GREEN BAY, Wis. – Receivers, running backs and tight ends lined up in front of the JUGS machines at practice on Wednesday and Thursday this week and waited for footballs to fly at them.

It wasn't because the Green Bay Packers had passes bouncing off their hands like Super Balls in Sunday's loss at the Buffalo Bills.

"That's something we do every week," Packers receivers coach Edgar Bennett said Thursday.

Surely, after seven drops – the most by one team in an NFL game since 2008 – that has to be a great emphasis this week.

"That's something we emphasize every week," Bennett said.

Clearly, it’s not something the Packers wanted to spend much time talking about this week. In fact, several players said they have been instructed not to talk about the Bills' game at all but rather speak only about Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay.

Dropped passes must not have been on the list of approved topics for Bennett.

“I’m going to defer all of that to coach Mike [McCarthy],” Bennett said.

So how do the players react after a case of the drops?

"Move on," said receiver Jordy Nelson, when asked about his drop that would have been a 94-yard touchdown. "That's all you can do."

And that's all he was willing to say.

The Packers haven't had to address the matter much this season. Before Sunday's game, they had the fifth-lowest drop percentage in the NFL at 3.1 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which had charged them with just 13 drops through the first 13 games. Only five teams had fewer to that point.

After Sunday's game, they ranked tied for 20th in drop percentage (4.4) and only 11 teams had more drops than their 20.

"We'll stay the course," McCarthy said. "We're really focused on the things, really the same every week, in the areas of fundamentals, and definitely handling the ball is an emphasis this week."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Houston Texans aren't revealing who is starting at quarterback, and the Baltimore Ravens are remaining silent on who is starting at cornerback.

Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said the team hasn't decided on who is going to replace starting cornerback Asa Jackson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last Sunday.

"We're still evaluating it," Pees said. "We've got a few candidates out there, and we'll kind of see how it goes. In different packages, it may be different guys."

Here are the candidates:
  • Rashaan Melvin: He's the least-experienced option. Melvin has played in one NFL game, and he was surprisingly good in his debut. In four passes thrown his way, Melvin allowed one catch and broke up another. The Ravens signed him off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad last month.
  • Anthony Levine: The converted safety started three games this season. Levine began strong after making the position switch, but soon struggled. Quarterbacks have completed 75 percent of their passes against him and have thrown two touchdowns.
  • Antoine Cason: A four-year starter in the NFL, he's the most experienced choice. Cason was released by the Carolina Panthers this season after giving up six touchdowns in 12 games. Unlike some of the other Ravens cornerbacks, he does make plays on passes, picking off 16 throws in his seven-year career.

Cornerback has been undergoing change on a weekly basis. The Ravens have started six cornerbacks this season and have had 12 on their 53-man roster this season.

"After a while, you kind of get numb to it," Pees said.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo a game ball after Sunday's 20-12 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens' defensive backs broke up six passes and sealed the win with safety Jeromy Miles' interception.

"It just seems like in this business -- probably like any other business -- there are just going to be challenges," Harbaugh said. "There are going to be tough things that are going to come up. It’s not a matter of 'if,' it’s a matter of 'what' they’re going to be specifically. This year, it’s the corners."

Harbaugh added, "No, we’ve never lost this many corners before, but it’s always something every year, and different teams have different amounts of injuries. We’ve been hit especially hard this year, but that’s just the way it goes. We just have to deal with it. So, it’s been challenging."
The Cleveland Browns have acknowledged that Sunday did not go well for Johnny Manziel, but their public plan for addressing Manziel questions this week seems to be a strategic one.

Opt for a confidence boost over tough love.

This week's company line has been the entire offense must improve; that Manziel, despite struggling, didn't get the necessary help. This is coming from coach Mike Pettine, players and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who on Thursday said Manziel's a "real dude" who has the mental makeup to respond.

They've acknowledged Manziel looked indecisive at times, but that usually comes with the follow-up that the offense had similar problems.

Perhaps the tough love comes behind the scenes, but the Browns seem to recognize that now is the time for building Manziel up, not tearing him down.

This feels like a sound strategy -- the Browns had better hope it works.

Either Shanahan is an eternal optimist or he saw enough encouragement from Manziel through the nuances of studying the 38 offensive plays Sunday to suggest Manziel's problems are fixable.

Stepping into throws with conviction was Manziel's biggest issue, and Manziel has been earnest about improving in that area this week.

I said this three weeks ago and I'll say it again: It doesn't matter whether Manziel or Brian Hoyer are the quarterback if the Browns can't run the ball. Cleveland has hit its second run-game dry spell of the year, averaging 3.2 yards per carry in the last three weeks (242 yards on 75 tries).

