Articles By All
Seeing Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning on the sidelines during Giants games is somewhat of a tradition. It will be a little odd to see the quarterback standing next to someone else next year.
During Coughlin's exit press conference, he spoke a little about what Manning has meant to him and stressed that his departure wasn't the quarterback's fault.
No one is taking it harder than Manning.
Some people aren't happy with Tom Coughlin's exit from the Giants.
As one could imagine, Coughlin himself is one of those people. After his press conference, the former head coach completely breezed past the Giants owner, John Mara, and everyone noticed.
Tom Coughlin with the SAVAGE power move on John Mara!!! pic.twitter.com/o0WdTV5uUZ— Jim Weber (@JimMWeber) January 5, 2016
The team will have a giant hole to fill without Coughlin.
It's hard to remember with the way this season has gone, but there was a time before Baker Mayfield when the Sooners were all in on Trevor Knight.
The former Oklahoma quarterback is transferring to Texas A&M and will be immediately eligible to play for the Aggies. Knight couldn't leave the Sooners behind without telling everyone just how much they meant to him, saying he will "still call Norman home."
Boomer Sooner, and Gig'em Aggies! pic.twitter.com/A4jCHo7xGD— Trevor Knight (@trevor_knight9) January 4, 2016
Never in the history of college football has a conference dominated the bowl season like the SEC did over the past week. It all started on Dec. 29 when LSU throttled Texas Tech 56-27 in the Texas Bowl. The next day Auburn beat Memphis 31-10, Mississippi State beat NC State 51-28, and Texas A&M lost to Louisville, 27-21. The conference looked fairly impressive up to that point, holding steady with a 3-1 bowl record.
That’s when the fun really began, as the SEC brutalized teams of a much higher caliber than Texas Tech, Memphis, or NC State (with all due respect). On New Year’s Eve, Alabama blanked Michigan State in its College Football Playoff semifinal, 38-0. Then on New Year's Day, Tennessee mauled Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, 45-6. There was, of course, a slight hiccup for the SEC when Michigan stomped Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. But later that night, Ole Miss showed up and off in a 48-20 Sugar Bowl romp over Oklahoma State.
On Saturday, Georgia held off Penn State, 24-17, while Arkansas knocked out Kansas State, 45-23. The SEC finished 8-2 in bowl games, breaking the all-time record for most bowl wins by a conference in the postseason. But the most impressive part of the whole thing was how the conference did it.
Seven of the eight victories posted by SEC teams were significant blowouts, all with margins of victory of 21 or more points. For comparison, the other nine conferences only had a combined five wins by 21 or more points this bowl season, according to the SEC Network. An 8-2 bowl record is unheard of, but even in the losses, an SEC homer could make excuses for Florida and Texas A&M. The Gators have been awful since quarterback Will Grier was suspended, and the Aggies had not one, but two quarterbacks transfer before their bowl game. That doesn’t necessarily mean either of those teams would have gotten the job done (especially Florida, which lost by 34 points) but a case could be made. Hey, the Gators did beat Ole Miss by four touchdowns with Grier at the helm.
The point is, it should be recognized how impressive this particular bowl season was for the SEC. After last year, the headlines had everyone believing college football’s best conference was finished. Ole Miss got smacked around by TCU, Georgia Tech embarrassed Mississippi State, and Alabama was beaten on the grandest stage of all by a hot Ohio State team. Granted, it wasn’t the best postseason, but the SEC still managed a 7-5 bowl record. That would be considered a huge success for most conferences, but the national narrative led us to believe the SEC was dead in the water. The reason is because that’s what the rest of college football wanted to believe.
It’s understandable, after watching the same teams win seven consecutive national titles, that people would jump at the opportunity to write off the SEC. Rooting for the underdog is part of our culture, going all the way back to David vs. Goliath. It’s exciting to watch a giant fall. Everyone is tired of hearing that the SEC has the best coaches and best players, but it’s the truth. That’s why the Big Ten upgraded its coaches. Eventually, maybe the Urban Meyers, Jim Harbaughs and James Franklins will own the SEC – but not yet. Argue coaches all day if you want, but the most important element in this discussion is the talent.
The SEC has the best players in college football, and it’s not even close. The conference is positioned in the perfect place, geographically. Its western border is Texas and Louisiana. Its eastern border is Florida and Georgia. That’s the big secret behind the success – geography. It didn’t seem like a big deal in seventh grade, but now geography is responsible for dynasties in college football. People use the word ‘pipeline’ to describe it, and that’s exactly what it is. All the recruiting channels are running through the south. California has a lot of talent, especially at quarterback, that the SEC misses out on. And there are other areas, like New Jersey and Ohio, that have a decent amount of talent. But the south is where the majority lies.
When you control Florida and Texas, you can afford to give up California. It has been increasingly difficult for Big Ten schools, and others for that matter, to infiltrate the south when they are going up against Nick Saban, Les Miles, Hugh Freeze, Butch Jones, etc. Why do you think satellite camps were such a hot topic in the offseason? Harbaugh is a pretty smart guy. But until other conferences are able to have success poaching recruits from the south, the SEC will continue to dominate college football.
Obviously, by law of probability, the SEC isn’t going to win every matchup with another Power 5 conference member. Hence, last year’s “bad” 7-5 bowl season. But when the cards fall right, like they did this bowl season, the SEC is the most likely to beat up on its competition. It flexed its muscles this past week, and there was nothing the rest of America could do about it. Maybe one day the power will shift, but it hasn’t yet.
By the way, the SEC still has a chance to finish 9-2 and bring home the national championship. A certain team in crimson has a date with destiny on Monday.
In late April, the Tennessee Titans drafted quarterback Marcus Mariota with the second pick in the NFL Draft. Ken Whisenhunt got to coach Mariota for less than half of a season, as he was shown the door after the team started 1-6.
Mike Mularkey became the Titans interim head coach in Week 9, but he could only generate two wins (2-7), both over teams that finished with losing records of their own. So it’s unlikely Mularkey will see the interim tag removed from his title.
Tennessee also is looking for a new general manager following Monday's announcement that the team would not be extending the contract of Ruston Webster. Steve Underwood has been named permanent team president and CEO (he was serving as the interim), and he will be the person to lead the search for the Titans' next general manager and head coach. Whether the new GM will be in place to help find the new head coach remains to be seen.
No matter who gets the Tennessee head coaching job, they will have a great young quarterback in Mariota and a number of promising young players.
So who are some of the top candidates for the Titans job?
Because the Cincinnati Bengals are playing during Wild Card Weekend, Jackson cannot be interviewed until either the team is eliminated from the playoffs or during the Super Bowl’s bye week.
Jackson has an extensive offensive history in the NFL as he has been an offensive coordinator for the Bengals, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons and most notably the Oakland Raiders. It was in Oakland that he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach after then-Raiders owner Al Davis fired Tom Cable following the 2010 season.
In his only year with the Raiders in 2011, Jackson finished 8-8 before being fired after the team made a number of front office changes following Davis’ death.
Before his thumb injury, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was having the best season of his five-year career. Dalton set career highs in completion percentage (66.1), yards per completion (8.42) and quarterback rating (106.3) and a umber of analysts have given Jackson credit for that.
If Jackson has gotten the most out of Dalton, just imagine what he could do with a quarterback that has the skill set of a Marcus Mariota.
Of course Kelly has to be a candidate for the Titans head coaching job. After all, the former Philadelphia Eagles head coach also is the man who recruited Mariota to the University of Oregon.
Kelly’s system is the same offensive playbook Mariota ran in college, so that is a plus. He also could possibly improve the Titans' offense, which finished 30th in the NFL in 2015.
The negatives about Kelly is the way he left Philadelphia. Kelly ran a number of players out of town (DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, etc.) and he didn’t leave on the best of terms with the Eagles' front office.
Kelly did go 10-6 with an NFC East Division title in his first two seasons with the Eagles before falling to a 6-9 prior to his dismissal on Dec. 29.
The former Denver Broncos head coach and current New England Patriots offensive coordinator figures to draw plenty of interest among team with openings. The Titans' job could be a chance for him to work with a talented quarterback, something he didn’t exactly have in his two seasons in Denver.
Before coaching a game for the Broncos in 2009, McDaniels traded quarterback Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears for Kyle Orton and draft picks.
