NFL roster cuts: AFC | NFC

NFL Nation: 2012 Quick Takes AFC

Quick Take: Ravens at Patriots

January, 15, 2012
1/15/12
5:54
PM ET
Three things to know about Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the second-seeded Baltimore Ravens (13-4) and top-seeded New England Patriots (14-3):

1. Protect Joe Flacco: The Ravens quarterback will get criticized for the fact that he completed 14 of 27 passes against the Houston Texans. But Flacco didn't get much help from the offensive line. He was sacked a season-high five times (matching his total at San Diego last month) and it was mainly against Houston's front four. New England showed an aggressive pass rush against Denver, sacking Tim Tebow five times. The Patriots ranked 14th in the NFL in the regular season with 40 sacks.

2. Cover the tight ends: The focus of the Ravens' pass defense will be slowing New England's tight ends. Rob Gronkowki and Aaron Hernandez combined for 14 catches for 200 yards and four touchdowns in the divisional playoffs. Baltimore hasn't faced many elite tight ends this year, but it has contained a few good ones. The Ravens limited the likes of San Diego's Antonio Gates (two catches for 31 yards) and San Francisco's Vernon Davis (four for 38 yards). Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham (five for 72 yards) and Pittsburgh's Heath Miller (five for 73) have had solid games against Baltimore.

3. Get the ball in Ray Rice's hands: The Ravens are 9-0 this season when Rice gets at least 20 carries in a game, even though he was held to 60 yards on 21 carries (2.9 yards per attempt) in the divisional-round win against Houston. The last time the Ravens played a postseason game in New England, Rice scored on the first offensive play of the game -- running 83 yards for a touchdown. It was the second-longest run in NFL postseason history and set the pace for a 33-14 win for the Ravens. New England ranked 24th in yards given up per carry (4.6) this season.

Quick Take: Ravens at Patriots

January, 15, 2012
1/15/12
4:48
PM ET
Three things to know about Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Baltimore Ravens (13-4) and New England Patriots (14-3):

It's only fitting: The Ravens and Patriots have been the best teams in the AFC all season, so it's only right that they settle it on the field to see who represents the conference in the Super Bowl. Baltimore and New England did not meet during the regular season. The teams last met in 2010 when New England won in overtime. The Patriots and Ravens also split two meetings in 2009, with New England winning in the regular season and Baltimore winning in the playoffs.

Quarterback disparity: New England's biggest advantage will be at the most important position: quarterback. The Patriots have Tom Brady, who is coming off an NFL-playoff record six touchdown passes and 363 yards passing against the Denver Broncos. Brady is peaking at the right time. Meanwhile, Baltimore counterpart Joe Flacco is inconsistent. Flacco had another shaky postseason outing against the Houston Texans on Sunday, completing 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Clearly, Flacco must play better at New England.

Patriots' D needs to keep momentum: Was it New England's defense, or was it the opponent? The Patriots played their best defensive game of the season, holding the Broncos to just 10 points and 252 yards. New England baffled Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, holding him to 136 yards passing and sacking him five times. New England will be tough to beat if its defense maintains this level of play. Of course, the Ravens have more dynamic weapons on offense and present a stiffer challenge than the Broncos.

Quick Take: Texans at Ravens

January, 8, 2012
1/08/12
12:00
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday’s Houston Texans-Baltimore Ravens divisional playoff game:

1. Complete effort required: When the Texans lost in Baltimore on Oct. 16, they had a 14-13 lead in the third quarter. Then they gave up 16 unanswered points. In the fourth quarter, Houston managed just three first downs and didn’t string together a drive of more than 37 yards. And that was with Matt Schaub still healthy and playing quarterback. He threw for 220 yards and a touchdown while taking four sacks. The Texans are 0-5 all time against the Ravens, and their first breakthrough won’t come this time at M&T Bank Stadium if they don’t play well for a full game. Baltimore is undefeated at home and spent the whole season working to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs, which they have against everyone except New England.

2. Limit big plays: The Ravens are hardly a team built on the ability to make big pass plays down field. But the Texans made Baltimore seem that way. Joe Flacco threw for 305 yards thanks to connections of 56 yards to Anquan Boldin over Johnathan Joseph and 51 yards to Torrey Smith over Kareem Jackson. Ray Rice chipped in with a 27-yard run on the final Ravens touchdown drive that put the game out of reach. The Ravens looked like a big-play machine against a defense that did a good job limiting such things for most of the year and finished as the No. 2 unit in the NFL. Andre Johnson didn’t play in the regular-season game for Houston, so the Texans will have their own big-play element in the lineup.

