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The New Year’s Six bowl slate kicks off on Dec. 31 with an intriguing matchup between Florida State and Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Seminoles and Cougars start a huge day for college football fans on Thursday, as playoff games in the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl begin later that afternoon.
First-year coach Tom Herman guided Houston to a 12-1 mark during the regular season and the nod as the top team from the Group of 5 conferences. Herman was one of the top hires last offseason and quickly showed why he is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks. The Cougars improved their win total by four games from 2014 to 2015, defeated two Power 5 opponents in Louisville and Vanderbilt and claimed the American Athletic Conference title with a 24-13 victory over Temple. Herman’s background on offense was also showcased in 2015, as quarterback Greg Ward was a breakout star, and the Cougars averaged 40.6 points per game.
Florida State was expected to take a small step back in the win column after a significant amount of roster turnover after the 2014 season. The Seminoles had 11 players selected in the 2015 NFL Draft and returned only 10 starters from last year’s team. Despite the overall youth on both sides of the ball and uneven quarterback play at times, coach Jimbo Fisher guided Florida State to its fourth consecutive season of at least 10 wins. The Seminoles lost only two games in the regular season – a crazy, last-second defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech and a 23-13 loss at Clemson on Nov. 7. The future looks bright for Fisher’s team in 2016, and a win over Houston would only add to the hype of what could be another playoff run next season.
Florida State and Houston have met 16 previous times, with the Cougars owning a 12-2-2 series edge over the Seminoles. However, these two teams have not played since 1978.
Peach Bowl: Florida State vs. Houston (Atlanta, Ga.)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Running back was one of the nation’s deepest positions for talent this season, and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was an Athlon Sports first-team All-American after rushing for 1,658 yards and 18 scores in 11 games. Cook’s totals are even more impressive when you consider injuries to his hamstring and ankle forced him to miss one game and limited his workload in October. The sophomore is the catalyst for Florida State’s offense and Houston’s chances of knocking off the Seminoles revolve around its ability to keep Cook in check. The Cougars led the American Athletic Conference in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 116 rushing yards per game. Six Houston defenders earned all-conference honors this season, including linebackers Elandon Roberts (132 stops) and Steven Taylor (nine sacks) and defensive lineman B.J. Singleton (20 tackles). No team has finished a matchup against Houston this season averaging more than 3.9 yards per carry. The Cougars have been stingy on the ground all year, but Florida State’s young and improving offensive line, combined with the explosiveness and speed of running back Dalvin Cook will be their toughest assignment of the 2015 season.
2. Stopping Houston QB Greg Ward
Houston suffered its lone loss (UConn) of the 2015 season in the only game quarterback Greg Ward was unable to start due to injury. Ward showed signs of promise in 2014 but has thrived under Herman’s coaching this year. The junior completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 2,590 yards and 16 touchdowns and led the team with 1,041 rushing yards and 19 scores in the regular season. But Ward isn’t a one-man show on offense. The Cougars’ ground attack is anchored by running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, and receiver Demarcus Ayers (89 catches) is a big-play threat on the outside. How will Florida State defend Ward? Will the Seminoles keep a spy around the line of scrimmage to force Ward to stay in the pocket? Florida State’s defense showed marked improvement on the stat sheet this season, lowering its yards per play mark allowed from 5.5 in 2014 to 4.7 in 2015. A big reason for the improvement on defense was the development of the defensive line, which figures to be a handful against a Houston offensive line that experienced its share of injuries and allowed 26 sacks this season.
3. Standout Defensive Backs
The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl might feature one of the postseason’s best collections of talent in the defensive backfield. Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey is one of the nation’s best at his position, and the junior is joined by a standout freshman at safety (Derwin James) and an underrated cornerback (Marquez White) on the other side. Houston’s secondary ranked No. 68 nationally in pass efficiency defense this season, but the Cougars boast three all-conference selections. Safety Trevon Stewart recorded 72 tackles and two interceptions this season, while cornerback William Jackson III picked off three passes and broke up 21 throws in his direction. How will the standout defensive backs affect the passing attack for both teams? Florida State has connected on only 14 passing plays of 30 yards or more this season, but Sean Maguire has settled into the starting job over the final five games. Maguire has been careful with the ball (two picks on 145 attempts) and that play has to continue against an opportunistic Houston secondary (17 picks). When Maguire throws, expect Kermit Whitfield and Travis Rudolph to be the primary targets. Houston isn’t as deep as Florida State at receiver, and the Cougars need Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar to win one-on-one battles, especially if Demarcus Ayers is held in check by Ramsey or White.
This is a dangerous matchup for Florida State. Houston has nothing to lose in this game, and the pressure is on the Seminoles to avoid an upset loss. From a matchup standpoint, Florida State has several advantages. The Seminoles’ defensive front should create a few headaches for Houston’s offensive line, and the speed and athleticism on defense should help to contain quarterback Greg Ward. Florida State’s offensive line is young, but this unit has cleared rushing lanes for running back Dalvin Cook all season. The Cougars need to keep Cook in check and force the Seminoles to win this game with Maguire’s arm. Also, the turnover margin will be critical to monitor. Houston is one of the best in the nation at plus-17, while Florida State is plus-four. The edge in talent rests with the Seminoles, but the Cougars keep this one close deep into the fourth quarter. Cook and Maguire make just enough plays for Florida State to earn its 11th win of 2015 and build momentum for a promising 2016 campaign.
Prediction: Florida State 31, Houston 24
(Credit to @UHCougarFB/Stephen Pinchback for the top photo of QB Greg Ward)
College football 2015-16 bowl season has almost reached its halfway point. With 20 games in the books, 21 contests remain, including the New Year’s Six matchups and the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. The first portion of the bowl slate produced a handful of entertaining games, including the Miami Beach Bowl between WKU and South Florida, the Georgia Southern-Bowling Green meeting in the GoDaddy Bowl, and Virginia Tech sending coach Frank Beamer out a winner in a high-scoring affair versus Tulsa in the Independence Bowl. While the bowl season is off to an entertaining start, some of the nation’s top teams have yet to take the field, so the best of the postseason has yet to come.
With 21 bowl games left, Athlon Sports has updated its bowl picks for the remainder of the postseason. With injuries and transfers affecting a few teams, some of the predictions from the staff have changed since mid-December. Here’s an updated picks grid from the Athlon Sports staff for the remaining bowl matchups
Predictions for Dec. 29-Jan. 2 Bowl Games and National Title
NC State and Mississippi State meet on the gridiron for only the sixth time on Wednesday afternoon in the Belk Bowl. Both schools come into the game with winning records, despite losing to in-state rivals in the final week of the regular season.
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott will make his final start for the Bulldogs, having amassed over 3,400 passing yards on the season. Prescott will be looking to cement his legacy as arguably the best player to ever grace the field in Starkville. On the other side of the field, NC State gunslinger Jacoby Brissett should have no problem leading his team to the end zone.
The Wolfpack leads the series all-time series 3-2. They edged out the Bulldogs 28-24 in the 1995 Peach Bowl. The other four meetings in the series took place prior to 1964. This one ought to be fun.
NC State vs. Mississippi State (Charlotte, N.C.)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Spread: Mississippi State -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Offensive Playmakers
Both teams possess a number of talented skilled players on offense. We weren’t sure that would be the case for Mississippi State coming into the season, but receivers Fred Ross and De’Runnya Wilson have become virtually unstoppable on the perimeter. Ross is just shy of 1,000 yards receiving on the year, while Wilson has 822. They have been instrumental in the Bulldogs’ offensive attack, especially with a lack of production at running back.
For NC State, it all starts with freshman Nyheim Hines. He finished the year with over 1,200 all-purpose yards, filling multiple roles on offense and in the return game. Hines led the ACC in kickoff return yards, where he was able to showcase his blazing speed. Another player who could make an impact for the Wolfpack is tight end Jaylen Samuels, one of Brissett’s favorite targets. He had nearly 100 yards receiving in the season finale against North Carolina.
2. Defensive Preparation
As is the case in any bowl game, there is the burning question of how teams will respond to time off. Neither team has played a football game in a month. That may not seem like a big deal, but when teams get used to the weekly schedule, they get in a rhythm from Monday to Saturday. This is especially true for the Bulldogs, which are used to the grind of the SEC West. Add in the distraction of all that surrounds a bowl bid and it becomes an interesting topic.
The thing I’m most intrigued by is how the defenses prepare. When a defense has a month to get ready for an offense, it can often be successful. Especially in this matchup, where everything is centered around offense and the quarterbacks, it will be interesting to see if either defense steps up. With the defenses keying on Prescott and Brissett, other players may have the opportunity to shine. Everybody thinks this one has the ingredients of a shootout, but don’t forget the 2010 BCS title game between Auburn and Oregon.
3. The Quarterback Battle
Of course, the biggest storyline in this game is the quarterback battle. Prescott will be the center of attention. He has already dominated most of the headlines, and everyone knows the broadcasters will be talking about him all day. It’s fair, really, when you look at his contributions to SEC football. Prescott is clearly one of the best players in the country, regardless of talent around him. His name will be mentioned in the same conversation as Tim Tebow and Cam Newton in years to come. That’s what happens when you pile up 9,000 career passing yards, 2,500 career rushing yards, and over 100 touchdowns. This Mississippi State team probably wouldn’t even be in a bowl game, much less 8-4, without Prescott.
But Prescott won’t be the only senior quarterback with something to prove on Wednesday. Brissett, a former Florida quarterback, has played well down the stretch. Like Prescott, he can beat you with his legs, too. Brissett has thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. He threw for 2,600 last year. On the ground, he has rushed for over 800 yards at NC State. The dual-threat abilities of both quarterbacks make this a must-see bowl game.
This game could be a shootout or it could end up like that weird national championship game a few years ago. If either defense shows up, that team will definitely have an edge. Special teams could also be a potential factor, especially with Hines in the return game.
But most likely, there will be some points on the board because of superb quarterback play. It should be noted that NC State’s pass defense is better than Mississippi State’s on paper. However, it should also be noted that NC State hasn’t seen Dak Prescott and these games aren’t played on paper. They’re played on the gridiron, a place where Prescott is used to success. He will dissect the Wolfpack defense en route to a convincing, career-ending victory.
Prediction: Mississippi State 38, NC State 21
Seeing teams with a 5-7 mark reach the postseason isn't the only quirk of the 2015 bowl season. The Arizona Bowl, a first-year bowl game, offers another oddity. It is the only bowl featuring two teams from the same conference and presents the clearest evidence yet that the number of bowl games has spiraled out of control.
Nevada and Colorado State will tangle on Tuesday night. Both teams compete in the Mountain West Conference, although they play in separate divisions. The two teams did not play in the regular season and are not scheduled to do so in 2017. Neither team is thrilled about the matchup nor are Mountain West Conference officials.
Colorado State leads the all-time series 11-2. The Rams are 2-0 against the Wolf Pack since the two teams became Mountain West rivals. Nevada last beat Colorado State in 2010 when they defeated the Rams en route to finishing with a 13-1 record and earning a WAC championship.
Arizona Bowl: Nevada vs. Colorado State (Tuscon)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
TV: Campus Insiders
Spread: Colorado State -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Colorado State limit turnovers?
Holding onto the ball has been a problem for Colorado State all season. The Rams have totaled 26 turnovers in 12 games, throwing 15 interceptions and losing 11 fumbles. They finished 113th in the nation in turnover margin and had more giveaways than all other Mountain West teams except Hawaii. An inability to hold onto the ball has short-circuited Colorado State's offense on many occasions. It could prove problematic against Nevada's defense. Wolf Pack seniors Ian Seau and Lenny Jones can get pressure up front. They combined for 15 sacks during the regular season. Nevada's secondary has also tallied 13 interceptions this season.
2. Pounding the Ground
Nevada has built its offensive identity around a run-oriented attack. The Wolf Pack feature a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in James Butler and Don Jackson. Butler leads the team with 1,153 yards and Jackson is right on his heels with 1,029 yards. When Nevada can establish the run and control the clock, it equals big success. The Wolf Pack are 6-1 this season in games where they accumulate 200 or more yards on the ground.
3. Winning combination
Any highlight reel from Tuscon is bound to feature a heavy dose of Rashard Higgins. The Colorado State junior is his school's career leader in receptions (230) and receiving touchdowns (31). Higgins has totaled 933 yards and eight touchdowns on 66 catches in 2015, even while battling injuries at times during the season. His presence has helped Nick Stevens enjoy a solid first season as the Rams' starting quarterback. Stevens ranked as the no. 2 passer in the Mountain West during the regular season. He tallied 2,369 yards on 189-of-305 passing. Stevens led the league with 21 touchdown passes.
