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Dez Bryant leads the Week 17 receivers charge as the Dallas Cowboys play host to the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday night’s NFC East title game. Bryant gets an Eagles team that allows the most to catches, yards and TDs per game to receivers. He had eight catches for 110 yards on 16 targets in their Week 7 meeting.
Despite the gimpy knee, Calvin Johnson stays near the top of the rankings in Week 17. It’s hard to sit the game’s best when he gets a Minnesota Vikings team allowing the second-most to receivers this year. He will definitely be one of the biggest ones to monitor this week with the knee and the fact that the Lions are now out of the playoff picture.
Josh Gordon can wrap up a stellar season against a Steelers team he caught a season-high 14 balls for 237 yards and a score against in Week 12.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Wide Receivers
|1||Dez Bryant||DAL||vs. PHI|
|2||Calvin Johnson||DET||at MIN|
|3||Josh Gordon||CLE||at PIT|
|4||A.J. Green||CIN||vs. BAL|
|5||Brandon Marshall||CHI||vs. GB|
|6||Antonio Brown||PIT||vs. CLE|
|7||Eric Decker||DEN||at OAK|
|8||Pierre Garcon||WAS||at NYG|
|9||Julian Edelman||NE||vs. BUF|
|10||Demaryius Thomas||DEN||at OAK|
|11||DeSean Jackson||PHI||at DAL|
|12||Alshon Jeffery||CHI||vs. GB|
|13||Jordy Nelson||GB||at CHI|
|14||Keenan Allen||SD||vs. KC|
|15||Larry Fitzgerald||ARI||vs. SF|
|16||Andre Johnson||HOU||at TEN|
|17||Marques Colston||NO||vs. TB|
|18||Mike Wallace||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|19||Cordarrelle Patterson||MIN||vs. DET|
|20||Vincent Jackson||TB||at NO|
|21||Riley Cooper||PHI||at DAL|
|22||Roddy White||ATL||vs. CAR|
|23||Brian Hartline||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|24||Jarrett Boykin||GB||at CHI|
|25||T.Y. Hilton||IND||vs. JAC|
|26||Andre Caldwell||DEN||at OAK|
|27||Harry Douglas||ATL||vs. CAR|
|28||Torrey Smith||BAL||at CIN|
|29||Nate Washington||TEN||vs. HOU|
|30||Danny Amendola||NE||vs. BUF|
|31||Rueben Randle||NYG||vs. WAS|
|32||Brandon LaFell||CAR||at ATL|
|33||Michael Crabtree||SF||at ARI|
|34||Dwayne Bowe||KC||at SD|
|35||Michael Floyd||ARI||at ARI|
|36||Kendall Wright||TEN||vs. HOU|
|37||Anquan Boldin||SF||at ARI|
|38||Robert Woods||BUF||at NE|
|39||Nate Burleson||DET||at MIN|
|40||Hakeem Nicks||NYG||vs. WAS|
|41||James Jones||GB||at CHI|
|42||Rishard Matthews||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|43||Aaron Dobson||NE||va. BUF|
|44||Golden Tate||SEA||vs. STL|
|45||Terrance Williams||DAL||vs. PHI|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 17, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports' editors.
Panthers (11-4) at Falcons (4-11)
The Cats can wrap up the NFC South crown and a first-round bye with win in Cam Newton’s hometown of Atlanta. In Week 9, Carolina cruised to a 34–10 win over the Dirty Birds. After a 1–3 start to the season, the Panthers are 10–1 — with only a loss at New Orleans, the team Carolina vanquished 17–13 last week. Panthers by 8
Packers (7-7-1) at Bears (8-7)
Mike McCarthy wants a “quicker” decision on the Week 17 status of Aaron Rodgers, who has missed the past eight games due to a collarbone injury suffered against, you guessed it, Da Bears in Week 9. The 188th meeting in the league’s longest running rivalry — which dates back to 1921 — may or may not have Mr. Discount “Daaa-ble Check” on the field. But he will be seen frequently during commercial breaks in the series Chicago leads 93–88–6 all-time. Chicago needs a win or a tie to clinch the NFC North. Bears by 1
Texans (2-13) at Titans (6-9)
Will this be the final game of Mike Munchak’s strained facial expressions? Or Chris Johnson’s strained no-gain runs? For all the grief he takes, CJ-might-make-it-to-1K needs just 50 yards on the ground to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth consecutive season. Titans by 5
Browns (4-11) at Steelers (7-8)
Pittsburgh needs to win and have the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers all lose in order to make playoffs. Is that all? Steelers by 10
Redskins (3-12) at Giants (6-9)
The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year will watch from the sideline as his backup battles a two-time Super Bowl MVP in a throw away game that will mark the end of two of the stranger (and disappointing) 2013 seasons. Giants by 4
Ravens (8-7) at Bengals (10-5)
Cincinnati is a perfect 7–0 at home in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium this year. Bungles no more, the Bengals have scored at least 40 points in each of their last four games at home, with Andy Dalton throwing a combined 15 TD passes during that stretch. Bengals by 5
Jaguars (4-11) at Colts (10-5)
Indy clinched the AFC South long ago, following tap outs by the Titans, Texans and Jags. Now, Andrew Luck and Co. are hoping to earn a first-round playoff bye with a win and losses by both the Patriots and Bengals. Colts by 8
Jets (7-8) at Dolphins (8-7)
Rex Ryan is coaching to save his job, while Miami is holding out hope for a playoff berth. The Fins need to win plus have the Ravens lose or the Chargers win — or both lose or tie. Dolphins by 1
Lions (7-8) at Vikings (4-10-1)
Detroit has five losses in its last six games and has been eliminated from postseason contention. But don’t boo Jim Schwartz. Lions by 3
Bills (6-9) at Patriots (11-4)
Watch your back Tom Brady, Buffalo is the first team with three players with 10-plus sacks — Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5) and Jerry Hughes (10) — since the 2000 Saints. Patriots by 10
Buccaneers (4-11) at Saints (10-5)
New Orleans has lost five of its last six on the road. Luckily, this game is in the Superdome, where the Saints are 7–0 and Drew Brees has thrown 23 TDs and just three INTs. Saints by 11
Broncos (12-3) at Raiders (4-11)
Peyton Manning tossed his 10th, 11th and 12th TDs of his record-breaking season during a 37–21 win over the Raiders in Week 3. Broncos by 10
49ers (11-4) at Cardinals (10-5)
Arizona has won seven of its last eight games and look to be a serious challenge for the defending NFC champs. Before the hot streak, the Cardinals lost to the Niners, 32–20, in Week 6. 49ers by 3
Chiefs (11-4) at Chargers (8-7)
What did Andy Reid eat during Kansas City’s Week 10 bye. The Chiefs were 9–0 entering the off week and are 2–4 since then. Chargers by 1
Rams (7-8) at Seahawks (12-3)
All Seattle has to do is win or tie and the “12th Man” will be rocking the Pacific Northwest with an NFC South title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Seahawks by 7
Eagles (9-6) at Cowboys (8-7)
Can Tony Romo finally win the big one? Wait… what? Romo isn’t going to play Week 17 due to a herniated disk in his back. That’s too bad. Romo is 0–2 with four INTs the last two years in Week 17 win-or-go-home division contests against the Redskins and Giants, respectively. It was the Eagles turn. Now, Kyle Orton will shoulder the responsibility of leading the Cowboys to the Super Bowl — which is what it will likely take to save Jason Garrett’s job in Big D. Eagles by 1
Last week: 11–5 // Season: 155–84–1
The holidays are a time for gift giving. For most NFL players, the ultimate prize is the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to the winning team in the Super Bowl. Outsdie of the highest honor in team sports, however, individual awards are pretty sweet.
