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NFL Playoff Capsules: Texans defense healthier for rematch with Patriots

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Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013 10:30 pm

HOUSTON (AP) — The first time Houston faced the Patriots, top cornerback Johnathan Joseph played while still struggling to get healthy, and outside linebacker Brooks Reed sat out with an injury.

That game turned into an embarrassing 42-14 loss to New England. Now both are back to full strength, and the Texans believe that makes their defense much stronger this time around.

"Right now, I can probably say this is the best I've felt all year," Joseph said.

He was slowed by a hamstring injury that kept him out the two games before the first matchup against the Patriots.

"Obviously, back then I was good enough to play but I wasn't at my best," he said. "Right now I can say I'm 100 percent."

Joseph, who often shadows the opponent's best receiver, knows that he and the rest of the secondary will have their hands full. Not only must they deal with New England's wide receivers, but also its tight end duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski didn't play in the first game against Houston.

"They can place the ball on his back side or throw it up top and those guys both have great hands where they can make the difficult catch in traffic," Joseph said. "For us, it will be a task, but I think that we have the guys here that are up for the challenge. It's just about making plays."

Reed, a second-year player, started 12 games in the regular season. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called him a "physical force."

"He's obviously a good player, but I think just his physicality really helps us as far as our mental toughness overall as a defensive unit," Phillips said.

A frustrated Reed had to watch the team struggle against the Patriots and not be able to help out.

"Now, it's a little bit different," he said. "So I'll be out there and try to make plays of my own."

Reed had a sack last week against the Bengals; he now has at least one in each the three postseason games in Texans history. His best playoff performance came last season against the Ravens when he had 2½ sacks.

Joseph appreciates Reed's versatility.

"He can play the run and the pass, so he's a two-sided guy," Joseph said. "I think he had just experience from last year coming in ... so just having Brooks back and those guys rotating and whatever they're doing up front, I think it just helps those guys from a health standpoint and just being fresh all the time."

Houston is hoping to build on last week's dominant defensive performance in its 19-13 wild-card win over the Bengals. The Texans limited them to 198 yards, which was the lowest yardage total in the first round of the playoffs, and only 53 before halftime.

They also cleaned up their problems on third down, not allowing Cincinnati to convert any of its nine third-down chances.

This week the Texans know they must get pressure on Tom Brady and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. They'll look to defensive star J.J. Watt to lead that charge. Watt led the NFL with a franchise-record 20½ sacks in the regular season. He also had 107 tackles, including 39 for losses, 16 passes defended and forced four fumbles.

In Watt's rookie season, the Texans lost to the Ravens in the divisional round.

"We were happy to make it as far as we did, but this year, new year, new goals," he said. "Biggest goal of them all, Super Bowl, and this is a big step for us, and we're really excited about the challenge."

Phillips, who began coaching in the NFL in 1976, believes Watt is clearly the best defensive player in the NFL this season.

"He had the best season ever," Phillips said. "I mean, nobody has had a season like that. Nobody has made that many tackles, that many sacks, that many pass breakups and that many tackles for loss or tackles for no gain in the history of football. Nobody has had a year like that. It's the best I've ever seen, sure."

Patriots' playoff newcomers eager to face Texans

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Across nine years and five teams, Brandon Lloyd never played in the postseason.

Now, in his 10th season, his wait is finally over.

Lloyd is excited for his playoff debut on Sunday in New England's divisional round game against the Houston Texans. Cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive end Trevor Scott also are looking forward to theirs after four non-playoff years each.

Since he was "a kid, the ultimate goal is to play in the Super Bowl and the only way to get to the Super Bowl is to make it to the playoffs," Lloyd said. "This is a step along the way to the ultimate goal for all of us. For all the teams that have entered the playoffs, this is just the beginning."

The Patriots wide receiver was with the Washington Redskins when they got there in 2007 but missed the last eight regular-season games and a wild-card loss with a shoulder injury.

But he made a smart decision this offseason. The likelihood of making the playoffs with the Patriots contributed to his choice of signing as a free agent. There was a good chance that a team that had reached the postseason in nine of the past 11 years would get there again.

The San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams never got that far while Lloyd was there. So he had little interest in watching the playoffs while on vacation all those years.

