NFL playoffs taking shape, and still a month to go

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NFL playoffs taking shape, and still a month to go

Start the playoffs now.

Well, just about.

More than a month from the end of the NFL season, and nearly every division race is decided. Atlanta and Denver have four-game leads and can earn titles with victories Sunday, although the Falcons also need Tampa Bay to lose - coincidentally, to the Broncos, who don't need any help if they win to walk off with the AFC West.

The Falcons (10-1) get an early start by hosting New Orleans on Thursday night. Considering the rivalry, and that Atlanta's only defeat this season has been to the Saints, taking the NFC South crown merely adds to the team's already soaring incentives.

``Ten and one is great, but I'll tell you what I've said since the beginning of the season: We're just jockeying for position,'' star tight end Tony Gonzalez said. ``We just want to put ourselves in the best position, playing the best football. Right around this time is when you want to start jelling as a team and take it on into the playoffs because that's the most important thing.''

Denver (8-3) already has swept San Diego, so one more victory puts Peyton Manning back in the playoffs with his new team. Oddly, Manning's Colts didn't always fare so well after early clinchings, but every coach, including his latest one, John Fox, will say that owning a postseason berth overrides any potential negatives.

``We can't influence what everyone else does over the last five games,'' Fox said. ``We know we have to take care of this week and that'll be our mindset.''

Manning's mindset is to keep the foot on the accelerator regardless of the standings.

``You certainly always want to get better late in the season,'' he said. ``You either get better, or you get worse and our goal is to get better every week.''

Baltimore (9-2) can grab the AFC North crown by beating visiting Pittsburgh and having Cincinnati lose at San Diego. A division race that most projected to go down to the wire barely will get into December if that happens.

The Ravens should be thankful if that occurs, because they are as banged-up as anybody and they wouldn't need to rush defensive leader Ray Lewis back onto the field.

Baltimore also would like nothing more than to spend the entire playoffs at home, where it is 5-0 - especially if it can avoid a trip to Houston, where the Texans routed the Ravens 43-13 last month.

Houston (10-1) is in the unusual position of owning the AFC's best record, yet not being in line for an immediate clinching. Even if the Texans win at Tennessee on Sunday and the AFC South runner-up, the Colts, fall at Detroit, the division remains unsolved because Indianapolis and Houston meet twice in the final three weeks.

A wild-card berth is within reach for the Texans, but that's hardly what they're aiming for.

No team wants to trek to Foxborough in the playoffs, even if the Patriots have been eliminated from the Super Bowl chase at home in two of the last three years. New England (8-3) can wrap up the AFC East by beating Miami on Sunday because the Patriots would own all the necessary tiebreakers in the division.

Bill Belichick is not likely to let up a bit even when that happens. Did anyone notice how long Tom Brady was on the field during the 49-19 romp over the Jets on Thanksgiving night, a game decided in the second period?

The only truly close division through 11 games is the NFC North, where Chicago (8-3) has a one-game edge on Green Bay, but has lost to the Packers. The Bears also lost a handful of starters to injuries Sunday, so holding off the Packers could be problematic. Of course, Green Bay also is plagued by injuries to stars such as Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson.

That one could go down to the season finales, when the Bears are at Detroit and the Packers visit the Vikings, who are in the wild-card derby. Green Bay is at Chicago on Dec. 16.

Both of last season's NFC championship game teams are in good shape in their divisions, but could be tested before clinching. The Super Bowl champion Giants are two games up on Washington and Dallas, and they are at the Redskins on Monday night. The Skins have a better record within the NFC East and might push New York to the limit if they can win in prime time.

The 49ers' rare tie has not hurt their standing in the standings. At 8-2-1, they lead Seattle by 2 1-2 games, and the Seahawks have dropped all three NFC West contests. The teams meet Dec. 23 at Seattle, but by then it could be too late to make any difference.

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Ravens excited about increased speed at wide receiver

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Ravens excited about increased speed at wide receiver

Will the Ravens’ increased speed at wide receiver force opponents to defend them differently?

The Ravens hope so.

They were without Breshad Perriman (knee injury) all of last season, and without Steve Smith Sr. (Achilles injury) the final two months.

That gave opponents license to put a safety closer to the line of scrimmage, and to crowd Ravens receivers with press coverage – unafraid that the Ravens could throw deep with success.

However, Perriman is healthy again, and the Ravens added two speed receivers by signing Mike Wallace during free agency and drafting Chris Moore in the fourth round.

