing the regular season 32-20, the AFC North blog is no longer predicting games now that the playoffs are underway. So we check in with Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson to get his take.
Williamson: I predict a close one, 21-20 in favor of Baltimore. I just think the Ravens are so much further along as an organization. With Kansas City, no matter what happens, if the team loses 51-0 this weekend the season has been a success. I don't think the Chiefs have true Super Bowl aspirations. They're content that they had a great year, all is well, and K.C. fans are going to be talking about the Chiefs all offseason. I don't think Baltimore is a really good matchup for K.C., either. The big key to me is if you can stop the Chiefs' running game, they don't know what to do with themselves. Matt Cassel can't put the team on his shoulders and air it out all day, and think the Ravens will stop their running game.
- Contract negotiations between the Pittsburgh Steelers and starting safety Ryan Clark haven't been easy.
- Also, Steelers kicker Jeff Reed had two charges dismissed.
- This week the New York Jets will release tailback Thomas Jones, who once played under Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini.
- Here are the Baltimore Ravens' draft plans, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.
- Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis isn't one to overrate the NFL combine.
Here are seven closing notes and observations on the division:
- Although it's rare in the NFL, in some ways it seems Marvin Lewis is holding back on a contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals. Lewis, who was honored as the NFL Coach of the Year, finally has some leverage to get some things how he wants them in Cincinnati. But at the same time, Bengals owner Mike Brown is notorious for rarely giving in and running the team his way. It will be interesting to see how this all works out. I talked to three league insiders at the combine about Lewis' situation and two felt he could definitely land a head-coaching job elsewhere in 2011. The third believed the uncertainty with the CBA and a potential lockout would be Lewis' biggest hurdle. But otherwise, Lewis could quickly land on his feet if he left Cincinnati.
- Keep an eye on the Pittsburgh Steelers on draft day. I don't think they get enough credit for their propensity to wheel and deal on draft day. The Steelers are in a unique spot where their biggest need (cornerback) may not be available at No. 18. That could mean a trade out of the position for more picks or a trade up to get a player they covet. Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert has done both in recent years, which makes the team unpredictable. Last year, the Steelers traded out of the second round completely to get more second-day picks.
- If I'm a general manager, sign me up for Michigan defensive end/linebacker Brandon Graham. He's not going to impress with his measurables, which is why there are some questions about him at the combine. But on the field, he has an NFL motor, he's productive and he gets to the quarterback. Also during his combine interview, you could tell he has a passion for the game. I want those type of players on my team.
- Speaking of interviews, in no particular order I was really impressed with Florida State safety Myron Rolle, Tennessee safety Eric Berry, Idaho guard Mike Iupati, Graham and Cincinnati receiver Mardy Gilyard. Interviewing well doesn't necessarily mean they all will be great NFL players. But it can't hurt and shows depth, character and personality.
- Maybe I'm out of the loop on this one, but I would be surprised if the Baltimore Ravens landed free-agent receiver Terrell Owens. This rumor began to pick up steam at the combine, and was further perpetuated when Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the team would be interested. Baltimore had a chance to sign Owens last season when he was a year younger, but didn't make a move. I don't get the sense much has changed with Baltimore about Owens, but I could be wrong.
- But I do believe tailback Thomas Jones could be a potential target in free agency for the Cleveland Browns. Jones was coached by Eric Mangini, who has a fondness for his former players. Mangini doesn't have nearly the same pull in Cleveland. But the Browns have money to spend and a need for another running back to pair with Jerome Harrison, who is a restricted free agent Cleveland intends to bring back.
- If the Browns don't go the free-agency route, Clemson tailback C.J. Spiller could be a sleeper candidate for Cleveland at No. 7. Already a top-10 player, Spiller solidified, and likely improved, his stock with a blazing (unofficial) 40-yard dash time of 4.28. The Browns drafted Spiller's former Clemson teammate James Davis last season. So rest assured, Cleveland's scouts have spent a lot of time the past two years tracking Spiller's career. Cornerback and safety are obviously bigger needs. But if those positions are taken off the draft board, I would take the top tailback (Spiller) over the top receiver (Dez Bryant) at No. 7 every time.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are several notes and observations from within the division:
- We are hearing that it will be extremely tough for the Pittsburgh Steelers to make any more moves with their heralded free-agent class of 2010 without first striking a deal with left tackle Max Starks. The franchise tag used on Starks is eating up a whopping $8.451 million of this year's salary cap. Players such as tight end Heath Miller, safety Ryan Clark, nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive end Brett Keisel and tailback Willie Parker are all playing in the final year of their deals. Even with linebacker Larry Foote's recent release, we're told things probably will remain status quo unless Starks and the team can agree to a long-term extension.
