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Ravens-Patriots: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 22 December 2013 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens are no strangers to big games with the New England Patriots as the teams meet Sunday for the first time since last January’s AFC Championship with high postseason stakes once again involved.

New England entered Sunday needing only a win or a Miami loss to clinch its fifth straight AFC East division title while the Ravens can punch their ticket to the postseason for the sixth consecutive year with a win and losses by both Miami and San Diego. Of course, the Ravens still have visions for an AFC North championship but need a win or a Cincinnati loss in Week 16 to set up next week’s showdown with the Bengals as a division title game.

Watchful eyes will be on quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice as both are active but were limited in practices this week. During pre-game warmups, Flacco was moving around fairly well while sporting a brace on his left knee and throwing to tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Jacoby Jones.

Rice is dealing with a mild quadriceps injury that forced him out of Wednesday’s practice, but the sixth-year running back downplayed the significance of the ailment earlier in the week. The Patriots are 31st in the NFL in rush defense, so this matchup sets up nicely for Rice and backup Bernard Pierce to have productive days.

Linebacker Elvis Dumervil is active and will play despite being a late addition to the injury report on Friday. Like Flacco and Rice, he was listed as questionable, but the rush specialist will play against the Patriots after being limited in Friday’s practice with a lingering ankle injury.

Tight end Dallas Clark is inactive for the second time in three weeks despite being listed as probable on the final injury report with an illness. He was active against Detroit in Week 15, but the veteran did not play a snap.

The Patriots will be without left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) today after he was downgraded to out Saturday night. As a result, New England is expected to shift veteran left guard Logan Mankins to left tackle as they did last week when Solder suffered his second concussion in as many weeks.

New England wideout Aaron Dobson is active and will provide a 6-foot-3 target in the red zone for a Patriots offense that struggled in that capacity last week in Miami.

Including the playoffs, Sunday marks the seventh time these teams have met in the John Harbaugh era with the Ravens and Patriots splitting the series. Despite Baltimore’s postseason success against quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, New England is 6-1 all-time in the regular season against the Ravens.

Unseasonably warm temperatures reaching the low 70s and a 60-percent chance of rain — with the possibility of a thunderstorm — are in the forecast with winds up to 11 miles per hour for the 4:25 p.m. kickoff.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Ron Winter.

The Ravens will wear purple jerseys with black pants while New England sports white jerseys with dark blue pants.

Here are Sunday’s inactives:

CB Asa Jackson
S Omar Brown
LB Albert McClellan
C Ryan Jensen
WR Deonte Thompson
TE Dallas Clark
DT Brandon Williams

LT Nate Solder
TE D.J. Williams
LB Dane Fletcher
WR Josh Boyce
WR Kenbrell Thompkins
DT Isaac Sopoaga
DE Jake Bequette

Follow WNST on Twitter throughout the afternoon for updates and analysis as Drew Forrester, Nestor Aparicio, and I bring live coverage from M&T Bank Stadium.

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D&L Window Tinting Morning Reaction Picks and Comment – Week 16

Posted on 20 December 2013 by Luke Jones

Here are this weekend’s picks as The D&L Window Tinting Morning Reaction will pick every NFL game and local college games this season.

Luke Jones finished Week 15 with a 7-9 record while Drew Forrester was 6-10 on his picks. Entering Week 16, Jones is 135-88 on the season while Forrester is 129-94. Official standings are based only on the NFL picks.

You can listen to Friday’s “Picks and Comment” segment HERE.