Nevada and Colorado State are well-matched on paper, which you would expect from a pair of middle-of-the-pack teams from the same conference. What it means is this will be a close and exciting bowl game. The edge likely goes to the Rams. Colorado State has a more balanced offense than Nevada, and the Rams have a definite advantage on special teams with world-class punter Hayden Hunt. The Wolf Pack have never beaten Colorado State outside of Reno and that streak is likely to continue into 2017.
Prediction: Colorado State 24, Nevada 20
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Rashard Higgins photo courtesy of Colorado State/Dan Byers; Ian Seau photo by John Byrne)
Auburn failed to live up to preseason hype as a potential contender for the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Tigers finished with a 6-6 record and last place in the SEC West.
Memphis holds a 9-3 record and spent several weeks in the Top 25 after upsetting then-No. 13 Ole Miss. But the Tigers finished third in the American Athletic Conference's (AAC) West Division after losing three of their final four games.
Birmingham Bowl: Auburn vs. Memphis
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Spread: Auburn -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Auburn defense without Will Muschamp
The Will Muschamp experiment was a complete failure. Auburn's defense took a step back in 2015 and is now without a coordinator after Muschamp took the head coaching position at South Carolina.
The Tigers ranked 13th in the SEC — only the Gamecocks ranked lower — and have allowed 27.3 points per game. Memphis has a capable offense led by dual-threat quarterback Paxton Lynch and could give the struggling Auburn defense fits.
2. Will Paxton Lynch live up to NFL hype?
Lynch could be playing in his last college game. He is projected by many to be the first quarterback selected in the 2016 NFL Draft should the junior declare.
Memphis hasn't had much national exposure aside from its upset of Ole Miss and a Friday night primetime win over Tulsa. The Birmingham Bowl could be the perfect "coming out party" for the dual-threat quarterback.
3. Which QB will get the most reps for Auburn?
Jeremy Johnson and Sean White have split reps throughout the season at quarterback. Johnson opened the year with Heisman hype but struggled early, leading to the inexperienced White taking over as Auburn's starter.
Johnson worked his way back into the lineup but neither quarterback emerged as a clear-cut, SEC-caliber starting QB. Memphis has a defense capable of forcing either player to make mistakes which could be crucial in this bowl matchup.
Sure, Memphis proved that it was capable of upsetting an SEC team, albeit it at home. But Auburn has about as much of a home-field advantage as any participating bowl team has for its respective pairing.
Auburn has struggled but should still have enough of a talent advantage to hold off a Memphis upset.
Prediction: Auburn 28, Memphis 24
— Written by Jason Hall, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and works for Fox Sports Florida. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhallFSN.
No one could’ve guessed first-year Nebraska head coach Mike Riley signed up for the madness he's experienced thus far. First, there was scrambling to take over after a messy divorce between the administration and Bo Pelini, working to keep recruits committed and bring in his own crop to complete the 2015 class. Fair enough, new coaches are used to that.
Now his initial season is the books at 6-7 and its heartbreak will be part of Big Red lore for years to come. The good news is bringing in players to help the transition moving forward has gone relatively well.
Riley kept six recruits out of seven committed to Pelini’s regime on board. He also brought on players that made an immediate impact in 2015 such as running back Devine Ozigbo and linebacker Dedrick Young.
The train continues to roar down the tracks as Nebraska has locked up stud quarterback Patrick O’Brien, coveted safety prospect Marquel Dismuke and is in good shape to claim one of the best offensive line hauls in the nation.
Unfortunately, Nebraska’s experienced a lull when it’s come to commitments lately. The momentum shift has Riley backers and critics alike demanding answers, especially with two recent prospects (linebacker David Reese and safety Markell Simmons) choosing to play elsewhere.
A couple of things are contributing to this. First, Nebraska’s 2015 record obviously plays a role when a school on the upswing like TCU (the school Simmons chose) beats out the Huskers.
Another reason – an even more powerful one – is that one of Nebraska’s powerful tools has been turned into at least a temporary negative.
Big Red fans have earned the title of the “greatest” in college sports. This is a shared belief among other schools’ fans all the way up to pundits and sports administrations across the country.
You can imagine how bad it sounds when the batch of spoiled apples from such a passionate group of people are denouncing a first-year coach as loudly as several Big Red backers have been in 2015. It’s an easy negative recruiting topic to use.
Nebraska fires a coach in Pelini that won nine games for seven years (their actual difficulty up for debate) and now a chunk of the fan base isn't keen on the new guy and some want him out on his rear before year one is in the books.
The good news is that Riley has his own players moving forward. Ones who’ve been able to work within his system on the scout team and those players that got to see time this season. He also won’t be putting up with those who don’t buy in. They will be escorted elsewhere shortly.
Between now and January, there are a handful of recruits that the Big Red needs to wrap up. Offensive Tackle Matt Farniok has visited Lincoln so many times already, it’s a surprise he doesn’t already have a locker. Former Louisville commit Desmond Fitzpatrick would be absolutely deadly in Riley’s offense. Lamar Jackson is the type of athlete at defensive back that has other players working extra hard to hold onto their spots.
These three would get Nebraska that positive momentum back for a solid 2016 class.
From Riley’s arrival to now, he gets solid “A” for what he and his staff has done in their recruiting efforts. That very well could start sliding if Nebraska can’t lock up some of these major prospects high on their board.
Seemingly every autumn, college football collectively sets the bar higher than it had in previous years. The 2015 campaign featured an abundance of breath-taking moments across all levels, in the process setting a new standard of excellence in the sport.
The following 18 individual efforts were the pinnacle of the season. These were performances that will leave us talking for years — or, at least until next fall, when a new gold standard is set.
Why 18? In the immortal words of John "Bluto" Blutarsky: Why not?
- Clemson QB Deshaun Watson at Syracuse, Nov. 14: 368 yards on 26-of-38 passing, two touchdowns; 105 yards on 14 carries, one touchdown
- Notre Dame RB C.J. Prosise vs. Georgia Tech, Sept. 19: 198 yards on 22 carries, three touchdowns
- Alabama CB Cyrus Jones vs. Charleston Southern, Nov. 21: Two punts returned for touchdowns
- Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey vs. UCLA, Oct. 15: 243 yards on 25 carries, four touchdowns
The 18 Best Individual Performances of 2015
18. Southern WR Willie Quinn - Sept. 10 at Mississippi Valley State
89 yards on 1-of-1 passing, one TD; 113 yards on two kick returns, one TD 39 yards on one punt return, one TD
The rest of the countdown is reserved for the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), in part to avoid having a 500-entry list. But Willie Quinn's Week 2 performance in a win over Mississippi Valley State was just too spectacular to spurn.
Quinn scored one of the more unusual touchdown hat tricks in football, returning both a kick and a punt, and throwing a pass. Quinn's contribution to the Jaguar win is basically one, extended SportsCenter package.
17. North Carolina QB Marquise Williams – Oct. 3 at Georgia Tech
134 yards on 13-of-24 passing; 148 yards on 15 carries, two TDs; 37 yards on one reception, TD
Williams was one of two quarterbacks this season to lead his team in yards passing, rushing and receiving in the same game. Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs was the other, but Williams gets the nod because North Carolina won the contest in which he accomplished the feat.
16. Iowa CB Desmond King – Oct. 3 at Wisconsin
Nine tackles, two INTs, two passes broken up
Iowa's appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game and berth in next month's Rose Bowl Game would not have been had the Hawkeyes not survived a defensive struggle with rival Wisconsin.
Fittingly, Iowa's best defensive player put forth his best effort of the season in the 10-6 win, turning Camp Randall Stadium into a no-fly zone for the home-standing Badgers.
Be forewarned, Badgers fans: This isn't Wisconsin's first appearance on the wrong side of the countdown.
15. San Jose State RB Tyler Ervin – Sept. 26 vs. Fresno State
300 yards on 42 carries, three TDs; 45 yards on four receptions
The Bay Area had room for more than one all-purpose playmaker in the 2015 season. San Jose State's Ervin ranked among the nation's leaders in all-purpose yards throughout the campaign, and his showing against Mountain West Conference rival Fresno State was his apex.
14. Louisiana Tech RB Kenneth Dixon – Nov. 7 vs. North Texas
195 yards rushing on 19 carries, six TDs
College football's new career touchdown leader (pending Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds' bowl game) made up for time lost to an ankle injury with a six-touchdown performance against overwhelmed North Texas.
13. Baylor WR Corey Coleman – Nov. 5 at Kansas State
216 yards on 11 receptions, two TDs
Coleman continuously upped the ante throughout the season's first two months, working well in tandem with quarterback Bryce Petty. Ironically, his best individual game came after Petty was sidelined with a neck injury.
Coleman's 11-reception, 216-yard outing against Kansas State made Jarrett Stidham look like a million bucks in the freshman's first career start.
12. Alabama RB Derrick Henry – Sept. 5 vs. Wisconsin (in Arlington, Texas)
147 yards on 13 carries, three TDs
Henry's 2015 season featured one outstanding, individual performance after another. However, the Heisman Trophy winner began his run to New York City Week 1 in perhaps his most dominant, individual effort of the campaign.
A Badgers defense that was stout much of the season was left helpless trying to defend the human battering ram that is Henry.
11. Western Kentucky WR Taywan Taylor – Dec. 5 - Conference USA Chamionship Game vs. Southern Miss
165 yards on eight receptions, two TDs
Quarterback Brandon Doughty's eye-popping numbers garner much of the attention as far as Western Kentucky's pass-happy offense is concerned, but Taylor helped the Hilltoppers' aerial assault click all season.
Taylor's best came on the biggest stage, as he averaged better than 20 yards per catch and got in the end zone to lift Western Kentucky to its first C-USA championship.
10. Washington State QB Luke Falk – Oct. 24 at Arizona
514 yards on 47-of-62 passing, five TDs
From walk-on to All-Pac-12 performer, Falk flourished in head coach Mike Leach's air-raid offense. His crowning achievement in an outstanding sophomore campaign came in the desert, where Falk was seemingly flawless against Arizona.
9. Temple LB Tyler Matakevich – Sept. 5 vs. Penn State
Seven tackles, three sacks
The 2015 Chuck Bednarik Award winner began his march to college football's national defensive player of the year award by teeing off on Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Matakevich was an unblockable monster that afternoon, setting the tone in Temple's first win over Penn State in seven decades.
8. Oregon QB Vernon Adams – Nov. 21 vs. USC
407 yards on 20-of-25 passing, six TDs
Intriguing FCS transfer Adams showed the full capacity of play-making ability in the regular season's final month, and never more so than against USC.
Adams punished the USC secondary with a combination of rifle arm and feathery touch, going to the house six times on the Trojans.
7. TCU QB Trevone Boykin - Oct. 10 at Kansas State
301 yards on 20-of-30 passing, two TDs; 124 yards on 11 carries, two TDs
A late-season injury stymied what may have otherwise been a push for the Heisman from Boykin. Though the dynamic, dual-threat playmaker didn't go to New York, some of college football's most impressive moments defined his senior season. His game against Kansas State was the best of his best.
Boykin's two-way deluge on the K-State defense was so impressive, it prompted Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder to pen the quarterback a letter of appreciation.
6. Bowling Green QB Matt Johnson – Sept. 12 at Maryland
491 yards on 36-of-55, six TDs
Perhaps the most impressive part of Johnson's six-touchdown performance in Bowling Green's defeat of Maryland is that the senior quarterback scored all but one after intermission.
5. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook – Oct. 10 vs. Miami
222 yards rushing on 22 carries, two TDs
Cook's performance against rival Miami is about as close to one player single-handedly winning a football game as anyone is likely to see.
Cook set the tone with a long touchdown run early, then delivered big play after big play down the stretch to preserve the Seminole victory.
4. Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott – Oct. 3 at Indiana
274 yards on 23 carries, three TDs
In most seasons, a running back carrying an offense to victory almost by himself would be remarkable. In 2015, Henry, Cook, Leonard Fournette and Elliott made it routine.
Elliott was the bedrock of the Ohio State offense in a surprisingly trying year for the Buckeyes on that side of the ball. Against Indiana, he performed with all the valor of Atlas, holding the Buckeyes on his shoulders while he ran for scores of 55, 65 and 75 yards.
3. TCU WR Josh Doctson – Sept. 26 at Texas Tech
267 yards on 18 receptions, three TDs
Recent encounters between TCU and Texas Tech have turned into Wild West shootouts. In this year's installment, Doctson was your huckleberry.
2. LSU RB Leonard Fournette – Sept. 19 vs. Auburn
228 yards rushing on 19 carries, three TDs
Fournette spent the first two months of the season as the presumptive Heisman Trophy front-runner, and his effort against Auburn was his launching pad.
Fournette put the Auburn defense on the receiving end of several viral clips in this one.
1. Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey - Dec. 5 - Pac-12 Championship Game vs. USC
207 yards on 32 carries, one TD; 105 yards on four receptions, one TD; 11 yards on 1-of-1 passing, one TD; two punt returns for 29 yards
No. 1 is a no-brainer. McCaffrey's Pac-12 Championship Game performance was a showing for the ages. McCaffrey wrecked USC to the tune of 461 all-purpose yards -- and that doesn't include the 11 he gained on a touchdown pass to quarterback Kevin Hogan.
McCaffrey scored via the pass, on a reception and on the run, and very nearly broke a punt return to go to the house.
Allow me to defer to former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who had to scheme for players like Reggie Bush and Toby Gerhart in his time as a coach.
The Armed Forces Bowl features an interesting contrast in styles in Air Force’s option attack against California’s Bear Raid offense. Despite the contrast in styles, a high-scoring game is anticipated in Fort Worth on Tuesday afternoon.
California started out this season 5-0, including victories in its first two Pac-12 Conference games. However, as soon as the Golden Bears entered the national rankings, they fell into a midseason slump and lost four straight. California managed to sandwich two wins at home around a loss to their Bay Area arch-rivals to close out the year.
Air Force struggled to a 3-3 start for the season. Then the Falcons went on a five game late-season winning streak. That included four victories over Mountain West Conference foes. A narrow loss against San Diego State cost the Falcons the conference title.
Both of these teams have experience in the Armed Forces Bowl. In fact, this year's pairing is a rematch of the 2007 game, won by Cal, 42-36. Air Force also played here in 2008, 2009 and 2012. The Falcons have only won one of their four appearances in the Armed Forces Bowl.
California and Air Force have faced each other eight times on the gridiron. The Golden Bears lead the series 6-2 dating back to 1961. The Falcons only wins against Cal took place in Berkeley in 1961 and 2002.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Air Force vs. California (Fort Worth, Texas)
Kickoff: 2 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Spread: Air Force +7
Three Things to Watch
1. Air Force Needs to Ground Bears' Offense
The Falcons' option attack, led by quarterback Karson Roberts, grinds down opponents as well as the game clock. However, it is not conducive to high-paced contests requiring high scores to offset defensive breakdowns. They lost five of seven games in which they allowed 24 or more points. When they gave up fewer than 200 passing yards, they finished 6-2.
The Bears have piled up the yards in every game, averaging 524 per contest. They were held under 400 yards on offense only once this season. In the nine games in which they exceeded 300 passing yards, they won six.
Cal's target number of points to score has been 30. They won all seven games when scoring that many or more. When they scored fewer, they lost all five.
Cal has had to rack up high scores, 36.5 points on average, and lots of yardage. The Bears' defense has allowed 24 or more points in all but two games. One of those two was against an FCS opponent.
2. Was Cal Able to Prepare for the Option Attack?
The Bears have won five of the seven games in which they held opponents under 200 yards rushing. When the Falcons have failed to gain at least 280 yards on the ground, they have lost four of those five contests. The Bears have not faced an option-based offense since their sole appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl. Do they have a scout team capable of simulating the offense during bowl preparation? Did the three weeks of bowl preparation give them enough time to practice against it?
3. What Is at Stake for Each Team?
Air Force lost in the Mountain West Championship Game to San Diego State by three points. That is the same team Cal dominated in Berkeley by 28 in September. Does the huge difference in scoring versus one common opponent indicate a significant disparity between these two teams? It would be unwise to assume so.
What is the motivation for each team? Neither team figures to finish in the final polls regardless of the outcome of this game. Both are assured of finishing above .500, win or lose. Whatever team can find inspiration other than the typical "playing for pride" and "winning the seniors' last game" will be at an advantage.
No team has an advantage in terms of proximity to the game site. Both lack a distinctive goal as motivation. California needs to push the tempo and force the Falcons out of their element and ground attack. And the opposite can be said for Air Force, as coach Troy Calhoun's team needs to stay out of third-and-long situations, control the clock and limit the overall possessions by the Golden Bears. Air Force's unconventional option attack gives the Falcons the deciding edge in this even match-up.
Prediction: Air Force 34, California 30
— Written by John La Fleur, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network. A graduate of Michigan State and LSU, La Fleur also has been a Saints fan since he was old enough to understand football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.
When LSU and Texas Tech meet on Dec. 29 in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, two different and distinct styles of play will go head-to-head as a treat for old school fans and the new generation. The Texas Bowl has a short-lived history taking over from the previously named Houston Bowl, but this postseason game has a strong lineage of top college talent showcasing their skills before taking off for the NFL. The Texas Bowl has a MVP list that includes Rutgers running back Ray Rice (2006), TCU quarterback Andy Dalton (2007), and Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill (2011). This year's version between the Red Raiders and Tigers also features plenty of top level talent still carving out a well-deserved niche in the college game before heading off for NFL riches.
Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5) enters the game as a program ready to get back to prominence in the Big 12 under third-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. In the 2000s, Mike Leach made the Red Raiders a consistent 8- and 9-win program, including an 11-win campaign in 2008. The same “Air Raid” type of passing attack used under Leach is deployed by Kingsbury, making Tech one of the most exciting and dangerous teams in the nation to watch with their quick-strike offense.
LSU (8-3, 5-3) has been a model of consistency since 2000 when Nick Saban turned the program around, winning a national championship in 2003 and continued with Les Miles from 2005 forward. Miles won a national championship in 2007 and played in a BCS National Championship Game in 2011. The Tigers are known for stout defenses and a ground-and-pound running game, making LSU one of the more feared teams in the country year after year.
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU vs. Texas Tech (Houston)
Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Patrick Mahomes vs. LSU Pass Defense
Texas Tech’s strength is its passing game with sophomore quarterback Patrick Mahomes as the team’s driving force. The Red Raiders swept through the regular season competition in 2015 with the nation’s No. 2 passing attack averaging 390 yards per game, seven yards behind Mike Leach’s Washington State attack. Mahomes threw for 4,283 yards with 32 touchdowns against 14 interceptions and averaged 357 passing yards per game.
The Tigers have built a reputation as “Defensive Back University” over the years, but Texas Tech is catching a break, as this is a down season for LSU's secondary. The DBU moniker has been put on hold for one year after allowing 211 yards a game. The Tigers were not horrible per say against the pass, they just played some of the better passing teams in the nation - No. 5 Western Kentucky (372 yards), No. 10 Ole Miss (334), No. 16 Mississippi State (311), and No. 33 Arkansas (264).
LSU will look to get pressure on Mahomes off the edge with Lewis Neal (team-high eight sacks) and Arden Key (five sacks). Safety Jamal Adams leads the Tigers with four interceptions. Tech counters with eight different players that have caught 20 or more passes led by receiver Jakeem Grant. Grant has 80 receptions for 1,143 yards with seven touchdowns aided by Devin Lauderdale’s 43 receptions for 639 yards with four scores on the other side. However, Lauderdale was suspended for the bowl game. Junior receiver Reginald Davis is an end zone magnet for the Red Raiders with seven touchdowns on the year.
2. LSU’s Running Game vs. Texas Tech’s Run Defense
Led by All-American running back Leonard Fournette, LSU is one of the premier running teams in the nation. The super sophomore rushed for 1,741 yards in 11 games with 18 touchdowns. He was third on the team with 18 pass receptions for 209 yards, giving Tech another dimension to gameplan for on Tuesday night.
Statistically, Texas Tech is one of the worst defensive teams in the nation allowing 540 yards per game, only topped by a win-less Kansas squad that gave up 561 yards a game on average. Tech allows 272 yards a game on the ground.
3. Texas Tech’s Run Game vs. LSU’s Passing Attack
With defenders pressed to stop Texas Tech’s passing attack, holes were left all over the field for their running backs. Deandre Washington had a great season rushing for 1,455 yards off 223 carries in 12 games. Washington scored on the ground 14 times and added two more touchdowns in the passing game, while pulling in 34 passes for 304 yards.
Nearly as bad as Texas Tech’s defense is LSU’s passing attack. The Tigers have a ton of talent on the outside, but sophomore Brandon Harris has been inconsistent getting the ball out. LSU averages 173 passing yards a game, relying heavily on the rushing attack for offensive production.
Which unit can be the difference maker helping out either squad’s strengths?
Texas Tech has enough offensive firepower to be in any game, but coach Kliff Kingsbury's squad has wilted under the pressure against better teams with losses to then- No. 3 TCU (55-52), No. 5 Baylor (63-35), No. 17 Oklahoma (63-27), and No. 12 Oklahoma State (70-53). Tech will need to exploit LSU’s middle of the road pass defense in hopes of pulling out a win. The Red Raiders picked apart Arkansas’ pass defense for a 35-24 win on Sept. 19.
LSU has the strength up front on offense - led by standout linemen Vadal Alexander and Ethan Pocic - to quickly wear down Tech’s front seven. If offensive coordinator Cam Cameron does not get cute with the passing game trying to show Tiger Nation what he can do with Brandon Harris in the pocket, Texas Tech's defense will be in for a long game.
The Tigers will have to stop Mahomes when plays break down for Tech. Mahomes gained 484 yards with 10 touchdowns making his running abilities an x-factor in the game. LSU was able to bottle up a player with a similar skill set in Dak Prescott by holding him to -19 yards rushing on 10 attempts with three sacks.
Bowl games are a different beast than regular season games. Which team shows up is anyone’s best guess. LSU has at least five underclassmen interested in being early NFL Draft entries. If Miles can keep his Tigers focused on the game at hand, LSU should run away with the Texas Bowl.
Prediction: LSU 42, Texas Tech 28
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.
Going into Thanksgiving weekend, North Carolina and Baylor had their sights set very high. North Carolina had not lost since week one and victories over NC State and then Clemson in the ACC Championship Game would give them the league title. Head coach Larry Fedora was making his case for the Tar Heels' inclusion in the College Football Playoff prior to the Clemson game, so their goal was clear.
Baylor entered the last weekend in November with a 9-1 record. Two wins and some help from Oklahoma State would give Baylor the Big 12 crown and make Selection Sunday very interesting.
But North Carolina fell to Clemson and Baylor dropped its last two games to TCU and Texas. As a result, the two programs not only fell out of Playoff contention, they were not even selected for a New Year’s Six bowl game. They will now meet up in Orlando for the Russell Athletic Bowl.
This will be the first-ever game between North Carolina and Baylor.
North Carolina vs. Baylor (Orlando, Fla.)
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Spread: Baylor -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Who’s Healthy on Baylor’s Offense?
Quarterback Seth Russell broke a bone in his neck against Iowa State and was lost for the year. His replacement, freshman Jarrett Stidham, broke a bone in his ankle during the win over Oklahoma State and has been ruled out for the bowl game. All-American wide receiver Corey Coleman had hernia surgery and will not be able to go. And running back Shock Linwood and his 1,329 rushing yards will be sidelined with a foot injury. The good news is that quarterback Chris Johnson, who suffered a concussion in the Texas game, has been cleared for action. His presence is necessary because Baylor has no other viable quarterback options and will be missing a ton of skill position talent.
2. Blocking Andrew Billings, Jamal Palmer and Shawn Oakman
Baylor’s defense may not be at the top of any of the statistical rankings, but the Bears have high-quality talent along the defensive line. Billings was named first team All-Big 12 after registering 15 tackles for lost yardage and 5.5 sacks this fall from his defensive tackle position. Palmer had 53 tackles with 13.5 of them resulting in lost yardage. And then there is Oakman, who may have more pure talent than any defensive lineman in the country. The Tar Heels only allowed 14 sacks on the year and their offensive line has done a great job opening up holes for Elijah Hood in the running game, making this a very interesting battle. What happens up front will have a big impact on the outcome of this game.
3. Containing Marquise Williams
The top priority for every team that plays North Carolina is to slow down Williams. After a shaky start to the season, the senior came on strong, throwing for 2,829 yards and 21 touchdowns while running for 867 yards and 11 scores. Baylor has faced some very good quarterbacks in the Big 12 and the results have been less than stellar. The Bears held down TCU’s Trevone Boykin, but he was not 100 percent in that game and top wide receiver Josh Doctson was out. Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph threw for 430 yards and three touchdowns against the Bears and Oklahoma star Baker Mayfield had 270 yards passing, 76 yards on the ground, and accounted for four touchdowns. The Texas Tech duo of Pat Mahomes and Davis Webb, who came in for a gimpy Mahomes, combined for 530 yards passing with four scores. Williams is more than capable of putting up similar numbers versus the Baylor defense.
