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Here come the big boys

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Here come the big boys

The records are gaudy. The star power is high.

Here come the NFL's big boys.

Denver, Atlanta, New England and San Francisco host divisional playoff games this weekend. They're a combined 49-14-1, and their rosters are filled with such headline grabbers as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Gonzalez and Patrick Willis.

Their home-field advantages could be formidable, too. The Broncos, who have won 11 straight games, and Falcons each went 7-1; the 49ers were 6-1-1 and the Patriots 6-2.

None of which makes the Ravens, Seahawks, Texans or Packers quake in their cleats.

``That's not in my mind at all going up to Denver,'' said the Ravens' Joe Flacco, the only quarterback to win a playoff game in his first five seasons. ``We feel confident, and I think we should.''

Baltimore at Denver opens the weekend's action, followed by Green Bay at San Francisco on Saturday night.

Sunday, Seattle is at Atlanta, then Houston goes to New England.

Ravens (11-6) at Broncos (13-3)

For all those impressive numbers, here's a baffling one: four-time league Manning is a mere 9-10 in postseason games. Those wins and losses were compiled with the Colts, with whom he never had a defense like the one the Broncos possess.

That defense made a big difference when Denver won 34-17 at Baltimore in Week 15. A 98-yard interception return by Chris Harris at the end of the first half turned it into a rout.

``I really haven't made a whole lot of comparisons, but our defense has been outstanding all year,'' Manning said. ``Our offense has fed off of our defense. I think that's one of the best things this team has done. If the offense was in a rut, defense picked us up. The defense was bending a little bit, the offense picked them up. That's what you've got to have, to me, as a team.''

The Manning-Ray Lewis matchups through the years have been intriguing, and this will be the final one. Baltimore's emotional leader announced his retirement days before he had 13 tackles in his last home game, a 24-9 wild-card victory over Indianapolis.

``They are always classic,'' Lewis said. ``It's just one of those chess matches. He knows me very well. I know him very well. ... But at the end of the day, it's not about me and me and Peyton. It's about their team against our team. I love our team right now.''

Packers (12-5) at 49ers (11-4-1)

Another rematch, but from so long ago: San Francisco won 30-22 in the opener, at Lambeau Field.

The Packers have the edge in this postseason series, 4-1. They would seem to have the edge on offense with top-rated passer Aaron Rodgers and a deep crew of receivers.

And the Niners would have the advantage on defense, having yielded 63 fewer points in the regular season.

A key will be whether Green Bay, which beat Minnesota 24-10 last week, can protect Rodgers after allowing 51 sacks. The 49ers' Aldon Smith had 19 1-2 himself.

``We understand that it's going to be up to us to keep Aaron clean, let him make some plays back there in the pocket,'' left guard T.J Lang said. ``That's going to be a huge factor in how this game turns out.''

Seahawks (12-5) at Falcons (13-3)

Those road woes that plagued the Seahawks can be forgotten. They've won three in a row away from home, including the 24-14 wild-card victory at Washington that was their first on the road in the playoffs since 1983.

With six straight wins overall, they're a confident bunch as they head to the Georgia Dome.

``We've grown and become more together and more in tune with our QB and what he can do and all that,'' Carroll said, referring to rookie Russell Wilson. ``We're a pretty hard team to beat right now.''

Atlanta has been easy to beat in its last three playoff appearances, something quarterback Matt Ryan dismisses as a factor for this game.

``We've proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe in that. I feel more comfortable with the guys around me.''

Texans (13-4) at Patriots (12-4)

Yet another rematch, this from Dec. 10 when the Texans flopped in Foxborough, 42-10. That was the beginning of a fade in which they dropped three of four and sank from top AFC seed to No. 3.

Houston recovered somewhat last week in a 19-13 wild-card victory over Cincinnati. This is a much tougher task.

``If you want to move on, you've got to bring a sense of attitude and nastiness with you to go out and dominate your opponent on every play,'' said QB Matt Schaub, who got his first postseason win last week.

Tom Brady has 16 postseason wins and needs one win to break a tie with Joe Montana.

``He's won a lot of regular-season games, won a lot of playoff games,'' coach Bill Belichick said. ``What he does on a day-to-day basis, how he performs on the practice field, how he performs in games - whether they're preseason, regular season, postseason, whatever it is - he's pretty consistent. I think you see that during the week, so it shows up on Sunday.''

