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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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Five observations from Day 2 of Ravens training camp

Five observations from Day 2 of Ravens training camp

OWINGS MILLS – Five observations from Day 2 of Ravens training camp:

RELATED: DAY 1 OBSERVATIONS

1. Wide receiver Michael Campanaro had an impressive day.

— Campanaro consistently got open making decisive moves and catching the ball cleanly, whether lined up wide or in the slot. Injuries have been the main stumbling block during Campanaro’s career. But there is no doubt he can make plays if he makes it to Week 1 healthy. Unless he suffers another injury, I think Campanaro is on the 53-man roster, especially since he can also return punts.

2. Joe Flacco showed no discomfort practicing on his surgically-repaired knee for a second straight day.

— Flacco throw the ball crisply, he moved well in the pocket, and he smiled when on the sideline. If Flacco was thinking at all about his knee, he disguised it well.

3.  Rookie cornerback Tavon Young is a player to watch.

— Young made several nice plays on the ball, including an interception in which he showed good technique and ball awareness. A fourth round pick from Temple, Young is making a bid to earn playing time as a nickel corner. Jerraud Powers missed his second straight practice (failed conditioning test), and Young took advantage of the extra reps. It will be interesting to learn more about Young’s tackling ability when the Ravens begin practicing in pads.

4. Rookie fourth-round pick Chris Moore looks like a potential playmaker.

— Ravens corners are having trouble keeping up with Moore when he goes deep, including Jimmy Smith, who saw Moore race by on his way to a deep reception. With left tackle Ronnie Stanley, linebacker Kamalei Correa, Young, and Moore, the Ravens have the potential for an instant-impact draft class.

5. There is no getting around Stanley’s importance as a rookie.

— Stanley needs to continue looking good when the Ravens go to pads Saturday, and whenever linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil return from PUP. A potential Ravens deal with veteran left tackle Jake Long fell through Friday. The Ravens will be counting on Stanley, not only to start but to play well.

 

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Long won't join Ravens, potential deal with LT falls through

Long won't join Ravens, potential deal with LT falls through

OWINGS MILLS – Veteran left tackle Jake Long won’t be joining the Ravens after all. A potential deal between Long and the Ravens fell through Friday, leaving Long a free agent according to Adam Schefter of ESPN, and confirmed by CSN.

The issue was Long’s right knee. He tore his ACL in both 2013 and 2014, leaving concern about how his knee would hold up if he returned to action. Long went to see Dr. James Andrews after taking a physical with the Ravens on Wednesday. According to a source, while Long was healthy enough to play, the Ravens were not comfortable being financially liable if Long’s knee failed to hold up.

The Ravens targeted Long as a potential backup for rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley. While Stanley has looked solid during practice, the Ravens have been searching for veteran insurance in case Stanley suffered an injury. Long is a former No. 1 overall pick (2008) and has more experience than James Hurst, who is currently the Ravens’ backup left tackle.

Now the Ravens have a roster spot available, which they may use to sign another offensive lineman, or to address depth at another position.

MORE RAVENS: FIVE OBSERVATIONS FROM DAY 1 OF RAVENS TRAINING CAMP

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Mike Wallace finally passes conditioning test; allowed to join Ravens at practice

Mike Wallace finally passes conditioning test; allowed to join Ravens at practice

OWINGS MILLS – Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace was back on the practice field Friday, after passing his conditioning test on the second try.

Wallace missed Thursday’s practice after he failed the test on his first attempt. Joining him on the field Friday was wide receiver Dobson Collins, who also passed the test on his second attempt.

The Ravens hope Wallace will return to the form he had early in his career, when he was a consistent deep threat for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Wallace was a disappointment during stints with the Dolphins and Vikings, but Joe Flacco’s ability to throw the deep ball could help Wallace rejuvenate his career.

RELATED: RAVENS TIGHT END LEAVES CAMP WITH INJURY

In other practice news, cornerback Jerraud Powers missed practice for the second straight day and remained the only player yet to pass the conditioning test. Running back Kenneth Dixon, who sprained his left knee Thursday, also did not practice.  

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was hoping the team would stay disciplined during the first day of practice in pads on Saturday.

“The biggest message when you put the pads on is, ‘You’ve been in pads before,’’’ Harbaugh said. ‘“Don’t overreact. It’s going to be fine.’…I want to get right into executing and keep building on what we’ve done the last two days.

“We’re not going to be out here tackling too much – especially the veteran guys. Let’s just go play football.”