proCanes Represent More Than Any Other School on NFL Championship Weekend

In all, as many as 212 players will participate in the AFC and NFC championship games on Sunday – four teams, 53 players per team. When including players not on the active rosters of the four teams playing for a shot at the Super Bowl, however, the total jumps to more than 250.

The schools represented on the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens range from college football's elite (Alabama, Ohio State, Texas and Florida) to those situated far outside the national picture (Hillsdale, Bellhaven, Lane and Indiana).

Here are the eight schools most represented by the four teams playing Sunday for a trip to the Super Bowl:

1. Miami (Fla.): 12. P Matt Bosher, OL Harland Gunn, DL Micanor Regis (Atlanta); LB Tavares Gooden, RB Frank Gore (San Francisco); DL Vince Wilfork, DL Marcus Forston (New England); LB Ray Lewis, OL Bryant McKinnie, RB Damien Berry, WR Tommy Streeter, S Ed Reed (Baltimore).

2. (tie) Oregon: 7. WR Drew Davis (Atlanta); RB LaMichael James, FB Will Tukuafu (San Francisco); TE Ed Dickson, DL Haloti Ngata, QB Dennis Dixon (Baltimore).

2. (tie) Florida: 7. LB Mike Peterson (Atlanta); DL Ray McDonald (San Francisco); DL Jermaine Cunningham, RB Jeff Demps, TE Aaron Hernandez, LB Brandon Spikes (New England); WR Deonte Thompson (Baltimore).

4. (tie) Alabama: 6. OL Mike Johnson, WR Julio Jones (Atlanta); DL Brandon Deaderick, LB Dont'a Hightower (New England); DL Terrence Cody, LB Courtney Upshaw (Baltimore).

4. (tie) Iowa: 6. DL Jonathan Babineaux (Atlanta); LB Jeff Tarpinian, TE Brad Herman, OL Markus Zusevics (New England); S Sean Considine, OL Marshal Yanda (Baltimore).

4. (tie) Texas: 6. OL Justin Blalock (Atlanta); CB Tarell Brown, OL Leonard Davis (San Francisco); OL Kyle Hix (New England); CB Chykie Brown, K Justin Tucker (Baltimore).

4. (tie) South Carolina: 6. DL John Abraham, DL Cliff Matthews, DL Travian Robertson, CB Dunta Robinson (Atlanta); S Emanuel Cook, CB Chris Culliver (Baltimore).

4. (tie) Ohio State: 6. OL Alex Boone, WR Ted Ginn Jr., LB Larry Grant, S Donte Whitner (San Francisco); TE Jake Ballard, S Nate Ebner (New England).
Another eight schools have five players on the rosters: Arizona State, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, UCF, Rutgers, Syracuse and Illinois.

Teams with four players: Oklahoma State, Marshall, Michigan, Fresno State, Utah, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, Louisville, LSU and Georgia Tech.

Three players: Auburn, Wisconsin, Maryland, California, Wake Forest, Florida State, Penn State, Kansas, Purdue, Northwestern, Texas Tech and Arkansas.

Two players: Baylor, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Clemson, Connecticut, ECU, Oregon State, Richmond, San Jose State, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Northern Illinois, TCU, UCLA, Notre Dame, Central Michigan, Delaware, Iowa State, Colorado, Tennessee State, Nebraska, Buffalo, Arizona and Washburn.

Luck of the draw plays a role, of course, but it's a bit surprising to see that schools like Virginia Tech, USC, Oklahoma and Texas A&M only have one player each on the four rosters. Not surprising? That one player represents schools like Prairie View A&M, Lane, Harvard, Weber State, Chadron State (Danny Woodhead), Hillsdale and Hofstra (which no longer has a football program).

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Marcus Forston promoted to roster

The Patriots have promoted defensive tackle Marcus Forston from the practice squad to the active roster, the team announced. Forston fills the spot on the 53-man roster that was recently vacated when the Patriots placed tight end Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve.

After going undrafted out of Miami in 2012, Forston was signed by the Patriots as a free agent, and was one of three undrafted free agents to make the active roster coming out of training camp.

Forston remained on the 53-man roster for three regular season games before being waived and re-signed to the team's practice squad. Incidentally, Forston appeared in just one game earlier this season, a Week 3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, who the Patriots host tomorrow in the AFC Championship.

The Patriots have relied heavily upon a three-man defensive tackle throughout 2012, led by Vince Wilfork. After having Kyle Love alongside him as a starter earlier in the season, Brandon Deaderick has emerged as the team's second interior defensive line starter.

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Ray Lewis, Bill Belichick Almost On same Side

It is as it should be: Ray Lewis' Ravens and Bill Belichick's Patriots meet Sunday night to decide the AFC champion in what could be the final game for one of the greatest players in NFL history.

And if it wasn't for Belichick, Lewis would not be in Baltimore.

Follow along. Belichick was the Browns' coach in 1995, when Cleveland traded a No. 1 pick to San Francisco in exchange for several picks. The 49ers used the 10th overall pick, which they got from Cleveland, on UCLA wide receiver J.J. Stokes.

But Belichick never got to use the second No. 1 pick he got back from San Francisco. Before he could, Cleveland fired him and moved the franchise to Baltimore, which inherited the 1996 first-round pick that Belichick had acquired from San Francisco.

Baltimore used its own first-round pick in 1996 on UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. Then it used its second first-round pick, the one Belichick acquired from the 49ers, on Miami linebacker Ray Lewis. Baltimore believed, accurately and wisely, that in one draft it had acquired building blocks for its defense and offense.

The other irony to the pick was that Lewis nearly wound up with Belichick anyway. After Cleveland fired Belichick, New England and its coach, Bill Parcells, hired him as defensive coordinator in 1996. One of the Patriots' missions that offseason was to upgrade their linebackers.

So on a spring day in 1996, Belichick flew to Miami and spent nearly a full day watching game tape with Lewis, having him read and react to defensive plays, getting to know him in case New England wanted to draft him. And it did -- in the second round. But before Lewis could slide to the Patriots' spot in that round, the Ravens drafted him in the first round with the 26th overall selection -- with the pick Belichick had acquired for Cleveland from San Francisco.

New England then opted to use its third-round pick on another linebacker, Arizona's Tedy Bruschi. It is another sign of the funny bounces football sometimes takes, affecting lives and legacies.

As Baltimore and New England each stand 60 minutes from New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII, the ultimate irony is how much Belichick has to do with the Ravens being positioned where they are. Without Belichick, Lewis would not have spent 17 memorable seasons in Baltimore.

Now the two men get to spend one more evening together, with the AFC championship at stake.

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Football journey: Marcus Forston

The Patriots have promoted defensive tackle Marcus Forston from the practice squad to the active roster, the team announced. Forston fills the spot on the 53-man roster that was recently vacated when the Patriots placed tight end Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve.

Forston made the team’s initial roster out of training camp, was inactive for the first two games of the season, then played eight snaps in the Patriots’ 31-30 loss to the Ravens on Sept. 23. He was waived after that game and landed on the practice squad, where he’s worked behind the scenes all season, at one time filling in along the offensive line in practice when bodies were thin.

After a strong sophomore season in 2010 at the University of Miami, Forston (6-2, 310) was viewed as a potential high draft choice but a knee injury in 2011 limited him to three games and he wound up going undrafted.

The Patriots have had success with undrafted players in recent years, and Forston, who grew up in Miami, hopes to add his name to the list. He shared his “football journey” with this week:

When he first started playing football: “When I was 6. I started playing because my older brother was, and my mom got me into it. I was always heavier than the guys my age.”

First positions: “Running back and linebacker.”

Role models growing up: “My mom [Pearline Simmons], seeing her and the things she did raising six kids basically by herself. She was never complaining, even though she had a job that wasn’t paying her very much. We still made it work. We always food on the table. We always had clean clothes; they might not have been new, but they were clean. Just seeing the things she went through, I always said I would never complain. I knew the situation she was in my whole life. So the situation I’m in now, even though it’s practice squad, is amazing.”

How his upbringing shaped him: “Anybody that meets me, or knows me, the first thing I think people would say is, ‘He’s humble.’ I’ve always been like that. I’m always going to be, because I know everything that is happening to me right now is truly a blessing. I’m thankful and grateful for this opportunity. Sometimes it’s frustrating being on the practice squad, because as a competitor, you want to play. I just have to do my part and control what I can control.”

Favorite teams and players growing up: “I watched Warren Sapp coming up and liked the Dolphins.”

Favorite memories at Northwestern High School: “Winning state championships back to back, my 11th grade and 12th grade year.”

Attending the University of Miami: “It was always Miami, growing up down there and watching guys like Vince [Wilfork] play. I remember him being dominant and I wanted to go there and do the same thing he did. I always liked playing against Florida State, that whole week preparing to play them.”

Expectations of being selected in the 2012 draft: “I thought I would. It was hard not getting drafted, but then you think, ‘What do I do now?’ I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I was like, ‘Maybe it isn’t God’s plan.’ But look at me now, I’m still here, part of a great team.”

A knee injury affecting his draft stock: “Coming into my [fourth] year [in 2011], everyone had me going first round, second round. Then I messed my knee up and had to get surgery. That dropped my stock. I only played [three] games and that hurt me a lot. … I think I’m way stronger now.”

Describing life as a Patriot: “A tremendous experience. From Day 1, you know that you have to change. Whatever you thought you were doing right, you have to change it. You come here and they teach you to be a professional, on and off the field. Nobody around here takes any bull. Nobody accepts that. You have to be on time, be early, do the right things.”

Reflecting on his one NFL game, against the Ravens: “That was a great experience, a Sunday night game, prime time. It was something I always dreamed about. Being a football fan, you know what kind of game that is, and what type of magnitude comes with that game.”

Spending the year on the practice squad: “I accepted my role. I’m not complaining, and coming in every day working hard, giving 110 percent. I’m going against a great offensive line and I’ll use that to make me better. When my name gets called, it gets called. You can only control what you can control, which is in the weight room and on the field.”

What he loves about football: “Just the excitement and preparing. I feel like football gets you ready for things out of this locker room -- things like ‘be on time’, ‘be early.’ One day you might have to get a job. These days here, the same amount of work you put into football, you’d put into the other job too.”

Describing his style of play: “I pride myself on being smart. I know the game well, and I like to help teammates out watching film and pointing things out and picking up tendencies.”

Summing up his football journey: “Coming up all the way from elementary to the middle of high school, I didn’t know the effect I had on some kids. I came out of high school highly recruited and a lot of kids looked up to me and I didn’t really understand it. When I went to college, and even now, kids will say to me, ‘Maybe I can do that. Maybe I can come out of the same projects and still have a dream like you dreamed.’ My mom and dad didn’t have the money for college, but I knew I couldn’t make any excuses.”

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Brandon McGee Keeps Helping His Draft Stock

Wednesday is usually the last day of padded practices at college All-Star games, so generally speaking today is the last chance for prospects to impress scouts before the mad dash to the airport. Here are some of the players that stood out from the East squad practices this morning:

Players that helped themselves:

Brandon McGee, CB, Miami (5106, 195 and 4.58): McGee impressed us again today with his fluidity and acceleration in and out of his breaks, as he was able to close on balls in front of him effectively. He demonstrated loose hips in transition which allowed him to stay on hips man’s hip off the flip. He was physical with receivers on the break but also did a good job of keeping his hands off on downfield routes.

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Ray Lewis treasures more in life than Super Bowl win

Reuters) - Ray Lewis knows exactly how he wants to end his storied 17-year National Football League (NFL) career, but the Baltimore Ravens linebacker prefers to measure his life by more than gridiron results.

Lewis yearns to raise the Lombardi Trophy for a second time and needs a road win over the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game to reach his first Super Bowl since the Ravens' triumph in 2001.

The 37-year-old inspirational leader of the Ravens, and 13-time Pro Bowl selection, said he has told team mates about the sweeetest words he has ever heard on the job.

"How can you top the moment of hearing those famous words, 'Ravens have won the Super Bowl.' When you play the game, that is what you play the game for. You play and hope that one day you hear those words," Lewis told reporters during a conference call on Thursday.

"That is what I am trying to get this team to go back and hear one more time. So they can really feel what it feels like. Because once you hear it, like I tell all of them, your life will never be the same again.

"Once you are a champion, you are always a champion, and that is probably one of the greatest things I will remember of all time."

Yet the man who founded the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation to help underprivileged youth in Baltimore keeps the job of football in perspective.

"Off the field, it's just impacting lives ... success is one thing; I've always believed impact is another. To go out in the communities and change someone's life, for real change their life, I believe that's what all of our jobs should be one day."

Many Ravens are rallying to send Lewis off on a high note.

"We are dealing with always a ‘last' around here. This is Ray Lewis's last hurrah," said Baltimore's running-receiving threat Ray Rice.

"Our General, our Captain - this is it for him. If you want to call it riding that emotional high, of course we are, because we are dealing with something that is going to be a last. We would like to send him out the right way."

Even the Patriots paid respect to Lewis.

"It's really a pleasure to play against him," said New England's Tom Brady, who has won more NFL playoff games than any other quarterback (17).