That number is survivable if your offense is built on the pass. The Browns' offense is not.

The missed details in the running game are all around left guard Joel Bitonio. He sees guard-center double teams when it should be tackle-guard. He sees failure to account for a safety creeping up or "not quite making it to the linebacker" up the middle, he says.

This has been life for the Browns' offensive line, which Bitonio said actually graded out well Sunday. But when they missed assignments, they missed big.

"One play, one guy gets beat and it's a tackle for a loss, Then he does his job great and another guy gets beat -- it just looks terrible," Bitonio said. "We need to be on the same page every day...That’s the whole goal so Johnny has more time to be back there to throw the ball. We don’t want defenses teeing off."

For the factors Bitonio described, Pettine is right when he says it's "unfair" to judge Manziel on one game. But considering all the circumstances -- the timing, the Browns' chances at a winning season unraveling, the critics quick to bash -- now is the perfect time for the blocks to be tight, the tailbacks to be instinctive and Manziel's decisions to be crisp.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said balance and selflessness have keyed the surge of an offense that leads the NFL in a number of categories, including total yards.

“No one cares about setting records or being the guy. We all just want to do it together,” Roethlisberger said Thursday on ESPN's "NFL Live." "The belief in each other has just been unbelievable."

The Steelers are averaging 424.9 yards per game, tops in the NFL, and are sixth in scoring (27.8 points per game).

When asked if this is the most balanced offense he has played on, Roethlisberger said, “Probably just because of how good (running back) Le'Veon (Bell) is and how the good the receivers are and the offensive line is playing as well as they have since I’ve been here as a group. I think just with the play calling and the way everybody is being selfless, they don’t really care about anything but winning and finding ways to help this team win.”

The Steelers are 9-5 and they will clinch a playoff berth Sunday if they beat the visiting Kansas City Chiefs.

The Steelers, who haven’t been in the playoffs since 2011, will win the AFC North if they win their final two games.

Roethlisberger has said the Steelers have been in playoff mode since the beginning of the month. His focus on the present is such that Roethlisberger said he is not thinking about how long he wants to continue playing or about his contract situation.

Roethlisberger has one year left on his contract after this season, but both the 11th-year veteran and the Steelers have said they want to get a deal done that will allow him to play his entire career in Pittsburgh.

“I don’t want to look forward to next year because then I feel like I’m cheating the now, I’m cheating this game, I’m cheating these teammates, these fans,” said Roethlisberger, whose 4,415 passing yards have already set a Steelers’ single-season record. “All I look forward to is the next game.”
BEREA, Ohio -- Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan explained one of the more intriguing Cleveland Browns offensive plays in Johnny Manziel's first start on Sunday, that 30-0 loss to Cincinnati.

The play symbolized the approach from the coaching staff, and the way the day went for the players, as the Bengals clearly came prepared for what the Browns wanted to do.

On the team’s first third down, it faced third-and-2 at the Cleveland 25, down 7-0.

The Browns brought a formation out of mothballs, lining up four receivers to the far right in a diamond arrangement and one split left.

Shanahan said the play was a triple-option.

"Depending on how they lined up -- I can’t give you all the secrets -- there were a bunch of different things he could do with (the ball) spreading them out,” Shanahan said. "It ended up being a draw."

The options were not hard to see on the tape of the game, given the play was third-and-2. If the Bengals don't have enough with the bunch, the Browns have an advantage. If the defense puts four people with the diamond, then the quarterback looks left. The Bengals did put four, so Manziel looked left.

That receiver was Josh Gordon, who ran a slant. But safety Reggie Nelson read the slant and jumped the route. That, plus the up-the-field action from the defensive end, meant Manziel had no throw.

So he ran. And Nelson recovered to make the tackle. The Bengals basically abandoned the middle of the field -- one safety was with the bunch, Nelson jumped the slant -- to take away what the Browns wanted to do.

What does all this say?

It says that teams have a decent idea what to expect with Manziel at quarterback, and they have the ability to match his movements.

It says that the Browns weren’t exactly trying a lot on offense with Manziel in the game -- Shanahan also said he called just two roll-outs because he didn’t want to put Manziel in a "knockout" play.

It probably says that Carolina will watch the film and take the same approach as the Bengals -- muddle the middle, keep ends wide and pressure the throw.

Carolina has the advantage that it’s used to defending the read-option and bootleg. They see it all the time with Cam Newton in practice.

Manziel has another opportunity to prove himself.

But it doesn’t figure to be a whole lot easier.
CINCINNATI -- In their first practice of the week, the Cincinnati Bengals got tight end Jermaine Gresham back from a toe injury that forced him to miss last Sunday's game at Cleveland.

