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Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

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Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Rob Ninkovich has a knack for forcing fumbles. He's also pretty good at recovering them.

He even does both on the same play.

``That's hustle,'' Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said. ``Rob's a guy whose engine's always going.''

It was really revving last Sunday when the defensive end dropped into the middle of the field late in the third quarter and intercepted a pass by Houston's Matt Schaub in New England's 41-28 divisional playoff win over the Texans.

And when the Texans tried an onside kick with 5:11 left in the fourth, Ninkovich pounced on it.

``I wanted to get the ball,'' he said, ``that's for sure.''

He always does - and is prepared to grab some more fumbles Sunday when the Patriots (13-4) face the Baltimore Ravens (12-6) in the AFC championship game.

``As a defensive player, you're always thinking the ball is a key,'' Ninkovich said. ``You're looking at the ball on the snap. You're trying to find the ball in pursuit. And when people are around the ball making plays, you're always aware of where it's at.

``If it's fumbled or if it's on the ground, you've got to get on it. Let everyone else decide what's going on, as long as you get the ball it'll all work itself out.''

His nine recoveries of opponents' fumbles over the past three seasons are the most by any defensive player during those years, according to Elias Sports Bureau. This season, he was tied for second in the league with four recoveries and forced five fumbles.

Ninkovich even got one of each on the same play, the one that ended the Patriots 29-26 overtime win over the New York Jets in the seventh game of the season.

Stephen Gostkowski had kicked the go-ahead field goal for New England, but New York still had a chance to tie or win. The Jets had the ball at their 40-yard line when Ninkovich beat right tackle Austin Howard and hit Mark Sanchez high while Jermaine Cunningham got him low for a sack. The ball came loose and Ninkovich pounced on it.

Game over.

``He's always been like that,'' said Tony Samuel, a former assistant at Purdue who coached Ninkovich as a senior with the Boilermakers. He is now coach at Southeast Missouri State. ``He's got that uncanny vision. He's got that way of just being Johnny-On-The-Spot, doesn't he?''

He sure does.

Ninkovich was in the right spot when the Patriots signed him as a free agent. Until then he had played in just eight games in three seasons with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. Injuries slowed him after the Saints drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, but he's been healthy with the Patriots.

And coach Bill Belichick found a way to use his talents.

``He has good body control, good balance, good hand-eye coordination, all those things, in addition to being a strong guy that's fast and has good quickness,'' Belichick said. ``If he has to drop into coverage as a defensive end, he can fall back on some of the things he's learned as a linebacker.''

Ninkovich played in 15 games with the Patriots in 2009, making 10 tackles on defense and 11 on special teams. He started 10 games as an outside linebacker in 2010, then started all 16 in 2011. This season he shifted to defensive end, starting every game. He led the team with eight sacks and was sixth with 61 tackles.

``He's solid,'' Ravens center Matt Birk said. ``He plays hard, like they all do on that defense. But he plays the run, rushes the passer and also drops into coverage. He's one of those hybrid, very versatile guys. He kind of does whatever they ask him to do. That makes him very valuable. Just a heck of a player.''

Samuel realized that during the year he coached defensive ends at Purdue in 2005. Ninkovich had eight sacks, intercepted two passes, forced two fumbles and recovered one.

``It doesn't always have to be a fumble, but he usually has some difference-making kind of play,'' Samuel said. ``He's just able to do it all. He's a great pass rusher. He's got real good moves.''

He called Ninkovich ``a tweener,'' bigger than typical outside linebackers and smaller than dominating defensive ends. At 6-feet-2, 250 pounds, he's aware of that.

``Any time you're not 6-6 (and overpowering) you have to do your very best to have great technique and outwork people,'' he said. ``So I pride myself on having good hands, good vision, knowing where the ball is, and that comes with just years of experience.''

Ninkovich isn't physically imposing. He's not a showman on the field. And he's soft-spoken.

``I think people kind of overlook his ability,'' McCourty said. ``He makes a lot of plays and those turnovers are always key.''

One reason he makes them? He's always alert, safety Steve Gregory said.

``He has good football instincts,'' Gregory said. ``He has a knack for the football. Those are some things that sometimes you can't teach. He takes pride in doing that and he does it well.''

Ninkovich has been compared to another Patriots outside linebacker who wore No. 50.

Mike Vrabel had no starts in four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then started 12 games in 2001, the first of his eight seasons with New England. He is now an assistant coach at Ohio State, his alma mater.

``I've never met him,'' Ninkovich said. ``Obviously, being here the last four years you definitely hear stories about how great he was, how smart he was. ... I'm still trying to fill the shoes that he left. They're pretty big.''

Ninkovich did catch two passes, both for touchdowns, as a tight end at Purdue. Vrabel had eight receptions, all for touchdowns, playing tight end with the Patriots. But Ninkovich doesn't expect to be sharing time at that position with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, once he recovers from the broken left arm that landed him on injured reserve Thursday.

``I think we have a few good tight ends here,'' Ninkovich said. ``So I'll stick to what I'm doing.''

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AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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Joe Flacco passes physical, is set to become Broncos' latest addition to QB carousel

Joe Flacco passes physical, is set to become Broncos' latest addition to QB carousel

Joe Flacco's journey out West is making progress.

The 34-year-old was in Denver last week and passed his physical with the Broncos, according to sources of Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, clearing a path for their trade with the Ravens to become official when the new league year begins March 13.