In his first season for the Broncos, McDaniels finished 8-8. He was fired 12 games into his second season in 2010, as Denver struggled to a 3-9 record.
This season the Patriots were one of the best offenses in the NFL, ranking sixth in total offense and third in points per game with 29.1. Hiring McDaniels could prove to be an excellent fit for the Titans.
Like McDaniels, Gase, the Bears' offensive coordinator, is one of the hottest coordinators in coaching circles and the Titans are probably just one of the teams that will request an interview with the 37-year-old.
This season, Gase helped Jay Cutler have one of his most productive seasons, as he finished with a quarterback rating of 92.3, which is the best of his 10-year career. Prior to Gase’s arrival, Cutler was prone to throwing multiple interceptions in a game, something he did just once in 2015.
Gase also is scheduled to meet with the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles about their head coaching vacancies. So the Titans will have some competition.
One interesting name people should keep an eye on is Koetter, who currently serves as Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator. Not only did Koetter do a good job with possible rookie of the year Jameis Winston, but he also made the Buccaneers one of the better offenses in the league.
Tampa Bay ended the season ranked fifth in total offense with an average of 376 yards per game. The team also managed 21.4 points per game, which is up from 2014's mark of 17.3.
Koetter’s play-calling maximized the strengths of the Buccaneers' offense and was a big reason the team were in a number of games this season.
With the quick turnaround of the Buccaneers' offense, Koetter could be a sleeper candidate for the Titans job.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Now that the 2015 NFL regular season is officially over for the Miami Dolphins, the real fun begins. While interim head coach Dan Campbell will interview to be the permanent head coach according to owner Stephen Ross, he isn’t expected to return after finishing with a 5-8 record after Joe Philbin was fired.
The team has already moved on from former general manager Dennis Hickey, naming Chris Grier, previously the Dolphins' director of college scouting, as his replacement. Now the focus will shift to filling the head coaching vacancy. Miami already has a number of interviews lined up this week. The candidates vary from coordinators to a veteran with multiple Super Bowl titles. Ross said on Sunday that it isn't necessary that the next head coach have previous head coaching experience.
Here are some of the top candidates to become the 12th head coach in Dolphins history.
In his press conference on Monday, Dolphins Executive Vice President of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum confirmed that the former Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins head coach will interview on Tuesday.
ESPN has reported that Tannenbaum previously interviewed Shanahan on Dec. 22. Tannenbaum said the two have spoken, but it wasn’t an official interview.
Shanahan last coached in the NFL from 2010-13 with the Redskins, where he led finished with a 24-40 record, making the postseason just once. His most well-known success came when he was with the Broncos. That's where Shanahan won two Super Bowls in 1997 and '98 and finished with a 138-86 record in 14 seasons.
It will be interesting to see if Shanahan would be willing to accept a head coaching job where he isn’t the person making the personnel decisions. In his previous two jobs with the Broncos and Redskins, Shanahan had the power to mold the roster to his liking. In Miami, Tannenbaum is currently the person making the decisions about which players to draft and to pursue in free agency or through other means.
Shanahan could be the coach the Dolphins need to jumpstart Ryan Tannehill’s career. After completing 66.4 percent of his passes and throwing 27 touchdowns in 2014, Tannehill took a step back this season. The fourth-year veteran completed 61.9 percent of his throws with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
McDaniels, like Shanahan, is a former head coach of the Denver Broncos. However, while Shanahan found success in the Mile High City, McDaniels struggled in his two-plus seasons.
After going 8-8 in his first season, he was fired 12 games into his second season in 2010 ending his tenure in Denver with a 11-17 record.
Miami has reportedly requested an interview with McDaniels, who is now in his fourth season of his second stint as New England's offensive coordinator. At the time he was hired in Denver, McDaniels was just 33, so maybe the Dolphins believe he could be much better in his second stint as a coach much like Bill Belichick, the man he currently works for.
New England finished the 2015 regular season ranked sixth in the NFL in total offense and third in points per game with 29.1.
Miami also has reportedly requested permission to speak with Patricia, the Patriots' defensive coordinator. While he doesn’t have head coaching experience, Patricia has been in the New England organization since 2004.
He worked in various positions before becoming the team’s defensive coordinator in 2012. This season, Patricia oversaw a New England defense that was ranked ninth in the league in total defense.
Miami finished 2015 25th in defense, so Patricia could help improve that Dolphins in that area.
After helping quarterback Jay Cutler have one of his most productive seasons of his career, Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Gase has once again become one of the hottest coaching candidates that several teams are sure to reach out to.
The NFL Network reported that Gase will interview with the Dolphins on Thursday. While the Bears finished 21st in offense, Gase helped Cutler finish with a quarterback rating of 92.3, the best of veteran's 10-year career.
Gase also is scheduled to meet with the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles at some point about their head coaching vacancies.
Miami is very interested in Haley, the Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, but the team cannot interview him this week because the Steelers play the Bengals on Saturday in one of the AFC wild card games.
After a rocky beginning with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Haley has transformed Pittsburgh’s offense to one of the best in the NFL. The Steelers finished this season third in offense and fourth in points per game with 26.4 per contest.
Haley does have previous head coaching experience with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009-11. After winning the AFC West in 2010, Haley was fired 13 games into the 2011 season after a 5-8 record.
Former Dolphins Vice President of Football Operations Bill Parcells has reportedly endorsed Haley as the franchise's next head coach. Even though Parcells is no longer in the organization, he still gives advice to owner Stephen Ross on occasion.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
The national championship game is set, and somehow, it feels like we always knew it would come down to this. The undefeated, top-ranked Clemson Tigers will square off against the perennial favorite Alabama Crimson Tide on Jan. 11 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Both turned in impressive performances during the College Football Playoff semifinals, but don't be fooled — what you saw from each team last week is not likely to be the case when the two teams meet.
Each team has strengths and weaknesses that weren't apparent in either semifinal game, and those are the factors that will give this game a bit of outrageousness before the clock hits zero.
Alabama won't score a touchdown through the air
The Tide came out and stunned everyone — including Michigan State — in the Cotton Bowl with an extremely effective aerial attack. Much of that was likely a concerted effort on the part of Spartans head coach ;Mark Dantonio to not allow Derrick Henry to beat his defense. That plan backfired. Looking at how teams have played against Alabama this season, you are better off letting Henry do his thing if you want to be in the game at the end. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables will see that and use it to his team's strength.
There will be two special teams touchdowns in the game
Both of these defenses are solid and that's going impact field position. That's also going to be short fields on punt returns and punters backed up in their end zones. Somebody is going to take at least one punt to the house, and don't be shocked if someone scores off a blocked punt.
Deshaun Watson will run for three scores
Watson is far and away the best dual-threat quarterback Alabama has faced this season. The last time Alabama played a quarterback this dynamic was Ole Miss' Chad Kelly, who torched the Tide for three touchdowns through the air and one on the ground to help hand the Crimson Tide their only loss. Clemson will move the ball on Alabama, and when the Tigers get inside the 20, Watson is the biggest red zone threat on the ground. The damage he can do with his arm will only create more room for him to run it when he's near the end zone.
Clemson runs away with the win
There's a reason this team hasn't lost. They are solid at every position and have the best quarterback in college football. Shaq Lawson is going to play, and he'll combine with Kevin Dodd, Carlos Watkins and D. J. Reader to be the most formidable front four Alabama's offensive line has had to face all season. The over/under is around 52.5 for this game. Clemson will score at least 40 points alone and bring a national championship home to the ACC for the second time in three seasons.
Braden Gall and David Fox recap the two Playoff blow-outs, bowl results and the latest coaching rumors:
- Where we surprised with the way Clemson played and can they repeat it on Monday night?
- What does the huge drop in ratings mean for the future of the Playoff?
- Will the College Football Playoff ever be able to "beat" New Year's Eve?
- What are the latest NFL rumors about David Shaw?
- Who would you rather hire (if any) in the NFL: Jim Mora or Kevin Sumlin? (And why?)
- Who would fire their current head coach to land Chip Kelly?
- What to conference bowl records mean in the grand scheme of things?
- Which teams will see their bowl outcome influence their offseason the most?
- What are D-Fox's hopes and dreams for 2016?