Patriots at Ravens: Baltimore 26-13 (Drew), Baltimore 23-17 (Luke)
Dolphins at Bills: Miami 24-10 (Drew), Miami 23-16 (Luke)
Saints at Panthers: Carolina 20-17 (Drew), Carolina 26-24 (Luke)
Cowboys at Redskins: Washington 30-23 (Drew), Dallas 34-27 (Luke)
Buccaneers at Rams: Tampa Bay 23-20 OT (Drew), St. Louis 24-20 (Luke)
Browns at Jets: New York 22-21 (Drew), Cleveland 20-16 (Luke)
Colts at Chiefs: Kansas City 31-7 (Drew), Kansas City 26-20 (Luke)
Vikings at Bengals: Cincinnati 38-17 (Drew), Cincinnati 27-13 (Luke)
Broncos at Texans: Denver 28-24 (Drew), Denver 27-19 (Luke)
Titans at Jaguars: Jacksonville 24-20 (Drew), Tennessee 24-23 (Luke)
Cardinals at Seahawks: Seattle 27-10 (Drew), Seattle 26-12 (Luke)
Giants at Lions: Detroit 34-17 (Drew), Detroit 31-20 (Luke)
Raiders at Chargers: San Diego 33-24 (Drew), San Diego 31-21 (Luke)
Steelers at Packers: Pittsburgh 28-24 (Drew), Green Bay 24-21 (Luke)
Bears at Eagles: Philadelphia 37-27 (Drew), Philadelphia 34-30 (Luke)
Falcons at 49ers: San Francisco 27-6 (Drew), San Francisco 24-10 (Luke)
Towson at Eastern Washington: Tigers 30-28 (Drew), Eagles 34-31 (Luke)

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Rice, Flacco practice on limited basis Thursday

Posted on 19 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens received good news Thursday with the return to the practice field of running back Ray Rice as they continued preparations for Sunday’s showdown with the New England Patriots.

Rice practiced on a limited basis a day after sitting out with what was listed as a thigh injury. It appears Rice’s day off was more precautionary than anything after he was present for Wednesday’s practice despite being listed as a non-participant on the official injury report.

The sixth-year back felt his quadriceps tighten up slightly during his 19-yard run to close out the 18-16 win over Detroit, which explains why he elected to go down on the play rather than try to score a touchdown. It has been assumed by most observes that Rice simply wanted to run out the clock without giving the ball back to the Lions with under 30 seconds remaining.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day as quarterbacks only played stationary catch during the portion of practice open to media on Thursday. The sixth-year quarterback suffered a mild MCL sprain in Monday night’s win over Detroit and will wear a brace on his left knee, but he is fully expected to play.

It remains a mystery how mobile Flacco will be on Sunday with the open portions of practice not revealing much in terms of his movement.

“If they can take the field, they can play,” said offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell on how Flacco’s health could impact Sunday’s game plan. “Obviously, the doctors will make that determination. Joe has been practicing and we fully anticipate he’ll be able to do his job.”

Tight end Dallas Clark was a full participant on Thursday a day after missing practice due to an illness.

Linebacker Albert McClellan (neck) and cornerback Asa Jackson (hamstring) missed their second straight day of practice as the status of both players remains up in the air.

Meanwhile, the Patriots received good news as starting left tackle Nate Solder returned to the practice field on a limited basis after suffering his second concussion in as many weeks in New England’s Week 15 loss at Miami. It remains unclear whether he has been cleared for contact, but his presence at practice paints a more positive picture for his status than many had suggested earlier in the week.

Rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) both practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day, which bodes well for their prospects of returning to game action.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder) was limited once again, but head coach Bill Belichick is known as a notorious manipulator of the injury report and the future Hall of Fame signal-caller is not considered to be in any danger of missing Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium.

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Asa Jackson (thigh), LB Albert McClellan (neck)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: QB Joe Flacco (knee), RB Ray Rice (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Dallas Clark (illness), S Brynden Trawick (ankle)

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Josh Boyce (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Danny Amendola (groin), CB Kyle Arrington (groin), QB Tom Brady (right shoulder), T Marcus Cannon (ankle), CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee, shoulder), WR Aaron Dobson (foot), LB Dane Fletcher (groin), S Steve Gregory (finger), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee), T Nate Solder (concussion), LB Brandon Spikes (knee), T Will Svitek (ankle), CB Aqib Talib (hip), WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip)

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Rice acknowledges early-season hip injury may still be issue

Posted on 19 December 2013 by Luke Jones

Running back Ray Rice is experiencing the worst season of his six-year NFL career and acknowledged Wednesday that his early-season hip injury may still be a factor as the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s meeting with the New England Patriots.

