Broncos are 9th top seed to stumble since '05

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Broncos are 9th top seed to stumble since '05

DENVER (AP) No one should be surprised that the Super Bowl favorites are already out of the playoffs.

With their 38-35 loss in double-overtime to the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night, the Denver Broncos became the ninth No. 1 seed in the last eight years to go down in the divisional round.

On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons nearly became the 10th before escaping Seattle's upset bid in a 30-28 thriller and becoming just the seventh top seed since 2005 to advance to the conference championship.

``I wouldn't say I'm shocked,'' said Peyton Manning, who also lost as a No. 1 seed with Indianapolis in 2005. ``That's not the right word. I'm disappointed.''

Seeds just don't matter anymore.

``That's playoff football, it's do-or-die,'' Denver linebacker Keith Brooking said. ``There are no makeups, there's no `my bad' on that play. You have a bad day, you go home and you deal with it. You're staring an offseason right in the face with nothing to do, except to think about it.''

The Broncos hadn't lost since Oct. 7, winning each of their last 11 regular season games by an average of two touchdowns.

``I feel like we're the best team,'' receiver Brandon Stokley lamented. ``But, in the NFL, it doesn't matter. It's one game and it's whoever plays better. And they played better.''

The Broncos certainly aren't alone in their heartache.

Among the top seeds to have fallen flat in the first playoff game are a 15-1 team, three 14-2 teams and five 13-3 teams - all at home, coming off a bye and facing an opponent that had to travel following a win on wild-card weekend.

The favorites who faltered were led by some of the greatest quarterbacks of our generation, too. Manning and his brother, Eli, have both won Super Bowls and both have been bounced right out of the playoffs. Same with Aaron Rogers and Tom Brady. Others who made early exits are Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Kerry Collins.

To paraphrase the late Vince Lombardi, ``What the heck's going on out here?''

``I have no clue,'' Broncos safety Mike Adams said.

Speaking of Lombardi, no top seed has hoisted the Super Bowl trophy that bears his name since the New Orleans Saints did it in 2009 - the last year the No. 1 seeds in both conferences won in the divisional round.

And not since the `03 Patriots has the team with the best regular-season record won it all.

Maybe the solution is to expand the playoffs, which could pit No. 1 seeds against lesser teams in their playoff openers.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn't taken a stance on the issue.

``I think it needs to be evaluated carefully,'' he said. ``... It's got to be special to make the playoffs. It's also got to retain its uniqueness and the importance of all those regular-season games. So, it has to be done very carefully - if we do it.''

The possibility of another 7-9 team making the playoffs like the Seahawks did in 2010 isn't necessarily a deterrent to adding teams to the playoff pool, Goodell said.

``I think it's because of the competitive nature of our league that wild card teams have gone on to win the Super Bowl,'' Goodell said. ``And teams that haven't had great records, if you're hot and you get hot in the second half of the season, you can win the Super Bowl. And I think that's what's changed a lot, and that's why I think it's worthy of evaluation.''

Perhaps the quest to secure a first-round bye shouldn't serve as such an imperative for teams anymore because all that R&R so often translates into rust and ruin.

Manning lost his first playoff appearance with the Broncos (13-4), who wasted the home-field advantage they secured throughout the playoffs by failing to pressure Joe Flacco and negating a record-setting performance by kick returner Trindon Holliday.

It wasn't like the Broncos had rested their regulars down the stretch, either. They didn't secure the No. 1 seed until Week 17, so they never took their foot off the gas, something they were sure would help them keep rolling through January.

``I felt like we went about our business the right way and we had good weeks of practice, were ready to play and the game came down to about 12 plays and they made them and we didn't,'' Stokley said.

The Falcons also played their starters to the end but lost their regular-season finale to Tampa Bay, then got all they could handle from the Seahawks before advancing to the NFL title game, where they'll host San Francisco.

That wild win over Seattle included a TD run, a field goal and a desperation heave into the end zone over the final 31 seconds - the exact amount of time that remained when Broncos coach John Fox decided to have Manning take a knee and settle for overtime on a frostbitten night in Denver after Jacoby Jones' stunning 70-yard TD catch over safety Rahim Moore had tied the game at 35.

``You know what? I agreed with it,'' Stokley said, ``just with the conditions, where we were on the field. The wind was kind of blowing in our face a little bit and they were getting after Peyton and in that situation, I agreed with it and I had no problems with that at all.''

Aside from the Saints three years ago, the five other No. 1 seeds since `05 that managed to win their playoff opener all won their conference championship only go on to lose the Super Bowl.

Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler still searching for his first Super Bowl ring, knew this was his best chance, calling this his ``best team that didn't do anything. It's frustrating, but that's the reality of it. We got to the playoffs but you have to win in the playoffs for it to mean something. So, it's just another year when we came up short.''

Anymore, the odds are simply stacked against the odds-on Super Bowl favorites.

Yet, they still have a better shot than regular-season champs in other sports.