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall @AthlonMitch or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
Some people weren't buying into the Iowa hype. Colin Cowherd is one of them.
The Fox Sports host went in on the Hawkeyes after their Rose Bowl loss to Stanford, tweeting that all was quiet in the state.
Must be a power outage or something in Iowa. Awfully quiet 12 hours after being humiliated.— Colin Cowherd (@ColinCowherd) January 2, 2016
That lead to Cowherd talking about the team on "The Herd" and it he didn't hold back, calling them the "fake ID" of college football.
Hopefully the Fox Sports host doesn't plan on visiting the great state of Iowa any time soon.
You have to watch what you say on live television. It's a lesson some have to learn the hard way.
During segment discussing quarterbacks, former NFL defensive end Dexter Manley stated that black ones were more mobile because they were used to running from the law.
Manley quickly realized his mistake and apologized shortly after.
"I made a comment about this black quarterback stuff," Manley stated. "I do apologize and, you know, I say some things I don't think about sometimes."
Sometimes it's ok to take that extra second to think things through.
Chip Kelly and his offensive strategy are not for everyone. Recently, his up-tempo scheme was overshadowed by some eye-opening personnel moves during his tenure in Philadelphia with the Eagles. Kelly was once viewed as a hot commodity in the coaching world. At this point, he's an acquired taste that requires the correct fit in order for he and his system to be successful.
Now that he is essentially a free agent on the coaching market, let's take a look at a couple of landing spots that make sense for both Kelly's system and, perhaps more importantly, his personality.
5 Potential Landing Spots for Chip Kelly in 2016
Nashville makes the most sense for Kelly from a personnel standpoint. Marcus Mariota — the one quarterback in the league with experience running Kelly's system in college — had a solid rookie season. He's surrounded by some exciting skill players, including Bishop Sankey, Kendall Wright, Dorial Green-Beckham, Delanie Walker and Dexter McCluster — so it would be interesting and intriguing to see how each would fare in Kelly's system. Additionally, the Titans play in a division that the Texans just won with a 9-7 record. Kelly also would own the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
San Francisco 49ers
The idea of Kelly going to San Francisco and resurrecting Colin Kaepernick's career has a Hollywood script feel to it. If healthy, Kaepernick might actually be the perfect quarterback for Kelly's up-tempo scheme — perhaps even more so than Mariota. Following the firing of Jim Tomsula after just one season, Kelly has already reached out to the 49ers, and with the amount of money Jed York has tied up in Kaepernick, you could very well see San Francisco take the risk. The negatives that go along with this move, however, are the lack of talent currently on the roster and the brutal competition within the NFC West.
You've seen the memes. Alabama won more games in AT&T Stadium this season than the Cowboys did. It can't get much worse in Dallas, and something tells me Jerry Jones doesn't like to be "memed." We know Jones loves Johnny Manziel. We also now know Manziel wants to play in Dallas. Is there a better-suited system for Manziel and the current Cowboy offensive talent that what Kelly runs? If Manziel and Kelly both end up in Dallas, it will be must-see TV — both on and off the field.
Jim Mora has expressed interest in leaving for the NFL. His departure would make UCLA the most coveted collegiate opening — especially with Josh Rosen as the quarterback for two more seasons. Rosen isn't the prototypical signal-caller you see in Kelly's offense, but we've seen pocket passers succeed in the system before. Rosen's presence combined with Kelly's style and West Coast recruiting roots could turn UCLA into a national powerhouse relatively quickly.
There's always the chance that nobody wants to risk hiring Kelly as a head coach in 2016. If that is indeed the case, there may not be a better move for Kelly than joining Urban Meyer's staff — even if only for a season — at Ohio State. Meyer hired former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano as his defensive coordinator and associate head coach a couple of weeks ago. I could see Kelly embracing the role of play-caller for the Buckeyes and finding the position quite liberating as a short break from being the head man in a program. There certainly wouldn't be a more accomplished coaching staff in college football from a resume standpoint. Furthermore, can you imagine J.T. Barrett running Kelly's system?
January 4th marks the day the sports world lost a true pioneer. One year later, Stuart Scott's daughters make a love letter video to talk a little about the man behind the anchor desk.
The video begins with Scott's iconic ESPYs speech and leads into his daughters, Taelor and Sydni, talking about their treasured moments with him.
Alabama has set the standard for the rest of college football to aim for in recent seasons, as the Crimson Tide have won three national championships under coach Nick Saban and were the only team to make the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons. Saban is a perfect 3-0 in National Championship contests at Alabama and is considered the favorite by Vegas to win on Jan. 11 over Clemson in Glendale, Ariz. Even though the Crimson Tide have inked the No. 1 recruiting class in five consecutive years, it’s not just about assembling talent for Saban and this coaching staff. Alabama thrives at roster and player development, which has translated into eight straight seasons of at least 10 wins.
The 2015 version of the Crimson Tide isn’t much different than Saban’s previous teams. Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart have assembled a suffocating defense, and the offense leans heavily on running back Derrick Henry and a standout offensive line. Alabama suffered a 43-37 loss against Ole Miss in mid-September and finished the year by winning 11 consecutive games, including 10 of those matchups by 13 points or more. Why will the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers? Here are five reasons to believe in Saban’s team on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Beat Clemson for the National Title
1. Alabama’s Defense is the Best in the Nation
Defense wins championships. That’s an old cliché mentioned when discussing playoff or championship games, but there is some truth in that statement. Saban and Smart have developed a factory of elite defenses at Tuscaloosa, and the 2015 version ranks among the best in college football over the last five years. Alabama’s defense led the nation in fewest points allowed per game (13.4) and ranks second nationally in yards per play allowed (4.09). The dominance extends after a deeper look at the stat sheet. The Crimson Tide led the nation with 50 sacks, ranked fifth in third-down defense, have allowed only 11 touchdowns on 25 red zone trips, forced 26 turnovers and rank first nationally in rush defense. Even though Ole Miss (40.8 ppg) ranks higher on the scoring offense stat sheet, Clemson’s explosive attack (38.4 ppg) will be the toughest challenge for Alabama’s defense in 2015. Mobile quarterbacks have provided the most problems for the Crimson Tide defense in recent years, but Smart and Saban made a few tweaks, which allowed this unit to be more effective against spread offenses. Additionally, the secondary climbed from No. 30 nationally in pass efficiency defense (2014) to No. 4 in 2015. Even if the Tigers land a few big plays, the Alabama defense still has the necessary personnel, depth, talent and scheme to keep Clemson’s dynamic offense in check.
2. Battle in the Trenches
Alabama’s defense is loaded with NFL talent at each level, starting in the trenches with tackle A’Shawn Robinson and ends Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen. Robinson sets the tone up front with his ability to win the battle at the point of attack, allowing a standout group of linebackers opportunities to make plays around the line of scrimmage. Allen led the team with 12 sacks, while Reed registered eight quarterback hurries and is another 300-pound athletic force up front. The talent extends to the linebacking corps, as senior Reggie Ragland is one of the best in the nation at this position, and Tim Williams finished second on the team with 10.5 sacks. Dillon Lee and Denzel Devall are two other key cogs in this unit, while Reuben Foster (64 stops) is known for his big hits. Clemson’s offensive line was its biggest question mark on offense to open 2015, but this unit emerged as a strength by January. While the line has played well since a few early-season struggles, this unit has not faced a defense with the overall depth, talent and athleticism the Crimson Tide will bring to Glendale, Ariz. It's not just the defense playing with a stacked depth chart in terms of talent in the trenches. When Alabama is on offense, expect its line to challenge Clemson’s standout defensive front. Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson are two of the nation’s best at their respective positions, and redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher has started all 14 games at left guard. The Tigers overwhelmed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl with their talent in the trenches. However, Alabama is stocked up front and capable of beating Clemson for the edge at the line of scrimmage.
