AFC South: Joe Flacco

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Caldwell's NFL résumé has success written all over it, from the very top all the way down to very end.

He was assistant coach and quarterback coach with the Indianapolis from 2002-08, winning a Super Bowl with them in 2006. Caldwell took over for Tony Dungy and led the Indianapolis Colts to a 14-0 start and another Super Bowl appearance in his first season in 2009.

Caldwell was fired after a 2-14 season -- and the end of Peyton Manning’s career in Indianapolis -- but rebounded nicely by being the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator when they won the Super Bowl in 2012.

But Caldwell admits he wasn’t sure he would end up being a head coach in the NFL again.

Those thoughts ended when the Detroit Lions (7-9 last season) named him their head coach last month.

So Manning, Joe Flacco, and now Calvin “Megatron” Johnson.

That’s not a bad group of players to coach for Caldwell.

“Fact of the matter is, very rare do you get a second opportunity,” Caldwell said. “Not only a second, but this is actually the third (time) for me if you include my stint in college as well. I was hoping, but I was also very, very satisfied working extremely hard at what I was doing in terms of coaching the position or being an offensive coordinator, whatever helped a team win. I’m not able to forecast the future. But I certainly indeed hoped that I did get another opportunity. I’m glad it happened.”

Caldwell, who was rather reserved as head coach of the Colts, noted how he’s grown as a coach from what he learned with the Colts and during his two seasons with the Ravens.

“One of things about our business is the fact that if you don’t feel like you’ve grown or developed each and every day, you’re in the wrong business," he said. "I learned something different each and every day. I had a great 10 years (in Indianapolis). We obviously had a lot of success and certainly learned a lot about what to do in terms of offensive football, learning how to develop was important in terms of how we went about doing things, but also winning consistently has a certain sound to it.”

Locker Room Buzz: Baltimore Ravens

November, 10, 2013
BALTIMORE -- Observed in the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens' 20-17 overtime win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Sigh of relief: It was a celebratory locker room following the Ravens' first win since Oct. 6. But, after failing to hold a 17-point lead, the Ravens felt fortunate to pull out the victory. "I don't know if it was as much exciting as one of those where you wipe your forehead and say, 'Whew, Thank God, we got out of this one,'" quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Having said that, it is a big win."

Shaking off the Hail Mary: The Ravens were able to come back to win in overtime after allowing a 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown to tie the game at the end of regulation. How was the atmosphere on the sideline? "It's disappointment, but you don't get disheartened," coach John Harbaugh said. "The game is not over. I'm proud of the fact that our guys looked at it that way. It's not something you have to go walking up and down the bench to make the point. We've got leadership all the way across the board. I'm really proud of them."

Looking to be a playmaker: Ravens safety James Ihedigbo didn't mince words when talking about his big game. "I look at myself as a great player, and that's what I aspire to be," he said. Ihedigbo had the first two interceptions of his career before tipping the pass on the game-tying Hail Mary touchdown. But he bounced back in the fourth quarter when he helped slow down Giovani Bernard on fourth down.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- This is a make or break season for Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Either he proves he can be a consistent starter who could develop into a franchise quarterback or the Jaguars will give up on the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder and look for a quarterback in the draft.

The Jaguars took Gabbert with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft, believing he would become a quarterback that could lead the franchise to a Super Bowl. He obviously hasn’t developed the way the team had hoped, and entering his third season he has completed just 53.8 percent of his passes for 3,876 yards and 21 touchdowns with 17 interceptions.

His inconsistency -- in his 24 starts he has completed at least half of his passes 16 times (and also a 17th game in which was injured went 2-for-2) but has also had seven games in which he completed less than 50 percent of his passes -- looks even worse when compared to the other 11 quarterbacks who were drafted in 2011.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesBlaine Gabbert is just 5-19 as the starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
More importantly, his record as a starter is 5-19 (.208). That's the worst record among the 12 quarterbacks taken in the 2011 NFL draft. Six, including Gabbert, were taken in the first two rounds and those are the players against which he should be measured, so here’s a breakdown:

Cam Newton (No. 1 overall by Carolina): Newton had a fantastic first season, setting rookie records for passing yards (4,051) and rushing yards by a quarterback (706). Those numbers lasted only a season, though, as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III broke them last season. Newton is 13-19 as a starter after going 6-10 as a rookie and 7-9 last season. Career stats: 590-1,002-29, 7,920 yards, 40 TDs; 1,447 yards, 22 TDs rushing.

Jake Locker (No. 8 overall by Tennessee): Locker played in five games as a rookie but won the starting job entering last season. He missed five games and parts of two others because of two shoulder separations and led the Titans to a 4-7 record in the 11 games which he started. He completed 56.4 percent of his passes for 2,176 yards and 10 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in 2012. Career stats: 211-380-11, 2,718, 14 TDs.