We’ve made a list and checked it twice to determine which players are deserving of recognition — and the corresponding trophy-case hardware — for their performances in 2013.
Most Valuable Player
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
A four-time MVP already, Manning has outdone himself this year. After exploding out of the blocks with a seven-TD effort on opening night, Manning has not slowed down — posting his best statistical season to date, with 5,211 yards, a record 51 TDs and 10 INTs while leading Denver to a 12–3 record.
Offensive Player of the Year
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
“Shady” produced one of the most memorable efforts of the season with his 217-yard, two-TD effort in a Philly snowstorm during a comeback win over the Lions in Week 14. He has also been the catalyst in coach Chip Kelly’s new offense.
Defensive Player of the Year
Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks
The leader of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” is also the league’s INT leader with eight picks returned for 125 yards (15.6 ypr) and a highlight-reel 58-yard TD.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers
With Aaron Rodgers banged up for much of the season’s second half, Lacy has carried the load to keep Title Town in the playoff hunt. The first-year phenom out of Alabama has rushed for 1,112 yards and 10 TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Sheldon Richardson, DE, Jets
The 6'3", 294-pounder has anchored the Jets’ run defense while also pushing the pocket for 3.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. He also scored a “fat boy” TD as a fullback.
Comeback Player of the Year
Alex Smith, QB, Chiefs
After being benched in San Fran last season, Smith has charged back with a vengeance in Kansas City.
Coach of the Year
Andy Reid, Chiefs
K.C. is just the fourth team in history to earn a trip to the playoffs the season after losing 14 games.
Executive of the Year
John Elway, Broncos
“This one’s for John!” The signing of Wes Welker is just the latest high-profile bull’s-eye at Mile High.
Ranking all 32 NFL teams, from the stampeding Broncos to the staggering Texans.
1. Broncos (12-3) Von Miller out for season following ACL injury.
2. Seahawks (12-3) Fourteen-game home winning streak snapped.
3. Panthers (11-4) Cam Newton throws last-minute game-winning TD.
4. Saints (10-5) Kenny Vaccaro carted off field with broken ankle.
5. Patriots (11-4) LeGarrette Blount mocks Ray Lewis dance in win.
6. Colts (10-5) Jerrell Freeman hauls in two INTs in win at K.C.
7. 49ers (11-4) Say so long to Candlestick Park after 42 seasons.
8. Chiefs (11-4) Three of four losses have come at Arrowhead.
9. Bengals (10-5) Andy Dalton throws four TDs in blowout victory.
10. Cardinals (10-5) Carson Palmer throws four INTs, wins at Seattle.
11. Eagles (9-6) Soar to prime time 43-point victory over Chicago.
12. Cowboys (8-7) Tony Romo to miss rest of season with back injury.
13. Bears (8-7) Apparently, it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia.
14. Ravens (8-7) Joe Flacco denies knee was cause of poor play.
15. Chargers (8-7) Win three-straight games for first time all year.
16. Dolphins (8-7) Ryan Tannehill sacked seven times in shutout loss.
17. Steelers (7-8) Troy Polamalu forces late fumble in wild win.
18. Packers (7-7-1) Lose heartbreaker to Steelers in Lambeau snow.
19. Lions (7-8) Jim Schwartz outburst at fans may be last straw.
20. Jets (7-8) Did Rex Ryan coach his last game at home?
21. Rams (7-8) Robert Quinn breaks team sack record with 18.
22. Titans (6-9) Rally from 10-point deficit to win at Jacksonville.
23. Giants (6-9) Win in overtime despite Eli Manning’s 26th INT.
24. Bills (6-9) Set new franchise season sack record with 56.
25. Vikings (4-10-1) Adrian Peterson rushes for just 45 yards in return.
26. Raiders (4-11) Penalized 12 times for 73 yards in sloppy defeat.
27. Falcons (4-11) Gearing up for draft, worst-to-first season in 2014.
28. Browns (4-11) Ed Reed INT caps off sixth consecutive defeat.
29. Jaguars (4-11) Retiring center Brad Meester has first career catch.
30. Buccaneers (4-11) Set new season low with just 170 total yards.
31. Redskins (3-12) Fall to 0–5 in NFC East following loss to Dallas.
32. Texans (2-13) Extend franchise record with 13th straight defeat.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
“Shady” shined under the bright lights on Sunday night, with 18 carries for a Week 16-best 133 yards (7.4 ypc) and two trips to the end zone during a 54–11 blowout victory over the Bears. But McCoy wasn’t the only Eagle to take flight — albeit on the ground. Bryce Brown added nine carries for 115 yards (12.8 ypc) and a 65-yard TD. First-year coach Chip Kelly’s offense was in top form, as Philadelphia totalled 28 first downs and 514 total net yards, including 289 yards rushing on 36 carries (8.0 ypc).
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
Another week, another prime time performance from Peyton. The four-time MVP — who is on a drive for five — completed 32-of-51 passes for 400 yards, four TDs and zero INTs during a 37–13 win over Houston. Manning broke Tom Brady’s single-season record for touchdown passes, with his 48th, 49th, record-tying 50th and record-breaking 51st scoring strikes of an amazing 2013 season. “It’s a unique thing and a neat thing to be a part of NFL history, even though it may be temporary,” said Manning, who also joked that Brady might retake the top spot as soon as next season. “I’m going to enjoy it as long as it lasts, and hopefully the Hall of Fame will send the ball back once somebody throws for more.”