It is true that the Tar Heels fell just short. But UNC has to be commended for overcoming what is now a head-scratching, season-opening loss to South Carolina. To put themselves in position to win the ACC — albeit with a very favorable schedule — speaks to the job that Fedora, his staff and the players did this fall. Gene Chizik revamped the defense and North Carolina should be ready for one last tilt in 2015. On the other side, you have to wonder about Baylor’s motivation in this game. The Bears have lost their last two games, with one coming to 5-7 Texas. Chris Johnson has played well at times, has some playmakers in KD Cannon and Jay Lee out wide, and can hand the ball to Johnny Johnson, who had a 158-yard performance against the Horns. But there is a reason that Johnson was third string behind a true freshman. Also, the loss of Corey Coleman will be huge for this offense as he was the guy that every opposing defense focused on. And defensively, Baylor has several guys that may be looking ahead to the NFL Draft. That could be especially true for Shawn Oakman, a player whose production has not lived up to his considerable talents. Because of those factors, North Carolina will win this game by a comfortable margin.
Prediction: North Carolina 41, Baylor 24
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
The Cincinnati Bengals travel to Denver to take on the Broncos in a game that will have major implications for the AFC playoff picture. The winner of this game will be in a commanding position for a vital bye week and also still be in position to end up with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as the No. 1 seed thanks to the Patriots' loss to the Jets on Sunday. The loser will likely be playing in the wild card round, and the Broncos need a win to punch their postseason ticket, stay ahead of the Chiefs (who have clinched no worse than a a wild card berth) in the AFC West race, and not have to potentially sweat Week 17 out.
The Broncos have lost two games in a row, despite some promising moments from quarterback Brock Osweiler. As Peyton Manning gets closer to a return, the Broncos will be facing a major decision, but this is the week for Osweiler to shine and cement Denver's playoff hopes.
The Bengals have quarterback issues of their own with AJ McCarron winning his first start in San Francisco last week. With Andy Dalton out at least until the playoffs, and possibly longer, the Bengals must recalibrate with McCarron while their defense makes up the difference.
Cincinnati at Denver
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Monday)
Spread: Broncos -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Battle of the Defenses
These teams are extremely similar to each other. Both have new quarterbacks with plenty of weapons around them, along with two of the best defenses in the NFL. Brock Osweiler has a little more experience and a little higher ceiling, but how either quarterback will perform in an important game on national television with playoff implications is anyone's guess. That's why the defense that plays better, and forces turnovers, is likely to hand their team the win.
2. Broncos Play 60 Minutes?
The Broncos had 27 points in the first half against the Steelers and zero over the final 30 minutes. They also had zero points in the second half the previous week against the Raiders. This begs the question of whether or not the Broncos can break this trend and turn in a full 60-minute effort. Their season depends on it this week. The Broncos can make the plays, on both sides of the ball, but they must find consistency.
3. How Will the Bengals Generate Offense?
The Broncos have the best defense (yards per game) in the NFL both against the pass and the run. Without Andy Dalton, and with A.J. Green battling a back injury, moving the ball might be a major challenge for the Bengals. Marvin Jones had four catches for 89 yards last week, but the Bengals had 36 carries for just 68 yards. If they have similar problems running the ball this week, they could be punting a lot.
Despite their similarities, the key differences between these two teams – Brock Osweiler's experience and Denver's home-field advantage – should be the difference. The Broncos also need this game more than the Bengals do, as a loss could open the door for the Chiefs to not only take the division title, but potentially put the Broncos in a must-win situation next week. Look for the Broncos to turn in a full 60-minute game while shutting down AJ McCarron completely.
Prediction: Broncos 24, Bengals 10
The Minnesota Vikings (9-5) look to clinch a playoff spot in Sunday's primetime matchup against the New York Giants (6-8). The Vikings hold the first of two NFC wild card spots and are one game behind Green Bay for the division title. Minnesota would clinch a postseason spot with a win or tie, an Atlanta loss or tie or a Seattle win or tie.
The Giants were officially eliminated from playoff contention when the Redskins clinched the NFC East title after beating the Eagles on Saturday night. With New York set to miss the postseason for the fourth straight season, speculation on head coach Tom Coughln's future and others associated with the team will begin anew.
New York at Minnesota
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Minnesota -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Odell Beckham-less Giant passing attack
Odell Beckham Jr. will miss tonight’s game after his appeal of his one-game suspension for his actions in last week’s loss to Carolina was unsuccessful. Without Beckham in the lineup, the Giants are not only missing a guy who’s tied for the NFL lead in touchdown catches (13) and is third in yards, but also is responsible for 26 percent of the team’s receptions (91 of 348), 36 percent of the yards (1,396 of 3,900) and 41 percent of Eli Manning’s 32 TD passes on the season.
With Beckham out, Rueben Randle and Dwayne Harris become the primary wide receivers, but Eli Manning also will need running back Shane Vereen and tight end Will Tye to make a sizeable impact in the passing game, unless New York is able to get more out of a running game that ranks just 25th in the league and has managed a total of four rushing touchdowns all season. To make matters worse, the Giants have to do without its best offensive weapon against a Vikings defense that ranks among the top 10 in the league in points allowed (19.4, tied for 8th).
2. Teddy Bridgewater taking over as a franchise QB
Bridgewater had the best individual performance of his young NFL career. Bridgewater threw for four touchdowns, ran in one score and only had three incompletions.
The former Louisville standout has played with the label of a "game manager" all season, which is fine considering Minnesota's potential playoff berth. But he proved that he's a franchise quarterback last Sunday and should be capable of another strong performance against a struggling Giants secondary.
3. Adrian Peterson looking to break out of sub-100-yard slump
Despite leading the league in rushing, Peterson has not reached the 100-yard mark in each of his last three games. Peterson was limited to eight carries for 18 yards during a Dec. 6 loss to Seattle before rushing for 69 yards on 23 attempts against Arizona and 63 on 18 against Chicago.
The Giants’ rushing defense has been solid, but hasn't faced a running back nearly as talented as Peterson – who is still arguably the best in the NFL even at 30 years old. The former MVP should bounce back with a big game on Sunday.
Minnesota should secure a playoff spot in Sunday's game. After losing three of its last four games, the Vikings returned to form against Chicago in Week 15 and once again looked like a complete team.
Teddy Bridgewater should provide another strong performance against a weak Giants secondary while the Vikings’ defense pressures Eli Manning and forces mistakes.
Prediction: Vikings 27, Giants 17
— Written by Jason Hall, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and works for Fox Sports Florida. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhallFSN.
A win for the Arizona Cardinals (12-2) this afternoon would clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Ironically, Green Bay is the only team that can mathematically swap places with Arizona, giving this matchup added significance. A victory over the Packers also would give Bruce Arians' Cardinals the narrowest of chances at a No.1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The undefeated Carolina Panthers would have to drop their last two games, while the Cardinals would have to win this week and beat the Seahawks next week for that to happen. A highly unlikely scenario, but one that should provide the Cardinals with added incentive to take care of business at home against the Packers.
The Green Packers (10-4) have much more at stake heading into Week 16. In addition to an outside chance of stealing the No. 2 seed from Arizona, the Packers still have a division title hanging in the balance. A win over Arizona and a loss or tie by Minnesota Sunday night would clinch the NFC North for the Packers, but a loss and a Vikings victory would set up a Week 17 showdown against the Vikings for all the marbles in the NFC North. Mike McCarthy's Packers have had to scrape and claw their way to victory on a weekly basis, so nothing is guaranteed, especially against a red-hot Cardinals team on the road.
Green Bay at Arizona
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Arizona - 4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. David Johnson
Johnson had already shown flashes as a complementary back, but since taking over as the feature back in Week 13, the rookie has quickly emerged as a potential star in the making. The third-round pick out of Northern Iowa is a do-it-all running back that can play all three downs, a rare thing for a rookie in the NFL. Johnson not only excels as a runner, he is an exceptional pass catcher out of the backfield as well. From goal-line situations to explosive big-play potential, Johnson is the complete package, which is scary when you consider that the Cardinals already had the top-ranked offense in the NFL prior to Johnson’s emergence.
In three starts, Johnson has accumulated 472 total yards from scrimmage while adding four touchdowns. He absolutely destroyed the Eagles last week, and this afternoon’s matchup against the Packers’ 22nd-ranked run defense appears to be promising as well. Johnson is definitely a player to watch, and he should have a significant impact in this matchup.
2. Can the Packers’ Offense Keep Pace?
It is no secret that the Packers have struggled to find their way on offense this season. The loss of Jordy Nelson has proven to be far more significant than anyone could have ever imagined. An inconsistent rushing attack, led by Eddie Lacy and James Starks, has not provided much relief for Aaron Rodgers and a less-than-spectacular Packers’ passing game this season either. Rodgers will require much more from his offense this week against a stout Cardinals team on the road. It will be a tall order for the Green Bay offense to keep pace with Arizona’s high-octane offense. A solid Cardinal defense that ranks seventh in the NFL will not make that task any easier.
The good news is that the Cardinals' pass defense can be forgiving at times, and Rodgers has a knack for sniffing out weaknesses. It also bodes well for the Green Bay offense that Arizona will be without do-it-all safety Tyrann Mathieu this week. That being said, putting up points has been a struggle for the Packer offense at times all season, and this unit will need to have its best game of the season to have any chance of outscoring the Cardinals.
3. Green Bay’s Defense vs. Arizona’s Offense
The 16th-ranked Packer defense is not widely considered amongst the NFL’s elite. However, Green Bay’s “bend don’t break” style of has afforded them a top-five ranking in the most important defensive category, points allowed. The Packers are giving up just 18.9 points per game on the season. They have held their opponents under 20 points in nine of 14 games. A solid pass rush has accounted for 38 sacks, and a ball-hawking secondary has 14 interceptions, both of which rank top 10 in the league.
While Green Bay has done an outstanding job of keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone all season, the Packers will certainly have their hands full in that regard against Arizona. The Cardinals average close to 32 points per game on the season, rank at or near the top of the NFL in practically every offensive category, and they have not committed a single turnover in their last four contests. It is fair to say that the Cardinals’ offense is currently hitting on all cylinders. Last week’s 40-17 drumming of the Eagles on the road provides further proof.
Carson Palmer and a solid cast of big-play wide receivers have combined to form one of the more dominant passing attacks in the NFL, averaging an NFL best 8.7 yards per pass play. A fresh-legged David Johnson provides the perfect home-run complement out of the backfield. The Cardinals also boast one of the better defenses in the league. Arizona may just be the most complete team in the NFL right now, and Bruce Arians’ squad seems to be hitting its stride at the perfect time.
The Packers have not had their typical season, especially on offense where we are accustomed to seeing dominant performances on a weekly basis. Regardless, you have to give the Packers credit where credit is due. It is not always pretty, but in spite of its shortcomings, Green Bay finds ways to win.
In order for Green Bay to beat Arizona, Aaron Rodgers will need to play his best game of the season, the Packers’ inconsistent rushing attack will need to be at the top of its game, and Green Bay’s defense will have to find a way to keep the NFL’s best offense out of the end zone. That is a lot to ask, and Week 16 may just provide a challenge that is too tough for the scrappy Packers to overcome on the road.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Packers 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
With another playoff berth in their back pocket the Seattle Seahawks (9-5) now set their sights on doing what they need to do in order to lock down the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs. The difference between the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds in the first round is plain and simple. You don’t want to have to go to Green Bay during wild-card weekend if you’re the Seahawks as a trip to play the winner of the NFC East would be much more advantageous.
The St. Louis Rams (6-8) put an end to the playoff hopes of Tampa Bay last Thursday, as the Rams beat the Buccaneers 31-23 in an emotional home finale at the Edward Jones Dome. Offensively, St. Louis showed some signs of life as quarterback Case Keenum was efficient in the passing game, completing 14-of-17 passes for 234 yards. Todd Gurley climbed over 1,000 yards rushing in his rookie season with 79 tough yards. Aaron Donald caused plenty of havoc along the defensive line, making Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston earn everything he got all night long.
St. Louis at Seattle
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Seattle -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Seahawks’ health
If the Seahawks are to make a deep run in the NFC playoffs let alone back to the Super Bowl they need to get through these two games without suffering too many significant injuries. Russell Okung and Kam Chancellor sat out of practice on Friday, which raises even more questions about their availability this afternoon. Doug Baldwin is battling a hamstring issue and Michael Bennett a toe injury, but both players took part in practice on Friday. Look for Seattle to take a conservative approach and keep Okung and Chancellor out and trust its depth along the offensive line and in the secondary to get the job done.
2. Can the Rams pound the rock with Todd Gurley?
The recipe for success for St. Louis is going to be its ability to grind the game to a screeching halt by running the ball well with Gurley. If Gurley can get 25 carries and well north of 100 yards against the Seahawks’ defense, then the Rams will be in the game in the fourth quarter. So even if Gurley doesn’t bust any long runs early in the game the Rams will need to stay patient and just keep plugging away until he break free. Look for Seattle to dare quarterback Case Keenum to try and beat its defense by throwing early and often.
