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Rested Bengals placed in prime playoff position

Rested Bengals placed in prime playoff position

CINCINNATI (AP) The Bengals returned from their weekend off with a big bounce in their playoff chances.

While they rested from their 34-13 win in Philadelphia on Thursday night, the Bengals (8-6) moved into position to get the second AFC wild card spot. Pittsburgh (7-7) slipped a game behind with its overtime loss in Dallas.

If they win out, the Bengals would make the postseason, something that seemed highly unlikely at midseason when they slogged through a four-game losing streak.

There's also a chance they could win the AFC North, although they need help. Baltimore (9-7) lost its third straight game over the weekend, taking the division title down to the last two weeks.

The Bengals finish with games at Pittsburgh and at home against Baltimore. The one next week could go a long way in deciding their playoff fate. If the Steelers win, the Bengals would have an identical record with Pittsburgh, but the Steelers would have the head-to-head tiebreaker because it would have swept the season series.

If they win the last two games, the Bengals would achieve a few noteworthy franchise breakthroughs. Cincinnati, after all, has gone to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons only once in a 44-year history. The 1981 team reached the Super Bowl and returned to the playoffs the next season.

The Bengals would also end their recent futility against the AFC North's top teams. The Bengals are 0-6 against the Steelers and Ravens over the last two seasons.

Cincinnati has lost a combined 10 straight games to the Steelers and Ravens, dating back to the 2009 season when the Bengals won their last division title. Last season, they reached the playoffs as a wild card team.

``We really haven't done anything yet,'' safety Chris Crocker said on Monday. ``I'm not going to say this is a defining moment because we play these guys twice a year. But this is very big, especially at the end of the season.

``We're picking up momentum. These teams are postseason teams every year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always in the postseason and they always go deep, so it's important for us to play well against them now in order to go in with some momentum if we do make the postseason.''

Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati 24-17 on Oct. 21 at Paul Brown Stadium, a game that the Bengals let slip away. They jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, but managed just 105 yards of offense after going 80 yards on 15 plays to score a touchdown on the opening possession.

Quarterback Andy Dalton is 0-6 in his career against the Steelers and Ravens. He's completed less than 50 percent of his passes (40 of 82) against Pittsburgh and has never thrown for more than 170 yards in his three games.

Cincinnati has managed just 38 first downs against Pittsburgh with Dalton as the starting quarterback.

``It's us taking care of our business,'' right tackle Andre Smith said. ``They have a great defense and they're going to play their game and wait for people to mess up. It's up to us to go out there and compete and execute every single play.''

This will be the fifth time during coach Marvin Lewis' 10 seasons in Cincinnati that the teams have played in Week 12 or later with playoff ramifications on the line for the Bengals. Three of those previous four games were also at Heinz Field.

Cincinnati won on the road 24-20 in 2003 on Jon Kitna's late pass to Matt Schobel. The Bengals finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

They won again at Heinz Field in 2005, a 38-31 victory that put them in position to clinch the division title two weeks later. The Bengals then lost to the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs at Paul Brown Stadium, with Carson Palmer getting a torn knee on his first pass attempt.

Pittsburgh denied the Bengals a playoff berth in 2006 with a 23-17 overtime win at Paul Brown Stadium in the final game of the regular season.

Last season at Heinz Field, the Steelers routed the Bengals 35-7. Despite the loss, the Bengals still earned the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.

``They've been there, done that and played in many big games,'' Crocker said. ``We have to win this game.

``I don't know where we are if we don't win this game.''

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Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen face off at crossroads of past and future of NFL

Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen face off at crossroads of past and future of NFL

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Hayden Hurst had just been picked 25th overall by the Ravens in the 2018 NFL Draft when he left his living room to do some interviews, customary for a team’s top draft choice.

When he returned and looked at his TV, he was teammates with Lamar Jackson.

Hurst, who wasn’t as high-profile of a selection as his future quarterback, knew about Jackson’s story — as every college football player did — before they even became teammates.

“As soon as I saw that I was like, ‘Man that’s so cool,’” Hurst recalled. “You see Lamar in college, the Heisman Trophy winner, the things that he did in college, you’re like, ‘To be on the field with that guy is going to be pretty special.’”

Jackson’s journey to the NFL didn’t end that night, however, as the 2018 NFL Draft gave a special look at the ways that different organizations value quarterbacks, and specifically what characteristics they find valuable when investing in young talent. 

Jackson was selected by the Ravens 32nd overall after he declared for the draft and forewent his senior season.

Earlier in the first round the Bills also traded up to seventh overall, for a quarterback. It was for Wyoming’s Josh Allen.

Allen was, in many ways, the complete opposite from Jackson: He’s 6-foot-5, was a more traditional pocket passer, had played in a pro style offense and has a cannon for an arm.

In the minds of many, Allen fit what a quarterback was supposed to look like, even as a new age of quarterbacks trickled into the league.

Their college careers, however, couldn’t have been more different.

At Louisville, Jackson averaged 346.7 total yards and just over three touchdowns per game as he ran roughshod throughout the country, leading Louisville to as high as the No. 3 ranking the national polls in 2016.

Allen started two full seasons at Wyoming and while he had a promising junior year, his interception totals always were a bit higher than desirable and his completion percentage never eclipsed 57 percent. He was selected to the Mountain West Conference honorable mention team in his senior year.

