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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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Steelers players plunder Le'Veon Bell's locker a day after missed deadline

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Steelers players plunder Le'Veon Bell's locker a day after missed deadline

Le'Veon Bell decided not to return to the Steelers this season, and his former teammates have apparently decided they can have his belongings. 

The All-Pro running back didn't sign his $14.5 million franchise tag by Tuesday's deadline, and thus is ineligible to play this season.

Steelers player preceded to plunder his locker Wednesday. Defensive end Bud Dupree went right for Bell's cleats, thanking him for the Jordan brand shoes and saying he wishes Bell success.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told reporters he sent Bell his well-wishes, but got no response from his former backfield mate. 

It's unclear what Bell plans to do next, but it's crystal clear the Steelers have moved on, with his shoes in tow. 

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Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III prepared to start if hip injury sidelines Joe Flacco

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USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III prepared to start if hip injury sidelines Joe Flacco

Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson has had his fair share of life changing moments. 

Winning the Heisman Trophy in 2016, being drafted by the Ravens in the first-round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and come Sunday, possibly his first NFL start.

With Joe Flacco nursing a hip injury suffered against the Pittsburgh Steelers Week 9, the 21-year-old could be leading the Ravens for a full 60 minutes against division rival Cincinnati Bengals in what could be a defining moment of their season.

"I'm just going into it like any other week," Jackson said Wednesday. "Just preparing for whatever."

While Jackson has appeared in all nine games going 7-for-12 for 87 passing yards and one touchdown, he is the only first-round quarterback out of the 2018 draft that has yet to start this season. 

When asked how he would feel if his name is called Sunday, Jackson said he would have butterflies at first but added once the ball is snapped, "it's on."

Through the Ravens' first half of the season, how and when Jackson is utilized at either quarterback or receiver, has lacked consistency. Add in the lack of highlight reel passes from him and many are concerned he's not ready for an NFL start. 

The fast style of NFL play compared to that of college football was something Jackson admittedly struggled with throughout the preseason. But with nine regular season games under his belt, Jackson feels that is the area where he's taken the biggest strides. 

"Calling the plays," Jackson said. "Before I'd have to ask coach a hundred times, 'say it again, say it again,' but now he says it one time to me. Don't get me wrong, sometimes if [the call] is long or whatever I have to ask [coach to] say it again, but other than that I'm getting better with that."

Head coach John Harbaugh offered no insight on who would be their starting quarterback on Sunday and it can be expected he'll keep hush up until the last moment. Flacco was not on the practice field during media availability Wednesday, either. 

But let's not forget the other veteran quarterback on their roster; Robert Griffin III

For the first time since 2009, the Ravens decided to keep three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster for this very reason.

After sitting out of football for a year, RGIII was given a second chance in Baltimore, but has been a gameday inactive since the start of the season. If the week progresses and neither Flacco or Jackson seem ready, it could be the comeback of the once Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

"That's my job. That's why they brought me here," Griffin III said Wednesday on if he feels prepared to possibly start. "They brought me here to be a pro. They brought me here to help this team if need be. I try to help the defense every week on scout team and then do those [reps], and if my number's called I'll be able to go out there and lead this team."

Both RGIII and Jackson said that it would be "awesome" if they were named the starting QB on Sunday, but that no matter who it ends up being they're all here for one another.

"I'm going to continue to help [Lamar] just like I have all season because we're about the Ravens here," Griffin III said. "It's not about individuals. We've got a pretty daunting task ahead with this Bengals team and then just with the rest of our schedule, so we've got to make sure we make the most of every opportunity."

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