Nate Washington, WR, Titans
Sure, Titans-Jaguars was one of only three games without playoff implications. And two Broncos receivers — Eric Decker (10 catches, 131 yards, two TDs) and Demaryius Thomas (eight catches, 123 yards, one TD) — had bigger days statistically. But Washington’s six catches for 117 yards (19.5 ypc) and one TD should not be overlooked. Tennessee was able to pull off a come-from-behind victory thanks to Washington’s big plays, none bigger than his 30-yard fourth-quarter go-ahead TD, which helped the Titans earn their first AFC South win.
Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals
Cincy’s red-haired signal-caller was red-hot during a 42–14 win over Minnesota. Dalton completed 27-of-38 passes for 366 yards, four scoring strikes and no picks for a season-high 136.5 passer rating. The Bengals improved to 7–0 at home and clinched the AFC North division crown thanks to a Baltimore loss to New England later in the day. A second-round pick out of TCU in 2011, Dalton has led Cincinnati to the postseason in all three of his seasons as the team’s starting quarterback.
Northern Illinois’ quest for a second straight trip to a BCS bowl was derailed by Bowling Green in the MAC Championship Game. The 47–27 loss cost the Huskies a spot in the Fiesta Bowl and a shot at the school’s first undefeated season since 1963. But a week in San Diego is not a bad consolation prize — especially when you make DeKalb, Ill., home.
Northern Illinois opened the season with wins over two Big Ten schools (Iowa and Purdue) in September before sweeping through the MAC without a loss for the second consecutive year. The Huskies won their eight league games by an average of 22.3 points, with only one game decided by less than 14 points. Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch pilots an offense that leads the MAC and ranks fifth nationally with 535.5 yards per game. The Huskies’ defense is average (at best), but it didn’t matter for the majority of the 2013 season.
Defense is the specialty for NIU’s opponent in San Diego, the Utah State Aggies. Matt Wells, in his first season as the head coach, did a masterful job guiding his team — ravaged by injuries — to the Mountain West Championship Game. Chuckie Keeton, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, missed the final seven games, but Utah State still managed eight wins, including a 7–1 mark during the regular season in the MWC. The Aggies rank first in the league and 12th in the nation in total defense (332.2 ypg) and have held nine of their 13 opponents to 17 points or less.
Northern Illinois vs. Utah State
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 26 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Northern Illinois -1.5
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Play some defense
In the biggest game on the season — with a berth in a BCS bowl on the line — the Northern Illinois defense was shredded by a good (but hardly great) Bowling Green offense for 574 total yards, including an alarming 393 through the air. The lack of defense was not an issue against teams like UMass, Kent State and Eastern Michigan, but NIU will have to be better on that side of the ball in the bowl game. Very few teams have rolled up a big number on Utah State — the Aggies held Fresno State to 24 in the MWC title game — so NIU can’t simply rely on Jordan Lynch & Co. to win this game. Utah State has had its issues on offense, but this team did score 40 points or more four times in the regular season. The Huskies could catch a break if quarterback Darell Garretson, who was knocked out of the Fresno State game with a helmet-to-helmet hit, is not able to play.
Utah State’s Key to Victory: Slow down Jordan Lynch
It’s a bit of stretch to say that Bowling Green shut down Jordan Lynch — he did throw for 219 and run for 126 — but the senior quarterback was clearly not at his best in the MAC Championship Game. He only completed 52.5 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions in the Huskies’ 20-point loss. Utah State has been outstanding against the pass for the majority of the season. The Aggies held their opponents to under 60 percent passing in all but two games and led the Mountain West by limiting opposing quarterback to 6.5 yards per passing attempt. Lynch will get his yards on the ground — he’s had at least 90 in all but three games — but it’s key for Utah State to limit his effectiveness throwing the ball. A one-dimensional Northern Illinois offense is much easier to contain.
Key Player: Darell Garretson, QB, Utah State
Things weren’t looking good for Utah State in early October. The Aggies were 3–3 overall and had just lost star quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a torn ACL. Wells was forced to turn to Garretson, and the true freshman from Arizona responded. Utah State lost his first start, 34–23 to Boise State, but proceeded to win five in a row to capture the Mountain Division title. Garretson has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,325 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He isn’t as much of a threat on the ground as Keeton, but he does have a run for at least 10 yards in each of the last five games. Garretson was knocked out of the MWC title game with a concussion but is expected to be ready to go in the bowl game.
This is an intriguing matchup between two of the top mid-major programs in the country. With a BCS trip last year and a Heisman finalist this season, Northern Illinois is more known nationally, but Utah State has been very good in recent years. The Aggies broke through in 2011 with a 7–6 record — the first winning season at the school since 1996 — and then won 11 games in ’12, Gary Andersen’s final season. Wells, in his first season as a head coach, carries an 8–5 record into the postseason.
The key for Utah State will be on defense. Assuming Garretson plays, the Aggies should be able to score some points on the NIU defense. But it will be difficult for USU to shut down Lynch, who should be motivated in his final game in college.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Utah State 24
A visit to Motown is just fine for Bowling Green and Pittsburgh.
No, Detroit isn’t everyone’s ideal day-after-Christmas destination, but the two teams playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl have reason to be pleased with their bowl trip.
For Bowling Green, the Falcons are here after upsetting undefeated Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game, a run good enough to garner a new head coaching job for Dave Clawson at Wake Forest. The Falcons will attempt to win their first bowl game since 2004 under interim coach Adam Scheier before new coach Dino Babers takes over.
This bowl bid isn't too shabby for Pittsburgh, either. After three consecutive seasons ending in Birmingham, Pittsburgh is finally on its way to a new bowl destination and under the same coach, Paul Chryst, for consecutive seasons. The Panthers reached bowl games in 2010 and 2011 under interim coaches.
In Detroit, Pittsburgh will look to cap an inconsistent first season in the ACC. Although the Panthers defeated Duke on Sept. 21 and Notre Dame on Nov. 9, the Panthers haven’t won back-to-back games since the end of September (and they won’t have an opportunity to rectify that in Detroit after losing the regular season finale to Miami).
Meanwhile, Bowling Green has used the top defense in the MAC to win its last five games. The Falcons intercepted two Jordan Lynch passes in the MAC title game as Northern Illinois scored a season-low 27 points.
