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Can Broncos avenge heartbreaking loss to Ravens tonight?

As a Cleveland fan, I have very little sympathy for Broncos fans after watching John Elway in the 1980s. But any fan can appreciate the agony of losing the way the Broncos did last year in the playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens. With less than a minute left in regulation time Joe Flacco threw a bomb to Jacoby Jones to score the tying touchdown. Inexplicably the Denver defenders let him get behind them. Then John Fox went into Marty Schottenheimer mode and got ultra-conservative, not letting Peyton Manning take a shot to drive for a winning field goal. It’s one of those games that will haunt Broncos fans forever.

Now we have a new season, and fans will be anxious to get back in the action tonight when the Ravens return to Denver for the rematch. You can enjoy NFL betting at TopBet.eu Sportsbook and other sites around the web. The Broncos opened as big favorites with spreads up to 9.5 points, but money has clearly come in on the Ravens as the spread has come back to 7.5. It’s understandable that the Broncos are favored, as Peyton Manning has a new weapon in Wes Welker and the Ravens had to completely rebuild their defense. There might be more talent on this year’s Ravens defense, but they have not played together in a real game and the leadership of Ray Lewis is gone.

But there are question marks with both teams. For the Broncos, Champ Bailey is out with a foot injury and Von Miller is suspended for six games. The Miller loss is huge while Bailey is getting old so I’m not sure he’s much of a loss. Then we have Elvis Dumervil, who now plays for the Ravens and helped mitigate the loss of some of their defensive players from last year like Paul Krueger. So for the Broncos young players like Derek Wolfe, Robert Ayers and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will need to play well.

For the Ravens, their losses aren’t just on defense. While Jacoby Jones was the hero last year, Anquan Boldin as the true stud of that offense. Can the Ravens keep things going on offense without him? They have talent, but now there will be more pressure on Joe Flacco, especially after the loss of tight end Dennis Pitta.

It should be a great game, and now the spread seems more in line with reality. It looks like a tough pick.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Around the NFL: 10 Nuggets Heading into Free Agency

1. How about Roger Goodell pouring a big cup of antifreeze on everyone’s fun this past weekend? Due to a rule change that allowed teams to gauge the interest of prospective free agents, football fans hovered around Adam Schefter’s Twitter page thinking that free agency was essentially going to start at Midnight on Saturday morning. But Goodell’s memo to teams earlier that day killed everyone’s buzz. Here’s part of the memo, tweeted by Schefter that night: “Clubs are advised that prior to the beginning of the new League Year it is impermissible for a club to enter into an agreement of any kind, express or implied, oral or written, or promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent or understandings of any kind concerning the terms or conditions of employment offered to, or to be offered to, any prospective Unrestricted Free Agent for inclusion in a Player Contract after the start of the new League Year.” Deathly afraid of tampering, can you imagine how those conversations went on Friday night between teams and free agents? “Hi Mike Wallace, this is Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland. I just wanted to call and see if you liked the color teal in combination with white and a splash of orange. Yeah, no, I’m not asking you if you want to be a member of the Dolphins. That would be tampering. I’m specifically asking you about color scheme. You do like that color scheme? How about Joe Philbin? Do you like Joe Philbin’s face? Maybe you’d like to see more of Philbin, say, on a daily basis in the fall? Grrrrrrrrreat. Do you also hate purple and the entire state of Minnesota like most reasonable human beings do? Excellent. I’ll see you and your agent at 4:00PM ET on Tuesday then…”

2. People are getting caught up in whether or not the Chiefs should draft Luke Joeckel with the first overall pick when they just placed their franchise tag on Branden Albert. While it would be unprecedented for a team to draft a right tackle with the first overall pick, it doesn’t mean that Kansas City will shy away from arguably the safest prospect in this year’s class. Albert was one of the best pass-blocking offensive tackles in the league last year, but he also missed three games due to a back injury and who knows if the Chiefs will be able to lock him up long term. They could draft Joeckel, play him at right tackle and then re-asses the situation a year from now. If Albert’s back once again becomes an issue or the two sides can’t agree on a long-term deal, then the Chiefs have their left tackle of the future in Joeckel. If they lock Albert up long-term, then at worst they have two book-end tackles for the next six-plus years. Considering defensive coordinators constantly move pass rushers around in effort to create mismatches, that’s not exactly a worst-case scenario. And with no true No. 1 overall talent in this year’s draft, there’s no reason to bypass Joeckel with the top pick just because he could wind up playing right tackle.