"He's really been so consistent over the years and durable and tough. He's so instinctive. He doesn't give up hardly any plays, makes a ton of tackles."

Patriots' nose tackle Vince Wilfork also paid tribute.

"When you talk about football, especially defense, the first person you think about is that guy. What he brings to the team. What he brings to the game. The love and the passion that he has for the game," said Wilfork.

Lewis said the winning or losing was not most important.

"I think the greatest thing you can ever be remembered for is the impact and things that you had on other people," he said.

"At the end of the day, with all of the men that I've been around, to one day look back here and listen to men say, ‘He was one of people who helped changed my life,' is probably one of the greatest legacies to be remembered for."

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(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue

Frank Gore: A Special Freshman Back, and Then Came the Injuries

Antrel Rolle has been playing football against Frank Gore since they were youngsters near Miami. When they were in high school — Rolle at South Dade, Gore a bit north in Coral Gables — Rolle always heard that Gore, blessed with elusiveness, exceptional balance and uncanny field vision, might be the best running back ever to come out of those neighborhoods, which doubled as a recruiter’s dream.

Clinton Portis saw it for himself, when, while already a University of Miami running back, he went to Gables High School games to watch the youngster he now considers a protégé playing, he said, with no socks under his cleats, no gloves on his hands, shredding heavily favored opponents by running draws and dives out of four-wide receiver sets. Portis returned to the Hurricanes practices to tell his coaches, “This Frank Gore is special.”

Rolle, now a Giants safety, said this week: “You really don’t get a full grasp of what kind of runner he is until you go against him. I will say it to the day I die, going against him, I still feel he was the best running back to come through the University of Miami before his knee injuries.”

That is the legend of Frank Gore, one of the most talented players on, perhaps, Miami’s most talented team, who was never as good as he might have been in college. He had to overcome two significant injuries, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee just after he beat out Willis McGahee in spring practice before Gore’s sophomore season, then the one in his right knee the next season. Those injuries are why the San Francisco 49ers chose clips from Gore’s freshman season when they showed his college highlights before their playoff victory over Green Bay last weekend. That was when, with his knees still unscarred and while splitting time with McGahee and Portis as a true freshman, he averaged 9.1 yards per carry.

“At times, I look back and I say if I wouldn’t have been hurt, I would probably have been a top 5 or 10 player coming out,” Gore said in a telephone interview this week. “It didn’t go my way. I look at it as God wanted me to go a different route. Before I got injured, football was very easy, I didn’t have to work out. I guess he wanted me to work hard and appreciate the game that He blessed me with the talent to do. That’s one thing I focus on.”

Gore is now one of the N.F.L.’s best running backs, compiling his sixth 1,000-yard season in eight years. He is already San Francisco’s leading career rusher.

This season, as the 49ers have transitioned from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and advanced to Sunday’s N.F.C. championship game at Atlanta, Gore has been the same quiet, consistent force he has always been. He is not the fastest runner, nor the one with the Adonis physique, but he still reads blocks better than most, and, to Portis’s astonishment, can shake, with his movement and the angles he takes, defenders approaching from behind that he can’t even see.

Gore arrived at Miami in 2001, a stroke of luck the then-Miami coach Larry Coker acknowledges occurred because he was recruiting Gore’s best friend, Roscoe Parrish, just 10 days before signing day. Gore grew up in one of Miami’s poorest areas. His mother, Liz, was then seriously ill with kidney disease and on dialysis. Gore struggled for years with dyslexia.

But after his first team meeting at Miami, Gore went up to his position coach and told him he wanted to play. He was told he had to learn the 12 pass protections the Hurricanes used. He took the playbook home that night and at 3:30 a.m., less than five hours before practice, he called his coach at home, asking to be quizzed on the pass protections. He had learned them all.

More than 11 years later, the film still shows the special player Rolle and Portis and the others saw.

“They were saying, ‘Dang, you were fast,’ ” said Don Soldinger, the former Hurricanes running backs coach, who Gore called after San Francisco beat Green Bay last Saturday. “He was saying ‘I was the best one.’ He put me on the phone with Randy Moss and said, ‘Tell Randy Moss how good I was.’ ”

Soldinger had to talk Gore out of quitting after the second knee injury. The doctor who performed the operations, John Uribe, explained to Gore that he would be better than ever once he recovered, because his original ligament structure had not been strong enough for his knees.

Portis was already an N.F.L. rookie when Gore injured his knee the first time and remembered that Gore was devastated. He said, in each of their conversations, Gore would ask, “Bro, what do you think?” Portis always told him he could come back. Privately, though, he wondered, just like the coaches and the N.F.L. scouts, if Gore would ever be the same.

“I remember thinking, I hope he didn’t lose what he had, because he was so agile, you couldn’t get a hand on him,” Portis said. “I remember thinking, what do you tell him?”

It was Soldinger, one of the few guiding forces in Gore’s life then, who finally prevailed upon him.

“I was very frustrated,” Gore said. “He talked to me, my mom talked to me, he said keep following my rehab. I was frustrated. I felt like it wasn’t for me. He told me just keep pushing at it. He wanted me to get a chance to reach my childhood dream to have an N.F.L. career.”

That he has had one at all is why Coker uses Gore as an example to encourage his players at Texas-San Antonio when they get hurt. When Gore talked to Soldinger after the victory over Green Bay, Soldinger told him he had to make a big push now, to try to propel his team to a championship. Portis regrets that Gore’s mother, who died in 2007, did not live to enjoy what her son has become. She had encouraged him to leave Miami early to go to the N.F.L. after he played a full season following the knee injuries. Gore was certain by then that if he was healthy he could still be productive.

On Saturday, Portis watched San Francisco’s victory over Green Bay with Edgerrin James, another former Hurricanes running back, in Los Angeles and the two have plans to be in Atlanta on Sunday, three generations of Hurricanes running backs together. James wondered how much longer Gore would play and Portis guessed four or five more years, because he knows how to avoid taking a pounding to keep his body healthy. Portis wonders if Gore will finish with more yards than any of them — James rushed for 12,246 in his career, Portis for 9,923 and Gore, at age 29, has 8,839.

Portis reminisced this week about how eager a freshman Gore was, always sitting next to him on the way to games, always talking about football, always saying, “I can’t wait until my time comes.” On Sunday, Portis talked to Gore on the phone again.

“He was still excited,” Portis said. “ ‘Man, you saw that game? What do you think?’ I said, ‘Bro, you got it.’ ”

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Vince Wilfork to set aside collegial feelings for Ray Lewis in AFC Championship

FOXBOROUGH --- Vince Wilfork spoke glowingly about his fellow University of Miami alumnus, Ray Lewis, when the veteran Baltimore Ravens linebacker announced before the start of the AFC playoffs that this season would be his last.

Lewis missed 10 games this season but returned from a torn triceps and gave the fourth-seeded Ravens an emotional charge in their victories at Cincinnati in the wild-card round and at top-seeded Denver in the divisional round to earn a rematch against the Patriots in the AFC title game.

"When you talk about football, especially defense, the first person you really think about is that guy,'' Wilfork said of Lewis. "What he brings to the team, what he brings to the game, the love and the passion he has for the game.

"It just goes to show you when he came back,it's a new ballclub in Baltimore,'' Wilfork said. "They feed of him because he's their leader, and that city feeds off of him. We have to do a real good job of making sure they don't feed too much off of him in this game because it'll already be tough, but to come in on the emotional high they're on after winning two big games in the playoffs, it's going to be tough.

"You can never question that man's level of execution,'' Wilfork said. "It's unbelievable.''

Lewis served as a mentor to a generation of Miami Hurricane football players, Wilfork included.

"We bleed Orange and Green,'' Wilfork said. "I love to see my guys around the league. It just shows you that we have something special down there [at the University of Miami]. We have mutual respect but at the end of the day, I want to win and he wants to win. We're always competitive.

"Hurricane or no Hurricane, I'm a New England Patriot and I want to win, plain and simple,'' Wilfork said. "I'm pretty sure being in Baltimore, he wants to win. However long it takes, we're going to battle our tails off and after the game we're going to wish each other luck.''

Win or lose, Wilfork expected to visit with Lewis and give him his proper respect.

"Hopefully, with that guy going out, just want to let him know what he meant to this game, because he meant a lot to this game,'' Wilfork said.

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D.J. Williams Drops By Sims Fayola International Academy For A Visit

DENVER (CBS4) – Denver Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams brightened the day of studentsicon1 at a Denver school.

Williams visited Sims Fayola International Academy Wednesday morning. The all-boys academy aims to help minority and low-income males.

Williams has been a long time supporter of the schoolicon1. He is currently working with Sims Fayola on the construction of a new library facility.

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Washington Redskins' Top Receivers Will Cost $7 000,000 More for 2013 NFL Season

The top four wide receivers for the Washington Redskins—Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan were the only group of four NFL receivers on the same team to each have 500-plus receiving yards in the 2012 season.

While they accounted for 62 percent of the Redskins' receiving yards and all but seven touchdowns, to keep them will cost the Redskins over $14 million combined in 2013.

Should the team assess the contributions these receivers made to the team on offense and will any have to take a pay cut to remain on the 2013 roster?

Pierre Garcon was the Redskins' first free agent signed prior to the 2012 season after four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Garcon missed six games due to an injury to the bottom of his right foot, but led the team in receiving yards with 633 yards and four touchdowns.  

His $2.1 million salary is going to more than double next season with a scheduled payout of $5.6 million. Garcon averaged 4.4 receptions and 14.4 yards per catch.  

In his eighth year as a Redskin and 12th NFL season, Santana Moss led the team with eight receiving touchdowns and second with 573 receiving yards. Moss played every regular season game and averaged slightly over 2.5 receptions per game and 14 yards per reception.

Moss collected $2.65 million in 2012 and is due $4.15 million next season.

Leonard Hankerson entered his second season with the Redskins after missing much of 2011 either as a non-starter or while on injured reserve. He was the lowest paid receiver among the four with a 2012 salary of $465,000. He is scheduled to earn $555,000 next season.

Hankerson accounted for 38 catches for 543 yards and three touchdowns. His biggest game of his professional career occurred in Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns as Hankerson caught two touchdowns from quarterback Kirk Cousins en route to a 38--21 'Skins victory and the team's fifth straight win.
Josh Morgan signed a five-year contract in 2012 after four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. The first two years of his contract are secured and the Redskins have the option of nullifying the remaining three years.  

In 2012, Morgan had two receiving touchdowns and 510 yards. His $1.8 million salary jumps to $3.8 million next season.

With salary cap space at a premium in 2013, should the team pare down the receiving corps or look for cuts elsewhere? The Redskins have a diverse, capable and productive receiving corps which kept defenses uncertain as to which receiver among the four would be targeted as the prime receiver.

Despite having the only wide receiver quartet to each have 500-plus yards, quarterback Robert Griffin III finished his rookie year ranked 22nd in passing yards among 2012 quarterbacks.

Griffin's rehabilitation from knee surgery could allow his return by the start of the 2013 season. During the offseason, the Redskins may evaluate the triple-threat, pistol formation offense to limit any further injuries to their quarterback of the future.  

If that is the case, the Redskins could see an increased need for their top four receivers and a decrease in rushing by their quarterback as evidenced by Griffin's rushing total of 67 yards in the final two games of the 2012 regular season.

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Toub: Devin Hester needs to have fun again

Dave Toub, who left the Chicago Bears to become the Kansas City Chiefs special teams coach on Tuesday, said Devin Hester just needs to get his mind right and start having fun to return to the form that made him one of the most dangerous players in the NFL.

"He still has a lot of talent," Toub said on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "You see it in practice.

"It's more mental with him. He has to get his mind right, and once that thing starts clicking, he's going to be fine."

Hester went from being the league's most dangerous return man to being a mediocre receiver, who had 23 catches for 242 yards and 1 touchdown this season. His receptions have decreased since the Bears have tried to convert him from return man to receiver.

Those struggles on the field, along with the recent firing of Lovie Smith, apparently have conspired to take the fun out of football for Hester, who said after Smith's firing that he's contemplating retiring. He later tweeted that the retirement thoughts have nothing to do with Smith's ouster.

"His response at the end, that was an emotional day with Lovie getting fired and him saying he wants to retire," Toub said. "You have to give it some time and go back and talk to him. He'll change that attitude. He's still got a lot more to give and he just needs to have fun back on the field again. When Devin is having fun, that's when he's dangerous."

Why wasn't he having fun?

"Just certain things," Toub said. "The thing about him is getting off to a good start. If he has a big return, you better watch out for the rest of the day because it's going to be all day long.

"We just could never get that jump start. We were kind of snake bit. We had two years in the nine years when I was here with Devin, where we didn't get any returns at all, and it was kind of the same deal. We just couldn't get over the edge. We set the bar so high that if we're not getting touchdowns we're not any good."

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Rob Chudzinski smart not to clean house

CLEVELAND, OHIO -- At this point, the only real news about Norv Turner would have been if he had changed his mind about becoming the Browns offensive coordinator.

It seems from the moment the Browns hired Rob Chudzinski as their new head coach, word was Turner would be joining the staff to run the offense.

