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Pats work on kick coverage, defense late in half

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Pats work on kick coverage, defense late in half

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) It's a bad time for the New England Patriots to allow points late in halves and long kickoff returns throughout the game.

Fix that fast or the Baltimore Ravens and speedster Jacoby Jones could run them right out of the postseason.

The Patriots advanced to Sunday's AFC championship game with a 41-28 win over the Houston Texans despite giving up kickoff returns of 94 and 69 yards - the longest against them this season. They won even though they allowed 10 points in the last 1:15 of the first half and 15 points in the last 12 minutes of the game.

The Ravens moved on with a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos after Jones caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco with 31 seconds left in regulation.

That's the same Jones who led the NFL in average kickoff return yardage (30.7) and brought back two of them for touchdowns. Yep, the same guy who drew a defensive pass interference call at the Patriots' 7-yard line in Week 3, setting up Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal on the final play. Baltimore (12-6) won that game, 31-30.

New England (13-4) can't afford another loss.

So coach Bill Belichick is emphasizing, as he does every week, the need to stop kickoff returners and keep teams from scoring with time running out in either half.

``We always think that the end of the half can get a little different than the rest of the game because of situational play,'' he said Tuesday. ``Also, sometimes offensively, teams change their method of attack and what they're doing and how they're doing it and that kind of thing. So you have to adapt and adjust to what they do.

``We have to do what we're doing better. It's definitely a point of emphasis and I'm sure it will be important in this game. We'll definitely work on it.''

The problem is one of poor execution rather than a lack of effort, Belichick said.

``We were trying to do the right things and we did some things that were good, but then we did some other things that weren't as good as they need to be,'' he said. ``Houston was able to take advantage of some of the things we were doing.''

The same problem of late scores surfaced in two of the Patriots four losses.

They led the Ravens 30-21 on Sept. 23 then allowed 10 points in the last five minutes. Three weeks later, they led the Seattle Seahawks 23-10 then gave up two touchdowns in the last 7 1/2 minutes and lost 24-23.

The Patriots won their next seven games before the twin troubles came together in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Patriots had rallied from a 31-3 deficit to tie the game at 31 with 6:43 left in the game.

But LaMichael James returned the kickoff 62 yards, Colin Kaepernick threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the next play and the Patriots couldn't recover.

``We face good returners every week,'' Belichick said. ``It's always a huge point of emphasis for us but it will continue to be. (You) just can't put a team in that kind of field position consistently and that's what we did (against Houston).''

Those long runbacks against the Patriots are rare. They allowed the third fewest average yards (20.5) on kickoff returns this season. But against Houston, they gave up a 35-yarder along with the 94- and 69-yard runbacks, all by Danieal Manning. Those led to 17 points.

``Overall, that's been probably as consistent as anything we've done as a football team for the entire season,'' Belichick said. ``Of course, it's disappointing. Those are plays that you don't want to happen, certainly not three of them in one game.''

But the Patriots are confident they can recover in time for the game that stands between them and a second straight Super Bowl appearance.

``It's very important,'' unusually subdued special teams captain Matthew Slater said. ``We know we need to perform better. We can't put our defense in bad situations. ... We've got to prepare for Jacoby and we know how good he is and what he's capable of.

``So I'm confident we'll have it fixed.''

How, at this late stage in the season, can the Patriots do that?

``You go back to the basics,'' Slater said. ``Go back to the fundamentals and the rules that we have as coverage players, just doing our job better and doing our assignments better. It's been a strength for us this season.''

That season is more likely to end if they keep giving up long kickoff returns and late-game points. The Patriots would prefer to finish games the way they did in last year's 23-20 win over the Ravens for the AFC championship on the same field where they'll meet Sunday.

Baltimore took the ball at its 21-yard line with 1:44 left and made it all the way to a second-and-1 at the New England 14 with 27 seconds remaining. A field goal would tie the game. But the Patriots met the challenge as Sterling Moore broke up two passes before Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.

``There's a good history of the two teams playing against each other,'' New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. ``You're going to try to analyze all that and take a look at it and see what you can come up with that will hopefully help put you in a successful situation for the weekend.''

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NFL Mock Draft 4.0: Combine Primer And Sleepers

NFL Mock Draft 4.0: Combine Primer And Sleepers

The annual NFL Combine kicks of Wednesday in Indianapolis. Whatever happens there -- receivers run fast, quarterbacks flash arm strength, defenders lack pop -- projections will change and in some cases significantly. Therefore here's my last look at the situation before all the sprints and lifts via mock draft 4.0 plus some other thoughts below.