3. Seahawks’ offensive line vs. Rams’ defensive line
This will be a fun matchup to follow as the St. Louis defensive line always seems to give the Seahawks’ offensive line fits every time these two teams meet. The biggest threat to the Seattle offensive line will be defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is second in the NFC and sixth in the NFL with 11 sacks. Another key for the Seattle offensive line will be its ability to protect Russell Wilson on third downs. The Rams are second in the league on third down defensively, holding teams to a conversion rate of just 32.6 percent. Thus, the ability to stay on schedule offensively is going to be vital for the Seahawks in order to maintain drives this afternoon.
In spite of all of the health concerns for Seattle, the Seahawks have usually taken care of business against the Rams in recent years at CenturyLink Field and this afternoon should not be any different. Look for the Seahawks to play with their hair on fire defensively against St. Louis after getting embarrassed in Week 1 at the Edward Jones Dome. In the season opener, the Rams upset the Seahawks 34-31 as Nick Foles threw for 297 yards. However, things have changed a great deal since then with St. Louis entering today’s game at 6-8 and out of playoff contention and Foles not under center. Seattle has already clinched its fourth consecutive playoff and is now trying to position itself for the postseason. With these two teams going in opposite directions, look for another rout by the Seahawks as Russell Wilson will have another strong performance in the passing game. They also will get plenty of help on the ground from Christine Michael and Bryce Brown to lock down the Seahawks’ 10th win.
Prediction: Seahawks 31, Rams 10
— 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.
Former Dallas Cowboys’ backup quarterback Brandon Weeden was being funny when he responded to a question about the possibility of filling for Tony Romo when he said, “God forbid I am forced to play.”
That was in August, during training camp, before Weeden actually did play for an injured Romo, and before Weeden was released by the Cowboys and signed by the Houston Texans. Now, Weeden is the man in charge of securing the Texans’ playoff hopes after filling for an injured T.J. Yates — who was filling for an injured Brian Hoyer. Funny game that American football.
After starting the season 2-5 and playing four different quarterbacks, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has somehow, miraculously steered his football team to the AFC South lead with two divisional games remaining. The division is the Texans’ to win… or lose, and the only teams standing in their way are the Titans on Sunday and the Jaguars next week.
The Titans will be without their rookie standout quarterback Marcus Mariota after he suffered an MCL sprain last week — the second time Mariota has been sidelined with a knee injury in his inaugural season.
With or without Mariota, the Titans have been arguably the worst team in the NFL for the last two seasons, and really show no signs of improvement. Team ownership is nowhere to be found, the front office seems to be inept, and the coaching staff has been fluid for three seasons. In short: the Titans are a dumpster fire who very well could have the first pick in next spring’s draft for the second year in a row.
With Mariota in sweats and a headset on Sunday, interim head coach Mike Mularkey will call on second-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger to lead his team against the resurgent Texans.
Houston at Tennessee
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Tennessee +4
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback Play
The Titans have next to nothing to play for in 2015 — as playing for pride went out the window two weeks ago with a 30-8 lifeless loss to the Jets. But if there is one Titan that can use the final two weeks to showcase himself, it’s starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Scouts rave about Mettenberger’s raw talent and arm strength, but his on-field decision-making and too frequent displays of immaturity have cost him. These next two weeks Mettenberger faces two defenses in the Texans and Colts that will assuredly allow him to put up some pretty passing numbers, a perfect opportunity for him to generate offseason interest from what seems like a countless number of teams in desperate need of reliable signal-callers.
Leading the Texans’ huddle will be 31-year old Brandon Weeden, who has played for the only two teams this season that have used four different quarterbacks. In training camp Brian Hoyer was named the starter over Ryan Mallett, but inconsistent play and injuries benched Hoyer in favor of Mallet — who later was benched, and then ultimately cut. With Hoyer out (again) after regaining the starting role, in stepped perennial backup T.J. Yates, who tore his ACL last week against the Colts. Now, it’s up to Weeden to lead the Texans to an improbable AFC South title with a win today. Luckily, Weeden has one of the best wide receivers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins to target against one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
2. Which Texans D Shows Up?
The Texans were supposed to have the cream of NFL defenses this season, led by J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, and a healthy Jadeveon Clowney. Watt and Cushing have played like Pro Bowlers, as Cushing leads the team in tackles and Watt is top five in the league in sacks. But Clowney and the rest of the defense have been inconsistent. In the Texans’ seven wins, the defense only allowed 10.5 points per game. In their seven losses, that numbers soars to more than 32 per game.
Now, in the final two weeks of the season, with a backup quarterback leading the offense is when O’Brien needs his defense to be at its best, not only getting stops, but also making big plays and turning points into turnovers. Watt has a history of roughing up Mettenberger, a trend that must continue if the Texans plan on hosting a playoff game in three weeks.
3. Titans’ Offensive Woes
The Titans’ offense has been, to put it gently, inept in 2015. Marcus Mariota showed flashes of brilliance throughout his rookie tenure not only throwing but also running the ball, as he is second on the team in rushing. Without Mariota in the lineup Sunday, the Titans are going to have to establish a running game, something they have failed to do all season. Running back Dexter McCluster (who is on injured reserve) has been improperly used and underperformed since being brought in last season as a free agent, and last year’s second-round pick Bishop Sankey has been a pure bust.
Second-year back Antonio Andrews is the team’s leading rusher and will continue to carry the load the rest of the way. But Andrews’ greatest disadvantage is an offensive line in front of him that can’t seem to, well, block.
The lone bright spot in the Titans’ offense has been tight end Delanie Walker. Mettenberger’s first job is to get Walker the ball as much as possible, if only to open up the rest of the passing game for wide receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and possibly Kendall Wright. But Mettenberger will surely be limited behind a Titans’ offensive line that has been nothing short of a disaster this season.
With a win in Nashville on Sunday, the Texans are almost assured the AFC South title and the right to host a playoff game in a few weeks. This is a game that the Texans must figure out a way to win, even with Brandon Weeden at quarterback. With so much on the line, look for the Texans’ defense to attack the line of scrimmage relentlessly, forcing Zach Mettenberger into erratic passing decisions.
Prediction: Texans 20, Titans 10
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
Welcome to Week 16, also known as championship week for the majority of fantasy leagues. While the injury report has been lengthy all season, this is the week to focus on the players that could mean the difference between getting one more, oh-so-important victory or coming this close to winning it all.
All season, you could take a flier on a player that make take advantage of a situation because of a player being injured. Now it is the time to take the points where you can get them. Monitor the inactive report Sunday morning, and above all, trust your gut.
Here is the Week 16 injury report, featuring only the key players that those who are hoping to take the home title need to know or worry about.
Note: All games are at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday unless otherwise noted.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
Questionable – Foot
This one is going to be tough for fantasy owners. Brees insists he is going to play, despite having a torn plantar fascia (similar to the injury that has sidelined Peyton Manning). The Saints do not have any chance to get into the postseason, but it appears that Brees will be given a chance to play, depending on the severity of his injury. Still, fantasy owners should be very wary of starting him, even in a great matchup. He's going to be a game-time decision and there is no guarantee he plays the full game. In the championship week of your fantasy playoffs, don't trust Brees.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks vs. St. Louis Rams (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET)
Questionable – Hamstring
After missing practices this week, Baldwin will be a game-time decision on Sunday with a hamstring injury. The problem with that is he plays in the late game. Fantasy owners should not be counting on him just because of the lack of practice and the late game. If you own another player that can fill the spot that Baldwin is filling on your roster (either another WR or a flex, if possible), pencil him in. If you can, keep an eye on Baldwin’s status throughout the afternoon as the matchup against the Rams is good and he’s been on fire lately. If Baldwin plays, you should start him. However, flexibility is the key given his Questionable tag, so make sure you have another option at the ready. For Seattle, Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse will both get a slight boost if Baldwin is out. Both would be WR3s.
Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, WRs, New England Patriots at New York Jets
Questionable – Knee; Doubtful – Foot; Questionable – Foot
Even though he’s listed as Doubtful, there’s no reason to expect Edelman to play today. The focus has been on getting him healthy for the playoffs, which for the Patriots doesn’t begin until the Divisional Round. Amendola and LaFell are both questionable after putting in limited practices this week. Amendola has been dealing with this knee injury for a few weeks now, and he will likely be a game-time decision. Even if he plays, it will be tough to trust Amendola fantasy-wise. LaFell has been a fantasy disappointment, but he’s the safest of this trio in terms of likelihood of being active today. He did have four receptions for 88 yards in Week 15 and with Edelman out and Amendola likely either out or limited, LaFell will have a bigger role. LaFell is a WR3, but still hard to trust.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Doubtful – Hamstring
Jeffery has been banged up much of this year (to the dismay of fantasy owners) and it is unlikely that he will play this week. He missed practice this week and the Bears don't have anything to play for. Fantasy owners should not count on Jeffery this week. While Eddie Royal is listed as questionable, he should play, but isn't a recommended fantasy option. The Bears’ offense will run through Matt Forte (with Jeremy Langford factoring in a bit) and tight end Zach Miller.
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys at Buffalo Bills
Out – Foot
Between dealing with nagging injuries to his surgically repaired foot as well as his ankle, along with issues at quarterback, Bryant's season has been a disappointment. He didn’t practice this week and the Cowboys have nothing to play for, so the team just decided to go ahead and rule him out for today’s game, and likely next week’s too. Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams will be the starting wide receivers, but neither are great fantasy options, as both are WR3s.
Ben Watson, TE, New Orleans Saints vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
Questionable – Knee
After missing practice, fantasy owners should be a little concerned. Because he is playing later today, if you can plug in another tight end that you know is playing, do so. Watson will be a game-time decision, and while the matchup is a good one (Jacksonville is in the top 10 in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing tight ends), it's too hard to trust him. Between the quarterback situation being up in the air and his own injury situation being a question mark, try to find another option.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars at New Orleans Saints (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET)
Doubtful – Knee
After missing Week 15, Yeldon isn't going to play in Week 16 either. He can be dropped in all redraft leagues. Denard Robinson will take over again, as he was able to practice in full. Robinson did have a good matchup against Atlanta last week, but only managed 28 rushing yards. His fantasy day was salvaged by eight receptions for 46 yards. The Saints’ defense is terrible, which makes Robinson a RB2 with upside.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills vs. Dallas Cowboys
Out – Knee
After tearing his MCL in Week 15, McCoy has been ruled out for Week 16. Karlos Williams is in line to be the starter in his absence, although he has been banged up for most of the season as well. Mike Gillislee also should be in the mix, as he turned four carries into 81 yards and a touchdown in Week 15 after McCoy went down. Williams will be the starter and probably have a few more carries, but both backs will get work. Williams is a RB2; Gillislee is a RB3.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Out – Foot
When Stewart was out in Week 15, Cameron Artis-Payne was the running back that got the most work (and did the most with it). He had 59 rushing yards on 14 carries and added two receptions for 34 yards. Mike Tolbert will still be in the picture for short-yardage and goal-line work, but Artis-Payne is the running back to start over Fozzy Whittaker. Artis-Payne is a high-end RB3 in a good matchup. Leave Whittaker on waivers.
Shaun Draughn, RB, San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions
Out – Knee
After injuring his knee in Week 15, Draughn has been ruled out for Week 16. Kendall Gaskins will most likely draw the start, but he isn't a viable starting option for fantasy purposes. DuJuan Harris and Bruce Miller also figure to get some touches, but the matchup isn’t ideal. The Lions’ run defense has been stout. They've only allowed three touchdowns to opposing running backs in the past six weeks (and two of those were to Todd Gurley). It probably goes without saying, but stay away from the 49ers to fulfill your fantasy needs.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
The 9-5 New York Jets host the 12-2 New England Patriots Sunday, with the Jets currently sitting on the outside of the playoffs looking in. The Jets have been surging in recent weeks; having won four games in row, but are still losing the AFC wild card tiebreaker to the Chiefs and Steelers. With just two games left, the Jets' postseason fate is hanging by a string and they'll need to beat their longtime rival at home to keep hope alive.
The Patriots sewed up a first-round playoff bye last week and need just one win in their final two games to clinch the top overall seed in the conference. New England figures to be once again undermanned with injuries to Danny Amendola, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and Dont'a Hightower in the last two weeks that should keep the Patriots from being at maximum strength. The most interesting Patriot to watch will be the newest – running back Steven Jackson was signed this week and should see immediate carries for the depleted Pats.
Regardless of playoff position or personnel, these two teams always have close games that go down to the wire and this one should be no exception.
New England at New York
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Fitz Keep the Magic Going?