Bowling Green vs. Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Dec. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Bowling Green by 3.5
Bowling Green’s Key to Victory: Contain the Pittsburgh passing game
Led by senior All-MAC safety BooBoo Gates, Bowling Green finished in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense, yards allowed per pass and passing yards per game. Pittsburgh has an above average passing game, led by an excellent duo of receivers in freshman Tyler Boyd, who topped the 1,000-yard mark in his first season, and veteran Devin Street. Rutgers transfer Tom Savage can get them the ball ... provided he stays upright. His jersey has changed, but Savage again has been one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the country. Opponents have sacked Savage 41 times this season. Adding to that total will be a key for Bowling Green.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Win on third down and in the red zone
Northern Illinois had the unblemished record and the Heisman finalist, but it’s not tough to see why Bowling Green ended up winning the MAC. In addition to having the MAC’s best defense, Bowling Green led the league in third down offense and red zone defense and finished second in third down defense. In other words, Bowling Green made the critical plays to make up for a lack of star power. Pittsburgh has enough holes where the Panthers need to make these margin plays to secure a win.
Key player: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Don’t overthink it: Donald will be the best player on the field. By winning the Outland, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi, the defensive tackle is the most decorated defensive player since Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson was brilliant against Northern Illinois, but the Falcons’ run game has been the constant during the five-game winning streak (5.2 yards per carry in that span). Donald could play a key role in shutting down both facets of the offense.
Bowling Green has the hot hand for sure. The Falcons knocked off their top competition in the MAC East on the road (Buffalo) and then an undefeated team in Detroit (Northern Illinois) in the last two weeks of the season. Pittsburgh has the edge in overall talent, particularly any time Aaron Donald is on the field. With a strong defense, Bowling Green has done enough in the final month of the season to show it’s capable of defeating a mid-level ACC team.
Prediction: Bowling Green 27, Pittsburgh 21
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of the game. Any game, for that matter.
Some fall on the sabermetric side of things, while others like to keep it simple and use the ol' eyeball test. In the football world, that means total offense, total defense and points scored versus points per play and defensive efficiency ratings. Rational and logical arguments can be made for the legitimacy and relevance of both sides of the stats spectrum.
With that in mind, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from Week 16 of the NFL season:
51: Peyton Manning’s single-season passing TD record
Dan Marino set a bunch of NFL passing records well ahead of his time in 1984. One of which was the prestigious single-season passing touchdown record he set in 1984 with 48 scoring strikes. It stood for 20 years until Peyton Manning broke the record with 49 TD passing in 2004. Tom Brady came along during his perfect 2007 campaign to top Manning with 50 scoring tosses. Until Week 16 of the 2013 season, Brady had been the only player in NFL history with 50 touchdown passes. Manning threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout win over Houston this weekend and it gives Manning an NFL record 51 touchdown passes. He should be able to extend that record in the season finale — should he play more than one series.
5: Different NFL players to throw for 5,000 yards in a season
In the Manning edition of Amazing Stats, another superlative for what many consider the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. Manning’s huge game against the lowly Texans pushed his already record-setting season even further into the annals of time. With one game to play, Manning sits at 5,211 yards passing, making him just the fifth player in NFL history to top 5,000 yards in a single season. Manning joins Tom Brady in 2011 (5,235), Dan Marino in 1984 (5,084), Matthew Stafford in 2011 (5,038) and Drew Brees, who did it three times in 2008, 2011 and 2012. Manning needs (if he plays enough) just 266 yards to break Brees’ single-season record of 5,476 set in 2011. Brees needs 219 in his final game to reach 5,000 for the fourth time in his career this season.
11: NFL-record division titles by Tom Brady
When the Dolphins in explicably lost 19-0 to the Buffalo Bills (but before the Patriots destroyed the Ravens), Tom Brady and New England clinched the AFC East championship outright. It marks the NFL record 11th division championship for Brady and the Pats. New England has finished in first or tied for first in the AFC East every single season since 2001 — Brady’s first full season as the starter. The only two seasons the Patriots did not win the division outright were in 2008 when Brady was lost for the entire season with a torn ACL and 2002. In both of those years, the Patriots tied for the division crown but lost out on a tiebreaker. Only the 2001 season did the Patriots win the division via tiebreaker. That is 10 outright AFC East titles in the last 11 years — and this one might be the most impressive. Manning won the AFC West with Denver this season, giving him 10 division titles as a starter. He is the only other NFL player in history with at least 10 division crowns and is second only to Brady.
7: Yards Andrew Luck needs to set a two-year NFL passing record
To start a career, Cam Newton owns the NFL record with 7,920 yards passing in his first two seasons. Peyton Manning was second with 7,874 until Andrew Luck passed him with his 241 yards in the impressive road win over Kansas City this Sunday. Luck, who owns the NFL rookie passing record with 4,374 yards last season, sits at 7,914 yards and is just seven yards away from setting a new NFL passing record for a player in his first two seasons. Luck’s 21 victories are also tied for third all-time with Dan Marino for the most wins by a starting quarterback in his first two seasons. Russell Wilson owns the record with 23 (and could build on that next week). Ben Roethlisberger is No. 2 all-time with 22.
24: Single-game NFL tackles record tied by Luke Kuechly
Speaking of Cam Newton, the Panthers toppled the Saints 17-13 on Sunday to clinch an NFC playoff spot for the first time since 2008 and just the fifth time in the franchises’ 19-year history. Newton has been excellent but it’s the defense that deserves much of the credit for the amazing turnover in Carolina. First-round pick Luke Kuechly led the NFL tackles last season as a rookie and he posted 24 total tackles against the mighty Saints on Sunday. Since the stat began being tracked in 1994, no player in the game has made more tackles than Kuechly’s 24. He tied the NFL record set by the Jets David Harris on November 4, 2007.
0: NFC divisions that have been clinched with one week to play
What a season it has been in the NFC. The Saints, who entered Week 16 in first place in the NFC South, are in danger of missing the playoffs all together should they lose in Week 17 and Arizona wins. The NFC East and NFC North are winner take all situations between the Eagles and Cowboys and Packers and Bears respectively. The 49ers and Saints, however, could also still win their respective divisions should they both win and their division leaders Seattle and Carolina lose in the season finale. In the AFC, four different teams are battling for the final wildcard sport. Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh could all win the final Wildcard next weekend.
Oct. 31, 2010: The last time Tony Romo missed a game
After leading the Cowboys to a dramatic win over the Redskins to set up a winner-take-all finale against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17, Adam Schefter reported that quarterback Tony Romo will miss the rest of the 2013 season with a back injury. Romo takes a lot of flack — most of which is poorly timed and unwarranted commentary from his ridiculous owner Jerry Jones — but his numbers speak for themselves. He is tied with Tom Brady as the NFL’s all-time fifth-rated quarterback (95.8) and he hasn’t missed a game since Oct. 31, 2010. He has started every game since the start of the 2011 season behind one of the worst offensive lines and most ineffective running games. Now that Romo is out for the final game of the season, Chip Kelly is poised to win the NFC East and take the last place Eagles to the postseason in just his first season.