After suffering a left hip flexor strain against Cleveland in Week 2, Rice missed his first game since his rookie season but has said several times since that his health was no longer an issue. The 2008 second-round pick is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and has gained 605 yards on 197 carries this season.

Rice did not participate in Wednesday’s practice and was listed as having a thigh injury despite being on the field during the viewing portion of the workout, but he returned on a limited basis on Thursday. He did not appear to be laboring after Monday’s win over the Detroit Lions.

“I’ve been dealing with injuries this year,” Rice said during a conference call with the New England media. “This has been a different year for me. Everybody plays through different things, and my numbers are what they are, but I’m doing what I can do to help my team. The injury I had this year wasn’t something that you just bounce back from and say, ‘Oh, you know I had a hip.’ It is definitely very hard to play through week in and week out. When I look at things like that — statistics — I don’t worry about things [like that]. I’ve proven myself over the years, Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl.”

Rice won’t turn 27 until next month and has three years remaining on a five-year, $35 million contract signed prior to the 2012 season.

It’s clear that Rice won’t be fully healthy again at least until after the season, but he also spoke about his future and how long he plans to play in the NFL. His current contract would expire just before his 30th birthday if the Ravens elected not to move on before then.

“You know it’s always something to think about at the running back position,” Rice said. “I’ll just put it out there — my goal was to make it 10 years in the NFL. Anything after 10, if I can’t do it the way I want to, then it’s something to think about. But, I’m young. I came in the NFL at 21 years old, a young guy, so I’m still young. There’s a lot of football left to be played. With that being said, I have priorities, too. You know I have a young daughter, and you’ve just got to put all that in perspective when you’re going out there week in and week out, especially when you get older in your career.”

It’s unusual to hear a player discuss retirement in such specific terms a few years before the target date, but Rice has been forced to look at the big picture this season in needing to weigh his lack of personal accomplishments against the team’s overall success. His performance this season — which has also been affected by poor offensive line play — doesn’t bode well for the prospects of him being able to play out the duration of his current deal that includes scheduled cap figures of $7.75 million in both 2015 and 2016.

Rice carried 12 times for 56 yards against Detroit, averaging 4.7 yards per attempt in his fourth-highest rushing total of the season.

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Flacco limited, Rice sits out during Wednesday’s practice

Posted on 18 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Taking the practice field less than 48 hours after injuring his left knee in the Ravens’ 18-16 win over Detroit, quarterback Joe Flacco was present in what was little more than a walk-through on Wednesday afternoon.

Sporting a brace underneath his pants, Flacco played catch and wasn’t moving with a noticeable limp during the media viewing portion of practice, but none of the Baltimore quarterbacks were doing much in the first 30 minutes of a workout that didn’t include helmets. Flacco is expected take it easy over the next couple days, but he isn’t considered to be in any danger of missing Sunday’s contest against the New England Patriots.

A magnetic resonance imaging test revealed a mild MCL sprain in Flacco’s left knee, according to an ESPN report.

“He went through practice today on a limited basis, and we listed him as limited today,” said coach John Harbaugh, who acknowledged cringing when he saw the replay of the helmet shot delivered to Flacco’s knee by Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy. “We’ll just take it the rest of the week on a day-by-day basis, but we do anticipate that he will play. We’ll see where we’ll go from there.”

Flacco described the brace as “a little bit” uncomfortable, but he confirmed that he will wear it during Sunday’s game whether he needs to or not to prevent further injury. He has experienced stiffness and swelling since hurting the knee midway through the fourth quarter Monday night, but the knee is getting better, according to the quarterback.

