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Regular season winners don't always make champions

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Regular season winners don't always make champions

DENVER (AP) The Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, who tied for the league's best record at 13-3, are well aware of one of the NFL's biggest truisms: more often than not, the regular season is for suckers.

Over the last decade, just two of the 13 teams that had the best regular season record - or tied for the best mark - went on to win the Super Bowl: the `02 Buccaneers and the `03 Patriots.

The last eight teams to enter the playoffs with the best record bowed out before they could put their fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy and revel in a rain of confetti.

Both the Broncos and Falcons are promising to practice like champions this week and not allow rest and relaxation to turn into rust and ruin.

In the last seven seasons, three No. 6 seeds and a No. 4 seed ended up winning it all, giving hope to the likes of the Ravens, Redskins, Bengals and Vikings in this year's playoff pool.

A year ago, the Green Bay Packers rested their regulars in the season finale and they lost their edge, becoming the first 15-1 team to lose its first playoff game - to a New York Giants team that was 7-7 in mid-December and went on to win it all.

``That's kind of what it was for us when I was in Indy,'' Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley said of the `05 Colts, who went 14-2 but lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional round. ``We kind of rested the last week, then we had a bye. It's too much. So, I like just grinding every week, just playing football.''

That's exactly what Peyton Manning's new team did, securing the AFC's top seed Sunday with its 11th straight win.

Along with the Falcons, Patriots and 49ers, the Broncos get a break this week, one that can prove a pitfall as much as a profit.

``We've just got to practice like we're playing this week,'' Denver receiver Eric Decker said.

While the Broncos stormed into the playoffs, the Falcons, who already had the NFC's top seed secured, didn't gain any momentum Sunday, losing to Tampa Bay.

``Before this game was played, we were the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, at the end of the game, nothing has changed,'' Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez reasoned. ``We're a very good team; we'll just use this as a wake-up call.''

Says another Atlanta veteran, Asante Samuel: ``We're going to practice like champs. And we're going to play like champs from now on.''

So will the Broncos. Coach John Fox is using the bye week to stay sharp, calling for short, crisp practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and a mandatory weightlifting session Saturday, mainly to keep the team ``focused, not concerned with flights to other states and those type of things, especially close states.''

Like Nevada, where oddsmakers have made the Broncos the favorite to win the Super Bowl.

Of course, the Packers were in this position last year.

It's not just the NFL where the season's best team usually falters in the playoffs.

In the last 10 seasons, only two teams in each of the other major pro sports leagues parlayed the best regular-season record into a championship, according to STATS, LLC. They were: the 2007 Red Sox and the `09 Yankees, the 2002-03 Spurs and the `07-08 Celtics and the Red Wings in 2001-02 and `07-08.

Since the first Super Bowl, the team with the best regular-season record has won just 21 of 46 championships, or 46 percent, which is more than in the NHL (42 percent), NBA (41 percent) and MLB (28 percent), according to STATS.

``Everyone wants to have the best record, win the division and play at home for the playoffs, but in my opinion, the team that is playing the best has the best opportunity,'' said NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, a former MVP and Super Bowl champion. ``This game is always about confidence and momentum. If you have it, you're tough to beat, nobody wants to play you and it gives you a distinct advantage. It starts in the regular season and you want to be playing well down the stretch.''

With that in mind, here's how the dozen playoff teams rank from hottest to coolest:

1. Broncos (13-3) - They haven't lost since a 31-21 setback at New England on Oct. 7, before Manning got his bearings and found a comfort zone with his new teammates.

2. Redskins (10-6) - They've won seven straight games since coach Mike Shanahan's comments about playing for next year (well, it is 2013 now!) after a loss to Carolina on Nov. 4 dropped them to 3-6.

3. Patriots (12-4) - Their only loss in their last 10 games was to San Francisco two weeks ago that snapped their 21-game home winning streak in December. Even in defeat, Tom Brady was spectacular as New England nearly became the first team since 1980 to win a game after trailing by 28.

4. Seahawks (11-5) - Forget the ``Fail Mary'' touchdown/touchback ending that gave Seattle a disputed win over the Packers in Week 3 and hastened the return of the regular officials. The real robbery was the selection of QB Russell Wilson in the third round of the draft. He's guided them to five straight wins.

5. Bengals (10-6) - Cincinnati matched the best finish in club history, winning seven of its last eight games behind Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, who will now try to secure the Bengals' first playoff win since 1990.

6. Colts (11-5) - Indy won nine of its last 11 despite a soft defense, rallying around assistant coach Bruce Arians, who took over while coach Chuck Pagano was treated for leukemia. Pagano is back and the Colts have gotten over their breakup with Manning and moved on with rookie Andrew Luck.

7. Packers (11-5) - Green Bay won nine of its last 11 but couldn't close out the season with a win at Minnesota that would have ensured them a first-round bye. Maybe that's a good thing for a team that won it all as a wild card two years ago.