How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? Oregon State (6–6, 4–5 Pac-12) and Boise State (8–4, 6–2 Mountain West) will do just that when the Hawaii Bowl kicks off as the only game on television Christmas Eve.
The Beavers are making their first trip to the big island of Oahu and are just the second Pac-12 school to play in the Hawaii Bowl. Arizona State lost to hometown favorite Hawaii, 41–24, in 2006. Oregon State did play in the now defunct Oahu Bowl in 1999, losing to Hawaii, 23–17, on Christmas Day. Coach Mike Riley started his second stint at OSU with a 5–0 record in bowl games from 2003-08. But Oregon State is 0–2 in bowls since then.
This year’s trip to Honolulu snaps a three-year Las Vegas bender for the Broncos, who are riding a four-bowl win streak following three straight wins in Vegas (2010-12) and a memorable Fiesta Bowl victory following the 2008 season. This is Boise State’s second appearance in the Hawaii Bowl, having been upset as 10-point favorites by East Carolina, 41–38, in 2007. In that game, ECU track star Chris Johnson accounted for 255 total yards and two TDs.
In the all-time series, OSU has a 4–3 edge over Boise, although the Smurf Turfers have a 3–2 advantage since stepping up to FBS status in 1996. Most recently, the Broncos defeated the Beavers, 37–24, in 2010.
Oregon State vs. Boise State
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon State -3
Oregon State’s Key to Victory: Sean Mannion to Brandin Cooks
Oregon State has an NFL-caliber quarterback and this year’s Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver. As Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks go, so go the Beavers. When OSU jumped out to a 6–1 start to the season, Mannion threw for 2,992 yards, 29 TDs and three INTs, while Cooks hauled in 76 catches for 1,176 yards (15.5 ypc) and 12 TDs. When OSU fell apart to go 0–5 down the stretch to end the year, Mannion threw for 1,411 yards, seven TDs and 11 INTs, while Cooks had 44 catches for 494 yards (11.2 ypc) and three TDs.
Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence will be charged with applying a pass rush to Mannion. The Broncos’ top defender has been a terror off the edge this season, with 19.5 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Up front, Lawrence is joined by 300-pound fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, who will command attention as a monster in the middle. In the Boise State secondary, cornerback Donte Deayon and safety Jeremy Ioane, a pair of All-MWC selections, will have their hands full stopping the Beavers’ aerial attack. Only a sophomore, the 5’9” Deayon will be put to the test by the nation’s best in the 5’10” Cooks.
Boise State’s Key to Victory: Expose Beavers’ Weak Defense
Oregon State’s defense is one of the worst statistical units playing in a bowl this season. The Beavers rank 94th in total defense, allowing 482.2 yards per game; 95th in scoring defense, allowing 32.1 points per game; and 120th in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score an eye-popping 93.2 percent of the time the ball is inside the 20-yard-line. And it wasn’t just Pac-12 powers like Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State that lit up the Beavers defense. FCS power Eastern Washington scored 49 points in an upset win and Utah scored 48 points in an overtime nail-biter.
Boise State’s offense will be led by junior quarterback Grant Hedrick, who passed for 1,443 yards, 15 TDs and five INTs, while going 4–2 as a starter after replacing injured senior Joe Southwick. Recently, waves were made when Southwick — who had returned from a right ankle injury — was sent home from the Hawaii Bowl for disciplinary reasons. Redshirt freshman Nick Patti was also suspended, although he has been reinstated and will serve as the backup to Hedrick. Capable wideouts Matt Miller and Shane Williams-Rhodes provide firepower on the outside, while senior O-linemen Charles Leno Jr. and Matt Paradis pave the way in the trenches.
Key Player: Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State
Regardless of who lines up under center for the Broncos, Ajayi will be the centerpiece of the Boise State attack. The 6’0”, 215-pound sophomore out of Plano, Texas, was named first-team All-MWC after posting 226 carries for 1,328 yards (5.9 ypc) and 17 TDs, while hauling in 16 catches for 189 yards (11.8 ypc) and one score. Ajayi had six contests with over 100 total yards and five multi-TD games this season. Only twice did Ajayi fail to rush for at least 80 yards — with a 54-yard, one-TD effort in a 41–40 loss at Fresno State, and a 70-yard, three-TD performance in a 48–7 blowout of Wyoming as his worst outings of a brilliant 2013 campaign.
Longtime Boise State coach Chris Petersen — who went 92–12 in eight seasons, including two undefeated years (2006, 2009) — has moved on to take the top spot at Washington, leaving interim head coach Bob Gregory to coach the Hawaii Bowl. Gregory previously served as the Broncos defensive coordinator and was coaching linebackers prior to being named interim head coach. Former Boise offensive coordinator and Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin will take over as the next coach of the Broncos following the bowl game. On the other sideline, Oregon State coach Mike Riley appears to have coached his way off of the proverbial hot seat with his second straight bowl trip after a two-year postseason drought in 2010-11.
Both teams are happy to be in Hawaii, for the weather as much as the football. With two high-octane offenses, the defense in this year’s Hawaii Bowl could be reminiscent of the NFL’s Pro Bowl in Honolulu. Expect plenty of scoring, lots of hula dancing and plenty of people getting lei’d on Christmas Eve.
Prediction: Oregon State 42, Boise State 40
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 23.
• Enjoy this rundown of the year in lovely sports ladies. Consider it my little Christmas gift to you.
• Tom Brady, who's won a record 12 division titles, was left hanging yet again. What's a guy got to do to get a high-five? Win 13 division titles?
• Matt Stafford's girlfriend tried to defend the Lions via Twitter. The first commenter took her feeble attempt and napalmed it.
• A bad day for one Redskins fan was made worse when a security guard threw him down the stadium stairs. For reasons that will become clear, that story reminds me of this story from the Onion.
• When bowls troll: Funny Facebook bowl game trash talk.
• You might be getting bored with these, but I don't care: A returning serviceman surprises his parents.
• Once again, I may be the only one, but I'm not tired of Blake Griffin jams, either.
• This epic LeBron dunk was made even moreso by adding a call from Jim Ross.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The 2013 college football regular season had distinct and unique character. The No. 2 team in the nation didn’t lose every weekend like in 2007. And one player didn’t captivate the nation like Cam Newton in 2010 or Johnny Manziel last season.
Every major conference race — and some of the smaller ones as well — came down to the final weekend, and, in some cases, the final moments of the final game. It was a season to remember for college football fans.