3. Alabama QB Jake Coker is Ready to Step Up
Coker’s performance in Alabama’s win over Michigan State was one of the biggest storylines in the College Football Playoff. With the Spartans expected to focus on stopping running back Derrick Henry, coordinator Lane Kiffin asked more of Coker in the Cotton Bowl. The senior delivered with a sharp performance, completing 25 of 30 throws for 286 yards and two scores. Coker’s 286 passing yards were a season high and continued a run of improvement for the Mobile native. The senior has tossed only one interception over the last six games and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each contest during that span. With an elite defense and ground attack at his disposal, Coker doesn’t have to carry the Alabama offense. However, the senior needs to limit mistakes and deliver the ball to a solid group of playmakers at receiver in space. Clemson’s secondary is sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense, while the front seven helps the Tigers rank 18th nationally against the run. With Clemson having the necessary talent up front to slow Henry’s production on the ground, Coker may need to replicate his production from the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 11. Judging by his recent performance, the senior is up to the task.
4. Alabama RB Derrick Henry
Henry wasn’t a complete afterthought in the 38-0 win over Michigan State, but the Heisman Trophy winner only recorded 75 yards and two scores on 20 carries. Additionally, the 3.75 average on attempts was the second-lowest total of the season for the junior. While those statistics are notable, the opponent had a lot to do with Henry’s workload, production and focus on the gameplan for Alabama. With the Spartans gearing up to stop Henry, the Crimson Tide focused more on opening up the passing attack. Clemson is expected to use a similar approach on Jan. 11, as the Tigers own one of the nation’s best front sevens and limited opponents to 124.4 rushing yards per game in 2015. But a deeper look at those totals suggests Henry and the Alabama offensive line could find success. The Tigers allowed 197 rushing yards to Florida State, 242 to Syracuse, 181 to North Carolina and 142 to South Carolina. Clemson also allowed 4.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and may not have standout end Shaq Lawson available due to injury. Henry may not find much success early, but two-yard carries could become eight-yard rushes in the fourth quarter. The junior stepped up in Alabama’s clutch situations or when the offense needed to grind out the clock late in games, and it’s a safe assumption Henry will play a key role in the Crimson Tide’s hopes of winning on Jan. 11.
5. The Nick Saban Advantage
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer isn’t far behind, but Alabama’s Nick Saban should sit at the top of any list ranking the best coaches in college football. In a one-game scenario with a national championship on the line, it’s tough to pick against Saban and this Crimson Tide coaching staff. Saban has won at least 11 games in each of the last five seasons and went 7-1 in SEC play each year during that span. While last year’s loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff was a surprise, Alabama went 3-0 in appearances in the BCS National Championship under Saban. In addition to Saban, the Crimson Tide’s staff is loaded with experience in the assistant ranks. Lane Kiffin was a shrewd hire for Saban, adding a few spread, up-tempo elements to the offense, and his gameplan against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was flawless. The national championship matchup versus Clemson is Smart’s final game at Alabama, as he will take over at Georgia as the head coach on a full-time basis after this contest. While Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has emerged as one of the top 10-15 coaches in the nation, and coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best assistants in college football, the edge in coaching goes to Alabama and Saban. With a quick turnaround to the national championship game, as well as getting the players focused on the Jan. 11 contest, the experience, development of gameplans and track record of Saban is a huge asset for the Crimson Tide. If a team needs to win one game in any scenario, there's not a better coach to have on its side than Saban.
Clemson is 60 minutes away from the second national championship in program history. Under coach Dabo Swinney’s direction, Clemson has emerged as one of the nation’s top programs, winning at least 10 games in each of the last five years. 2015 has been a historic season for coach Dabo Swinney’s squad. The Tigers are college football’s only remaining unbeaten team, won the ACC title, handled Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and bring a 17-game winning streak to Glendale, Ariz. for the national title matchup against Alabama. Swinney’s team has thrived behind an explosive offense and quarterback Deshaun Watson, while the defense quickly reloaded behind standout coordinator Brent Venables.
While Clemson has won a lot of big games under Swinney’s watch, the national championship matchup against Alabama is the biggest stage this program has experienced in recent years and the toughest game on its 2015-16 schedule. Why will the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide? Here are five reasons to believe in Swinney’s team on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Clemson Will Beat Alabama for the National Title
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, but a strong case could be made Watson is the best or most valuable player in the nation. Watson showcased his potential as a true freshman in 2014, throwing for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games. However, Watson was limited due to injuries, including a torn ACL suffered in late November against Georgia Tech. The sophomore showed no ill-effects from last season’s injuries and emerged as the nation’s best quarterback in 2015. Watson threw for 3,699 yards and 31 scores and recorded 1,032 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015. The sophomore became more of a factor in the ground attack over the second half of the season, recording at least 100 rushing yards in five out of the last six games. Watson is the type of quarterback that has provided the most headaches for Alabama’s defense in recent years. The Crimson Tide have lost seven games over the last five seasons, and there’s a familiar pattern among the quarterbacks – Jordan Jefferson, Johnny Manziel, Trevor Knight, Nick Marshall, Cardale Jones, Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly – mobility or the ability to extend plays with their legs. Not only is Watson a sharp passer, but the sophomore’s legs and ability to extend plays will be a huge asset and provide plenty of headaches for Alabama’s defense.
2. Clemson’s Offensive Line Can Handle Alabama’s Defensive Front
Despite returning only one starter on the offensive line, Clemson’s front five has been one of the best in college football this year. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.99 yards per carry. This unit had its share of ups and downs early but showed steady improvement over the course of the season. True freshman Mitch Hyatt started all 14 games and joined guard Eric Mac Lain and center Jay Guillermo as the anchors for this group. In the Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked just once and the offense recorded 312 rushing yards. Alabama’s defensive front is the best in the nation and will present a tougher challenge than the one the Tigers played in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. However, with the development of Clemson’s offensive line throughout the year, combined with Watson’s mobility, the Tigers have the pieces in place to match the play of the Crimson Tide in the trenches.
3. Clemson’s Defensive Line Can Create Problems for the Alabama OL
As mentioned in the previous section, Alabama’s defensive line and linebacker units form the nation’s best front seven. However, Clemson isn’t too far down the list of best defensive fronts in college football. Under the watch of coordinator Brent Venables and defensive line assistants Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby, the Tigers quickly reloaded up front after losing several key pieces at the end of the 2014 campaign. Gone from last season’s front that led the nation with 131 tackles for loss were ends Corey Crawford, Tavaris Barnes and Vic Beasley and tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. Despite the personnel losses, this unit hasn’t missed a beat. End Shaq Lawson was the unit’s top performer, recording 10.5 sacks and earning second-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports. However, Lawson isn’t the only standout for this defense in the trenches. Junior Kevin Dodd (18.5 TFL, 9 sacks) is another threat off the edge, while the interior is in great shape with Carlos Watkins, D.J. Reader and Christian Wilkins. B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware are two standouts in the linebacking corps, and both players are active around the line of scrimmage. Lawson suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma, and his status is uncertain for Jan. 11. Even if Lawson is sidelined, Dodd, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin are capable of creating plenty of havoc against Alabama’s offensive line and slowing running back Derrick Henry. Clemson ranks 18th nationally against the run and first in tackles for loss (117).
4. Playmakers at Running Back and Wide Receiver
With speed and athleticism at running back and receiver, Clemson’s skill talent can put a lot of pressure on Alabama’s defense. Wayne Gallman might be the nation’s most underrated running back, recording 1,482 yards and 12 scores on 269 carries this season. Gallman has the speed to attack the edges, while also bringing an element of power to attack the middle of the field. Zac Brooks and C.J. Fuller will spell Gallman at running back. The receiving corps won’t have Deon Cain available due to suspension, but Artavis Scott (89 catches) is the team’s go-to option. Scott’s ability to make plays off screen passes helps to set up the deep balls to Charone Peake (14.0 ypc) and Germone Hopper (15.1 ypc). Tight end Jordan Leggett (35 catches) is another valuable weapon for Watson, and freshman Hunter Renfrow (15.5 ypc) is a security blanket over the middle. In order to beat Alabama’s defense, offenses have to spread the field and attack a secondary that ranked ninth in the SEC by giving up 15 passing plays of 30 yards or more. That's exactly the type of ability Clemson's group of skill players will bring to Glendale, Ariz. and Alabama's defense on Jan. 11.
5. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander
Alabama’s receiving corps faced question marks to open the season after the loss of the top three options – Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones – from 2014. However, this group has improved over the course of the season, significantly helped by the emergence of freshman Calvin Ridley. In 14 games, Ridley has grabbed 83 receptions for 1,031 yards and seven scores. Additionally, ArDarius Stewart (61 grabs) and Richard Mullaney (37 catches) stepped up in 2015 and made key receptions in the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State. Tight end O.J. Howard (33 receptions) is another weapon Clemson will have to account for on Jan. 11. Clemson’s secondary has surrendered a few big plays (16 of 30 yards or more), but this unit features a lockdown All-America cornerback in Mackensie Alexander, while safety Jayron Kearse (second team) and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (third team) earned All-ACC honors. Expect to see Alexander matched on Ridley on Jan. 11, which forces Alabama to rely more on Stewart and Mullaney. If Alexander contains Ridley, that’s a huge advantage in Clemson’s favor in the national championship.
Since Green Bay couldn’t stop the Arizona juggernaut last Sunday in the desert, it must now conquer the Vikings for a second time in the season or end up consigned to a road trip during the first week of the postseason. It’s not the best situation for a team that was at one point 6-0 and presumably headed for big things. After an ugly loss to the Cardinals, Green Bay must rebound quickly or head into the playoffs with a decided lack of momentum.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is delighted to be playing in this NFC North title game, since the Vikes lost to Green Bay in November and looked to be headed to the wild card realm. But a big win over the sagging Giants and the Packers’ loss has put Minnesota in position to win the division and host a first-round playoff game. Of course, the Vikings can’t be too cocky, since they have had their struggles this year, and going to Lambeau for such a game is never easy. But things look better for Minnesota than they did earlier this season.
Minnesota at Green Bay
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Green Bay -3
Three Things to Watch
1. On the Line
By the end of last week’s loss in Arizona, the Packers were down to two original starting offensive linemen, thanks to injuries to LT David Bakhtiari (who didn’t suit up), right tackle Bryan Bulaga and center Corey Linsley. Perhaps that’s why the Cardinals sacked Green Bay quarterbacks nine times. If the line isn’t strong, Aaron Rodgers won’t have time to throw, and he could replicate last week’s 15-of-28 passing performance for 151 yards, not to mention being sacked eight times. Further, a depleted front wall could causes problems for the Green Bay running attack, which could lead to more problems in the passing game. In other words, having those starters available is huge.
2. Running Loose
When the Packers and Vikings locked up earlier this year, Adrian Peterson managed just 45 yards on 13 carries, and Green Bay prevailed. Coincidence? Hardly. The NFL’s leading rusher is tops in the league in 100-yard games, and his 104 yards last week were big in the win over New York, especially since QB Teddy Bridgewater was an uninspiring 15-of-25 for 168 yards. It is imperative for the Vikings that Peterson gets going early and can pile up the yards throughout the game.
3. All the Marbles – Again?
It is entirely possible that Sunday’s game could be the first of two straight for these two teams, both in Wisconsin. If the Packers win, and Seattle triumphs, the Seahawks and Vikings will have the same record, and Seattle holds the tiebreaker. That means it would have the higher seed of the two wild card teams and earn a trip to play NFC East champion Washington, while Minnesota gets a third meeting with the Pack, again at Lambeau. Even though it is tough to beat a team three times in the same season, Minnesota couldn’t possibly want to face Green Bay again.
These teams enter the game with much different psychological outlooks. The Packers are still stinging from last week’s big loss in Arizona, while Minnesota is on a high after thumping the Giants. If momentum counts, the Vikings are in great shape.
But talent plays a role, too, and Green Bay has one of the best QBs in the league in Aaron Rodgers, even if his line is struggling, and his receivers aren’t the best around. In big games at home, it’s hard to bet against him. The appropriate way to counter for Minnesota is to make this game all about Adrian Peterson, who has the ability to control the contest and lessen the amount of possessions Green Bay gets. Since this is the NFL, 2015 edition, it’s good to bet on the passer over the runner.
Prediction: Packers 23, Vikings 20
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.
After closing the home portion of the schedule with a very sloppy, uninspired performance in a 23-17 loss to the St. Louis Rams. The Seattle Seahawks (9-6) will look to somehow play themselves back into the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs by shocking the Arizona Cardinals, who have plenty to play for with the top seed still up for grabs. As of right now the Seahawks are the No. 6 seed looking at a matchup against either Green Bay or Minnesota on the road in the NFC Wild Card round.
Arizona (13-2) would love nothing better than finish the regular season on a high note by completing the season sweep over the Seahawks and putting the pressure squarely on Carolina to hold serve, as both teams battle for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. The Cardinals took Green Bay to the woodshed last Sunday in a 38-8 win. Carson Palmer completed 18-of-27 passes for 265 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception to pace a very efficient offensive performance. Defensively, the pass rush was brilliant all day long as Arizona had eight sacks of Aaron Rodgers along with a pair of defensive touchdowns. Thus, it is a stone cold lock that you will see the Cardinals pressure Russell Wilson this afternoon.
Seattle at Arizona
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Arizona -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Seahawks' sense of urgency
It will be very interesting to see how this Seattle team responds to being such a significant underdog on Sunday. Will the nation see a team that is willing to fight to put the pressure on the Vikings to have to win on Sunday night and give the Seahawks a chance to slide into the fifth seed or will they coast and stay content as the No. 6 seed. This will be a strong test of the Seahawks' competitive mindset to see if Pete Carroll’s message of “Always Compete” still is getting through to this year’s team.
2. Arizona’s aggressiveness in the passing game
Expect a heavy dose of Carson Palmer attacking the Seahawks' secondary right from the start. It was a strategy that worked brilliantly in the first matchup this season back in Week 11 when the Cardinals beat Seattle 39-32, as Palmer threw for 363 yards and three touchdown passes. Larry Fitzgerald should be very busy once again against the Legion of Boom, as he caught 10 passes for 130 yards in the first meeting. There is a question about fellow wideout Michael Floyd’s health as he is listed as questionable, but head coach Bruce Arians is still optimistic that Floyd will play this week. Floyd will more than likely be a game-time decision on Sunday.
3. Can the Seahawks' offense clean up its act?
In order for Seattle to even think of winning a playoff game let alone go on any type of a deep run in the postseason, the Seahawks will have to clean up their attention to detail offensively. The Seahawks fumbled the ball five times, losing two of them, in the disappointing loss to the Rams last week. Center Patrick Lewis had multiple bad snaps that cost the offense some critical losses of yardage at the worst possible time. The offensive line as a whole did not protect Russell Wilson very well all game long. Also, Wilson did not help his own cause with an interception and a key fumble late in the fourth quarter when the Seattle was driving and trying to get back into the game by trying to do a little too much.
This game should be fiercely contested as both teams have a ton of pride and have plenty of motivation to win because of the potential playoff seeding implications for both teams. Arizona is playing better football and is the better football team than the Seahawks are right now, especially with the injury concerns that Seattle has on both sides of the ball. If the Cardinals get sloppy with turnovers, then this game will be a battle late in the game. Win or lose, Seattle they simply needs to play better football just for its own peace of mind heading into the playoffs. If the Seahawks can clean up their issues offensively the defense should have enough pride to play well enough to keep them in the game into the fourth quarter. However, Carson Palmer is going to find a way to make enough plays in the passing game to give the Cardinals their 14th win of the season in a close, hard-fought battle.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Seahawks 23
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and also writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball.
The Denver Broncos locked up a playoff spot with a thrilling overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on "Monday Night Football." The Broncos are in, but their seed could range anywhere from first overall in the AFC to a wild card spot. With a win this afternoon Denver will win the AFC West and earn a bye, but to do so they must beat a Chargers team with some fight still left in them.
The Chargers are wrapping up a disappointing 4-11 season which has seen them win one road game all season long. San Diego was ravaged by injuries along its offensive line and at wide receiver, and will be headed to an offseason that could see the Chargers move to Los Angeles. They don't have much to play for but should at least be motivated to hurt their divisional rivals' playoff position.
Kansas City will take the division title if it wins and Denver loses, and the Chiefs play at the same time on Sunday so the Broncos will have to attack this final game with everything they've got.
San Diego at Denver
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Broncos -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Osweiler Playoff Ready?
After two games of poor second half performances, Brock Osweiler flipped the script last week against the Bengals with a quiet first half, but an efficient second half. Only playing half a game is a bad recipe in the playoffs and one that Denver won't be able to overcome against the better teams in the conference. Can Osweiler finally click for an entire game? It would send a message to rest of the AFC that the young quarterback is finding his stride at the perfect time.