3. The best thing for both the Jets and Darrelle Revis is if the cornerback drops off the map and shows up to OTAs healthy and in shape. Owner Woody Johnson isn’t being cheap – he just can’t pay Revis what he wants long-term because his former GM put the team in cap hell by handing out ridiculous contracts to players like Mark Sanchez. And since the Jets can’t afford him, Revis could help himself by not destroying his own trade value. This includes avoiding telling the media that it would be “awesome” to play for the 49ers and reiterating how you want to be the highest paid defensive player in the league. Potential trade partners are already leery about Revis’ knee, parting with premium draft picks, and clearing the necessary cap space to sign him long term. He doesn’t need to provide teams with more reasons to tell the Jets ‘thanks but no thanks.’

4. Percy Harvin’s situation in Minnesota seems combustible, but GM Rick Spielman has wisely suggested that the disgruntled wide receiver isn’t going anywhere. Some fans have opined that Spielman should trade Harvin and then sign a free agent receiver like Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings. But the Vikings are on the rise and thus, parting ways with a playmaker makes little sense. He’s already under contract and the team could potentially line up next year with Harvin, Jennings, Jarius Wright, Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph, as opposed to some combination of Peterson, Rudolph, Jennings, Wright and an unproven rookie. And maybe a veteran like Jennings could have a profound impact on Harvin, who has seemingly alienating himself from coaches and teammates. While the defense and offensive line proved to be underrated, the Vikings made the playoffs last year almost solely riding Peterson’s coattails. Unless the situation is so bad that the team needs to wash its hands completely of Harvin as soon as possible, addition is key – not subtraction.

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Ten NFL storylines to follow this Offseason

From a slew of head-coaching changes to an unpredictable draft (even more so than usual), there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye on this NFL offseason. Here are 10 to follow over the next few months.

1. RGIII’s health.
Robert Griffin III vows to be ready by Week 1 of the regular season but in addition to damaging both his LCL and ACL, the dynamic quarterback also suffered a medial meniscus tear in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. While Adrian Peterson proved that ACL tears aren’t always a two-year injury, “All Day” was also a medical marvel. We’re talking about a guy who suffered a sports hernia injury in Week 10 and questioned whether or not he would be able to continue by Week 16, only to rush for 596 yards over the Vikings’ final four games (including playoffs). Not everyone is Adrian Peterson.

According to reports, RGIII was seen walking without a limp at “Media Week” down in New Orleans. But no matter how quickly he’s progressing with his rehab, the Redskins need to first be concerned with his the long-term health. If they rush him back and he suffers even further damage to his knee(s), his career could be in jeopardy. Mike Shanahan and Co. have a couple of months to evaluate the situation but at some point they’re going to be faced with the decision of whether or not to place RGIII on the regular season PUP list. While that would cost them their starting quarterback for the first six weeks of the season, riding Kirk Cousins over that stretch is a lot better than installing him as the franchise signal caller because RGIII’s knees are shot. For the Redskins, there’s more at stake here than just six weeks.

2. Newsome’s unenviable task of re-constructing the Ravens.
Whether anyone thinks Joe Flacco should be paid like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees is rather moot. The going rate these days for franchise quarterbacks is $20 million per season, and Flacco proved in the postseason that he’s Baltimore’s franchise player. He may never put up the same jaw-dropping numbers that Brees has, but Flacco is worth his weight in gold to a team like the Ravens, who consistently draft well and will continue to compete under John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome. When you find a quarterback in this league (particularly a quarterback coming off one of the finest postseason performances in NFL history), you hang onto him. And in order to hang onto Flacco, the Ravens will pay the $20-plus million-a-year asking price.