The sixth-year signal-caller admitted he was initially scared when he was hit and hesitated to get up in fear of there something being seriously wrong with the knee. Sunday will mark the first time Flacco has worn a knee brace during an NFL game, but the University of Delaware product said he wore one on his left knee during his junior year after suffering an injury to his medial collateral ligament.

“I got up and I put a little pressure on it and was able to run off the field and all that,” Flacco said. “You’ve got to feel pretty good about that. You’re able to go back out there and do everything. My mind was at ease as soon as I got up, so that wasn’t that big of an issue.”

There is little doubt that Flacco will play on Sunday, but how effectively he can move around remains to be seen with the viewing portions of practice unlikely to reveal anything of real substance this week. Recently, Flacco has shown a willingness to not only take off and gain yards on the ground but to escape pressure in the pocket to extend plays and make throws downfield.

Flacco has never missed a game in his professional career — making 107 starts including postseason games — and has the third-longest consecutive games played streak among active quarterbacks, trailing only New York’s Eli Manning and San Diego’s Philip Rivers. His durability is considered one of his biggest strengths and has allowed the Ravens not to feel the need to invest heavily in a backup quarterback in recent years.

“That is one of the first things you think about when you get hit there and you go down,” Flacco said. “You’re like, ‘Shoot, I better not be able to not be able to play.’ I’m definitely very proud of that. At some point, it may happen that I can’t go out there and start a football game, but we’re going to try to hold that off for a while.”

Though he was present on the practice field while the Ravens worked indoors, running back Ray Rice was listed as a non-participant for Wednesday’s workout with a thigh injury. He rushed for 56 yards on 12 carries against Detroit, which represent his second-highest yards per carry average (4.7) this season.

Rice did not appear to be in serious pain after Monday’s game or during practice and could have simply received a day off on Wednesday as the Ravens periodically do with veteran players. His mere presence on the field is a good indication that his injury is unlikely to be serious.

Tight end Dallas Clark (illness), linebacker Albert McClellan (neck), and cornerback Asa Jackson (hamstring) were also absent from Wednesday’s practice, but only Jackson came away with a reported injury from the win over the Lions. Clark was active for Monday’s game but did not play at all.

Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (ankle) was present and working during Wednesday’s practice after returning to action in Week 15 and playing 33 of 65 defensive snaps.

The Patriots were without starting left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) during their Wednesday practice as the starting lineman is once again dealing with a concussion.

As is typically the case, New England head coach Bill Belichick listed a number of players as limited participants, including quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder), wide receiver Danny Amendola (groin), cornerback Aqib Talib (hip), and wide receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip).

Here is Wednesday’s official injury report:

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Dallas Clark (illness), CB Asa Jackson (thigh), LB Albert McClellan (neck), RB Ray Rice (thigh)
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Brynden Trawick (ankle)

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: WR Josh Boyce (ankle), T Nate Solder (concussion)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Danny Amendola (groin), CB Kyle Arrington (groin), QB Tom Brady (right shoulder), T Marcus Cannon (ankle), CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee, shoulder), WR Aaron Dobson (foot), LB Dane Fletcher (groin), S Steve Gregory (finger), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee), LB Brandon Spikes (knee), T Will Svitek (ankle), CB Aqib Talib (hip), WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip)

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Dumervil back at practice for Ravens on Friday

Posted on 13 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A day after telling reporters he was on the verge of returning to the practice field, Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil worked on a limited basis on Friday.

With Baltimore preparing for a Monday night meeting with the Detroit Lions, Dumervil was the only player on the roster to miss Thursday’s practice as he continues to work his way back from a left ankle injury suffered in Week 13. The 29-year-old missed last Sunday’s game over the Minnesota Vikings and hadn’t practiced since before the Ravens’ Thanksgiving game with Pittsburgh.

“It’s an unusual ankle sprain. It’s sort of a bruise [and] strain at once,” Dumervil said Thursday. “It’s kind of awkward, so you feel things from different areas. I’m getting better, so thank God about that. I’m going to try to go out tomorrow with the guys and get some work in. They’ve got a good team in Detroit, so I’ve got to make sure I’m ready.”

