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Column: Wilson stands tall as only rookie QB left

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Column: Wilson stands tall as only rookie QB left

This was always going to be one of those once in a decade quarterback classes, even before Russell Wilson announced his arrival from what is arguably the loneliest outpost in the NFL.

Everyone expected big things out of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck. Wilson was more of a pleasant surprise, catapulted from third-round obscurity to what passes for football stardom in a city far removed from the media spotlight.

Now he's the only rookie quarterback left in the playoffs. Next thing you know, he'll get some Subway commercials of his own - or maybe something even better.

A rookie quarterback winning a Super Bowl? The way Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks have been playing, the notion is no longer so unimaginable.

On a Sunday that was painful for RG3 and brutal for Luck, it was the undersized and once-unappreciated Wilson who emerged a star. He played with the calmness and efficiency of a veteran, rallying the Seahawks from a 14-0 deficit against the Washington Redskins almost before he had a chance to fasten his chin strap.

And if you didn't know enough about him before, one look at Wilson racing downfield to block for Marshawn Lynch on the go-ahead touchdown should get everyone excited about this kid.

``Marshawn always tells me, `Russ I got your back,''' Wilson said. ``I let him know I have his back, too.''

What was billed as a matchup of young stars turned into a mismatch of sorts when Griffin reinjured the knee he sprained a month ago and limped noticeably from the first quarter on. He wasn't coming out, and coach Mike Shanahan wasn't taking him out, a pair of decisions that will be debated.

Football is a game of pain, and Griffin played on. But a running quarterback who can't run is not exactly a recipe for playoff success, and he struggled mightily.

When the night finally ended for him late in the fourth quarter, he lay crumpled on the turf at FedEx Field after fumbling and then collapsing with his leg twisted around him in a frightening moment for anyone watching. Among those who were watching was Wilson, who went to a knee and prayed for his fellow rookie.

``He's a tremendous football player,'' Wilson said. ``I just prayed he was all right.''

Just how bad the injury is won't be known until Griffin gets an MRI on Monday. He said after the 24-14 loss that he wasn't sure himself whether he had further injured it.

But the dreadlocked rookie star made it clear that standing on the sideline watching the game wasn't an option. He carried the Redskins into the playoffs, and they weren't going to play without him.

``I had to go out there and do what I could to help the team win,'' he said. ``Period.''

It was a disconcerting end to a spectacular season for Griffin, whose personality and promise got him sandwich shop commercials even before he started winning games for the Redskins. He and Luck started the year as the most talked about pair of quarterbacks coming into the NFL in years, and both lived up to their billing by carrying their teams into the playoffs.

Luck, though, couldn't overcome a Baltimore defense fired up by the pending retirement of Ray Lewis. Luck was pressured all day, and his receivers dropping six passes didn't help as Indianapolis was eliminated 24-9 by the Ravens.

And while Griffin looked as though he would pile up some points for the Redskins by opening the game with two touchdown drives, he felt the knee go while planting to pass on the second drive and was never the same. By halftime, his team was barely clinging to the lead, and he faced a talk with Shanahan about his immediate future.

On that, both agreed. He had gotten them this far, and deserved the chance to take them even further.

``He said, `Trust me, I want to be in there. I deserve to be in there,''' Shanahan said. ``I couldn't disagree with him.''

Almost lost in the debate over whether Griffin should have stayed in was that Wilson still had some work to do to bring the Seahawks back. He did it on a fourth-quarter drive that Lynch capped off a 27-yard, broken-field run - with Wilson barreling ahead of him to block at the goal line.

That's hardly surprising because the quarterback that even Seattle didn't really seem to want when training camp opened - the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a lucrative offseason deal to be their No. 1 - always seems to flourish when it matters most. Wilson doesn't play with the proverbial chip on his shoulder because he felt slighted in the NFL draft, but the whole team plays that way because Seattle wasn't even in the postseason discussion when the year began.

``I don't know,'' Wilson said when asked if he had felt left out of the rookie quarterback discussion. ``The goal is to win a lot of games and help my football team win games. That's all I know.''

Something else Wilson should know is he's two wins away from being the first rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks will have to do it on the road, but they're peaking at just the right time and are just slight underdogs in Atlanta next Sunday.

Who knows, soon there may be a lot of people ending their sentences with a ``Go `Hawks!'' the way Wilson likes to end his. If it sounds a bit collegiate, just remember he is still a rookie quarterback.

Only now there's something different. He's the only one left.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org orhttp://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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Wide receiver Willie Snead thriving with Ravens as man in the middle

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USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Willie Snead thriving with Ravens as man in the middle

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Willie Snead has a knack for weaving through a row of linebackers in the middle of the field before making a clutch catch for the Baltimore Ravens.

