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Pats work on kick coverage, defense late in half

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Pats work on kick coverage, defense late in half

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) It's a bad time for the New England Patriots to allow points late in halves and long kickoff returns throughout the game.

Fix that fast or the Baltimore Ravens and speedster Jacoby Jones could run them right out of the postseason.

The Patriots advanced to Sunday's AFC championship game with a 41-28 win over the Houston Texans despite giving up kickoff returns of 94 and 69 yards - the longest against them this season. They won even though they allowed 10 points in the last 1:15 of the first half and 15 points in the last 12 minutes of the game.

The Ravens moved on with a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos after Jones caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco with 31 seconds left in regulation.

That's the same Jones who led the NFL in average kickoff return yardage (30.7) and brought back two of them for touchdowns. Yep, the same guy who drew a defensive pass interference call at the Patriots' 7-yard line in Week 3, setting up Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal on the final play. Baltimore (12-6) won that game, 31-30.

New England (13-4) can't afford another loss.

So coach Bill Belichick is emphasizing, as he does every week, the need to stop kickoff returners and keep teams from scoring with time running out in either half.

``We always think that the end of the half can get a little different than the rest of the game because of situational play,'' he said Tuesday. ``Also, sometimes offensively, teams change their method of attack and what they're doing and how they're doing it and that kind of thing. So you have to adapt and adjust to what they do.

``We have to do what we're doing better. It's definitely a point of emphasis and I'm sure it will be important in this game. We'll definitely work on it.''

The problem is one of poor execution rather than a lack of effort, Belichick said.

``We were trying to do the right things and we did some things that were good, but then we did some other things that weren't as good as they need to be,'' he said. ``Houston was able to take advantage of some of the things we were doing.''

The same problem of late scores surfaced in two of the Patriots four losses.

They led the Ravens 30-21 on Sept. 23 then allowed 10 points in the last five minutes. Three weeks later, they led the Seattle Seahawks 23-10 then gave up two touchdowns in the last 7 1/2 minutes and lost 24-23.

The Patriots won their next seven games before the twin troubles came together in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Patriots had rallied from a 31-3 deficit to tie the game at 31 with 6:43 left in the game.

But LaMichael James returned the kickoff 62 yards, Colin Kaepernick threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the next play and the Patriots couldn't recover.

``We face good returners every week,'' Belichick said. ``It's always a huge point of emphasis for us but it will continue to be. (You) just can't put a team in that kind of field position consistently and that's what we did (against Houston).''

Those long runbacks against the Patriots are rare. They allowed the third fewest average yards (20.5) on kickoff returns this season. But against Houston, they gave up a 35-yarder along with the 94- and 69-yard runbacks, all by Danieal Manning. Those led to 17 points.

``Overall, that's been probably as consistent as anything we've done as a football team for the entire season,'' Belichick said. ``Of course, it's disappointing. Those are plays that you don't want to happen, certainly not three of them in one game.''

But the Patriots are confident they can recover in time for the game that stands between them and a second straight Super Bowl appearance.

``It's very important,'' unusually subdued special teams captain Matthew Slater said. ``We know we need to perform better. We can't put our defense in bad situations. ... We've got to prepare for Jacoby and we know how good he is and what he's capable of.

``So I'm confident we'll have it fixed.''

How, at this late stage in the season, can the Patriots do that?

``You go back to the basics,'' Slater said. ``Go back to the fundamentals and the rules that we have as coverage players, just doing our job better and doing our assignments better. It's been a strength for us this season.''

That season is more likely to end if they keep giving up long kickoff returns and late-game points. The Patriots would prefer to finish games the way they did in last year's 23-20 win over the Ravens for the AFC championship on the same field where they'll meet Sunday.

Baltimore took the ball at its 21-yard line with 1:44 left and made it all the way to a second-and-1 at the New England 14 with 27 seconds remaining. A field goal would tie the game. But the Patriots met the challenge as Sterling Moore broke up two passes before Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.

``There's a good history of the two teams playing against each other,'' New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. ``You're going to try to analyze all that and take a look at it and see what you can come up with that will hopefully help put you in a successful situation for the weekend.''

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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 were seen plundering his locker Wednesday in front of reporters. 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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