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Deep thoughts: Long ball could carry Ravens to win

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Deep thoughts: Long ball could carry Ravens to win

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Fear the dreadlocks, San Francisco.

Torrey Smith just might be the difference in a Super Bowl that will hinge on the 49ers' ability to prevent the Baltimore Ravens from scoring with the long ball.

You might remember Smith from that playoff game in Denver on Jan. 12. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey sure does. Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl star, watched the dreadlocks flapping from the back of Smith's helmet as he chased the speedy wide receiver into the end zone on touchdown catches of 59 and 32 yards.

Oh, and let's not forget that Baltimore forced overtime in that game on a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left.

The Ravens have 17 pass completions of at least 40 yards this season, six of them involving Smith. Sometimes, Smith runs deep just to free up wideout Anquan Boldin or tight end Dennis Pitta or running back Ray Rice underneath, leaving Flacco a variety of viable targets.

``It all depends,'' said Smith, the speedy receiver from Maryland. ``It's not like they say, `Hey Torrey, just run straight down the field' all the time. Some of it is scheme-wise to open other guys up. Against certain coverages, I have certain responsibilities. We do attack vertically. That's a strength of ours, and I'm one of the guys that they definitely use to do that.''

Combine all that with a San Francisco defense that gave up 396 yards passing to Atlanta's Matt Ryan in the NFC title game, and it could add up to a very long night for the 49ers.

``Joe Flacco, he's playing excellent football right now,'' former 49ers star receiver Jerry Rice said. ``You've got Torrey Smith and also Anquan Boldin on the outside, and passes over 18 yards. They targeted Torrey Smith 109 times. So they're not afraid to throw the ball deep. The secondary of the San Francisco 49ers, they have had problems with the deep ball, so they can't let these guys run free.''

The 49ers know this. Whether they can prevent Smith & Co. from breaking loose is another story. Rice is also a threat - he caught 61 passes for 478 yards during the regular season.

``I think No. 1, you've got one (receiver) that's got track speed that will take the top off your defense, so he's going to draw some attention,'' San Francisco cornerback Carlos Rogers said. ``Anquan is a very physical guy. He doesn't go deep as much as Torrey, but he's got the ability to. He's just got that connection, strong arm guy, physical guy, so it's going to be a challenge with him, too.

``We're challenged at every position. The tight end in the red zone, he's got a connection, too. Ray Rice out of the backfield, people don't look at that, but when you break down film, he continues to make linebackers look silly and break yards. ... So everybody on our side of the ball has their hands full with those guys.''

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens' defense will be poised to hitch their emotions to middle linebacker Ray Lewis for the final stage of his last ride into retirement. The 37-year-old announced before Baltimore's first playoff game that he would quit when the Ravens ended their run, and since that time they've been played their best football of the year.

So has Lewis. He has a team-high 44 tackles during the playoffs after missing the previous 10 games with a torn right triceps.

``They're going to be up,'' San Francisco running back Frank Gore said. ``Ray Lewis means a lot to that organization. He's been playing the game for a long time, he's probably the best at his position and guys love him.''

Sure, the Ravens would love to win it for Lewis. But only one player on the roster owns a Super Bowl ring (Lewis), and the rest of the players are in it for themselves.

``There's no way in the world that you can imagine Torrey blocking better down the field because Ray is quitting,'' Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. ``There's no way in the world that (fullback) Vonta Leach is going to give that much more, knocking that linebacker in the hole. I believe if Ray was saying he was going to play another year, these guys would give us the same thing.''

Ravens offensive linebacker Bobby Williams was asked why the Ravens are going to win.

``The spirit of the team is something special,'' he said. ``Everybody works hard around the league. The 49ers work hard. But the spirit of this team is different.''

After thumping Indianapolis at home and outlasting the top-seeded Broncos in double overtime, Baltimore disposed of host New England. Flacco, in succession, outplayed Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Now he goes up against second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is fleet of foot but short on experience.

Unless Kaepernick runs wild or connects repeatedly with Randy Moss, the self-proclaimed ``greatest receiver ever to play this game,'' then big brother John Harbaugh will be the one smiling when shaking hands with little brother Jim, San Francisco's coach, as purple and black confetti falls from the roof of the Superdome.

PREDICTION: Ravens 24, 49ers 20.

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Ravens special teams lacking across the board, lone sore spot in dominating win

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Ravens special teams lacking across the board, lone sore spot in dominating win

BALTIMORE — If there was a lone dark spot on the Ravens’ 42-21 win over the Jets, it was the special teams. 

From kickoff coverage to even Justin Tucker, each particular unit had its fair share of struggles. The Jets blocked a punt — and scored, had long returns on both kickoff and punt returns and Tucker missed an extra-point. 