Gresham was in and out of practice last week after picking up the injury in one of the week's workouts. He tested out the toe before Sunday's game and, for the most part, looked pretty good. But he apparently didn't feel good enough.

He told coaches and trainers he was in too much pain and was thus declared inactive.

On Thursday, he not only was active, but he participated fully alongside defensive end Margus Hunt and cornerback Terence Newman. Hunt returned after missing four weeks with an ankle injury. He was injured in the Week 11 game at New Orleans and was quickly placed into a walking boot and crutches. Newman practiced after also being inactive last Sunday due to his own ankle injury.

Of concern Thursday was the absence of A.J. Green. The Pro Bowl receiver was sent home after the Bengals' morning walk-through because of an illness. It is believed he'll be OK to practice Friday, and his status for Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos isn't in doubt.

While there doesn't appear to be any issue with Green this week, the same can't be said just yet about linebacker Emmanuel Lamur and receiver James Wright. Neither practiced, but they did participate in rehab and conditioning exercises on the side of the practice fields. This was only the second time Wright has gone through rehab drills in the nearly three weeks he has missed with a knee injury. It's a promising sign that he could be activated this week if the Bengals are comfortable with the injury's progress.

Lamur hurt his hamstring in the second half of the 30-0 win over the Browns on Sunday.

Here is the complete Thursday injury report:

WR A.J. Green (illness)
LB Emmanuel Lamur (hamstring)
WR James Wright (knee)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)

CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Achilles)
DE Carlos Dunlap (calf)

DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
TE Jermaine Gresham (toe)
In responding to a Johnny Manziel supporter, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick delivered his own version of "the money sign."

Billick delivered harsh criticism of Manziel on Wednesday, posting on Twitter that "Manziel proponents say he can be Russell Wilson. I liken him more to Troy Smith...a 5th rounder no longer in the NFL."

Someone on Twitter named "Bflo44," who has a picture of Manziel as his avatar, shot back at Billick with this: "And why would we listen to a coach no longer in the league?”

Billick, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network, delivered the ultimate comeback -- a picture of him wearing his Super Bowl ring.

It is still surprising that Billick never got a chance to be a head coach again. He won a Super Bowl in 2000 -- which he colorfully pointed out -- and guided the Ravens to an 80-64 record (.556) and four playoff seasons.

Some may argue that the reason Billick never got another job was his inability to develop a franchise quarterback. The Ravens had 13 starting quarterbacks in Billick's nine seasons, the last of which was Troy Smith.

To Bflo44's credit, he took Billick's rebuttal in stride on Twitter:" So I got owned by @CoachBillick Today! Pretty sweet. Fun stuff!"

Browns vs. Panthers preview

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
video When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. TV: CBS

Welcome to Johnny Football versus Who Will Get The Football.

There's still some uncertainty whether the Carolina Panthers will start Cam Newton or Derek Anderson at quarterback opposite the Cleveland Browns' Johnny Manziel.

If it's Newton, who broke two small bones in his lower back when his truck rolled in a two-vehicle accident last week, it will be the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner versus the 2012 winner.

If it's Anderson, it will be the Browns' quarterback of the past (2005-09) versus the Browns' quarterback of the future.

The Panthers remain in the hunt for the NFC South title. At 5-8-1, they need to win out and they need New Orleans to lose one of its final two games to repeat as division champions. The Browns (7-7) have lost three straight and four of their past five to fall out of playoff contention.

ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon are here to break this one down:

Newton: Pat, now that the Browns have opened up the Johnny Football can of worms, do you think he gives Cleveland the best chance to win this week?

McManamon: If it's based on hype and hope, sure. He can win. But so can Connor Shaw, and he's on the practice squad. If you base it on college achievement, Manziel should win. He was tremendous in college. But college achievement means less than nothing in the NFL. If you base it on reality and the way Manziel played against Cincinnati, he gives them less than a 1-in-10 chance to win. Not even Mike Pettine tried to sell the "best chance to win" card, as Monday he said Manziel gives the Browns "an opportunity to win."

Manziel should improve in his second start. Logic says there's nothing to do but improve. The Browns have to desperately hope he does, because if Manziel doesn't show more than he did in his debut there are serious issues at quarterback in 2015. As for winning, the final two games are about evaluating No. 2.

Let's flip the script on Manziel, David. The Bengals were nearly jumping out of their uniforms to hit, sack and taunt Manziel on Sunday, and they were largely successful. Do you feel that's an attitude the Panthers will share, and would you expect some money signs on Sunday?