That was good news back then, and there's even better news now as the Browns not only officially announced Turner, they also named five other coaches.
Actually, two of them are already on the staff -- Chris Tabor and George Warhop.

This is where Chudzinski impresses, as new coaches so often want to rip up the old staff and bring in their own guys.

Warhop is a respected offensive line coach. He was hired by Eric Mangini in 2009, retained by Pat Shurmur and now has the same position with Chudzinski. The Browns added a second offensive line coach in Mike Sullivan.

The point is the Browns had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The only member inherited by Warhop is All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas. The others came to the Browns and developed under Warhop's watch.

So when a team finally has a solid line, the last thing you do is change offensive line coaches.

And Chudzinski didn't fall into that trap.

The same with Chris Tabor, who rebounded from a rocky rookie year in 2011 to assemble one of the best special teams in 2012. Football Outsiders rated them No. 2 in the NFL, behind Baltimore.

In a casual conversation, Phil Dawson raved to me about the growth of the special teams under Tabor this season. He mentioned how it was a very young group, and Tabor had to continually make adjustments to the coverage groups.

In some ways, keeping Tabor and Warhop is nearly as important as adding Turner -- because the Browns can't keep changing everything every two years when a new head coach arrives.

But obviously, Turner is a major addition.

He has been a head coach for 15 years with three different teams. Chudzinski had worked for Turner twice, and he is wise to add this 60-year-old veteran as his mentor.

Turner was fired after a 7-9 record with San Diego, his offense ranking 31st -- yes, even below the Browns.

But the previous four years, the Chargers offense was ranked 6-1-10-11. He is respected as an offensive coordinator who had success with Dallas and some other teams.

Like Chudzinski, Turner is not married to one system.

Chudzinski had success with the stationary Derek Anderson (Browns 2007) and the athletic Cam Newton (Carolina 2011-12). Turner developed Philip Rivers into a top 10 quarterback, and has success stories going back to Troy Aikman with Dallas in the early 1990s.

It's easy to imagine Turner and Chudzinski looking at video of Brandon Weeden and asking: "OK, what does he do well? How can we make him better?"

Maybe Weeden will fail as an NFL quarterback. Or maybe he will improve next season simply because he's no longer a rookie, and experience is critical.

And maybe that West Coast Offense was not the right fit for Weeden in 2012 because it was very different from his scheme at Oklahoma State.

But this much is certain: If Weeden doesn't produce with these two coaches, he has no long-term future as a starting quarterback.

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Frank Gore accepting the pistol offense

SANTA CLARA -- Frank Gore may "love" the pistol formation now, but the 49ers' all-time leading rusher certainly didn't at first glance.

"I felt that's not real football, at first," Gore said Thursday. "But it's helping us to where we want to go, and win it all."

With quarterback Colin Kaepernick directing that multi-optional formation at times, the second-seeded 49ers (12-4-1) are on the cusp of reaching Super Bowl XLVII. They'll visit the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons (14-3) at noon Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.

Gore's impression of the pistol formation and other read-option schemes has changed since he first saw Oregon excelling with it in the college ranks.

Having played in a pro-style system since his collegiate days at the University of Miami, Gore's adapted to the type of read-option schemes that saw Kaepernick run for 181 yards — the most ever by a quarterback — in last Saturday's 45-31 win over the Green Bay Packers.

"Kap did a great job last week," Gore said. "He's big, strong, fast and they have to look out for them.

"Hopefully they keep looking out for him, then 21 (Gore's jersey number) keeps getting the ball and I do what he did last week."

Gore had 23 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown in Saturday night's playoff-opening win. He also had two receptions for 48 yards.

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Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne and Jim Irsay Join 'Parks and Rec' Crew

On Thursday night's "Parks and Recreation," some Indianapolis Colts showed up to make a character's dream come true. Andy Dwyer, as played by Chris Pratt, never had a bachelor party before his wedding (for which he wore a Reggie Wayne jersey.) Jim Irsay, Andrew Luck and Wayne show up at Lucas Oil Field to give Dwyer the best bachelor party ever.

Though Luck and Irsay did a good job, it was Wayne who stole the show as he told Dwyer it was a little weird to get married in a Colts jersey. If you're a Colts fan, this is a good reason to start watching "Parks and Rec." (If you're not a Colts fan, you should still be watching "Parks and Rec." It's a great show.)

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Judge tosses Jonathan Vilma's defamation lawsuit against Roger Goodell

A New Orleans federal judge has dismissed Jonathan Vilma's defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, thus bringing a close to nearly all of the legal action in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.

Judge Helen Berrigan found Vilma's claims, and the evidence to support them, to be insufficient and upheld Goodell's right to investigate conduct detrimental to the league under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

But Berrigan took a swipe at Goodell's initial investigation and the pall the entire situation placed over the Saints' season.

"While the Court is extremely disturbed by the fundamental lack of due process in Goodell's denying the players the identities of and the right to confront their accusers, that was substantially rectified later in the process," Berrigan wrote. "So while the process was initially procedurally flawed, the statements were ultimately found to have enough support to defeat the defamation claims."

Vilma was initially suspended for the entire season. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who heard the players' appeals after Goodell upheld his own decision, vacated all of the suspensions of the players involved. But Tagliabue confirmed Goodell's factual findings a bounty program had been in place.

"We are obviously disappointed, strongly believe that the CBA does not give anyone -- including a commissioner -- a license to misrepresent and to manufacture facts, especially at the expense of another person's reputation, and are considering our options," said Peter Ginsberg, Vilma's attorney.
The Saints, without head coach Sean Payton for the entire season as well as interim coach Joe Vitt for the first six games, went 7-9. It was their first losing season since 2007.

"Even though this matter has been pending only since May of this year, it feels as protracted and painful as the Saints season itself, and calls for closure," Berrigan wrote. "The Court nonetheless believes that had this matter been handled in a less heavy handed way, with greater fairness toward the players and the pressures they face, this litigation and the related cases would not have been necessary."

The only pending legal action left pertaining to the bounty case is a class-action suit filed by a Saints season-ticket holder, who is claiming the value of his tickets was affected by the bounty case. The league has filed a motion to dismiss that suit as well.

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Vince Wilfork is one big problem for Ravens

For a big man, Vince Wilfork moves around a lot. On one snap, he can be at left defensive end or tackle. On another snap, he can be at the same position on the right side.

Sometimes, Wilfork can line up directly over the center.

But he's always in somebody's head — one big, mean, nasty 6-foot-2, 325-pound headache.

"Vince Wilfork is a beast," said Ravens running back Ray Rice about the New England Patriots' top defensive lineman. "He is a flat-out beast. He handles double-teams. [If] you block him single-handedly, he bull rushes. The thing that's great about him is the speed. Some people think that because of his size he isn't going to be able to move as fast. He moves as quickly as any defensive linemen in the league. I've always loved battling, going against a guy like that, because he is going to give it everything he has. He knows what it takes to win. I have tremendous respect for him.

"That's no knock on that whole defense. I think their defense, sometimes because their offense gets so much credit, that their defense gets overlooked. Look at how they were able to neutralize the [Houston] Texans last week. They took the run game away from them. That's something that their defense … they get up for games like this because they know that we run the football. They know that we do different things, but that's a prideful bunch over there. They are no walk-in-the-park defense. You have to go out there and execute at a high level."

But first and foremost, Wilfork has to be contained. He is the mother of all loads. The Patriots were ranked No. 9 in rushing defense during the regular season allowing 101.9 yards per game. A week ago, they held the Texans and Arian Foster to 91 yards.

A lot of teams try to run to the perimeter on New England because there is no room to run inside. Wilfork had 59 tackles during the regular season, seventh-best on the team, and 41 were unassisted.

If you think he is just some blob who clogs up the middle, then you're wrong. He also has three sacks and has knocked down six passes.

He is the complete, big package.

"He is the best guy I will face this year because he is such a complete player," Ravens rookie left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "I only got to face him a couple of plays earlier this season but he is very physical, has a good blast and very good at the point of attack. He is really athletic for his size and what really impresses me is how fast he is."

Fortunately for the Ravens, they are playing Wilfork at a time when the offensive line is peaking. Since shifting Michael Oher to right tackle, Osemele to left guard and inserting veteran Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, the Ravens have been more productiv,e averaging 296.5 yards passing and 162.5 rushing in the past two games.

"Yes, I think so," said Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda, when asked if the offensive line was playing at its highest level. "We had a big test last weekend and we gave up one sack and kept Joe pretty clean. Obviously, that's a huge part of what we try to do every week. If we can get that done, Joe can really throw the ball down the field. I think it's a great job across the board to contain those guys and get one sack."

But the Denver Broncos didn't have any player with the girth, power and quickness of Wilfork. In the past, he has blown up running plays because he simply overpowers at the point of attack one-on-one.

Ravens center Matt Birk has had an outstanding career, but clearly is no match for Wilfork. Osemele and Yanda need to have big games where they work combination blocks with Birk and then scrape off and try to pick off a linebacker in the second level.

"He is just not a guy that we will be able to cover up," Yanda said. "He has a lot of lateral quickness, which makes him good. He disrupts a lot of offensive lines. He's a force in there. We will have to have him blocked and get after him and contain him. It starts with him upfront for us — creating problems."

If they can't, it could be a long game for running backs Rice and Bernard Pierce. If the guards can't scrape off, then New England linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo will be free to make tackles.

"We can't allow him to key on what we're doing," Osemele said. "We're going to have to be unpredictable at times. I think ever since we had to make some changes, we've got the best five guys out there right now and Joe has been playing exceptionally well. It's up to us to keep that going."

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Ryan Braun officially named to Team USA

It's official. Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun and catcher Jonathan Lucroy have been named to the Team USA roster for the World Baseball Classic this spring.

Braun and Lucroy were the only Brewers named to the prelimnary roster. A final 28-man roster, including at least 13 pitchers and two catchers, must be submitted on Feb. 20.

Braun will be competing in the WBC for the second time, having competed for Team USA in 2009.

Toronto's J.P. Arencibia and Minnesota's Joe Mauer joined Lucroy as the three catchers on the Team USA provisional roster.

Beyond Braun, the outfielders named are Adam Jones, Giancarlo Stanton, Shane Victorino and Ben Zobrist.

Team USA begins pool play in the World Baseball Classic on March 8 in Phoenix against Mexico. Italy and Canada are the other teams in Pool D.

Team USA will be led by manager Joe Torre. Torre's coaching staff includes Larry Bowa (bench coach), Marcel Lachemann (bullpen/pitching coach), Greg Maddux (pitching coach), Dale Murphy (first base coach), Gerald Perry (hitting coach) and Willie Randolph (third base coach). Lachemann and Maddux will oversee Team USA’s pitching staff.  

"Having talked to all of these players I sense a great deal of excitement about representing the United States in the World Baseball Classic," Torre said.  "I share their excitement and look forward to managing this talented group in March."

Only 27 players were named to the provisional roster and Torre said he was holding open a spot for another starting pitcher. Four starters already named are Atlanta's Kris Medlen, Toronto's R.A. Dickey, Texas' Derek Holland and San Francisco's Ryan Vogelsong.

Relief pitchers named to the roster include San Francisco's Jeremh Affeldt, Arizona's Heath Bell, St. Louis' Mitchell Boggs, Miami's Steve Cishek, Kansas City's Tim Collins, San Diego's Luke Gregerson, Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel, and Cleveland's Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano.

Infielders include New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips, Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins and New York Mets third baseman David Wright, as well as utility man Willie Bloomquist.

The rosters for the other countries will be made official later today. Brewers who already have committed to play for their countries are relievers John Axford and Jim Henderson and infielder Taylor Green for Canada, right-hander Yovani Gallardo for Mexico and catcher Martin Maldonado for Puerto Rico.

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VIDEO: Baltimore hotel fires up a well-choreographed Ray Lewis-themed laser show

Thank you to proCane fan @VicinoB for directing us to this video.

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Ray Lewis has proved to be a factor in Ravens' 2 playoff games

Ray Lewis' trademark instincts kicked in again Saturday, a display of football savvy punctuated by the Ravens inside linebacker slamming Denver Broncos rookie running back Ronnie Hillman to the ground.

During the third quarter of the Ravens' dramatic 38-35 double-overtime victory in the AFC divisional round, Lewis eluded the blocking attempt of towering offensive tackle Ryan Clady to chase down Hillman for a loss of three yards.

As the retiring two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year tries to end his legendary career by earning a second Super Bowl ring, Lewis isn't just along for the ride. Heading into Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots, the 37-year-old leads the Ravens with 30 tackles through two playoff games.

Besides the emotional impact that Lewis has provided since returning from a torn right triceps that required surgery and sidelined him for 10 games, he's also pulling his weight on the field.

"He's a guy that still plays the game at a high level," Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones said. "You would think he was 21, 22, watching him out there, flying around, making plays. Why not play hard for a guy like that? It makes you so comfortable on defense to know that you have a guy behind you that's a stud, that's going to make such a huge play and can make so many plays. I told him to stay a few more years."

