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Suspended bosses get to watch Brees

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Suspended bosses get to watch Brees

Somewhere in a private box at the Louisiana Superdome, Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt will sit and watch Drew Brees try to set an NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass.

Not to mention get the Saints out of their worst slide in years.

That suspended trio - coach Payton is sidelined for the season, general manager Loomis for eight games, interim coach Vitt for six for their roles in the bounties scandal - was given permission by the NFL to attend Sunday night's game against San Diego, but can't interact with Brees or the other players.

Brees tied Hall of Famer John Unitas' mark of 47 straight, set from 1956-60 by throwing for three scores in a loss at Green Bay last weekend. Then he asked Commissioner Roger Goodell about allowing the coaches and GM to attend on Sunday.

``It would mean a lot, and that's why I asked,'' Brees said. ``Of course they know how this team feels about all those people and what a big part they are in our journey despite the circumstances. And the fact that we have the opportunity to break the Johnny Unitas record, and I say `we' because it is a team deal, and Joe Vitt is a part of that, Sean Payton is a part of that and Mickey Loomis is a part of that. They are all a part of that, and I felt like they certainly deserved the opportunity to be there in attendance and share that moment with us.''

While the Saints are one of two 0-4 teams, along with Cleveland, the Chargers (3-1) are on top of the AFC West. Their three wins are over Oakland, Kansas City and Tennessee, all 1-3. When they played a contender - at home - the Chargers were routed by Atlanta.

So this could be something of a proving ground for San Diego, because beating even a winless Saints squad in New Orleans never is a Big Easy. And with emotions running wild over Brees' pursuit of Unitas' record - and with Payton, Loomis and Vitt on hand - the Chargers' challenge is amplified.

``It's the same team that's made deep playoff runs and it's the same team that's won Super Bowls,'' said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who replaced Brees as the starter in 2006, when Brees headed to New Orleans as a free agent. ``We know what we're in for Sunday night. I know just from the few guys that were on this team a few years ago and are now there, it's a tough and resilient group. We're going to have to play at our best if we expect to win on Sunday.''

Also Sunday, it's Atlanta at Washington, Denver at New England, Philadelphia at Pittsburgh, Green Bay at Indianapolis, Baltimore at Kansas City, Cleveland at the New York Giants, Buffalo at San Francisco, Miami at Cincinnati, Seattle at Carolina, Chicago at Jacksonville, and Tennessee at Minnesota.

Houston is at the New York Jets on Monday night.

The week's action began Thursday night with St. Louis hosting Arizona.

Off this week are Dallas (2-2), Detroit (1-3), Oakland (1-3), and Tampa Bay (1-3).

Atlanta (4-0) at Washington (2-2)

It is a measure of how far the Falcons have come this year that they can move from their 1-yard-line in the final moments to field goal position and beat the Panthers. It's also a measure to see them with a league-best plus-10 turnover margin - the Falcons have only two giveaways and no fumbles lost - and a stingy pass defense. Atlanta has cured some major issues of the recent past.

``We've made a bunch of mistakes, but we've battled and we've been tough and we've fought through some of those things,'' said Matt Ryan, among the league's top quarterbacks through four games. ``That's what you have to do in this league. It's never going to be perfect. That's just the nature of the NFL.''

The Falcons got some helpful preparation for facing sensational rookie QB Robert Griffin III when they played 2011's top offensive rookie, Cam Newton, last Sunday. But Griffin is part of a much better running game than the Panthers presented. That will test Atlanta's ground defense, which ranks 29th.

Houston (4-0) at New York Jets (2-2), Monday night

Just what the reeling Jets need on the heels of their worst performance of the Rex Ryan era: a visit from the top-ranked team in the AP Pro32.

The Texans have had only one close game so far, have yielded the fewest points in the league (56), have scored the second most (126), have the top-rated defense in yards allowed and ... shall we continue?

``I think we have to get better,'' Ryan said. ``We can't worry about who we play. The fact that we're playing the team that is regarded as the best team in the National Football League, we have to improve ourselves. We have to go back and look at our football team first.''

Might be more enjoyable to look at what the Texans are doing, Rex.