Christian Ponder (No. 12 overall by Minnesota): He started the final 10 games of his rookie season (going 2-8) but helped lead the Vikings to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth last season, though, he missed the playoff game with a deep triceps bruise. This, too, is a make-or-break season for Ponder. Career stats: 458-774-25, 4,788 yards, 31 TDs.

Andy Dalton (second round, No. 35 overall by Cincinnati): Dalton is by far the most successful quarterback of the group, having started every game the past two seasons and leading the Bengals to a 19-13 record and two playoff berths. Each season has ended with playoff losses to Houston, but it was the first time since 1981-82 the franchise has made back-to-back playoff appearances. Career stats: 629-1,044-29, 7,067 yards, 47 TDs.

Colin Kaepernick (second round, No. 36 overall by San Francisco): Kaepernick was a relative unknown until he replaced Alex Smith (concussion) in Week 10. He led the 49ers to a 5-2 record to close the regular season and playoff victories over Green Bay and Atlanta to reach the Super Bowl. He threw for 798 yards and four TDs and rushed for 264 yards and three TDs in the postseason. Career stats: 139-223-3, 1,849 yards, 10 TDs.

Here's a look at the other six:

Ryan Mallett (third round, No. 74 overall by New England): He has played in four games in two seasons in mop-up duty in relief of Tom Brady. He was the subject of trade rumors early in the preseason but remains with the Patriots. Career stats: 1-4-1, 17 yards.

Ricky Stanzi (fifth round, No. 135 overall): Spent two seasons with the Chiefs until being cut last week. He is now with the Jaguars as the No. 3 quarterback behind Gabbert and Chad Henne. He has never appeared in a game.

T.J. Yates (fifth round, No. 152 overall by Houston): He started the last five games of the regular season and two playoff games in 2011 when Matt Schaub was out with a Lisfranc injury. He led the Texans to a 3-4 record in those games, which included a 31-10 victory over Cincinnati in a wild-card game that was the first playoff victory in franchise history. Career stats: 86-144-4, 987 yards, 3 TDs.

Nathan Enderle (fifth round, No. 160 overall): He spent the 2011 season with the Bears but was waived after the season. He went to training camp with the Jaguars and spent time with Tennessee in the offseason. He signed with San Diego on July 31 and was among the Chargers cut last week. He has never appeared in a game.

Tyrod Taylor (sixth round, No. 180 overall): He has played in 10 games in relief of Joe Flacco. Career stats: 18-30-1, 197 yards.

Greg McElroy (seventh round, No. 208 overall): The former Alabama standout started one game for the New York Jets last season, going 14-for-24 for 185 yards with one interception in a 27-17 loss to San Diego. He was released earlier this week. Career numbers: 19-31-1, 214 yards, 1 TD.
The sophomore slump concept baffles me.

Sure, we see it at times. But it’s as if just because there is a sing-songy and alliterative name for a second-year dip, it’s a fact that any good rookie endures a sophomore slump.

I just had a pretty good view of J.J. Watt’s second year. It was no slump.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Michael ConroyColts quarterback Andrew Luck seems an unlikely candidate for a sophomore slump.
Coaches regularly say the biggest jump for players is between Year 1 and Year 2.

When it comes to Andrew Luck, I’m not predicting anything close to a sophomore slump.

Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information was kind enough to sort though numbers on quarterbacks over the past 10 years who played substantially in their first and second years.

There are 15 quarterback in the past 10 seasons who have qualified for the passer rating title in each of their first two seasons. That requires 14 pass attempts per game.

Here’s the list of those 15:

Cam Newton, CAR
Sam Bradford, STL
Matt Ryan, ATL
Andy Dalton, CIN
Joe Flacco, BAL
Byron Leftwich, JAC
Ben Roethlisberger, PIT
Mark Sanchez, NYJ
Blaine Gabbert, JAC
Vince Young, TEN
Josh Freeman, TB
Christian Ponder, MIN
Trent Edwards, BUF
Colt McCoy, CLE
Kyle Boller, BAL

Nuggets from Singer on those 15 regarding the idea of a sophomore slump:

  • Ten of them increased their completion percentage in their second year. Young had the biggest increase (51.5 to 62.3) while Bradford had the biggest drop (60.0 to 53.5).
  • Nine of the 15 increased or saw their yards per attempt remain consistent. Edwards had the biggest increase (6.1 to 7.2) while Ryan had the biggest drop (7.9 to 6.5).
  • Thirteen of the 15 saw their touchdown-to-interception ratio increase. Freeman had by far the biggest increase (.56 to 4.2, going from 10 TDs and 18 INTs to 25 TDs and six INTs) while Young had the biggest drop (.92 to .53, 12 TDs and 13 INTs to nine TDs and 17 INTs).
  • Thirteen of the 15 saw their NFL passer rating remain steady or improve. Freeman had the biggest increase (59.8 to 95.9) while Matt Ryan had the biggest drop (87.7 to 80.9).
  • There are 10 quarterbacks in the QBR era (since 2008) who have qualified for the passer rating title in each of their first two seasons. Seven of those QBs saw their QBR remain steady or increase. Freeman had the biggest increase (25.9 to 64.6) while Ryan had the biggest drop (74.1 to 56.6).