Although Lewis has to wear a bulky brace to protect his right arm and is no longer as mobile as he used to be in pass coverage and in pursuit of runs outside the tackles, he's still making an impact. Lewis made a game-high 17 tackles against the Broncos after finishing with 13 tackles during a 24-9 wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts in his emotional final game at M&T Bank Stadium.

"He's so instinctive, he doesn't give up hardly any plays, makes a ton of tackles," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "He's really a playmaker for them. You see when he makes a play, their whole sideline gets really amped up. You always have to know where No. 52 is at."

Despite how he's performed this postseason, Lewis insists he has no intentions of changing his mind about his decision to walk away from the game after 17 seasons. And teammates and team officials have reiterated that Lewis is serious about his pending retirement and won't reverse his decision like former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre repeatedly did.

"No, I can't come back," Lewis said Wednesday. "My kids are calling for Daddy. It's a great reward to see the sacrifice my babies have made for me, and it's time that I sacrifice for them. I'm proud that the ride is still going.

"After the Denver game, me and Ray [Rice] just sat there and we hugged on the field. He grabbed me kind of hard. I was telling him to let me go, but it's just something that's special. To end it, wherever it ends, then so be it."

Lewis' final ride isn't over yet, though.

The Ravens square off with the Patriots on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, the same place where they fell short last year in the AFC title game.
And Lewis regards this latest encounter with Brady as an appropriate scenario.

"If you write it up, there's no better way to write it up," he said. "We all felt the same way leaving there last year, that we had an opportunity to win that game. If you were going to go to the Super Bowl, then go back at New England again.

"We know each other very well. Every game we play is always those classic games. It comes down to that last play, that last drive. I think they know what we are bringing, and we know what they bring."

Lewis clearly still has an innate feel for diagnosing plays. On Saturday alertly pounced on a ball that Peyton Manning fumbled, but the recovery was nullified by a penalty.

"He definitely can play multiple more years, but I think he understands that it's time to move on," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "It's just great to see him play at a level that I don't think a lot of linebackers can be doing now. I'm just humbled and definitely lucky to play with someone like that."

However, Lewis allowed eight receptions for 97 yards on eight passes thrown in his direction in Denver. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis has surrendered 14 receptions for 177 yards on 16 throws in his direction during the two playoff games, with quarterback compiling a 105.9 passer rating against him.

It's an understandable regression for an older player still playing at an age when most linebackers have long since hung up their cleats. Overall, though, the reviews for Lewis' play have been solid.

He's been particularly clutch in 19 career playoff games with 215 career tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and five forced fumbles.

"Ray has played well, that's the most important thing," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "And he still can play. He's been playing at a high level for 17 years. He's a top linebacker in the game right now, at this very moment, so he's made a difference for us."

The mere fact that Lewis is back on a football field at his age following such a serious injury has amazed his teammates, and in the locker room he is spoken of with reverence.

"He's still got it," said outside linebacker Albert McClellan, who grew up in Lewis' hometown of Lakeland, Fla. "He's still running around. People are still afraid of a head-on collision with Ray. He's a threat on the field with his thinking ability and the way he knows the game."

After 2,643 regular-season tackles, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 20 forced fumbles and 20 fumble recoveries, Lewis wants to end his ride in New Orleans with another Super Bowl. That's why he endured a grueling rehabilitation regimen to get his arm healthy enough for one more run at a Lombardi Trophy.

"I think one thing Ray is doing is he's showing people, 'I can overcome,'" strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "He's showing, 'I can do what you say I can't do.'"

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Bears Want Devin Hester to have fun again

Chicago Bears special teams coach Dave Toub said Wednesday, Jan. 16, that WR Devin Hester just needs to start having fun to return to the form that made him one of the most dangerous players in the NFL. "He still has a lot of talent," Toub said in a radio interview. "You see it in practice. It's more mental with him. He has to get his mind right, and once that thing starts clicking, he's going to be fine."

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Ray Lewis dominating as retirement looms

OWINGS MILLS, Md.  — Ray Lewis sure doesn't look the part of an aging linebacker on the brink of retirement.

After being sidelined for 12 weeks with a torn right triceps, Lewis reclaimed his post in the middle of the Baltimore defense two weeks ago and led the Ravens with 13 tackles in a 24-9 playoff win over Indianapolis.

As an encore, Lewis had a team-high 17 tackles last week in a victory over Denver.

The 37-year-old Lewis intends to retire after the Ravens' complete a playoff run that continues Sunday with the AFC title game in New England.

Some wonder if Lewis might change his mind because he's playing so well. He remains adamant that he will stay the course.

Lewis says, "No, I can't come back. My kids are calling for Daddy."

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Remarkably resilient Gore getting better with age in San Francisco

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For obvious reasons, we spent much of the season marveling at the freakish recuperative powers of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who made a serious run at the single-season rushing record despite being less than a year removed from major reconstructive knee surgery. If there were a lifetime award for playing at a high level after overcoming or playing through significant injuries, however, San Francisco running back Frank Gore might win hands down.

He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during spring ball following a solid freshman season at the University of Miami, but was back on the practice field late that fall. The next year he tore the ACL in his right knee, but returned to run for more than 1,000 yards the following season. Since entering the NFL in 2005 as a third-round choice, he has suffered abdominal strains, ankle and shoulder sprains, a hip pointer, a broken hand and bruised ribs, among other things. Yet he has missed an average of just under 1.5 games a season the last seven years.

His resiliency is largely due to genetics and toughness, but there is an ample dose of passion in the recipe. It might not be as public as a Ray Lewis pre-game dance or speech, but it's obvious behind the closed doors of the locker room, where the soft-spoken 5-foot-9, 217-pound veteran has been known to cry at his locker after losses, or on the practice field, where during training camp in 2007 coaches had to hide his helmet because he kept sneaking onto to the practice field despite having a broken hand.

Gore was so upset with what his coaches had done that his emotions fluctuated between anger and disappointment. Never mind that he was the franchise back who had just signed a $28 million extension. His love for the game is deeper than a Langston Hughes poem.

"He was legitimately upset, down on himself, teary-eyed, mad that he's not out here practicing with us," quarterback Alex Smith said at the time.

His passion has not dissipated five seasons later. If anything it's increased, because the 49ers can advance to their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season with a win Sunday in Atlanta. They were in the same position a year ago, but lost in overtime to the visiting Giants. For Gore, the defeat hurt more than any injury he had ever experienced. If the redness in his eyes last January didn't say so, the smile on his face last Saturday after beating the Packers did.

Making that moment sweeter Saturday was Gore's ability to play through injuries. Neither he nor the team would discuss his ailment, but doctors hovered around him in the locker room and led him away for examination shortly after the media were allowed in. He returned later and said he was fine, but with Gore you never know, because he's always there when the 49ers need him.

"It's truly remarkable," says Broncos great Terrell Davis, whose career was cut short by a knee injury. "Guys typically don't come back to be the same player after that type of knee injury, and you definitely don't see many bounce back and have the type of career that Frank is having. When he had his second injury, I'm sure people wrote him off and said his career is over, or maybe he'd be just an average back at the next level. Now he's one of the top three backs in this league."

Gore turned 29 last May, which is typically the age when running backs start slowing down. But this season he ran for 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns, the rushing total the second-most in his career, and the touchdowns tying for second-most. His 8,231 yards rushing over the last seven seasons trail only Peterson (8,849) and Steven Jackson (8,416). To him, age truly is just a number. Against the Packers last week he got stronger as the game progressed, gaining 73 of his 119 yards in the final one-plus quarters.

"I've known Frank since we were little kids in Miami," says Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch. "We played against each other in Little League, high school and college. I have more respect for him now than ever. To tear his ACL in two different legs, to lose his mother to [kidney disease], to face the injuries he's faced as a pro -- he just stays so positive and works so hard. We train together in the offseason, and he goes twice a day. He's just what you'd expect from an All-Pro."

Gore is one of the game's most complete backs, a threat as a runner and a receiver and unflinching as a protector. His football IQ is among the highest on the team, which is a testament to not only him but also position coach Tom Rathman, who got him to see the game as a quarterback does. That was invaluable, because it allowed Gore to recognize the stress points in the defense and to see where the holes and crevices would be before the snap. Not that he needed the advantage.

His vision and balance already make him a monster to bring down. He also runs low behind his pads and has the power and burst to break tackles or slip through small openings. His breakaway speed isn't what it was early in his career, and he has had to learn to be more patient with his reads after the 49ers began using more option-like zone reads with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback instead of Smith. But when it's time to deliver, he's always there.

Part of it stems from conversations he used to have with wideout Isaac Bruce, who spent two years with the Niners before retiring in his mid-30s. "He told me when I hit 28, 29, everyone was going to tell me that I'm supposed to decline," Gore says. "But he always told me, 'Don't ever listen to them. As long as you train hard, put the right stuff in your body, go out there and practice hard, you can do whatever you want to do.' Ever since he told me that, I never listen to the statistics of a running back. I know that from this point on in my career, I'm going to hear that every year, every year. As long as God blesses me in the morning to get up and work hard, I'm going to take advantage of it."

That means seeing a "muscle doctor" and massage therapist on Monday when his body is hurting. It means more therapy on Tuesday or Thursday, if necessary. It means laser therapy to help heal his soft-tissue injuries. And it means a visit with the chiropractor on Friday.

With age comes wisdom, which is why Gore now says he sees his knee injuries in college as a blessing. "I was always a hard worker, but when I was younger I didn't have to put the extra work in like some of the other guys," he says. "I'm happy that God made things happen the way that they happened because I probably would have left school real early, with my mind not right, and been a top-five, top-10 pick, not ready for that. I would have probably been hanging around the wrong guys, who were behind me just because of what I was doing.

"But when things started happening to me [from an injury standpoint] I kind of saw who my real friends were," he continues. "I'm glad God put me through that. It made me even hungrier to get back to something that I love to do. Third-round pick, looking at the other guys who I felt weren't better than me that went before me -- it always gave me something to push toward."

His primary goal used to be finishing with more career rushing yards than the running backs selected ahead of him in 2005: first-round picks Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams, and second-rounders J.J. Arrington and Eric Shelton. He not only has done that -- his 8,839 yards are 2,822 more than Benson -- but his six seasons of at least 1,000 yards rushing are equal to the combined total of the aforementioned five.

"The turnover at that position is so great because there's always somebody younger to take your job, so really it's a remarkable story what Frank has done," says Cardinals guard Adam Snyder, who teamed with Gore from 2005-11. "I can remember being in college and I saw the story on Frank on ESPN. I just remember thinking, 'Wow! What a story.' To have both knees blown out and still be drafted -- and that highly -- for me he's an inspiration, he really is. To just have the drive to keep going, most guys would have probably given up. But he doesn't know what that means. He's incredible."

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Tom Brady Recognizes How Ray Lewis Can Get Ravens ‘Amped Up,’ Says Patriots Always Have to Know Where He Is

For those who are fans of when Tom Brady gets worked up and starts calling out his fellow Patriots, the unfiltered version of such passion will be on full display Sunday.

Ray Lewis has brought emotion and intensity to every game he’s ever played, but it’s been at another level for the last two games, now that Lewis has announced that he is retiring once this season is over. With Sunday’s AFC Championship Game possibly being his last, Lewis is sure to be fired up — and Brady knows what that can mean.

“You see when he makes a play, their whole sideline gets really amped up,” Brady explained. Brady was lauding Lewis and preaching the importance of keeping an eye on him as the Patriots chatted Wednesday about Sunday’s game. The Ravens and Patriots have been seeing a lot of each other in recent years, including New England’s win in the AFC Championship Game last year, and Brady knows what to look for with Lewis. “It’s really a pleasure to play against him,” Brady said.

“He’s really been so consistent over the years, and durable and tough. He’s so instinctive. He doesn’t take off hardly any plays, makes a ton of tackles, he’s great in the pass game, he’s great in the run game.

Whatever they choose, he’s really a playmaker for them, so they give him an opportunity to make those plays.”

Brady also gave a similar compliment to Lewis as he and coach Bill Belichick have given to fellow Ravens defensive standout Ed Reed in the past, saying that the Patriots always have to know where Lewis is in on the field on every play. Even with the injury that sidelined him for most of this season and retirement looming, Lewis has proven to be a force. What could be really fun is if he turns out to be enough of a force that the Patriots and Ravens go down to the wire, and Brady has to start calling out his teammates again.

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"He's really special," Patriots coach Bill Belichick says of Ed Reed

It's no secret in NFL circles that Ravens free safety Ed Reed is a big fan of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, getting to know him at the Pro Bowl.

As far as Belichick is concerned, it's a mutual admiration with the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Reed is an nine-time Pro Bowl selection with 61 career interceptions, returning seven for touchdowns.

Reed is the all-time leader for interception return yards with 1,541, ranking ahead of Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson. And he ranks 10th on the all-time interceptions list, one behind Dick LeBeau and Dave Brown and two behind Ronnie Lott and Darren Sharper.

"Ed Reed’s career? It’s everything. His production," said Belichick, when asked about Reed's legacy today by New England reporters. "He's had fabulous production at whatever he’s done, including blocking kicks and returning kicks and things like that.

