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Patriots DBs wary of Ravens' long-ball potential

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Patriots DBs wary of Ravens' long-ball potential

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The Patriots have cut down on the long completions they allowed early in the season. The Ravens keep making them.

On Sunday night, New England's progress will be tested against Baltimore's strong-armed Joe Flacco and his speedy receivers in the AFC championship game.

Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib saw just how dangerous the Ravens' deep passing attack can be in their 38-35, double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos in last Saturday's divisional playoff game.

``That game summed it up, man,'' he said. ``They started the game taking shots and they ended the game taking shots. So that's what you're going to do against guys like that, play that deep ball.''

On the Ravens' second series against the Broncos, Flacco threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith. On their last series of regulation, he heaved a 70-yard score to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left.

That was the Ravens' longest completion of a season in which Flacco keeps connecting with targets far downfield. He has completed passes to receivers 13 times on gains of 40 yards or more. The Patriots, meanwhile, had just five completions to receivers that picked up that distance - and two were caught by players now on injured reserve.

``We can't allow them to just throw the ball over our heads,'' safety Devin McCourty said. ``The biggest thing is understanding how strong Flacco's arm is because I think we already know how fast some of the receivers are over there. So it's just being aware and making plays down the field.''

They Patriots (13-4) didn't do that very well in the first half of the season. They allowed 21 completions that gained at least 25 yards in their first eight games. A season-high five came in a 31-30 loss to the Ravens in Week 3.

They lowered that to 15 in their last eight regular-season games. Talib, who played in the last seven after being acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, helped.

``He's a good football player, good teammate,'' coach Bill Belichick said. ``He's very well respected because of his professionalism. He studies hard and prepares well. He's tough. He competes well, both in practice and on Sundays. Smart kid. I like him. The team likes him. He's a good guy to be around.''

His addition allowed the Patriots to move McCourty from cornerback, where he struggled at times, to safety, where he's solidified the secondary.

But the Ravens (12-6) have hurt teams with the long ball all season - from their very first offensive play. That was a 52-yard completion from Flacco to Smith that started a 44-13 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals.

``One of (Smith's) biggest strengths is his speed,'' McCourty said. ``If you give him a step or two, it will turn into three or four. You just have to be aware of how fast he is.''

Two weeks later against the Patriots, Smith caught passes of 38, 32 and 25 yards, Jones had receptions of a 41 and 24 yards and Anquan Boldin added a 24-yarder. And in the final minute, McCourty was penalized for defensive pass interference, moving the ball 27 yards to the Patriots 7-yard line. Two plays later, Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 31-30 win as time expired.

Flacco will be facing the Patriots for the third time in the postseason and sixth time overall. So he knows how Belichick likes to defend Baltimore's passing game.

``They're going to probably come up and put pressure on our receivers,'' Flacco said. ``They always, throughout the years, like to get up and not allow our tight ends and our inside guys to get off the ball very well and play over the top of the outside guys.

``We'll see if they match (cornerbacks) on Torrey or Anquan or anything like that. I think they've let up some yards in that area, but at the same time, they do a good job of playing very well and playing some man (coverage) underneath.''

As usual, Belichick is sure to change some defensive tactics and show Flacco something he hasn't seen from the Patriots.

Whatever that is, he'll still have Smith, Boldin and Jones to run under his deep throws.

``They have some great receivers over there, guys with speed,'' Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. ``Flacco has a big arm. He makes good decisions with the football. So they have the ability to beat you in many ways and, definitely, over the top is one of them.''

Flacco had 40 completions of at least 25 yards, tying Denver's Peyton Manning for the most in the NFL this season.

Smith caught six of at least 40 yards, Jones did it four times and Boldin three. Even the tight ends got into the act with Dennis Pitta scoring on a 61-yard pass play and Ed Dickson making a 40-yard snare.

So when Belichick was asked if the Ravens throw the ball deep as well as any team the Patriots have faced, he answered simply and quickly:

``Yes.''

