Surging and stumbling toward NFL playoffs

Surging and stumbling toward NFL playoffs

Some teams surge toward the playoffs. Look at Denver, Seattle, Washington and Green Bay.

Others struggle to stay in the mix: try the Steelers, Bengals, Giants and Bears.

This penultimate weekend of the schedule could propel a few of them and eliminate others.

Chief among the clubs that could go either way: the defending champion New York Giants, who have lost their last three road games by a combined 82-29 to fall to 8-6. Not even coach Tom Coughlin is sure what he has as they head to Baltimore.

``It would be easy for me to say I do, but the reality of it is we haven't been able to play to substantiate what I would say is the personality of this team,'' said Coughlin, whose club gets a wild card, for sure, by winning out. ``So I'm definitely counting on the veterans to go ahead and prove this and do it with consistency.

``Last year we did it over a six-game run and, exactly, we're in that situation again.''

Even though their opponent Sunday, the Ravens, already have sewed up a playoff spot, it's a critical game for Baltimore (9-5) to get back on track after three straight defeats - two at home and one a bit down the road in Washington.

``We dug this hole we're in,'' safety Bernard Pollard said. ``We can't blame anybody but ourselves. We don't like losing three straight games. Nobody does. It's at the point right now where we have to get back at it, man. We dug the hole, now we've got to find a way to get out of it.''

The action began Saturday night with Atlanta's 31-18 victory at Detroit. The Falcons (13-2) clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, while the Lions (4-11) lost their seventh straight game.

Also Sunday, it's Cincinnati at Pittsburgh in an AFC wild-card showdown; Chicago at Arizona; San Francisco at Seattle; Washington at Philadelphia; New Orleans at Dallas; Minnesota at Houston; Indianapolis at Kansas City; Cleveland at Denver; Tennessee at Green Bay; New England at Jacksonville; St. Louis at Tampa Bay; Buffalo at Miami; San Diego at New York Jets; and Oakland at Carolina.

---

Cincinnati (8-6) at Pittsburgh (7-7)

A Bengals win, perhaps a long shot because second-year quarterback Andy Dalton hasn't beaten either the Steelers or Ravens yet, gives Cincinnati a second consecutive postseason berth. That hasn't happened since 1982 and never has occurred without involving a strike-shortened season.

The Bengals also can take the division by sweeping the final two games and having Baltimore lose twice.

Pittsburgh can win the division only if there is a three-way tie, but definitely gets a wild card with two victories.

Chicago (8-6) at Arizona (5-9)

Reeling and injury-ravaged, the Bears have dropped three straight and five of six. There's some discord in the locker room, coach Lovie Smith's job security has become shakier, and they no longer can win the NFC North.

Still, a wild-card spot is available if they win out, and even though the Cardinals routed Detroit last week, it was Arizona's first win in 10 games.

San Francisco (10-3-1) at Seattle (9-5)

The spotlight matchup, even though it won't decide the NFC West. San Francisco can take the division for the second successive season by beating Arizona in its finale even if it falls at what will be a rocking CenturyLink Field. The 49ers earned at least a wild card with their, uh, wild 41-34 victory at New England last weekend.

``Given my first four years, around this time, we probably wouldn't be playing for much, maybe a chance to win a game and maybe get in or waiting on three other teams to lose,'' star linebacker Patrick Willis said. ``It feels good to know that you're playing for something. We have a playoff berth, but we want the division. And we also want to have that first-week bye, and we know we have to win this week first.''

The Seahawks are 6-0 at home, have won five of their last six overall, and scored 58 and 50 points the last two weeks. They aren't likely to come close to that against the NFL's stingiest defense; the Niners have allowed 218 points, one fewer than Seattle.

Washington (8-6) at Philadelphia (4-10)

Credit Mike Shanahan and his coaching staff for one of the best jobs down the stretch. It helps when you have not one but two effective rookie quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins.

The Redskins might beat the weak Eagles with Rex Grossman this week. But even if RG3 is back as expected, look for another key Washington rookie, RB Alfred Morris, to add to his 1,322 yards and nine TDs on the ground.

New Orleans (6-8) at Dallas (8-6)

Dallas is in the same situation as Washington. Win out and the Cowboys take the NFC East.