2. Shutdown Defense
San Diego put up a good fight last weekend against the Raiders, and its offense provides just enough of a test to keep the Broncos' defense sharp. The Chargers won't be headed to the playoffs, but their quarterback would still rank near the top of the AFC playoff teams. If Osweiler's inconsistency remains in the playoffs the Broncos might have to lean on their defense more than they may like. Philip Rivers should be a good litmus test of sorrts.
3. Stay Healthy
There's nothing worse than Week 17 injuries that alter your team just before the playoffs start. While it's impossible to play safe, the Broncos will be keeping an eye on the Chiefs-Raiders scoreboard and an imminent Raiders win could be reason for the Broncos to pull and protect some of their key pieces. Perhaps if they're feeling confident, older veterans like DeMarcus Ware could see their time on the field limited.
The Broncos should be flying high after overcoming a 14-point hole to the Bengals, which puts a first-round bye in the playoffs well within their grasp. And if New England loses, the Broncos could even secure the top seed in the AFC. The most likely scenario is the Broncos win and secure the No. 2 seed, setting up a possible rematch with the Bengals in the Divisional Round. The Broncos have too much to still play for and though the Chargers might put up a good fight early, Denver should close this one out by a couple of scores.
Prediction: Broncos 28, Chargers 13
The Kansas City Chiefs' 2015 season has been a tale of two different stretches. After a 1-5 start, the Chiefs appeared to be a shoe-in for a top-five pick in the 2016 NFL Draft but things have changed drastically since then.
Since Oct. 25, Kansas City has been the league’s hottest team thanks to a nine-game winning streak. A 10th straight victory on Sunday and a Denver loss to San Diego would give the Chiefs a improbable AFC West Division title.
The team standing in the Chiefs' way of their ninth division title in franchise history is their long-time nemesis, the Oakland Raiders.
Unlike the previous three seasons, the Raiders have been competitive in nearly every game this season and have a chance to finish 8-8.
Sunday will mark the 111th meeting between the Raiders and Chiefs. Kansas City won the most recent matchup, a 34-20 Week 13 triumph on Dec. 6 in Oakland.
Kansas City leads the all-time series 57-51-2.
Oakland at Kansas City
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Kansas City -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Chiefs' defense
In the Chiefs’ first six games of the season, their defense gave up an average of nearly 27 points per game. Since then, that side of the ball has turned things around.
During their nine-game winning streak, Kansas City is giving up just 12.3 points per game. The fact that the Chiefs have gotten a lot of pressure on opposing team’s quarterback has a lot to do with their recent success.
Kansas City is tied for fourth in the NFL in the sacks with 41. Justin Houston leads the team with 7.5 sacks.
Teams also have had a hard time running the football against the Chiefs, who is holding opponents to 101.5 rushing yards per game. Kansas City also ranks second in the NFL in interceptions with 21, so the Raiders' offense could have a hard time gaining big plays on Sunday.
2. Derek Carr
In only his second season, Carr could achieve some big milestones against the Chiefs. If Carr throws three touchdowns on Sunday, he will tie Daryle Lamonica’s franchise record for most passing touchdowns in a season with 34.
If Carr can pass for at least 207 yards, he will become the third Raiders quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. The other two to accomplish this were Rich Gannon in 2002 and Carson Palmer in '12.
Carr has progressed the way Raiders fans were hoping in his second season. While Oakland won’t qualify for the playoffs for the 13th straight season, finally having a franchise quarterback in Carr gives the team hope for 2016.
3. Alex Smith
While the Chiefs' defense deserves a lot of the credit for the team’s recent success, Smith has quietly had a strong season leading the charge on the other side of the ball. This year Smith has thrown for 3,330 yards, 18 touchdowns and only five interceptions. His 7.47 yards per passing attempt is the best of his 11-year career.
Since Week 7, Smith’s 83.1 QBR rating is the second best in the league according to ESPN Stats and Information.
After losing their best offensive weapon in Jamaal Charles in Week 5 against the Chicago Bears, many thought it would be a lost season for the Chiefs. Smith has not only picked up the slack, he also has helped lead the Chiefs to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
After not winning a game on the road in 2014, the Raiders have a 4-3 record away from Oakland entering their finale. Oakland will have had 10 days to prepare for Kansas City and it is a divisional game, so expect the team to play well.
Even with a win, Kansas City may not win the AFC West, but the Chiefs could at least lock up the No. 5 seed for the playoffs. In that spot, Kansas City would head to Houston to face the Texans on Wild Card Weekend. If the Chiefs lose, they could wind up the sixth seed and they would either play the Denver Broncos or Cincinnati Bengals in their first playoff game.
Kansas City’s last two games at Arrowhead Stadium have been close and this one shouldn’t be any different. The Raiders should cover the spread, but expect the Chiefs to pick up their 10th straight victory.
Prediction: Chiefs 24, Raiders 20
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Thanks to an uninspired performance against the Falcons in Atlanta last week, any dreams the Carolina Panthers (14-1) had of a perfect season have come to an abrupt end. The Panthers must now re-focus and set their sights on locking up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. Standing in their way is a Tampa Bay team that is hungry for a win after dropping three straight games and four of its last five.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' (6-9) playoff aspirations have long since gone to the wayside, but there is nothing that they want more than to finish the season on a high note in Charlotte against the top dog in their division. Lovie Smith’s Buccaneers also have a shot at redemption after losing an ugly game to the Panthers in Week 4. The only problem is that they could be stepping into a hornets nest on Sunday. Ron Rivera has no intentions of resting his starters this week with the top seed in the NFC bracket and the opportunity to stay at home throughout the postseason there for the taking. And there also should be no question about motivation for Carolina either after last week's uninspiring performance.
Tampa Bay at Carolina
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Carolina -10
Three Things to Watch
Turnovers have been a problem for Tampa Bay throughout the season. The Buccaneers' 25 turnovers are the ninth most in the NFL. They are also at minus-four (-4) in turnover margin for the season. On the opposite end of that spectrum are the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers lead the NFL with 36 takeaways and an impressive plus-19 (+19) turnover margin on the year. Five of those takeaways came courtesy of the Tampa Bay offense in Week 4. A game that the Buccaneers probably would have won if not for a mistake-filled day.
Tampa Bay has committed five turnovers in its last two games, both losses. Doug Martin lost two fumbles just last week and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston gifted the Panthers with four interceptions back in Week 4. If the Buccaneers have any hopes of getting the win this time around, they must avoid costly turnovers against the ball-hawking Panthers. A tall order, especially on the road, against an angry Carolina defense that has feasted on turnovers all season.
2. A Big Workload for Doug Martin
The Buccaneers are 5-1 this season when Martin has 20 or more carries. The Bucs are just 1-8 when Martin has run the ball fewer than 20 times. So is there any question that Martin should see a lot of touches this afternoon? His 1,354 rushing yards place him second in the NFL entering the last game of the regular season, just 64 yards behind current leader Adrian Peterson. A big day for Martin, coupled with a bad day for Peterson, could translate into Martin’s first rushing title, providing further incentive to get him the football.
Martin will be looking to rebound after being benched in last week’s loss to the Bears following two costly fumbles. He will certainly have his work cut out for him against a stingy Panther run defense. That said, Martin has already proven that he can have success against the Panthers. He is one of just two players (Rashad Jennings, Week 15) to rush for more than 100 yards against Carolina all season.
3. Carolina Offense vs. Tampa Bay Defense
In spite of the fact that Carolina scored 37 points against Tampa Bay in Week 4, the Bucs did manage to limit the Panther offense to just 244 total yards on the day. Tampa Bay also held Cam Newton to his lowest passing total all season. Newton connected on just 11 of his 22 passes for 124 yards in that game.
In fairness, five Tampa Bay turnovers made for any easy day for a Panthers offense that did not require much from their star signal-caller back on Oct. 4. That probably won’t be the case for this matchup. The Buccaneers' ninth-ranked defense has been surprisingly stingy this season, giving up 338 yards per game. They have been especially greedy against the run, limiting the opposition to 99 yards per contest. A stat that does not bode well for Carolina since Jonathan Stewart has already been ruled out because of a foot injury.
