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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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Ravens vs. Saints Week 7: Date, time, TV channel, live stream, how to watch

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Ravens vs. Saints Week 7: Date, time, TV channel, live stream, how to watch

The Baltimore Ravens' top-ranked scoring defense clashes with the New Orleans Saints' top-ranked scoring offense in one of the most anticipated games of Week 7.

The Ravens (4-2) are coming off a historic 21-0 shutout win over the Tennessee Titans, while the Saints (4-1) have had a full week of rest after beating up the Redskins in primetime in a dominating 43-19 win.

The Ravens are 5-1 all time against the Saints winning their last three contests and are 3-1 at M&T Bank Stadium. Here are key factors ahead of Sunday's game.

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7 Game Preview

1. Brees can make history vs. Ravens

Drew Brees' road to Hall of Fame enshrinement has not been without obstacles. In Week 7, Brees will face a roadblock he's had issues with in the past. If he can clear it, he will etch his name yet again in the NFL history books.

Since entering the NFL in 2001, Brees is 0-4 against the Ravens, making Baltimore the only NFL team he has never beaten. A win Sunday would make him just the third quarterback to beat all 32 teams,  adding him to the list that features only Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. And if that sounds familiar, it's because it it.  In Week 5 against the Redskins Brees passed both Favre and Manning to become NFL's all-time leading passer.

But the history-making for Brees won't stop there come Sunday. He enters the matchup with 499 career touchdowns and one more against the Ravens will make him the fifth signal caller in league history to throw 500.

The Ravens defense, which is ranked first in points (12.8), first in yards (270.8), second in passing yards (188) and third in rushing yards (82.8), will have to act fast as Brees hasn't thrown an interception in his last six regular-season games and leads the league in completion percentage, interception percentage, passer rating and fourth quarter passer rating. Against the Ravens, he's 116-for-181 for 1,340 yards, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions and 10 sacks. 

2. Flacco, Ravens offense needs to capitalize

Drew Brees isn't the only QB in this matchup making history. Joe Flacco became the third different quarterback in NFL history to complete 25 or more passes in nine consecutive games, completing the feat in the Week 6 victory over Tennessee. He also instilled a much needed confidence boost in receiver Michael Crabtree after dropping the ball literally and figuratively Week 5, connecting with him six times and for one touchdown. 

The Saints defense is ranked 26th in points (28.0), 18th in yards (369), 30th in passing yards (297.6) but first in rushing yards (71.4). Those are numbers the Ravens will need to capitalize on.

The Ravens' running game is still searching for its footing, so expect the chemistry between Flacco and the core receivers to strengthen. Flacco also has performed well against the Saints in the past,  finishing with 117.7 passer rating in his last two games against the Saints. The Ravens are averaging 28.7 points per game against New Orleans., lighting the Saints up for at least 30 points in the each past three matchups,

Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who exited their Week 5 game early with a concussion, was a full participant during Wednesday and Thursday's practices and will be on John Brown, Willie Snead and Crabtree all day long.

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7 Matchup Preview:

1. Jimmy Smith vs. Michael Thomas: 
Thomas will be keeping Smith preoccupied all afternoon as the wide receiver is ranked fourth in the NFL with 519 yards, averaging 103.8 yards per game with three touchdowns.

2. Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara vs. Ravens defense:
Referred to as 'Lightning and Thunder,' the two have put up 352 yards, are averaging 53 and 59.8 yards per game respectively and have seven touchdowns. 

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7 Injury Report:

Click here to see the latest Ravens-Saints injury report.

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7 How to Watch:

Who: Baltimore Ravens vs. New Orleans Saints

What: Week 7 regular season

When: Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018, 4:05 p.m. ET

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

TV Channel: FOX

Live Stream: Watch Now with fuboTV - Try free trial

Radio: WBAL New Radio 1090 and 98Rock

Weather: 55 degrees, mostly sunny

Ravens 2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Week 1: Sun., 9/9. Ravens vs. Bills. Win, 47-3 (1-0)

Week 2: Thur., 9/13 Ravens at Bengals. Loss, 34-23 (1-1)

Week 3: Sun., 9/23 Ravens vs. Broncos. Win, 27-14 (2-1)

Week 4: Sun., 9/30 Ravens at Steelers. Win, 26-14 (3-1)

Week 5: Sun., 10/7 Ravens at Browns. Loss, 12-9 (3-2)

Week 6: Sun., 10/14 Ravens at Titans. Win, 21-0 (4-2)

Week 7: Sun., 10/21 vs. Saints, 4:05 p.m.