"His interceptions, his interception return yardages, his instinctiveness and his play-making ability, how consistent he's been over time. He just does things that nobody else at that position does or I don’t know if they’ve ever done it. He’s special. He's really special."

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Ray Lewis of Ravens: 'No better way to write it up'

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- This was the game the Baltimore Ravens have wanted for 12 months. Now that they've got an AFC Championship rematch with the Patriots, linebacker Ray Lewis said if they don't come away with a win, everything they've done to get to this point will be irrelevant.

"If you write it up, there's no better way to write it up," he said. "We all felt the same way leaving there last year. We had an opportunity to win that game, and what better way to go back to the Super Bowl than to go back at New England again?"

When they left Gillette Stadium after losing last season's AFC Championship game by a wayward field goal attempt, every Raven was in disbelief and disarray.
Kicker Billy Cundiff was shell-shocked. Defensive lineman Terrell Suggs was dumbfounded. Quarterback Joe Flacco was unsatisfied. Lewis, as usual, was inspirational, telling his teammates they would be here again.

"I just think going back to last year, we made up our mind that that wasn't it for us," Lewis said. "That's just kind of how the seasons go. For us to be back here again, same position, same situation, who would have ever thought of it?"

This will be the third time the Ravens and Patriots have faced each other in the playoffs since 2010.

"We know each other very well," Lewis said. "And every game we play is always those classic games that come down to that last play, that last drive."

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Bernie Kosar calls concussion treatment a 'gift from God'

On the football field, Bernie Kosar was a picture of contradictions. Pure athleticism was never his forté, from legs that never could outrun the slowest pass rushers to an arm that often reverted to an unconventional, sidearm motion.

The results? He once threw 308 passes without a single interception, setting what was then an NFL record.

Now 49 years old, the former University of Miami and Miami Dolphins quarterback is finding that maximizing his tools to avoid life’s potholes can be even trickier. For years, some of his public appearances, as well as those on radio, have left many wondering if his slurred speech was the result of drinking. He had trouble finding words to express himself. The past decade has brought virtually nonstop ringing in his ears and headaches. Meaningful sleep became impossible.

All this, in addition to well-documented financial problems in which millions vanished and his marriage ended in divorce.

That’s not the Bernie Kosar who appeared before the media Thursday in Cleveland, where he spent the majority of his career with the Browns. A confident, upbeat Kosar offered a glowing testimonial to “groundbreaking” care received from Dr. Rick Sponaugle, who runs a wellness institute in Palm Harbor, outside Tampa.

Finding Sponaugle, Kosar said, was “a gift from God” to counter more than a dozen concussions while playing. He added, “I see all the symptoms going away.”

In a phone interview with The Palm Beach Post on Friday, Sponaugle offered a general outline of his treatment, saying he conducted a PET (positron emission tomography) scan of Kosar’s brain to assess damage, then put Kosar on a “proprietary” IV and supplement program combined with a holistic approach that included improved nutrition.

“According to Bernie, it’s 90 to 95 percent gone, probably with a week and a half of treatment,” Sponaugle said of Kosar’s symptoms.

Without evoking the word “cure,” Sponaugle added, “He doesn’t need my services anymore, to be honest with you.”

Almost simultaneously with the news conference, researchers confirmed that the brain of late Dolphins and San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which also has been found in scores of other former professional football players who have died or committed suicide at an early age, including Pahokee’s Andre Waters.

Given that Sponaugle said he not only could mitigate but reverse the effects of brain trauma, such treatment would constitute nothing short of a breakthrough.
Such progress is the goal of Dr. Robert A. Stern, a Ph.D. and professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Stern received a grant from the National Institutes of Health that was supported — but not funded — by the NFL to develop a way to diagnose CTE in a living person (currently, it can be diagnosed only after death). Stern’s study includes 100 former NFL players ages 40 to 69, began a year ago and should last two more years.

“I find Dr. Sponaugle’s claims are not at all based on any known or accepted scientific findings,” Stern said Saturday. “I view them as unacceptable, misleading and potentially quite harmful.”

Stern said he knows of no methods of reversing brain injuries.

Privately, others involved in traditional brain injury science are skeptical of Sponaugle, hedging themselves by conceding they haven’t examined Kosar and find it quite possible Kosar either feels better or at least believes he does for now.

Kosar, who still lives in western Broward County, said his reason for coming forward was to help others.

“I see friends of mine and I think a lot of them are losing hope,” he said at the news conference. “There are hundreds, if not thousands of guys, who are dealing with issues and pain and stuff . . . They have an option and something that can genuinely help them get better in a short amount a time. You don’t have to live the rest of your life in pain and agony.”

Kosar isn’t the first Sponaugle patient to offer a testimonial. Sponaugle admitted he has given selected patients free treatment, in some cases in exchange for positive comments to the media — an arrangement virtually unheard of.

Sponaugle bristled when asked if Kosar, who in 2009 was filing for bankruptcy, received free or discounted care.

“He paid me in full,” Sponaugle said. “He did not get a thing from me. He didn’t ask for free treatment.”

Sponaugle is an anesthesiologist specializing in addiction. On websites and infomercials with actress Suzanne Somers, his claims include treating autism and Alzheimer’s, and he has said his anti-aging program can take 15 years off patients within weeks. His detox program claimed to cure OxyContin addicts in six hours. At times, his approach has included citing from the Bible and he once told The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal that if such passages didn’t move patients to tears, “I feel like I’ve failed.”

Stern scoffed at what he sees as Sponaugle’s over-reliance on PET scans and such sweeping claims.

“If that were the case, he would have won already several Nobel prizes and be applauded by the entire scientific community as perhaps the most brilliant scientist out there,” Stern said.

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Ray Lewis’s last run fuels Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl bid — or does it?

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ray Lewis, for so long, has leaned on the emotional and spiritual elements of football, life and their intersection. Those are what have pushed him to this, the end of his 17th season, the end of his career. He has either one more game — Sunday’s AFC championship game at New England — or two, if his Baltimore Ravens win and advance to the Super Bowl. Swirl all the emotions and spirits together, all that Lewis has meant to his franchise and his city, and it could seem a combustible combination.

“I’ve just been in this calm state,” Lewis said Wednesday, “because at the end of the day, nothing matters unless we go win in New England this week.”

Yet as the Ravens approach the game that will either end Lewis’s career or extend it again, it might be worth casting spirituality aside and leaning on science. Correlation, after all, does not imply causation. Lewis missed the final 10 games of the Ravens’ regular season with a torn triceps, and Baltimore stumbled to the finish, losing four of its final five. Before he returned for the playoffs, Lewis announced he would retire whenever the season ended. In his two appearances since, Baltimore handled Indianapolis at home and then surprised Denver on the road to reach this point.

So along the way has come a predictable yearning to connect Lewis’s final season to Baltimore’s position in the AFC title game, a connection that is inescapable around the Ravens this week even though some Baltimore players say the entire premise is dubious.

“You guys ask so many questions about it, you make a big deal about it,” quarterback Joe Flacco said to an auditorium full of media members Wednesday. “. . .When we’re out there playing on Sunday, that’s the last thing we’re really thinking about.”

As wide receiver Torrey Smith said: “People always say, ‘You want to win it for Ray. You want to win it for Ray.’ We do. But you want to win it for yourself, too. You know what I mean? People kind of forget about that.”

There is no way, around here, to forget about Lewis, regarded as one of the best linebackers ever — 13 times a Pro Bowler, seven times first-team all-pro. His presence has defined the organization for as long as the organization has existed. Wednesday, he recounted the call he received on draft day, 1996, from Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ general manager, then and now. His first questions: Do we have a team name? Do we have team colors?

Now, the purple-and-black of the Ravens are part of the fabric of Baltimore. A portion of a street has been renamed “Ray Lewis Way.” His No. 52 jersey rivals the orange-and-black No. 8 worn by Baltimore’s immovable icon, former Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken. Throw him in with Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson, both athletic deities here.

“Who knew that I would be a staple in Baltimore?” Lewis said.

And who knew he would go out this way? When the Ravens lost three straight games to start December, they appeared to be losing their grip on the AFC North. The question then became, “Will Lewis ever play again?” But because of the spirituality, the emotion, that guide him, Lewis said he felt he would be back, that the Ravens would be back.

Last year, when the Ravens lost the AFC title game at New England in a game they could have won — if not for Lee Evans’s dropped pass in the end zone and Billy Cundiff’s shanked short field goal — Lewis gave a rousing speech in the locker room, because giving rousing speeches in the locker room long ago became part of his job description. He told his teammates they would be back. But whether they did or not, he said his teammates shouldn’t let that fate define them.

“Don’t let this game ever dictate your emotions,” Lewis said Wednesday. “When you walk out of this locker room, somebody’s looking for you to be the bigger person. Yeah, we lost this game, but it’s not life.”

At 37, so much of his life has been about football. And yet, that is what’s being overlooked now. Wednesday, New England quarterback Tom Brady discussed the challenges of facing the Ravens with reporters in Foxborough, Mass. “You always have to know where ‘52’ is at,” Brady said.

Lewis had 13 tackles against Indianapolis, 17 more against Denver in a game that went to double overtime.

“That’s the most important thing: He can still play,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s been playing at a high level for 17 years. He’s a top linebacker in the game right now, at this very moment.”

Because of that, and because the Ravens have pushed this deep into the playoffs for the third time in the past five years, Lewis was asked whether he has reconsidered his retirement. “No,” he said firmly.

“I always said to myself I would know when it’s time,” he said.

So this is the time. Whether that is a contributing factor in the Ravens’ appearance here — whether Point A can be connected to Point B — can be debated, but it cannot be determined.

“Our general, our captain, this is it,” running back Ray Rice said. “If you want to call it riding that emotional high, the emotions and everything — of course we are, because we’re dealing with something that’s going to be a last.”

Whether that last game comes Sunday or in the Super Bowl, Lewis is clearly relishing it. He will be in the center of a huddle Sunday, his teammates gathered round, and he will bark words to them that likely will be picked up by a television camera and broadcast to the football-loving public. Will the Ravens prevail because he is doing that for one of the final times? Who knows?

“It’s something that’s special,” he said. “To end it, whenever it ends, so be it.”

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Tim George Injured, Will Not Compete In NASCAR In 2013

Tim George was schedule to race par-time for Richard Childress Racing in the Camping World Truck Series for 2013 with sponsorship from Applebee’s. He would have been the third RCR truck alongside Ty Dillon and Brendan Gaughan.

Today George announced that he will not be competing in the Camping World Truck Series for 2013 due to an ankle injury that he suffered while snowmobiling.

He had twelve starts last year for Childress in the Camping World Truck Series with a nine place finish at Talladega and a pole award at Kansas.

Members of the media did pursue comments from Richard Childress Racing, but none have been returned so far.

Speculation is that Childress will shut down the team for this season leaving the entire crew without a job sending them back to the unemployment fields of NASCAR.

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Future proCane Brandon McGee Impressing

On a beautiful, sunny morning in Tampa, the East squad practiced and below is a quick run-down on those players that performed well and poorly. Unfortunately, California-PA offensive lineman Eric Kush injured his left ankle during the 1 on 1 drill and we did not see him return.

Players that impressed

1. Brandon McGee, CB, Miami (5106, 195 and 4.58): One of the standout performers this morning, McGee made two outstanding interceptions during today’s practice. Displaying loose hips and quick feet, he was able to flip hips to change directions easily. He consistently was quick reading and reacting to the play, which helped him to break and close fast. On both interceptions his jumping ability, body control and hands showed up as he high pointed the ball and made the interception over a receiver.

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Matt Bosher had off day against Seahawks

FLOWERY BRANCH — Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong confirmed that kickoff specialist Matt Bosher mis-hit his final kickoff that allowed Seattle to throw a pass into the Falcons’ end zone as time expired Sunday.

He said that it was a human error.

Bosher also mis-hit two punts that were returned for 9 and 15 yards. He had a net average of 30 yards and failed to get good hang-time in order to limit the returns of Seattle’s Leon Washington.

“We did not punt the ball as well as we’d like to in terms of what we’re asking our guys to do,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “The last kick was not executed the way it’s supposed to be executed. It was not the type of play that we needed to have at that point in time.”

Armstrong noted that Bosher did have a fine squib kick against Oakland on Oct. 14.

Armstrong didn’t believe that Bosher, a second-year player, was under too much pressure in his second playoff game.

“He had an outstanding game last year against the Giants in the wind and cold up there,” Armstrong said. “He smashed the ball to a really good returner. I don’t think it was that at all. It’s like anything else … sometimes you’re going to have a bad day.”

Bosher will be on the spot against the 49ers, who blocked a punt against then-Falcons punter Michael Koenen in 2010 at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 16-14 after some heroics by Harvey Dahl, Roddy White and Matt Ryan in the final 1:31 of the game.

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Willis McGahee (knee) was expected to play in the AFC Championship

Willis McGahee (knee) was expected to play in the AFC Championship Game if the Broncos had beaten the Ravens Saturday.