Improvement or decline in Year 2 hardly establishes a permanent arrow -- Freeman is much less of a sure thing now than he seemed after his second season; Ryan has become a much more known and desirable commodity since his second season.

But let’s get past this default setting that a rookie quarterback who has a decent, good or very good first year is automatically going to suffer a second-year dip.

I’d bet on Luck being far better in completion percentage (where he was at 54.1 percent in 2012 and is in a system featuring shorter passing now). I also expect he will throw fewer than 18 interceptions, throw more than 23 touchdowns, absorb fewer than 41 sacks and post a rating higher than 76.5.

The trade off for improvements in those areas is likely to come in air yards. Luck’s 10.1 air yards per pass last season, per NFL Stats & Information, was the highest number in the NFL.
Ed Reed is sure acting like a guy who's hoping the Baltimore Ravens will still step up and give him the kind of deal he's looking for.

But more likely he's facing the harsh realities of an expensive, aging superstar.'s Ashley Fox doesn't think Reed is going to get the two-year deal with between $10 and $11 million he can have from the Houston Texans in Baltimore.
If the Ravens can move on from Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, they can move on from Ed Reed. Life will go on.

And really, it is time. The Ravens can cut ties with Reed, a beloved member of the franchise, and be good. They can do it with a clear conscience. They won a Super Bowl with Reed, despite all the insanity of last season, when Reed flirted with retiring or quitting or spending time with his family or whatever he was going to do.

The Ravens are loyal, but giving Ed Reed big money would be bad business.

Baltimore stood by him. It won with him. And a decade from now, when he is retired, Reed can come back with (Ray) Lewis and Boldin and Ray Rice and Joe Flacco and celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their greatest professional achievement, and there should be no bad blood. There should be cheers and roses and good feelings.

It ended the way it was supposed to, with Reed on top.

And now it should end.

I agree. It's hard to see and accept the end, I'm sure. But it's not like he doesn't have other opportunities.

If Houston -- where good friend Andre Johnson is a star receiver -- doesn't feel like a fit, it may be hard to find anything comfortable.

As Fox says, the Ravens are taking emotion out of it. As hard as it may be, Reed's got to do the same.

RTC: Don't overrate Colts' SOS

February, 6, 2013
Reading the coverage ...

Ranking every roster in the league with Evan Silva of Rotoworld. The AFC’s second-best team comes in at 19th.

Houston Texans

Joe Flacco isn’t that much better than Matt Schaub, but the gap is growing, says Randy Harvey of the Houston Chronicle. Dale Robertson takes the other side and argues while Flacco is a better vertical passer, there really isn’t a lot of difference between he and Schaub.

To which I say: They have similar personalities, but not similar games. Right now you’d be crazy to take Schaub over Flacco as your quarterback.

An early look at the 2013 Texans roster, from Patrick D. Starr of State of the Texans.

Indianapolis Colts

Based on 2012 records, the Colts' 2013 strength of schedule looks very favorable, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

To which I say: The thing is that a lot of teams make dramatic swings from bad to good or good to bad in one year, so strength of schedule can mislead. Drawing the Colts last year looked like an easy game, until they won 11 and went to the playoffs.

Says Phil Richards of the Indianapolis Star: “The Ravens have now won two Super Bowls, one more than the Baltimore Colts ever did. And one more than the Indianapolis Colts, too. And the Ravens did it in just 17 years.”

Adding a running back or two will be vital for Pep Hamilton to be able to run his offense, says Stew Blake of Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have a new look and a new vision, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

To which I say: I went on record via Twitter Tuesday. I like the new logo.

A Jacksonville advertising company creative director likes what the Jaguars have done with their new logo, says Matt Soergel of the Times-Union.

See the old logo and the new logo side by side, courtesy of Alfie Crow at Big Cat Country.

Duke tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Ron Middleton is leaving to join the Jaguars, who have an open tight ends coach job, says the Florida Times-Union.

The Jaguars are pushing to increase local revenue, says Ashley Gurbal Kritzer of the Jacksonville Business Journal.

Tennessee Titans

“The Titans need to get league-average quarterback play from Jake Locker, improve the pass defense and vastly improve their special teams,” says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report. “If they do, it should mean an instant bump in wins up to the nine or 10 range.”

To which I say: I talked about a bump up to average for Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville before the 2012 season. Easier said than done.

A Q&A with general manager Ruston Webster from David Boclair of the Nashville City Paper.

Tom Gower of Total Titans assesses the team at quarterback.

How the Texans stack up to the Ravens

February, 4, 2013
In the AFC South, only the Houston Texans faced the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2012.

On Oct. 21, 2012, the Texans crushed the Ravens 43-13 at Reliant Stadium.

It qualifies as ancient history in a league where things can change dramatically week to week.

