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Weather is blustery but focused Broncos aren't

Weather is blustery but focused Broncos aren't

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Try as they might, the Baltimore Ravens just couldn't get under the skin or into the heads of the Denver Broncos, who were more concerned about talking up their opponents than trash-talking them.

Most of the Ravens were exceedingly complimentary of the Broncos this week, but some spent time excusing their 34-17 home loss to Denver last month with dismissals ranging from the soon-to-retire Ray Lewis and several others being out of the lineup to the Broncos' receivers pushing off too much.

Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin said after Baltimore's emotional wild-card win that the Ravens were glad to get another shot at Denver.

Asked how it will be any different than last time, he declared, ``We'll make it different.''

``I wanted Denver, because they beat us,'' said Boldin, who was shut out in the first meeting, a game in which the Broncos breezed to a 31-3 lead and cruised to the finish.

The Broncos, not big on bravado all season, shrugged it all off.

``We beat them, so of course they want to play us again,'' cornerback Chris Harris said. ``We're up for the challenge.''

Those were about the brashest statements that came out of the Broncos locker room all week.

Not exactly a Pacquiao-Marquez pre-fight smack down.

``It's going to be a tough game,'' running back Knowshon Moreno said. ``It's not going to be easy.''

Fans aren't buying it, and oddsmakers have installed the top-seeded Broncos (13-3) as more than a touchdown favorite. They haven't lost in three months, are coming off a bye and playing at altitude against a team playing on a short week.

Although quarterback Joe Flacco has four road playoff wins on his resume, the Ravens were a mediocre 4-4 this season on the road, where he threw just seven of his 24 touchdown passes.

Then, there's Peyton Manning. Although he's 0-3 lifetime in cold weather in the playoffs - Saturday's high will hover around 20 degrees with some snow expected - he's beaten the Ravens (11-6) nine straight times, including twice in the playoffs.

He's been stellar with that glove on his right hand the last two weeks in preparation for the wintry weather and as a concession to the altered feel of his grip following four neck surgeries. With the glove, his completion percentage has been almost 6 points better and his passer rating almost 20 points higher than without it.

The Broncos aren't taking anything for granted, though. They pointed out all week that the last time they played, the Ravens were without Lewis, safety Bernard Pollard, guard Marshal Yanda, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and tight end Ed Dickson, all of whom will be available Saturday.

``So, this will be a completely different game, a completely different test,'' Broncos coach John Fox said.

Manning said he didn't have any reaction to the Ravens saying they were eager for a chance to atone for that lopsided loss.

``I know they have some guys back that did not play in the first game,'' Manning said, noting this is certainly the time of year you want to be healthy. ``... Those guys make a difference for their team. They made a difference for their team on Sunday holding their opponent to zero touchdowns. It's an excellent defense, really no matter who's in there, in my opinion, but certainly when they have all their other guys back, they're extremely tough.''

Joining the praise parade, Broncos safety Rahim Moore gushed this week about swapping jerseys with his hero, Baltimore Pro Bowler Ed Reed, after last month's game, and Champ Bailey pumped up Lewis, saying, ``I know he's going to miss the game, but I think the game will miss him more because there's nobody like him.''

Following a 12-week layoff with a torn right biceps, Lewis led the Ravens with 13 tackles to spark an emotional win over Indianapolis in the final home game of his spectacular 17-year career last week. The 37-year-old middle linebacker intends to retire after Baltimore completes its playoff run.

A marquee at a Denver hotel not far from Sports Authority Field reads: ``Join us for Ray Lewis' retirement party at 2 p.m. Saturday.''

The Broncos would cringe at such braggadocio.

The weather may be blustery but they certainly aren't, pointing out repeatedly that the Ravens are the only NFL team to reach the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, and they've won at least one game in each of those trips. They've also had a month to get used to Jim Caldwell calling offensive plays after his discombobulated debut against Denver on Dec. 16.

Of course, not all the Ravens were boastful or bombastic this week; several had high praise for the Broncos - and the Broncos brushed off those compliments, too, lest they lose their focus.

``I don't really buy into all that mental warfare and all that stuff,'' linebacker Von Miller said. ``I just like to get between the lines and just play football. I think that's where you can settle the score, on the football field.''

Notes: Fox said RB Willis McGahee didn't have any setbacks this week. If the Broncos beat Baltimore and he continues to progress next week, he'll be eligible to return for the AFC championship, two months after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. ... RG Zane Beadles said a big reason for his breakout season was his work with a sports psychologist last spring.

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Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton on Twitter:http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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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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