It was Allen’s physical traits, however, that put him at the top of draft boards. 

Jackson’s skillset, while new and exciting, wasn’t something NFL front offices were used to picking high up in the draft for. Allen, a pocket-passing quarterback with a game-changing arm, was familiar.

“It’s like the guy who has dated the girl for 10 years,” Robert Griffin III said. “Yeah, maybe that’s not the right girl for him, maybe that’s not his soulmate. But he’s comfortable. He’s comfortable with that person, so he stays. A lot of people don’t like change. So some of the scouts and GMs and organizations get used to these certain ways of doing things.”

And as Jackson’s career turned professional, questions persisted about Jackson’s long-term viability in the NFL. Some said he should change positions (which has sparked many a t-shirt from the Ravens players about his “potential” at running back), others questioned just how translatable his stats were to the NFL.

“He was the best player in college football,” Hurst said. “The year he didn’t win the Heisman, his stats were even better than when he did win the Heisman. So it’s crazy how that stuff works. When he was in college, he was the best player in the country. The stuff that he did was just remarkable.”

Most of the NFL, including the Ravens, passed on the opportunity to take Jackson in the first round. In fact, the Ravens traded back twice from 16 to 22, and then from 22 to 25, before selecting Hurst. Finally, they traded up into the first round to select Jackson. 

While the Ravens certainly weren’t the only team interested in Jackson’s skillset, they were the most aggressive. And through nearly two seasons, the move has been a home run.

Jackson is just 63 yards away from breaking Michael Vick’s single season rushing record for a quarterback of 1,039 yards. 

He’s second in the NFL in touchdown passes (25) and is on-pace for 3,376 yards passing, 33 passing touchdowns, seven interceptions and a completion percentage of 66.5 percent. He’s also on-pace for 1,303 yards on the ground with nine touchdowns. 

That would mean he’d end the year with 4,679 total yards, 42 touchdowns and eight turnovers. 

So while Jackson’s season might change perceptions about mobile quarterbacks, there aren’t many athletes that replicate what Jackson does on the field.

“I think it changes a little bit, but at the same time, there’s no one else that’s like Lamar,” Mark Andrews, a 2018 Ravens draft pick, said. “There’s no one that’s going to be able to replicate what he’s being able to do.” 

And the problem with finding a replica Lamar Jackson is simply that they don’t exist.

In a twist, Allen has become an efficient runner in the NFL — not to the extent of Jackson — but has been able to extend plays with his legs more than he did at Wyoming.

Allen has rushed for 35.8 yards per game this year, slightly behind his 52.6 yard pace from last season.

His passing numbers have improved as well, as his completion percentage has broken 60 percent and his touchdown-to-interception ratio has improved to 2:1.

But while Allen, Jackson and the class of 2018 will forever be linked, Jackson doesn’t keep tabs on how his draft counterparts are faring across the league. 

“I’m focused on what we have going on, what we have in front of us,” Jackson said. “I focus on myself and my teammates. I don’t really care about what other people have going on, to be honest.”

So while Jackson downplays the 2018 draft and his impact on the league at-large, the decision to pass on Jackson — for any reason — is one that’s making teams reconsider what they missed. 

And those decisions have left Jackson, whether or not he’ll admit it publicly, motivated to prove people wrong.

“I’m not going to put words in his mouth, but I can only imagine that it would,” Hurst said. “If I was in that situation, I know that it’d fire me up quite a bit. He’s not super vocal about stuff like that, he just goes about his business quietly, but I’m sure it definitely fuels his fire a little bit. Hey, I’m all for it because he’s playing his [expletive] off right now.”

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Lamar Jackson ‘honored’ at the chance to break Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record on Sunday

Lamar Jackson ‘honored’ at the chance to break Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record on Sunday

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson didn’t grow up watching Michael Vick play football in Atlanta. He was too young. 

That didn't stop Jackson, born when Vick had just finished his sophomore year of high school, from studying Vick's highlight tapes as a kid.

Now, on Sunday in Buffalo, Jackson has the chance to put his name in the record books ahead of his favorite player with the most impressive season a quarterback has ever had on the ground. 

With just 63 yards rushing, Jackson would rank first all-time for rushing yards by a quarterback in a season. The record, as of Thursday, is held by Vick with 1,039 yards rushing. Vick set the record in 2006 with the Falcons.

“It would be an honor,” Jackson said. “Like I said, Michael Vick is my favorite player. For me to do such a thing, it’s incredible. He had that record for a long time, and it will be pretty cool. But I’m focused on the win, regardless.”

Jackson has led the NFL’s most dynamic offense through the first 12 games with a mix of rushing and passing that’s kept defenses on their heels. He ranks ninth in the NFL with 977 yards, which is more than five teams have as a whole.

Currently, Jackson has rushed for 1,672 yards in 28 games in his NFL career, good for 44th all-time. 

Over a 16-game season, he’s on pace for 1,302 yards on the ground, which would shatter Vick’s old record and put Jackson in another stratosphere compared to some of the best mobile quarterbacks the league has ever seen. 

Should he finish with 1,302 yards this year, he’ll be at 1,997 yards through his first two NFL seasons. That would put him 32nd all-time and about 500 yards away from cracking the top 20. 

So as Jackson adds to his place in history in the long term, there’s a significant record to break in the short-term, too.

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