* League sources offered up names of several prospects currently ranked all over the big boards with the chance to make a big splash during the combine. They include:

Alabama TE O.J. Howard -- Everybody already knows the 6-foot-6 Howard is a two-way monster. His Senior Bowl dominance certainly confirmed that. Rocking the Combine could alter his mid-to-late first round projection into 10-13 range where teams like New Orleans, Cleveland and Arizona have TE needs. Call me crazy, but if Howard is there when the Redskins pick at 17, I can imagine Washington thinkng long and hard about two-TE sets wth Jordan Reed. 

Oklahoma DT Charles Walker -- The Redskins have shown interest in Walker, according to a league source, though his draft range is all over the map. The interior force's redshirt junior season ended early due to a concussion followed by a decision to leave the Sooners early with draft preparation in mind. Was a second-team All-Big 12 selection as a junior thanks to six sacks. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Walker ninth among defensive tackles while WalterFootball.com projects the 304-pounder as a Day 2 pick.

<<CLICK HERE TO VIEW FULL NFL MOCK DRAFT 4.0>>

Pittsburgh OT Adam Bisnowaty -- Considered underrated despite starting four seasons for the Panthers. The left tackle helped key a resurgent season for the Panthers. Lack of wow prospects at the position means the order outside of Ryan Ramczyk (Wisconsin), Cam Robinson (Alabama) and Garrett Bolles (Utah) is in flux.

Ashland TE Adam Shaheen -- The D2 prospect is early candidate for the "Who is that guy?" award. Expect raves about Shaheen's size and athleticism. CBS Sports already has Day 2 projection on the 6-foot-6, 277-pounder who can run routes like a wide receiever. Could he move all the way into round 1?

Tulsa WR Keevan Lucas -- What the 5-foot-10 receiver lacks in height he makes up for with speed and production. Caught 81 passes for 1,180 yards and 15 touchdowns during his senior season with the Golden Hurricanes. Certain analytics show Lucas' production stood out  and put him in the same statistical company as future NFL receivers Stefon Diggs and Marqise Lee. Day 3 sleeper.

Other to watch: QB Pat Mahomes (Texas Tech), TE David Nkoju (Miami, Fl.), DT Ryan Glasgow (Michigan), CB Cordrea Tankersley (Clemson)

* Look at Scot McCloughan's draft history and one theme emerges: The man likes seniors, especially in round one. Brandon Scherff and Josh Doctson were both four-year players. The bulk of first round selections during his time at Seattle and San Francisco. That doesn't mean McCloughan will go that way with the 17th overall pick; Of the top 19 ranked prospects according to ESPN analyst Todd McShay, 14 are underclassmen. But keep a close on seniors with early round projections like Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, Temple inside linebacker Haason Reddick, Indiana guard Dan Feeney, LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White, Washington wide receiver John Ross and Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson.

<<CLICK HERE TO VIEW FULL NFL MOCK DRAFT 4.0>>

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Report: Ravens mulling cutting Dennis Pitta to create more cap space

Report: Ravens mulling cutting Dennis Pitta to create more cap space

A decision on whether to cut or keep Dennis Pitta is one of many issues facing the Ravens this offseason.

According to Mike Garafolo of NFL Network, the Ravens “may balk” at the $5.5 million salary Pitta is due next season. That makes sense, considering Pitta was just 28th in the NFL among tight ends in yards per catch (8.5) despite leading all tight ends with 86 catches. Pitta only had two touchdown catches, and there is concern he no longer has the speed to make explosive plays after two major hip surgeries.

Free agency begins March 9, but cutting Pitta with a June 1 designation would create the most cap space for the Ravens - $5.5 million.

However, if the Ravens release Pitta, they would turn the tight end position over to a question-filled group that includes:

Ben Watson – He is 36 years old, and missed all of the 2016 season with an Achilles injury. Cutting Watson and saving $3 million in cap space might make more sense than cutting Pitta. Especially if Pitta agrees to a pay reduction, as he did before last season.

Nick Boyle – He missed 10 games last season due to his second suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs. Another suspension could lead to the end of Boyle’s career.

Crockett Gillmore – He must prove he can still healthy after missing seven games in 2016, and 15 games over the past two seasons.

Darren Waller – He was suspended four games in 2016 for his first PED violation, and he has caught just 12 passes in his first two seasons.

Maxx Williams – He is coming off major knee surgery.

Pitta remains a favorite target of quarterback Joe Flacco, and even if Pitta struggles to make splash plays, he is still a chain-mover as a possession receiver. You can make a case for cutting or keeping Pitta. The Ravens will soon make their verdict.

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