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Pro Picks: Patriots to repeat December romp

Pro Picks: Patriots to repeat December romp

Bill Belichick insists the rematch of a December game with the Texans will be different.

Not too much different, of course, because he fully expects his Patriots to win the divisional-round playoff game and advance to the AFC title match.

As for another 42-14 outcome, New England's coach is having none of it.

``The plays will match up differently and I'm sure there will be new plays that weren't in that game,'' Belichick said. ``I don't think you can overanalyze that game. We're playing a team, we have our team, they have their team and it's a big picture thing.''

The big picture is that the AFC East champion Patriots (12-4) come off their playoff bye as 9 1/2-point favorites against the AFC South winners. Houston (13-4) beat Cincinnati 19-13 in the wild-card round, not looking particularly overwhelming.

It's pretty simple what the Texans must do at the outset Sunday: stay close. They fell behind so quickly on Dec. 10 that the outcome was decided after one quarter.

``We know that our effort and how we performed last time wouldn't give us a chance against anybody on the road,'' coach Gary Kubiak said. ``It's about right now refocusing on all the things we have to do to go down there and have a chance to be successful, and I'm sure that's what they're thinking about.''

It won't be as bad as 42-14, but ...

BEST BET: PATRIOTS, 41-14.

Green Bay (plus 3) at San Francisco

The Packers have no fear about going on the road in the postseason. A similar crew to this year's group won three away games two years ago, then beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.

And the NFC North champion Packers who the West-winning 49ers face Saturday night have gotten healthier as the playoffs approached. They have a decent running game to go with that deep receiving corps Aaron Rodgers throws to.

But Green Bay has two significant questions:

-Can the spotty offensive line neutralize one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushes, something it couldn't do in the season opener?

-Can a defense that has been gorged on the ground at times slow down the league's fourth-best rushing attack, led by Frank Gore.

The Niners also have some uncertainties, notably how second-year QB Colin Kaepernick will handle the playoff pressure for the first time. They do have a secondary that matches up well with Green Bay's receivers.

The Pack has been through this before and succeeded. Why not again?

UPSET SPECIAL: PACKERS, 30-27

Baltimore (plus 9 1/2) at Denver

For the Ray Lewis Tribute Tour to keep rolling, the Ravens must beat Peyton Manning and the NFL's hottest team, the AFC West champion Broncos. In the Mile High City.

It's a lot more imposing a task than the AFC North champ Ravens faced at home against the Colts.

``There's probably an element that we'll carry forward because you're always building on what you are,'' coach John Harbaugh said. ``Hopefully we take all the things that happened and we take it into that game emotionally and carry it with us. But this is a new game. It's a whole new environment. It's a whole new situation for us. So I think the slate is wiped clean in that sense. This will be a new challenge for us.''

Too big a challenge.

BRONCOS, 27-20

Seattle (plus 3) at Atlanta

Seattle has become the fashionable choice, the outsider that could emulate the Giants of last season, the Packers of the previous year, and so on.

The Falcons, meanwhile, have been stamped by many as the shaky favorite because of an 0-3 postseason record under Mike Smith. There's also the feeling that no team fears going into the Georgia Dome, and with the Seahawks having erased their road woes in the last month or so, they are a formidable foe.

Still, these Falcons are better than the previous three playoff editions, and they have the big, physical and versatile receivers to deal with Seattle's big, physical and versatile secondary.

Like the other NFC game, this will be close.

FALCONS, 22-20

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2012 RECORD:

Against spread: 2-2 (114-126-7). Straight up: 3-1 (162-93-1)

Best Bet: 8-8-2 against spread, 12-6 straight up.

Upset special: 11-7 against spread, 9-9 straight up.

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Ravens prepare to head to Kansas City with last year’s gut-punch still in mind

Ravens prepare to head to Kansas City with last year’s gut-punch still in mind

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson remembers last year’s trip to Kansas City. He doesn’t want to. 

In a 27-24 overtime defeat, Jackson suffered the only regular season loss of his career. The two teams never played again, as the Ravens lost in the Wild Card round to the Chargers. 

There’s been significant changes for both teams since then, but Jackson hasn’t forgotten the feeling he left Kansas City with. 

“It’s still with me right now,” Jackson explained. “It doesn’t go away until I get that opportunity again and perform very well.”

Last year, Jackson was in his fourth start in the NFL when the Ravens went into Arrowhead Stadium and nearly knocked off the AFC’s top seed. 

This year, the Ravens have no good feelings about how that game went, despite the development that aided a young roster. 

“That was a big-time game, kind of a nail-biter game,” Mark Andrews said. “A lot of guys kind of grew up in that game. I think Lamar [Jackson] being able to play a tight game like that was big for his growth. It’s one of those games that I don’t think a lot of people have forgotten to this day.”

