Ravens have had problems in kick game

648344.jpg

Ravens have had problems in kick game

FOXBORO -- The matchups for Sunday's AFC title game have been well-established: Great Offense vs. Great Defense. Vindication-seeking Defense vs. Vindication-seeking Quarterback.

Yet the oft-forgotten third element of the game, special teams, could also play a deciding role on Sunday.

The kicking game was an area of concern for the Ravens for much of the regular season. They ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed per kickoff return (29.2) and 24th in the league in yards allowed per punt return (11.9). They were also prone to giving up big plays when kicking it away. They tied Carolina, Oakland and Seattle with three kicks allowed for touchdowns (2 kickoff returns, 1 punt return).

When Baltimore received the ball, the results weren't much better as its special teamers had a tendency to put the ball on the ground. Kickoff return man David Reed fumbled three times during the regular season, including two on kickoff returns in a 22-17 Week 10 loss to the Seahawks.

Starting cornerback Ladarius Webb returned the first Texans kick in their Divisional Playoff game last week, but he fumbled that job away, too -- literally and figuratively. Though Webb continued to return punts for the Ravens, Tom Zbikowski received kicks for the remainder of last week's game.

With some uncertainty among Baltimore's return men, might the Patriots smell an opportunity for a game-changing play on special teams?

"We try to get the ball out every time if we could," New England special teams captain Matthew Slater said on Friday. "Those guys have had their problems but they're still a very tough unit. We have our work cut out for us, especially with coach John Harbaugh and his background in special teams. They'll be ready. I'm sure they'll be holding on to the ball, they'll make it tough on us."

The Patriots haven't been world-beaters returning kicks. They ranked 29th in the league in return yards per kickoff (21.4) and 16th in the league in punt returns (10.3). But if they can force a special teams turnover, it could change the entire tenor of a contest that may be kept close because of how the Ravens and Pats match up in the game's other phases.

One more trend worth keeping an eye on is how Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff kicks away from home. He has struggled kicking on the road this year, with all nine of his missed kicks coming away from Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. He's seen a significant drop-off in accuracy since last season, too, hitting on just 75.7 percent of his kicks after making a Pro Bowl-worthy 89.7 percent of his tries last season.

Danny Ainge says Lonzo Ball has declined pre-draft workout with Celtics

Danny Ainge says Lonzo Ball has declined pre-draft workout with Celtics

BOSTON -- Like most NBA executives, Danny Ainge loves to get as much intel on players before picking them as he can.  
 
And with the No. 1 overall pick, Ainge knows he has to do all he can to absolutely get this one right.
 
That’s why any thoughts he had of drafting Lonzo Ball are likely out the window after the talented UCLA guard refused to work out for the Celtics.
 
“We tried to get him in for a workout and he politely said no,” Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, said on 98.5 the Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich show.
 
Lonzo Ball’s desire (or his dad Lavar Ball’s desire; hard to say who in the Ball camp wants him in L.A. the most) to play for the Los Angeles Lakers is one of the worst-kept secrets leading up to next month’s NBA draft.
 
And with the Lakers holding the No. 2 pick in the draft, turning down the Celtics only increases the likelihood of  Boston passing on him and instead drafting University of Washington star Markelle Fultz.
 
“It’s not ideal,” Ainge said of Ball's decision to decline working out for Boston. “Listen, we’ve drafted guys that wouldn’t come in for workouts before. It’s not the end of the world. We’ve watched them play a ton. We have a lot of information on them. Sometimes players don’t want to come in, not because they don’t like you, they see our roster. They think they would prefer to go to another team.”
 
The Celtics, like most teams, have been mum publicly as to who they would take in the draft. But all indications at this point in the process are pointing towards them selecting Fultz with the top overall selection.
 
And the fact that Ball, the projected number two pick even before the draft lottery order was established, refuses to work out for Boston will only increase the likelihood that Fultz will be a Celtic and Ball and his camp will get their wish which has always been to don a Los Angeles Lakers jersey.

Celtics-Cavaliers preview: Game 5 is about respect for Boston

Celtics-Cavaliers preview: Game 5 is about respect for Boston

BOSTON – From the outset of this season, the Boston Celtics were swimming upstream when it came to getting respect. 

No matter how many wins they racked up, no matter how many upsets they managed to pull off, they were never going to do enough to satisfy the court of public opinion which wanted one thing and one thing only from the NBA: A third installment of Golden State against Cleveland in the NBA Finals. 

The Warriors did their part by running through the West with 12 wins in as many playoff games. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics will try to not just stave off elimination tonight, but continue to delay what so many believe is an inevitable Golden State-Cleveland Final.

Boston’s Al Horford understands that while the league this season has seen lots of individual success as well as teams that have overachieved, the thirst for Golden State versus Cleveland remains stronger than ever. 

“We understand that’s what everyone has been talking about since the beginning of the season,” Horford said. “For us it’s just to focus … and play the Celtic way. And just come out here and fight and we’ll take it from there.”

The Celtics did that in Game 3 with Avery Bradley delivering one of the more memorable shots in the Brad Stevens era, a game-winning three-pointer that hit the rim four times before falling with 0.1 seconds to play as Boston squeaked out a 111-108 win.

Boston did a lot of good things in Game 4 and seemingly went into the half sensing that maybe just maybe they would even up the series at two games heading back to Boston for tonight’s Game 5 matchup. 

But Kyrie Irving picked up the slack for a foul-plagued LeBron James, lifting the Cavaliers to a 112-99 win which puts them now just a win away from advancing to the NBA Finals. 

Not only have folks both in the media as well as fans who have rooted for this series to be over, even merchandise sellers like Dick Sporting Goods have anticipated this series as already being over.

“It is what it is,” said Boston’s Jae Crowder. “It’s been like that all year; a lot of guys counting us out. At the same time, we’re trying to put ourselves in position to win each and every game.”

While that has been the goal, it certainly hasn’t worked out that way in this series. 

Despite Games 1 and 2 being at the TD Garden, the Celtics lost both games by a total of 57 points. 

And while they won Game 3 and had the Cavaliers on the ropes in Game 4 before losing, they know their chance to play NBA Finals spoiler is just about up. 

“We know that’s the Finals that everybody wants to talk about, what everybody is looking forward to,” said Boston’s Marcus Smart. “We understand it. But we work just as hard as these guys. We just have to keep going out there and working. We’re not going to give it to them, and stuff like that. We just have to make it tough on them.”