"If it was on the television in the hotel lobby or something" he might take a peek, he said.

Lloyd, Scott and Talib all are eager for their first playoff action, hoping it will end with a trip to the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Feb. 3.

"Their sense of urgency is there," said defensive back Devin McCourty, in the playoffs for the third time in his three NFL seasons. "They understand that they've played 'X' amount of years in this league. I know a guy like B-Lloyd can't wait to step on that field and play in the postseason. Usually there isn't much you have to say to those guys. They're gamers and they'll be ready to go."

Scott spent his first four seasons with the Oakland Raiders and never even had a winning record. He's contributed this season as a backup with three sacks in the past five games.

"It's pretty different. I'm definitely excited," he said. "I'm just happy to be where I am now."

Scott chose to sign with the Patriots as a free agent last March.

Talib had no choice. They acquired him on Nov. 1 in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he played his first game for the Patriots on Nov. 11 after completing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.

"I never got a chance to participate in the postseason," he said. "First chance, I'm definitely looking forward to it."

He expects the intensity to be heightened but his nervousness to be minimal.

"I've never been in the postseason but I'm not a rookie," Talib said. "So once we get out there and the game starts, it's still football."

Daniel Fells has some sense of what the playoff newcomers are feeling. He was one of them until last season, his sixth as a pro, when the Denver Broncos made it.

"Being in a situation where you hadn't made the playoffs, you kind of felt empty at the end of the year," the backup tight end said. "You get a little bit of fulfillment finally making the playoffs, (but) ultimately there's a bigger goal in mind. You have the excitement going into it but you've still got to keep your eyes on the prize."

His Super Bowl hopes ended last season on the field where he now plays his home games. The Patriots beat the Broncos 45-10 in the divisional round.

"Pretty ironic, right?" Fells said. "I did think about that a little bit when the phone call came. 'Oh, yeah, this is the team that knocked us off,'" he said.

"But I'm happy to be here."

Fells was inactive for all 16 games as an undrafted rookie with the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 then was on the practice squads of the Raiders in 2007 and Buccaneers in 2008. He finally played in 2009 when he caught seven passes with St. Louis then totaled 62 over the next two years with the Rams.

But he had started only 11 games in his three seasons with St. Louis.

"It was an all-around situation for me going to Denver and being the starter out there as well as making the playoffs," Fells said. "So I was able to check a couple of things off my list, but there's one big box that still needs to be filled."

Belichick has filled that box three times, leading the Patriots to Super Bowl victories in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons.

"He's a great teacher," Lloyd said. "The way that he teaches the game, it's almost like I'm not being coached, I'm actually being taught. That's been the part of this experience that has stuck out the most to me."

Lloyd caught 74 passes for 911 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games. On Sunday, he'll play a 17th for the first time after all those years of finding something else to do.

"I'd be at the Sundance Film Festival, on my way to the Bahamas, all kind of different stuff," Lloyd said with a laugh.

But a win on Sunday would keep him — and the Patriots — on the road to New Orleans.

NOTES: The Patriots listed five players on Friday's practice report — Scott, tight end Rob Gronkowski, cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Marquice Cole and offensive lineman Nick McDonald. All participated fully in practice and were listed as probable. They removed 15 players who had been on Thursday's report. ... Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-50s with a 20 percent chance of rain Sunday.

-- Howard Ulman

Saturday's Games

Lewis, Manning meet one last time

DENVER (AP) — Sometime after the season is over, Peyton Manning will sit down with Ray Lewis and congratulate him on a job well done.

During Lewis' 17-year career, he redefined his position and cemented himself as one of the most fearsome players in the game.

What Manning hopes to avoid is congratulating Lewis on winning a second Super Bowl.

In what could be the last game for Baltimore's seven-time All Pro linebacker, who is retiring after this season, the Broncos and Ravens meet Saturday in the AFC divisional playoffs. Two NFL icons, each three wins away from a second championship.

"I've addressed it every time I've played against him. He's an excellent player," said Manning, who'd rather share his most heartfelt praise for Lewis with the man himself than with the media. "He's special. That's all you can say."

Special as Lewis may be, Manning has won his last nine games against the Ravens.

Befitting a player who thinks about Super Bowls above all else, only one of the defeats really sticks with Lewis: a 15-6 loss to the Colts in the 2006 divisional playoffs. Indianapolis then won the Super Bowl.