Since the first Super Bowl, the team with the best regular-season record has won 21 of 46 championships, or 46 percent, which is more than in the NHL (42 percent), NBA (41 percent) and MLB (28 percent), according to STATS.

``There's no doubt in my mind that we'll be back and we'll be bigger, stronger, faster, we'll be hardened and ready to go,'' Broncos star linebacker Von Miller said.

But how far?

Of the eight previous No. 1 seeds to falter in their first playoff game, only one - the Patriots in 2011 - recovered from that heartache to reach the Super Bowl the next season, where they lost to the New York Giants.

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AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

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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

Bisciotti gets his wish with draft class full of pass rushers

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Bisciotti gets his wish with draft class full of pass rushers

At the team's "State of the Ravens" end-of-season news conference, owner Steve Bisciotti made no bones about where he thought the Ravens needed to improve in 2016: rushing the passer.

So although Bisciotti didn't speak to the media after the draft, he had to be pleased with the results.

With two of their first three picks, the Ravens selected players who figure to pressure the quarterback -- Boise State linebacker Kamalei Correa and Brigham Young defensive end Bronson Kaufusi.

"They both have pass rush ability," coach John Harbaugh said. "They both get sacks, they are both high-motor players and high-energy pass rushers. These two guys are going to run to the ball. These two guys are going to run to the ball 100 miles an hour every single play. That’s really important on defense.”

The next day, the Ravens added Grand Valley State defensive end Matt Judon -- who had 20 sacks last year -- in the fifth round. Just for good measure, they also reportedly agreed to sign undrafted rookie linebacker Victor Ochi of Stony Brook, who led the Football Championship Subdivision with 13 sacks.

Harbaugh said after the draft that "I don't think it was a secret" that Bisciotti wanted the Ravens to upgrade the pass rush, "and we were able to fill (that need). I’m really fired up about that. I’m really excited about these guys getting to the quarterback.”

Bisciotti said in January that losing Terrell Suggs to a season-ending injury in Week 1 had a "domino effect" that greatly disrupted the defense. Elvis Dumervil was forced into more of a three-down role, and Courtney Upshaw never came close to replacing Suggs' sack numbers. Dumervil dropped from 17 sacks to six, and overall the Ravens dropped from 49 sacks in 2014 to 37 last season.

When the pass rush failed to pressure the quarterback, coverage linebackers or defensive backs were frequently exposed.

"I think I have a true appreciation of what pressure means, and so that’s what I think we need to do," Bisciotti had said in January. "I think we need to focus on our free agency and our draft, and I think we have to have multiple pass rushers in order to let everybody else be effective.”

Suggs turns 34 in October and is coming off his second major Achilles injury. Dumervil is 32. So the need to develop good young pass rushers is obvious. The Ravens hope they took a big step in that direction over the weekend.

MORE RAVENS: EVALUATING ALL FIVE 4TH-ROUND SELECTIONS

Will Ravens' record-setting fourth-round bonanza live up to the hype?

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Will Ravens' record-setting fourth-round bonanza live up to the hype?

Will the Ravens’ fourth-round haul live up to the hype?

No team in NFL history had ever made five fourth-round picks, and some felt the Ravens hit on all of them. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay says, “This might be the best fourth round I’ve ever seen from a team.”

Here’s a closer look at how the five players the Ravens selected in Round 4 could fit in next season:

Tavon Young, CB, Temple (104th overall)

Young will compete for a nickel corner spot as a rookie. Barring injuries, the only certainty about the Ravens secondary is Jimmy Smith starting at one corner and Eric Weddle starting at safety. Young will compete for playing time with Shareece Wright, Kyle Arrington, Will Davis, and others. But if Young plays regularly as a rookie and helps them win games, it’s a steal.

Chris Moore, WR, Cincinnati (107)

Moore has legit deep speed, joining Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace as receivers that can stretch the field for quarterback Joe Flacco. Think about it, the Ravens didn’t’ have Perriman, Wallace, or Moore on the field last season. If Moore has a strong training camp, the Ravens will find a way to get him some opportunities. Remember the big plays Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones made during the Super Bowl year? The Ravens hope Wallace, Perriman, and Moore provide that kind of impact.

Alex Lewis, OT, Nebraska (130)

If the Ravens part with left tackle Eugene Monroe, Lewis could become the backup at left tackle behind first-round pick Ronnie Stanley. Lewis could also be the backup to right tackle Rick Wagner. Either way, Lewis could be one injury away from playing.

Willie Henry, DT, Michigan (132)

He’s the fourth-rounder with the hardest path to immediate playing time. The Ravens are deep at defensive tackle with Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, and Carl Davis. But if Henry shows he can help as a run stopper, he’ll be part of the defensive line rotation.

Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech (134)

Some thought Dixon was the best pass-catching back in the draft. Justin Forsett will enter camp as the starter, but the Ravens want to keep him fresh. It’s a crowded running back group right now, but Buck Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro both saw playing time as rookie running backs. Dixon will too, if he shows he’s ready to make plays.

MORE RAVENS: A WAY TOO EARLY NFL DRAFT TOP 10