The Texans peaked early, and the win over the Ravens was big for the Houston franchise, which was less than a year removed from a playoff loss in Baltimore.

That regular-season win was every bit as dominant as the score indicates. Houston outgained the Ravens 420 yards to 176, held the ball for 38:16 and played great on third down on both sides of the ball.

Matt Schaub outplayed Joe Flacco and Arian Foster outplayed Ray Rice. The Texans also got big plays from cornerback Johnathan Joseph (a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown), defensive end Antonio Smith (back-to-back sacks) and special-teamer Bryan Braman (who recovered a surprise onside kick).

It’s nice to be able to say you beat the eventual Super Bowl champs, but ultimately the season isn’t about Week 7. So how do the Texans really stand up to the Ravens?

Some areas to consider ...

Peak timing: The Texans bolted to an 11-1 record but faltered big time from there and didn’t recover from late struggles in the regular season to play at a high level in a divisional round playoff game in New England. The Ravens, meanwhile, had a worse regular-season finish than the Texans. Baltimore lost four of its last five games down the stretch. But they recovered starting with a home win over Indianapolis in the wild-card round and took flight from there.

Taking on top quarterbacks: During the regular season, the Ravens beat Tom Brady and Eli Manning. Their playoff run saw them beat Peyton Manning and Brady in consecutive weeks. The Texans did beat Peyton Manning, but they generally struggled against top quarterbacks -- losing regular-season games to Aaron Rodgers and Brady, then seeing their season end in the playoffs against Brady again.

Quarterback play: Both Schaub and Flacco went into training camp with contracts set to expire after the season. The Texans got a four-year extension done with Schaub just before the season started. It’s worth $62 million, with $24.75 million guaranteed. Flacco played out the year, knowing at worst he’d wind up with a franchise tag and at best he’d wind up having the sort of year that prompted his team to give him a giant deal. Schaub petered out late in the season and didn’t raise his game when things got more important. Flacco, meanwhile, went head to head with some future Hall of Famers. As a Super Bowl winner, he’s now in line for a monster deal.

Injuries: While the Ravens lost an excellent cornerback in Lardarius Webb, they got key defensive starters Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis back from injuries along the way. Houston ultimately missed Brian Cushing badly and Joseph’s play dropped off in a season where he was hampered by leg injuries.

Options: The Texans' offense is different than Baltimore’s. But the Ravens got giant plays from their two top receivers in the playoffs, with Torrey Smith getting behind defenders for huge plays and Anquan Boldin consistently fighting for, and winning, balls in the air. Beyond Andre Johnson, the Texans simply didn’t have a second receiver who was threatening in a similar fashion.

Big adjustments: It took a while for the move to pay off, but Baltimore boldly made a late-season change at offensive coordinator, firing Cam Cameron and replacing him with Jim Caldwell. Caldwell found an excellent play-calling rhythm in the postseason. With that change came a late shuffle of the offensive line, and moving people around up front paid big dividends. The Texans didn’t require any firings or big shuffling. But the Ravens were willing to take some risks and got big payoffs. It’s hard to look at Houston’s season and find any big risk-reward decisions.
Before the start of the 2012 NFL season, I spent an evening writing some overdue notes.

Like Sal Paolantonio of ESPN, who has a book on thank-you notes in the works, I have a thank-you-note rhythm. I don’t write them nearly as frequently as Sal Pal. But when players, coaches or executives leave teams I cover, I strive to touch base, thank them for dealing with me, wish them well and say I hope we meet again.

I wrote a dozen or 15 notes, some brief, some beefier, before the guys who left the AFC South started up somewhere else.

One guy wrote me back. And I was not at all surprised to find an envelope with a Ravens logo as part of the return address and a note from Jim Caldwell.

He’s as steady and as nice a guy as you’ll meet, not just in the NFL but anywhere.

And with his success guiding Baltimore’s offense in its build-up to the Super Bowl, and no minority hires in eight filled coaching jobs, there are calls for him to get a second chance, like this one from my colleague Ashley Fox.

If Baltimore’s offense and Joe Flacco are good again in 2013, I’d certainly expect Caldwell to draw interest.

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyJim Caldwell's success with Baltimore's offense might get him on the radar, but his head-coaching bona fides are hardly indisputable.
And I’m not saying he’s unworthy.

But he inherited a great team from Tony Dungy in 2009 and had Peyton Manning lead the way to the Super Bowl, where his team was favored and lost -- and of which one overriding opinion was that Caldwell was outcoached by New Orleans counterpart Sean Payton, who surprised the Colts with an onsides kick to open the second half.

In 2010, Caldwell had another playoff team, and a questionable Caldwell timeout set up the Jets for a surprise victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And in 2011, as Manning recovered from neck surgeries and the Colts crumbled, Caldwell stuck with Curtis Painter as the replacement quarterback far too long when Dan Orlovsky turned out to be a far better option.