They've shown plenty of fortitude in winning five of six, rallying to beat the Bengals and Steelers in the last two outings.

New Orleans will test the Dallas defense and is adept at forcing turnovers, something the Cowboys often commit (minus-9 margin)

Minnesota (8-6) at Houston (12-2)

Seems like most everyone believes Adrian Peterson is a lock to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing mark of 2,105. But he still needs almost 300 yards in the last two games, and to average that much would be a pace for 2,400 yards in a season.

The Texans are formidable against the run and badly want to assure being at home throughout the AFC playoffs. By damaging Minnesota's push for an NFC wild card, Houston would ensure it is at home in January.

``This year he's definitely the best,'' linebacker Bradie James said about Peterson, who has 1,812 yards. ``I played against Ricky Williams in his heyday when he would just run over everybody. I played against the Bus (Jerome Bettis); the Bus was great in short yardage. I played against Mike Alstott. I played against all these guys, and what Adrian Peterson is doing right now, I hadn't seen it before.

``We don't want to be on the end of his record setting. We've got to do our job and really not get caught up in all that.''

Indianapolis (9-5) at Kansas City (2-12)

Indy's sensational turnaround from 2-14 to wild-card team will be complete with a victory at the Chiefs. The Colts have managed it despite the fewest takeaways in the NFL (10) and a minus-17.

But the Chiefs, who were shut out by lowly Oakland a week ago, are even worse at minus-22.

Cleveland (5-9) at Denver (11-3)

Consider how far the Broncos have come from a 2-3 record and tons of questions about whether Peyton Manning could once again be, well, Peyton Manning. He is every bit as good in his first season in Denver, has gotten in-tune with his receivers, particularly Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and has a fierce defense to boot.

``I like young players that really want to get better, and those guys have done that,'' Manning said. ``Our timing has improved throughout the season. It's not what it would be had we played together for five years.''

In Cleveland, they wonder if the young cast will play another year with coach Pat Shurmur.

Tennessee (5-9) at Green Bay (10-4)

The Packers could move into the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a victory and a loss by San Francisco. That should be enough motivation to keep them humming; they've won eight of nine, including three in a row within the division to put away the NFC North.

Tennessee was the beneficiary of Mark Sanchez's generosity on Monday night. Aaron Rodgers is no Sanchez.

New England (10-4) at Jacksonville (2-12)

An angry bunch of Patriots head south to face one of the league's worst teams. Barring a misstep by Denver, New England is looking at playing in the wild-card round, by which time it had better have solved defensive woes exposed by San Francisco last Sunday night.

The Jaguars don't figure to provide any challenge as they contend for the top overall draft pick.

St. Louis (6-7-1) at Tampa Bay (6-8)

Both teams should look forward to bigger and better things in 2013. These are generally young teams being constructed in dissimilar ways.

Jeff Fisher is a defensive guy and he's put together a solid unit led by ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, LB James Laurinaitis and cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins. They rank ninth and have 41 sacks, third in the league behind contenders Denver, Houston and Cincinnati.

The Bucs are doing most of their good things with the ball. Vincent Jackson is first in yards per catch (19.8) and fourth in yards receiving, while rookie Doug Martin has 1,250 yards rushing and 10 TDs.

Buffalo (5-9) at Miami (6-8)

Buffalo's high expectations after a busy offseason adding talent fell apart early. The Bills could see some front-office housecleaning after they finish off their 13th straight season out of the playoffs.

Miami has taken some decent steps in its rebuild, but this could be a game of turnovers. Buffalo is minus-10 and Miami is minus-12 in turnover margin.

San Diego (5-9) at New York Jets (6-8)

To the chagrin of Fireman Ed and other Jets fans, the Sanchez error, uh, era might not be over. At least for 2012, barring injuries, the regressing QB will be on the sideline as Greg McElroy tries to secure a job for the future.

The Chargers are playing out the string, too. They found some enthusiasm when they beat Pittsburgh two weeks ago, but then the Panthers routed them in San Diego.