Newton: I haven't gotten that sense. The Panthers simply are happy when they get to the quarterback this season. They have only 31 sacks after leading the league with 60 last season. The absence of 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is heard in 2015, is a major factor there. And if anybody was going to do money signs it would be Hardy, who is all about the money. Perhaps cornerback Josh Norman would have a little fun with the money sign, but he'll be busy shadowing Josh Gordon. Never know, though.

Who do you think the Browns would rather see at quarterback for the Panthers? Newton and his running ability, if indeed the back injury will allow him to run? Or Anderson, who will face his former with something to prove?

McManamon: I'd guess they'd much rather see Anderson, because nobody wants to face an effective passer who also can run. If a quarterback is one or the other, defenses can take away what he does best. If a guy does things as well as Newton does throwing and running, the challenge increases. In the week leading up to Manziel's debut, Pettine admitted that it's easier when a defense can draw an X on the field and envision the quarterback being near that X most of the time. Newton is a 58 percent passer with 16 touchdowns. He averages 5 yards per carry. Anderson has a big arm and more experience than he had in Cleveland, and he'd be motivated to beat the Browns. But I'd still guess the Browns would rather face an immobile Anderson than a mobile Newton.

Are there any apologies taking place in Charlotte for the fact the Panthers are 5-8-1 and in the playoff hunt? Can they really win the division?

Newton: They hear the jokes nationally, but around here the fans and players are thankful there is a meaningful game in December. I'm pretty sure the Browns would trade places in a heartbeat if it meant they had a chance to make the playoffs. Can the Panthers really win the NFC South? As far as I'm concerned, it all comes down to what happens between New Orleans and Atlanta this Sunday. If the Falcons beat the Saints, as they did in Week 1, I can see Carolina winning out to take the division. If the Saints win, I can't see any way they lose to Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale. Then again, it has been a wacky season in the South, so predicting anything seems kind of silly.

What's the biggest reason for the Browns' skid after a solid start that had them looking like a contender to win the division?

McManamon: Three things. First, injuries depleted depth. The loss of center Alex Mack was crippling to the running game. Injuries to the defensive line and ILB Karlos Dansby affected the defense. Second, the running game took a serious turn south, which affected the play-action passing game. Finally, the uncertainty at quarterback affected Brian Hoyer, who pressed, and the team, which for the umpteenth year in a row found itself in the midst of a raging quarterback debate. One year the Browns will find themselves in a season when they know the starter and use the backup as a backup. Until that happens, real success will be elusive.

Luke Kuechly is an Ohio guy, from Cincinnati. His numbers seem nearly impossible. Is he that active, and does he rank among the best defensive players you've covered?

Newton: You're right, the numbers -- including 138 tackles this sesaon -- are ridiculous. At times it seems Kuechly is in on every play. While I'm partial to Carolina's original middle linebacker, Sam Mills, even at his best Sam wasn't in on the number of plays Kuechly is. I hesitate to say he's the best defensive player I ever covered. End Julius Peppers was pretty special. And when it came to sacks, Kevin Greene was a beast. But as far as all-around player, few can touch Kuechly. His work ethic is second to none, and he's always looking for ways to improve. He usually does, too. He'll be a factor in this game as he is in most for Carolina.


Ravens vs. Texans preview

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
video When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET Where: NRG Stadium, Houston TV: CBS

This weekend's matchup pits a Baltimore Ravens team in a fight to make the playoffs -- and with a decent shot to do so -- against a Houston Texans team whose members defiantly insist their recent misfortunes have not changed their mentality.

The Texans (7-7) are still technically alive in the playoff hunt, but it will take a lot of good fortune in games they can't control for them to make it even with a win against the Ravens.

The Ravens (9-5) can clinch a playoff spot with a win and losses by the Bengals and Steelers, a win and a loss or tie by Kansas City and San Diego or a tie with the Texans and losses by Kansas City, San Diego and Buffalo.

Of course, even without these playoff scenarios, there are plenty of storylines between these two teams, so let's get right to them.

ESPN NFL Nation's Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley discuss.

Ganguli: So Jamison, the Ravens' roster seems filled with former Texans in key roles, none bigger than former Texans coach Gary Kubiak. How has Kubiak's offense been received up there?

Hensley: With enthusiastic applause. Kubiak has done so well in his first season that there's a fear he could be one-and-done in Baltimore. He transformed the NFL's 30th-ranked run game to the league's fifth best, and that's without a single carry by Ray Rice. He has quarterback Joe Flacco on pace for career highs in passing yards and touchdowns. And he has the Ravens' offense on track for its first top-10 finish since 1997. Kubiak's biggest influence has come on the offensive line, which has thrived in his zone blocking system and straight-forward pass protection schemes. There has been some criticism of Kubiak recently. His personnel groupings have begun to tip off defenses on what to expect. Kubiak was also too conservative against the Jaguars last Sunday and didn't take enough deep shots against a vulnerable secondary. Overall, this is the best Ravens offense in recent memory and Kubiak deserves a big chunk of the credit.

