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Golden era for QBs, with great stories around NFL

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Golden era for QBs, with great stories around NFL

NEW YORK (AP) The two kids from Northern California burst from NFL afterthought to championship contender in eerily similar fashion a decade apart.

Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, each playing in a conference title game this weekend, are bookends to a fortuitous moment in quarterback history. On one side are the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, still scintillating in their mid-30s.

On the other are Kaepernick, a second-year player, and the brilliant class of rookies with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson leading their teams to the playoffs.

Young, old and in between, the current crop of NFL quarterbacks is not only deep but dynamic and diverse.

``We're in a little bit of a boom right now. We're flowing a little bit, especially young players,'' Hall of Famer Steve Young said last week. ``If those guys continue to develop, we'll have a period of time here, kind of a Camelot of quarterbacking.''

The depth of the position shows in the other two guys joining the Patriots' Brady and the 49ers' Kaepernick in the conference championship games. Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco were first-round draft picks in 2008, and for all their successes, they're probably low on the list when fans think of the most dominant NFL quarterbacks.

Yet here they are a win away from the Super Bowl after leading stirring comebacks that answered many doubts about each.

Quarterback has long been the glamour position of all of sports, but it seems even a bit more glamorous right now. Rule changes favor a wide-open passing game, which makes a superior quarterback more valuable. Colleges and high schools run more sophisticated offenses, and the best athletes gravitate to quarterback then develop into polished passers who happen to be able to scramble.

``I can't remember - even though this is a quarterback-driven league - as many remarkable and compelling stories on the quarterback side as you're seeing this year,'' CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said.

There was that brief stretch less than 15 years ago when Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson won Super Bowls, and it seemed perhaps championship teams didn't need a star at the position. Since then, here's the roll call of victorious quarterbacks: Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, both Manning brothers, Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

Twenty-five of the 46 Super Bowl MVPs have been quarterbacks, but now it's five of the last six. In the half-dozen years before that, four were non-QBs, including two defensive players.

``It ebbs and flows, no question. There's some dark times where you have two or three guys that can truly do it,'' said Young, Kaepernick's forerunner as a dual-threat San Francisco QB and now an ESPN analyst.

Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls with future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman as his quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, was talking to Bill Belichick last summer about the recent shift. Belichick has won three championships with Brady, but even as of a few years ago, both coaches believed a title was possible behind a strong defense and running game.

Not anymore, they agreed.

``Now, the only thing that matters is if you get a great quarterback,'' said Johnson, now a Fox commentator.

Of this year's playoff teams, the only one without great stability at quarterback was Minnesota. And the Vikings had a guy named Adrian Peterson.

The bottom of the standings is full of clubs with uncertainty at the position: from the Chiefs and Jaguars to the Eagles, Cardinals and Jets.

This year, 20 quarterbacks started every regular-season game, nearly two-thirds of the league. That's by far the most since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978, according to STATS, four more than the previous high.

That record partly reflects a lack of injuries, in which all those rules protecting the QB may be a factor - along with, of course, sheer luck. But it also reflects how few teams benched their quarterbacks. Most clubs are quite happy with their current situation.

For all the quarterback intrigue in the playoffs, consider the big names who didn't qualify for the postseason: Brees, Eli Manning, Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Cam Newton. And then there's Tim Tebow, who may never start again as an NFL QB but is still one of the most recognizable and polarizing athletes in all of sports.

This quarterback Camelot is about more than the deep field of effective starters. The playoffs oozed with stars popular not just for their performances but their personalities and pizazz.

``I marvel at how prepared these guys are - not only on the field, but the exposure they get off it,'' said Aikman, who will call the NFC title game for Fox. ``Whether it's through social networks or different platforms, they are given the opportunity to talk to the press and are much more well-rounded and prepared for all that comes with the scrutiny of the position than ever before.

``If you're on Park Avenue in New York (at league headquarters), you're pretty happy with the new representatives that will be the ambassadors for the league for the years to come.''

The quarterbacks in the postseason undoubtedly fascinate fans, but they do so in different ways.

``All with incredibly different kinds of stories, all with incredibly different ways of getting to the playoffs,'' said McManus, whose network airs next month's Super Bowl.

Nielsen/E-Poll calculates an ``N-Score'' to measure the endorsement potential of athletes. Peyton Manning has the top score of current QBs, but other players come out ahead in specific categories in the surveys.

In this high school yearbook of NFL quarterbacks, Brees is voted most appealing. Rodgers is the most confident, Newton the most dynamic, Griffin the most talented. Luck is considered the most intelligent and Brady the most attractive.

Their back stories sizzle. This season saw Manning return from neck surgery to lead the Broncos to the AFC's top seed and earn All-Pro honors. Brees was dealing with the fallout of the Saints' bounty scandal.

Unlike past rookie quarterbacks who reached the playoffs, Luck and Griffin were anything but caretakers riding a strong defense; both were vibrant leaders turning around franchises. And Wilson advanced deeper into the postseason than either of them.

Kaepernick is for the moment the best story of them all. The 2011 second-round draft pick opened the season as a backup to Alex Smith, who led the 49ers to the NFC championship game last year. Kaepernick played so well after Smith was injured that coach Jim Harbaugh took the gamble to stick with him - just as Belichick did with Brady 11 years earlier.

Now Brady is the grizzled veteran, though fans won't get that expected matchup with his longtime rival, Manning, after Baltimore stunned Denver.