Such was the case last Sunday against Tennessee, when Snead squeezed between two defenders for a 24-yard gain on a third-and-17 from the Baltimore 15.

"He's on the ground, he makes the catch, he's getting pushed back to the ground, stepped all over, and he just gets up and gives the first-down signal right there in the guy's face," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's the kind of competitor he is. He's all ball, all the time."

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome rarely chases restricted free agents, but he made an exception with Snead this past offseason after it became apparent that the receiver's three-year run in New Orleans was done. One of Drew Brees' favorite targets in 2015 and 2016, Snead began last season with a three-game suspension for violating the NFL personal conduct policy. He then fought a hamstring injury and finished with just eight catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns.

Armed with a two-year, $10.4 million contract, Snead was delighted to arrive in Baltimore last April.

"Last year just left a really bitter taste in my mouth, the organization and how everything was handled," Snead said Tuesday. "To be a part of this organization was just a breath of fresh air. I wanted to go somewhere where I'm wanted."

It couldn't have worked out better for Snead -- and the Ravens.

"To see that you were right, to see all that come together and him play so well, being exactly what you thought you were going to get, is very rewarding," Harbaugh said.

Snead was one of three free agent receivers signed by Newsome in an effort to enhance a passing game that sputtered in 2017. Snead is the possession receiver, Michael Crabtree provides an outside threat and John Brown is the speedster.

Snead and Crabtree are tied for the team lead with 30 catches. Brown has 21 receptions for a team-high 424 yards and three touchdowns.

"I don't have the physical ability like John Brown to run by you, and I'm not big and strong like Michael Crabtree," Snead observed, "so I have to work harder than everybody else just to stand out."

That's how it's always been for Snead, who finally finds himself in a place where his talent is acknowledged and appreciated.

"This is a guy that's been doubted his whole career -- high school, college and the NFL," Harbaugh said. "So I'm fine if they keep doubting him."

After starring as a quarterback at Muskegon Heights in Michigan, Snead played three years as a receiver at Ball State before going undrafted in 2014. He finally made it to the NFL the following year.

"Coming out of college, (people said) I left too early, I wasn't ready to play in the NFL," Snead recalled. "And in the NFL, it was, `Is he fast enough to separate? Can he make those plays in clutch situations?' I've always been doubted."

Not anymore.

"I'll tell you one thing, Willie comes Sunday ready to play," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "He's one of the toughest guys I've been around."

This Sunday, the Ravens (4-2) host the Saints (4-1). Snead insists this wasn't one of those games that he circled on the calendar.

"This is another team. I have to approach it that way just to stay focused," Snead said.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton has seen enough of Snead this season to know he's a threat with the ball, and without it.

"He has a tremendous amount of grit. You see him making plays on third down," Payton said. "He's an outstanding blocker. He'll come across in motion, he'll get to the point of attack in the run game, but he'll also find the holes in the zone and man-to-man coverages."

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Snead has no problem mixing it up with anyone, large or small, at any spot on the field.

"He can go inside or outside, but man, he makes some -- scouts call them blood area -- catches," Harbaugh said. "In the middle, that's where he thrives."

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Dominant defense earns Ravens' Za'Darius Smith AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors

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Dominant defense earns Ravens' Za'Darius Smith AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors

The defensive performance on display by the Baltimore Ravens Sunday against the Tennessee Titans in a 21-0 shutout win was flat out historic. So historic that it's earned linebacker Za'Darius Smith AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

A franchise-record 11 sacks were laid on quarterback Marcus Mariota during the Week 6 matchup, with Smith leading the way with three of them.   

So far this season the 26-year-old has 20 combined tackles, 5.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. As someone who is in the final year of his rookie NFL contract, he's certainly proving he is worthy of getting paid this offseason. 

"It feels great, man. It's big," Smith said of the honor during media availability Wednesday. "I know when I first found out I called my mom and she was already looking at it. But I called her and she was trying to congratulate me and was like 'who would've ever thought the guy that played one year of high school football would be where he at now and making so many goals.'"

But earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week isn't the only goal Smith has in mind. His performance through the first six weeks and assisting the No. 1 ranked scoring defense is just a stepping stone to the ultimate honor.

"I was telling her, 'Ma you know this is a good self-goal but my main goal is to get us to the Super Bowl.'" 

The road to the Super Bowl for Smith and the Ravens continues this Sunday vs. Drew Brees and the Saints. 

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