After failing to collect any sacks in their last two games, the Ravens could use Dumervil’s pass-rush ability against the league’s third-ranked passing game. Dumervil leads Baltimore with 9 1/2 sacks this season while serving primarily as a rush specialist.

Starting cornerback Lardarius Webb (abs) and rookie safety Brynden Trawick (ankle) both worked on a limited basis Friday for the second straight day.

For the Lions, standout running back Reggie Bush (calf) returned to practice on Friday, which is a promising sign for his status after he missed last Sunday’s game in Philadelphia.

Here is Friday’s official injury report:

LIMITED PARTICIPATION: LB Elvis Dumervil (ankle), S Brynden Trawick (ankle), CB Lardarius Webb (abs)

DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Chris Houston (toe), CB Darius Slay (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Ezekiel Ansah (shoulder), RB Reggie Bush (calf), S Louis Delmas (knee), DE Isreal Idonije (knee), WR Calvin Johnson (knee), T LaAdrian Waddle (elbow)
FULL PARTICIPATION: S John Wendling (illness)

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Ravens-Vikings: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 07 December 2013 by Luke Jones

Concluding a critical three-game homestand while also currently holding the No. 6 seed in the AFC, the Ravens welcome the Minnesota Vikings to town for a game they know they should — and must — win.

Three games against projected playoff teams await to conclude the regular season, so the Ravens have no room for a letdown against 3-8-1 Minneesota in their penultimate game of the year at M&T Bank Stadium. Of course, a forecast of a wintry mix Sunday could create some interesting playing conditions for both teams.

Sunday will mark the 2013 season debut for Dennis Pitta, who was activated from injured reserve on Saturday afternoon. The Ravens hope the fourth-year tight end will be able to knock off enough rust against the Vikings to make him a difference-maker starting next week in a Monday night game at Detroit.

Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil is unlikely to play after being listed as doubtful with an ankle injury. However, the Vikings’ propensity for leaning on their running game already made it likely that second-year linebacker Courtney Upshaw would see increased playing time on Sunday.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens have the opportunity to move above the .500 mark for the first time since early October. The all-time series against the Vikings is tied 2-2, but Minnesota won the last meeting between these teams in 2009, a 33-31 final at the Metrodome.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look for their first three-game winning streak of the season …

1. Pitta won’t see more than 20 snaps against the Vikings, but he’ll catch a red-zone touchdown to give the Ravens a much-needed lift. The fourth-year tight end will likely see a limited number of snaps as the Ravens wait to see how he responds to live contact, but a good week of practice allowed the organization to pull the trigger to activate him. The Ravens put together six scoring drives in last week’s win over Pittsburgh, but the offense is 1-for-8 inside the red zone over the last two games, a mark that must improve in the final quarter of the season. Pitta caught 10 touchdowns inside the red zone in 2011 and 2012 and will rein in his first of 2013 to boost the league’s 24th-ranked red-zone offense and build more optimism for the big three-game stretch to conclude the regular season.

2. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will become the second player this season to reach the century mark on the ground against Baltimore. Every opponent knows exactly what it needs to do against the Vikings, but stacking the box with eight defenders hasn’t prevented Peterson from leading the league with 1,208 rushing yards. The 2012 NFL Most Valuable Player averages 3.1 yards after contact per attempt, meaning gang tackling is a must against such a physical runner. The key for the Ravens will be to contain Peterson enough to prevent a big day and force them to pass the football more than they’d like, something Chicago couldn’t do in an overtime loss last week. Baltimore will do a better job than the Bears, but he’ll still hit triple digits against the Ravens, joining Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy as the only other back to accomplish that against the Ravens this season.