3. Pro Bowl backs: Two of the AFC’s three Pro Bowl running backs will square off here in Baltimore’s Rice and Houston’s Arian Foster. Rice runs behind fullback Vonta Leach, who was an All-Pro for the Texans last year and is an All-Pro for the Ravens this year. Houston had the No. 2 run game in the NFL, Baltimore’s was No. 10. The team that slows the opposing star back would seem likely to move on to the AFC Championship Game. But they finished the regular season awfully even. The Ravens allowed 92.6 yards a game and 3.5 yards a carry; the Texans were at 96.0 and 4.1.

Quick Take: Texans at Ravens

January, 7, 2012
1/07/12
9:27
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday's Houston Texans-Baltimore Ravens divisional game:

1. Tough against the run. The second-seeded Ravens (12-4) know the third-seeded Texans (11-6) will run the ball after Houston handed it off 59 percent of the time against the Bengals in today's wild-card game. Baltimore has a strong history of shutting down the run, and this season was no different. The Ravens finished ranked No. 2 in run defense, giving up 92.6 yards on the ground. Only five defenses allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than Baltimore this season. In the previous meeting with the Texans this season, the Ravens limited Houston to 93 yards rushing and held Arian Foster to 3.3 yards per carry.

2. Pass protection will be a major factor. One of the reasons why the Texans beat the Bengals was their ability to pressure the quarterback and protect their own. After giving up seven sacks in San Diego, Baltimore allowed just two sacks of Joe Flacco over the final two games of the regular season. In the previous meeting, the Ravens shut out Connor Barwin, Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt. On defense, the Ravens led the AFC with 48 sacks and need to get more pressure on Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates than the Bengals did. Baltimore sacked Matt Schaub four times when the Ravens beat Houston on Oct. 16.

3. Dominant at home. The Ravens put themselves in position to host a playoff game for the first time in five years by going undefeated at home for the first time in their 16-year existence. Baltimore roughed up teams at M&T Bank Stadium, where it won by double digits five times this season. One of those times was a 29-14 victory over the Texans when they had Schaub at quarterback. The Ravens have won 10 consecutive games at M&T Bank Stadium, the second-longest current home win streak in the NFL.

Quick Take: Steelers at Broncos

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
11:25
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday's Pittsburgh Steelers-Denver Broncos wild-card game:

1. Get the offense back on track. Since Ben Roethlisberger sprained his left ankle, Pittsburgh has scored two touchdowns in 10 quarters with him as quarterback. With the injury, Roethlisberger hasn't been able to follow through on his passes because he is unable to put weight on his left leg -- and the results have reflected his struggles. He has completed 56 of 96 passes (58.3 percent) for 729 yards. He has thrown one touchdown and four interceptions for a 68.4 passer rating. Not getting a first-round bye really hurt the Steelers and Roethlisberger.

2. Figure out what to do with the running game. The Steelers will be without running back Rashard Mendenhall after he injured his right knee in the regular-season finale against Cleveland, which proved to be a meaningless game in terms of playoff implications for Pittsburgh. An MRI is scheduled for tomorrow. While the Steelers haven't relied on their running game much this season, Pittsburgh will need to lean on it more with Roethlisberger injured. The Steelers replaced Mendenhall with Isaac Redman, who scored a touchdown but fumbled twice in the second half. John Clay could also factor into the rotation.

3. Keep the pressure on Tim Tebow. The Steelers haven't faced a quarterback quite like Tebow all season. But the bigger problem is Tebow hasn't faced a defense like the Steelers, especially one on this type of a hot streak. Pittsburgh hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past two games (albeit against the likes of the Rams and Browns). These are the points allowed by the Steelers defense over the past six games: 9, 7 , 3, 20, 0 and 9 — an average of 8 per game.

Quick Take: Bengals at Texans

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
10:49
PM ET
Three things to know about next Saturday's Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans wild-card game:

1. Improve the run defense. The Bengals entered the regular-season finale as the NFL's fifth-best run defense. But Cincinnati hardly looked like one of the league's best defensive units in giving up 191 yards rushing to the Ravens' Ray Rice. Two big touchdown runs (70 and 51) did the most damage and occurred because middle linebacker Rey Maualuga got blocked both times. The Bengals can't have the same missed assignments and poor tackling against Houston, which is the league's second-best running team. On Dec. 11 at Cincinnati, the Bengals gave up 144 yards rushing to the Texans.