"We gave up five field goals to him and they went on to win the Super Bowl," said the inside linebacker, who returned from a biceps injury last week and finished with 13 tackles in a 24-9 win against the Colts. "That hurts to lose to somebody you thought you had beat and then they go on to win the Super Bowl. All the other times, whether you win or not, there's only one champ at the end of the day, and if that isn't you or the team that beat you, then so be it."

The Broncos (13-3) are nine-point favorites against the Ravens (11-6) and the odds-on favorite, at 3-1, to win the title.

And while Lewis may carry the baggage from the game six years ago, it's the meeting between these teams a mere four weeks ago in Baltimore that holds the most weight in the respective locker rooms this week.

Denver won that game 34-17, though it really wasn't that close. Manning threw for only 204 yards, but Knowshon Moreno rushed for 115 as the Broncos built a 31-3 lead. The Ravens, playing without Lewis that day, got a couple courtesy scores at the end.

For Denver, it was supposed to be the first truly stern test during what has become an 11-game winning streak, compiled mostly against teams with losing records that were out of the playoff picture.

For Baltimore, it was a humbling comedown, but one the Ravens have spent this week excusing, going with a variety of explanations: Lewis and several others were out of the lineup, Broncos receivers pushed off too much, etc.

"We'll make it different," said Ravens receiver, Anquan Boldin, in a tone-setting statement that came after Baltimore's win in the wild-card round. Boldin got shut out in the first meeting against the Broncos.

The Broncos have not been big on bravado all season and they're not changing a thing for the playoffs. With Manning setting the tone, they remain focused and sound very much like a team that isn't taking anything for granted — not even a rematch against a team Denver beat by 17 on the road.

"That was then and we're getting ready for now," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "It was almost a month ago. We had a plan, went up there and we played pretty well. Each week we start fresh and talk to our guys about the things that they're good at, the things we need to be able to limit."

In addition to Boldin, who had 145 yards receiving against the Colts, the Broncos must keep tabs on versatile running back Ray Rice. They did that well in the first meeting, when Rice finished with 38 yards rushing and 3 receiving. Baltimore was trailing 10-0 late in the second quarter when Chris Harris picked off Joe Flacco's pass and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown.

Game over.

"Before that turnover, that's when the turn of events happened with guys out," Rice said. "We aren't going to make any excuses, but I don't want to go into that game letting their defense dictate how we play ball. We have a certain way we play around here. It's playoff football."

The Broncos like to think they've been playing playoff football for a while. Manning certainly has. All the doubts about his throwing motion, the strength of his neck and the chemistry with his receivers have pretty much been erased over a season in which he threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns.

One of the few remaining question marks is Manning's 0-3 playoff record in games played when the temperature is below 40 degrees. The high in Denver on Saturday is forecast to be 20. Manning has been practicing and playing with a glove on his throwing hand for the last few weeks — a nod to the reality of the changed feel of his grip since his neck surgeries. Everything else, however, remains the same concerning his preparation.

"I had an old coach who used to always say, 'If all of a sudden you have to do something different in the postseason to get ready to play, that means you probably haven't been doing the right things during the regular season to get ready to play,'" Manning said. "So I've always tried to prepare every single week as if it was a playoff game or the Super Bowl, whatever it is. That's your job as an NFL player."

If Manning does his job this week, he will bring Lewis' career to an end with only one Super Bowl title while the quarterback will remain in line for his second. Lewis insists the Ravens are ready.

"Arguably, they are the best team in football," he said. "If that's what it is, then let's line up and let's be who we are, and let's get ready to play the best team in football."

-- Eddie Pells

Rodgers back in Bay Area with Packers for playoffs

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The anxiety-filled green room and draft day seem so long ago now to Aaron Rodgers.

Still, on this weekend, any lingering feelings of frustration about how far he dropped will be directed right at the team that passed him up with the No. 1 pick nearly eight years ago.

Rodgers brings the high-scoring Green Bay Packers (12-5) to Candlestick Park on Saturday to face No. 2 seed San Francisco (11-4-1) in prime time for a place in the NFC championship game. He'll take the field in the very venue where he became a regular fan as a boy rooting for Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Steve Young.