No, the real storyline in Baltimore is whether or not Newsome can build another Super Bowl contender after he gets done paying Flacco. Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Bryant McKinnie all helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl this year and all four of them are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Receiver Anquan Boldin is also set to make $6 million, so he could be forced to either restructure his deal or become a cap casualty. (He said he’ll retire if Baltimore releases him.) Newsome build two entirely different Super Bowl winners over the past 12 years. But this offseason might offer him his biggest challenge to date. As one of the finest general managers in the NFL, Newsome is certainly up for the challenge but the pressure will also be on Harbaugh and his staff to win with younger players as Baltimore re-stocks through the draft.

3. No consensus No. 1 pick.
Ask 10 NFL analysts who they have rated No. 1 in this year’s draft and you might be supplied with 10 different answers. Some believe Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel is the safest pick in the draft but if the Chiefs re-sign Branden Albert than they have no use for Joeckel at No. 1. Besides, some think Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is the best offensive tackle in the draft, not Joeckel.

Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore and even Florida State’s Bjorn Werner’s names are atop some analyst’s rankings. Why so much uncertainty? Point to the fact that there’s no consensus top quarterback in his year’s draft class. Twelve of the last 15 first-overall selections have been quarterbacks, with only Jake Long (2008), Mario Williams (2006) and Courtney Brown (2000) being the exceptions. With no potential franchise signal caller to be had, the ultimate crapshoot is even more unpredictable than ever this year.

4. Veteran quarterbacks in limbo.
Flacco is the best free agent quarterback this offseason but the Ravens won’t allow him to escape Baltimore without at least slapping him with the franchise tag. That means backups will litter the open market, unless you still consider guys like Jason Campbell, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Moore capable starters. (And why would you?)

The more intriguing names are Alex Smith, Michael Vick and Matt Flynn, who are all currently under contract but could become available either via trade or release at some point this offseason. While the 49ers will certainly honor Smith’s desire to start elsewhere, at the end of the day they don’t owe him anything (non-monetarily, that is). If they don’t acquire what they feel to be decent compensation for the 28-year-old veteran, they could use him as insurance behind Colin Kaepernick for another season. That may not be fair for Smith, but the Niners will ultimately do what’s best for the franchise.

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Watching Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Ray Rice

Most people agree that today’s Super Bowl offers up a pretty good matchup. You have two of the more physical teams in football led by strong-armed quarterbacks. Sure, there are big differences in style between Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick, but both of them can beat you with their big arms, and they both have an excellent stable of receivers at their disposal.

Even with San Francisco being the favorite, there are good arguments for both teams if you’re thinking of putting some money on the game. For me, however, I keep coming back to Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Ray Rice. The talent at the skill positions for Baltimore is pretty special, and we’ve seen some issues in the 49ers secondary. Boldin completely dominated the Patriots, and we’ve seen incredible plays from Smith and Rice as well.

Everyone is focused on the Kaepernick factor for good reason. But Baltimore’s offense is really clicking right now and has just as much balance. Flacco is having a field day now working with these weapons, so the Ravens with the points doesn’t look like a bad bet. The lines started at 5 and now it’s down to 4 or even 3.5 as more money has gone towards the Ravens.

Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Five Storylines to Follow

Two months ago not many people envisioned the Baltimore Ravens making a run at the NFL title game. They were dysfunctional offensively, they lacked playmakers defensively, and they employed a quarterback that was costing himself offseason dollars with each poor performance. But as the Packers and Giants proved the previous two postseasons, sometimes all you have to do is catch fire.

Here are five storylines to follow for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, where the Ravens will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