Oakland (4-10) at Carolina (5-9)

The Panthers, particularly Cam Newton, are playing well enough to perhaps save coach Ron Rivera's job. It seems logical that Raiders coach Dennis Allen, in his first season of what will be a lengthy rebuilding project, also is safe.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Three things to know about Ravens sixth-round pick Keenan Reynolds

keenanreynoldsrefframe_1.jpg

Three things to know about Ravens sixth-round pick Keenan Reynolds

We are profiling the Ravens’ draft picks as they prepare to start minicamp Friday. Here are three things to know about sixth-round pick, WR Keenan Reynolds of Navy:

1. The biggest push to draft Reynolds came from assistant general manager Eric DeCosta.

DeCosta, general manager Ozzie Newsome, and coach John Harbaugh were visibly moved talking about making the phone call to Reynolds. All of them admire the way Reynolds has handled himself at Navy, both on and off the field.

When Newsome made the call, he put Reynolds on speaker phone so that everyone could hear his reaction. “Everyone in the room could be a part of telling him that we picked him,” Newsome said. “It was a special moment.”

2. Reynolds is much more than just a symbolic pick.

The Ravens believe Reynolds can stick as a punt returner, and that he has the athleticism and work ethic to become a polished slot receiver. Reynolds has many qualities inherent to top punt returners – good judgment, vision, elusiveness, sure hands, and speed. The Ravens also like that Reynolds has been working with CSN’s Brian Mitchell, a former Pro Bowl punt returner with the Redskins.

“Fortunately, we have a great relationship with Brian Mitchell,” DeCosta said. “We did our homework on him. He’s a guy that was a player of interest to us throughout the process. We kept it very quiet and, and it worked out the right way.”

 3. The Ravens are willing to wait if military obligations prevent Reynolds from playing right away.

Naval Academy graduates are obligated to a five-year military term, but Reynolds has hope of being able to play this fall. The Patriots drafted Navy graduate Joe Cardona last year as a long snapper, and he was granted permission to play. Cardona spent one day a week working at a Rhode Island naval facility. Reynolds hoped a similar arrangement could be worked out for him.

“I’m hoping and praying, and I’m confident that this potentially could be the same type of situation with myself,” Reynolds said. “It’s a blessing that the Ravens felt I was worthy to take a chance on with the military obligation and my service commitment.”

Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

ravensdraftrefframe_1.jpg

Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

It was no surprise the Ravens did not pick up the fifth-year option on safety Matt Elam by Monday’s deadline. The bigger question is whether Elam even makes the team next season.

The 32nd pick in the 2013 draft, Elam has been one of the biggest first-round busts in team history. Some of the standout players who went after Elam in that draft include Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (44th), Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (48th), and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins (52nd).

Elam missed all of last season with a torn biceps, after underperforming in 2013 and 2014. Elam was a big hitter in college at Florida, but has struggled with missed tackles as a Raven, and has been even worse in pass coverage. With the Ravens acquiring safety Eric Weddle in free agency, and Lardarius Webb switching from cornerback to safety, Elam is expected to be a backup at best. He will compete with Terrence Brooks, Kendrick Lewis, and others for a backup role.

Elam is scheduled to make $1.327 million next season, before becoming a free agent in 2017.  However, Elam’s first priority is to secure his place with the Ravens in 2016.  

AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

ravensdraftrefframe_1.jpg

AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

The Ravens can expect to see Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison as an opponent again in 2016. Harrison confirmed on his Instagram account Monday that he would return for another season.

Harrison will turn 38 years old Wednesday (May 4), but he was still effective in 2015 with five sacks and 40 tackles playing in the Steelers’ linebacker rotation. With his announcement that he was returning, Harrison wrote “I’m feeling just like a fine wine. Getting better with age.”

Despite Harrison’s age, the Steelers believe they got younger and better on defense through the draft. Five of the Steelers’ seven picks were on defense – cornerback Artie Burns (first round), safety Sean Davis (second), defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (third round), outside linebacker Travis Feeney (sixth round), and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich (seventh round).  

Clearly, there will be plenty of new names in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, with both teams looking to get younger and faster. However, Harrison plans to be part of the mix for at least another season. The Ravens host the Steelers in Week 9, and visit the Steelers on Christmas afternoon.

MORE RAVENS: BISCIOTTI GETS HIS WISH WITH BOLSTERED PASS RUSH