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Rodgers and Flacco the wild-card rarities

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Rodgers and Flacco the wild-card rarities

Aaron Rodgers has won a Super Bowl and an MVP award. Joe Flacco has been to the playoffs in all five of his pro seasons.

They will be the rarities this weekend when three rookie quarterbacks, two in their second NFL seasons, and one veteran who has yet to appear in the postseason will lead the other teams in the wild-card round.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is a fan of the trend toward younger quarterbacks.

``I think it's really exciting and the guys have done great,'' Carroll said. ``They really have against all of the odds and history and stuff they've just been amazing to take their teams into the playoffs.

``It's a very exciting time for the league knowing there are other guys out there who are going to come up in the next couple of years, and there are stars in the making in the college ranks, and you don't have to wait years and years for those guys to show up and be a factor. `'

Indeed, those days of letting young quarterbacks watch from the sideline before getting their chance has gone the way of the single wing. Rodgers was the last premier passer to undergo a lengthy apprenticeship, under Brett Favre in Green Bay.

On Saturday night, he leads the Packers against division rival Minnesota and second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. Earlier in the day, Cincinnati and its own second-year signal caller, Andy Dalton, is at Houston. The Texans' Matt Schaub is in his ninth pro season, but this will be his first playoff game.

On Sunday, the inexperience is even more pronounced. Three rookies who have completely belied any rawness - Andrew Luck for Indianapolis, Robert Griffin III for Washington, Russell Wilson for Carroll's Seahawks - will guide their teams in wild-card games.

``You know there's going to be a lot of people talking about playoff football and how it's ratcheted up a notch, which may be true,'' said Flacco, who will become the first quarterback to start a playoff game in his first five NFL seasons in the Super Bowl era. He's also won at least one postseason game each year. ``But the bottom line is, my advice would be go about your business as you always would on a normal week. It's obviously gotten you to the point that you're in the playoffs and playing to get to another week. If it got you that far, then you're obviously doing something right, so you should try to continue that. You shouldn't try anything crazy just because it's playoff time.''

Getting to the playoffs with rookie QBs was a crazy idea for decades. That changed permanently when Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record in 2004, losing in the AFC title game.

Carroll points to even more recent times: 2008.

``I always go back to Flacco and Matt Ryan, those guys, when they jumped in and did really well as rookies, I think that was the start of the big turn,'' he said.

Still, there's never been anything like this season, when Luck, Griffin and Wilson combined for 31 wins, eight more than the previous record total for all rookie QBs in one season, which happened in 2011.

Some credit should go to the coaches who turned over their teams to the kids. Of course, when the Colts grabbed Luck atop the draft and the Redskins traded up to take RG3 at the second spot, it was presumed they would move directly into the lineup.

It took plenty of foresight and not a little courage for Carroll to go with Wilson, particularly after Seattle signed free agent Matt Flynn to a huge deal. But he saw something special in the third-round pick from Wisconsin by way of North Carolina State. And he sees that in all the rookie QBs.

``Maybe this is just the class of classes, too,'' he said. ``Maybe this isn't as much of a trend, but it looks like it's kind of turning. ``

It's not just the rookies who are making their playoff debuts, either. Schaub was injured when the Texans made their first trip to the postseason a year ago and T.J. Yates - yes, a rookie - led them to a victory over Dalton and the Bengals. Houston then lost to Flacco and the Ravens.

``I'm definitely looking forward to it,'' said Schaub, whose Texans have sputtered into the playoffs, dropping three of four to lose a bye. ``But the thing that's going to help us win the game are the same whenever you're playing, wherever you're playing. That's playing smart, clean, good football.''

That's exactly what the youngsters have done in key situations, even Ponder, who at times has looked overwhelmed. But he was solid the last two weeks when the Vikings beat Houston and Green Bay to secure their place in the Super Bowl chase.

``Balancing being conservative, making good decisions and taking chances, that's something you need to continue to learn as a quarterback and growing up,'' Ponder said. ``I think that's the biggest difference for me. `'

No matter how they fare this weekend, it's been a successful two years for young quarterbacks. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan expects it to continue because of the emphasis on passing in college.