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Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

The Ravens announced six players placed on the physically unable to perform list Saturday - linebacker Terrell Suggs, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, linebacker Elvis Dumervil, running back Trent Richardson, and cornerback Jumal Rolle.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), and cornerback Will Davis (knee) were not placed on PUP, indicating they were ready for the team’s first full-team training camp practice Thursday.

Any player on the PUP list can be activated and return to practice at any point prior to the regular season. Once a player is placed on the regular-season PUP list, he must sit out at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

RELATED: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

Rolle (Achilles injury) is expected to miss the entire season. Here’s the breakdown on the other five PUP list players:

Suggs – He still has not fully recovered from his season-ending Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 last September. Suggs is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday, where further details about his progress should be revealed.

Smith Sr. – Also recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in November. Smith said he would not care if he missed the entire preseason. His priority is to be ready by Week 1.

Perriman – He suffered a knee injury during minicamp which did not require season-ending surgery. However, Perriman has still not played a preseason or regular season game since being drafted in the first round in 2015. After two knee injuries in two years, the Ravens have every reason to be cautious with Perriman until they think he is ready to return.

Dumervil – He had offseason foot surgery after playing through pain last season. Dumervil missed mandatory minicamp, but did not sound concerned about being ready for Week 1.

Richardson – His lingering hamstring issue could ruin his bid for an NFL comeback. The Ravens are deep at running back, and Richardson needs to get healthy to have any chance to win a roster spot.

MORE RAVENS: FLACCO HAS LONG ODDS FOR MVP

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Best case, worst case scenario for WR Steve Smith Sr.

Best case, worst case scenario for WR Steve Smith Sr.

Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka are taking turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope leading up to veterans reporting to training camp. They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Steve Smith Sr., 37-year-old wide receiver

Best-case scenario for Smith:

He enjoys a typical 1,000-yard season, and he remains the Ravens’ top receiver.

Why it could happen:

It’s dangerous to bet against Smith making a full recovery from Achilles surgery, even in the twilight of his career. Few athletes perform with more of a chip on their shoulder than Smith, who is always driven to prove doubters wrong. He’s a technician at route running, he studies film diligently, and he’s a master at using his body and hands to ward off defenders. Smith never relied on pure speed to be a top receiver. So even if he’s a tad less explosive, Smith has the talent to end his career playing at a high level.

Worst-case scenario for Smith:

Smith’s body betrays him, and the Ravens’ depth at wide receiver reduces his playing time and role.

Why it could happen:

Father Time is undefeated, and may finally be calling for Smith. The older an athlete gets, the harder it gets to recover from injuries. With their deep group of tight ends, and the addition of wide receivers Mike Wallace and rookie Chris Moore, the Ravens may not be as dependent on Smith as they have been. Even if Smith is healthy, his role in the offense might be less prominent.

RELATED: FLACCO HAS LONG ODDS FOR MVP

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Flacco has same MVP odds as Winston and Mariota

Flacco has same MVP odds as Winston and Mariota

Joe Flacco has been a Super Bowl MVP and has won 10 playoff games. Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston have played one NFL season.

However, all three of those quarterbacks have been given the same odds (100/1) of winning next season’s MVP award by sportsbook Bovada.lv.

People who think Flacco is an elite quarterback may view that as disrespect. But the Bovada.lv odds throw even more shade at Flacco.

Sixteen quarterbacks are given a better chance of winning the MVP award in 2016 than Flacco. Some of the names you would expect, like Aaron Rodgers, who is the favorite at 4/1, followed by Ben Roethlisberger (7/1), Cam Newton (15/2), Russell Wilson (8/1), and Tom Brady (9/1).

But do Blake Bortles (66/1) of the Jaguars or Brock Osweiler of the Texans (66/1) really have a better chance of winning the MVP than Flacco? According to Bovada.lv they do. That’s also an indication that not much is expected from the Ravens overall after their 5-11 season. The better your team does, the better your chances of winning the MVP.

Newton won the MVP last year starting at 50/1 odds. So if you believe in Flacco and the Ravens, those 100/1 MVP odds for Flacco may look like an enticing play.

RELATED: Can Dumervil lead a rebirth of Ravens's pass rush?