3. The Baltimore secondary will intercept quarterback Matt Cassel twice to set up the Ravens offense on a short field. The Vikings have had major issues at quarterback all year, so the absence of starter Christian Ponder won’t make a major difference with the Ravens actually being more familiar with Cassel. Likely using a single-high safety extensively with safeties James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam taking turns playing closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, the Ravens will depend on Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb to be strong in coverage. Minnesota has some capable weapons in Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Jerome Simpson at wide receiver, but that’s been true all season with the Vikings still ranking 25th in passing offense. Cassel will be forced to make some throws playing from behind, and the Ravens will be waiting to cash in on his mistakes.

4. Bernard Pierce will gain more rushing yards than Ray Rice in another timeshare of carries on Sunday. Coach John Harbaugh downplayed Pierce receiving nine carries to just 12 for Rice against the Steelers, but the more-physical Pierce averaged 3.9 yards per carry compared to 2.7 for Rice on Thanksgiving. With the possibility of snow collecting on the turf, it will be interesting to see how both teams fare, but Pierce simply looked more explosive against the Steelers and deserved an increased portion of the workload. Aside from a strong day against a run-challenged Chicago defense a few weeks ago, Rice hasn’t been himself all season while Pierce appears to be healthier now than he was early on. Rice will still get plenty of opportunities — and likely more carries — but Pierce will be more productive.

5. Wintry conditions could make things interesting, but the Ravens will dispose of an inferior team with a 24-13 win over Minnesota. It only takes one or two fluke plays in snowy weather to completely change the outcome of the game, but the Ravens have more experience and have played in plenty of poor weather this season, giving them the edge in that department. The Baltimore offense isn’t equipped to blow out anybody, but the Ravens have moved the ball better in recent weeks and quarterback Joe Flacco has arguably played his best football of the season over the last two games. Winning the turnover battle and improved efficiency in the red zone will add up to a relatively comfortable two-possession win for the Ravens as they’ll turn their sights toward a very difficult three-game stretch to try to secure a playoff spot in the AFC.


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D&L Window Tinting Morning Reaction Picks and Comment – Week 14

Posted on 06 December 2013 by Luke Jones

Here are this weekend’s picks as The D&L Window Tinting Morning Reaction will pick every NFL game and local college games this season.

Luke Jones finished Week 13 with a 12-4 record while Drew Forrester was 9-7 on his picks. Entering Week 14, Jones is 115-76 on the season while Forrester is 113-78. Official standings are based only on the NFL picks.

Jones correctly picked Jacksonville to beat Houston Thursday night while Forrester incorrectly picked the Texans to win to kick off Week 14 action.

You can listen to Wednesday’s “Picks and Comment” segment HERE.

Vikings at Ravens: Baltimore 27-7 (Drew), Baltimore 24-13 (Luke)
Dolphins at Steelers: Pittsburgh 27-23 (Drew), Pittsburgh 21-16 (Luke)
Colts at Bengals: Cincinnati 37-10 (Drew), Cincinnati 23-20 (Luke)
Chiefs at Redskins: Kansas City 27-24 OT (Drew), Kansas City 26-17 (Luke)
Browns at Patriots: New England 30-17 (Drew), New England 30-20 (Luke)
Raiders at Jets: 16-16 TIE (Drew – pick is worth five wins if it happens), Oakland 20-13 (Luke)
Lions at Eagles: Detroit 24-20 (Drew), Philadelphia 27-21 (Luke)
Bills at Buccaneers: Buffalo 23-21 (Drew), Tampa Bay 23-21 (Luke)
Falcons at Packers: Green Bay 23-13 (Drew), Green Bay 24-21 (Luke)
Titans at Broncos: Denver 31-21 (Drew), Denver 34-20 (Luke)
Rams at Cardinals: Arizona 26-10 (Drew), Arizona 17-13 (Luke)
Giants at Chargers: San Diego 38-17 (Drew), San Diego 31-23 (Luke)
Seahawks at 49ers: San Francisco 20-17 (Drew), San Francisco 20-16 (Luke)
Panthers at Saints: New Orleans 24-20 (Drew), New Orleans 27-21 (Luke)
Cowboys at Bears: Chicago 28-27 (Drew), Dallas 27-20 (Luke)
Fordham at Towson: Tigers 35-31 (Drew), Tigers 27-23 (Luke)

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Contender or pretender: Sizing up the AFC wild-card race

Posted on 03 December 2013 by Luke Jones

For the Ravens and a number of other AFC teams who’ve plodded along with a .500 record or slightly worse through the first three quarters of the 2013 season, the final sprint is here in determining who will grab the coveted second wild-card spot as Kansas City is all but guaranteed the No. 5 seed.