The defense of Kaepernick.
The Falcons may have won a key battle in their loss to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game but they became so consumed by winning that battle that they wound up losing the war. After watching Colin Kaepernick rip off 181 yards on 16 rushes versus the Packers the week prior, the Falcons were dead set against allowing the quarterback to beat them with the option read. So they aligned linebacker Stephen Nicholas or defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann at the edge and sent them right at Kaepernick. On the first two series of the game, San Francisco was befuddled by the Atlanta’s game plan and it wound up punting on back-to-back three-and-outs. But the Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick running at the edges that they lost sight of the fact that Frank Gore was gaining over four yards per carry up the middle. Abraham or Nicholas would fly up the edge and straight at Kaepernick, who repeatedly handed the ball off to Gore or LaMichael James and watched them run through the lane that Atlanta’s defenders had created. And when they weren’t running, Kaepernick exposed the one-on-one matchups that were available to him in the passing game (such as tight end Vernon Davis on safety Thomas DeCoud). In the AFC title game, the Ravens were physical with the Patriots’ receivers at the line of scrimmage and it disrupted Tom Brady’s rhythm in the passing game. But Green Bay got burned playing too much man versus Kaepernick, who often ran for long gains once the Packers’ defenders turned their backs to him. It’ll be interesting to see what approach the Ravens take on Sunday in terms of shutting down this prolific San Francisco offense. If they were smart they would take a page out of what the Rams and Seahawks did in the month of December when the 49ers lost twice in their final five games. Both St. Louis and Seattle won the battles on first and second down and thus put themselves in favorable third down situations. Both teams also got great play out of their linebackers, who not only stopped the run on early downs, but also generated pressure when their number was called for blitz assignments. But it all starts up front. If the Ravens can’t win their individual matchups versus the Niners’ outstanding offensive line, it’ll be a long night for Ray Lewis and Co.

The next step and the transformation of Flacco.
Two months ago Joe Flacco couldn’t win on the road and couldn’t play at a consistent level play to play nevertheless week to week. But thanks to the firing of Cam Cameron and the promoting of Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Flacco is now 60 minutes and one enormous victory away from joining very elite company. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams vertically and outside the numbers, which is difficult to do on a weekly basis. And because Baltimore’s offensive line wasn’t playing at a consistent level either, Flacco turned in some rather ugly performances from Week 11 through Week 15. But while Caldwell has kept the same formations as Cameron (mostly the use of either a two-back, one tight end set, or a one-back, two-tight end set), he’s also simplified the offense. He has allowed Flacco to work the middle of the field more and spread the ball out to several different players. Not only is Torrey Smith heavily involved in the vertical game, but Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta are allowed to work the middle of the field and/or the seam of a defense. Caldwell has also brought more balance to the Baltimore offense. For whatever reason, Cameron would often get away from his running game, which is inexcusable when you have backs like Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. With the pressure of having to win games by throwing the ball versus defenses that knew what was coming, Flacco would often be frustrated in the middle of games. Now he’s playing his best ball of the season and most importantly, he’s comfortable and in command of the offense.

Are cracks starting to form in the Niners’ defensive foundation?
The Falcons didn’t average 26.0 points per game this year by accident. Matt Ryan is knocking on the door of playing in a Super Bowl himself and his receivers – Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez – are some of the best in the game. That said, you have to wonder if Dashon Goldson wasn’t exposed a bit in coverage last week. On Julio Jones’ 46-yard touchdown early in the first quarter, there was a communication breakdown between Goldson and cornerback Tarrell Brown. For whatever reason, Brown passed Jones off to Goldson and jumped on an out route by Tony Gonzalez, even though the tight end was clearly covered. Jones then got behind Goldson for an easy score, putting the Niners in a hole early. But even if Goldson and Brown could share the blame on that touchdown, Goldson was also victimized on a 16-yard reception by Roddy White, as well as another 40-yard pass play to Jones later in the game. Again, in White and Jones we’re talking about two of the better receivers in the NFL. But with how well Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have played this postseason, it has to be a little concerning to Jim Harbaugh that his defense was shredded 477 yards in the NFC title game. Don’t forget that San Francisco also gave up 31 points in the second half versus New England in mid-December, and 42 points to the Seahawks in Seattle one week later. Granted, the Niners didn’t have Justin Smith for that Seattle game but you have to wonder whether or not the blueprint on how to beat San Francisco’s defense hasn’t been laid out over the past month and a half. The good news is that even though he’s not generating sacks, Aldon Smith is still putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and there has been no dip in the play of linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The Ravens still have their work cut out for them on Sunday.

