Broncos hoping week off doesn't stop momentum

Broncos hoping week off doesn't stop momentum

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) More than 15 years later, the words ``Jacksonville Jaguars'' still hit like a cold splash of water around Denver, especially during playoff time.

And if you want to bring back bad memories for Peyton Manning or any of his former Colts teammates, ask them about what happened against Pittsburgh in the 2005 playoffs.

In both instances, the Broncos and Manning roared into the AFC playoffs with top seeding, a week of rest after a bye and the so-called honor of being the odds-on favorite to make the Super Bowl.

In both instances, the Broncos and Manning were unceremoniously dumped, at home, by a team that came into the game as a touchdown-plus underdog.

Which brings up a good question this week in Denver: Does the team that comes into the divisional round fresh off the bye week (See, Denver) have an edge over the team that comes in off the high of a victory the week before (See, Baltimore)?

Dating to Denver's upset loss in the 1996 playoffs, the top-seeded AFC team has made the Super Bowl only six of 16 times.

``If you look back, at least in recent history, sometimes it can be an advantage,'' said Broncos coach John Fox, who lost after a bye week when he was with Carolina in 2008. ``But it comes down to, forget about rest, forget about seeds, forget about who you play, when, where. It's going to be who plays best Saturday afternoon.''

On Saturday, Jan. 4, 1997, the Broncos did not play best.

Led by Mark Brunell, Natrone Means and Jimmy Smith, the Jaguars rolled into the playoffs having won six of seven, then traveled to Buffalo for a confidence-building 30-27 win over the Bills.

Jacksonville's impressive performance barely raised an eyebrow in Denver, where talk of John Elway finally getting his Super Bowl ring was in full force. The biggest news of the week came when Woody Paige, a columnist for the Denver Post, famously called Jacksonville the ``Jagwads'' - a slam that quickly turned into a rallying cry inside the Jaguars locker room.

Every bit as important was the way the two teams were playing coming into that game.

Jacksonville had a high-powered offense that was coming into its own.

Denver had wrapped up the AFC West and top seeding throughout the playoffs on Dec. 1 and spent the last three weeks of the regular season deciding whether to rest the starters, play them or find some workable mix.

In their first meaningful game in a month, the Broncos shot out to a quick 12-0 lead. The rest, as any longtime Denver fan will recall it, was a nightmare. Brunell threw for 245 yards and the Jaguars went up 23-12. Elway tried to engineer another of his trademark comebacks but came up short. Jacksonville won 30-27.

``Everything was just so ideal,'' Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said after the loss. ``And to have it slip away - this sets the organization back four years, at least. It's going to be the year 2000 before we can ever recover from this.''

It didn't take that long for the Broncos to rebound; they won the next two Super Bowls. Manning rebounded from his 2005 playoff loss to win the Super Bowl the next season.

But at the time they happened, both losses were as devastating as they were unexpected.

Going into the game against the Steelers on Jan. 15, 2006, Manning was already brandishing a reputation as one of the greats of the game, albeit with a playoff resume still very much in question. Tom Brady had ousted him twice and he had a 3-5 record in the postseason.

The Colts started that season 13-0 and played the last three weeks under similar circumstances as the `96 Broncos - trying to find the formula that would help them stay sharp while not putting their stars at risk.

Manning played one quarter of the 15th game and one series of the last game, which ended when he was sacked and lost a fumble after being hit by Arizona's Chike Okeafor.

Manning returned two weeks later and got sacked five times in a 21-18 loss to the Steelers. That result left the 2005 Broncos with home-field advantage for the AFC title game - the last time Denver has been that far in the playoffs - but the Steelers beat them, as well.

``That brings back bad memories,'' said Brandon Stokley, the Broncos receiver who played with Manning in Indianapolis in 2005. ``We just didn't play a good game. We had the bye. We kind of shut it down toward the end of the season and came out flat and that's what happens.''

Part by plan and part because they had no other choice, the 2012-13 Broncos have not shut down a thing all season.