Denver (2-2) at New England (2-2)

Few quarterback duels get the blood flowing like Peyton Manning against Tom Brady. They had a decade's worth of memorable matchups when it was Colts versus Patriots. Now, Manning is in Denver, but that doesn't change the vibes much.

He's simply glad to be back on the field, regardless of who he is facing.

``I certainly didn't need a year off to re-emphasize how much I enjoy playing; I've never taken football for granted, so I didn't need a year off to remind me of that,'' Manning said. ``But it certainly does reinforce that we are fortunate to be playing this game.''

Both come off huge games against bad defenses, and the Patriots have improved their defense enough that it leads the AFC with 11 takeaways. Early in his career, Manning struggled against Bill Belichick designs, but not so much anymore.

Philadelphia (3-1) at Pittsburgh (1-2)

The Steelers have struggled, but with safety Troy Polamalu, LB James Harrison and RB Rashard Mendenhall expected back from injuries, they become a more formidable opponent. Pittsburgh has protected the ball well, but also has forced only three turnovers - hardly Steel Curtain football.

Everyone has profited in the turnover department against the Eagles, whose 12 giveaways are the most in the NFC. Philly has won its games by a total of four points.

Among the spiciest matchups will be the Eagles' speed with running back LeSean McCoy and receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin - not to mention quarterback Michael Vick - against a defense that has looked slow thus far.

Green Bay (2-2) at Indianapolis (1-2)

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians steps in as interim coach for Indy while Chuck Pagano battles leukemia. That adds to the challenges the Colts are facing as they come off a bye week.

``Obviously, we know what's going on and there's no doubt everyone still has that in the back of our heads,'' defensive end Cory Redding said. ``But this team has to move on. We have to go out there and do our job.''

Doing it against the revitalized Packers' offense will be extra difficult. Most of the matchups favor Green Bay, with the most intriguing perhaps being Packers center Jeff Saturday against the Colts' interior defensive line. Saturday left Indy as a free agent this year after 13 seasons.

Baltimore (3-1) at Kansas City (1-3)

Kansas City has allowed 136 points overall and 77 in two home losses, hardly the right approach against a Baltimore team that has become dangerous offensively. Even worse, the Chiefs have the NFL's most giveaways, 15, a bad sign against the Ravens' ball-hawkers.

``You look across that defensive board and they've got a lot of great veteran leadership with Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and then also obviously Ray Lewis,'' Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said. ``But those guys have been playing together for a long time and they're a very instinctive, very experienced group.''

After a busy opening four weeks, the Ravens finally are rested, having last played on Sept. 27.

Cleveland (0-4) at New York Giants (2-2)

The Giants recognize that they messed up late at Philly last Sunday night, costing them sole possession of the NFC East lead. With a brutal upcoming schedule, a victory against the winless Browns, ranked last in the AP Pro32, is a must.

Yet, the Giants have struggled in recent years against mediocre (or worse) opponents.

``I don't know if it's our preparation, I don't know if it's the mindset that we go in there with,'' receiver Victor Cruz said. ``Hopefully, we'll gear up this week and be prepared for this team, no matter what their record is. They're still a good football team, and we have to prepare ourselves to win a football game.''

Cleveland has lost 10 straight dating back to last season. It has shown sparks on offense with rookie RB Trent Richardson and QB Brandon Weeden, and has some playmakers on defense, particularly linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. Top cornerback Joe Haden has one more week on his suspension.

Buffalo (2-2) at San Francisco (3-1)

Early in the third quarter last week, the Bills led New England 21-7 and were envisioning a solo spot atop the AFC East. Then the Patriots stopped fooling around and soon were headed to a 52-28 romp.

The Niners aren't likely to score that many points, but their fierce, opportunistic defense almost certainly won't yield anything close to four touchdowns.

This could be an entertaining matchup on the ground with Buffalo's Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller trying to outdo San Francisco's Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. It also could turn into a mismatch if Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and the rest of the 49ers' defense shuts down the Bills' running attack and forces Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw under duress. Fitzpatrick's 12 TD passes top the league, but he's also thrown seven interceptions.