Speaking of Kubiak, he was the head coach for the Texans for eight seasons. That's over half of the franchise's existence. Will his return to Houston bring out any extra emotions from fans or the home crowd? Or do you think this reunion is a nonfactor?

Ganguli: Well, I'll tell you this: that complaint about the personnel grouping sounds familiar. By the end of his tenure here there was a feeling things got too predictable offensively. I remember an uproar last season after Richard Sherman picked off Matt Schaub for one of the infamous pick-sixes. Sherman and other Seahawks talked about how they knew exactly what was about to come on that play. Last season was such a catastrophe people were glad to see Kubiak go despite all he accomplished during his tenure here, two division titles, the first ever playoff wins in franchise history, etc. But I think enough time has passed that there will be some nostalgia and warm feelings toward him. People appreciate what kind of person he is even if they thought the Texans needed a change. He was also very well liked in the building, the kind of guy who was kind and knew everybody's name, so I know his reception will be warm among Texans employees.

Sticking with the former Texans, what's made Justin Forsett so successful?

Hensley: Even though Forsett had just the one season in Kubiak's system -- 2012 in Houston -- he had the most familiarity in the one cut-and-go scheme. Forsett's comfort level showed in the vision and patience that it takes to be successful in this type of run game. What has surprised the Ravens is Forsett's ability to break tackles at his size (5-foot-8, 198 pounds). His 14 runs of 20 or more yards are tied with DeMarco Murray for most in the NFL. What can't be overlooked is the play of the offensive line, which has created big running lanes. Forsett is averaging 3.89 yards before contact, which is tops among running backs this season. The consistency of the running game, which was absent last season, is a big reason the Ravens are closing in on a playoff berth. With two games remaining, Forsett is considered the Ravens' most valuable player.

The Texans have run the ball 474 times, the most in the NFL. With the Texans' unsettled situation at quarterback, will they rely even more on the run? Is this the biggest X factor for Houston?

Ganguli: They certainly did last week when rookie quarterback Tom Savage was thrown into a game nobody expected him to have to play in. Savage played nearly three full quarters with a heavy dose of Arian Foster and also some Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes. It's harder to run the ball when the passing game isn't a threat, but if the Texans start Case Keenum this weekend, they'll have a guy who is familiar with the offense enough that they might be able to be a little more creative. Their running game is always the foundation of what they do and they are lucky to have a talented running back in Foster. There are few better when Foster is healthy, and he is now.

What is the biggest challenge the Ravens' defense will pose to a Texans offense that will be starting a quarterback who didn't begin the season on their roster?

Hensley: The pass rush. The Ravens come after quarterbacks from all angles. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs crash the edges. Pernell McPhee, Timmy Jernigan and Courtney Upshaw collapse the middle of the pocket. Dumervil and Suggs are the headliners. They're the NFL's best pass-rush duo, combining for 28 sacks -- which is 4.5 more than any other tandem. Dumervil has already set the franchise record with 17 sacks, and Suggs' five-game streak of at least one sack is tops in the NFL. The Texans have done a solid job of protecting the quarterback this season, allowing 23 sacks this season. But the Ravens are in a groove lately with 14 sacks the past two weeks. This pass rush has become a necessity because their banged-up secondary is vulnerable to the big play.

Whenever any team plays the Texans, the hot topic is J.J. Watt and rightfully so. But, outside of Watt, who plays the biggest role on the Texans' defense in this matchup with the Ravens?

Ganguli: Watt certainly is a problem for any offense that plays the Texans. This defense played a phenomenal game last week against the Indianapolis Colts and a lot of that had to do with the creativity the Texans showed schematically, especially with their secondary. They bottled up one of the most potent passing offenses in the league and neutralized receiver T.Y. Hilton. Of course, the challenge will be different against the Ravens -- they'll have to stop that productive running game. To that end, Ryan Pickett is a guy to watch. He's their big, stout nose tackle who was signed during the season precisely because the Texans were having trouble stopping the run.


Chiefs vs. Steelers preview

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
video When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: CBS

The Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) say they have been in playoff mode since the beginning of the month, but the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) may be the more desperate team when the two meet for the third time since 2006 in Pittsburgh this weekend. If the Chiefs lose Sunday, they will need to beat the San Diego Chargers in the regular-season finale and get some help to make the playoffs as a wild card.