Rodgers, who appeared in a preseason game at Candlestick in 2008, will play his first meaningful game at the stadium at last, as an eighth-year pro. He will look to avenge a 30-22 season-opening home loss to the 49ers.

"It will be fun. I went to a few baseball games there growing up, and saw a game there when I was in college," Rodgers said. "Stadium's got a lot of tradition. Looks like we're kind of fortunate with the weather right now. Still wonder what that's going to be like.

"But it will be a night game, it will be loud, it will be a great environment and it should be a good show for the fans."

Rodgers is putting on quite a show, all right.

He returns to Northern California, where he became a college star for California across San Francisco Bay in Berkeley, with a healthy cast of receivers and the swagger of a Super Bowl champion.

When Rodgers dropped to No. 24 in the 2005 draft after Alex Smith went No. 1, he was asked about his disappointment. He so matter-of-factly said, "not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn't draft me."

Now, everybody in the Bay Area and beyond will be watching his every move again.

He already upset some friends he couldn't accommodate with tickets. Family first, with everybody else making the 4-hour trek from his hometown of Chico left to fend for themselves.

Most important, of course, is getting Green Bay one step closer to another Super Bowl. Last season's chance at a repeat championship came to a screeching halt at the hands of the Giants in this very round at Lambeau Field.

The Giants came to San Francisco the next week and won the NFC title game, 20-17 in overtime.

Just as the Niners moved on from that heartbreaking loss and used it as a motivational push each day this season, the same goes for Rodgers after being slighted by his beloved San Francisco on draft day.

"It's been a long time since the green room," Rodgers said. "I have a lot of good memories growing up watching Steve Young and Joe Montana on TV and the Super Bowl wins and being a 49ers fan. That was a team I enjoyed watching and dreamt about playing for. I'm eight years removed here, and obviously I'm really happy with the situation I'm in."

A lot has changed in that time for San Francisco, too.

The QB the 49ers picked ahead of Rodgers — Smith — spent the season's second half on the bench as coach Jim Harbaugh promoted second-year pro Colin Kaepernick. He will make his playoff debut Saturday.

In an odd twist, Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee and adopted before moving to California at age 4. Yes, he began as a toddler Cheesehead, then changed allegiances "when I got drafted," Kaepernick said.

He has never met Rodgers. He still knows plenty.

Even San Francisco's opportunistic, ball-hawking defense realizes just how hard it will be to rattle Rodgers or get him off his game. He hasn't thrown an interception in five straight games and 177 passes. His receiving corps is intact again at last, each of the big four of Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones capable of game-breaking catches and career performances.

Jennings has 19 receptions for 226 yards and three touchdowns over the last three games.

The 49ers will need big performances from Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, the defensive pass-rushing menace expected back after he missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps. Not to mention their talented seconardy.

Beating some of the NFL's top quarterbacks hasn't proven too much for San Francisco so far. Aside from the win against Rodgers in the opener, the Niners beat Drew Brees in New Orleans and shocked Tom Brady in New England.

"We've played some of the best quarterbacks this year and have done well," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "This Saturday is going to call for our best. We can't afford to not play our best football, play our best defense. There's no tomorrow, there's no next week."

Harbaugh has been impressed just how well Kaepernick seems to understand the magnitude of this task, while also remaining unfazed by the added hype and attention.

"It's a bit savant-like the way he's handling it so far this week," Harbaugh said. "So, that's really encouraging."

Poll the players and coaches around the 49ers and everybody believes Kaepernick is perfectly ready for his biggest game yet.

"I don't think we're going to see any big eyes," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.

This was the matchup everybody expected in last year's NFC championship game until New York came along and spoiled both teams' plans.

Back in September, San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks said the win at Green Bay might be an "eye opener" and "maybe we'll see them again in the NFC championship."

He was only one week off.

Now, San Francisco wants to make sure it is still standing next week.

"We still feel we're just as good as we were last year," Willis said. "Hopefully this is a new season."

Same sentiments are coming from the Green Bay side. The Packers won three road games on the way to their championship two years ago, so why not keep a good thing going away from Lambeau Field?

And coach Mike McCarthy is counting on Green Bay being better equipped to pound the ball in the run game.