Through the first 10 games of the season, McGahee was on pace to rush 267 times for 1,169 yards and score six touchdowns. Then he sustained a compression fracture and torn MCL in his right knee against the Chargers on Nov. 18. Owed just $2.5 million in 2013, McGahee is a good bet to enter 2013 training camp as the starter. He is a superior runner to Knowshon Moreno.

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Adewale Ojomo's Lack of Playing Time Attributed To Depth at DE

(Adewale) Ojomo stood out in preseason, but was invisible this year. Did he suit up for any games?

Ojomo did have a strong preseason – when he led the team with 4.0 sacks – which enabled him to make the roster as an undrafted free agent. But he had too many talented and experienced defensive ends ahead of him, which prevented him from getting on the field in the regular season. Ojomo was inactive for all but one game – the Oct. 7 victory over Cleveland, when he played on special teams. It’s not much to build on, but he will be in the offseason program and will have an opportunity to show in training camp whether or not he’s improved. If he does, perhaps he’ll get a shot to play on defense in 2013.

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Packers' Whitt praises Sam Shields

Green Bay — There will be no guarantees at cornerback for the Packers in 2013. On Tuesday, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. made that much clear. When players report back to Green Bay, four cornerbacks may engage in an open competition.

Whitt praised the improvement of third-year corner Sam Shields and indicated that Shields, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Davon House will all have an opportunity to start next season.

“It’s going to be interesting to see who are going to be the guys who run out there on Day One,” Whitt said, “because right now I couldn’t tell you who’s going to do what because the way that Sam and Casey have played. And with Tramon and House there, there’s four guys that are vying for two spots. Maybe three with nickel. It will be interesting to see who gets it.”

Making things is interesting is Shields. After a strong finish this season, he may be ready to take on the opposition's top wide receiver next season. Upon returning from his high ankle sprain Dec. 9, Shields' performance "was comparable, if not better than Tramon’s in 2010," Whitt said. In 2010, Williams' string of big plays helped the Packers reach the Super Bowl.

Of course, it was only one year ago Shields was plagued by missed tackles.

Whitt said Shields cut his missed tackles by half this season and called him the best tackler on the team.

“Him and (Jarrett Bush) are the most physical corners that we have, but he’s the best tackling one that we have,” Whitt said. “He put that on film. That’s not me talking. …The only reason I’m talking about it is because he took so much criticism in the way he performed last year through training camp. And to come back and play — especially the last six games — the way that he’s played, I think is very encouraging to what he can be in the future.”

In Shields’ final six games, he had 21 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and four interceptions. He opened up Green Bay’s loss at San Francisco with a pick returned for a touchdown.

Whitt wouldn’t say that Williams -- the team’s No. 1 cornerback since 2010 -- necessarily had a down season. The coach said he still "graded out pretty well." But Shields’ finish and Hayward’s standout rookie season has made things interesting heading into next season.

Excelling in the slot, the second-round pick from Vanderbilt finished fifth in the NFL with six interceptions.

"Casey probably played better than anyone, and you all, expected him to play and probably played better than I expected him to play," Whitt said. "So the competition in the room has gotten better. So that’s the case.

“I believe in not allowing anybody to be comfortable. We don’t work in a business where we can get comfortable. And so, the guys, I always say their play will dictate who runs through the tunnel. The guys that play the best will play, that practice the best, that have the best test. We’re about winning championships and we fell short. That’s our charge.”

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Ryan Jackson Potential Backup

Although St. Louis Cardinals SS Rafael Furcal (elbow) appears on track to be fully healthy for spring training and opening day, the team is unsure how his elbow will hold up when he resumes playing at full effort this spring. St. Louis is expected to be more cautious when giving Furcal playing time in order to keep him healthy throughout the season. INFs Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma and Ryan Jackson are potential backups at shortstop for Furcal.

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Lamar Miller moves up depth chart

Daniel Thomas’ mid-December knee injury required surgery, according to his representation – he should be fine by the spring – and the second-round pick has fallen behind Lamar Miller in the organization’s eyes. Disconcerting: His three fumbles were the most by any NFL back with fewer than 100 carries, and only four backs with as many attempts had a lower per-carry average than Thomas’ 3.6. Incidentally, Reggie Bush tied for the league lead among backs with five fumbles.

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Warren Sapp Champions the Cause for the Testing and Treatment of Sleep Apnea

BEVERLY HILLS, CA--(Marketwire - Jan 14, 2013) - Warren Sapp has reached an agreement with Zyppah, Inc., creators of a new, revolutionary treatment for snoring and sleep apnea, to participate in an exclusive videotaped documentary of the testing, diagnosis and treatment of his sleeping disorder.

Super Bowl Champion Warren Sapp, an analyst on the NFL Network and former All-Pro defensive tackle for over a decade, has been struggling with inadequate sleep for years and finally decided to solve his problem. In doing so, he hopes to benefit from better sleep every night and help others, like him, find a viable solution to improve the quality of their sleep.

The testing and treatment of sleep apnea is a serious issue, and the methods offered by Zyppah Inventor and Founder Dr. Jonathan Greenburg have been proven to work for thousands of patients suffering with snoring and sleep apnea.

The Zyppah Sleep Apnea documentary includes consultations between Sapp and Dr. Greenburg, his 3-Night Sleeptest™, and solutions available for the treatment of sleep apnea. Warren is passionate about increasing awareness for Americans to be tested for sleep apnea using the 3-Night Home Sleep Test used by Zyppah. "I'm a big guy, with a big personality and when I was on the playing field, I was known as the 'QB-Killa.' In life after football, I have made a firm commitment to prevent undiagnosed sleep apnea from threatening my life and the lives of millions like me," comments Sapp.

Recent studies suggest approximately 100 million people may have obstructive sleep apnea, and 80% remain undiagnosed. Studies have also found that untreated sleep apnea can lead to numerous health issues including a four times increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and stroke. To follow Sapp and his Zyppah Sleep Apnea experience visit or his twitter page, @WarrenSapp.

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Browns introduce Rob Chudzinski

CLEVELAND -- The Browns have always been a part of Rob Chudzinski's life. Now, he's the man in charge.

Chudzinski, who spent the past two seasons as Carolina's offensive coordinator, was introduced as the club's sixth full-time coach on Friday, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the 44-year-old who as a kid pretended he played tight end for the Browns during games in his backyard in Toledo, Ohio.

"It is a dream come true," Chudzinski said. "I can't wait to get started."

Chudzinski inherits a young roster that he'll try to develop into a contender with the Browns, who have lost at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons and made the playoffs only once since 1999.

Chudzinski previously worked as an assistant with the Browns, most recently as their offensive coordinator in 2008. Although he has no previous head coaching experience, owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner are confident they hired the best possible candidate available to turn their club into a consistent winner.

"I would not miss the chance for the world." Chudzinski said. "We're going to win here."

The Browns hauled their search to find the 14th coach in franchise history to Arizona and back. They talked to high-profile college coaches, NFL assistants and a fired pro coach who took a team to a Super Bowl.

None of them was hired.

Instead, Chudzinski became their pick.

"I believe we came back with the best coach for the Cleveland Browns," said Haslam, who flew Thursday night with Banner to Charlotte, N.C., to offer Chudzinski the job. "He is one of the brightest young coaches in the business."

Chudzinski's first move will be to hire his staff. He will immediately meet with the assistants currently working for the Browns. Chudzinski would not comment on any possible candidates to become his coordinators. There are reports he is considering former San Diego coach Norv Turner to run his offense. Chudzinski worked for Turner with the Chargers.

"I have a plan in place," he said. "We're going to get a great staff. We have a young group of players. This is going to be about the process. Lots of people are worried about the end result, but this is going to be the right process to get us where we want to be."

Now that they've hired their coach, Haslam and Banner will focus on finding a new general manager to help pick players for Chudzinski, who will be involved in finding the GM.

The new coach -- "Chud," as he's known to players and friends -- worked with the Browns' tight ends in 2004 and was their offensive coordinator in 2007, when the team won 10 games -- their most since an expansion rebirth in 1999. He was released when Romeo Crennel was fired in 2008.

Chudzinski said that when he walked off the field after the final game that season, he knew he would be coming back to Cleveland "someday, somehow."

Chudzinski replaces Pat Shurmur, another first-time coach when he was hired, who was fired Dec. 31 after a 5-11 season. For the past two years, Chudzinski has worked with talented Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and resuscitated Carolina's offense, which was one of the league's worst before he arrived.

When Haslam and Banner embarked on their coaching search as 2013 began, the pair vowed they would wait as long as necessary to find "the right coach" for Cleveland. They promised to give their new coach final say over the roster and planned to pair him with an executive to help pick players.

Chudzinski wasn't seen by many as an option.

And then he became the choice.

Haslam said Chudzinski's passion for the Browns was a bonus, but he had all of the credentials and characteristics they were looking for in a new coach.
"If Rob was from Plano, Texas, we would have hired him," Haslam said.

Chudzinski said he wants a team that attacks on both sides of the ball. He would not comment on any of Cleveland's players, and sidestepped a question about rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who had an uneven season with the Browns.

Chudzinski interviewed with the team on Wednesday, when the club also visited with Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Chudzinski appeared to be a long shot for the job, not because he wasn't qualified, but because it was thought Haslam wanted to make a big splash with his first coaching hire.

However, Chudzinski wowed Haslam and Banner during his meeting, and the team decided it was time to end its search in its second week. Haslam said that 10 minutes into the interview, he nodded at Banner that they had found their man.

In his first season in Carolina, Chudzinski turned Newton, the No. 1 overall draft pick, loose, and the Panthers set club records for total yards (6,237) and first downs (345). Carolina also scored 48 touchdowns after getting just 17 in the season before Chudzinski arrived. The Panthers jumped from last in the league in total yardage to seventh, the biggest improvement since 1999.

Haslam pointed out the Panthers scored 88 touchdowns the past two seasons. Cleveland scored 44.

Following last season, Chudzinski interviewed for head coaching jobs with St. Louis, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay before returning to Carolina.

In getting the Browns' job, Chudzinski was picked over Zimmer; Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman of the CFL; fired Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt; and Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Whisenhunt was in Cleveland for a second interview on Thursday, and appeared to be the front-runner. The Browns also had been expected to interview Indianapolis offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

Chudzinski's hiring may have shocked some Cleveland fans, but his selection is in keeping with at least one of Banner's past moves. When he was in Philadelphia's front office, Banner went outside the box and hired Green Bay assistant Andy Reid, a relative unknown who spent 14 seasons with the Eagles before being fired Dec. 31.

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Willis, Ray Lewis watched Falcons-Seahawks ending on Facetime

While the Atlanta Falcons’ pulled out Sunday’s win and advanced to face the 49ers for the NFC Championship, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis watched the dramatic ending with Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis through their phones’ FaceTime application.

“I was on my way home, he FaceTimed me and we watching the end and how crazy it was,” Willis said on 95.7 The Game.

If the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens win their respective conference finals Sunday, Willis and Lewis will be able to see each other in person in New Orleans at Super Bowl XLVII. They’ll be the guys wearing No. 52.

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Rob Chudzinski doesn't look far for motivation

BEREA, Ohio -- Five years ago, Rob Chudzinski sat in a Cleveland Clinic waiting room discussing friendship, promises and the mortality of a man he had known since high school.

It was the summer of 2008 and Chudzinski listened to P.J. Miller calmly speak about the future of his family without him in it. The Toledo native and Strongsville resident was losing an eight-year battle with cancer.

Chudzinski's mind reeled as his fellow Toledo St. John's football co-captain laid out the sobering details and asked if he and a few close friends would keep watch over his wife, Jane, and their three children. His two boys, Jack and Matt, showed tremendous football potential and Miller wondered if the buddy everyone called "Chud" would shepherd them through their careers.

Fifteen years earlier, Chudzinski had toasted Miller as the best man in the couple's wedding. Six months later, he would eulogize him, asking a roomful of mourners to repeat "We thank you, P.J.," every time the coach recited another of Miller's good deeds.

On this day, however, Chudzinski's sole focus was honoring his friend's solemn request.

"He asked a few of us to help out," the Browns' new coach recalled this week. "It hit me square on that day I needed to live up to my responsibility."

At his introductory news conference, the lifelong Browns fan spoke Friday about wanting to deliver a winner to Cleveland. Chudzinski, 44, is a surprise choice to many, an accomplished assistant with no head coaching experience at the college or NFL level.

But 19-year-old Jack Miller believes nobody will work harder to turn around a franchise. He knows first-hand Chudzinski's loyalty and sacrifice, a man who friends say embodies the Jesuit brotherhood and the "men for others" philosophy.

"Chud is someone who lives up to his end of a bargain," Jack said by phone Saturday. "He would die before he would let down the people who are closest to him. I know I'm biased when I say this, but I think he is going to make a great coach for the Browns."

Same school to same street
Chudzinski has won national championships as a player and coach at the University of Miami. He transformed Derek Anderson into a Pro Bowler for one season in Cleveland and coordinated an offense that helped Cam Newton become an NFL Rookie of the Year in Carolina. But his oldest friends and best memories are rooted in Toledo and northwest Ohio.