Week 8: Sun., 10/28 @ Panthers, 1:00 p.m.

Week 9: Sun., 11/4 vs. Steelers, 1:00 p.m.

Week 10:  BYE week

Week 11: Sun., 11/18 vs. Bengals, 1:00 p.m.

Week 12: Sun., 11/25 vs. Raiders, 1:00 p.m.

Week 13: Sun., 12/2 @ Falcons, 1:00 p.m.

Week 14: Sun., 12/9 @ Chiefs, 1:00 p.m.

Week 15: Sun., 12/16 vs. Buccaneers, 1:00 p.m.

Week 16: Sat., 12/22 or Sunday 12/23 @ Chargers, TBD

Week 17: Sun., 12/30 vs. Browns, 1:00 p.m.

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Wide receiver Willie Snead thriving with Ravens as man in the middle

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USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Willie Snead thriving with Ravens as man in the middle

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Willie Snead has a knack for weaving through a row of linebackers in the middle of the field before making a clutch catch for the Baltimore Ravens.

Such was the case last Sunday against Tennessee, when Snead squeezed between two defenders for a 24-yard gain on a third-and-17 from the Baltimore 15.

"He's on the ground, he makes the catch, he's getting pushed back to the ground, stepped all over, and he just gets up and gives the first-down signal right there in the guy's face," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's the kind of competitor he is. He's all ball, all the time."

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome rarely chases restricted free agents, but he made an exception with Snead this past offseason after it became apparent that the receiver's three-year run in New Orleans was done. One of Drew Brees' favorite targets in 2015 and 2016, Snead began last season with a three-game suspension for violating the NFL personal conduct policy. He then fought a hamstring injury and finished with just eight catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns.

Armed with a two-year, $10.4 million contract, Snead was delighted to arrive in Baltimore last April.

"Last year just left a really bitter taste in my mouth, the organization and how everything was handled," Snead said Tuesday. "To be a part of this organization was just a breath of fresh air. I wanted to go somewhere where I'm wanted."

It couldn't have worked out better for Snead -- and the Ravens.

"To see that you were right, to see all that come together and him play so well, being exactly what you thought you were going to get, is very rewarding," Harbaugh said.

Snead was one of three free agent receivers signed by Newsome in an effort to enhance a passing game that sputtered in 2017. Snead is the possession receiver, Michael Crabtree provides an outside threat and John Brown is the speedster.

Snead and Crabtree are tied for the team lead with 30 catches. Brown has 21 receptions for a team-high 424 yards and three touchdowns.

"I don't have the physical ability like John Brown to run by you, and I'm not big and strong like Michael Crabtree," Snead observed, "so I have to work harder than everybody else just to stand out."

That's how it's always been for Snead, who finally finds himself in a place where his talent is acknowledged and appreciated.

"This is a guy that's been doubted his whole career -- high school, college and the NFL," Harbaugh said. "So I'm fine if they keep doubting him."

After starring as a quarterback at Muskegon Heights in Michigan, Snead played three years as a receiver at Ball State before going undrafted in 2014. He finally made it to the NFL the following year.

"Coming out of college, (people said) I left too early, I wasn't ready to play in the NFL," Snead recalled. "And in the NFL, it was, `Is he fast enough to separate? Can he make those plays in clutch situations?' I've always been doubted."

Not anymore.

"I'll tell you one thing, Willie comes Sunday ready to play," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "He's one of the toughest guys I've been around."

This Sunday, the Ravens (4-2) host the Saints (4-1). Snead insists this wasn't one of those games that he circled on the calendar.

"This is another team. I have to approach it that way just to stay focused," Snead said.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton has seen enough of Snead this season to know he's a threat with the ball, and without it.

"He has a tremendous amount of grit. You see him making plays on third down," Payton said. "He's an outstanding blocker. He'll come across in motion, he'll get to the point of attack in the run game, but he'll also find the holes in the zone and man-to-man coverages."

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Snead has no problem mixing it up with anyone, large or small, at any spot on the field.

"He can go inside or outside, but man, he makes some -- scouts call them blood area -- catches," Harbaugh said. "In the middle, that's where he thrives."

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