Ravens, 49ers plan different endings

201301122010726126398-p2.jpeg

Ravens, 49ers plan different endings

This time, it will be different.

That's the mantra the Ravens and 49ers must carry into Sunday's conference championships.

One step from the Super Bowl once more, the Ravens and 49ers believe they've found that extra element for success. For San Francisco, it might be the versatility and big-play potential Colin Kaepernick brings to the offense. For Baltimore, it could be the ramped-up emotions from Ray Lewis' pending retirement.

The odds makers believe the Niners have what they need to beat the Falcons one year after an overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC title game; San Francisco is favored by 3 1-2 points at Atlanta. That says a lot.

But the bookies don't believe the Ravens will do any better than in last year's AFC championship, when they fell at Foxborough 23-20. Baltimore is a 9 1-2-point underdog to the Patriots.

``There are challenges that get you to the point that you are at as a football team and make you who you are, even as a person,'' said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team needed a last-minute 70-yard touchdown pass to force overtime at Denver last Saturday before beating the top-seeded Broncos. ``And, our guys have handled all those things extremely well. Individually, a lot of our guys - and collectively - have come out of it stronger and better men, and we're a stronger and better team.''

His younger brother, Jim, head man of the 49ers - siblings have never met as head coaches in the Super Bowl - has guided San Francisco to the NFL's final four in both of his seasons. This is John Harbaugh's third conference title game in five years in charge.

The 49ers' Harbaugh sees the togetherness and developing maturity of his team as a reason it could reach the franchise's first Super Bowl since winning its fifth in 1995.

``We want to be about that,'' he said. ``But I don't think it's attributed to anything, I think it's just who we are as a team, who our players are. It's a talent and it's character. I've always thought that about our team.

``Being a great teammate, doing the best to your God-given ability each and every time, is a great gift that you can give another man. To have his back. That's a strong phrase, but I don't think that's just something our guys talk about, I think it's who they are.''

Who the Niners are is quite different this time around. Last season, they used a shutdown defense, strong special teams and a conservative, avoid-mistakes offense to get this far. But quarterback Alex Smith and that offense bogged down too often against the Giants.

San Francisco added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham at wideout and still had the superb Frank Gore at running back. But Moss has been a complementary player and Manningham is out with a torn knee.

Tight end Vernon Davis, Smith's most reliable target a year ago, has had a lesser role.

The big changes? The emergence of receiver Michael Crabtree, the solidification of the offensive line, and, of course, Kaepernick.

As he showed in setting a playoff record for QBs with 181 yards rushing, and throwing for 243 in the divisional round against Green Bay - his playoff debut, no less - Kaepernick is a game-breaker.

``I think quarterbacks that have a talent for running the ball can be very effective,'' Jim Harbaugh said, stating precisely what he felt when he left Smith on the bench after the incumbent recovered from a concussion late in the season and went the rest of the way with Kaepernick.

``That's been long known in football, the National Football League as well. A quarterback that can get out of the pocket, run, pick up first downs, that's a threat that the defense has to account for.''

It's also what the 49ers didn't have in their repertoire against New York. Now, they have inserted a whole section of plays in the game plan built around Kaepernick's speed and intermediate hurdler strides.

``There are some quarterback-driven runs that have been added because our quarterbacks are very good at those, and Colin especially,'' Jim Harbaugh said. ``It's already noted that he's very fast. He's very good at reading and executing that type of offense. So, that's the reason.''

And a main reason the people in the Bay Area believe this is the 49ers' year.

Across the country in the Chesapeake Bay area, the other Harbaugh's stomping grounds, that conviction is just as strong.

Critics say the Ravens are too old, inconsistent and banged-up on defense. That they don't pass protect well. The quarterback Joe Flacco has won a postseason game in each of his five pro seasons, yet has no Super Bowl appearances.

Plus, the Ravens had every chance to knock off the Patriots last year and failed.

But those detractors tend to ignore that Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin have become extremely dangerous in the passing game. That the line has been effective in the playoffs and Flacco barely was bothered by Denver's strong defense last weekend.

And that Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed have Baltimore's D on the upswing. Remember, 14 of Denver's points came on special teams, and the Ravens forced three turnovers by Peyton Manning.

Then there's the Lewis retirement factor, which can't be underestimated.

``I think, for me personally, when he announced it, I just thought that Ray Lewis has been in the league for so many years, 17 years, and he only went to the Super Bowl once,'' Ngata said. ``I looked at it as, `I've never been to the Super Bowl in seven years, and times like this never come around.'

``So, you definitely have to make the most out of it and work real hard to try to get there. I think every individual has worked a little bit harder just to know that we probably will never be in this situation again.''