8. Vikings (10-6) - Although Adrian Peterson came up just short of breaking Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record, he carried the Vikings into the playoffs with wins in their last four games.

9. 49ers (11-4-1) - San Francisco lost to division rivals St. Louis and Seattle in December, but Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree put the 49ers into the playoffs with some much-needed momentum with dazzling performances in a win over Arizona on Sunday.

10. Falcons (13-3) - Atlanta lost two of its last four, but they didn't rest their regulars Sunday, when they lost to the Buccaneers and also lost two key defensive players to injuries in pass-rusher John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson.

11. Ravens (10-6) - Baltimore lost four of its last five and changed offensive coordinators in December. The Ravens used their regular-season finale at Cincy to rest their regulars, sitting banged-up playmakers Anquan Boldin, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs while pulling Joe Flacco and Ray Rice after only two series.

12. Texans (12-4) - For much of the year, they were the NFL's darlings behind J.J. Watt, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, but they caved in December, losing three of their last four and falling from the top seed in the AFC to the third. Instead of a bye week to rest up, they get a short week to play Cincinnati.

All of this isn't to say the hottest team will be crowed champion or the coolest one has no shot.

``I think there are a lot of formulas,'' Fox said. ``If you look at history, there are plenty of different scenarios. At the end of the day, you want to be playing your best football in January so you can get to February. That's really the only formula I know that's 100 percent.''

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

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AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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Follow Arnie Stapleton on Twitter:http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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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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2019 NFL Mock Draft Ravens Roundup: Finding Jackson a wide receiver top choice among experts

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2019 NFL Mock Draft Ravens Roundup: Finding Jackson a wide receiver top choice among experts

It's the middle of February, we have been left football-less for almost two full weeks and we've got the 2019 NFL Draft on our brains. 

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray has taken over the headlines after officially choosing the NFL over the major leagues, but for the Baltimore Ravens Murray won't be on their draft board.

The new league year is just about a month away, the Ravens are reportedly trading Joe Flacco to the Broncos for a fourth-round pick and free agency will further cement the team's outlook with new general manager Eric DeCosta leading the charge.

But who are experts predicting the Ravens take at No. 22? We've rounded up some of the top choices.

NBC Sports Washington's Ben Standig: DE Brian Burns, Florida State

If 16-year veteran Terrell Suggs and the Ravens don't come to agreement on a new contract, there will be a gapping hole in the Ravens' defense that Burns could fill. 

Over the last two seasons, he's totaled 29 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. 

Bleacher Report and ESPN's Todd McShay: WR D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss

It seems that Baltimore is always in need of a wide receiver. John Brown played 2018 on a one-year deal, and the Ravens could clear up $8.66 million is cap space by cutting Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead. 

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller makes the case for why Metcalf, who clearly doesn't miss a gym session, could help Lamar Jackson become an accurate NFL passer.

One of the keys to helping a quarterback without great accuracy is to give him speed to stretch the field vertically or size with an extended catch radius. Metcalf (6'4", 230 lbs) will give Lamar Jackson that big, long target he needs on the outside to haul in passes that might not hit the mark.

McShay feels the same way.

The Ravens definitely upgraded their receiving a bit this season, but they still lack a real game-changer. Metcalf missed a chunk of time this season with a neck injury, but he’s a big, vertical threat. He’d give Lamar Jackson a reliable option, especially in the red zone.

NFL.com: S Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State

If the Ravens part ways with safety Eric Weddle this offseason, Abram could certainly come into play.

Listed as a "Hard-hitting, instinctive safety who has a nose for the football' on his Mississippi State bio, Abram finished his career with 170 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five sacks, three fumbles forced and two interceptions in two seasons.

CBS Sports: WR Marquise Brown, Oklahoma

CBS Sports' Will Brinson is another one who thinks adding a wide receiver could greatly help Jackson.

While at Oklahoma, Brown had back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons, scoring 10 touchdowns in 2018 alone. 

Sporting News: WR Kelvin Harmon, N.C. State

Another wide receiver added into the mix, Sporting News' Vinnie Iyer describes the 6-3, 214 pound Harmon as a "savvy route-runner and blocker, bringing the kind of the tough makeup the Ravens have loved."

SB Nation: RB Josh Jacobs, Alabama 

The Ravens found great success with undrafted free agent Gus Edwards down the stretch of the season, but could need running back options with Ty Montgomery and Javorius 'Buck' Allen becoming unrestricted free agents and Alex Collins a restricted free agent.  

In 2018, Jacobs rushed 120 times for 620 yards averaging 5.3 yard-per-carry and 11 touchdowns. 

Draft Wire: WR N’Keal Harry, Arizona State

Harry posted back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons in 2018 and 2017. Standing at 6-4, whether or not he's athletic enough to be a first-round pick is still up for debate

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