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Surging and stumbling toward NFL playoffs

Surging and stumbling toward NFL playoffs

Some teams surge toward the playoffs. Look at Denver, Seattle, Washington and Green Bay.

Others struggle to stay in the mix: try the Steelers, Bengals, Giants and Bears.

This penultimate weekend of the schedule could propel a few of them and eliminate others.

Chief among the clubs that could go either way: the defending champion New York Giants, who have lost their last three road games by a combined 82-29 to fall to 8-6. Not even coach Tom Coughlin is sure what he has as they head to Baltimore.

``It would be easy for me to say I do, but the reality of it is we haven't been able to play to substantiate what I would say is the personality of this team,'' said Coughlin, whose club gets a wild card, for sure, by winning out. ``So I'm definitely counting on the veterans to go ahead and prove this and do it with consistency.

``Last year we did it over a six-game run and, exactly, we're in that situation again.''

Even though their opponent Sunday, the Ravens, already have sewed up a playoff spot, it's a critical game for Baltimore (9-5) to get back on track after three straight defeats - two at home and one a bit down the road in Washington.

``We dug this hole we're in,'' safety Bernard Pollard said. ``We can't blame anybody but ourselves. We don't like losing three straight games. Nobody does. It's at the point right now where we have to get back at it, man. We dug the hole, now we've got to find a way to get out of it.''

The action began Saturday night with Atlanta's 31-18 victory at Detroit. The Falcons (13-2) clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, while the Lions (4-11) lost their seventh straight game.

Also Sunday, it's Cincinnati at Pittsburgh in an AFC wild-card showdown; Chicago at Arizona; San Francisco at Seattle; Washington at Philadelphia; New Orleans at Dallas; Minnesota at Houston; Indianapolis at Kansas City; Cleveland at Denver; Tennessee at Green Bay; New England at Jacksonville; St. Louis at Tampa Bay; Buffalo at Miami; San Diego at New York Jets; and Oakland at Carolina.

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Cincinnati (8-6) at Pittsburgh (7-7)

A Bengals win, perhaps a long shot because second-year quarterback Andy Dalton hasn't beaten either the Steelers or Ravens yet, gives Cincinnati a second consecutive postseason berth. That hasn't happened since 1982 and never has occurred without involving a strike-shortened season.

The Bengals also can take the division by sweeping the final two games and having Baltimore lose twice.

Pittsburgh can win the division only if there is a three-way tie, but definitely gets a wild card with two victories.

Chicago (8-6) at Arizona (5-9)

Reeling and injury-ravaged, the Bears have dropped three straight and five of six. There's some discord in the locker room, coach Lovie Smith's job security has become shakier, and they no longer can win the NFC North.

Still, a wild-card spot is available if they win out, and even though the Cardinals routed Detroit last week, it was Arizona's first win in 10 games.

San Francisco (10-3-1) at Seattle (9-5)

The spotlight matchup, even though it won't decide the NFC West. San Francisco can take the division for the second successive season by beating Arizona in its finale even if it falls at what will be a rocking CenturyLink Field. The 49ers earned at least a wild card with their, uh, wild 41-34 victory at New England last weekend.

``Given my first four years, around this time, we probably wouldn't be playing for much, maybe a chance to win a game and maybe get in or waiting on three other teams to lose,'' star linebacker Patrick Willis said. ``It feels good to know that you're playing for something. We have a playoff berth, but we want the division. And we also want to have that first-week bye, and we know we have to win this week first.''

The Seahawks are 6-0 at home, have won five of their last six overall, and scored 58 and 50 points the last two weeks. They aren't likely to come close to that against the NFL's stingiest defense; the Niners have allowed 218 points, one fewer than Seattle.

Washington (8-6) at Philadelphia (4-10)

Credit Mike Shanahan and his coaching staff for one of the best jobs down the stretch. It helps when you have not one but two effective rookie quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins.

The Redskins might beat the weak Eagles with Rex Grossman this week. But even if RG3 is back as expected, look for another key Washington rookie, RB Alfred Morris, to add to his 1,322 yards and nine TDs on the ground.