Caldwell was in a difficult situation with Bill Polian over him. That the guy running the Colts was so strong made the coach weak, and such weakness isn’t a quality from a three-year head-coaching resume that will make other teams want to hire Caldwell.

He can lead men and convey themes, and that is hard work.

But he could be conservative at the wrong times. He wasn’t always a great clock manager. He didn’t make good fourth-down decisions on when to punt, try a field goal or go for it. His public image was one of a pushover on a team with Polian and Manning really running things. His choices for defensive coordinator (Larry Coyer) and special-teams coach (Ray Rychleski) didn’t produce great results and Polian prompted the firing of Coyer with five games left in 2011.

Unsurprisingly, after Polian was fired and Ryan Grigson took over as general manager, he let Caldwell go and hired Chuck Pagano.

Pagano and his offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, did great work in overseeing a rebound from 2-14 to 11-5 with a great new quarterback in Andrew Luck but also with a roster lacking in several areas.

Could Caldwell be a very good NFL head coach in the right circumstances? Perhaps. But while a good stretch as offensive coordinator with a hot team might enhance his best qualities from his three years as head man in Indy, it doesn’t wash away the stuff he did wrong in Indianapolis.

It hardly makes him an automatic hire or success.

He certainly should have to explain that bad in-game stuff as he sells himself for a second chance. If he gets it, I sure hope he's not under a strong GM's thumb.

How gap between Titans, Ravens grew

January, 28, 2013
The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens used to be bitter rivals, closely matched.

Then Tennessee collapsed in a playoff game after the 2000 season at what now is LP Field, losing 24-10 despite dominating the game in a lot of ways.

Since that fork in the road, the teams have gone in very different directions.

Writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean: “The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and they will play for a second championship on Sunday in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers. The Titans, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff game in nine years and are coming off a 6-10 season.”

But that’s not the line of demarcation I’ll use.

The 2008 Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The sixth-seeded Ravens won in Miami to earn another playoff trip to Nashville. And Tennessee lost that divisional round game in a similar fashion to the game in 2000, even though the score was a lot closer, 13-10.

Since then:
  • The Titans are 29-35 (.453) with no playoff appearances.
  • The Ravens are 43-21 (.672) with a 6-3 playoff record.

That playoff meeting in Nashville was Joe Flacco’s second playoff game, and while he’s had his ups and downs, he’s now a Super Bowl quarterback.

Since then, the Titans have started Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and, in an emergency situations, Rusty Smith.

Instability at quarterback is only part of the reasons the teams have been so different.

John Harbaugh has developed into a steady coach while Jeff Fisher’s tenure fizzled out and Mike Munchak hasn’t established any solid footing after two seasons.

Led by one of the NFL’s top general managers, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have continued good roster building.

The Titans actually have more starters and contributors out of their last four drafts, but it’s partly because of previous failures -- think Young, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Paul Williams -- that so much opportunity is available.

Baltimore’s gotten far more production out of outside veterans it’s brought in: Center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin (via trade), fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, resurgent left tackle Bryant McKinnie, receiver/returner Jacoby Jones.

Compare that to Tennessee’s veteran additions: Receiver Nate Washington, linebacker Will Witherspoon, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, safety Jordan Babineaux, guard Steve Hutchinson, end Kamerion Wimbley, returner Darius Reynaud.

The Titans fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and didn’t see much change with Dowell Loggains promoted to replace Chris Palmer.

The Ravens fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and got a major boost from Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron.

It’s a copycat league, and the Ravens were already a model franchise in many ways.

The Titans are one of a long list of teams that need to look at how the Ravens work and borrow some ideas.

Quarterback is the key, but the gap between these two teams was a playoff field goal just four years ago. It’s a deep moat now.

Final Word: AFC South

January, 4, 2013
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North » AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about wild-card weekend:

Rematch in Houston: This is the fourth time under the current playoff format that teams are meeting in the wild-card round in back-to-back seasons. In each of the previous three instances, the team that won the first game also won the second game. Houston won on Jan. 7, 2012, at Reliant Stadium 31-10. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. Every other NFL franchise has won a playoff game since then. Cincinnati is 0-5 all-time on the road in the postseason, tied with the Saints (also 0-5) for the worst road record in NFL postseason history. If the Bengals lose, Marvin Lewis will become the first head coach to lose his first four playoff games since Wade Phillips (now the Texans' defensive coordinator) lost his first four before earning his postseason victory in 2009.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiColts QB Andrew Luck hasn't thrown an interception since Dec. 9 in a win against Tennessee.
Playing cleaner: Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck led the NFL with 23 turnovers in his first 13 games. But in the last three, he’s protected the ball well and not turned it over at all. Can he stay clean against the Ravens and ball hawking safety Ed Reed, or does he fall back into bad plays? Luck has thrown 10 interceptions on passes 15 or more yards downfield this season, tied with Mark Sanchez and Drew Brees for most in the league. Seven of Luck’s interceptions on such throws have come on the road, the most in the NFL.