Of course, coach John Harbaugh and his team still hold hope that their Week 17 meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals will provide an opportunity to play for the AFC North title, but the Ravens will need their division counterpart to slip up to reduce the deficit to just one game entering that final contest at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 29. In the meantime, the Ravens simply must focus on winning games and securing their current grip on the No. 6 seed in the AFC as their 6-6 record equals the Dolphins — and an Oct. 6 victory over Miami gives them the tie-breaking nod.

Following this Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings that concludes the current three-game homestand, the Ravens have the most difficult path of any of the wild-card contenders over the final three weeks in playing three teams projected to land in the postseason. Baltimore figures to need to win three of its final four games in the final month for a good chance to maintain its grip on the No. 6 seed, meaning the Ravens will likely need to win two of three against Detroit, New England, and Cincinnati and only the Patriots game will be played at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 16.

The Ravens’ 6-4 conference record stacks up well with the rest of the field, but the outcome of their two remaining AFC games will loom large should they find themselves in a number of tie-breaking situations.

Here’s a look at the rest of the field as I determine who the contenders and the pretenders are:

Conference record: 5-3
Remaining schedule: at Pittsburgh, New England, at Buffalo, New York Jets
Skinny: It would have been unsurprising to see the Dolphins fold in November with the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation hanging over their heads, but Miami has rebounded from an embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay to win two of its last three. The Dolphins are in the best position to challenge the Ravens mathematically, but their next two games will make or break them as they go to Heinz Field before playing the Patriots at home. Just one win over the Steelers or New England would put incredible heat on the Ravens over the final two weeks against difficult opponents. Of course, the Dolphins’ Week 5 loss to Baltimore continues to doom them if those two teams finish tied for the No. 6 spot with no one else in the mix.

Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: at Denver, Arizona, at Jacksonville, Houston
Skinny: Their current record and remaining schedule still suggest the Titans have a slim chance, but the season-ending injury to quarterback Jake Locker last month and two losses to a vulnerable Indianapolis team in their last three games have all but sealed their fate. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick had been playing well before an awful performance this past Sunday, but the next two games figure to be the final nails in the coffin to the Titans’ playoff hopes. Tennessee started fast this season, but only two wins since the start of October clearly scream pretender in an already-mediocre field.

Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: Miami, Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Cleveland
Skinny: Many eulogized the Steelers’ season following the Thanksgiving night result, but Pittsburgh could still be the biggest threat in the wild-card race with three remaining home games. A normally-intimidating trip to Lambeau Field in Week 16 to take on the Packers could also be easier should Aaron Rodgers be shut down for the rest of the season as some are speculating. A Steelers win over the Bengals in Week 15 would help the Ravens in their quest for the division title, but Baltimore’s season split with Pittsburgh creates a more complicated tiebreaker that could come down to division record or even record in common games. Perhaps more than anything else, Ravens fans begrudgingly know it’s never a good idea to count out Ben Roethlisberger, meaning the Steelers still have a shot.

Conference record: 3-6
Remaining schedule: New York Giants, at Denver, Oakland, Kansas City
Skinny: The Chargers’ home loss to Cincinnati on Sunday not only failed to do the Ravens any favors in the AFC North race but landed Mike McCoy’s team in the pretender category. San Diego has arguably looked better than any of the other wild-card contenders — the Ravens included — when playing at its best, but inconsistency has once again plagued the Chargers as it seems to annually. They have three remaining home games, but the Chargers have already lost three games at Qualcomm Stadium and are just as likely to lay an egg against the Giants or the Raiders than to pull off an upset over the Broncos or the Chiefs. Their abysmal conference record won’t do them any favors in a tie-breaking scenario, so San Diego’s only real hope is to run the table.