The Steelers, on the other hand, would guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs if they beat the Chiefs for a fifth consecutive time in Pittsburgh. And the Steelers are aiming for more than just a spot in the postseason with the AFC North there for the taking.

ESPN NFL Nation Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at one of the Week 16 games that has significant playoff implications:

Brown: Adam, this looks like a favorable matchup for the Steelers given their struggles in the secondary and the Chiefs’ shortcomings at wide receiver. Kansas City still doesn’t have a touchdown catch by a wide receiver, yet it is 8-6 and in the thick of the AFC playoff chase. How have the Chiefs compensated for a lack of a downfield passing game, and how do you anticipate them attacking the Steelers?

Teicher: During their five-game winning streak earlier in the season, the Chiefs were excellent on third downs and at scoring touchdowns in the red zone. But things like that don’t generally last and, sure enough, although their red zone production has still been good, they fell off dramatically on third downs. It’s no coincidence the Chiefs broke their three-game losing streak last week against the Raiders by finally unveiling a downfield passing game. The Chiefs had their two longest pass plays of the season against Oakland. I would expect the Chiefs to look downfield against Pittsburgh if they can protect quarterback Alex Smith as well as they did last week. Pass protection had been a weakness for the Chiefs and a big reason they rarely took shots down the field.

Scott, the Steelers have had a season much like that of the Chiefs. They’ve had some big wins against other playoff contenders (Indianapolis, Baltimore, Cincinnati) but some discouraging losses to bottom-feeding teams (Tampa Bay, New York Jets). How do you explain the unpredictable nature of their season?

Brown: It’s been that way since 2012, when the Steelers developed, to the chagrin of their fans, a maddening habit of losing games they should win. Three of their five losses this season have come against losing teams, and the one against the Buccaneers was particularly bad because the Steelers could not protect a seven-point fourth-quarter lead at home against a team that is in line for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft. The Steelers’ recent history is why I thought their 27-20 win in Atlanta this past week was huge. A 5-8 team playing without its top offensive player (star wide receiver Julio Jones) is the kind of opponent that has given Pittsburgh fits. But the Steelers did enough to beat the Falcons and remain on track to win the AFC North.

The Steelers have steadily improved in stopping the run, but they will be challenged in that phase of the game Sunday. Jamaal Charles is one of the best running backs in the NFL and has to be included in any discussion for the NFL’s best player at that position. He’s dealt with some nagging injuries this season. Is a heavy workload catching up with him, and will the Steelers see more of a one-two punch Sunday with Charles and Knile Davis?

Teicher: I don’t know that Charles has been right all season, and he’s frustrated about that. He hurt his foot moving himself out of the dorm at training camp, of all things, and it’s been one thing after another since then. He missed only one game early in the season but now is dealing with both soreness in his knee and a sprained ankle. The Chiefs would like to play Davis more, but they’re not as effective with him in their lineup. Charles is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, Davis 3.6. Charles is much better as a pass receiver and protector, so it’s difficult to see the Chiefs going away from a productive Charles in a game as important as this one.

The Steelers started the season relatively sluggish on offense but have scored at least 27 points in seven of their past eight games and are now one of the NFL’s highest-scoring teams. What changes did the Steelers make to energize their offense?

Brown: They largely just stayed the course. The Steelers were stopping themselves as much as opposing defenses were stopping them earlier in the season, particularly in the red zone. While some fans wanted to run offensive coordinator Todd Haley out of town, the Steelers insisted they were close to putting everything together. I think it’s safe to say they have done that, as the Steelers lead the NFL in a handful of categories, including total offense (424.9 yards per game) and yards per play (6.2). The emergence of rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant has added a deep threat to the offense, but the play of the big three (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown) is the biggest reason the Steelers’ offense has ascended this season. The Steelers have achieved the kind of balance that has too often eluded them in past seasons, and don’t discount what has taken place on their offensive line. The unit has stayed remarkably healthy -- its five starters have missed a total of six games -- allowing it to develop the cohesion that has helped take the Steelers' offense to another level.

The line will be tested this week, as the Chiefs have a pair of tremendous pass-rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Do those two allow Kansas City to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing much, and how much better do they make the Chiefs’ defensive backs?

Teicher: The Chiefs had one of the best pass-rush games of the season last week, not just in terms of sacks (four) but also consistent pressure on the quarterback. They had Oakland’s Derek Carr off his game all day, and as a result, the coverage down the field was outstanding, maybe the best of the season. The Chiefs blitzed on more than half of Oakland’s pass attempts, which is a very high rate for them. They hadn’t blitzed as much this season and had mostly been content to let Houston, Hali and their other main rushers get the work done. I don’t know whether they will try the blitz as often this week on the road against a veteran quarterback like Roethlisberger. But I think if the Chiefs are going to carry with them this week just one thing from the Oakland game, it’s their ability to consistently get pressure. If they let Roethlisberger get comfortable and stay in his comfort zone all day, it’s difficult to see the Chiefs coming away with a victory.