The residents of Lucas and Wood counties are thrilled one of their own has become the Browns 14th full-time head coach. On Monday, St. John's students plan to wear Browns shirts to school and gather for a photo, board member and good friend Bert Brady said. They plan to send it to Chudzinski.

The son of an Ohio Air National Guard pilot, Chudzinski's passion for the Browns followed him through his formative years as the family moved from Toledo to Bowling Green to Fremont and back to Toledo. His love for the team has been well chronicled: Munching on dog biscuits, playing backyard football pretending to be tight end Ozzie Newsome, propping a television in the windows of his aunt's home to watch games in the chilly outdoors to simulate life in the Dawg Pound.

But it was at St. John's where the dreams of a slow-footed, yet sure-handed tight end manifested themselves. Chudzinski ran with a circle of athletic friends that included Brady, John Ragan, Mark Fabian and the gregarious, barrel-chested Miller. Each enjoyed success after graduation and many were influenced by former St. John's football coach Fred Beier, who died in 2004.

"You talk about discipline, you talk about toughness, you talk about work ethic that we need as part of a football team and the foundation of a football team," Chudzinski said. "Fred was instrumental in teaching those things and stressing those things."

Chudzinski carried those lessons to Coral Gables, Fla.

In a border town split between loyalties for Michigan and Ohio State, Chudzinski's friends became rabid Miami supporters as he won national titles in 1987 and '89. His playing days behind him, they watched as he ascended from a 27-year-old graduate assistant to a Hurricanes coach who molded the careers of future Pro Bowlers Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee, Bryant McKinnie, Clinton Portis, Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow.

"During football season we didn't hear much from him because he was laser focused," Brady said. "But when it was over he always came home and he was always the same guy -- humble as hell."

In 2004, former Browns coach Butch Davis hired him as the team's tight end coach and after a two-year stint in San Diego he returned to Cleveland as the club's offensive coordinator under Romeo Crennel. He settled in the Strongsville development of Waterford Crossing and lived on the same street as two of his St. John's buddies, Fabian and Miller.

Miller, who worked in sales, had relocated to Cleveland after college and started a family with his wife, Jane. Friends teased him about being the "president of the Chud Fan Club" and digging a tunnel that ran between their homes. They had all grown up Browns fans and here was one of their own calling plays for a team that finished 10-6 in 2007 and sent four offensive players to the Pro Bowl.

"It was so much fun," said Chudzinski, who's married with three children. "Our wives probably didn't always appreciate it because we acted more guys in high school than in our 40s."

It wasn't so bad for the offspring, either. The Miller boys marveled at the good fortune of living in a neighborhood that included former Browns assistant Chuck Pagano and players such as Courtney Brown and Ross Verba. Jack, who attended St. Edward High School for two years, babysat for the Chudzinskis in exchange for game tickets. He met all the players and stood in the stadium tunnel after games, once shaking hands with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

"It was a fairy tale, it was a surreal life for a kid who grew up a Browns fan," said Jack Miller, who also has a younger sister. Molly, 15. "Chud always hooked us up, he always took care of us."

Their father, P.J., who was ailing from Hodgkin's lymphoma, realized as much. As the boys showed promise on the football field, the president of the Chud Fan Club knew who he wanted to guide them after he was gone.

Promise kept
During Chudzinski's introductory news conference, owner Jimmy Haslam expressed confidence his new coach would earn the players' respect. Fabian witnessed it at a 2008 fund raiser for Miller. The Browns offensive coordinator encouraged his players to attend and participate in a silent auction. Anderson, Brady Quinn and Josh Cribbs, among others, donated time and money.

"I was so impressed that I went around and thanked the players," Fabian said. "All they kept telling me was, 'We're here for a good cause and we're here because of Chud. We would do anything for him.'"

P.J. Miller died on Feb. 18, 2009 at 40, surrounded by his closest friends. A few days later, Chudzinski celebrated his life with a eulogy, its message still potent enough to move men such as Fabian to tears.

"He was such a good man and a good father," Chudzinski said. "He and Jane did such a great job raising those kids. They are so mature for their age and they're really good students."

The family returned to Toledo three years ago and Jack and Matt played football for their father's alma mater. All of dad's friends assisted in his children's mentorship.

As the boys went through the college recruiting process, Chudzinski counseled them at every turn. They talked about the best fits. They talked about the best programs. Mostly, they talked about life and honoring the wishes of a father.

Matt Miller, who turns 18 on Sunday, has accepted a full ride to Wisconsin. The youngest boy still speaks to Chudzinski three times a week as he prepares for college. Jack Miller earned a scholarship to Michigan two years ago. He's expected to be the Wolverines' starting center next season as a red-shirt sophomore. He wears the No. 60 in tribute to his dad's uniform number at St. John's.

Jack Miller plays for Wolverines coach Brady Hoke, who spent eight seasons as a Michigan assistant before returning nine years later to guide the program. The 6-foot-4, 288-pound center sees similarities between Hoke and Chudzinski.

"They understand what tradition means and what it means to the fans," Jack Miller said. "No one is more deserving of this opportunity than Chud. I think the stars are aligned. ... He wants to be here and no one will expect more of himself."

Jack Miller's father had known it for years.

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14 Active proCanes Entered The Second Weekend of NFL Playoffs… 8 Remain

14 active proCane entered Divisional Playoff weekend looking to make it to the Super Bowl. Six have been sent home packing. There are still eight left competing.

MORE IMPORTANTLY: We are now guaranteed proCane representation in the Super Bowl both on the AFC and NFC teams, therefore guaranteed at least 2 super bowl rings.

Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bryant McKinnie
New England Patriots: Vince WIlfork (Marcus Forston practice squad but not ACTIVE)
Atlanta Falcons: Matt Bosher, Harland Gunn (Micanor Regis on practice squad but not ACTIVE)
San Francisco 49ers: Tavares Gooden, Frank Gore

Houston Texans: Andre Johnson, Brandon Harris, Chris Myers.
Green Bay Packers: Sam Shields
Denver Broncos: Orlando Franklin, DJ Williams

Indianapolis Colts: Reggie Wayne
Washington Redskins: Leonard Hankerson, Santana Moss

Six #proCanes are currently on the injured list and not on an active NFL playoff roster: Willis McGahee (Denver), Rashad Butler (Houston), Darryl Sharpton (Houston), Damien Berry (Baltimore), Tommy Streeter (Baltimore) and Brandon Meriweather (Washington).

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Ray Lewis Video: Watch Emotional Linebacker Celebrate After Ravens' Win

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Bernie Kosar receiving 'groundbreaking' treatments for brain trauma

MIDDLEBURG HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar never thought about the consequences of the helmet-rattling hits he absorbed while throwing touchdown passes and raising Super Bowl hopes at old Municipal Stadium.  

He kept a packet of smelling salts stashed in his uniform pants for occasions when he was "dinged," called a few running plays until his head cleared and knew the team trainer would always hold up two fingers for the rudimentary concussion test.  

But for the past decade, Kosar has spent sleepless, fitful nights dealing with the painful effects of at least a dozen documented concussions during a 13-year NFL career. There have been headaches, insomnia, slurred speech and persistent ringing and buzzing in his ears.  

The 49-year-old had searched unsuccessfully for lasting relief until recently finding it courtesy of a Florida-based doctor who he says is helping reverse the effects of his brain trauma.  

Kosar held a news conference Thursday in Middleburg Heights touting the "groundbreaking" work of Dr. Rick Sponaugle, who has been treating the Pro Bowl quarterback for about a month.  

"It was a gift from God to find this and to feel like this," Kosar said. "I see all the symptoms going away."  

 He hopes to raise awareness of the therapy, which the doctor says improves blood flow in the brain through intravenous treatments and dietary supplements.  
 Kosar knows there are many former players grappling with similar brain-trauma issues. He has spoken to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the therapy and the league has put Sponaugle in touch with one of its medical advisers, Dr. Elliot Pellman.  

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello confirmed the correspondence. 

 "They are very interested," said Sponaugle, 57, who has spent 15 years studying the brain. "Why wouldn't they be?"  

 Kosar addressed the media on the same day ESPN reported that former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, suffered from the type of chronic brain damage found in dozens of deceased players. Seau's family was informed last week the brain tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia, memory loss and depression.  

 "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of guys who are dealing with issues and pain and stuff," said Kosar, whose speech is noticeably improved from last month. "Literally, I think a lot of them are losing hope. I tried really hard to find it. This [treatment] isn't something I think a lot of guys know about, whether it's the younger kids playing or the ex-NFL players. I don't think a lot of people know there is hope for them."  

Kosar stressed he has no business interests with Sponaugle, who operates a detox and wellness center outside of Tampa, Fla. He wants to spread the word in an effort to prevent future tragedies like the one involving his friends Seau and Dave Duerson, who also committed suicide.  

 According to the ESPN report, researchers at Boston University have confirmed 50 cases of CTE in former football players, including 33 from the NFL. Kosar is not among the more than 4,000 former players suing the league in federal court, claiming it ignored a connection between football and brain damage.  

He has no regrets about playing, Kosar said, or the medical care he received during his time with the Browns, Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins. He believes the league is doing more to address player-safety issues and wants to do his part.  

 "I hope if there are people and players out there suffering [they now know they] have an option and something that can genuinely help them get better in a short amount of time that doesn't involve living the rest of your life in pain and agony and on medication," Kosar said.  

 "I am not trying to over-dramatize this, get attention and [make people] feel sorry for me, but it was bad and I needed to get to him when I got to him and through God's blessing it got reversed."  

 Kosar and girlfriend Tami Longaberger learned of the treatments about 16 months ago, but didn't make contact with the doctor until this fall. He was skeptical about the claims of Sponaugle, who reportedly has admitted to administering treatment for publicity in the past.  

 But Kosar said he started seeing almost immediate results. His positron emission tomography (PET) scans, which detect damage to the brain, are showing improvement. Over the past month, he has received about 15 treatments, each lasting about two hours.  

Sponaugle, who also works with patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis, provided little detail about his therapy Thursday. He did reveal he has treated about 20 former and current NFL players.

The doctor likened the head trauma Kosar and other players have absorbed to an auto accident.  

"The difference, folks, is the car accident is a one-time deal when a head goes through a windshield," Sponaugle said. "Bernie had his head go through the windshield every Sunday."  

The doctor has listened to Kosar's radio interview from last month in which he became emotional and sounded incoherent at times. Kosar, who has dealt with divorce and past financial troubles, has denied he was drunk or medicated.  

 "I knew what it was and I knew why he was weepy," the doctor said. "I have seen this in [many] people." 

Kosar, who's relaunching his charitable foundation, said he feels "20 years younger" and has lost about 40 pounds since last summer. He was in good spirits Thursday, joking with reporters and telling them the ringing he once experienced "wasn't my ex-wife yelling at me."  

"I really feel blessed to be restored as far as the brain," Kosar said. "And, the trauma that was there, I almost feel like it's gone right now."   

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Ray Lewis, Peyton Manning share special moment after Broncos-Ravens playoff classic

DENVER – Inside the empty locker room Peyton Manning hugged Ray Lewis.

This was long after the great double-overtime playoff game had finished Saturday evening, after Lewis had left the field and the near-zero temperatures, victorious. This was also after Lewis had wept at his locker, eye black rolling down his face. And this was even after he showered, dressed slowly in a suit, did a news conference and a television interview that went longer than promised.

Manning undoubtedly wanted to go home, yet the Denver Broncos quarterback waited somberly inside a deserted Baltimore Ravens locker room. Beside him was his wife Ashley and their nearly 2-year-old son Marshall. Saturday's defeat had to be one of the most agonizing of Manning's career – a 38-35 loss in a game he was 38 seconds from winning – and still the Mannings stood in front of the empty locker of Ravens nose tackle Terrence Cody for a long, long time Saturday evening.

They did this because it was Ray Lewis.

Because in his last days of football, the Ravens linebacker won't walk silently into the night.

"I'm so happy for you," Ashley Manning said as Lewis finally walked into the room.

Then Peyton Manning and Lewis talked quietly, their voices mostly muffled but the tone obvious and admiring. If Peyton Manning wasn't going to go to the Super Bowl it was clear he wanted Ray Lewis to be the one who did.

The Ravens won't crumble in these playoffs. The team that looked lost the last few weeks of the season has come to life in the postseason, since Lewis, their star linebacker, came back from a triceps injury that was supposed to have ended his season. Now that he has returned and said his career will end when the season does, it is as if the Ravens have gathered behind him in one last desperate push for a Super Bowl that has eluded them since they won their only championship in 2001.

They were supposed to lose to the Broncos on Saturday. They were done when they got the ball on their own 23-yard line with 1:09 left in regulation, trailing 35-28. Then quarterback Joe Flacco, the one who has endured so much scorn in Baltimore, heaved a long pass to receiver Jacoby Jones, who grabbed the ball from the frosty air and ran to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown that tied the game. They survived an entire overtime until they hit the winning field goal less than two minutes into the second overtime. And all of it seems so much like something that is bigger than them all.