Because they were busy holding off Baltimore, leapfrogging New England, then pursuing Houston for the top seed in the AFC, the Broncos had to play all their players through the final game of the year before sealing the top spot.

Once they got it, Fox designed the bye-week schedule to keep his team very much engaged. He called for three practices during the week and a mandatory weightlifting session on Saturday, designed as much for the work in the weight room as for what it prevented - namely, players using their days off to hop a flight to Las Vegas or some other focus-detracting locale.

On Saturday, they find out if it was worth it. The Broncos head into the week as a nine-point favorite.

``I like the way we approached it,'' Stokley said. ``We played every game. We played every play. The bye week, we worked hard. I like this mindset. I feel a lot better about it than I did in Indy.''

Notes: Broncos CB Champ Bailey and OL Ryan Clady were named to the USA Football All-Fundamentals team Monday. ... Denver's only other playoff meeting with the Ravens was a 21-3 loss in Baltimore in the wild-card round. The Ravens won the Super Bowl that year. ... Fox on whether the team had confidence in PR/KR Trindon Holliday, who has been prone to fumbling this season and is recovering from an ankle injury: ``He's on our 53-man roster and he's been our starting punt returner and kick returner for some time. So I guess the answer to that would be yes.''

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Secretary of Defense gives thumbs-up for Reynolds to pursue NFL

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Secretary of Defense gives thumbs-up for Reynolds to pursue NFL

Ravens wide receiver Keenan Reynolds can officially defer his military service to play in the NFL, secretary of defense Ashton Carter said Friday. Carter made the announcement during his graduation speech at the Naval Academy.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, strongly recommended that Reynolds be allowed to pursue his NFL career. Now Reynolds has the official go-ahead.

“It is a blessing to hear the news from Defense Secretary Carter,” Reynolds said in a statement released by the Ravens. “I am truly excited to proudly serve my country while having the ability to fulfill my dream of playing for the best organization in the NFL.

“I would like to thank the Navy for allowing me to represent them while taking advantage of this unique opportunity. I would also like to thank (Ravens owner) Mr. (Steve) Bisciotti and the Ravens organization for believing in me and giving me this chance.”

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement, “This is good news, and congratulations on to Keenan on his graduation today.”

The Ravens selected Reynolds in the sixth round of the draft, and are intrigued by his potential as a returner and receiver after a stellar career at Navy as a quarterback. Reynolds finished his Navy career as the FBS all-time leader in touchdowns (88).

Reynolds has sought advice on making the transition from quarterback to receiver-returner from CSN’s Brian Mitchell, who was a Pro Bowl returner with the Redskins, and from Hines Ward, a Pro Bowl receiver with the Steelers. The next challenge for Reynolds is to win a spot on the Ravens’ 53-man roster, and many people will be rooting for him.

Can Ravens WR Michael Campanaro stay healthy enough to secure roster spot?

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Can Ravens WR Michael Campanaro stay healthy enough to secure roster spot?

OWINGS MILLS – Third-year wide receiver Michael Campanaro will have a difficult time making the Ravens in 2016 if he does not stay healthy. He is not off to a good start. A calf injury forced Campanaro to miss the first week of OTA’s, and his return date remained uncertain.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh expressed empathy for Campanaro following Thursday’s practice.

“He tweaked his calf a couple of weeks ago and he’s working hard,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve just never seen a guy work as hard as this guy has worked in the last year and a half. There will be a time he will get past this stuff. This stuff will stop happening and hopefully it’s training camp, and that’s what we’re hoping for him. The guy works tremendously hard and he was in phenomenal shape, and we’re still expecting really good things from him.”

Campanaro’s season ended last year after just four games due to a herniated disc. As a rookie in 2014, Campanaro was plagued by hamstring injuries that did not clear up until late in the season.

When Campanaro has been healthy, he has produced as a slot receiver. During the Ravens’ 35-31 playoff loss to the Patriots that ended his rookie season, Campanaro had four catches for 39 yards, and looked unfazed by postseason pressure.