"We have to be," the coach said, "it's the playoffs."

-- Janie McCauley

Other AFC News

Weather is blustery but focused Broncos aren't

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Try as they might, the Baltimore Ravens just couldn't get under the skin or into the heads of the Denver Broncos, who were more concerned about talking up their opponents than trash-talking them.

Most of the Ravens were exceedingly complimentary of the Broncos this week, but some spent time excusing their 34-17 home loss to Denver last month with dismissals ranging from the soon-to-retire Ray Lewis and several others being out of the lineup to the Broncos' receivers pushing off too much.

Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin said after Baltimore's emotional wild-card win that the Ravens were glad to get another shot at Denver.

Asked how it will be any different than last time, he declared, "We'll make it different."

"I wanted Denver, because they beat us," said Boldin, who was shut out in the first meeting, a game in which the Broncos breezed to a 31-3 lead and cruised to the finish.

The Broncos, not big on bravado all season, shrugged it all off.

"We beat them, so of course they want to play us again," cornerback Chris Harris said. "We're up for the challenge."

Those were about the brashest statements that came out of the Broncos locker room all week.

Not exactly a Pacquiao-Marquez pre-fight smack down.

"It's going to be a tough game," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "It's not going to be easy."

Fans aren't buying it, and oddsmakers have installed the top-seeded Broncos (13-3) as more than a touchdown favorite. They haven't lost in three months, are coming off a bye and playing at altitude against a team playing on a short week.

Although quarterback Joe Flacco has four road playoff wins on his resume, the Ravens were a mediocre 4-4 this season on the road, where he threw just seven of his 24 touchdown passes.

Then, there's Peyton Manning. Although he's 0-3 lifetime in cold weather in the playoffs — Saturday's high will hover around 20 degrees with some snow expected — he's beaten the Ravens (11-6) nine straight times, including twice in the playoffs.

He's been stellar with that glove on his right hand the last two weeks in preparation for the wintry weather and as a concession to the altered feel of his grip following four neck surgeries. With the glove, his completion percentage has been almost 6 points better and his passer rating almost 20 points higher than without it.

The Broncos aren't taking anything for granted, though. They pointed out all week that the last time they played, the Ravens were without Lewis, safety Bernard Pollard, guard Marshal Yanda, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and tight end Ed Dickson, all of whom will be available Saturday.

"So, this will be a completely different game, a completely different test," Broncos coach John Fox said.

Manning said he didn't have any reaction to the Ravens saying they were eager for a chance to atone for that lopsided loss.

"I know they have some guys back that did not play in the first game," Manning said, noting this is certainly the time of year you want to be healthy. "... Those guys make a difference for their team. They made a difference for their team on Sunday holding their opponent to zero touchdowns. It's an excellent defense, really no matter who's in there, in my opinion, but certainly when they have all their other guys back, they're extremely tough."

Joining the praise parade, Broncos safety Rahim Moore gushed this week about swapping jerseys with his hero, Baltimore Pro Bowler Ed Reed, after last month's game, and Champ Bailey pumped up Lewis, saying, "I know he's going to miss the game, but I think the game will miss him more because there's nobody like him."

Following a 12-week layoff with a torn right biceps, Lewis led the Ravens with 13 tackles to spark an emotional win over Indianapolis in the final home game of his spectacular 17-year career last week. The 37-year-old middle linebacker intends to retire after Baltimore completes its playoff run.

A marquee at a Denver hotel not far from Sports Authority Field reads: "Join us for Ray Lewis' retirement party at 2 p.m. Saturday."

The Broncos would cringe at such braggadocio.

The weather may be blustery but they certainly aren't, pointing out repeatedly that the Ravens are the only NFL team to reach the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, and they've won at least one game in each of those trips. They've also had a month to get used to Jim Caldwell calling offensive plays after his discombobulated debut against Denver on Dec. 16.

Of course, not all the Ravens were boastful or bombastic this week; several had high praise for the Broncos — and the Broncos brushed off those compliments, too, lest they lose their focus.

"I don't really buy into all that mental warfare and all that stuff," linebacker Von Miller said. "I just like to get between the lines and just play football. I think that's where you can settle the score, on the football field."