As for changes that can be taken from the game, there’s not much benefit to that. 

The Chiefs have multiple new starters on their defense compared to last year and a new defensive coordinator. Tyreek Hill won’t be in this year’s iteration of the game due to a shoulder injury, but they’ve replaced him with other incredibly talented and speedy wideouts. 

And there’s reason to believe that, at least through two weeks, Patrick Mahomes might even be better than he was a year ago.

“Our guys have been in the stadium,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’ve been in that tiny little locker room before. They’ve been on that field. They’ve stayed in that hotel. All of those things are pluses. We played a good game, but we didn’t win. That’s motivation also.”

Last season’s loss wasn’t just a typical loss, either. 

Baltimore entered at 7-5 and were in a chase for a playoff spot. And with just under five minutes left, its chances looked good. 

But Mahomes completed a long, incredible pass on fourth and nine from the his own territory to set the Chiefs up with first down. A few plays later, on another fourth down, the Chiefs converted to tie the game at 24. They later won in overtime 27-24.

Some Ravens won’t admit it, but there’s lessons to be learned in that loss. 

“I think when you’re a young player and you’re in that environment — that hostile, on the road environment — … Kansas City has a great home crowd and they’re extremely loud,” Marshal Yanda said. “So yes, I think that those loud games for young players are important. He should be able to build from that.”

Sunday’s matchup, between two of the league’s top teams, has the potential to be one of the season’s top games once again. The Ravens will undoubtedly take lessons from last year’s wild finish in Kansas City.

They just hope it ends better than last time. 

“They’re a really good team and we want to perform our best,” Matt Skura said. “We know they went far in the playoffs last year and this year they obviously want to make a run. We want to show people that our offense, and our offensive line, can handle the so-called powerhouse of the Kansas City Chiefs. This is a huge game for us and we want to showcase our best abilities.”

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Two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks — Lamar Jackson and Pat Mahomes — set to square off in week three

Two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks — Lamar Jackson and Pat Mahomes — set to square off in week three

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Sunday’s game between the Ravens and Chiefs is much more than just a matchup of two 2-0 teams. 

It’s a rematch of last year’s Week 14 thriller, a 27-24 Chiefs overtime win. It’s a game with one of the league’s best secondary’s pitted against one of the league’s best receiving corps. Ravens coach John Harbaugh once answered to Chiefs coach Andy Reid on the sidelines in Philadelphia.

But in a lot of ways, fair or unfair, this Sunday’s game is being billed as Lamar Jackson versus Patrick Mahomes.

Jackson, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s Ravens vs. the Chiefs,” Jackson said. “I don’t really look at it like I’m competing against him. I’m competing against their defense if anything. I depend on my defense to do a great job of stopping him. It’s my job to score points.”

Still, the comparisons between Mahomes and Jackson aren’t hard to find.

Mahomes is in his third year in the NFL, his second as a starter, and is the league’s reigning MVP. Jackson is in his second year, his first full season as a starter. 

Jackson won AFC Player of the Week in Week 1; Mahomes won in Week 2. Jackson has thrown for seven touchdowns and zero interceptions through two games. Mahomes has the same statistics. Mahomes has 822 total yards on the year. Jackson has 722. 

The respect is there from Jackson, who said Mahomes is on the way to becoming a quarterback like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. 

“He’s on his way,” Jackson said. “Those guys have Super Bowls. He’s a dynamic quarterback. It’s his third year and he’s been doing a tremendous job. [He’s a] former MVP. I just can’t wait to compete against him again.”

Both quarterbacks can make plays off-script, albeit in different ways. 

Mahomes can run from sideline-to-sideline and throw the ball across the field. He’s thrown no-look passes and is incredibly dangerous outside of the pocket. 

“You keep him in the pocket as much as you can,” coach John Harbaugh said of Mahomes. “You make him throw under pressure as much as you can. You cover the guys as well as you can. Then, you play football. That’s what you try to do. If he throws one up down the middle again, hopefully, we’ll get it this time.”

Jackson is just as dangerous outside the pocket, but because he can escape the pocket and forces defenses to commit to his running ability. His speed was a problem for the Cardinals last Sunday, who allowed him to rush for 120 yards. 

“The coordinators and the quarterbacks coaches, they’ve opened the gates for him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said on Jackson. “They’re doing a million different things, and he’s doing it well, and it looks like he’s loving doing it.”

Both quarterbacks have made a living by playing off-script and unexpected, whether or not their playing styles are similar. 

It’s why both teams will spend this Sunday trying to get the ball back in their own quarterback’s hands.

“I think he can continue doing what he’s been doing,” Earl Thomas said. “He’s been very consistent. He’s basically like the big energy ball we need. Whatever he’s doing, if he’s running the ball, if he’s passing, he’s making it happen for us. Us on defense, we just try to keep getting him the ball.”

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