Ryan Fitzpatrick has been the quarterback the Jets have been looking for, and his chemistry with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker has been the biggest key to the Jets' resurgence this season. The biggest key for the Jets and Fitzpatrick will be to play safe with the ball in this one. The Patriots prey on turnovers, but have also turned a corner on defense this year, putting up some of their best overall numbers since the 2007 season. If the Jets hold on to the ball, they'll have a very good chance to win.
2. Brady and Weapons
With Danny Amendola re-injuring his knee, it's likely the Patriots' top targets in this one will be Rob Gronkowski, Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin. The critical problem area is on third down, where Tom Brady has had to get by without Julian Edelman, his most reliable receiver. The Jets can now key on Gronk, forcing Brady to beat them with Martin. Martin has certainly made strides this season, but is he ready to be Brady's go-to security blanket? Then there's new addition Steven Jackson. The Jets’ run defense is stout and the Pats avoided it the first time around by sticking with a pass-heavy attack. But if Jackson can bust some plays, or even just pick up a third-and-short, he could be an interesting unknown commodity that future opponents won't quite be sure of.
3. Playoff Preview?
This might not be the last time these two rivals meet, as the Jets should match up well with any potential first-round wild card opponent, even on the road. However the Patriots could ease off the gas this week with the bye already secured. The Pats will most certainly be a different team by the time they reach the divisional round with players like Edelman, Amendola, Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty all expected to return at that point.
Things are pointing favorably to the Jets in this one. Most often the team that needs a win more is the team that wins, and the Jets definitely need this one more than the Patriots. With the constant rash of injuries this year, the Patriots could just choose to play it safe, rest some guys and focus on clinching the top seed next week against a Dolphins team with nothing to play for. Still, a win over the Patriots at this point in the season would be a huge boost, both in the standings and for the morale of their team, and possibly propel them into being one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC playoff field.
Prediction: Jets 20, Patriots 16
When these two NFC South rivals last met just two weeks ago, it did not end well for the Atlanta Falcons (7-7), as they were pounded by the Panthers 38-0 in Charlotte. The Falcons hope that Week 16 will result in a completely different outcome in Atlanta. A win last week over Jacksonville put an end to a six-game losing streak for the Falcons, and it should provide them with some much-needed momentum. Momentum that they did not have heading into the previous matchup against the Panthers. Last week's victory also provided the Falcons with the narrowest of chances to still make the playoffs.
The Carolina Panthers (14-0) have no intentions of helping the Falcons with their playoff aspirations. In fact, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera has already stated that he will not rest his starters for this matchup, and with good reason. A win over Atlanta this week would lock up the top seed in the NFC, securing the Panthers with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. There also is the small matter of an undefeated season at stake, in addition to a regular season winning streak that currently stands at 18 games dating back to last season.
This will be the 42nd meeting between Atlanta and Carolina all-time dating back to 1995. The Falcons lead the overall series with a record of 24-17. However, the Panthers have dominated the last two games in the series, defeating the Falcons 38-0 in Week 14 and 34-3 in the final regular season game in 2014.
Carolina at Atlanta
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Carolina -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Cam Newton Continue His MVP Run?
Newton has absolutely dominated every team he has faced in recent weeks, including the Atlanta Falcons. Newton led the Panthers' offense to paydirt in each of Carolina’s first three possessions against Atlanta in Week 14. He would go on to complete 15 of his 21 passes for 265 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, before giving way to backup Derek Anderson in the final quarter of the blowout win.
Newton will look to match or exceed his impressive Week 14 performance against the Falcons. Atlanta ranks just 20th in the NFL in pass defense, and an anemic Falcons pass rush has garnered just 17 sacks all season, the fewest in the league. It is common knowledge that no pass rush equals plenty of time for opposing quarterbacks to pick a secondary apart, even a good secondary, and that is exactly what Newton did to this defense two weeks ago. Unfortunately for the Falcons, there is nothing to suggest that Newton will not do the same again.
2. The Falcons' Offense
It was a promising development for the Atlanta offense that Davonta Freeman and Julio Jones both found the end zone in last week’s win over Jacksonville. Jones had not scored a touchdown since Week 8, and Freeman’s score accounted for the Falcons' first rushing touchdown since Week 6. Unfortunately, this offense is still far removed from the unit that seemed to be able to score at will early on in the season.
The Falcons did not score a single touchdown in the second half of a close game against a mediocre Jaguars defense last week, and Matt Ryan’s touchdown pass to Jones resulted in his only touchdown pass of that game. In fact, Ryan has not thrown more than one touchdown pass in a game since Week 11, and he has turned the ball over more than he has found the end zone since that time. Sure, it is a good sign that Freeman and Jones ended their respective touchdown droughts last week, but the Carolina defense will provide a much bigger challenge this week. After all, Atlanta is just one game removed from being completely shut out by the Panthers.
3. Julio Jones vs. Josh Norman 2.0
Norman’s weekly matchups against the NFL’s top receivers has developed into must-see TV. The trash talking, shutdown cornerback may have even met his match in last week’s spectacle against the equally spirited Odell Beckham Jr. While Beckham took his matchup with Norman a little too far, resulting in a one-game suspension, it can be argued that Beckham got the best of Norman.
It will be interesting to see how Norman responds this week against the mild-mannered Jones in their second matchup of the season. Norman held Jones to a reasonable seven catches for 88 yards in Week 14. Norman also helped limit the elite wide receiver to a combined 10 receptions for 117 receiving yards in two meetings last season, and Jones is still looking for his first touchdown reception against Norman.
Jones is healthier than he was in the previous meeting, and he is also coming off of one of his best games of the season last week, while Norman is coming off of one of his worst performances. Given those circumstances, it will be fun to see who comes out on top in round two.
The last time these two teams met, Carolina was coming off of a game against the Saints in which they gave up 38 points and almost had their undefeated season come to an end. The Panthers responded in a big way by beating the Falcons 38-0 the following week. Fast-forward to the present, and you find a very similar scenario as the Panthers get set for round two against the Falcons. Carolina gave up 35 points to the Giants last week, dodging yet another bullet that threatened its perfect season. The question is, will the Panthers take out those frustrations on the Falcons once again?
It certainly seems plausible, but the Falcons do have more going for them this time around. The game will be played in Atlanta, they have some momentum coming off of a win, and the Atlanta offense finally showed some momentary signs of life last week. That being said, the Panthers still have plenty at stake, and their defense has no intention of getting embarrassed two weeks in a row. This game should be more competitive than the previous meeting. How could it not? Regardless, Carolina has not scored fewer than 30 points in a game since Week 10, averaging closer to 40 points per game since that time. It’s difficult to find any scenario where the Falcons' offense can outscore the visiting Panthers.
Prediction: Panthers 34, Falcons 13
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
It is commonplace for sportswriters to talk about history when previewing games. But in this case, does it matter?
Yes, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers play in perhaps the most bitter contemporary rivalry in the NFL, though with the injuries that have come out of recent Cincinnati-Pittsburgh games that may be up for debate.
The Ravens have defeated the Steelers in four of the previous five meetings, including a 23-20 overtime victory at Pittsburgh and last season's 30-17 Ravens playoff victory at Pittsburgh, the only time in history a pro sports franchise from Baltimore eliminated one from Pittsburgh in the postseason.
But right now, how does that help the Ravens?
The Steelers are surging, the Ravens regressing. The Steelers are 9-5 and in line for a playoff berth. Some pundits even theorize they could do great things once January rolls around.
The Ravens are limping home with a third-string quarterback, backup running back, and a 4-10 record.
The chances for a Baltimore victory rest with clichés.
"On any given Sunday."
"Four out of five."
"The Ravens are at home."
But more likely, the one that applies is "Wait 'til next year."
Pittsburgh at Baltimore
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Steelers -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Steelers throw deep?
Ben Roethlisberger was named to the Pro Bowl this week, but who noticed last week he didn't throw deep yet he still managed to throw for 380 yards?
The reason is because the Broncos' pass rush is the best in the league. Historically, the Ravens’ pass rush has been extraordinary (49 sacks last season), but injuries to Terrell Suggs and a regression from Elvis Dumervil (six sacks this season, 17 last year) have led to less of a pass rush this season (31 sacks).
Yes, Roethlisberger made the Pro Bowl, but he also is just three interceptions off the league lead despite missing four games due to injury. His pick late against Denver nearly cost the Steelers the game, and there have been only two games this season he hasn't thrown an interception.
With the Ravens' pass rush diminished, why not take advantage of that instead of risk the turnovers that could cost the Steelers the game?
After the Steelers' loss to the Ravens earlier this year, head coach Mike Tomlin was caught on camera mouthing the words "my bad" as he left the field.
He had elected to go for first downs twice in overtime and the Steelers failed to pick up either of them, which allowed Baltimore the field position to get a short field for the eventual 52-yard Justin Tucker field goal.
Tomlin has a reputation as being a master motivator but a poor strategist, though he has had his moments. Ironically, calling for a pass with 2:08 left against Denver was probably the best strategic choice as a run would have ticked off minimal time, but a pass completion would have secured the victory. The fault in that case was Roethlisberger's for trying to force a pass, not Tomlin.
But if the Ravens are to win, they will need to get a break and have historically benefitted from some of Tomlin's decisions. A short field in overtime? Returning a woozy Roethlisberger to the field instead of letting a hot Bruce Gradkowski complete his drive, then seeing Big Ben throw the game-clinching interception in the playoffs? How about standing on the field on Thanksgiving Day 2013?
3. Can the Ravens get an early lead, and can they hold it?
The Steelers have been employing a rotation of cornerbacks recently, which means they often play Antwon Blake in the first half and Brandon Boykin in the second.
Last week that meant Pittsburgh gave up 27 points in the first half, including a 61-yard touchdown pass to Emanuel Sanders that was all run and little air, but shut out Denver in the second.
Pittsburgh is saying they won't change a thing. This means that Blake, perhaps the NFL's most targeted cornerback, will continue to start.
If that is true, then it could be the chance for Baltimore to take an early lead. But if the Ravens get one, running back Javorius Allen will have to improve on what has been a disappointing rookie season replacing injured Justin Forsett. Allen was even pulled for Terrance West last week after his fumble directly led to Kansas City's Tyvon Branch's 73-yard return for a touchdown and a 14-7 Chiefs lead, but head coach John Harbaugh says Allen will continue to get playing time.
Not a bad fourth thing to watch – "Will the coaches keep their word regarding Blake and Allen's starting positions?"
Which leads to the fifth question – “Why are they starting in the first place?"
Anything can happen in a rivalry (how's that for a cliché?) and this piece has considered how Baltimore could benefit from a turnover advantage.
Except the Ravens are minus-15 in the turnover department this year. You think Ben Roethlisberger has thrown too many interceptions? Ravens quarterbacks have thrown multiple interceptions in five of their last six games, including Jimmy Clausen's two last week in a 34-14 loss to the Chiefs.
What do you really think the Ravens' chances are here?
Prediction: Steelers 26, Ravens 16
— 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.
It’s championship weekend for most fantasy football leagues, unless you play in one of those crazy leagues that goes to Week 17.
You’ve fought hard all season and are very battle-tested, but whether you’re fighting for the big money or just trying not to finish last, there are always questions that linger on who to start and who to sit, especially this week with so much on the table.
This week’s start and sit is going to be short and sweet, mainly because there is a lot of fantasy players who are done for the year, and because I still haven’t started my Christmas shopping, so I guess I better get out there.
Ben Roethlisberger, PIT (at BAL)
It’s championship weekend, so I’m not going to play guessing games and suggest you start Ryan Tannehill or Sam Bradford because they have great matchups. Big Ben and the entire Steelers offense just tore up the NFL’s best defense, the Denver Broncos, in the second half of their game last Sunday. This week the Steelers travel to Baltimore in what is usually a very tough game, especially this late in the season. These games are more likely to finish 13-10 then they are 34-31. However, with the way Big Ben and Antonio Brown are playing, this game might be out of hand by halftime. If that’s the case it’s because Big Ben has probably already thrown for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Don’t be foolish and guess against the Steelers’ game script this week, keep Big Ben in your starting lineup.
Drew Brees, NO (vs. JAC)
Brees was on fire on Monday night, throwing for 342 yards and three touchdowns, which was good for 26.74 fantasy points. In the past three weeks Brees has thrown eight TD passes and he will probably end the week as fantasy’s top-scoring quarterback because his matchup is so good. Brees once again plays at home (assuming his injury isn't too serious) and this week he welcomes with open arms the terrible pass defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars are giving up the third-most fantasy points to quarterbacks on the season and have just been destroyed in the past three weeks. What makes this an even better start for Brees is the fact that his own defense is so terrible that this game is likely to end up 45-43 or something like that.
