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Here come the big boys

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Here come the big boys

Here come the big boys.

The NFL's wild-card weekend is over, with nary an upset. Moving on are division winners Green Bay, Houston and Baltimore, along with NFC West runner-up Seattle and the only rookie quarterback still standing: Russell Wilson.

Ahead are some daunting challenges as the Ravens visit Denver, the Texans go to New England, the Packers head to San Francisco and the Seahawks journey to Atlanta.

Only the Seahawks-Falcons isn't a rematch.

Seattle isn't intimidated one bit about facing the NFC's top seed.

``Despite the fact that we have a `nobody' team,'' Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said after Sunday's convincing 24-14 comeback win at Washington, ``a team not full of first-rounders and things like that, we have a lot of guys that play at a high level.''

Of course, so do the Falcons (13-3), Broncos (13-3), Patriots (12-4) and 49ers (11-4-1).

``They have a great coach and a great quarterback and they have great role players on their team,'' Texans running back Arian Foster said of the Patriots, who routed Houston 42-14 last month. ``I have a lot of respect for them, but we can play ball, too.''

The Texans beat Cincinnati 19-13 on Saturday, then Green Bay took out Minnesota 24-10. In Sunday's other game, Baltimore eliminated Indianapolis 24-9.

The playoffs continue next Saturday with Baltimore (11-6) at Denver, followed by Green Bay (12-5) at San Francisco. The Broncos beat the Ravens 34-17 three weeks ago, while the 49ers knocked off the Packers 30-22 in the season opener.

On Sunday, it's Seattle (12-5) at Atlanta, followed by Houston (13-4) visiting New England.

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Ravens at Broncos

Not only is Baltimore thrilled to keep playing and keep star linebacker Ray Lewis' career going, but the Ravens got the opponent they sought for the divisional round.

``I wanted Denver,'' said Anquan Boldin, who set a franchise record with 145 yards receiving, including the clinching touchdown against Indianapolis (11-6). ``Because they beat us. We'll make it different.''

Lewis made 13 tackles in his first game back in nearly three months. He ended his last home game in Baltimore before his impending retirement by lining up at fullback for the final kneel-down. Then Lewis went into a short version of his trademark dance before being mobbed by teammates. He followed with a victory lap, his right triceps, covered by a brace, held high in salute to the fans.

Joe Flacco became the first quarterback to win a postseason game in each of his first five seasons and John Harbaugh is the first coach to do so.

``I love our team,'' Lewis said, ``and I'm really looking forward to going out there and playing them next week.''

The loss ended the Colts' turnaround season in which they went from 2-14 to the playoffs in coach Chuck Pagano's first year in Indianapolis. Pagano missed 12 weeks while undergoing treatment for leukemia and returned last week.

Andrew Luck completed 28 of 54 passes, the most attempts by a rookie in a playoff game, for 288 yards.

Packers at 49ers

It's been a long time since these teams met on kickoff weekend, and much has changed.

Green Bay has become a bit more balanced on offense and somewhat stingier on defense than it was back in September. San Francisco has second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick instead of Alex Smith, and receiver Michael Crabtree finally has developed into a threat.

The Packers held league rushing king Adrian Peterson to 99 yards in beating the Vikings (10-7), 100 yards less than he got on them the previous week.

``I don't think we had our identity at that point,'' QB Aaron Rodgers said of the Packers team San Francisco beat. ``We were trying a lot of different things.''

Seahawks at Falcons

Atlanta has flopped in its last three playoff games, including losing at home to Green Bay two years ago in a similar scenario.

Seattle won't bring as high-powered an offense as the Packers did to Atlanta, but it's versatile enough with the creative Wilson, bulldozing halfback Marshawn Lynch and a deep group of receivers.

The most significant challenge for the Falcons, though, will be a defense that completely shut down the Redskins and a hobbling Robert Griffin III for the final three quarters of their wild-card game.

Washington (10-7) had 129 yards in the first quarter and 74 for the rest of the game.

``Seventy yards in 3 1/2 quarters is ridiculously good defense,'' coach Pete Carroll said after his Seahawks won their sixth straight and snapped Washington's seven-game winning streak.

Texans at Patriots

Both teams say the Monday night romp by New England on Dec. 10 is not an indicator of what's ahead. For their sake, the Texans better hope that is true.

``We didn't play our best football up there and we hurt ourselves with penalties and mistakes,'' said Foster, who rushed for 140 yards and a TD against the Bengals (10-7). ``Anytime you give (the Patriots) opportunities, they'll take advantage of them. But we'll play our best up there.''

They have no choice, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick fully expects a tighter game.