All week Lewis had challenged his teammates. He told them not to listen to the voices outside their practice facility in the Baltimore suburbs. He called on them to remember all the injuries they endured in a season where starter after starter went down. He told them he had a dream they would bond together and fight through significant odds and win a championship.

Then before they left the locker room on Saturday afternoon he quoted the Bible.

"No weapon formed against us shall prosper," he said.

At halftime he brought the players together, made them touch each other and repeat the same phrase.

"The whole day I just needed my team to keep reciting: 'No weapon,' " he said later. "The energy is crazy, the emotions are crazy, but to stay the course the way this team stayed the course, I tip my hat off to my team."

The players do not speak openly about Lewis' impending retirement and the motivation it appears to have rendered. They say this run is bigger than him. Head coach John Harbaugh agreed on Saturday, pinching his fingers about an inch apart when asked to quantify how much Lewis' retirement is driving the team. He too spoke of the Bible. He said he realized that talking about this will make people uncomfortable but he spoke as if Lewis' expressions of faith has become a unifying element in a room that a few weeks before might have been filled with doubt.

"There's a spirituality in here," Harbaugh said. "I can't describe it."

Perhaps such things are said on nights like Saturday, when victory is pulled from certain defeat. But there is also no doubt that the booming presence of Lewis stomping around the locker room has brought this team to life again. If Lewis is going to quote scripture, the Ravens are more than happy to buy in.

The last several days have allowed them to realize how much they love him. His retirement announcement stirred stories of the complex legacy of a trusted leader who also once was charged in a murder case. They have rallied behind him as this history has been discussed and maybe in this too they have come closer.

Lewis was sick all week. He had a fever. He coughed so many times he just wanted to collapse in bed. The last four days were awful, he later said in a small hallway beneath Sports Authority Stadium. But he kept pushing because he doesn't want to let go of his dream, for himself and for his team. He had 17 tackles Saturday, seven more than any other player on the field. "This one situation we just kept fighting and kept fighting," he said.

He talked about the embattled Flacco and said: "He grew up today."

"You're the general, lead us to victory," he said he told Flacco.

Then in the small hallway behind the Ravens' locker room, he leaned against a cinder block wall and smiled. He said he cried in the locker room after the game because he was exhausted from trying to convince his teammates to believe in his dream.

Then he closed his eyes. The television technicians fiddled with his suit jacket, clipping a microphone to the lapel. Someone reminded him that Manning was waiting and he wondered where.

"I'm missing a great moment with a great winner right now," he said to no one in particular.

And when the television people were done, he opened a door and walked back into the locker room, now empty, save for the Mannings. Ashley Manning pulled out her phone and asked for a picture. Her husband stood next to Lewis. Manning wore a gray overcoat. He looked sad. Lewis beamed, his smile wide. Manning's was smaller, more subdued.

They shook hands,  the great quarterback congratulating the leader of the Ravens who had inspired his defeat. Then they broke apart, heading in opposite directions: Manning to an offseason he probably still couldn't accept and Ray Lewis toward another week of football in the season that won't end.

Then off toward the bus Lewis walked. He pulled a suitcase. A Ravens official walked next to him and they laughed as they left the stadium with the impossible dream still very much alive.

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On Reggie Wayne's missing All-Pro vote

Did Reggie Wayne get a fair shake from the Associated Press panel of 50 voters who pick the NFL All-Pro Team?

It’s easy to rant and rave and say no.

Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall are the first-teamers, with Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Andre Johnson on the second team.

Calvin Johnson got 49 votes, one short of being unanimous. Marshall got 23, Green 16.5 and Andre Johnson 8.5. Having anything less than that and having zero amount to the same thing, really.

Demaryius Thomas of Denver, Wes Welker of New England and Julio Jones of Atlanta each got one vote.

Calvin Johnson is an automatic here, with a new single-season receiving yardage record of 1,964. Andre Johnson and Brandon Marshall have strong numbers though I think Johnson’s were more meaningful as they came in an offense that was ranked much higher than Chicago’s. (I know you can flip that, it’s a matter of perspective I suppose.)


Wayne had both a “low” yards per catch and a “low” touchdown total. I’m sure that’s what hurt him even as he was third in the league to Marshall and Calvin Johnson on third down with 31 catches and his third-down average (14.5) was well up from his overall average.

He was uncanny in the leadership department for a young team that has no business winning 11 games and going to the playoffs. He was a fantastic target for Andrew Luck in his rookie season. He led the way for a team that lost its head coach to a fight against leukemia for most of the year.

But most of that qualifies as intangible. Looking at the voting, panelists didn’t seem to score those sorts of things very highly.

Nothing screams unreasonable in the way things came out, though I can understand the disappointment in Indianapolis as different results would have been fair, too.

While Andre Johnson wound up a second-team choice here, two of his teammates are on the first team: J.J. Watt was a unanimous choice at defensive end while Duane Brown is one of the tackles.

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Warren Sapp now one step from Hall of Fame

Bucs great Warren Sapp is now one step closer to the achieving the highest honor in his profession.

Sapp, a former defensive tackle with Tampa Bay, was announced as one of 15 “modern-era” finalists for selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, putting him one final step away from making the cut.

Selections will be finalized with a vote by the selection committee, which meets Feb. 2 in New Orleans.

Missing the cut in the reduction from 27 candidates was former Bucs safety John Lynch, who was thought to be a long shot, at least for this year. Tampa resident Eddie DeBartolo, the former 49ers owner who helped the franchise win five Super Bowls under his direction, made it to the final 15 for the second consecutive year. He hired legendary coach Bill Walsh and enjoyed a run of unprecedented success in the 1980s and 90s.

Sapp is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall, but his resume’ is quite compelling.

Drafted in 1995, Sapp went on to win 1999 NFL defensive player of the year. He finished his career with 96.5 sacks, including 16.5 in 2000, while earning first-team All-Pro four times along with seven Pro Bowl selections.

To earn entry to the Hall a candidate must receive votes from at least 80 percent of the voting panel, comprised mostly of members of media.

Complicating matters for Sapp and others is the fact that no more than five modern-era candidates are permitted to be selected in any year. Sapp faces considerable competition from the likes of Jerome Bettis, Michael Strahan, Bill Parcells and others.

Here’s the full list of finalists:
Larry Allen – Guard/Tackle – 1994-2005 Dallas Cowboys; 2006-07 San Francisco 49ers
Jerome Bettis – Running Back – 1993-95 Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams; 1996-2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
Tim Brown – Wide Receiver/Kick Returner/Punt Returner – 1988-2003 Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders; 2004 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cris Carter – Wide Receiver – 1987-89 Philadelphia Eagles; 1990-2001 Minnesota Vikings; 2002 Miami Dolphins
Curley Culp* – 1968-1974 Kansas City Chiefs; 1974-1980 Houston Oilers; 1980-81 Detroit Lions
Edward DeBartolo, Jr. – Owner – 1977-2000 San Francisco 49ers
Kevin Greene – Linebacker/Defensive End – 1985-1992 Los Angeles Rams;  1993-95 Pittsburgh Steelers; 1996, 1998-99 Carolina Panthers; 1997 San Francisco 49ers
Charles Haley – Defensive End/Linebacker – 1986-1991, 1999 San Francisco 49ers; 1992-96 Dallas Cowboys
Art Modell – Owner – 1961-1995 Cleveland Browns; 1996-2011 Baltimore Ravens
Jonathan Ogden – Tackle – 1996-2007 Baltimore Ravens
Bill Parcells – Coach – 1983-1990 New York Giants; 1993-96 New England Patriots; 1997-99 New York Jets; 2003-06 Dallas Cowboys
Andre Reed – Wide Receiver – 1985-1999 Buffalo Bills; 2000 Washington Redskins
Dave Robinson* – 1963-1972 Green Bay Packers; 1973-74 Washington Redskins
Warren Sapp – Defensive Tackle – 1995-2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 2004-07 Oakland Raiders
Will Shields – Guard – 1993-2006 Kansas City Chiefs
Michael Strahan – Defensive End – 1993-2007 New York Giants
Aeneas Williams – Cornerback/Safety – 1991-2000 Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals; 2001-04 St. Louis Rams

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Ray Lewis to Joe Flacco: 'You're the General now'

Ray Lewis might not have the same physical impact on a football game as he once did, but there's little doubt his words do.

The retiring, future Hall of Fame linebacker, known as the "General" amongst teammates, had something to say to Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco before Saturday's divisional-round playoff victory over the Denver Broncos.

"In the tunnel, I told him, 'You're the General now. Lead us to a victory. You will lead us today. I'm just here to facilitate things,' " Lewis said, according to the Ravens' official website.

Flacco went out and threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns. He's already the only quarterback in NFL history to reach the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. This will be his third conference championship. And he outplayed Peyton Manning.

Lewis also had a message during the week.

"I challenged my team this week to not listen to anything outside of our building to buy into who we are as a team, everything we've been through injury-wise," Lewis said, via The Baltimore Sun. "Now for us to be here, I think this will go down as one of the greatest victories in Ravens history.

"For us to come in here and win, underdogs, that's the beautiful thing about sports. That's the thing that I'll probably miss anything about my career, it will be to listen to what people say you can't do and then to go do it."

The Ravens have a little bit of juice right now. The Broncos had more than one chance to close the door but couldn't. Lewis was far from the most effective player on the field Saturday, but his words and the emotion surrounding his impending retirement seem to have given life to a team that lost four of five to close the regular season.

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Chris Perez has committed to pitching for Team USA

Chris Perez has committed to pitching for Team USA in the upcoming 2013 World Baseball Classic.

The 27-year-old reliever recorded 39 saves while posting a 3.59 ERA and 1.13 WHIP during the 2012 campaign. With Joe Nathan also expressing possible interest in playing for Team USA, it seems likely that Perez will be used in a setup role as opposed to the ninth inning.

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Gaby Sanchez relies on short memory after mediocre season

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Gaby Sanchez arrived in Chicago to join his new team at the beginning of August. He had been a Pirate for eight days when the team went 16 games over .500.

Those eight days served as a preview to what could be. Sanchez then had to sit through the feature film: The disastrous second half that sent the team to a 20th consecutive sub-.500 season.

"We smelled it," Sanchez said. "We didn't get it, but we smelled it. It was within reach. We know what it's going to take to get there. We know where we faulted and what we had to do to have it not happen again."

Sanchez enters the 2013 season in a platoon at first base with the left-handed Garrett Jones. Last season, Jones played his best since 2009, his first year with the Pirates. Sanchez struggled enough with the Miami Marlins that they sent him to Class AAA, and though he performed better after coming to Pittsburgh -- he had a .720 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with the Pirates, .556 with Miami -- he finished the year with a .217 average, a .279 on-base percentage and seven home runs.

"If you had a good season, you remember it," Sanchez said. "If you didn't have a good season, you forget it very quickly. I don't really go back on what happened to me last year."

Sanchez spoke highly of the Pirates organization and said he has enjoyed his time as a part of it. Yet, like many athletes, he wants to seek out discomfort.

"When you're comfortable, that's when you're content," he said. "When you're content you never get better."

Except in the batter's box. Sanchez said he wanted to return to the swing and approach that he was familiar with and revert "back to how I hit."

Sanchez's brief experience with the version of the Pirates that contended for the National League wild-card spot enlightened him to the way the team responded when they slipped from contention.

"The guys never changed," he said. "And that's what you need."

Seven of the starting eight position players return this season, and Russell Martin will replace Rod Barajas behind the plate. The lineup showed it can keep pace with anyone in the league with its performance in June and July, and it displayed more power as well -- the Pirates hit 170 home runs in 2012, 63 more than 2011.

It also, however, showed weakness in the first two months of the season, where two runs per game were sometimes hard to come by.

"I feel like we have the pieces that we need to go out there and win," Sanchez said. "Last year we were right there."

Whether the pitching keeps pace with the offense remains uncertain. Depending on whether the Pirates can solve the riddle of Francisco Liriano, who injured his non-throwing arm in December before his two-year, $12.75 million contract with the Pirates became official, the rotation might feature two inexperienced starters. The bullpen lost a two-time All-Star selection in Joel Hanrahan, who was traded to the Boston Red Sox.

Sanchez's playing time depends on a number of factors. Jones also plays right field, but playing time there may be sparse because the Pirates want Travis Snider to play often. Jose Tabata also will take away playing time.

Jones' ineffectiveness against left-handed pitchers opens the door for Sanchez, but Clint Robinson and Jerry Sands, recently acquired in trades, could compete at first base as well. Because the five-man bench will include backup catcher Michael McKenry and utility man Josh Harrison, though, room for backup corner infielders will be scarce.

Sanchez started the quest to regain the swing that makes him feel comfortable at minicamp this week, joining a large contingent of the 40-man roster along with some non-roster invitees, the coaching staff, minor league coordinators, front office and scouting staff. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 11, 30 days from today.
Sanchez said he believes the team did not transform when the wins became few and far between, leading to his belief that the team can compete again.

"It wasn't like there was any difference going on," he said. "We were having good [at-bats], we were doing what we need to do.

"Things didn't turn out how you want them to be and you look back and, OK, what changed? Well, nothing changed. We're still the same team."
Will that be enough? Those previews begin airing in a month.

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