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Ravens' options in a potential Matthew Judon trade

Ravens' options in a potential Matthew Judon trade

According to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Ravens have expressed interest in moving on from Matthew Judon through a trade this offseason. 

Judon, who isn’t under contract for next season, was tied for 19th in the league in sacks with 9.5 — a team-high. He was also the team-leader in quarterback hits with 33. The next best pass-rusher was Tyus Bowser, who registered 10. 

Lined up for a big payday, and with a high-priced franchise tag an option, the Ravens could lose their second pass-rusher in as many years on the free agent market should they elect to not pay Judon the elite pass-rusher money he’ll likely command.

Which brings the Ravens to the report from Schefter that indicated the team could move on from Judon, 27, through the sign-and-trade route. 

Should Judon, or the Ravens, walk away from the negotiating table in free agency, two options exist: The Ravens could either let him walk freely to another team and likely receive a 2021 third-round pick as compensation, or place the franchise tag on Judon. 

With the franchise tag option, the Ravens could keep him for a season and essentially kick the can down the road for a year, or trade him for a return that would likely be greater than the compensatory third, and more importantly, the help would be immediate. 

A few weeks ago, coach John Harbaugh said re-signing Judon would be, “pretty hard,” but that the team was going to try.  

But if the Ravens aren’t able, or are unwilling, to sign Judon, a potential blueprint for a future trade might have been laid out last year by the Chiefs. 

Last season, the Chiefs traded Dee Ford to the 49ers for a second-round pick just a month before they sent first and third-round picks to the Seahawks for Frank Clark and a third-round pick.

Ford had 13 sacks in 2018 and 29 quarterback hits while Clark had 13 as well and 27 quarterback hits. They both immediately signed long-term, expensive contracts with their new teams. 

Baltimore could make a move similar to that with Judon and get better, and more immediate, compensation for him and later add a pass-rusher with the draft capital than the team added.

The Ravens have just under 29 million dollars in cap space, meaning they’ve got the space to sign Judon to a long-term deal or keep him on the franchise tag, but they’d need to make some moves to be able to field a full roster. And that full roster, if Judon isn’t in Baltimore in 2020, needs pass-rushing help. 

Baltimore had 37 sacks as a team, and just over a quarter of them came from Judon. It also had 111 total quarterback hits, and 29.7 percent came from Judon. 

So the report that the Ravens could move Judon could play out, perhaps the most interesting aspect of a Judon trade would be the replacement the Ravens would need to have lined up.

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With big decision looming, Ravens guard Marshal Yanda mum on retirement plans

With big decision looming, Ravens guard Marshal Yanda mum on retirement plans

Ravens guard Marshal Yanda has a decision to make on his playing future, but he's in no rush to make it.

The 35-year-old is under contract with the Ravens through the 2020 season, but will take the next month or so to decide if he wants to continue playing or hang up the cleats.

"I'm going to take my time now," Yanda told Ravens.com regarding his future. "Done playing for the year, just take some time over the next month and basically just go with my heart and see how I feel."

The eight-time Pro Bowler was a vital piece in the NFL's best rushing attack in 2019. Yanda, the leader of the offensive line, started and played in 15 games this season for Baltimore, missing the regular-season finale as the Ravens rested multiple starters with the No. 1 seed already clinched.

Following Baltimore's upset divisional playoff loss to the Titans, a visibly disappointed Yanda refused to address his future, but he was definitely thinking about it then.

But if Sunday's Pro Bowl was the last time Yanda put on the pads, he didn't treat the game or experience any differently.

"Not necessarily," Yanda said if he cherished Sunday's Pro Bowl differently. "You're not in that frame of mind. I definitely didn't think about [my retirement decision] too much today, just because it was the Pro Bowl. It's more of a relaxed game, not like a really intense game.

"I didn't have those feelings as much as the Tennessee game," he continued." Yeah, it's a possibility. But those feelings were more in the Tennessee game."

Even at age 35, Yanda remains one of the best guards in the game. He's made the NFL's second-team All-Pro squad the past two seasons and has been a Pro Bowler every season since 2011, minus the 2017 season where he played just two games due to a season-ending ankle injury.

There's no debate: Baltimore would greatly benefit from Yanda returning.

"You want people that want you back," Yanda said. "You want to be playing very well when you end. Nobody wants to fade out; you want to go out strong."

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