Notes: Fox said RB Willis McGahee didn't have any setbacks this week. If the Broncos beat Baltimore and he continues to progress next week, he'll be eligible to return for the AFC championship, two months after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. ... RG Zane Beadles said a big reason for his breakout season was his work with a sports psychologist last spring.

-- Arnie Stapleton

Other NFC News

Jones, Robiskie form tight bond with Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Nearly every time Julio Jones reports to work, the second-year Atlanta receiver seeks out position coach Terry Robiskie.

Their ongoing dialogue started at training camp two years ago and hasn't let up.

Jones wouldn't have it any other way.

"Terry isn't going to sugarcoat anything," Jones said on Friday. "If you mess up, you mess up, but he's going to show you how to correct it and what you need to look for."

It's not hard to see why Jones credits Robiskie with helping him make the NFC Pro Bowl squad last month. On the sideline during games and at practice, Jones is likely standing next to his coach constantly to ask questions and get advice.

Their conversations are give-and-take, but both men say that it's never to the extent that Jones complains about being misunderstood.

Rather, Robiskie wants to know exactly what Jones sees before the snap and what his reason is for the technique he uses to create separation from a cornerback.

It's a formula that's worked well for the Falcons (13-3) heading into their divisional playoff game against Seattle (12-5) on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

Jones, 23, has become the deep-ball threat that Atlanta needed before general manager Thomas Dimitroff traded up 21 spots to draft him sixth overall two years ago.

The numbers are impressive considering that only Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson have more catches of 25 yards or more than Jones' 27 since the start of last season.

This year, Jones leads the Falcons with 10 touchdown catches, and he and Roddy White comprised one of four two-man tandems to each have at least 1,000 yards receiving.

But the lessons keep on coming.

"Being as young as he is, he's still got to focus on the game plan — what's the call, where do I go coming out of the huddle, what direction do I go, what route do I have, do I go inside, do I go outside?" Robiskie said.

"During the course of the ballgame with him, I've got to focus on the guy across from him and let him, 'Here's what they're doing to defend you.' "

With 30-plus years of NFL coaching experience, Robiskie is rarely surprised by any move or decision Jones might attempt.

Their work on the field begins each day before practice starts as Robiskie puts the receivers through sideline and end-zone line drills. The purpose is for each receiver to keep his feet in bounds while trying to catch balls that Robiskie purposely throws slightly out of reach.

It's a drill Robiskie learned from his playing and assistant coaching days with Raiders owner Al Davis and one that he's used over the last 30-plus years of working in the NFL.

"I throw the ball near the line where they literally have to dive or reach out across the white (line)," Robiskie said. "They have to drag their feet while focusing on the ball. On the end line, I try to throw it high and in the back of the end zone. Their minds have to be on, 'I've got to catch the ball and drag my feet.' "

Jones showed how the work has paid off three weeks ago at Detroit as he reached out to catch quarterback Matt Ryan's pass in the right corner of the end zone and dragged his right foot while clutching the ball against the left side of his chest.

The 16-yard catch against Lions cornerback Chris Houston gave the Falcons a 21-3 lead late in the second quarter, but Jones' athleticism was only part of play's success. It took long hours on the field for the technique to seem like second nature.

"Practice makes perfect, man," Jones said. "You've got to continue to keep doing the little things so that it becomes easy to you when you're in the game. When you're in that situation, you don't even think twice about it."

For Robiskie, it's fun to work with a "coachable player like Julio." He says the three seasons that Jones spent at Alabama, helping coach Nick Saban win his first national title with the Crimson Tide four years ago, gave him the kind of humility that Robiskie values.

"By the same token, Roddy's been with me for five years now and even when I got here (in 2008), he felt that he had all the answers anyway," Robiskie said with a laugh. "He already feels he's got it all unless someone jacks him up and chokes him a little bit. But I don't have to talk to him as much. With Julio, I have to talk to him all the time because I've still got to focus on what I need to do from this to this to this."

Notes: DE John Abraham (ankle) was limited in practice on Friday and is listed as questionable for Sunday. ... Reserve S Charles Mitchell (calf) is also questionable. ... SS William Moore (hamstring) fully participated in practice for the first time in five weeks. He and CB Dunta Robinson (head) are both listed as probable. ... After losing David Caldwell to become the general manager with Jacksonville, Dimitroff promoted Lionel Vital to replace him as director of player personnel. Vital is in his fifth season with Atlanta, 22nd overall in the NFL.