``When you play a team twice during the season, the games are totally different. They never go the same way,'' Belichick said. ``We'll be able to certainly look at some of the matchups individually, guys that faced each (other) in the game. As far as plays and calls and things like that matching up, I'm sure they'll have some new wrinkles. I'm sure we'll have some, too. It will be totally different.''

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Former Penn State stars Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders catch up after joint practice

Former Penn State stars Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders catch up after joint practice

Things this time last year were a lot different for Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley and Eagles running back Miles Sanders.

McSorley was entering his final year at Penn State, and not highly sought after as an NFL QB prospect. Many draft 'experts' predicted McSorley would have to change positions in order to play at the highest level of the game.

But McSorley, was profiled in NBC Sports Washingtons' I Am The Prospect' series, stuck with quarterback, and early on, it's paid off. The Ravens selected Penn State's all-time passing yards and touchdown passes leader in the sixth-round, and thus far, McSorley has shown promise. 

Sanders, a rising junior at the time, had just 56 career carries and less than 400 rushing yards in his first two seasons with Penn State. While that was not a reflection on Sanders (after all, he was the backup to some guy named Saquon Barkley), the junior had little film to indicate to pro scouts that he would be ready for the jump just a year later.

But after being the Nittany Lions workhorse in 2018, where he rushed for just under 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns, Sanders immediately became on the league's radar. The 22-year-old earned his way to All-Big 10 second-team honors and showed enough at the combine for the Eagles to invest their second-round pick in him.

The Ravens are set to face the Eagles in their third preseason game on Thursday, but Baltimore has been in the City of Brotherly Love for the past two days, competing in joint practices with the Eagles. These practices have given the former Penn State teammates time to catch up before they play each other in a couple of days.

"I think it's cool, just thinking that we were at Penn State a year ago," Sanders said. "Now we're all living our dream, just on different teams. When we get together for times like this, it's pretty cool."

"It's really cool. Spending years together in college, now we're all on separate teams now, but it's cool," McSorley said, echoing his former running back. "We're rooting for these guys. Turning on one of [Miles] games and watch him run, rooting him on. it's cool to come out and be on the practice field with him again. Haven't seen him in a while, being able to say 'what's up,' it's pretty cool."

Very few people know each other's skillsets the way McSorley and Sanders do of one another. So who better to ask than each of them as to what their respective team can expect out of each?

"They're getting a dawg, man, " McSorley said on his former teammate. "They're starting to figure that out now. He's a special player and Philly is going to love him."

"Same with Baltimore. They got a dawg," Sanders said on McSorley. "He's been showing it in the preseason games. They said he's not a quarterback, but he's proving everybody wrong. That's just how Trace is."

Besides checking in regularly to see how Sanders is doing, McSorley has found another way to follow his former running back's rookie season.

"[I'm going to] try and get him on my fantasy team," McSorley said, getting quite the chuckle out of Sanders.

Besides the loyalty aspect, McSorley could end up getting significant production from Sanders on his fantasy squad. After an impressive performance in the Eagles second preseason game, NJ.com reported that "it is increasingly hard to project him as anything less than this team’s No. 1 running back." 

Sanders may be a more than viable fantasy option as a rookie, but he doesn't play the popular game himself. But if he did, he knows one player he would snag.

"I don't do the fantasy stuff, but if I did, I would definitely put my boy on there," Sanders said on McSorley. "Watching everyone I played with in college, looking at their stats each week and seeing them. Just grow and be better players each week. The way we do it here, it's the same mentality because we all went to the same school."

The two will get to see each other in person for the first time at the NFL level on Thursday. 

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Longtime public-address announcer Bruce Cunningham steps down from Ravens

Longtime public-address announcer Bruce Cunningham steps down from Ravens

Bruce Cunningham, who has been the public-address announcer for the Baltimore Ravens since just after the inception of the franchise in 1996, is stepping down from the role.

"We were honored to have him participate in what we believe is the best home-game entertainment in the NFL," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens Executive Vice president for public and community relations.

Cunningham explained his decision in a post for Fox 45 News, stating that "When I hit the twenty-year milestone last year, it sort of felt like a finish line, but I shrugged it off and chalked it up to fatigue."

But the fatigue caught up to him to start the year. "But it was indeed a finish line and after announcing the two preseason games, I realized I was done. The fire in the belly was gone," Cunningham said.

A new voice for the Ravens will start on Sept. 15 for opening night, and as Cunningham explained, he has one rule for how to treat the new announcer. "Let me repeat something I've told you exactly 202 times over the last twenty years: 'Don't Be A Jerk.'"

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