- The Baltimore Ravens could have a tough decision to make in the battle for backup quarterback. Newly signed John Beck should provide stiff competition for last year's No. 2 quarterback Troy Smith. But here is an important wrinkle the Ravens have to consider: If Beck wins the backup job does that eliminate Baltimore's "Wildcat" offense? Baltimore used it with a lot of success last season. But if Smith is the No. 3/emergency quarterback, by rule he can dress but cannot play unless starting quarterback Joe Flacco remains on the sidelines for the remainder of the game. This small rule could be a major reason Smith remains the No. 2 quarterback. Chances are Beck cannot run the gimmick formation as well as Smith.
- The recent release offensive tackle Levi Jones was the final link to another example of poor management by the Cincinnati Bengals. Before the 2006 season, Cincinnati was coming off a playoff appearance the year prior and had to decide which offensive linemen deserved new contracts. The team chose to give Jones and aging tackle Willie Anderson huge deals at the expense of up-and-coming guard Eric Steinbach. Jones and Anderson were never the same players after those contracts and both tackles have been released. Steinbach went to the Browns as a free agent in 2007 and became a Pro Bowl guard. To this day, Cincinnati's offensive line has yet to recover from those poor decisions.
- There is a rumor floating around Cleveland that the Browns might be interested in a deal involving receiver Braylon Edwards for New York Jets tailback Thomas Jones. We're not sure how much validity there is to this one. But knowing the Browns, this likely wouldn't go down unless future draft picks were involved. Cleveland also would have to give Jones, 30, a big contract extension following a trade, which doesn't seem like something the new regime in Cleveland is interested in at the moment.
For the past week, folks back home in Cleveland have been inundating me with questions about Eric Mangini and whether they should be excited or concerned about him becoming the Browns' next head coach.
|AP Photo/Tom Mihalek|
|After interviewing Eric Mangini, the Browns essentially called off their coaching search.|
As a former member of the Fair Hooker fan club and somebody who has closely followed Mangini's time with the New York Jets, I can say I'm at least mildly enthused.
Browns fans might jump to the conclusion they're taking on some other team's rubbish.
Here are three reasons, based on Mangini's performance with the Jets, that he is the right choice for Cleveland:
1. The Jets' 9-7 record and late-season collapse aren't all on him.
Although the Jets flatlined down the homestretch under Mangini's watch, many of the reasons were out of the coach's control.
Some of his last images on the Jets sideline were of pained exasperation, wondering what in the heck Brett Favre was doing. As Mangini's close friend Teddy Atlas, a boxing trainer and ESPN analyst, noted to the New York Post, Mangini went into 2008 intending to base the offense around running back Thomas Jones, but "the whole plan, the whole blueprint got thrown out the window when Favre came."
Mangini also had the respect of his players.
"I still feel bad," Jets tackle Damien Woody said. "I just feel like there's no reason this team shouldn't be in the postseason right now.
"He shouldn't have gotten fired. As players, we let him down. We didn't play our best ball down the stretch. We had everything in our control, and we let it slip away from us."
2. Mangini showed flashes of what he can do.
Mangini's record in his three seasons with the Jets was 23-25. But he often was better than mediocre.
In his rookie season as head coach, he took over a team that had gone 4-12 the previous season and guided it to 10-6 and a trip to the playoffs.
The Jets returned to 4-12 last season, and the "Mangenius" label was replaced with "Mangidiot" -- among other names.
The Jets' front office made a concerted effort to turn the franchise around and compete with the New York Giants and New York Yankees for the Big Apple's attention by spending $140 million on such free agents as guard Alan Faneca, Woody, fullback Tony Richardson and outside linebacker Calvin Pace and trading for Favre and nose tackle Kris Jenkins.
That was a lot of patches to quilt together, and Mangini handled the task for much of the season. The Jets became Super Bowl darlings after defeating the New England Patriots and previously unbeaten Tennessee Titans on the road.
They were 8-3 and playing with remarkable balance. Jones was running like an All-Pro. The Jets threw when they wanted. They throttled opponents with an impenetrable run defense.
Although it all unraveled with four losses in New York's last five games, Mangini managed to assemble a heap of new parts for a significant portion of the season.
3. Mangini's obviously indefatigable.
While the Jets still are hunting for his replacement, it says something about Mangini that he already has found a head-coaching job.
When he was fired, it seemed a safe assumption Mangini would need to undergo career rehabilitation as a defensive coordinator or position coach somewhere. Most coaches don't get fired from their first job and make a lateral move, and Mangini still had the Spygate stigma to deal with.
Yet one day after he was fired, Mangini was able to shake off the biggest setback of his career and dazzle Browns owner Randy Lerner in an interview that went so well the team essentially ended its search.
"He has a vision of what it takes to win a championship, and he's got a lot of football ahead of him," Woody said.
"I couldn't be happier. Eric's a great guy, an excellent young coach. He's always on top of the details, from the smallest things to the big picture. I think it's a great fit for Cleveland. Eric's the type of coach to get them back on track."