When fans think of the Steelers, they think of defense, but that’s been a weakness for this season’s team. While the Chiefs certainly don’t have the league's most potent passing game, they made some plays down the field last week against Oakland. Are the Steelers versatile enough defensively to get pressure on Smith and slow down the Kansas City passing game while still limiting Charles and the Chiefs’ running game?

Brown: The Steelers have just 24 sacks this season, and they have been inconsistent as far as pressuring opposing quarterbacks. This past Sunday was a perfect example. The Steelers pressured Matt Ryan early and blitzed the Falcons' quarterback a lot. But once Ryan and Atlanta adjusted, the Steelers weren’t able to get enough pressure on Ryan to get him out of the rhythm he developed. And for how underwhelming the Chiefs appear to be at wide receiver, the Falcons played without star wideout Jones and still threw the ball all over the field against the Steelers. Is Smith as good as Ryan? No. But Kansas City’s running backs are superior to the ones Pittsburgh faced in Atlanta, and the Steelers could give up a lot of yards for the second consecutive week. But if the Steelers make timely stops and get a game-changing play on defense, as they did against the Falcons, that should be enough for Pittsburgh to win unless its offense goes into the tank.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens tight end Owen Daniels remembers receiving the sheet of paper from the Houston Texans informing him of his release. Recounting the situation Wednesday, Daniels said there was a check mark by "wasn't good enough" on why the Texans were releasing him.

"I have [the sheet] with me in the house," Daniels said. "I don't have it up in my locker. I can see it. I have a decent memory."

Daniels acknowledges that it's "going to be weird" when he plays in Houston for the first time since that divorce nine months ago.

The 32-year-old tight end left as the Texans' No. 2 all-time leading receiver with 385 catches and 4,617 yards. Daniels, who still lives in Houston, was one of the most popular players in franchise history as a result of his community work and two Pro Bowl seasons.

Leaving no doubt that his ties to the Texans still tug at his emotions, he didn't downplay the motivation of stepping on the same field where he starred for eight years.

"Obviously, when you work somewhere for so long and they say you're not good enough to play there anymore and you get a chance to play them that following season, you definitely want to prove to them that they made a mistake," Daniels said. "But I've been trying to do that all season with my play, and not just in this one game."

Daniels has exceeded expectations with the Ravens, filling the void left when tight end Dennis Pitta went down with a season-ending hip injury in Week 3. He is the Ravens' second-leading receiver with 45 catches and has scored four touchdowns. In last Sunday's 20-12 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Daniels delivered the two clutch catches -- a 29-yard reception followed by a 3-yard touchdown catch -- that helped the Ravens avoid the upset.

"I want to get him more involved because he is a good player," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I think he makes us go when we get him involved."

The biggest concern about Daniels throughout his career has been durability. Last season, he missed the final 11 games because of a broken leg. This year, Daniels has only missed one game, and the Ravens have been keeping him fresh by giving him one day off from practice each week.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said you can see the difference in Daniels when you compare the tape of the tight end from last year to this year.

"I'm just amazed at how well he's done as far as getting himself ready to play coming off the injury last year -- how fresh and young and how well he's running," Harbaugh said.

It's not lost on Daniels that he could possibly clinch a playoff berth against his former team. "A 'W.' That's the best thing that can happen," he said. But he made it clear that he still respects his original team.

"That organization gave me a chance to play in the NFL for the first time," Daniels said. "I can't be more thankful for Mr. [Bob] McNair and that organization for giving me that opportunity. They did what they had to do business-wise last year. I'm trying to be the best player I can be here. I have no ill will toward them at all."
CINCINNATI -- It would be unwise for the Cincinnati Bengals to out-think themselves this week and give up on the run.

It must be said that there is no reason to believe they will do such a thing Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN, but you never can be so sure.

If coaches ever do entertain the thought this week of going away from what worked so well in Cincinnati's 30-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, here's some sage advice.


This is coming from the Bengals themselves, who believe the best way to keep winning challenging games this month is by keeping the ball on the ground.

"We've been a team that, honestly, the running game has put us in the situation we've been in this year, and we need to continue to believe in it and let it be a part of who we are," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

There's evidence of the run game's success as well.

"As we've grown throughout the year, the running game has continued to evolve," Whitworth said. "We are getting better and better at it and more efficient at it."