Big plays from Andre: Andre Johnson has 10 receptions of 30 or more yards this season, tied for fourth most in the league. The Bengals' defense has allowed only 10 such passing plays all season, the fewest in the NFL. The Texans' ability to find such a play could be a gigantic factor in what I expect to be a defensive game. Matt Schaub has looked to Johnson too much in the Texans’ three recent losses. If the Texans are able to spread the ball around better, it can actually increase opportunities for the throws to Johnson to result in back-breaking, field-flipping plays.

Wayne in the end zone: As good as Reggie Wayne has been this season, less than 5 percent of his 105 catches and less than 3 percent of his 180 targets have been for touchdowns. ESPN Stats & Info says his one touchdown every 36 targets is Wayne’s lowest touchdown rate in the past five seasons, and the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL this season among receivers with at least three touchdowns. (The Colts' Donnie Avery has the fourth lowest with one touchdown every 38.7 targets.) Wayne needs 162 receiving yards to pass Cliff Branch for the third most in NFL postseason history and he needs one touchdown reception to tie Fred Biletnikoff, Antonio Freeman, Randy Moss and Hines Ward for third most touchdown receptions in NFL postseason history.

Also: A.J. Green has four touchdown catches this season on play-action passes, tied for third most in the league. Andy Dalton has not thrown a touchdown pass to any other receiver out of play-action this season. … The Ravens are trying to become the fourth team in NFL history to win a playoff game in five straight seasons. … Of the 16 teams he has faced more than once since 2008, Schaub’s Total QBR of 89.4 against the Bengals is his best against any team. … Arian Foster’s 285 rush yards are the most ever by a player in his first two career playoff games. … Joe Flacco’s not been pushing the ball downfield as much since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator.

Quick Take: Colts at Ravens

December, 30, 2012
Five things to know about next Sunday's Indianapolis Colts-Baltimore Ravens AFC wild-card game at M&T Bank Stadium:

Familiarity: When the Colts hired Chuck Pagano to take over as head coach, they hired him away from the Ravens, with whom he was defensive coordinator. He should have special insight into Baltimore on both sides of the ball. But John Harbaugh and the Ravens will have an understanding of what Pagano is looking to do as well. The Ravens' offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell, was coach of the Colts from 2009-11. While Indianapolis has a lot of turnover and new schemes in place, Caldwell knows plenty about a lot of the key holdovers. On the fan level, the Colts playing in Baltimore always brings out an extra degree of hostility, as the team’s departure from the city created the need for its recruitment of the Browns (who became the Ravens) from Cleveland.

Turnovers: The Colts have been a bad team with turnovers all season, giving away 18 interceptions and nine fumbles while taking the ball away only 15 times. But they fared well against the Texans in their regular-season finale with two Vontae Davis interceptions of Matt Schaub and no turnovers. Still, if they fall into the problems that created their minus-12 turnover ratio, giveaways tend to hurt more in the postseason. The Ravens finished the regular season at plus-nine. Safety Ed Reed is aging, but he has a propensity for making interceptions in big games.

Regular-season carryover: Pagano talked a lot with his team about carrying mojo into the playoffs, and the Colts played their starters all of Sunday in a game that didn’t mean anything to their playoff positioning. Indy’s 28-16 win hurt the AFC South-rival Texans. Indianapolis has won two in a row and five of six. The Ravens had a giant 33-17 win over the New York Giants in Week 16. But they’ve lost four of their past five and didn’t go all out to win their finale the way the Colts did. Joe Flacco threw only eight passes before he took a seat, and Ray Rice had just three carries.

Rookie readiness: The Colts are super-reliant on rookies well beyond quarterback Andrew Luck. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener and running back Vick Ballard are starters and T.Y. Hilton is the third receiver. There are four other rookies on the roster, and another five guys who aren't technically rookies but qualify as first-year players. The speed and intensity of playoff games elevate a notch. Are the Colts ready for it? Or does the bigness of the setting finally affect them somehow?

Time: Luck holds the ball too long at times in an effort to make a play, and sometimes the rush is on him too quickly because the protection is less than stellar. When he has time and space to step into his throws, he can deliver some impressive passes. When he's being hit as he releases the pass, things get exponentially more difficult. The Ravens' defense is no longer the team's strength, but if Baltimore can find ways to pressure Luck, it can really change the game.

RTC: CJ's game echoed his best days

October, 22, 2012
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

The Texans felt a lot of people doubted them after the loss to Green Bay, but they responded with a statement win as they clobbered the Ravens, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

After three bad series, Andre Johnson rallied the troops on the sideline, urged everyone to stay calm, and saw good results, says Dale Robertson.

The defense kick started the big win with a furious series that produced a sack of Joe Flacco for a safety by Connor Barwin and a pick-six from Johnathan Joseph, says Randy Harvey of the Chron.

To which I say: It was a big spark. But at Reliant Stadium it felt like if that hadn’t happened, something else would have. The Texans were just the better team, and something was going to happen to get them started.