Conference record: 2-7
Remaining schedule: Oakland, at Carolina, Cleveland, at Miami
Skinny: Only two weeks ago we were talking about the Jets holding the No. 6 spot in the conference, but they’ve crashed and burned since then with a road loss to the Ravens and an embarrassing home defeat to Miami by 20 points this past Sunday. Their quarterback situation is the worst of any of the teams still vying for a wild-card spot as Geno Smith hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since before Halloween. The Jets’ remaining schedule isn’t awful, but they appear far more likely to lose their four remaining games than to go on a run necessary to land the No. 6 seed. New York was still better than many expected this year, but a dysfunctional offense has finally sunk the Jets after some impressive wins earlier in the season.

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J. Smith undergoing concussion protocol, Pitta decision “not 100-percent certain”

Posted on 02 December 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Earning one of their biggest victories of the season to seize control of the AFC’s No. 6 seed for now, the Ravens did not escape the 22-20 final over Pittsburgh unscathed from an injury standpoint.

However, three extra days of rest came at the opportune time with the Ravens concluding a three-game homestand Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Baltimore expects to have its full allotment of key players despite cornerback Jimmy Smith and wide receiver Brandon Stokley leaving last Thursday’s game with injuries and several others including linebacker Elvis Dumervil and wide receiver Torrey Smith getting banged up during the game.

“Everybody came out of the game with bumps and bruises,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I expect all those guys to be able to play on Sunday. We’ll just have to see if something flares up between now and then.”

Smith appears to be the most serious injury concern at the moment after he collided with Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell late in the game, which resulted in both players lying woozy on the field for a significant time. Bell appeared to receive the worst of the impact, but the Ravens will monitor the third-year cornerback’s status over the course of the week.

Harbaugh said Smith “should be OK” immediately after Thursday night’s win and confirmed that initial prognosis during his Monday press conference.

“Jimmy seems to be doing really well,” Harbaugh said. “He was doing well right after the game. He’s going through the concussion protocol now. That was what it was during the course of the game, but everything looks really, really good for Jimmy. [He] should be fine. You never know with that, but it looks like he’s going to be able to even practice on Wednesday, so we’re feeling good about that.”

Stokley’s knee sprain did not result in any concerning structural damage when he was examined on Friday — he did not return to the game after leaving late in the first half — and Dumervil’s ankle injury sustained late in the first half on Thanksgiving night may limit his practice time this week.

Dumervil returned to action after halftime and finished the game with three tackles, but he didn’t appear to make the same impact after hurting his ankle.

“He looks OK,” said Harbaugh about Dumervil’s status. “We’re going to have to nurse some things just like with a lot of different guys.”

The biggest health-related headline leading into Sunday’s game with the Vikings will be the status of tight end Dennis Pitta with all signs pointing to him making his 2013 season debut.

Pitta returned to the practice field on Nov. 20 and is currently in the midst of a 21-day window in which he can practice before the Ravens must either place him on the 53-man roster or leave him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. Should Pitta not be ready to play against the Vikings, the Ravens would have to place him on the active roster by Dec. 11 for him to be eligible to play the rest of the season.

The fourth-year tight end dislocated and fractured his hip on July 27 and has remained on IR with the designation to return since early September.

“It’ll probably come down to the end of the week,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve got a pretty good idea that he’s doing well. It’s just a matter of how well. Is he feeling good enough? Do the doctors feel like he’s ready to play? That’s what it’s going to come down to.

“He ran around well last week. We’ll go through the week and see how he does. If he can play, he will for sure. We want to get him up — that’s our goal. But it’s not 100-percent certain at this point.”

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