New Orleans (6-8) at Dallas (8-6)

Dallas is in the same situation as Washington. Win out and the Cowboys take the NFC East.

They've shown plenty of fortitude in winning five of six, rallying to beat the Bengals and Steelers in the last two outings.

New Orleans will test the Dallas defense and is adept at forcing turnovers, something the Cowboys often commit (minus-9 margin)

Minnesota (8-6) at Houston (12-2)

Seems like most everyone believes Adrian Peterson is a lock to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing mark of 2,105. But he still needs almost 300 yards in the last two games, and to average that much would be a pace for 2,400 yards in a season.

The Texans are formidable against the run and badly want to assure being at home throughout the AFC playoffs. By damaging Minnesota's push for an NFC wild card, Houston would ensure it is at home in January.

``This year he's definitely the best,'' linebacker Bradie James said about Peterson, who has 1,812 yards. ``I played against Ricky Williams in his heyday when he would just run over everybody. I played against the Bus (Jerome Bettis); the Bus was great in short yardage. I played against Mike Alstott. I played against all these guys, and what Adrian Peterson is doing right now, I hadn't seen it before.

``We don't want to be on the end of his record setting. We've got to do our job and really not get caught up in all that.''

Indianapolis (9-5) at Kansas City (2-12)

Indy's sensational turnaround from 2-14 to wild-card team will be complete with a victory at the Chiefs. The Colts have managed it despite the fewest takeaways in the NFL (10) and a minus-17.

But the Chiefs, who were shut out by lowly Oakland a week ago, are even worse at minus-22.

Cleveland (5-9) at Denver (11-3)

Consider how far the Broncos have come from a 2-3 record and tons of questions about whether Peyton Manning could once again be, well, Peyton Manning. He is every bit as good in his first season in Denver, has gotten in-tune with his receivers, particularly Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and has a fierce defense to boot.

``I like young players that really want to get better, and those guys have done that,'' Manning said. ``Our timing has improved throughout the season. It's not what it would be had we played together for five years.''

In Cleveland, they wonder if the young cast will play another year with coach Pat Shurmur.

Tennessee (5-9) at Green Bay (10-4)

The Packers could move into the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a victory and a loss by San Francisco. That should be enough motivation to keep them humming; they've won eight of nine, including three in a row within the division to put away the NFC North.

Tennessee was the beneficiary of Mark Sanchez's generosity on Monday night. Aaron Rodgers is no Sanchez.

New England (10-4) at Jacksonville (2-12)

An angry bunch of Patriots head south to face one of the league's worst teams. Barring a misstep by Denver, New England is looking at playing in the wild-card round, by which time it had better have solved defensive woes exposed by San Francisco last Sunday night.

The Jaguars don't figure to provide any challenge as they contend for the top overall draft pick.

St. Louis (6-7-1) at Tampa Bay (6-8)

Both teams should look forward to bigger and better things in 2013. These are generally young teams being constructed in dissimilar ways.

Jeff Fisher is a defensive guy and he's put together a solid unit led by ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, LB James Laurinaitis and cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins. They rank ninth and have 41 sacks, third in the league behind contenders Denver, Houston and Cincinnati.

The Bucs are doing most of their good things with the ball. Vincent Jackson is first in yards per catch (19.8) and fourth in yards receiving, while rookie Doug Martin has 1,250 yards rushing and 10 TDs.

Buffalo (5-9) at Miami (6-8)

Buffalo's high expectations after a busy offseason adding talent fell apart early. The Bills could see some front-office housecleaning after they finish off their 13th straight season out of the playoffs.

Miami has taken some decent steps in its rebuild, but this could be a game of turnovers. Buffalo is minus-10 and Miami is minus-12 in turnover margin.

San Diego (5-9) at New York Jets (6-8)

To the chagrin of Fireman Ed and other Jets fans, the Sanchez error, uh, era might not be over. At least for 2012, barring injuries, the regressing QB will be on the sideline as Greg McElroy tries to secure a job for the future.