So that is what Athlon Sports is going to do. For some, this will be a stroll down memory lane while others may develop reoccurring nightmares. Here are college football's most entertaining and pivotal games of the 2013 season.
10. UCF 38, Louisville 35 (Oct. 18)
It was biggest and most dramatic game of the inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference. Louisville led 28-7 midway through the third quarter when the Knights' offense came to life with three touchdowns in the final five minutes of the frame. In the fourth quarter, UCF took their first lead of the game with just under eight minutes to play. Louisville bounced back with what appeared to be a game-winning 15-yard touchdown run from Dominique Brown. However, Blake Bortles tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey with just 23 seconds remaining. The win eventually led to a conference championship and BCS bowl berth for UCF.
11. South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (2OT, Oct. 26)
The first three quarters were rather tame as Missouri commanded the score board and the line of scrimmage 17-0 when the fourth quarter began. But then Connor Shaw did his best Willis Reed impersonation, limping around Faurot Field to give South Carolina one of the most historic and improbable wins in SEC history. Shaw led the Cocks to 17 unanswered points, including a game-tying TD with 42 seconds left and a 4th-and-15 game-tying TD pass in overtime. When Missouri missed a short field goal in double-overtime, Carolina stormed the field and Shaw supplanted his legacy in Gamecocks lore.
Best of the Rest:
Alabama and LSU is always one of the most anticipated and physical games of the season regardless of conference affiliation. The Tigers fought hard and were tied at 17 late in the third quarter. However, the Crimson Tide proved its mettle by pounding the rock to 21 unanswered points over the final 20 minutes to stake a claim atop the SEC West (well, for the time being).
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl didn’t go according to plan for Buffalo. The Bulls were easily defeated by San Diego State, and an onside kick in the fourth quarter was an epic fail.
Punter Tyler Grassman attempted an onside kick, but instead of giving his team a chance to recover, the ball barely moved off the tee.
East Carolina will try and cap off one of the most successful seasons in program history with a victory over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.
East Carolina went 9-3 this season, including road victories over in-state brethren North Carolina and North Carolina State. Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates posted a 6-2 mark in Conference USA, finishing second in the East Division to Marshall. McNeill has his Pirates in a bowl game for the third time in his four seasons at the helm.
East Carolina has lost its last four bowl games, including a 43-34 defeat to Louisiana-Lafayette in last season’s New Orleans Bowl. A win over Ohio would be just the second 10-win season in school history, topped only by Bill Lewis’ 1991 team that finished 11-1.
This represents Ohio’s fifth straight bowl appearance, as the Bobcats have become one of the most successful programs in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) under the direction of Frank Solich.
Ohio started this season strong, beating bowl teams Marshall and North Texas to jump out to a 6-2 record by end the of October. The Bobcats struggled down the stretch, however, losing three conference games in a row by a combined score of 123-16. They rebounded with a convincing win over UMass in the regular-season finale to finish at 7-5 and 4-4 in the MAC’s East Division.
After picking up the program’s first-ever bowl win two seasons ago, the Bobcats made it two in a row last year with a 45-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl. A victory over East Carolina would give Ohio five straight seasons of at least eight wins.
These two schools have played twice before with East Carolina winning both games. The last meeting was in 1998 when the Pirates beat the Bobcats 21-14 in Athens, Ohio.
East Carolina vs. Ohio
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: East Carolina -13.5
East Carolina’s Key to Victory: Stick to the script
The Pirates enter this game 30th in the nation in total offense (459.8 ypg) and 10th in both passing (331.5 ypg) and scoring (40.4 ppg) offense. It’s pretty easy to win nine games when you score at least 31 points in eight of them. Quarterback Shane Carden is the key to this offense, as he’s seventh in nation with 322.2 passing yards per game for 32 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Carden leads FBS with his 71 percent completion rate, which is impressive considering he’s attempted 504 passes, which ties him for the fifth in the nation. Carden also has 10 rushing touchdowns, so he’s capable of making plays with his legs too. The Pirates run enough (128.3 rushing ypg) to make it harder for opponents to focus on stopping the passing game, and have produced nearly as many touchdowns on the ground (27) as through the air (33). Ohio has had its issues on defense, allowing nearly 27 points per game on the season. The Bobcats really struggled in November, surrendering 427 yards and 36.5 points per game over their last four. As long as the Pirates stick with what has worked so well for them, this offense should be able to move the ball and put plenty of points on the scoreboard
Ohio’s Key to Victory: Remember 2012
Last season, the Bobcats won their first seven games and found themselves well positioned for a possible BCS bowl bid entering the final weekend of October. Ranked 24th in the BCS standings and 23rd in the Associated Press poll, Ohio lost a heart-breaker to in-state rival Miami (Ohio) when it passed on a potential, chip-shot, game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter before running out of time, and would finish the regular season with three straight defeats. Very few gave Ohio a shot against Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl, as the Bobcats entered the contest as more than a touchdown underdog to the Warhawks. Someone apparently forgot to tell Ohio it was supposed to lose, however, as the Bobcats jumped out a 24-7 halftime lead and used a balanced offensive attack and stifling defense to post a convincing 45-14 victory. Ohio finds itself in a similar situation this season having dropped three of its last four to end the regular season and entering its bowl game an underdog of nearly two touchdowns to East Carolina. This is a veteran Bobcats team with many of the key players from last season’s improbable win over Louisiana-Monroe now seniors. Proving the naysayers wrong is nothing new to this team, it’s just a matter of remembering what worked so well a year ago.
Key Player: Tyler Tettleton, QB, Ohio
The son of MLB All-Star catcher Mickey Tettleton, Tyler (above, right) is a three-year starter who will be wrapping up his record-setting Ohio career against East Carolina. The holder of numerous school records, Tettleton has thrown for more than 8,900 yards and rushed for nearly 900 in his four seasons under center, although he played sparingly as a freshman. The dual threat has accounted for 72 total touchdowns, including one touchdown reception. He has thrown for more than 2,600 yards in each of the past three seasons and has completed better than 63 percent of his passes during that span. He struggled at the end of this season, averaging just 148.5 yards passing per game and throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions (3 apiece) in his last four contests. However, Tettleton has risen to the occasion more than once, as he has led his team to back-to-back bowl wins. Two years ago, Tettleton scored the game-winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left to propel Ohio over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl for the Bobcats’ first-ever bowl victory. Last season, Tettleton helped his underdog Bobcats handily defeat Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl by throwing for 331 yards and two touchdowns. Tettleton has put up his share of big numbers in big games and he will need to do so again against East Carolina if he wants to finish his collegiate career on a winning note.