Despite holding Newton to a season low in the first meeting, Tampa Bay's defense can be exploited through the air. The Bucs rank in the middle of the pack (17th) in passing yards allowed, and only five teams have allowed more touchdown passes than Tampa Bay's 29. Newton will be poised to return to MVP form after a lackluster performance last week.
Tampa Bay hasn’t exactly been playing its best football of late, and a matchup against a spurned Carolina team on the road does not bode particularly well. Jameis Winston will need to play one of his better games of the season. That will not be easy without injured WR Vincent Jackson, who torched the Panthers in their previous meeting. If the Buccaneers can prevent costly turnovers and establish a solid running game early with Doug Martin and Charles Sims, they may stand a chance, but that is a tall order.
The key for the Panthers is simple. They must get past the fact that they can no longer go undefeated and re-establish the fire that enabled them to dominate for 14 consecutive games. That starts with an elite defense that seems to have grown somewhat complacent in recent weeks. Cam Newton also needs to re-energize a Carolina offense that fell flat last week. The Panthers are clearly the superior team in this matchup, and there is far too much at stake for them to dwell on what could have been. It seems like a safe bet that Carolina will put forth its best effort against the Bucs at home with the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs still well within their grasp.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Buccaneers 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
What makes a rivalry – competition or geography? While the easy answer is “both,” the 128th meeting of the “Turnpike Rivalry” would indicate the answer is geography.
Because while Browns-Steelers games haven’t meant much in terms of standings since the revival of the Cleveland franchise in 1999, there are still the water cooler and schoolyard arguments in places like Youngstown, New Castle, Erie and Wheeling.
And that’s where this game holds special appeal. For instance, years ago motorists crossing into Ohio on I-76 were greeted by a large green sign that helpfully read: “Cleveland 84 miles.”
Placed underneath that message was a “Go Steelers” bumper sticker distributed by then-radio flagship WTAE. During the Browns’ modern hey-day of the late ‘80s, a Browns backers club advertised on Pittsburgh radio, and some fan even wrote “Go Browns” on Pittsburgh’s Smithfield Street Bridge.
This year’s meeting in Cleveland will mean more than recent “Blue Collar Bowl” games. Following a disappointing 20-17 loss at Baltimore last week, the Steelers (9-6) have to win to make the playoffs and hope Buffalo upsets the New York Jets. A victory for the Browns (3-12), meanwhile, would give their season worth. The common cliché is “It’s Cleveland’s Super Bowl,” and there is some truth to that.
After all, if you were a borderline player, wouldn’t you be more inspired to have a big game in your final opportunity to prove your talent? Furthermore, wouldn’t you want your team to have a poorer chance to draft a player that would take your job?
The problem is “being fired up” doesn’t really mean that much following kickoff. That’s when “runs faster” and “is a better player” becomes the deciding factor.
As for draft status, Cleveland could get the top pick in next year’s draft, but would need to lose to Pittsburgh and for Tennessee to upset Indianapolis. A Browns victory could conceivably have them wind up with the fifth pick, but most likely they will draft fourth in that circumstance. They are currently in position to receive the second overall pick.
Pittsburgh at Cleveland
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Steelers -11
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Austin Davis do?
Could Davis, starting in place of Johnny Manziel who is out with a concussion, be Cleveland’s quarterback of the future? Possibly, as he’s athletic (once drafted by the Boston Red Sox), coming into his prime, and showed some signs of promise last year with St. Louis as well as this season in a Week 12 game against Baltimore in which he put the Browns in position for a potential last-second victory before a field goal attempt was blocked and returned by the Ravens’ Will Hill for the winning score as the clock expired.
Then again, Davis showed little in his only start with the Browns this season, a 37-3 loss to Cincinnati. A big game and Davis is in the mix next year. A flop and his career in Cleveland could be over, as the remaining two years of his contract are not guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, is coming off a lackluster game and missed Wednesday’s practice with the flu (which, in hindsight, might explain why he was lackluster against the Ravens if he was starting to fall ill).
2. Will the Browns have a rabbit up their sleeve?
Head coach Mike Pettine may be coaching his final game as Cleveland’s head coach. Such is the case when one has lost 17 of his last 20 games.
Therefore, it’s time for “you know, I’ve always wanted to run this play.” The Browns know they will likely have to do something unorthodox to win the game and it’s the perfect chance to show it off, if for no other reason than for Pettine and staff to make a statement of creativity for potential future employers.
3. Will Antwon Blake play?
All year long Steelers fans have wondered why cornerback Brandon Boykin has sat, be it for the first half or the entire game, in favor of Blake, who may go down as the Harvey Clayton of the Millennial Generation. But as it applies to this game, Blake may not play against Cleveland because of a back injury suffered last week against Baltimore.
So will Boykin, who had a career-high eight tackles and registered his second career sack last Sunday against the Ravens, get his first start since 2013? If so, will he provide a boost to the Steelers’ 30th-ranked pass defense?
In a different way than the aforementioned Davis, Boykin also could be playing for his job, one that might mean a starting position in the playoffs.
Consider while Blake has started, the Steelers have trailed in the first half at some point during their last five games before Boykin came in and relieved him.
The last time the Steelers didn’t trail in the first half? Their 30-9 victory against the Browns on Nov. 15.
So if the Steelers were to jump out to a lead similar to the 21-3 halftime advantage they enjoyed in Pittsburgh in Week 10, would they pull the starters to avoid injury for the playoffs, even though such a move could potentially invite a Cleveland comeback?
Pittsburgh has won five of the last six in the series against longtime divisional rival Cleveland. The Steelers also have been victorious in nine of 11 meetings this decade and 27 of the last 32 since 2000. And if you want to back even farther, Pittsburgh has been triumphant in 60 of 86 matchups since the two teams started playing at Three Rivers Stadium.
Does this really appear to be the game that goes against the trend?
Prediction: Steelers 29, Browns 18
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
Alabama is 60 minutes from another national championship after a thorough and dominant 38-0 victory over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. With the Spartans geared up to stop running back Derrick Henry, coach Nick Saban and coordinator Lane Kiffin put the game in the hands of quarterback Jake Coker. The senior responded with an efficient and effective effort, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. Receiver Calvin Ridley caught eight of Coker’s passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama’s defense allowed only 239 yards and forced two turnovers in a dominant effort.
Miss the Alabama victory on Thursday night? Here are five plays that sum up the Crimson Tide’s easy win:
1. Alabama QB Jake Coker connects with WR Calvin Ridley to set up the first touchdown:
2. Alabama's Cyrus Jones scores on a 57-yard punt return to lead 24-0:
3. Alabama RB Derrick Henry stiff arms Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun:
4. Alabama QB Jake Coker finds WR Calvin Ridley on a 50-yard touchdown pass:
When Jake Coker throws to Calvin Ridley, good things happen. https://t.co/1Tw2yTEC6R— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 1, 2016
5. Alabama LB Dillon Lee snags a nifty interception to end a late Michigan State drive:
You're in the College Football Playoff and the game is about to start, so to say you're anxious would be an understatement.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio quickly ended his pregame interview with Heather Cox, and really who could blame him? His team was about to face Alabama. He doesn't have too much time for chit-chat.
Mark Dantonio was not trying to do this interview 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/pUNu56SXxO— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) January 1, 2016
After hearing the abrupt ending, Twitter couldn't help but to chime in.
So Dantonio was in a bit of a hurry, huh?— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) January 1, 2016
Congratulations Mark Dantonio for making Nick Saban seem the least grouchy of two coaches for the first time ever. #CFP— Paul Braverman (@PaulBraverman) January 1, 2016
DANTONIO DISRESPECTING HEATHER COX— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) January 1, 2016
Mark Dantonio looks like every angry dad that's ever been in a movie.— Brett Anderson (@BrettAnderson35) January 1, 2016
Trevone Boykin is arguably the heart and soul of TCU football. Unfortunately the Horned Frogs will be without him for the Alamo Bowl against Oregon.
Boykin was arrested Wednesday night in an incident allegedly involving the striking of a police officer. After assessing the situation and reading through the police report, the program decided to suspend its star quarterback.
