One Harbaugh in, one out for Super Bowl picks

One Harbaugh in, one out for Super Bowl picks

For those fans clamoring to see someone new in the Super Bowl, the NFC is giving you what you want.

Sorry about the AFC.

Yep, same old, same old is ahead, with the New England Patriots hosting the Baltimore Ravens for the second straight conference championship game Sunday. With a similar result, too.

New England (13-4) is a 9 1/2-point favorite to reach its sixth Super Bowl in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. The Patriots' quarterback and coach are 3-2 together in the big game, but the last two appearances have been losses to the Giants.

That surely must irk the two men who otherwise have dominated the last 12 NFL seasons.

The Patriots have never lost an AFC title game at home (4-0, three of those in those 12 seasons). They certainly came close last January when Lee Evans couldn't hold onto a pass in the end zone in the final moment that would have sent the Ravens to their second Super Bowl and first since the 2000 season, when they won it all.

New England will move the ball on Baltimore (12-6) and could resort to running it more often than in the past. Not only is Stevan Ridley a 1,000-yard rusher, something very rare for the Patriots, but the Ravens aren't nearly as stout as they once were at stopping the run. With the emergence of Shane Vereen and consistency of Danny Woodhead if he is healthy, the Patriots are deep in the backfield, too.

The loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski will be damaging for the Patriots, but not overwhelmingly so. Aaron Hernandez will pick up the slack in receptions and the blocking of Michael Hoomanawanui against Houston was exemplary.

Where the Ravens could prosper is in a revitalized pass rush. Terrell Suggs finally is approaching his top defensive player status of 2011 after returning from a partially torn Achilles tendon. Paul Kruger already is a dynamic sack guy.

Ray Lewis' pending retirement adds an emotional boost for Baltimore.

But in the end, New England's offense will be too persistent, too sharp and too deep for Baltimore to stop. Look for Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Hernandez to have strong games, and for the Patriots' defense to keep Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Baltimore's dangerous offense from doing too much damage.

And look for the Patriots to be in New Orleans next month.

PATRIOTS, 30-24

San Francisco (minus 3 1/2) at Atlanta

Had the Falcons kept the rout going against Seattle in last Sunday's divisional round, the spread here would be different. But Atlanta (14-3) nearly blew it, raising questions among the odds makers about how good the Falcons really are.

They're plenty good, as their last-minute rally to Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal to beat the Seahawks proved. The issue: San Francisco (12-4-1) simply is better.

Of the remaining four teams, the 49ers are the most balanced. They have the best defense by far; only Seattle's unit really challenged them among all the playoff qualifiers.

Atlanta will struggle to run against Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Co. So the Falcons will take to the air, a wise decision when you have playmakers Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones.

Problem is, the Niners' secondary is as good as any, even if the interceptions were down this season. And the pass rush, sparked by Aldon Smith (19 1/2 sacks), is formidable.

Where San Francisco has an edge over last year, when it lost at home to the Giants for the conference crown, is in its passing game. Second-year QB Colin Kaepernick has added a dynamic dimension with his strong arm, escapability and overall athletic skills. Michael Crabtree has developed into a dependable receiver with big-play abilities.

Add that to Frank Gore's running, and Atlanta's D will be overmatched.

49ERS, 23-16

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2012 RECORD:

Against spread: 3-1 (117-127-7). Straight up: 2-2 (164-95-1)

Best Bet: 9-8-2 against spread, 13-6 straight up.

Upset special: 11-8 against spread, 9-10 straight up.

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Three things to know about Ravens sixth-round pick Keenan Reynolds

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Three things to know about Ravens sixth-round pick Keenan Reynolds

We are profiling the Ravens’ draft picks as they prepare to start minicamp Friday. Here are three things to know about sixth-round pick, WR Keenan Reynolds of Navy:

1. The biggest push to draft Reynolds came from assistant general manager Eric DeCosta.

DeCosta, general manager Ozzie Newsome, and coach John Harbaugh were visibly moved talking about making the phone call to Reynolds. All of them admire the way Reynolds has handled himself at Navy, both on and off the field.

When Newsome made the call, he put Reynolds on speaker phone so that everyone could hear his reaction. “Everyone in the room could be a part of telling him that we picked him,” Newsome said. “It was a special moment.”

2. Reynolds is much more than just a symbolic pick.

The Ravens believe Reynolds can stick as a punt returner, and that he has the athleticism and work ethic to become a polished slot receiver. Reynolds has many qualities inherent to top punt returners – good judgment, vision, elusiveness, sure hands, and speed. The Ravens also like that Reynolds has been working with CSN’s Brian Mitchell, a former Pro Bowl punt returner with the Redskins.

“Fortunately, we have a great relationship with Brian Mitchell,” DeCosta said. “We did our homework on him. He’s a guy that was a player of interest to us throughout the process. We kept it very quiet and, and it worked out the right way.”

 3. The Ravens are willing to wait if military obligations prevent Reynolds from playing right away.

Naval Academy graduates are obligated to a five-year military term, but Reynolds has hope of being able to play this fall. The Patriots drafted Navy graduate Joe Cardona last year as a long snapper, and he was granted permission to play. Cardona spent one day a week working at a Rhode Island naval facility. Reynolds hoped a similar arrangement could be worked out for him.

“I’m hoping and praying, and I’m confident that this potentially could be the same type of situation with myself,” Reynolds said. “It’s a blessing that the Ravens felt I was worthy to take a chance on with the military obligation and my service commitment.”

Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

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Will Matt Elam make Ravens in 2016 after fifth-year option declined?

It was no surprise the Ravens did not pick up the fifth-year option on safety Matt Elam by Monday’s deadline. The bigger question is whether Elam even makes the team next season.

The 32nd pick in the 2013 draft, Elam has been one of the biggest first-round busts in team history. Some of the standout players who went after Elam in that draft include Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (44th), Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (48th), and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins (52nd).

Elam missed all of last season with a torn biceps, after underperforming in 2013 and 2014. Elam was a big hitter in college at Florida, but has struggled with missed tackles as a Raven, and has been even worse in pass coverage. With the Ravens acquiring safety Eric Weddle in free agency, and Lardarius Webb switching from cornerback to safety, Elam is expected to be a backup at best. He will compete with Terrence Brooks, Kendrick Lewis, and others for a backup role.

Elam is scheduled to make $1.327 million next season, before becoming a free agent in 2017.  However, Elam’s first priority is to secure his place with the Ravens in 2016.  

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.

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