With Week 17 of the 2017 season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
-- What it's like to be a scoreboard-watching playoff hopeful.
Baltimore tight end Benjamin Watson has spent the bulk of his career playing on two of the most consistently productive offenses in football in New England and New Orleans (interrupted by a three-year stint in Cleveland), so he knows what it takes for teams to score at will.
And he knows the Ravens couldn't do it early in the season. Entering the last game of the regular season against the Bengals, with an AFC wild-card spot on the line, the Ravens have been transformed over the last month and a half. They were 4-5 going into their Week 10 bye and had scored 20 or fewer points in five of those games. Since the bye, though, they are 5-1 and have averaged 29.7 points per game. So what happened?
"In its simplest form, we've just been executing the plays we had," Watson said in a phone interview this week. "Early in the year, we always had a guy here or a guy there. We weren't connecting. It's a long season. Sometimes you play well throughout, sometimes in the middle, sometimes in the end.
"Coming out of training camp, we felt really good offensively. The first game against Cincinnati, we moved the ball pretty well. Then we went into a lull. It's never one thing. I think that now there has been a sense of urgency coming down the stretch of the last five games."
That would be understandable. The Ravens won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season with a superb postseason, in which quarterback Joe Flacco bested the likes of Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick. But they proceeded to miss the playoffs in three of the next four seasons. That spurred whispers throughout this season that head coach John Harbaugh, who took Baltimore to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons at the helm, could be out if the Ravens fell short again. The entire AFC North could, in fact, be subject to tumult. Marvin Lewis, the Bengals' longtime head coach, is expected to step aside after Sunday. The Browns have already hired a new general manager. And Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger annually mulls retirement.
Harbaugh has been the same throughout the season, Watson said, and so has Flacco, whose emotions rarely sway with the results. Still, Flacco's play has improved dramatically in the last month, after a poor start that might have been in some part attributable to his absence from the preseason with a back injury. It is with Flacco's improvement that the Ravens have roared into the playoff picture. In the last four games, he has thrown seven touchdown passes and just one interception after throwing six touchdown passes in the previous nine games. The Ravens are also attempting and completing more deep passes -- a Flacco signature, the QB is seven of 13 on throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air since Week 13 -- than they did in the first three quarters of the season.
"Whenever you see a quarterback performing well, it's not usually just because he's throwing good passes," said Watson, who has caught 54 passes for 461 yards and four touchdowns. "The protection is holding up, guys are getting separation. I think as far as Joe, he hasn't really changed. I think collectively, we've started to grow together and understand what we can do and what we can't do."
The Ravens have long been a defense-driven team, and this version is one of the best they've had in years, leading the league with 33 turnovers and 22 interceptions. That and a wealth of postseason experience for key players would seem to make the Ravens a dangerous playoff team, despite being 0-5 this season against teams that are currently in the playoff field (Jaguars, Steelers twice, Vikings and Titans). That is, if the Ravens make the field themselves. A win over the Bengals puts Baltimore in, but a loss leaves the Ravens potentially vulnerable to elimination.
"Our focus right now is Cincinnati, then we'll worry about what's next," Watson said. "What's happened in the past in the postseason has been great, but it has no bearing on what's going to happen in 2017."
NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
BUFFALO BILLS: Shady feels like he hasn't aged a day. It may take a little longer to get warmed up, but when LeSean McCoy watches himself on film, he believes he looks the same as when he was 22. Yet, in a world where we talk constantly about the new up-and-coming backs around the league each year, we should realize McCoy has been one of the best for some time now.
"It feels good," McCoy told me about being a 29-year-old NFL running back. "It's a challenge because I'm older, and they like to write off the older running back. Every week, man, every year is a challenge. Every year, the names are changing, and different guys are coming in. I always want to be considered one of the top guys at my position."
McCoy recently passed 10,000 career rushing yards. He still trains hard, but he's smarter about it now. Maybe not five times a week, but three or four. Maybe a few more massages and other lifestyle changes have come over time.
"Maybe limit the alcohol intake," McCoy said. "The long nights. I can't really do it as much ... Now I feel it in the morning. When I was young, I was able to just hang out, wake up and go to practice."
With the Bills making it known all year they are a running team, Shady reminded me that no one faces more eight- or nine-man boxes than him. But he thrives as a player with a bullseye on his back.
"That's challenging. But I like to compete. I'm used to it now, being the main target, main guy. It's no secret; the fans know, the defense knows ... a must-need type of play is coming to me. It's a challenge, and I like it."
Keeping one eye on the Ravens' Sunday score. Players and coaches on teams looking for help from other games around the league have all been saying the same thing. They won't be scoreboard-watching during their own game. It's the politically correct thing to say, but maybe not entirely honest or realistic. McCoy is a realist.
"It's human nature," McCoy said when I asked him if he'll be looking at the scores on Sunday in Miami. "As players, we know what's going on. We want to win the game, but also we want to win the game and know we have a shot [at the playoffs]."
"A guy like me, I'm always going to be dialed in, ready to roll," he said. "But you want to make sure everybody is as well. And I think playing at the same time, everybody will be dialed in."
McCoy is doing what he can on social media, tweeting out "Let's go bengals !!!!" on Thursday. If the Bills win Sunday and the Bengalsbeat the Ravens, Buffalo ends the longest playoff drought, 17 seasons, in the NFL. (Buffalo can also get in with a win and losses by the Chargers and Titans.) McCoy's been jokingly texting and calling his former Eagles teammate Jeremy Maclin in an attempt to get the Ravens off their game in any way possible. It doesn't hurt to try anything outside of the box to end the longest active playoff drought across the four major sports in America.
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CAROLINA PANTHERS: Kuechly encouraged by recent defensive performances. The Carolina Panthers solidified their place in the postseason last week, but the NFC South title is still up for grabs. Standing in the way of Carolina finishing first in the division for the fourth time in five years are the Atlanta Falcons, a team that linebacker Luke Kuechly knows the Panthers can't look past. (New Orleans must also lose to the Bucs for Carolina to win the division.)
"They still have Julio Jones. They still have Matt Ryan and they still have Devonta Freeman and Mohamed Sanu," Kuechly said. "I don't think you can sleep on these guys, 'cause Matt's been around long enough, and you've seen him with ups and downs, and he can always come out and throw for 500 yards like he did last year, so it's still a deadly combination. ... I still think when they have those guys, they're always dangerous."
Kuechly is encouraged by what he sees as consistent effort from his unit.
"I think, just the preparation, you know, we have ups and downs, [but] I think this last game was a good step for us -- even though we gave up a bunch of yards, a bunch of big plays, we still tightened up in the red zone, and instead of five touchdowns, it was five field goals. But I think consistency is big; I think we're starting to get turnovers, which is big, but we've got good older guys on the team that I think keep guys focused, with Kurt [Coleman] and Mike [Adams] and Thomas [Davis], and Pep (Julius Peppers)."
"It's good to have Thomas back; he was gone for a week, but you still miss him, you miss his presence," Kuechly said. "He's been hurt before, but he's been around, and this time was different, because he wasn't around, and he wasn't at the game, he wasn't at practice. He wasn't in the locker room. You can feel when he's not here, and Charles is the same way. I was happy that Charles was back. I like Charles. I think he's fun to have around; he makes me happy. He doesn't even have to do anything. He just makes me happy, so it's good to have both those guys back. They're good older guys; you can't replace them."