Ohio is a well-coached, veteran team that has overcome the odds to win a bowl game before. This stage and the underdog status is nothing new to this team, which is led by a group of seniors who are playing in their fourth straight bowl game. However, East Carolina brings to St. Petersburg, Fla., one of the nation’s most productive offenses. The Pirates have had no trouble scoring this season and have road victories over big brothers North Carolina and North Carolina State to prove it. Ohio has wins over two bowl teams (Marshall and North Texas), but also lost to three others (Bowling Green, Buffalo and Louisville) by a combined score of 128-10. The Bobcats put up a fight, but in the end the Pirates’ offense is simply too much for them to overcome.
Prediction: East Carolina 41, Ohio 28
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots travel to Baltimore to take on Joe Flacco and the defending champion Ravens at M&T Bank Field on Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS. The Patriots are bitter after a last-second loss against the Dolphins, who continue to push New England for the AFC East title. Meanwhile, the Ravens won their fifth straight game with an 18-16 victory over the Lions on Monday night thanks to six field goals by Justin Tucker, including a 61-yarder with 38 seconds remaining.
If Baltimore wins out, against New England and Cincinnati, the Ravens will claim a second-straight AFC North title. The Ravens won't have it easy against Belichick and Brady. Brady is 42-6 in his career in December, making for the best win percentage in December for any quarterback since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.
The Patriots are 6-1 in the regular season against Baltimore, while the Ravens are 2-1 in the postseason against New England. New England and Baltimore are used to playing against one another in big games as they've faced off in the last two AFC title games, which the two organizations have split.
3 Things to Watch
Joe Flacco's Knee
On Monday night, Joe Flacco was injured after Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy hit his helmet hit into the quarterback's left knee. Levy wasn't fined by the NFL, but Flacco was limited in practice as late as Friday. He will be forced to wear a brace for Sunday's game in order to keep from missing the first game of his six-year career. Expect Flacco to have trouble dropping back and moving around in the pocket. Monday he clearly had issues stepping into his throws as he couldn't get a consistent drive off of that lead leg. Flacco has only been sacked five times in the past three contests; however, he will be much less mobile this week. New England's pass rush combo of Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones will be licking their chops as they lead a defense that has 40 sacks on the season.Flacco hasn't been strong against pressure this year. Last week he was 4-of-14 for 45 yards with a sack when the Lions sent five or more pass rushers. His average of 5.4 yards per attempt against added pressure ranks him as the worst among qualified quarterbacks. Flacco won't have the luxury of a rushing game to take pressure off of him as the struggling Ray Rice is listed as questionable for Sunday.
Torrey Smith vs. Patriots' Secondary
The Patriots have done an excellent job of shutting down bigger receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Jimmy Graham; however, they clearly struggle with speedy wideouts. In back-to-back weeks Josh Gordon and Mike Wallace have each posted over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown. Enter Smith, the NFL's fifth-ranked receiver in yards per reception at 17.5. Aqib Talib will have the duty of covering Baltimore's only option to stretch the defense downfield. Only Calvin Johnson, DeSean Jackson and Gordon have more catches of more than 20 yards, as Smith is fourth in the league with 19.
Tom Brady and Joe Flacco each have a few improbable comeback wins on their 2013 resumes. Flacco's have come in back-to-back weeks against Minnesota and Detroit. The thrilling 29-26 home victory that saw five lead changes in the final 2:05, including Flacco's 9-yard touchdown pass to rookie Marlon Brown in the back of the end zone with 4 seconds left. Though seemingly hard to beat, last week's comeback may have been even more exciting as Flacco drove the Ravens down the field to set up Justin Tucker's improbable 61-yard field goal for the 18-16 win. Tom Brady, working with depleted talent in the 2013, has produced memorable moments of his own in late game situations. Despite throwing a last second interception in the end zone last week against Miami, Brady came up big for New England in each of the three weeks prior. First, he helped the Patriots overcame a 24-point first-half deficit to beat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime. Next, they overcame a 10-point deficit against Houston to defeat them 34-31 thanks to two fourth quarter field goals by Stephen Gostowski. Finally, one of Brady's most unlikely wins came after the Patriots fell behind Cleveland 26-14 with 2:39 left in the game. Brady threw a 2-yard scoring pass to Julian Edelman with 1:01 left and a 1-yarder to Danny Amendola with 31 seconds remaining. Due to these late game heroics, the Patriots became the first team in 20 years to win 3 straight games in which they trailed by double digits in the 2nd half. Meanwhile, the Ravens strong fourth quarter play has resulted in their longest win streak, five, since 2006.
Key Player for New England: Stevan Ridley, RB
Baltimore's rush defense is ranked seventh in the NFL and have only allowed four rushing touchdowns, the fewest allowed in the NFL. Although the Ravens are fifth in the NFL allowing 3.8 yards per carry, Reggie Bush rushed 17 times for 86 yards and a touchdown last week. This Ravens rush defense is helped by the fact that most teams find it even easier to pass on a questionable secondary. Despite these high rankings, Baltimore has allowed touchdowns to opposing running backs in each of the past three weeks. In addition, they've allowed a hefty 4.5 yards per carry during this span. Ridley, thanks to his problems holding on to the football, is splitting carries with LeGarrette Blount. Still, Ridley is New England's top option out of the backfield and has scored seven touchdowns in his past eight games.
Key Player for Baltimore: Justin Tucker, K
Tucker, who was a perfect 6 for 6 last week, hasn't missed a field goal attempt since he was 0 for 2 in Week 2 at Cleveland. At 33 made field goals in a row, he has the NFL's longest streak since Matt Stover made 36 straight for the Ravens from 2005-06. Tucker is undoubtedly a major trump card for a Ravens squad that has struggled at times in the red zone.
Baltimore needs this win to keep up its hopes at an AFC North title and the playoffs, while the Patriots are still fighting for a first-round playoff bye. Suffice to say, both teams will have substantive focus for this game that will have a huge effect on the playoff picture in the AFC. The Ravens are the hotter team and own a 6-1 record at home; however, they've fallen each time against an elite quarterback in 2013, as they lost to Peyton Manning in Week 1 and Aaron Rodgers in Week 6.
Joe Flacco, despite the gusty comebacks, hasn't been that impressive. Justin Tucker's incredible performance last week speaks to the poor play of the Ravens' offense on third downs and in the end zone. The Ravens have only scored over 30 points all year and that was against the porous Texans. Flacco is banged up and the Ravens can't run the ball. It will be a struggle for Baltimore to put up points. While New England is a completely different team without Rob Gronkowski, Brady is good for the few scores which should be enough to topple the defending Super Bowl champs.