Eli Manning, NYG (at MIN)
Manning has been on a tear the last two weeks, scoring 27.28 and 25.20 fantasy points, with the latter coming against the stout Carolina Panthers’ defense. Manning has been so productive because his number one target, Odell Beckham Jr., has been playing out of this world, until last weekend when he played like a crazed lunatic and got himself suspended for one game. Manning is just average at best without ODB and this week he gets to face a tough opponent in the Minnesota Vikings, who are also playing for their playoff lives (and allowing the 14th-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks). You didn’t draft Manning to be your QB1, so hopefully you still have a better option this week.
Aaron Rodgers, GB (at ARI)
This might sound crazy, but hear me out. If you are in your championship game this year, it’s not because Rodgers helped get you there. Rodgers hasn’t thrown for 300 yards since Week 10 and is barely averaging two touchdowns per game since then as well. He scored 11.06 fantasy points last week against the Oakland Raiders and this week he gets a way tougher challenger as the Packers travel to the desert to visit the Arizona Cardinals. It’s true that the Cardinals lost one of their best defensive players in Tyrann Mathieu thanks to a torn ACL, but they are still a very tough unit and should easily shut down the Packers’ receivers. On the year the Cardinals have given up the ninth-fewest fantasy points to quarterbacks, and you can bet that Rodgers will once again score fewer than 20 fantasy points this week.
David Johnson, ARI (vs. GB)
If you are in your fantasy championship game, it’s very likely you’re there because of Johnson. Since taking over as the lead back in Arizona, he’s dominated both the passing and the receiving game. He’s been so good that he’s hurt the value of Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald. This week the Cardinals play host to the Green Bay Packers, who have been pretty good against running backs (13th-fewest fantasy points allowed), but Johnson just sees too much volume and hardly ever leaves the field. He should easily once again top 20 fantasy points and his ceiling is so high he could easily score 40-plus fantasy points once again.
Doug Martin, TB (vs. CHI)
Martin is averaging 91 rushing yards per game over his last four contests, but has failed to crack the 100-yard mark in each of those games and he didn't do much on the stat sheet last week, scoring fewer than 10 fantasy points for the first time in the last three weeks. And while he hasn't had an explosive stat line since Week 11, I'm sticking with him based on an upcoming matchup versus the Bears. Chicago has allowed the sixth-most points to RBs since Week 12.
Chris Ivory, NYJ (at NE)
Believe it or not, Ivory is the second-leading rusher in the AFC with 951 yards, but right now he’s the far inferior Jets running back as he has ceded touches to Bilal Powell in recent weeks and has just one touchdown in his last six games. Throw in the fact that he has a very tough matchup this week against the Patriots (who are giving up the 12th-fewest fantasy points to running backs on the year) and that the game script will probably dictate that the Jets will need to throw the ball more to stay in the game. That sort of game plan would result in Ivory get out-touched once again by Powell.
Matt Forte, CHI (at TB)
It’s looking more and more likely that the Bears are going to let Forte walk as a free agent in the offseason and they really want to see more of what they have in Jeremy Langford. Forte only rushed the ball eight times last week due to the game flow, they were playing from behind, which led to him being featured more in the passing game. This week the Bears play in Tampa Bay in what should be more of a grind-it-out game which means that Langford will once again see more touches than Forte (before last week’s game with Minnesota got away from Chicago, Langford got 11 rush attempts to Forte’s eight). If you start Forte you better be hoping that he scores a touchdown, otherwise he could match his 5.3-point game from Week 12 very easily.
Allen Robinson, JAC (at NO)
Robinson is probably the quietest and underrated elite wide receiver in the game today. A lot of people would be surprised to know that he already has 1,141 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on the year. Heading into Week 16, a lot of people are probably down on Robinson though because his last two games he’s scored 6.4 and 11.7 fantasy points. The good news is that he’s caught a touchdown in each of his last four games and the Jaguars are going to be involved in a shootout in New Orleans. Robinson should rebound big time this week against a terrible Saints defense that has given up the most fantasy points to opposing offenses on the year. Look for Robinson to go for over 100 yards and score two touchdowns this week.
DeSean Jackson, WAS (at PHI, Sat.)
Jackson rebounded from a two-catch, 43-yard effort in Week 14, with a season-high 153-yard outburst last week against Buffalo. This also included a customary long touchdown from the talented wideout, and this week it’s all about one thing – revenge! Jackson has put up tremendous numbers in recent weeks, scoring 12 or more fantasy points in four of his last five games. Next up on the schedule is a date with his former team, the Eagles, whose defense has surrendered the third-most fantasy points to WRs.
Doug Baldwin, SEA (at STL)
This is the week that the bubble bursts for Baldwin, but it sure was a good ride while it lasted and hopefully you jumped on the train early enough so that you could ride him to your fantasy championship matchup. Baldwin has just been ridiculous as of late. He’s scored 10 touchdowns in his last four games. That’s insane. But if you look deeper at his stats, you’ll notice that he is starting to lose targets to Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse, as Russell Wilson is spreading the ball around more. This week Baldwin has a very tough matchup as the Seahawks travel to St. Louis where the Rams always play them tough. The Rams have allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to wide receivers on the season and this has the makings of a 13-10 result. I know it would be hard to bench Baldwin, but if you do, you’ll probably be thanking yourself later.
Randall Cobb, GB (at ARI)
Cobb caught 5-of-7 targets for 40 yards in the Packers' Week 15 win over the Raiders, but he couldn't get loose for any substantial gains, and that's been the case for much of the season without Jordy Nelson stretching the field on the other side. Cobb’s biggest contribution against the Raiders was probably a long DPI penalty drawn against him. Cobb has been a major disappointment this year and a complete waste of a second- or third-round pick in your fantasy draft. This week the Packers travel to Arizona to play a stout Cardinals defense that will look to cause havoc on Aaron Rodgers all game. Since Rodgers has no one to throw the ball too, you can expect Cobb to once again score fewer than 10 fantasy points.
Jordan Reed, WAS (at PHI, Sat.)
Reed is without a doubt the hottest fantasy tight end in the last two weeks. In his last two games he’s caught 16-of-16 targets for 204 yards and three touchdowns. That’s incredible. What’s also incredible is the amount of targets he’s sees from Kirk Cousins, who will throw him the ball anytime, anywhere. This only makes starting Reed that much easier against the Eagles, despite the fact that this is the team that gives up the fewest fantasy points to tight ends on the season. Reed is just too good and at this point, he’s basically matchup proof.
Ben Watson, NO (vs. JAC)
Even though he was replacing Jimmy Graham in New Orleans, Watson was never expected to do much of anything this season, other than block. Instead he has quietly put together a fantastic season for himself as not only the Saints’ No. 1 tight end, but also arguably their most consistent target. Watson has Drew Brees’ trust and that’s proven by the fact that Watson has seen 23 total targets over his last two games, helping him average close to 15 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues. This week he gets a very favorable matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose defense has allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends. Watson is just the type of player that can win you your fantasy championship this week.
Gary Barnidge, CLE (at KC)
On the season, not only has Barnidge been one of the most productive tight ends in fantasy football, he’s also been one of the biggest surprises. But unfortunately, his production seems to be drying up as of late with Johnny Manziel under center for the Cleveland Browns. It’s true that Barnidge has caught a touchdown pass in each of his past two games, but teams have been focusing on him and taking him out of games and that will continue this week as the Browns have a terrible matchup on the road in Kansas City. The Chiefs have one of the best overall defenses in football and have given up the second-fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends. You will be far better off streaming your tight end this week and starting someone like the Bears’ Zach Miller instead.
Heath Miller, PIT (at BAL)
Miller can be an asset in PPR formats when the matchup is right, but facing the Ravens isn't what I would call a favorable matchup. Their defense has allowed the third-fewest fantasy points and just two touchdowns to tight ends all season, while Miller has scored 10-plus fantasy points just once in 2015. Keep him on the bench.
Defense/Special Teams (DSTs)
Kansas City Chiefs (vs. CLE)
Over the last four weeks, the Chiefs DST has scored a combined 57 fantasy points. There's no reason to think this DST won't continue to shine against the Browns, who have been more than generous to the opposition. Look for Kansas City to be dominant against Johnny Manziel. Consider this unit a must-start.
St. Louis Rams (at SEA)
The Rams DST has been up and down all season long, and this is looking like a down week against Russell Wilson and the red-hot Seahawks. Over the last four weeks, opposing DSTs have combined to average 0.75 fantasy points per game. (No that is not a misprint.) Despite the talent, St. Louis is a clear sit for Week 16.
— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.
The NFC East race could be settled on Saturday as the Redskins travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles. Washington is in a "win and you are in" situation while the home team needs to win its final two games of the season. The Skins enter this one having won three of their last four games while the Eagles have lost four of their last six.
These two played each other back on Oct. 4 with Washington holding serve at home 23-20 after Kirk Cousins led them down the field for a late drive. Philadelphia managed 320 yards of offense, but had two costly fumbles. Cousins finished 31-for-46 for 290 yards in the victory.
Washington at Philadelphia
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Eagles -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Start fast... finish furiously
The Eagles are coming off a terrible 40-17 loss on Sunday night to the Cardinals at home in which Arizona took the crowd out of the game early. Philly fans have gone through a lot this season and don't have an issue booing the team when it's deserved. If Washington can score early and often, then this may become a bit of a laugher especially since the Eagles have lost three of their last four at Lincoln Financial Field with two of those being blowouts. The Skins picked up their first win on the road just two weeks ago against the Bears and should be the more confident bunch.
2. DeSean needs to find DeEndZone
It's DeSean Jackson's second game in Philadelphia since being let go by the Eagles. Last year in Philly he burned them for five catches for 117 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown. Earlier this year Jackson missed the first matchup between the two teams so you know he'll be ready for this one. Jackson and Kirk Cousins are developing a solid chemistry with the two hooking up five times or more in three of the last five games both have played. The Eagles’ secondary has been flammable this year so slowing down DJax and the big plays in general will be of the utmost importance.
3. Spin the Philly RB wheel
Ryan Mathews, DeMarco Murray and Darren Sproles enter this game after struggling to get much of anything going on the ground against Arizona. Murray was lightly used and that was a hot topic throughout the week. Washington's run D sprung some leaks last week at home, giving up 240 yards rushing to Buffalo. The Redskins have allowed 129.8 yards via the rush all year long. When the Eagles are running it well, then they can pick up the pace and the offense runs a lot smoother.
The NFC Least could finally be decided Saturday night in Philadelphia. All of the signs point to the road team coming in and taking it to the Eagles, who just can't seem put it all together for any extended period. The way this season has gone though, it feels like the division won’t be determined until Week 17 when Washington plays in Dallas and Philadelphia is in New York to take on the Giants. Somehow, the home team gets the win, but not the cover.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Redskins 23
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
With the exception of MLB, the three other major sports (NFL, NBA, NHL) are in season during Christmas. In fact, the NBA is treating its fans to not one, not two, but five games on Christmas day. And between Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors, Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans and even Cole Aldrich of the Los Angeles Clippers, there are plenty of players who will be on the court on Dec. 25 whose names are tailor-made for this time of year.
But these members of the Association aren’t the only athletes and sports figures that make this special list. And yes, we’ve checked it twice.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year...
Dionte Christmas (former NBA guard, now plays overseas)
Rakeem Christmas (F, Indiana Pacers)
Jrue Holiday (G, New Orleans Pelicans)
Matt Holliday (OF, St. Louis Cardinals)
Doug Jolley (former NFL tight end 2002-06)
Nerlens Noel (C, Philadelphia 76ers)
Plenty of sports figures have color-coordinated names for the season...
A.J. Green (WR, Cincinnati Bengals)
Draymond Green (F, Golden State Warriors)
Ladarius Green (TE, San Diego Chargers)
Red Auerbach (legendary NBA coach)
Red Grange (NFL Hall of Famer)
Michael Redd (former NBA guard 2000-12)
Who’s ready to deck the halls?
Joique Bell (RB, Detroit Lions)
Le’Veon Bell (RB, Pittsburgh Steelers)
Eric Berry (DB, Kansas City Chiefs)
Dwayne Bowe (WR, Cleveland Browns)
DeMarre Carroll (F, Toronto Raptors)
Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks head coach)
Jon Garland (former MLB pitcher 2000-11)
Royal Ivey (former NBA guard, 2004-13)
Holly Rowe (ESPN reporter)
Star Lotulelei (DT, Carolina Panthers)
Bart Starr (NFL Hall of Famer)
Mike Tannenbaum (Miami Dolphins’ Executive Vice President of Football Operations)
Tree Rollins (former NBA center, 1978-95)
Walking in a winter wonderland...
David Frost (PGA Champions Tour)
Scott Frost (UCF head coach)
Frostee Rucker (DE, Arizona Cardinals)
Darius Slay (CB, Detroit Lions)
Garth Snow (former NHL goalie 1993-2006, current New York Islanders general manager)
J.T. Snow (former MLB first baseman 1992-2006, '08)
Jay Cutler may hail from Santa Claus, Ind., but all these guys are missing is a white beard and a red suit...
