Big win sets Broncos up for week off in playoffs

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Big win sets Broncos up for week off in playoffs

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) When things weren't clicking at the beginning of the season, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos spent most of their time looking at the film and working out the kinks on the practice field - and very little time focusing on the standings.

The work is paying off, and if they bothered to look at those standings Monday, they would've liked what they saw.

After their runaway win over Baltimore and New England's loss to San Francisco, the Broncos are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and only need victories at home over Cleveland and Kansas City, combined record 7-21, to wrap up a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Eight of the 10 AFC teams to make the Super Bowl under the current playoff format have had a first-round bye.

``I always thought if we kept getting better, there was no way we couldn't be one of the top teams,'' Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. ``It was just a matter of keeping your nose down, not worrying about your record, keep working and everything will take care of itself.''

During their nine-game winning streak - longest since they won the first 13 games of the 1998 Super Bowl season - the Broncos (11-3) have steadily gotten better.

One of the issues was how they would fare against a winning team, the likes of which they faced only twice over the first eight wins of the streak. The trip to Baltimore, against a struggling Ravens team, but still a team that has qualified for the playoffs with a 9-5 record, was considered their biggest litmus test before the playoffs begin.

They passed it and didn't even need Manning at his very best to do so.

The Broncos quarterback threw for 204 yards, his lowest output of the season.

But the Broncos were so good everywhere else - rushing for 163 yards, creating two turnovers and returning one for a touchdown, milking the clock in the fourth quarter with a 9:59 drive - they didn't need Manning to do much more than hand off.

In fact, Manning handed the ball off 45 times Sunday, the most in his career.

``Our goal is to try to get better every week,'' he said. ``I feel like we probably have in some areas. You're still looking to play that perfect 60-minute game, and that's your goal every week.''

After Week 5, a 31-21 loss at New England that dropped Denver to 2-3, nobody was mistaking Manning or the Broncos for perfect.

Still getting used to his new offense and his new teammates, Manning was struggling. He threw a career-high 26 incompletions in a loss to Houston and had the three first-quarter interceptions in a loss to Atlanta.

There were still questions about his arm strength, and others about whether he would get used to playing at full speed again.

Manning brushed off most of the criticism, bristled at some of it and, mostly, kept believing that more time with his teammates would solve many of the problems.

Since Week 6, when the winning streak began, the Broncos have averaged 386 yards a game (sixth in the NFL) and scored 30.4 points (second), while allowing 291 yards (second) and 17.8 points (third).

``I knew we had a really good team,'' receiver Brandon Stokley said. ``A lot of people on the outside wanted to push the panic button. But for us, it was just about improving every week. We were a relatively young team with the system we put in, and just getting better, knowing that good things could happen if we kept working hard, that's what we've done.''

Even with the victory over the Ravens, the question remains: How will the Broncos fare against the league's elite? Their only three losses came to Atlanta (12-2), Houston (12-2) and New England (10-4) and Denver hasn't faced a team of that caliber since.

The fact that the Broncos would face a possible rematch with the Patriots at home could give the Broncos a supposed advantage in a series in which they've lost their three meetings in the John Fox era by a combined score of 117-54.

Two of those games, including last year's 45-10 playoff loss (with Tim Tebow at quarterback), were in New England.

But ask any of the Broncos about the path to the Super Bowl that is clearer than it was two days, to say nothing of nine games, ago and, well, you mainly get the trademark blank stare and the pat answer.

``Right now, I know we can control our own destiny, but if we don't play our best game against Cleveland this week, that will be all for naught,'' coach John Fox said.

Notes: Fox did not list RB Knowshon Moreno on the injury report, though Moreno could be seen on the sideline during the fourth quarter with trainers looking at his back. ... Fox downplayed a tweet from CB Tracy Porter, who has expressed his dissatisfaction about the lack of playing time after losing his job to Chris Harris. ``He just needs to focus on getting better every day,'' Fox said. ``I saw good improvement last week.'' Porter, who has been cleared to play after dealing with health issues, hasn't played since Oct. 7. ... Fox said KR/PR Trindon Holliday would still be the returner even though he has fumbled four times since signing with the Broncos in October. He has also scored two touchdowns.