With each win, expectations and hopes soar for the Texans, says Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle.

The Texans will need no one’s help to get where they want to go, says Ganguli.

Lots of good marks in McClain’s grades.

This was the burial of the Ravens as we know them, says Pete Prisco of

To which I say: They aren't the same team anymore. But it's not going to show the same way in the next two games with lesser matchups at Cleveland and against Oakland.

The Texans reasserted their dominance with the handling of Baltimore, says Don Banks of

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts found the five or six plays they needed to beat the Browns, writes Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

This team feels just fine about winning ugly, which is what it took for them to get past the Browns on Sunday, says Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. Indy caught some major breaks along the way, too. It was also the first week all season that the Colts played the same offensive line as the week before.

To which I say: I absolutely love the detail at the end of this piece about Joe Lefeged stepping in as a punt gunner to replace a gassed Lavon Brazill when the Colts had to re-punt after a penalty.

If ever the Colts were going to get the run game going, this was going to be the game, says Michael Pointer of the Star.

Chuck Pagano was released from the hospital and watched the win over the Browns from home, says Mike Chappell.

Kravitz gives out a lot of good grades in this report card.

Josh Gordon took the blame for the Browns’ loss based on his late drop of a touchdown pass, says Phillip B. Wilson.

The Colts did just enough to win, says Conrad Brunner of 1070 The Fan.

There was bolder coaching, good days for the running backs and a tough afternoon for Jerraud Powers, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Jacksonville Jaguars

It went from bad to worse for the Jaguars with their overtime loss in Oakland on Sunday, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. “The Jaguars added blowing a double-digit advantage to their ever-growing file of Ways To Lose.”

The Jaguars have a strange affinity for special kinds of misery, says Gene Frenette of the T-U.

To which I say: Jeremy Mincey’s talking about never accepting being a loser. But if you simply don’t have the talent or resolve to win, how do you help but come to terms with it at some point? Coach Mike Mularkey said the Jags were “inept” offensively. Not reassuring, because what’s going to change it at this point.

The Jaguars await further details about the injuries to Maurice Jones-Drew and Blaine Gabbert, says Stellino.

Chad Henne had bad protection and a bad performance as he relieved Gabbert, says Vito Stellino of the T-U.

Frenette’s report card.

Among the things John Oehser of the team website learned out of the loss, the run game really needs the pass game.

If the Jaguars are without Gabbert for any significant stretch, they could wind up with the worst record in football, says Dunlevy.

Tennessee Titans

When they can stay in a game, they find a way to win it, which is what the Titans did against the Bills in Buffalo, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Given where the Titans were just a couple weeks ago, “there is reason for cautious optimism,” writes David Climer of The Tennessean. “If nothing else, the Titans have shown resilience.”

To which I say: The AFC’s down which helps keep the Titans up. Only three teams in the whole conference have more wins than Tennessee.

Chris Johnson’s giant game harkened back to his best days, says John Glennon of The Tennessean. The context needs mention: The Bills' run defense is horrific.

In the eyes of Mike Munchak, the winning Matt Hasselbeck to Nate Washington TD was a money throw and a money catch, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean.

It’s good marks for the offense, bad ones for the D in Wyatt’s report card.

Last week, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers shredded the Houston Texans for 14.1 yards a completion and 8.4 yards per pass play.

This week, Joe Flacco found none of the same success against the Texans throwing down field and the corresponding numbers were 7 and 2.6.

Per ESPN Stats and Info, Flacco finished 5-of-18 on throws deeper than five yards downfield, including 0-7 on throws at least 10 yards downfield.

In his first six games, on throws over five yards downfield, he’d found 11 plays of 30 yards or more and six touchdowns against four interceptions.

Against the Texans he didn’t find a 30-yard play at all -- in fact his long completion was 15 yards – and he threw two interceptions with one touchdown.

Meanwhile the Ravens failed miserably when they sent extra pass pressure at Matt Schaub.

Versus five or more pass rushers, Schaub was eight-for-eight for 85 yards and a touchdown. Coming into the game he’d been completing only 52.5 percent of his passes against rushes of five players or more, 27th in the NFL.
Matt SchaubThomas Campbell/US PresswireHouston captains Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub had a huge game against Baltimore after a disappointing loss to Green Bay.

HOUSTON -- The patch is small.

Saturday night in front of his entire team, Texans coach Gary Kubiak put a big spotlight and magnifying lens over it.

The guys with that small rectangular “C” on the right breast of their jerseys needed to elevate their game and lead, he said, issuing a challenge at the team meeting. On the eve of a game pitting the AFC’s two best teams, Kubiak called on his captains to show why their teammates voted them the title.

In a 43-13 thrashing of the Ravens, Houston’s captains did just that. Matt Schaub played efficient and effective at quarterback (a 100.7 passer rating) with Andre Johnson dictating coverage as he moved around to pull in nine passes for a game-high 86 yards. On the other side of the ball, Antonio Smith put fourth-quarter exclamation marks on a stifling defensive effort with sacks of Joe Flacco on consecutive plays.

