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Final thoughts on Patriots-Ravens

12.22.13 at 6:00 am ET
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1. The league announced the 2014 calendar this week, and here are a few of the highlights for the first six months. Consider this a clip-and-save for football fans who are looking to circle specific dates down the road:

Jan. 11-12: Divisional playoff games
Jan. 19: AFC and NFC Championship Games
Jan. 26: An assistant coach whose team is participating in the Super Bowl and who has previously interviewed for another club’s head coaching job may have a second interview with such club no later than the Sunday preceding the Super Bowl.
Feb. 2: Super Bowl XLVIII, MetLife Stadium, New Jersey
Feb. 17: First day for clubs to designate franchise or transition players.
Feb. 19-25: Combine, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
March 8-11: The open window for teams to contact and start contract talks with players who will become free agents when their 2013 deals expire at 4 p.m. on March 11. A contract cannot be executed with a new club until 4 p.m. ET on March 11.
March 11: New league year, free agency begins. Before 4 p.m. ET, clubs must exercise options for 2014 on all players who have option clauses in their 2013 contracts. In addition, teams must submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents with expiring contracts, and clubs must be under the 2014 salary cap before 4 p.m. ET. According to reports, the cap will be between $126 million and $127 million.
March 23-26: Owners meetings, Orlando, Fla.
April 7: Clubs that hired a new head coach after the end of the 2013 regular season may begin off-season workout programs. (April 21 is the date teams with returning head coaches may begin off-season workout programs)
May 2: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.
May 7: Deadline for prior club to exercise right of first refusal to restricted free agents.
May 8-10: NFL draft, New York, Radio City Music Hall. First round begins at 8 p.m. ET.

2. The biggest change on the calendar is the decision to push the draft back until early May. With the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine set for the same dates as they have been in the past, it will be interesting to see what sort of impact that will have on the pre-draft process — it will likely cause some of the bigger college programs to tweak their Pro Day schedule in hopes of finding the optimal time to maximize their prospects. In addition, with the extra time, expect teams to take advantage of the process by holding more private workouts with prospects. As for the pre-draft hype, if you’re sick of mock drafts and rumors, you’re going to have to endure two more weeks of speculation and innuendo. Ultimately, the biggest impact might be seen in the smaller window between the draft and camp — it could mean pushing back rookie minicamps and later start dates for organized team activities. Last year, most teams held their OTAs in mid- to late-May after rookie camps. Now, rookies aren’t going to have the same time to get acclimated that rookies have had in year’s past.

3. The decision to take the team to the movies — “Lone Survivor” on Friday came at the end of a relatively relaxed week for the Patriots. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was expansive and open with the media, going in-depth on a number of topics. Quarterback Tom Brady offered some good insight into how the Baltimore defense has adjusted in the wake of losing veterans like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, as well as his relationship with former New England defensive coordinator (now Ravens DC) Dean Pees. And the locker room also offered plenty of good insight this week, both on and off the record. One things worth noting: Belichick has done the “trip to the movies” thing before. He took his team to a documentary on explorer Ernest Shackleton during camp in 2001, and also had a screening of “The Fighter.”

4. The forecast for Sunday’s game in Baltimore calls for 70 degree temperatures with a 60 percent chance of rain. Those sort of situations lend themselves to severe thunderstorms and lightning, which could ultimately cause a delay. If the game is held up, it would be a first for the Patriots this season, but the 2013 Ravens are used to stoppages in play. Baltimore has endured a pair of weather-related delays this season: one, the kickoff for the regular-season opener in Denver was pushed back roughly 30 minutes because of lightning. And two, their game against the Bears in Chicago last month was halted for almost two hours because of severe weather, including a tornado scare in Illinois.

5. Here’s a look at some key AFC games set for Sunday trough a Patriots prism:

a. Dolphins at Bills, 1 p.m.: After last week’s win over the Patriots in South Florida, Miami is starting to put a little pressure on the Patriots when it comes to the AFC East. However, it appears that the late-season push might not be enough — if you’re a New England fan, you’re pulling for the Bills here, because a Dolphins’ loss (or a tie) gives New England the division title, regardless of what happens to the Patriots in Baltimore.

b. Vikings at Bengals, 1 p.m.: After last week, who knows what to make of Cincinnati? They had a chance to claim the second seed, but went out and got squashed by the Steelers in Pittsburgh. If the No. 3 Bengals win and the No. 2 Patriots defeat the Ravens, Cincy could take the AFC North. If the Patriots lose and Bengals win, then Cincinnati would move into the second spot ahead of the Patriots.

c. Colts at Chiefs, 1 p.m.: Right now, it appears that the Colts are locked into the fourth seed and the Chiefs at No. 5. These two teams are already in the postseason, but a win from either one of them — combined with a loss from someone else — would allow them to have a final shot at a better seed going into the playoffs.

d. Broncos at Texans, 1 p.m.: Denver can clinch the AFC West and a first-round bye with a win over Houston. They could also secure the No. 1 seed for the postseason if it wins, and the Chiefs and Patriots lose (or New England-Baltimore ends in a tie). There’s still a shot the Patriots can seize the No. 1 seed, but given the Broncos schedule over the last two games (Texans and Raiders), that appears unlikely.

e. Raiders at Chargers, 4:25 p.m.: San Diego is in must-win mode as it continues to battle for the No. 6 spot.

For a complete rundown of the playoff picture, check out Playoff Status — an impressive site with a really detailed rundown.

6. Courtesy of the NFL, here’s the complete list of AFC playoff scenarios heading into Sunday:

Already clinched: Denver — playoff spot, Indianapolis — AFC South, Kansas City — playoff spot.

BRONCOS
Denver clinches AFC West division and a first-round bye with:
1) DEN win + KC loss

Denver clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1) DEN win + KC loss + NE loss or tie

PATRIOTS
New England clinches AFC East division with:
1) NE win or tie OR
2) MIA loss or tie

New England clinches a first-round bye with:
1) NE win + CIN loss or tie + IND loss or tie OR
2) NE tie + CIN loss + IND loss

New England clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CIN loss or tie

BENGALS
Cincinnati clinches AFC North division with:
1) CIN win + BAL loss or tie OR
2) CIN tie + BAL loss

Cincinnati clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CIN win + MIA loss or tie OR
2) CIN tie + MIA loss

RAVENS
Baltimore clinches a playoff spot with:
1) BAL win + MIA loss + SD loss or tie

DOLPHINS
Miami clinches a playoff spot with:
1) MIA win + BAL loss + CIN loss

7. No offense to the Patriots and Ravens, but the game that could have the most impact on the NFL this week is the contest between the Saints (10-4) and Panthers (10-4) Sunday in Carolina. If New Orleans can come away with a win — no guarantee, as the Saints have struggled mightily on the road this year with a 3-4 mark away from the Superdome — they can clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye. On the other hand, Carolina is 6-1 at home, and is one of the best young teams in the league. This one will have a far-reaching impact across the NFC playoff picture.

8. Former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker has been ruled out for Sunday’s game between the Broncos and Texans with his second concussion in the last two months, and reports out of Denver indicate that the receiver will likely miss the regular-season finale next week against the Raiders as a precautionary maneuver in hopes of having him back to full strength for the postseason. If he is out for the last two games of the regular season, that would mean he would have been sidelined for three regular-season games in his first year with the Broncos — equaling the total number of regular-season games he missed in his six-year career with the Patriots.

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