The Ravens believe that speed will lead to more big plays, help their running game, and give Smith and other receivers more operating room.

“We’ve had years when we couldn’t back anybody up,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “The ability to back people up, it’s huge – to quote a famous politician not to be named here. It’s hard for me to see the speed all of the time in some of these drills. I’m like,`How fast are they really moving?’ Then I go ask the (defensive backs) and they say, ‘They’re moving really fast.’ And that makes me feel good about it.”

Perriman averaged 19.5 yards per catch at Central Florida, Moore averaged 19.3 yards per catch at Cincinnati, and Wallace has averaged 15.2 yards per catch over a seven-year NFL career.

The Ravens believe their speed will make opponents think twice about crowding the line of scrimmage. And when opponents do crowd the line of scrimmage, the Ravens plan to make them pay with big plays.

RELATED: FREE AGENT WEDDLE ALREADY MAKING AN IMPACT

Ravens quickly convinced Weddle will be difference maker for secondary

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Ravens quickly convinced Weddle will be difference maker for secondary

Veteran safety Eric Weddle is quickly making a strong impression with the Ravens.

After the first week of OTA’s, both coach Johh Harbaugh and defensive back Lardarius Webb mentioned Weddle as being a difference maker, after being acquired in free agency from the Chargers.

Weddle’s experience as a three-time Pro Bowler should be vital for a Ravens secondary that surrendered too many big plays last season.

Webb sees Weddle seamlessly taking command of the secondary, calling out coverages and making sure teammates are lined up properly.

“If he has anything to tell me I’m always listening,” Webb said. “He’s going to be big for this defense – for this team. He speaks up. I told him, `We want Eric Weddle. Don’t hold back. Don’t be quiet. We want you. If you yelled when you were with the Chargers, I want you coming out here yelling. Just be yourself. Grow the beard back, because we want the beard. If that’s who you were, grow the beard. He’s growing it back. He’s being himself and we’re loving it. It was a great move.”

Weddle has been offering advice to Webb on making the transition from cornerback to safety. Weddle can also lead by example, helping the development of young safeties like Terrence Brooks and Matt Elam.

At age 31, Weddle wants to show he can still play at a Pro Bowl level, and he desperately wants to make the playoffs. Harbaugh seems to have no doubt Weddle will make the Ravens’ defense better.

“I just really appreciate his attitude,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got an enthusiasm for the work day. He loves football. He loves every part of the work day. He loves every part of being in here and being a football player. There’s never something that you look at him and he’s not excited to do. That is infectious. That’s something that makes us all better, and to me, that’s one of the things that a great leader does and he’s got those qualities.

“He fits in with how we do things around here perfectly. I give (general manager) Ozzie (Newsome) all the credit in the world. That was a great signing.”

RELATED: CONDITIONING REMAINS AN ISSUE FOR RB RICHARDSON

Will lack of conditioning lead to Richardson's downfall with Ravens?

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Will lack of conditioning lead to Richardson's downfall with Ravens?

Will running back Trent Richardson’s lack of conditioning be his downfall with the Ravens?

Richardson missed the first week of OTA’s with a hamstring issue, which was not the kind of early impression he wanted to make. Some injuries are unavoidable. But conditioning has been an issue for Richardson throughout his brief and so far undistinguished NFL career.

Entering the NFL as the No. 3 overall pick with the Browns in 2012, Richardson has disappointed in Cleveland and Indianapolis, and spent 2015 out of the league after the Raiders cut him before the season. When the Ravens signed Richardson in April, he knew it might be his last NFL chance. However, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants to see even more commitment from Richardson when it comes to staying in shape.

RELATED: IN LATEST COMEBACK BID, RAVENS TE DENNIS PITTA'S CONFIDENCE NOT A PROBLEM

“Trent just needs to get healthy,” Harbaugh said after the first week of OTA’s. “I think the workload and the amount of work it takes to be a world class conditioned athlete is something that he’s working on right now. That’s what he needs to understand and that’s where he needs to get himself. When he gets himself there, he’s got talent. It will be fun. I’m very certain he’ll get there and when he does we’ll be able to evaluate him.”

The Ravens don’t have to wait on Richardson. Their running back competition is already intense, with Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Kenneth Dixon, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West all fighting for carries and roles.

Whether Richardson even threatens to make the team remains to be seen. His bigger priority is improving his conditioning, and getting back on the field.

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