In the franchise’s first win over Baltimore, Houston set a new team record for points in a game.

A week after the Texans let down against the Packers and got shelled in their first game without injured defensive leader Brian Cushing, the Ravens endured the same sort of trouble adjusting to life without two players lost last week to injury -- their top cornerback, Lardarius Webb, and their longtime leader, Ray Lewis.

The Ravens looked nothing like the best team in the AFC, or even the second best.

Meanwhile, Houston heads into its bye feeling awfully confident.

“I knew we were going to bounce back,” Schaub said.

“Last week was a hiccup, but we’re just fine,” defensive end J.J. Watt said.

They are hardly perfect, but six of the nine teams left on their schedule are currently .500 or worse.

There isn't a team in the conference with as good a balance between its offense and defense or between its rush offense and pass offense. Barring another big injury, it should not be difficult for the Texans to win 11 games. I can’t be sold on the idea that they’ll lose more than one -- if one -- of their remaining four at home, against Buffalo, Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Minnesota.

In getting to 5-0 they proved they were awfully good. In rebounding from their first loss and lone dud of the season, they showed there is quite a bit of distance between themselves and the teams they will likely be fighting with come the playoffs, which should run through Reliant Stadium.

“We didn’t lose to a team still searching for their identity,” said Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, who made his season debut to the surprise of many and had a sack and a pass knockdown. “They know who they are.”

Cushing might qualify as the Texans’ best leader, which is part of why Kubiak singled out his other captains in the team’s second game without the inside linebacker since he suffered a torn ACL.

“It’s human nature to say, 'OK, how are we going to be?'" Kubiak said, referring to the Texans' first time on the field without Cushing. “... What we found out today is we can still play great defense and expect to do that the rest of the year.”

It was great offense, too, after a slow start.

Outside linebacker Connor Barwin provided a spark with his first sack of the season and a safety, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who’s been struggling with a groin injury, grabbed a pass tipped by Watt and returned it for a 52-yard touchdown. The defensive scoring was nice, but by the end, the offense had more than found its bearings with 420 total net yards and 27 first downs in 38:16 of possession time.

Schaub spread his passes around, with 10 aimed for Johnson, 10 for tight end Owen Daniels and six for Kevin Walter. Typically, when the Texans are able to feature Johnson, things go well for Houston. When Schaub can target him, the coverage reacts and that creates space for Daniels and other pass-catchers as well as Arian Foster and the rushing offense.

“What weren’t they able to do?” Ravens coach John Harbaugh asked. “They ran the ball, they threw the ball, protected it. It was about as complete a performance as you can have on both sides of the ball."

Kubiak has another captain vote midway through the season because he knows a team is always evolving and new, emerging leaders may be deserving of joining the captains already in place.

It’s unlikely the coach will call on them again in such a setting for a boost -- it’s a hand you can probably only play once.

“Coach doesn’t do it often, but he looked to those guys to step up and represent that C on their chest that all the players voted on them for,” Daniels said. “Not that they hadn’t been doing a great job this season. But today was one of those games where we needed to bounce back from last week and we needed to make a statement.”

It’s one I’m not sure anyone in the conference is going to be able to answer.

Rapid Reaction: Texans 43, Ravens 13

October, 21, 2012

HOUSTON -- Thoughts on the Texans' 43-13 pounding of the Ravens at Reliant Stadium on Sunday:

What it means: At 6-1, the Texans own the best record in the AFC, and with a win over the Ravens in their pocket, they are in an advantageous position to set up a playoff bye and home-field advantage in the postseason. They showed a nice bounce-back ability, recovering from the pounding they suffered a week ago at the hands of the Packers, exploiting matchups and showing themselves to be far better in the playmaker department.

What I liked on offense: The Texans wisely attacked the Ravens’ secondary in their first game without injured cornerback Lardarius Webb. Andre Johnson has had a relatively quiet season, but had no problem routinely getting open, mostly against corner Jimmy Smith. Matt Schaub also did well finding tight end Owen Daniels. The Texans spread out the carries as they used Ben Tate, but Arian Foster still gained 98 yards and had two scores to round out the offensive effort.

What I also liked on defense: Whitney Mercilus had a sack fumble and Connor Barwin had a sack for a safety on back-to-back plays in the first quarter. Antonio Smith had back-to-back fourth-quarter sacks of Joe Flacco. With pressure and pretty good coverage, the Texans never let Flacco find any sort of comfort zone.

Bounce-back effort: Cornerback Johnathan Joseph (groin) got called for a couple of penalties, but appeared far more effective than he had been the past two games. He picked off a fluttery ball from Flacco that was tipped by J.J. Watt and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

What’s next: The Texans have a bye before returning to action with a trip to Buffalo. The remaining home schedule is hardly intimidating with the Bills, Jaguars, Colts and Vikings.