-- George Henry

Miller coming off big playoff debut for Seattle

RENTON, Wash. (AP) — Zach Miller came to Seattle in 2011 thanks to a big contract and a penchant for catching a lot of passes as a tight end.

After spending his first season with the Seahawks mainly as a blocker and catching very few balls, there were plenty of questions about whether the team made a smart investment.

If they weren't before, those questions were gone after Miller's performance in last Sunday's wild-card playoff victory over Washington.

"He'd like to do everything and catch 10 balls a game, but in the system the way it is, he's there for really opportunities and to make things happen when he gets his chances, and he's done a great job," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.

That deal Miller signed in 2011 possibly paid for itself with his performance in the Washington win. Miller caught just four passes but they might have been the four biggest receptions in his two seasons in Seattle. He twice converted third-and-long situations on drives that led to points and caught a critical 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter of the Seahawks' 24-14 victory.

Miller's four catches against Washington were tied for second-most of any game not just this season but in his two years with the Seahawks.

"You have a lot of guys that are receiving tight ends or blocking tight ends and in this system you have to be able to do a little of all of it," Miller said.

Before he came to Seattle, Miller was known more for his ability as a pass catcher. In his final two years with Oakland, Miller caught 66 and 60 passes, respectively, and ranked among the top 10 in the league in receptions by a tight end both seasons.

That translated into a big pay day for Miller before the start of the 2011 season when he joined the Seahawks on a five-year contract. But the numbers he posted in Oakland simply didn't make the trip up the coast.

Much of that was the circumstance Miller was thrown into. A year ago, the Seahawks were in the midst of revamping their offensive line and trying to do it without the benefit of offseason workouts due to the NFL lockout. That led to problems with protection once the season began and the need to use Miller as an extra offensive lineman.

Carroll said Miller accepted whatever was asked.

"He's such a good team guy that the only problem would be if he'd felt it, if he was frustrated by it," Carroll said.

With a solidified offensive line, Miller has gotten more chances to be a pass receiver this season and is often a target late in plays for rookie QB Russell Wilson. He caught a pass in every game but one and had five receptions against the New York Jets in November, Miller's most since his final game with the Raiders.

But his most important catches of the season came last Sunday.

It started in the first quarter when the Seahawks were already facing a 14-0 deficit. On a third-and-12 at their own 18, Wilson saw Miller open, but the pass was underthrown. Miller reached back, picking the ball just off the top of the turf, then spun off two tacklers and dove to get the first down. It was the Seahawks' initial first down of the game and eventually led to a field goal.

"Definitely the way the game started we needed to convert a third down and it happened to be third and long and it ended up being a big play," Miller said. "We got points on that drive, which was huge and kind of got the offense rolling."

Miller's other big catch came in the fourth quarter on the drive that gave Seattle the lead. Facing third-and-10 at the Seahawks 46, Miller initially stayed in to block as a defensive tackle looped around. That block bought Wilson time, but all his options were covered downfield. Miller then started a late route and Wilson found him in stride for a 22-yard gain.

Three plays later, Marshawn Lynch scored on a 27-yard run and Miller made a difficult catch on the 2-point conversion to give the Seahawks the lead.

"I thought it was cool the way it happened and definitely love the trust in Russell to expect me to be there and throw it out to me," Miller said.

-- Tim Booth

Seattle's Lynch (foot) expected to play at Atlanta

RENTON, Wash. (AP) — Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has a sprained foot but is probable and expected to play Sunday against Atlanta.

Coach Pete Carroll said Lynch got work in practice Friday for the first time this week and looked fine. Asked what it would take for Lynch not to play, Carroll cracked, "Miss the flight? Doesn't show up in Atlanta?"

Lynch rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown in last week's wild-card round win over Washington. He did not participate in practice Wednesday and Thursday.

Wide receiver Sidney Rice did not practice Friday with a knee injury but was listed as probable. Reserve safety Jeron Johnson was questionable with a hamstring and reserve cornerback Byron Maxwell is doubtful (hamstring).

Carroll said newly signed backup defensive end Patrick Chukwurah will likely be active for Sunday's game.

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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