``They're throwing the football a little bit more now than they have in the past,'' Shanahan said. ``I think that gives them a big advantage. I think they have the ability to come in and go through OTAs and really learn the system in the offseason. I know 20 years ago, you never had an opportunity like that. Going through a system again, you have a lot of hours in the classroom as a quarterback that you never had 10 years ago, a chance to learn the system. And a lot of these guys are coming out ready to go.''

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AP Sports Writers Tim Booth in Seattle, Howard Fendrich in Washington, and Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this story.

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What lessons the rest of the NFL should, and shouldn’t, take from the league’s top rushing teams

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What lessons the rest of the NFL should, and shouldn’t, take from the league’s top rushing teams

A glance at the NFL over the final two months of the season gave an interesting glimpse where the league was headed. 

The Ravens, the NFL’s best offense, were a predominantly rushing team. They rushed for a league record 3,296 yards in the regular season and were the league’s top regular season team. 

The Titans rode running back Derrick Henry all season, which led to him finishing as the league’s leading rusher. Over the final nine games he rushed for an average of 24.6 carries per game, including 30 or more carries in three of the team’s final four games. 

And most recently, the 49ers won the NFC in dominating fashion over the Packers with just eight passing attempts and 42 rushing attempts. 

With a handful of the league’s best rushing teams advancing in the playoffs, there appeared to be a change in the way teams attacked defenses in the NFL.

But those stats have been a bit misleading for the crowd that wants to establish the run for the sake of establishing a ground attack. What the Ravens and Titans did was make rushing the football more efficient than any other team in the league. 

Baltimore rushed for 5.5 yards per carry in the regular season, half-a-yard more than any other team in the league. They were only one of three teams to surpass the five yard-mark — one other team was the Titans. 

When compared to passing stats across the league, however, none of the qualified quarterbacks had worse than a six-yard average when passing the ball. Speaking strictly from the numbers, passing is still more advantageous than rushing the ball, no matter what teams that advanced far in the playoffs accomplished. 

What the Ravens and Titans do have, however, are two athletes that are unique in the NFL. Lamar Jackson was the league’s best rushing quarterback of all time and Henry led the league in total rushing yards. 

So the Ravens and Titans didn’t reinvent the wheel and show the NFL the ground game was more effective, but instead showed the league to lean into the special talents that both teams had. 

While the Titans were clearly better when Henry had his best days on the ground, there’s not a direct relationship to more Henry touches equaling a better day for the Titans. 

When the Ravens fell behind 14-0 to the Titans, Henry had just seven rushes for 28 yards on the ground. Down the stretch, he rushed 23 more times for 167 yards — a 7.26 yard average. Essentially, the Titans used Henry most effectively when they had already scored the winning points. 

The same can be said for the 49ers in the NFC Championship, who barely used Jimmy Garoppolo's arm. But when Raheem Mostert averages more than seven yards per carry, it’s difficult to get away from the run. 

So while it might seem that simply running the ball got teams to the playoffs, and championship games, it was the fact that they were able to run the ball more efficiently than other teams across the league. Rushing attempts weren’t the reason those teams won, but how they used those rushing attempts instead.

And when Jackson and Henry are leading the charge, it’s hard not to give them the ball.

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Former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees announces retirement

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Former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees announces retirement

Former Ravens and Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees announced his retirement from coaching Monday afternoon, just a day after Tennessee lost in the AFC Championship Game to Kansas City.

Pees, at age 70, had just finished his 47th year of coaching. He had previously been a coordinator for the Titans, Ravens and Patriots at the NFL level. He began coaching at the University of Findlay (OH) in 1979 as a defensive coordinator where he rose through the college ranks. 

Pees was in Baltimore from 2010-2017, where he started as a linebackers coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2012. He won Super Bowl XLVII with the Ravens.

During his time as a coordinator, the Ravens ranked in the top 10 of scoring defenses three times, where he saw franchise greats like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed end their careers.

Pees’ defense in Tennessee this season stiffened down the stretch, as it allowed just 25 total points in the first two playoff games against New England and Baltimore. The Titans lost 35-24 to the Chiefs on Sunday.

In 10 of his 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Pees led his defenses to a top 12 finish in points allowed.

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