“We played really well on special teams last week,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We played not well at all this week. So, that’s an area of concern right now. I give them credit. They played really well, but we didn’t.”

The trouble started from the get-go when the Jets had a good return on the opening kick. They carried that throughout the game, as Ty Montgomery and Vyncint Smith averaged kickoff returns of 23.3 and 28.7 yards, respectively. Smith had a long of 37 yards and Montgomery had a long of 34 yards.

Then on the Ravens second touchdown of the night, Tucker missed an extra point — a rarity for the league’s most consistent kicker. Before Thursday’s game, he’d missed just one extra point all season and one field goal. 

While it’s nothing to be concerned about, any miss for Tucker is certainly surprising. 

And finally, in the fourth quarter, the Jets bull-rushed up the middle through the Ravens’ punt team and blocked the kick for a score.

Baltimore’s special teams units have been stellar all season, so Thursday’s game isn’t something to fret over long-term. But it’s certainly something to monitor as the games tighten, leaving little room for error on the margins.  

“We just have to get better,” Harbaugh said of the returns. “They were basically blocking us. They blocked our guys on the kickoff return. They did a great job with it. They ran a little pick-stunt on the blocked punt that we should have picked up with no problem, and we didn’t. That’s an issue for us.”

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Lamar Jackson sets QB rushing record, leads way for Ravens to clinch AFC North title

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Lamar Jackson sets QB rushing record, leads way for Ravens to clinch AFC North title

BALTIMORE — As Lamar Jackson etched himself into the NFL record book because of his legs, it was his right arm that was the story of Thursday’s drubbing against the Jets.

Jackson broke the single-season rushing record for a quarterback with a carry in the first quarter, but his passing stole the show in primetime. 

He threw for five touchdown passes — the third time he’s done so this season — and 212 yards in a 42-21 win at M&T Bank Stadium. While the Jets struggled to contain he and the Ravens' speed, Jackson's passes sliced through the Jets secondary.

“His performance speaks for itself,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Our guys played well, made some plays...Lamar is definitely the leader there. He’s the catalyst, but those guys are making plays together and that’s what you need to do to win the game.”

Jackson’s passing kept the Jets’ defense off-balance all night, as a mix of scrambles and deep balls left them confused throughout the game. 

"I think we were just trying to figure out what was going on,” Jets coach Adam Gase said. “Sometimes against this group, you do not want to commit, because you are unsure. They run their offense well, but you have to pull the trigger and make a decision in real time, and it is not easy."

A 24-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Marquise Brown in the back of the end zone sealed the deal, as the Ravens earned yet another blowout win. 

Thursday’s game marked the fifth time this season the Ravens have scored more than 40 points in a game. 

Jackson’s run in the first quarter set the single-season record and propelled him to 86 yards on the ground for the day. 

“That’s just the chemistry and hard work,” Jackson said. “You know, we take practice like it’s a game, and that’s one thing I had to work on individually by myself — because our guys work so hard, I (wanted) to throw dimes to them and make sure their job is a lot easier catching them in stride, and they just help me out by catching the ball and doing what they do.” 

While his arm was on display, the reason his performance will be remembered is what he did with his rushes. 

Jackson broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for quarterbacks in the first quarter, then added 64 yards on top of that for good measure. Now alone at the top of the NFL record book, Jackson can claim the most dominant season by a quarterback on the ground in league history.

“It’s pretty cool,” Jackson said. “My favorite player growing up; it’s amazing and I’m going to cherish that forever and just got to keep it going. Records are made to be broken, like he said. I heard him say that, and it’s an honor for me to do it.”

The Ravens, and Jackson, put 218 yards on the ground against the Jets, who entered as the league's second-best rush defense allowing just 78.8 per game. 

“He’s different,” Jets safety Marcus Maye said. “He’s not like the rest of them. He has the ability to run around and make plays. There’s probably only a handful of guys who can do it the way he does it.”

Jackson also led the way to a second-straight AFC North title for the Ravens, who are just a step away from clinching a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Should they get to that point, the Ravens will have their MVP-candidate at quarterback to thank. And this year, Jackson has something to prove. 

“That’s my fault we lost in that first-round last year, but this year is a different team, different mindset,” Jackson said. “It’s a brotherhood going on right now, and we’ve just got to keep it going.” 

So while Thursday’s game was one for the record books, everyone on the Ravens will tell you there’s more pressing matters at hand. 

Even as Jackson became the NFL’s best rushing quarterback in a season, and tied the franchise record for passing touchdowns in a season, it’s clear it’s not something they’re all that concerned about.

“But it’s really, it’s something I’m sure Lamar, as he says, he’ll look back on some day fondly,” Harbaugh said. “But right now, he has other things to think about."