In a move that was expected as the team made it clear 2018 first-round pick Lamar Jackson is its future, the Ravens are reportedly sending Flacco to the Broncos for a fourth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Based off of one observant flyer at Denver International Airport, the former Super Bowl MVP flew commercial out of Denver in a very Flacco-like move.

'Joe Cool' will presumably be the Broncos' fourth starting quarterback in three seasons and the latest addition to their quarterback carousel.

The Broncos drafted Brock Osweiler 57th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, starting just seven games over four seasons and was eventually re-signed in 2017 where he only started four games. Then they drafted Trevor Siemian in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft, starting 24 games during the 2016-17 season, before trading up in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft for Paxton Lynch, who earned four starts in two seasons. They traded for Mark Sanchez in 2016, but he never made it to the regular season.

And finally, the Broncos signed free agent Case Keenum in 2018 to a two-year, $36 million deal. Keenum started all 16 games this season, going 365-for-586 for 3,890 yards, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. However, general manager John Elway is now making room for Flacco for at least the next year. 

Flacco, who the Ravens drafted with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, has no guaranteed money left with the Ravens and is working on a one-year, $18.5 million deal with two-team option years following that. It's not a bad deal for a team that can't commit to a starting QB. 

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The timeline of Joe Flacco's 11 seasons with the Ravens

The timeline of Joe Flacco's 11 seasons with the Ravens

The Joe Flacco era in Baltimore is coming to an end.

After 11 seasons with the team, the Ravens are reportedly trading Flacco to the Denver Broncos for a fourth-round pick. 

While the move wasn't shocking, it's not often a quarterback keeps a residency with one organization for that amount of time.

Over those years, Flacco has experienced the highest of highs and a few major lows. Let's take a look back at his time with the Ravens.

April 26, 2008: The Ravens drafted Flacco with the No.18 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. A low-profile quarterback out of Delaware, the only other first-round quarterback in that draft was Boston College's Matt Ryan at No. 3 to the Atlanta Flacons.

September 7, 2008: Flacco's first-career game as the Ravens' QB. Completing 15-of-29 attempts for 129 yards, the rookie led his team to a 17-10 win over the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. In the win, Flacco also recorded his first-career rushing touchdown on a career-long 38-yard run. It was also the longest rushing TD by a rookie quarterback in their debut. 

January 2009: After finishing the 2008 season 11-5 and second in the AFC North, Flacco led the Ravens past the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card Round and past the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Round before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-14 in the AFC Championship Round. It was the first time since the 2000 season the Ravens advanced to the conference championship game. Flacco finished his rookie season with 2,791 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

2009 season: Flacco became the fourth starting QB since the 1970 merger to reach the playoffs in their first two seasons. Easily beating the Patriots on the road, 33-14, the Ravens lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Divisional Round, 20-3. 

2010 season: Flacco became the Ravens' all-time leader in every major passing category, throwing for 3,622 yards and 25 touchdowns with a career-high 93.6 QB rating. Finishing the season 12-4, the team lost in the AFC Divisional Round to the Steelers.

November 6, 2011: With 2:24 left in the fourth quarter and trailing 20-16, Flacco and the Ravens orchestrated a 92-yard drive to stun the Steelers at Heinz Field. Torrey Smith's 26-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left to seal the deal will go down as one of the best drives in Flacco's history

2011 playoffs: Flacco became the first quarterback since the 1970 merger to start a playoff game in his first four seasons and win a game each of those years. Finishing the season 312-of-542 for 3,610 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, the Ravens lost in the AFC Championship Round to the Patriots in heartbreaking fashion after kicker Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field goal attempt. 

2012 season: En route to winning Super Bowl XLVII and Super Bowl MVP, Flacco was 317-of-531 for 3,817 yards, 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Mounting one of the most memorable playoff runs ever, the QB was 73-of-126 for 1,140 yards and a 117.2 QB rating, becoming the second QB in NFL postseason history to throw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. In what will reportedly now be his new home, Flacco had one of the most memorable moments of his career in the 'Mile High Miracle.'

2013 season: In 16 games, Flacco set career-highs in attempts (614) and completions (362) and became the first player in franchise history to throw for 20,000 yards. 

2014 season: Flacco started all 16 games for the seventh-consecutive season and set career-highs in passing yards (3,986) and touchdown passes (27). He became the first QB in NFL history to reach the postseason in six of his first seven years, with the Ravens offense setting a franchise single-season record in yards and points-scored, ranking eighth in the league. 

2015 season: Throwing for 2,791 yards and 14 touchdowns in the first ten games, Flacco sustained a season-ending knee injury against the then St. Louis Rams. The injury brought an end to his 122-consecutive regular season start streak, the sixth longest in NFL history entering 2018.

2016 season: Flacco threw for a single-season franchise record 4,317 yards in 2016 and set career highs in attempts (672), completions (436) and completion percentage (64.9). He also posted four 300-yard passing games and 20 touchdowns, including a career-long 95-yarder to wide receiver Mike Wallace Week 9 against the Steelers.

2017 season: Flacco's 3,141 yards and 18 touchdowns helped the Ravens have the ninth ranked points per game offense (29.4). Their postseason hopes came to a dramatic end with seconds to spare Week 17 against the Bengals.

2018 season: Flacco was 232-of-379 for 2,465 yards and 12 touchdowns before injuring his hip Week 9 against the Steelers. The QB would go on to miss four games before losing the starting job to rookie Lamar Jackson. 

February 13, 2019: The Ravens reportedly agree to trade Flacco to the Broncos in exchange for a fourth-round pick. 

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