Miami (1-3) at Cincinnati (3-1)

With two division matches after this, Cincinnati needs to pay attention against a Dolphins squad that lost its last two games in overtime, blowing leads in both. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been sensational late in games and has the best fourth-quarter passing rating in the NFL, 151.7.

The Dolphins have won six of their last seven visits to Cincinnati and have the NFL's leading receiver in yards in Brian Hartline. But getting time to find him will be problematic for rookie QB Ryan Tannehill: The Bengals lead the NFL with 17 sacks.

``Our defensive linemen are very tall guys,'' safety Chris Crocker said. ``Just them getting their arms up, getting around him - it's uncomfortable. As long as they continue to get the pressure like they're getting, then we'll make a lot of plays.''

Seattle (2-2) at Carolina (1-3)

Reverse the site of this game and the Seahawks are a strong favorite. Instead, they make one of the longest road trips possible in the NFL, 2,800 miles, to face an angry group of Panthers.

Carolina had Atlanta pinned at its 1-yard line in the final moments last Sunday and still managed to blow the game. For developing teams, such defeats can be devastating.

``We are a young football team, but at some point you've got to get past that, because at some point you run out of time,'' coach Ron Rivera said. ``We don't want to run out of time.''

Chicago (3-1) at Jacksonville (1-3)

The addition of WR Brandon Marshall has energized Chicago's offense and even made Jay Cutler less sullen. But it's the defense that is making the Bears formidable with a league-high 14 takeaways, including 11 interceptions. They've run back three picks for touchdowns.

That paints a distressing picture for the Jaguars, whose 62 points are the fewest of any team to have played four games.

Tennessee (1-3) at Minnesota (3-1)

One of the league's biggest flops through a quarter of the schedule visits one of the most pleasant surprises.

Tennessee is without starting QB Jake Locker (shoulder), so Matt Hasselbeck gets the call. He'll need Chris Johnson to resemble the running back he was last week with 141 yards, not the impostor of the previous three games.

Minnesota has been getting strong contributions from its veteran leaders, particularly Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin on offense, Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield on defense, and Harvin on special teams. The kick returners have been superb.

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Baltimore Ravens 2018 Training Camp preview

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Baltimore Ravens 2018 Training Camp preview

The Ravens’ 2018 season is one of the most anticipated seasons in the last decade. 

From the coaching staff to the quarterback, the future of the franchise will be determined over 16 weeks. The work, however, beings now. 

The Ravens’ first training camp practice kicks off Thursday and there is a lot to keep a close eye on. Let's take a look at the many talking points of the 2018 preseason.

The Great Quarterback Debate:

Unless you’ve been in hiding since the NFL Draft, you know what all the hoopla is about. Joe Flacco remains the Ravens’ starter, but the competition at QB1 just got a little more interesting. The addition of Lamar Jackson has hopefully ignited a fire under Flacco and Jackson will get a year to learn under the 11-year veteran. If the season starts to go south early on, Jackson could come in as their starter and begin his role as the team’s next franchise quarterback. 

A lot could happen at the quarterback position over the next year, but one thing that is certain is all eyes will be on Lamar Jackson when he hits the field at training camp. You can't deny your intrigue. The Heisman winner had success both in the air and on the ground over his three years at Louisville, racking up record-breaking numbers. How the Ravens utilize Jackson will be interesting. Coach Harbaugh has already stated he will be active on game days and that they're experimenting with having Jackson and Flacco on the field at the same time. 

Oh, and then there's Robert Griffin III. We think you might know who he is.

The Ravens signed him to a one-year deal back at the beginning of April, but now with the addition of Lamar Jackson, another big training camp question arises. Do the Ravens keep a third QB on their active roster or do they send him on his way? RGIII has mentioned he's looking forward to mentoring the fellow Heisman Trophy winner in his first year in the league, but how much of that he'll get to do remains unseen.

A New Core Of Offensive Weapons: 

Flacco's declining numbers cannot be placed entirely on his shoulders. His options at wide receiver and tight end have been limited, but Ozzie Newsome – in his last year as general manager – made sure that would no longer be an issue.

Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John 'Smokey' Brown became Ravens in free agency and Breshad Perriman will fight for his final chance with the team after they declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. There is also 2018 draft picks Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley and undrafted free agents Jaelon Acklin and Andrew Levrone. Veteran Chris Moore and Quincy Adeboyejo will also be competing. Flacco mentioned during OTAs that he would be rounding up his receivers outside of practice to build chemistry. Come Thursday, we will see if the sparks have begun to fly.

The tight end depth chart will be looking very different for the Ravens as well this season. There was, of course, the additions of Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews – a pair of Top 100 picks – in the draft and undrafted free agent Nick Keizer. Veterans Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams are returning, but who will be their starter Week 1 will be interesting to watch. Boyle was on the field for 66 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps in 2017, but injuries have hindered both Boyle and Williams. Williams missed 12 games in 2016 with a knee tear and five games in 2017 with an ankle sprain. Where he sits on the depth chart will rely heavily on how healthy he remains during an extended training camp. 

Critical Year for the Coaching Staff:

The 2018 season is the most critical one of John Harbaugh's 10-year tenure. As you've read many times this offseason, the Ravens haven't seen the postseason since 2015. And if that trend continues into the 2018 season, big changes to the offensive playcallers should be imminent. 

At his annual State of the Ravens press conference in February, owner Steve Bisciotti was questioned as to why no coaching changes – from head coach to offensive coordinator – were made after the Ravens' offense clearly had trouble getting things going all season long.

"I’m not going to give a ‘playoff or bust’ edict to you all, or to my coach," Bisciotti said.

"He’s under as much pressure, probably, than he’s ever been in his life, and I expect him to keep his chin up and take his positivity and his talents and make the most of this season. I may as well replace him now if I’m going to tell him, ‘Make the playoffs or you’re out of town next year.’ That’s just not the way to run a business.”

That mindset is understandable. Bisciotti noted Flacco has been through four offensive coordinators in five years and was comfortable with OC Marty Mornhinweg. Harbaugh's contract was extended through 2019, but if the season doesn't pan out as expected, the offensive could have a very different look in 2019. 

A Fast and Furious Defense:

Linebackers coach, Don 'Wink' Martindale was promoted to defensive coordinator after Dean Pees' departure. Harbaugh hired within the organization to keep the defensive vision cohesive, but Martindale is bringing something different to the table. 

"He's just putting his personal fix on our defense and expanding it, giving the guys confidence to play fast," safety Eric Weddle said in a recent interview. "The idea is to do what's best for the defense, not what's best the individual."

It appears this year's defense will rely heavily on the instincts of its star players like Pro Bowlers Weddle, Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley. The defense has never had an issue being dominate, but you may be seeing a more creative defense come game days with players given the freedom to make decisions in real time. How well it works will be exciting to see. 

Other Notes: 

The Ravens placed six players, G Marshal Yanda, TE Vince Mayle, DE Brent Urban, CB Jaylen Hill, LB Bam Bradley and WR Quincy Adeboyejo on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to begin training camp. Yanda missed 14 games last season after suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Placing him on the PUP list to begin training camp is most likely out of precaution. He did not participate in any offseason workouts. 

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Lamar Jackson, Ravens rookies report to training camp

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USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Jackson, Ravens rookies report to training camp

Football is back in session for the Ravens.

Their rookies are set to report to the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Md Wednesday. Veterans report next Wednesday, the 18th.

The team is reporting to training camp a bit earlier than most NFL teams. Due to Ray Lewis being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Aug. 4 in Canton, Oh, the Ravens will face the Chicago Bears in the annual Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 2. Teams participating are eligible to begin training camp earlier.

This rookie class is already generating national attention. While the Ravens stand by Joe Flacco as their QB1, first-round pick Lamar Jackson could cause a shakeup at some point during the season. And when it comes to much-needed offensive help, tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews could begin to provide relief. 

Third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. begins his journey with the Ravens in a more sentimental fashion. His father, Orlando "Zeus" Brown, also played tackle for the Ravens from 1996-98 and then again from 2003-05. Brown passed away in 2011. 

Stay with NBC Sports Washington throughout the next several weeks as we keep a close eye on the Ravens' preseason. 

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