2. Get wide receiver A.J. Green more involved. The Bengals’ most dangerous play is when quarterback Andy Dalton throws the deep, high-arching pass to Green, who has the athleticism to out-leap multiple defenders. But Green has disappeared from the Bengals offense the past two weeks -- which is also the time since he injured his shoulder. He has two catches in each of his past two games for a total of 51 yards. Cincinnati has to get back to attacking downfield with Green. His 11 catches of 35 yards or more are the most in the league and the most by an NFL rookie since Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14 in 1998.

3. Learn how to finish games against winning teams. If the Bengals want to win their first playoff game since the 1990 season -- it was at the Houston Oilers and not Texans -- they have to figure out how to win the fourth quarter against playoff teams. Cincinnati has come up short against Pittsburgh and twice against Baltimore in the final minutes of games. And the Bengals had their biggest collapse of the season against the Texans earlier this year. Cincinnati failed to hold a nine-point lead in the final six minutes of the game, allowing rookie third-string quarterback T.J. Yates to drive 80 yards for the winning, last-minute touchdown pass.

Quick Take: Bengals at Texans

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
8:12
PM ET
Three things to know about next weekend’s Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans wild-card game:

A rookie quarterback is going to the AFC’s Final Four: Much is made of how much of a strain is put on a rookie quarterback in a playoff game. But this game is going to feature two of them in T.J. Yates and Andy Dalton, which means a team led by a first-year signal caller is going to be playing in the AFC’s divisional round on Jan. 14th or 15th. Teams can turn conservative and rely on running games and defenses in the playoffs, even with a veteran quarterback, simply asking him to do no harm. Maybe that’s the script here. But Cincinnati’s gotten a lot out of Dalton this season, and the Texans have insisted they aren’t scaling back for Yates. So perhaps we’ll see one of these guys win a game rather than not lose it.

The Bengals are capable of slowing Houston’s pass rush: The Texans got to Dalton for just one sack in that first meeting. Houston’s super-active defensive front can call on eight different guys who have recorded a sack this season. The group swarms from all different angles and doesn’t worry much about what the other team is doing so long as it’s executing the game plan of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In seven games this season, the Texans dragged the quarterback down at least three times. Cincinnati’s got a big offensive line, keyed around left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Phillips’ plan and the Texans' execution both need to be better. It doesn’t have to produce sacks, just discomfort and a mistake or two from Dalton. Houston bats down a lot of balls, that can be a factor, too.

Yates had his best game against this defense: When the Texans beat the Benglas 20-19 at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 11 and clinched the AFC South, Yates was starting just his second game. He led two 80-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter, and tossed the game-winning touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with 2 second left. He threw for a season-best 300 yards even without receiver Andre Johnson playing. But he was sacked three times and threw an interception, and the Bengals will surely look back and feel like they had a recipe for making him uncomfortable. If they can find it and replicate it minus the bad ending, they are certainly capable of springing an upset at Reliant Stadium. The odds are low of the Bengals winning if they allow the Texans to convert 56 percent on third down like they did in the first matchup.

Quick Take: Steelers at Broncos

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
8:09
PM ET
Three things to know about next week's Pittsburgh Steelers-Denver Broncos wild-card game:

1. Backing in: The Broncos aren’t exactly storming into the playoffs after a six-year break. Denver has lost three straight games after turning around its season with a six-game winning streak. The Broncos are the seventh team in NFL history to make the playoffs on the heels of a three-game skid to end the season. Denver made the playoffs because the San Diego Chargers beat the Oakland Raiders on the road. Denver, Oakland and San Diego all finished 8-8. The Broncos advance to the postseason against the 12-4 Steelers on the merits of a tiebreaker. Unless Denver’s offense and beleaguered quarterback Tim Tebow get out of its doldrums, it will be short postseason ride in the Rockies.

2. Steelers are banged up: The best thing Denver, who lost standout guard Chris Kuper to a potentially bad lower-leg injury Sunday, has going for it is the Steelers are hurting, too. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is not completely healed from an ankle injury. Running back Rashard Mendenhall injured his knee Sunday and will miss the playoff game. Pittsburgh may also be without safety Ryan Clark, who has a rare sickle-cell trait that is affected by high altitudes. He missed a game in Denver in 2009 because he became violently ill during a game against the Broncos in 2007.

3. Bad playoff memories: The last time Denver played in the playoffs was a home loss to the Steelers in the 2005 AFC championship game. The Steelers ran away from Denver early and the game was never close. The Broncos have long rued that blown opportunity to go to the Super Bowl at home. Now, they will try to rekindle their playoff dreams against the same team.

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