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AFC North: Will Steelers RB Bell stay healthy this season?

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AFC North: Will Steelers RB Bell stay healthy this season?

Here’s a key AFC North question. Will Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell stay healthy?

Bell is without question one of the league’s most talented backs. However, knee injuries have ended his season the past two years, leaving the Steelers without him when they were eliminated from the playoffs.

De’Angelo Williams did a superb job in place of Bell last season, rushing for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns. But Bell is a better pass receiver and more elusive – capable of turning almost any play in to a big play. In 2014, Bell had over 2,000 yards combined from scrimmage – 1,316 yards rushing and 854 yards receiving.

Bell doesn’t want to be labeled as injury-prone, yet some people already view him that way. But at Steelers OTA’s, Bell showed up looking healthy, while vowing not to run cautiously next season.

“I’m going to be physical,” Bell told ESPN.com. “I’m out here with no knee brace or anything, didn’t wear a sleeve or anything. I’ve been training my knee for everything I’m about to go through, so when September gets here I’ll be even better than I am now. That’s even crazy to think about. But I’m excited.”

When Bell has been healthy, putting up numbers has not been a problem. The more Bell plays next season, the better the Steelers’ chances of making the playoffs.

Urschel spends his spring getting straight A's at MIT

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Urschel spends his spring getting straight A's at MIT

If the NFL had an All-Academic team, Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel would be on it.

In February, Urschel began the Ph.D program in mathematics at MIT. How’s he doing so far? Here’s a hint. When it comes to grades, Urschel is only familiar with one letter in the alphabet.

“My first semester in school in nearly three years,” Urschel wroter on Twitter. “Four PhD classes at MIT. Four A’s. The streak continues!!!”

Entering his third season with the Ravens, Urschel has found a way to juggle his love for football with his love for mathematics. He posted an interesting article on The Players Tribune this week in which he described training with the football team at MIT this spring.

“I probably had about 50 or 60 pounds on the biggest guy on MIT’s O-line,” Urschel wrote. “But when we ran, they put me to shame. They could outsprint me.

“What I found is that the team at MIT is no joke. It is a football team – in some ways, more of a football team than any I’d ever seen. These guys love football. They are playing the game because they want to. No one is making them come to practice, no one is checking up on them. They know as well as anyone about head injuries; they know that football is dangerous; they know the feeling of exhaustion and pain. They still play. They don’t do it for money, and they don’t do it for status.

“We talk about dedication and passion in the pros, but the truth is, sometimes the game feels like a job. You start to think of the paycheck. You feel the grind. But training with the team at MIT, I started thinking about what had drawn me to football as a kid. It felt like a game again. I had thought I might have something to teach the team. I never imagined they’d have so much to teach me.”

That guy in the Dos Equis beer commercials might be the most interesting man in the world. But Urschel has built a strong resume as the most interesting player on the Ravens.

RELATED: NFL ANNOUNCES LOCATIONS FOR 2019, 2020 AND 2021 SUPER BOWLS

NFL announces locations for 2019, 2020 and 2021 Super Bowls

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NFL announces locations for 2019, 2020 and 2021 Super Bowls

The NFL has decided on the locations of the 2019, 2020 and 2021 Super Bowls. The vote took place at the NFL owners meetings in Charlotte on Tuesday. 

Atlanta will host Super Bowl LIII in 2019, while South Florida (Miami) will get the event in 2020 and Los Angeles will host in 2021. 

The cities chosen each included new or upgraded stadiums in their pitches to the league. 

Atlanta will be home to the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, opening in 2017. 

Miami's stadium (Sun Life Stadium from 2010-2016) is undergoing a $400 million renovation that will include an open-air canopy to provide shade for 92 percent of seats, according to Sports Illustrated. Construction should be complete before the 2017 season. 

And Los Angeles will boast a new 300-acre, campus-style stadium housing the Rams and potentially a second team. The $2.6 billion project will be the most expensive sports arena in the world, reports CNN, and should be ready before the 2019 NFL season.