However, Campanaro’s injuries have kept him from building momentum as a player. Meanwhile, the Ravens have added Mike Wallace and rookies Chris Moore and Keenan Reynolds to a wide receiver group that also includes Steve Smith Sr., Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, Jeremy Butler, Kaelin Clay, and Chris Matthews.

Campanaro could help the Ravens as a returner, but so can Reynolds and Clay. The Ravens have been waiting for Campanaro to show he can remain healthy. If that does not happen during training camp, it might be too late.

Five observations from Ravens OTAs

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Five observations from Ravens OTAs

The Ravens are wrapping up their first of three -- oops, make that two -- weeks of OTA workouts this week, and Thursday's session was the first open to the media. Here are five observations after catching the first partial glimpse of the 2016 Ravens (partial because more than a dozen players, including many starters, sat out the voluntary workouts either by choice or because of injury.)

This wide receiver group appears impressive

Steve Smith Sr. wasn't even there, but Breshad Perriman, Mike Wallace and rookie Chris Moore all look like they will be nice options for Joe Flacco (who, incidentally, watched the OTAs in a T-shirt as he continues his knee rehab.). Heck, the fact that Perriman was on the field is already a big improvement over last year. Kamar Aiken reverts to being a very solid No. 3 or No. 4 option if this group stays healthy. Speaking of health, Michael Camapanaro (calf) missed the workout, and with this group of receivers, including Navy's Keenan Reynolds, Campanaro is one more nagging injury from not making this roster. 

Dennis Pitta could leave the Ravens in a very tough spot

Good for Dennis Pitta to work back from his second major hip injury and get back on the field, even if for noncontact OTAs. He ran, cut and caught well, and he said after the workout that he felt great physically. "My level of expectation is extremely high going into this year," he said. "Like I said, I feel confident in how I can run, how I can move, how I can play." But if Pitta, who turns 31 next month, is indeed healthy, then what? The Ravens brought in Ben Watson this year, and already have two promising young tight ends in Crockett Gillmore and second-year, second-round pick Maxx Williams. None of them are going anywhere. Would the Ravens cut Pitta, one of the most likable players on the team and a close friend of Joe Flacco's, after his grueling rehab? Would they keep four tight ends? That would be highly unusual, but not out of the question with Marc Trestman's offense. Incidentally, tight end Todd Heap was 31 when the Ravens let him go.

Interesting look at inside linebacker

With Daryl Smith gone and C.J. Mosley sitting out, rookie second-round pick Kamalei Correa, billed as an edge rusher, spent a lot of time at inside linebacker. Coach John Harbaugh said afterward that Correa "has inside linebacker traits." The Ravens also appear to be looking at safety Anthony Levine as a linebacker option. He did some individual work with the inside linebackers and spent some time as an inside linebacker in 7-on-7 drills. Coverage was a big issue for Ravens linebackers last year, so if Levine and Correa show they can cover well over the middle, that versatility could be a big plus.

Lardarius Webb seems at home at safety

The move from corner to safety should agree with Lardarius Webb. He drifted over well in deep coverage, but it wasn't encouraging to see a potential interception bounce off his hands. This team had a franchise-record-low six interceptions last year. Webb said moving to safety has been "a great transition. I’m loving it. I have more control of the defense."

Losing a week of OTAs isn't the end of the world

The Ravens have been docked next week's OTA workouts as a penalty for reportedly having players in pads for a brief portion of their rookie minicamp in violation of the current collective bargaining agreement. It certainly isn't a good look, but it shouldn't have much bearing on whether the Ravens can beat the Steelers on Christmas night. Many veterans weren't on the field this week anyway. It might be a speed bump in development for Ravens rookies and other newcomers, but there's a lot of training camp for that. Three days off in June might do some bodies good. If anyone is hurt by this it might be Keenan Reynolds -- the former Navy quarterback is trying to quickly learn the wide receiver position, and he missed the OTAs this week because of his graduation in Annapolis.