Zac Claus (Idaho basketball assistant coach)
Jimmy Clausen (QB, Baltimore Ravens)
Ed Kringle (played on the PGA Tour in the 1950s)
Sure they can play football, but can they fly?
Dwight Dasher (Middle Tennessee quarterback 2007-10)
Kyle Rudolph (TE, Minnesota Vikings)
I guess we know what these guys get in their stocking every year...
Cole Aldrich (C, Los Angeles Clippers)
Cole Beasley (WR, Dallas Cowboys)
Cole Hamels (P, Texas Rangers)
Gerrit Cole (P, Pittsburgh Pirates)
Norris Cole (PG, New Orleans Pelicans)
Casting call for the nativity scene...
David DeJesus (MLB free agent OF, played for Tampa Bay Rays/Los Angeles Angels in 2015)
Caleb Joseph (C, Baltimore Orioles)
Angel Pagan (OF, San Francisco Giants)
Russell Shepard (WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Mark Weisman (former Iowa RB)
Now we feast...
Mia Hamm (women's soccer legend)
Felix Pie (former MLB OF, 2007-11, '13)
Antrel Rolle (DB, Chicago Bears)
And who better to wrap up our list...
Metta World Peace (F, Los Angeles Lakers)
(Rakeem Christmas photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Thanks to the influx of additional bowl games this year, Minnesota is one of three teams in 2015 that finished with a 5-7 record but still received a postseason invite.
The Golden Gophers lost five of six to end the regular season – including losses to three ranked opponents – but an extra game at the end of December gives new head coach Tracy Claeys some valuable time to get a few more practices in and further evaluate the program’s strengths and weaknesses heading into the offseason.
Central Michigan, Minnesota’s opponent, will be looking to give the Gophers their eighth loss of the season after winning seven games and becoming bowl eligible for the seventh time in the last 10 years.
Solid on both sides of the ball, the Chippewas suffered competitive early-season losses to Oklahoma State (24-13), Syracuse (30-27), and Michigan State (30-10) before finishing 6-2 in Mid-American Conference (MAC) play – where they fell to Western Michigan and Toledo by a combined seven points.
With no bad loss next to its name, CMU is a worthy adversary for Minnesota, as both teams look to end the 2015 season on a high note in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Central Michigan vs. Minnesota (Detroit)
Kickoff: 5 p.m. ET (Monday, Dec. 28)
Spread: Minnesota -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Minnesota’s secondary vs. Central Michigan’s wide receivers
Despite enduring injuries throughout the regular season, Minnesota’s secondary anchors the 15th-ranked passing defense in FBS (5th in the Big Ten ) at 182.4 yards per game and in yards per attempt (6.0, tied for 15th). The Golden Gophers also gave up just 13 touchdowns through the air, recording nine interceptions in the process. Cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are future NFL players, and they’ll be handed the task of containing a Chippewas offense that ranks second in the MAC in explosive passing plays that result in 20 yards or more (52). Containing top wide receiver Jesse Kroll (59 receptions, 856 yards, four touchdowns) and forcing quarterback Cooper Rush to throw to his second, third, and fourth options will be vital for the Gophers.
2. Cooper Rush against a struggling pass rush
Rush has faced more difficult challenges in 2015, including other Power 5 defenses in Michigan State and Oklahoma State and Michigan State, not to mention stout MAC units like Northern Illinois, Akron and Toledo. The junior quarterback is battle-tested and on a hot streak. Over the last seven games Rush has totaled 2,253 passing yards (321.9 per game), 17 touchdowns and just six interceptions. If he can find enough time against a Minnesota pass rush that has produced only 20 sacks (12th in Big Ten), the Chippewas have a legitimate shot at winning.
3. A potential breakthrough for Minnesota’s backfield
The Gophers’ ground attack enters bowl season ranked No. 101 nationally with a meager 142.9 rushing yards per game. Freshmen running backs Shannon Brooks (644 yards, seven touchdowns) and Rodney Smith (596, 2) have shared carries since Week 1, and the two only have three individual 100-yard performances combined. Central Michigan has been pretty strong against the run (No. 3 in the MAC with 137.6 ypg), but has had lapses against quality opponents. Expect to see the Gophers to try and establish dominance up front from the very beginning, taking the “ground-and-pound” approach while winning the war on field position and time of possession.
Cooper Rush and the Central Michigan offense should be able to find some holes in Minnesota’s defense, but there won’t be enough big plays to provide the Chippewas with multiple red zone opportunities. The Gophers’ exceptional pass defense should have its way for most of the game, and a heavy focus on the running game gives them the edge as the program ends its seven-game losing streak in bowl games.
Prediction: Minnesota 20, Central Michigan 13
— Written by Tyler Waddell, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Waddell’s work has previously been published by Bleacher Report, the Los Angeles Times, NOLA.com, Today's U, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @Tyler_Waddell.
(Cooper Rush photo courtesy of CMU Athletics Communications)
Some Pittsburgh fans and players viewed their invite to the Military Bowl to play Navy as something of a booby prize after an 8-4 season. They shouldn't. The Midshipmen are a formidable foe with a 10-2 record.
On top of that, Navy and Pitt are longtime rivals, having met 39 times, the first time (1912) predating even the Pop Warner era at the University of Pittsburgh. The two teams met in an annual series from 1961-79; from Michelosen to Sherrill, Harden to Welsh, Martha to Marino, Staubach to Moeller.
Pitt has sold its allotment of tickets for the game, but that's not a surprise. When No. 4 Pitt met No. 10 Navy in 1963, an Annapolis-record 30,231 fans were on hand. In 1989, the last season of a seven-year annual series, more than 50,000 fans came to Pitt Stadium for the ninth-ranked Panthers' 31-14 victory, a number somewhat buoyed by Homecoming, but still 16,000 more fans than the previous year's homecoming crowd.
The most famous game between these two teams was probably the aforementioned 1963 contest. Navy beat Pitt, 24-12, in a game that wasn't even that close. The "Tars," as Navy was sometimes called then, held a 17-0 fourth quarter lead behind Roger Staubach's 168 yards passing, including seven completions to Jim Campbell of Homestead, Pa., and two more to Nick Markoff of West Mifflin, Pa. Staubach also rushed for 80 yards and two scores, while the Midshipmen picked off four Panther passes.
Ultimately, the defeat cost Pitt, who would finish 9-1, a chance at an undefeated season, possible national championship, and even a bowl game. Meanwhile, the victory meant No. 2 Navy would meet top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Back to present day, Pitt can deal Navy a similar blow to what the Panthers' 1963 team suffered with a Military Bowl victory. It would prevent the Middies from enjoying a school-record 11 victories and potentially a national ranking, though their future would still seem to be bright after Ken Niumatalolo decided he would stay at Navy after a brief flirtation with BYU.
Furthermore, a 9-4 record for the Panthers would guarantee Pitt a better final record than Penn State, vital to intrastate recruiting battles with the rivalry set to renew in 2016.
Pittsburgh vs. Navy (Annapolis, Md.)
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET (Monday, Dec. 28)
Spread: Navy -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Keenan Reynolds against Pitt's run defense
Reynolds is Navy's best quarterback since Staubach, having rushed for a Division I-record 85 touchdowns in his career. If he can rush for 217 yards against the Panthers, he will break Denard Robinson's record of 4,495 rushing yards as a quarterback.
Pitt was effective in stopping the run against every opponent this season but one, Georgia Tech. And the Yellow Jackets' use the same triple option style that Navy does.
The player to watch, therefore, isn't one of Pitt's regular defensive starters but rather quarterback-turned-backup safety Jevonte Pitts. Head coach Pat Narduzzi pulled Pitts off the bench in Atlanta to be an extra run stopper and on a day where no Pitt defender had more than five tackles but 18 different players had at least one, Pitts collected three of his six total stops on the season. But he also was blocked out of the play on two 58-yard runs by Marcus Marshall.
Navy had eight players this season with a running play of at least 30 yards. If this trend continues, the Midshipmen will have a good chance to win.
2. Line play
It is commonplace for service academies to struggle with rushing the passer as their linemen are undersized. For instance the defensive linemen in Navy's base 3-4 are, on average, 40 pounds lighter than Pitt's five interior offensive linemen.
And even though a pass rush usually comes from outside rushers than inside, this hardly bodes well for Navy if it wishes to defend bowling ball back Qadree Ollison inside.
Bowl games generally attract more daring play calls. Going for it on fourth-and-1? Asking Nate Peterman to throw deep more often with the extra time in the pocket? An early Pitt lead could hold up.
3. Could this be Tyler Boyd's showcase game?
Boyd was generally used as a possession receiver this year as he often drew double coverage, but Narduzzi found a way to get him involved in returns and even the running game.
Since this is likely going to be the junior's last college football game before declaring for the NFL Draft, how will Boyd be used? Remember when James Conner rushed for 229 yards against Bowling Green while making appearances on the defensive line two years ago in the Little Caesar's Bowl?
Don't be surprised to see something just as memorable from Boyd in the Military Bowl.
Worth noting: It should be mentioned that even with all the great players that have played for the Panthers in modern times, an argument can still be made for Marshall Goldberg as the greatest player in University of Pittsburgh football history as he was the greatest player of the program's greatest era.
He also was a Navy SEAL in World War II.
So a big shout out to the Middies' backup fullback Will Huntsman, who following graduation will follow in Biggie's footsteps as a Navy SEAL himself.
It may be a sign of the times with an overabundance of bowls, but it's worth noting this is Pitt's ninth straight season ending with a bowl appearance and Navy's 12th in 13 years.
However, Navy hasn't fared that well in bowls against teams from the Power 5 conferences during this time, posting a 1-4 record.
True, Pitt hasn't exactly overwhelmed in its postseason appearances either, and the Panthers fell to the Midshipmen in their most recent meeting back in 2013.
But Pitt is simply bigger and stronger than Navy.
Prediction: Pitt 35, Navy 21
— 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.
Christmas Eve will feature a matchup of division rivals that could be both on the move to Los Angeles next season. The San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders will meet for 113th time to kick off Week 16 on “Thursday Night Football.”
Oakland (6-8) will enter the game with a chance to sweep the Chargers for the first time since the 2010 season. In their last meeting on Oct. 25, the Raiders embarrassed the Chargers 37-29 after Oakland led by as many 31 points in the second half.
San Diego (4-10) will be looking for its first AFC West victory this season with only two chances remaining. The Raiders are 2-2 in divisional play.
Oakland leads the all-time series against San Diego, 60-50-2.
San Diego at Oakland
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Oakland -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Charles Woodson
Earlier this week, Woodson announced that his 18th NFL season would be his last. Thursday night will be the last game Woodson will play in O.co Coliseum as the Raiders will be in Kansas City for the team's regular season finale.
Woodson is one of the most decorated players in NFL history, as he is a nine-time Pro Bowler, former Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Woodson also is the only player in NFL history to record at least 50 interceptions and 20 sacks in a career.
It should be an emotional game for Woodson since he played 11 of his 18 seasons for the Raiders.
2. Philip Rivers
In what might have been his last game in San Diego, Rivers put on quite a show for Charger fans. In the 30-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins, Rivers threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns with a completion percentage of 72.2.
Oakland comes into Thursday's game ranked 28th in passing defense. So opportunities to gain yards in the passing game will be there for Rivers and the Chargers’ offense.
3. WR Amari Cooper vs. CB Jason Verrett
In the first game between these two teams back in October, Cooper got the better of Verrett.
Cooper caught two touchdown passes for 68 yards on Verrett and ended the game with five catches for 133 yards. Last weekend against the Packers, Cooper became the first Raiders receiver to record over 1,000 yards receiving since Randy Moss in 2005.
Since the Chargers’ first game against the Raiders, Verrett has just allowed one touchdown and he has two interceptions over his last three outings. Tuesday, Verrett was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate.
While the Raiders will miss the playoffs for the 13th straight season, progress is being made in Oakland. On the other hand, San Diego’s future doesn’t appear to be as bright.
San Diego head coach Mike McCoy is on the hot seat. With the uncertainty of where the Chargers will play next season, there could be a lot of changes coming during the offseason.
Oakland will be looking to end its home schedule on a bright note and there are a lot of players with something to play for this late in the season. Lavavius Murray (1,000 rushing yards), Derek Carr (4,000 passing yards) and Michael Crabtree (1,000 receiving yards) are all within milestones and all three could potentially achieve them against the Chargers.
Despite the Chargers’ win against the Dolphins last week, the Raiders are the better team and they should pick up their seventh victory of the season.
Prediction: Raiders 34, Chargers 21
— 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.