TCU suspends QB Trevone Boykin along with WR Preston Miller for Alamo Bowl. Gary Patterson says "we are disappointed in their actions ..."— Chuck Carlton (@ChuckCarltonDMN) December 31, 2015
Boykin later issued an apology to TCU nation.
Clemson booked a trip to the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. with a 37-17 victory over Oklahoma on Thursday night. The Tigers won the battle at the line of scrimmage, got huge performances from quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, and overcame a few problems in the red zone in the first half to score a convincing victory in the Orange Bowl.
Miss the Clemson victory on Thursday night? Here are five plays that sum up the Tigers’ impressive win:
1. Quarterback Deshaun Watson connects with Hunter Renfrow for a 35-yard touchdown:
Idk why so many people slept on Clemson. pic.twitter.com/DP1LDYsNNl— Jasmine Watkins (@JasmineLWatkins) December 31, 2015
2. Quarterback Deshaun Watson scores on a five-yard touchdown run:
It's like he stops, thinks, and says "I'm Deshaun Watson, I'll take this." pic.twitter.com/8TTH6HnmFD— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) December 31, 2015
3. Linebacker Ben Boulware intercepts Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield in the fourth quarter:
4. Quarterback Deshaun Watson somehow escapes the Oklahoma rush in the first half:
5. Fake punt helps spark Clemson in the first half:
And finally: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after a fourth-quarter touchdown:
Oregon and TCU bring their high-powered offenses to San Antonio, Texas on Saturday night for a showdown in the 2016 Alamo Bowl. This bowl was one of the most anticipated matchups of the postseason but lost some of its appeal on Thursday morning. TCU starting quarterback Trevone Boykin was arrested after an incident in San Antonio and is suspended for Saturday's contest. The Ducks and Horned Frogs average over 40 points a game, but Boykin's absence is a huge setback for TCU.
Oregon was expected to take a small step back in the post-Marcus Mariota era, and the Ducks’ 2015 campaign and Pac-12 North title hopes suffered an early blow when Eastern Washington transfer quarterback Vernon Adams was injured in the opener. Adams eventually returned to full strength and guided the Ducks to six consecutive wins to close out 2015. With Adams back at 100 percent, Oregon’s up-tempo attack was firing on all cylinders, as the Ducks scored at least 38 points in five out of their last six games. Coach Mark Helfrich’s team will have a full and healthy arsenal of weapons available for this game, but the play-calling duties will be altered with coordinator Scott Frost accepting the head coach job at UCF. Helfrich and receivers coach Matt Lubick will handle the play-calling duties on Saturday night.
With quarterback Trevone Boykin and an explosive offense in place, TCU was picked by some as a national title contender this preseason. The Horned Frogs started 8-0 but injuries and the roster turnover on defense was eventually too much for coach Gary Patterson’s team to overcome. TCU went 2-2 over its last two games, which included a one-point defeat to Oklahoma without Boykin under center, as well as a 28-21 victory over Baylor in a monsoon on Nov. 27. While TCU failed to make a push for a playoff spot, there’s still plenty for Patterson’s team to play for, including an 11-win season and a chance to finish in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. With Boykin suspended, it's up to backups Foster Sawyer and Bram Kohlhausen to finish the season out on a high note for the Horned Frogs.
This is only the third meeting on the gridiron between TCU and Oregon. The overall series is tied at one victory apiece, and the last meeting between the Ducks and Horned Frogs took place in 1978.
Alamo Bowl: TCU vs. Oregon
San Antonio, Texas
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 2 at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: TCU - 1
Three Things to Watch
1. Vernon Adams vs. TCU's Quarterbacks
Outside of the Orange Bowl duel between Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, there wasn't a better or more anticipated quarterback showdown in a postseason game than the one in San Antonio between Oregon’s Vernon Adams and TCU’s Trevone Boykin. However, the outlook on this matchup changed significantly with Boykin's suspension. Despite missing three games due to injury and playing sparingly against Utah, Adams finished with 2,446 passing yards and 25 scores and completed at least 73 percent of his throws in each of Oregon’s last three games. The Eastern Washington transfer was only on campus for one season, but Adams has made a huge impression. The senior is adept at using his mobility to slide around the pocket and keep plays alive and generated 10 passing plays of 40 yards or more this season. Boykin was more of a true dual-threat quarterback, as he passed for 3,575 yards and 31 touchdowns and added 612 yards and nine scores on the ground in 2015. Senior Bram Kohlhausen and freshman Foster Sawyer both played in critical moments for TCU this season, and Kohlhausen is expected to start. The senior completed 27 of 43 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns but doesn't have the mobility Boykin brought to the offense. How much of the offense will co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham alter with Kohlhausen and Sawyer taking snaps? Both quarterbacks are surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including 1,000-yard rushers at running back (Royce Freeman, Oregon and Aaron Green, TCU), solid offensive lines and big-play threats at receiver. Both defensive backfields had their share of breakdowns in the secondary this season and there will be opportunities for big plays from both offenses. All eyes in San Antonio, Texas will be on the quarterbacks, as Adams looks to finish the year on a high note, while Kohlhausen/Sawyer steps in for Boykin.
2. Getting Defensive
Even though Boykin is suspended, TCU should be able to move the ball on Oregon's defense. And with Adams under center for the Ducks, it's no secret the Horned Frogs will have their hands full on Saturday night. With both teams possessing a bevy of talented skill players, this matchup could be decided on which defense can make enough timely stops. It’s unlikely either defense will control the pace of the game, so getting stops in the red zone, on third downs and forcing turnovers is critical. TCU’s defense holds the edge in third down and red zone stops, while Oregon’s unit holds a slight advantage in forcing turnovers (21 to 18) and in sacks (36 to 28). The Ducks’ defensive efforts are led by standout lineman DeForest Buckner (16 TFL and 9.5 sacks), while the linebacking corps features the steady play of Joe Walker (82 tackles), Rodney Hardrick (72 stops) and Tyson Coleman (10 TFL). However, the secondary has been a problem spot for this team, ranking 95th nationally in pass efficiency defense. It’s up to Buckner and the linebacking corps to slow TCU running back Aaron Green and get to Kohlhausen/Sawyer in the pocket. When Oregon has the ball, TCU’s defensive front has to win the battle in the trenches, force the Ducks behind the chains and keep this offense from getting into its fast tempo.
3. TCU’s Receiving Corps and RB Aaron Green
There’s no doubt TCU is going to miss standout receiver Josh Doctson against Oregon. The senior caught 79 passes for 1,327 yards and 14 scores before suffering a season-ending wrist injury against Kansas. Boykin’s ankle injury and the weather against Baylor skewed the passing totals late in the season. However, it’s noteworthy TCU’s lowest passing performances all took place with Doctson out of the lineup. With a month to prepare, co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham should be able to shuffle the receivers and make the necessary adjustments to fortify Boykin’s supporting cast. But who will step up as TCU’s go-to receiver against Oregon’s struggling secondary? Of course, that question even tougher to answer with Boykin sidelined. Is freshman KaVontae Turpin (14.6 ypc) the top option? Or will the Horned Frogs feature Shaun Nixon or the speedy Kolby Listenbee more against the Ducks? Doctson’s production and presence will be tough to replace, but TCU has proven options. Will those receivers step up with the game on the line Saturday night? Without Boykin, Oregon's defense should expect to see a lot of running back Aaron Green. The senior rushed for 1,171 yards this season and faces a defense that ranked sixth in the Pac-12 against the run. The supporting cast for TCU is even more critical without Boykin at the controls.
Before Boykin's suspension, all signs pointed to an offensive shootout and one of the highest-scoring games of the postseason. However, with Boykin sidelined, those expectations should be tempered. With only two days to prepare Kohlhausen or Sawyer, TCU has a tough assignment ahead on Saturday night. The Horned Frogs need a huge effort from their defense and running back Aaron Green to knock off the Ducks. Oregon closed out the regular season as one of the hottest teams in college football. However, did the month off from game action cool Helfrich’s offense? Maybe a little. Even if TCU finds a way to slow Oregon's offense, it's asking a lot of Kohlhausen and Sawyer to replicate Boykin's production and overall impact on a defense. The Ducks' sluggish defense keeps the Horned Frogs in it, but Adams and Freeman eventually put this one away for Oregon in the second half.