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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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If Steelers fans are allowed into Heinz Field this season, they'll have to wear a mask

If Steelers fans are allowed into Heinz Field this season, they'll have to wear a mask

If fans are permitted to attend Pittsburgh Steelers home games this fall, there's one item they can't forget: a mask.

Steelers' director of communication, Burt Lauten, explained the decision to require fans to wear a mask in a statement on Tuesday.

"Our goal is to still have fans at Heinz Field this year with the understanding that social distancing, as well as all fans being required to wear masks, will play a role in the capacity to ensure a safe atmosphere," Lauten said, via ESPN. "We will continue to work with the NFL and public health officials to finalize plans for fans to attend our home games."

Pittsburgh was one of the first franchises to alter its ticketing plans this season, as they decided in May to trim half of their individual game ticket sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The news comes just hours after their AFC North rival, the Baltimore Ravens, announced that M&T Bank Stadium will be capped at less than 14,000 fans this fall, should fans be allowed to attend games.

RELATED: NFL PROPOSED PAY CUT FOR PLAYERS

In June, The Athletic reported that the NFL will not place a limit on capacity at games, allowing each individual team to make the decision themselves.

"Attendance will be a state-by-state, county-by-county thing," an anonymous NFL source told The Athletic. "It will not be a one size fits all."

Additionally, the NFL has said that the first 6-8 rows of lower bowl sections, including field-level suites, will be blocked off this fall to help slow the spread of the virus. Those sections will be covered with tarps, which teams can use to sell advertising, similarly to what the Premier League in England has done.

With training camp still a few weeks away, there are a lot of virus-related questions the NFL must answer beforehand.

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Stephen A. Smith and ESPN poll leave Lamar Jackson out of top four quarterbacks

Stephen A. Smith and ESPN poll leave Lamar Jackson out of top four quarterbacks

Despite his 2019 MVP season, many NFL experts still aren’t convinced that Lamar Jackson is the league’s best.

In a debate with Domonique Foxworth on ESPN’s First Take on Monday, Stephen A. Smith shared his top-five quarterbacks in the NFL, slotting the reigning MVP fifth overall. 

Two days later, ESPN released a poll conducted with 50 NFL personnel to rank the top 10 quarterbacks in the league this season. Jackson was ranked sixth behind Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Drew Brees.

But after the record-breaking season the Ravens quarterback had –– a performance that earned him the league’s top individual honor –– how can so many still doubt his ability to succeed?

Smith cited two faults of Jackson’s game to justify his claim –– passing inability and playoff performance.

“There was a guy that ran the football very, very effectively, matter of fact as a quarterback led the team to have one if not the top-rated run attacks in football,” Smith said. “That would happen to be Tim Tebow when he was with the Denver Broncos. But what did I repeatedly say about my friend? He couldn’t throw the football at the NFL level. I never believed it, and that was a problem.”

Smith referenced Tebow’s rise and fall in the NFL and credited his inability to find longevity as a starting quarterback to his inconsistent and inaccurate arm –– something Jackson similarly struggles with.

RELATED: CHRIS SIMMS RANKS LAMAR JACKSON FIFTH

The Ravens led the league in rushing offense and ranked second in total offense but earned just the 27th spot in passing offense. Jackson ranked eighth in completion percentage among all quarterbacks but first in rushing yards and sixth in rushing yards among all players. For Smith, this discrepancy does not warrant Jackson a top-two quarterback spot.

“No one can run the football like Lamar Jackson. Nobody,” Smith said. “Not at the quarterback position in the NFL. We know that. That’s just on another level. But in terms of throwing the football, even though he’s had his moments, and he definitely improved in accuracy in terms of completing 66 percent of his passes last season, I don’t think he can throw the football like Deshaun Watson.”

Smith referenced Watson and a number of other quarterbacks higher on his list like Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees and praised their accuracy, leadership and veteran play, which earned them the spots ahead of Jackson.

In addition to the issues with Jackson’s arm, Smith also believed his playoff performance holds him back. Jackson posted an 0-2 record in his first two playoff performances, falling to the Chargers in 2018 and the Titans in 2019. 

Overall in his career, he completes 63.7% of his passes and posts a 4.66 TD/INT ratio. On the other hand, during the playoffs, he completed 51.1% of his passes and posted a 1.0 TD/INT ratio.

As Smith noted while he did improve from a 48% completion rate to 52% in the playoffs this year, he will not reach an elite level of play until he can perform in the postseason.

While Smith was certainly skeptical of Jackson’s ability to succeed in the league long-term, he still understood the hype.

“I’ll tell you this though, he is top-two box office. He might even be number one.”

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