AFC North: Victor Cruz

Wake-up call: Happy Holiday edition

December, 25, 2012
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone from the AFC North blog. What do you reflect upon on a day like today? If it's hits on defenseless receivers, torn knee ligaments and a coach trying to save his job, you've come to the right spot. As for me, the game plan for today is to spend some quality time with the family, and I hope you can do the same. The AFC North blog will be back in full swing Wednesday. Here's your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Coach John Harbaugh said safety Ed Reed "did everything he could" to avoid helmet contact with Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. According to The Baltimore Sun, the Ravens are hoping that any potential punishment from the league office won't go beyond a fine and that Reed won't face a suspension. "It's tough, full-speed, the whole thing," Harbaugh said. "I hope the league really takes a look at this in the offseason and figures out a way to help the players out a little bit. It's been a real challenge so far this year."

BENGALS: Coach Marvin Lewis doesn't plan to rest his starters in the final regular-season game even though the Bengals are locked into being the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I don't really have any beat-up guys," Lewis said. "So, the only thing that is at stake is you go out and play to win the game every time we go, win."

STEELERS: Tight end Heath Miller tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Sunday and will not play in the regular-season finale against the Browns. It's a terrible way to end a spectacular season for Miller, who was the Steelers' most consistent offensive weapon this year. Miller finished the season with 71 catches for career highs of 816 yards and 8 touchdowns.

BROWNS: Despite just a one-win improvement from a year ago, coach Pat Shurmur believes the Browns better positioned to "make the next jump." Said Shurmur, via The Plain Dealer: "I think ... as a team, and I'm talking about the way we function and the young players we added, we are much improved from a year ago." There is speculation that Shurmur will be fired as Browns coach as soon as the season is over.
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady fell short of his fourth game-winning touchdown drive in a Super Bowl. He overcame a ragged start to find his groove. He set a Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions, including 15 straight on two touchdown passes. His first touchdown pass, a 4-yarder to Danny Woodhead, showed his patience to wait for the running back to break free of the linebacker. Brady's second one, a 12-yarder, was quicker recognition to find tight end Aaron Hernandez against the middle linebacker. Brady did get hit on his interception (which turned out to be a long punt) and seemed to hurt his already banged-up left shoulder. He started off the scoring but not the way he intended. His intentional grounding penalty on the Patriots' first play led to a safety, a strange mistake for a quarterback known for such great awareness. Grade: B-plus.

OFFENSE: The Patriots' receivers let Brady down in the fourth quarter with drops from Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Hernandez. The passing game was limited with tight end Rob Gronkowski less than full strength with a high-ankle sprain. He didn't get a catch until three minutes left in the first half. Hernandez picked up the slack with a 12-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter. The offensive line held up quite well against a Giants pass rush that recorded five sacks of Brady in the last Super Bowl matchup. Welker was a hot target in the passing game, although he couldn't pull down a key reception late in the fourth quarter. Grade: C.

DEFENSE: The Patriots' much-maligned defense came up big in the biggest game of the season. Playing both safeties deep to defend against the deep pass, the Patriots made it tough for Eli Manning and forced him to throw into tight windows. The New England run defense got pushed around early (70 yards rushing allowed in the first half), but fared better in the second half. The Patriots played more physical after they were sparked by Patrick Chung's hit on Hakeem Nicks along the sideline. The Patriots then allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to score a 6-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left, so they could get the ball back into the hands of Brady. Grade: B-minus.

COACHING: Bill Belichick lost his second straight Super Bowl. The Patriots had a great game plan defensively and were running an efficient offense. But it was questionable to throw on second-and-11 in the fourth quarter — which resulted in an incompletion to Welker and stopped the clock with four minutes left in the game. Then, the challenge on the Mario Manningham catch on the Giants' final drive cost the Patriots a timeout. Belichick prides himself on precision and discipline, which is why having 12 men on the field for defense was so surprising. That penalty negated a recovered fumble for the New England defense and led to the Giants' first touchdown (a Victor Cruz 2-yard catch in the first quarter). Grade: B.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 29-yard field goal. The kickoff coverage team allowed a 34-yard return early in the third quarter. The Patriots' return game was virtually non-existent. Punter Zoltan Mesko was outplayed by Steve Weatherford, averaging 38 yards per punt. Grade: C.