Indeed, they are. The link above shows just how much more efficient the Bengals have been since Week 9, when rookie Jeremy Hill first earned starting duties at running back when Giovani Bernard missed three straight games because of injuries. Even in the recent weeks, when Bernard has been healthy, the Bengals have continued to feed the ball to Hill. This past Sunday, receiving his first start with Bernard also in the rotation, Hill gained 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in the Bengals' victory over the Browns.

It was the third time in six games he had gained more than 140 yards.

As the Bengals welcome the league's No. 2 rushing defense to Paul Brown Stadium on Monday, another veteran offensive tackle, Eric Winston thinks the rushing emphasis ought to carry over into this week.

"More so than anything, it has to be a mindset. It has to be a thought and the way you carry yourself," Winston said. "Knowing what we did Sunday has to be who we are and not just a week-to-week thing. It has to be the badge you wear every week. That's when we're at our best. Even when I wasn't here, you noticed that this offense is at its best when it's running the ball effectively.

"If that's who we're going to be, then that's who we need to be every week."

Part of the reason teams don't fare well on the ground against the Broncos is because Denver often is so far ahead that opposing offenses reject the run to pass their way back into games.

After three quarters, the Broncos' points margin is plus-117, third-highest in the league behind the Packers and Patriots. It's no surprise they are among the four teams that have allowed the fewest fourth-quarter rushes this season, averaging less than 5.4.

Overall, Denver has allowed 21 carries per game. The Bengals are averaging 30.4. In the Broncos' three losses, each opposing team rushed more than 25 times.

If the Bengals can run the ball early and get a lead, or at least keep it tight by halftime, they had better stay on the ground.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Of all the passer-rushers that Rick Wagner has blocked this season, the Baltimore Ravens right tackle is the most familiar with J.J. Watt. They used to go against each other during their days at Wisconsin.

Wagner, though, doesn't consider having experience against the NFL's top defensive player as much of an advantage.

"He's obviously gotten a lot better since college," said Wagner, who will line up against Watt on Sunday when the Ravens play at the Houston Texans. "I don't know if it will help that much."

Watt is not only the favorite to win his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award but he's in the conversation for NFL Most Valuable Player.

He's the first player in NFL history with five total touchdowns and at least one fumble return for a touchdown, one interception return for a touchdown and one receiving touchdown. He's the first player in NFL history with 10 or more sacks, five fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and at least one touchdown.

"He's a big guy with smaller guy's speed," Wagner said.

Wagner said it's such a challenge to go against Watt one-on-one because he uses the swim move when you expect a bull rush, and vice versa. This is a great test to see where the Ravens' first-year starter stands.

According to Pro Football Focus, Wagner is the best right tackle in pass protection this season. He's allowed two sacks and no quarterback hits in his first year in replacing Michael Oher.

Even though he is among the most soft spoken players on the team, Wagner said he relishes a headline matchup like this one.

"Everything is just stepped up a little bit more," Wagner said. "Every step you take is even more important because it starts with your footwork. It's not that much room for error against these elite players."

Wagner and the Ravens' offensive line has done a spectacular job in protecting quarterback Joe Flacco this season.

The Ravens have allowed 16 sacks, the second-fewest in the NFL. This comes a year after Flacco was sacked a career-worst 48 times.

"We're going to have to attack him in certain ways. He's a good player," Flacco said of Watt. "But that's not necessarily on my mind or in my thoughts. I'm going out there to execute the play, and I always have confidence that my guys are going to do the same thing -- execute the play and do their job. Other than that, you can't really worry about it."

The Ravens are using practice squad player Steven Means to mimic Watt in practice. Means was a fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013.

"We believe our guys are ready for that challenge," coach John Harbaugh said, "but it's going to be a great challenge."

At least Wagner has an inkling of what to expect. So, who won most of those college battles between Watt and Wagner?

"It was a tie," Wagner said.

Would he be happy with a tie on Sunday?

"No, I hope to get the best of him," Wagner said.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The biggest news about the Baltimore Ravens' injury report was who's missing from it. Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who has been dealing with a right knee injury, was not listed on the team's injury report Wednesday.

Smith played 51 snaps last Sunday after being listed as probable and missing two practices last week. It's a good sign for the Ravens that he has been removed from the injury report.

The Ravens had two players who didn't participate in Wednesday's practice: defensive end Chris Canty (ankle) and wide receiver Jacoby Jones (illness). Canty has stepped up his play over the past two weeks in the absence of suspended defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Running back Bernard Pierce (back) and cornerback Anthony Levine (ankle) were both limited. Pierce is the team's No. 2 back after rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro was placed on injured reserve.



Sunday, 12/21
Monday, 12/22