---

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

Five Ravens worth watching at OTA's open to media

ravensotasrefframe_1.jpg

Five Ravens worth watching at OTA's open to media

The Ravens began OTA’s on Tuesday, but will hold their first workout open to the media on Thursday. While some key players are still rehabbing from injuries, here are five players expected to be on the field worth paying close attention to:

Dennis Pitta, TE – As he continues his comeback from a second serious hip injury, Pitta could cause a pleasant problem for the Ravens, who are well-stocked at tight end. If Pitta makes it back, how will playing time be divided among Pitta, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and Ben Watson? That doesn’t even include Nick Boyle, who will start the season serving a 10-game suspension for his second PED violation. Figuring out who stays, and who plays, could be difficult.

Breshad Perriman, WR – He didn’t play a snap as a rookie, making Perriman’s 2015 knee injury one of the most disappointing developments of 2015. Perriman’s blow-by speed was impressive during OTA’s last year, before his injury on the first day of training camp. The Ravens need Perriman to trust his knee, and to stay healthy throughout the summer into Week 1.

Will Davis, CB – The Ravens traded for him last season, but he promptly tore his ACL in October. The starting spot at corner opposite Jimmy Smith is wide open, with Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers among those vying for it. But if Davis is healthy again, don’t sleep on his potential to help the Ravens’ secondary.

Lardarius Webb, S – Making the full-time position switch from corner to safety presents a new challenge for Webb, entering his eighth NFL season. The Ravens are confident Webb has the ball skills and experience to make a smooth transition. But getting more reps under his belt this offseason is probably more important for Webb than in previous years.

Matt Elam, S – The Ravens declined to pick up the fifth-year option for Elam, a first-round pick in 2013. Making the roster is no guarantee for Elam, who missed the entire 2015 season with a torn triceps. If Webb is ever going to be a consistent contributor for the Ravens, it needs to happen quickly.

AFC North: Will Steelers RB Bell stay healthy this season?

cliffkeenanjulierefframe_1.jpg

AFC North: Will Steelers RB Bell stay healthy this season?

Here’s a key AFC North question. Will Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell stay healthy?

Bell is without question one of the league’s most talented backs. However, knee injuries have ended his season the past two years, leaving the Steelers without him when they were eliminated from the playoffs.

De’Angelo Williams did a superb job in place of Bell last season, rushing for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns. But Bell is a better pass receiver and more elusive – capable of turning almost any play in to a big play. In 2014, Bell had over 2,000 yards combined from scrimmage – 1,316 yards rushing and 854 yards receiving.

Bell doesn’t want to be labeled as injury-prone, yet some people already view him that way. But at Steelers OTA’s, Bell showed up looking healthy, while vowing not to run cautiously next season.

“I’m going to be physical,” Bell told ESPN.com. “I’m out here with no knee brace or anything, didn’t wear a sleeve or anything. I’ve been training my knee for everything I’m about to go through, so when September gets here I’ll be even better than I am now. That’s even crazy to think about. But I’m excited.”

When Bell has been healthy, putting up numbers has not been a problem. The more Bell plays next season, the better the Steelers’ chances of making the playoffs.

Urschel spends his spring getting straight A's at MIT

ronniestanleybrentminicamprefframe_1.jpg

Urschel spends his spring getting straight A's at MIT

If the NFL had an All-Academic team, Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel would be on it.

In February, Urschel began the Ph.D program in mathematics at MIT. How’s he doing so far? Here’s a hint. When it comes to grades, Urschel is only familiar with one letter in the alphabet.

“My first semester in school in nearly three years,” Urschel wroter on Twitter. “Four PhD classes at MIT. Four A’s. The streak continues!!!”

Entering his third season with the Ravens, Urschel has found a way to juggle his love for football with his love for mathematics. He posted an interesting article on The Players Tribune this week in which he described training with the football team at MIT this spring.

“I probably had about 50 or 60 pounds on the biggest guy on MIT’s O-line,” Urschel wrote. “But when we ran, they put me to shame. They could outsprint me.

“What I found is that the team at MIT is no joke. It is a football team – in some ways, more of a football team than any I’d ever seen. These guys love football. They are playing the game because they want to. No one is making them come to practice, no one is checking up on them. They know as well as anyone about head injuries; they know that football is dangerous; they know the feeling of exhaustion and pain. They still play. They don’t do it for money, and they don’t do it for status.

“We talk about dedication and passion in the pros, but the truth is, sometimes the game feels like a job. You start to think of the paycheck. You feel the grind. But training with the team at MIT, I started thinking about what had drawn me to football as a kid. It felt like a game again. I had thought I might have something to teach the team. I never imagined they’d have so much to teach me.”

That guy in the Dos Equis beer commercials might be the most interesting man in the world. But Urschel has built a strong resume as the most interesting player on the Ravens.

RELATED: NFL ANNOUNCES LOCATIONS FOR 2019, 2020 AND 2021 SUPER BOWLS