The Chargers are playing out the string, too. They found some enthusiasm when they beat Pittsburgh two weeks ago, but then the Panthers routed them in San Diego.

Oakland (4-10) at Carolina (5-9)

The Panthers, particularly Cam Newton, are playing well enough to perhaps save coach Ron Rivera's job. It seems logical that Raiders coach Dennis Allen, in his first season of what will be a lengthy rebuilding project, also is safe.

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Ravens cancel Saturday's open practice at M&T Bank Stadium

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USA Today Sports

Ravens cancel Saturday's open practice at M&T Bank Stadium

The Baltimore Ravens cancelled Saturday night's free open practice at M&T Bank Stadium due to a forecast that calls for heavy rain and inclement weather.

There is no official word from the team on whether this practice will be resheduled, but it seems like Sunday may be an option, even though there's rain in the forecast then too.

Ravens fans who were looking to see first-round draft pick and potential future starting quarterback Lamar Jackson will have to wait for another day. His presence at training camp, an inevitable competition with the incumbent, Joe Flacco, and potential two-quarterback packages involving both of them are set to be some of the biggest storylines of Ravens camp this summer.

As a Heisman Trophy winner, Jackson was one of the most dynamic players in college football during his time at Louisville. If he can replicate that kind of performance in the NFL, he will be at plenty more training camp sessions for Ravens fans to watch.

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After breakout 2017 season, Ravens running back Alex Collins isn't getting too comfortable

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AP Images

After breakout 2017 season, Ravens running back Alex Collins isn't getting too comfortable

This time last year, running back Alex Collins wasn't a part of the Baltimore Ravens.

After being released by the Seattle Seahawks at the end of the 2017 preseason, the Ravens placed the 23-year-old on their practice squad, and by Week 2, Collins was already making plays.

As the season progressed, Collins found himself as the Ravens' top running back. He finished 2017 as the team's leading rusher with 973 yards while Javorius "Buck" Allen followed behind him with 591 yards.

If the 2018 NFL season began today, Collins would likely be the Ravens' starter, which is quite ironic considering the fate of his 2017 preseason.

"I always go back to where I started and where I am now, and I use that as my motivation," Collins said after Thursday's training camp practice.

"No matter the day, no matter how tired I am, I think to myself, at this time last year, I didn’t know my position, where I was, where I’d end up. So just having that security behind it is definitely my motivation to keep it this way and keep pushing forward and keep trying to get better instead of being complacent.”

Over the course of 15 games, Collins proved he had the strength and speed to make an impact on the team after Danny Woodhead suffered a hamstring injury on the first drive of the Ravens' Week 1 game and Kenneth Dixon sat out the entire season with a torn meniscus. 

While job security is something we all strive for, Collins isn't getting too comfortable with the hierarchy. 

“I don’t want to say necessarily ‘comfortable,’ because when I use that word, it makes me feel like I’m too relaxed and lackadaisical," Collins said.

"I’m more focused. I don’t want to get comfortable. I don’t want the team or our group to get comfortable, because we just want to get better every day. So, in the position I am, it’s a great feeling, but I’m always pushing myself to be better.”

While Collins has set personal goals for himself – like a 1,000-yard season – he is equally as focused on making the Ravens backfield one of the best groups in the National Football League. 

“I expect that," Collins said on being the Ravens' starter.

"I would hope that all the other running backs expect [to be the starter] as well, and that’s what kind of drives our group – when we all know that we have that capability to be the No. 1 guy, and we’re out competing and push each other and try to be the best. No matter who’s out there during the game, you’ll see a productive play out of that person. So, I have that mindset. I want to be the guy. I have that fire in me, and I hope [that is] as well as the other running backs, as I encouraged them as well.”

Collins noted that he's coming into training camp a bit heavier. He added five pounds to his 200-pound frame "just to see how that feels," but is still maintaining the stamina and strength he's always had. 

Collins – who was one of several veterans released from practice early as the team begins to adjust their way into the extended preseason – finished his media availability with a friendly warning to fantasy football owners: "Draft me now before it’s too late, guys."

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