Which offense can stay balanced?
For as much as fans and the media want to dissect how well a quarterback can orchestrate a dynamic passing attack, balance is still the key to any NFL offense. The Saints finished tied for seventh in terms of rushing attempts the year they won the Super Bowl and were sixth in total rushing yards that season. Yes, they won in large part because of Sean Payton’s playcalling and Drew Brees’ ability to orchestrate that offense. But they were extremely effective throwing the ball because they were also a threat to pound it between the tackles with Pierre Thomas or on the edges with Reggie Bush. Defenses were constantly playing back on their heels that season, which is one of the reasons why New Orleans hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. For as much as everyone wants to talk about Flacco and Kaepernick when it comes to XLVII, the “matchup” between Ray Rice and Frank Gore might be more important. As previously stated, the Falcons did a great job of taking away Kaepernick’s ability to hit the edges on the ground in the NFC title game. But Gore killed them running between the tackles so if the Ravens want to focus on tying a lasso around Kaepernick’s legs too, then they better be ready to man up in the middle. That said, if Gore can’t gain traction on first and second down, the edge now swings in Baltimore’s favor because it’ll have Kaepernick in constant third and longs (which is what the Ravens want). On the other side, if Rice can’t get going against that stingy San Francisco front seven, then Flacco may become buried underneath the pressure of having to win the game on his own. Also, Baltimore can’t expect that San Francisco will be as poor tackling as New England was in the AFC title game. The Patriots missed a handful of tackles, which either kept drives alive for the Ravens or set up scores (like Rice’s 2-yard run in the second quarter when Jerod Mayo whiffed on a takedown). Rice will have to earn every yard he gets but if he’s effective, it’ll go a long way in setting up Flacco and the passing game.

The intangibles.
Ray Lewis has racked up a ton of tackles this postseason but he’s also looked slow in coverage and he’s obviously not the same impactful player he was earlier in his career. That said, it’s apparent that his teammates want to win for him (as well as fellow veteran Ed Reed). He’s the heartbeat in that Baltimore locker room and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of an effect he’ll have from an emotional standpoint. Turnovers have also been a key to deciding wins and losses in the postseason, as no team has won a playoff game this year while losing the turnover battle. San Francisco and Baltimore came into the postseason plus-nine in turnovers, which is the lowest margin of the 10 playoff teams, so which team will avoid costly mistakes (and/or produce them in a positive way)? Special teams will undoubtedly play a factor in the outcome as well. David Akers missed a makeable field goal in a controlled environment in Atlanta and his body language following the miss would have you believe he’s a kicker with zero confidence right now. And don’t forget that Baltimore allowed a kick and punt return for touchdown in its win over Denver in the Divisional Round. Finally, how will the “Har-Bowl” factor play into the game? Considering there are only 32 head coaching positions in the NFL and so few siblings in sports (at least ones that coach against each other), it’s truly remarkable that Jim and John Harbaugh will square off in the Super Bowl. While Jim arguably has the better team, John has more postseason experience and more postseason wins. Which Harbaugh will get the leg up on the other before the clock reads double-zero on Sunday?

PREDICTION: The 49ers are the better team, at least on paper. They have the more complete offense, the better defense, and they have the ability to win in the trenches on both sides of the ball. But the Ravens have saved their best football for the end of the year, which is exactly what the Packers did in 2011 and what the Giants did in 2012.

Since Baltimore fired Cam Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Joe Flacco has been a different quarterback. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams by throwing outside the numbers and refused to stay balanced with his playcalling. But while Caldwell is running the same formations as Cameron (i.e. 12, 21 and 22 groupings), he’s also simplified things. Flacco is now instructed to use the entire field to beat defenses, including up the seam with tight end Dennis Pitta, in the short-to-intermediate game with Anquan Boldin, and yes, down field to Torrey Smith. Caldwell hasn’t forgotten about Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce either, as he’s gotten both running backs in the mix while staying balanced.

Matt Ryan and the Falcons exposed the 49ers’ safety position in the NFC title game, specifically Dashon Goldson. Where they screwed up is becoming too focused on Colin Kaepernick’s running ability. While constantly sending defensive ends and linebackers straight at Kaepernick, Atlanta created huge rushing lanes for LaMichael James and Frank Gore, who killed the Falcons up the middle. Look for the Ravens to take their shots downfield against Goldson and to stay balanced offensively. Defensively, Baltimore needs to win the battle on first and second down and force Kaepernick to make mistakes on third down. Call it a hunch, but I believe Kaepernick’s inexperience will show through at a critical moment on Sunday.

Ravens 24, 49ers 20.

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