``They're not going to last forever,'' Young said of the old guard, ``but you've got a feeling that there's some guys around that we're in pretty good shape in the next generation. Right now, as we speak, there's compelling stories all over the playoffs at the quarterback spot, which is kind of fun.''

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Five questions to ask as Ravens open training camp

Five questions to ask as Ravens open training camp

Veterans report to Ravens training camp Wednesday, with the first full-squad practice Thursday morning. Here are five questions to ask as the Ravens try to bounce back from a 5-11 season.

1. Does the influx of new talent make the Ravens playoff contenders again?

The Ravens were more aggressive early in free agency than usual, signing safety Eric Weddle, wide receiver Mike Wallace, and tight end Ben Watson. Then they loaded up on young talent with 11 draft picks, including left tackle Ronnie Stanley who is expected to start, linebacker Kamalei Correa who should see significant playing time, and running back Kenneth Dixon who has intriguing potential. The Ravens are a better football team, but I still question if they’re good enough to make the playoffs.  In order to make the postseason, the Ravens simply must get significant contributions from a host of new players.  

2. Is quarterback Joe Flacco ready to have a stellar season coming off knee surgery?

It’s a great sign that Flacco is ready for camp. His reps may be monitored early in camp and his preseason playing time figures to be limited. But when the regular season begins, the Ravens will need Flacco to have a solid season, maybe his best for the Ravens to make the playoffs. If Flacco has any lingering doubt about how his knee will hold up, those doubts need to be erased between now and Week 1.

3. How will key players on PUP perform once they return?

Four players currently on the PUP list are expected to play crucial roles – wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, and linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Smith is 37 years old, Suggs is 33, Dumervil is 32, and Perriman has yet to play an NFL down due to knee injuries. The Ravens’ playoff prospects are better if they can squeeze another quality year out of their injured vets, and if Perriman finally plays.

4. Who starts at inside linebacker next to C. J. Mosley?

That could be the biggest question mark in the starting lineup. The Ravens are deep at running back and tight end, so who starts doesn’t matter as much. But the release of veteran Daryl Smith, now with the Buccaneers, leaves a void at inside linebacker. Zach Orr has the inside track to start, Arthur Brown is getting one more chance, and Correa could be moved inside. But if none of those players rise up, general manager Ozzie Newsome could be forced to sign a veteran.

5. How will the new-look left side of the offensive line gel?

Stanley is a rookie left tackle. They’ll be a new starter at left guard, as John Urschel, Ryan Jensen, and perhaps rookie Alex Lewis battle to replace Kelechi Osemele, who was lost to the Raiders in free agency. It’s not surprising the Ravens felt they needed to sign veteran left tackle Jake Long as insurance.  To protect Flacco and run the ball effectively, the new-look left side of the offensive line must play well.

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Report: Boldin to sign with Lions

Report: Boldin to sign with Lions

Former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin is back for a 14th season.

Boldin, who turns 36 in October, will sign a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. In Detroit, Boldin will be reunited with Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who became the Ravens offensive coordinator during their run to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.

The Lions had a major void at wide receiver with All-Pro Calvin Johnson's retirement.

RELATED: RAVENS AGREE TO ONE-YEAR DEAL WITH OL JAKE LONG

A former second-round draft pick, Boldin spent seven seasons with the Cardinals before the Ravens traded for him in 2010. In three seasons with the Ravens, Boldin averaged 62 catches and 882 yards. He came up huge in the 2012 playoff run, with a team-best 22 catches for 380 yards and four touchdowns. He had six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl win over the 49ers.

After that Super Bowl run, though, Boldin was traded to the 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick. Boldin led the 49ers in catches and receiving yards in each of the past three years. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the 49ers in 2013 and 2014, leading many to question the Ravens decision to trade him. Last season, Boldin led the 49ers with 69 catches for 789 yards.

Boldin enters this season ranked 17th in NFL history with 13,195 receiving yards. One of the few players ahead of him is current Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr., who ranks 11th (13,392). Boldin last season became the 13th player in NFL history with 1,000 career receptions and now has 1,009. Smith, incidentally, needs 39 catches this season join Boldin in the 1,000-catch club.

MORE RAVENS: RETURNING PUNTS KEY FOR 3 RAVENS WR'S ON BUBBLE

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Ravens agree to one-year deal with former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long

Ravens agree to one-year deal with former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long

The Ravens are expected to sign veteran offensive lineman Jake Long after he flies into Baltimore on Tuesday night, CSN has confirmed. The impending Long-Ravens deal was first reported by Adam Schefter of ESPN, who reported that Long and the Ravens had agreed to a one-year deal. That contract is expected to be signed if there were no last-minute concerns once Long arrived in town.

Long is a former Pro Bowl left tackle with the Dolphins who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft. He spent five seasons with the Dolphins, before joining the Rams for two seasons, then playing four games with the Falcons last season. Long is still only 31 years old, but he has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons, including two torn ACL’s.

The Ravens view Long as insurance at left tackle to as a backup to first-round pick Ronnie Stanley. While the Ravens believe Stanley can handle the starting job, the Ravens were left thin at the position after releasing veteran Eugene Monroe, who has since retired. James Hurst has been the Ravens’ backup left tackle, but in Long, the Ravens would have a more experienced option should Stanley struggle or suffer an injury.

RELATED: RETURNING PUNTS KEY FOR 3 RAVENS WR'S ON BUBBLE