New England 27, Baltimore 17
NFC South supremacy and playoff positioning are both squarely on the line today when the New Orleans Saints pay a visit to the Carolina Panthers at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. The Saints (10-4) can secure both the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs with their second win over the Panthers (10-4) in three weeks.
The Saints are coming off of a discouraging 27-16 loss to the Rams on the road, which only brought more attention to Sean Payton’s team’s struggles away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Meanwhile Ron Rivera’s Panthers rebounded from their loss two weeks ago in New Orleans by beating the Jets 30-20 at home, running their record at Bank of America Stadium to 6-1 this season.
3 Things to Watch
Two Weeks Ago…
The Week 14 Sunday primetime showdown between Carolina and New Orleans didn’t exactly materialize, as the Saints took control in the second quarter and never looked back, winning 31-13. Tied atop the NFC South entering this game at 9-3, the Saints did what they usually do – play really well at home – and the Panthers weren’t able to put up a lot of offense or stop Drew Brees and the passing game. Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the sixth-ranked passing defense at the time, as the Saints scored touchdowns on four of five trips into the red zone. The Panthers converted on just one of two possessions inside the Saints’ 20-yard line, as Cam Newton threw for just 160 yards on 22 completions (4.7 ypc) and was sacked five times. Carolina led 6-0 after the first quarter, but New Orleans scored 31 unanswered points, including three touchdowns in the second quarter alone. The Panthers outgained the Saints 128-69 on the ground and won the time of possession battle, but the duo of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, who combined for 15 catches, 183 yards and all four touchdowns, were too much to overcome. New Orleans finished the night 7-0 at home and fully in the driver’s seat in the division.
Can the Saints Rebound Again?
New Orleans finds itself in familiar territory as all four losses have come on the road. The Saints are 7-0 at home, but just 3-4 on the road and have been beaten soundly in their last two games away from the friendly (and loud) confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Sean Payton’s team got off to a strong start on the road, winning their first two away dates in Tampa Bay (Week 2) and Chicago (Week 4). However, the Saints have won just one since, a 17-13 victory over lowly Atlanta in Week 12. The four road losses have been to the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks and last week to the Rams, with the last two being blowouts. Seattle and St. Louis beat New Orleans by a combined score of 61-23, as the Saints averaged 310 yards of offense in those two games, or nearly 90 fewer than they have been gaining on the season. The common factor in both of these games is defense, as the Seahawks held the Saints to 188 total yards of offense, the fewest in the Sean Payton era, and the Rams battered and bruised Brees to the tune of four sacks and three turnovers (2 INTs, fumble). Carolina’s defense is just as capable of doing what Seattle and St. Louis did, especially at home, as the Panthers are second in the NFL in both total (296.3 ypg) and scoring (14.9 ppg) defense. Entering this week, every time New Orleans has lost, it has gotten off the mat and won its next game. That was the case two weeks ago when the Saints returned from their Monday night beating in Seattle to defeat the Panthers. The difference here is that the previous three games following losses were played at home. This one is on the road, where the Saints have clearly had their issues, especially against teams that have solid defenses and can put pressure on the quarterback. So if the Saints want to continue their rebound trend today, seal up the division crown and guarantee themselves at least one home playoff game in the process, they will need to reverse another trend and prove that they are more than just a dome team.
Two weeks ago, Carolina got a taste of some New Orleans home cooking, as the Saints dominated the Panthers on both sides of the ball, winning 31-13. This is nothing new for New Orleans, who has won 15 games in a row in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with Sean Payton (suspended for the 2012 season) on the sideline. Today, however, Carolina is the home team, and just like the Saints, the Panthers have been at their best at Bank of America Stadium. They are 6-1 at home, with their only loss being to Seattle, 12-7, in the season-opener. The NFL’s No. 2 defense, the Panthers are allowing less than 12 points and 290 yards per game at home. They also have a plus-eight turnover differential at home compared to plus-three on the road. The team’s offensive numbers are better at home too, with one of the most glaring statistics coming in the pass protection department. Cam Newton has been sacked 28 times on the road, the most of any quarterback. He’s gone down just 10 times in seven home games. Carolina also has seen an increase in the production of its ground game recently, which could be a big factor against New Orleans. The Panthers are averaging 139.5 yards rushing per game over their last four, which includes 131 against the Jets, the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense at the time. On the other side, the Saints have struggled against the run on the road, giving up an average of 136.4 yards per contest. Two weeks ago, New Orleans capitalized fully on its home-field advantage. Carolina would love to return the favor today by adding to the Saints’ road woes.
New Orleans Key Players: Offensive Line
The Saints will have a new starting left tackle today as rookie Terron Armstead will replace Charles Brown. Brown was benched prior to the end of last week’s loss in St. Louis after committing a penalty that nullified a touchdown and partly due to the Rams sacking Drew Brees four times. Armstead and the rest of the offensive line will have its work cut out for it today, as Carolina’s defense is second in the NFL in sacks with 45. The Panthers got to Brees just twice in their first meeting two weeks ago; a big reason why he threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns and the Saints won 31-13. However, New Orleans is not the same team on the road as they are at home, and likewise Brees’ numbers also take a hit in games not played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. If the Saints want to have any success against the NFL’s No. 2 defense today, the offensive line must not only protect Brees, it also needs to find a way to help jumpstart a running game that’s averaging 58 yards rushing per game over the last three contests. With the playoffs approaching, Sean Payton knows his team has to start playing better on the road. Fixing an offensive line that has shown some cracks in recent weeks is as good a place to start as any.
Carolina Key Players: Secondary
The Panthers are fifth in the NFL in passing defense (211.4 ypg) and have more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (14) allowed. Opponents have completed better than 66 percent of their passes, but the Panthers have been able to limit the damage. Not surprisingly, the defense’s worst performance against the pass this season came on the road against New Orleans. Two weeks ago, Drew Brees completed 30-of-42 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns. The Saints finished with just 69 yards rushing, but still managed to post 373 total yards of offense against the NFL’s No. 2 defense. New Orleans hasn’t been anywhere near as productive on the road as it has been at home. The Saints average 32.9 points per game at home compared to just 18.4 on the road. A win today and Carolina replaces New Orleans as the frontrunner for not only the NFC South title, but also the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. For that to happen, however, the secondary will have to play much better this time against Brees and company.
The NFC South title, No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye are pretty much all on the line today. New Orleans can clinch all three with a win, while Carolina can put itself in the driver’s seat by holding serve at home. The Saints have not played nearly as well on the road as they have at home, an attribute the Panthers would no doubt love to continue to exploit.
Drew Brees carved up the Panthers two weeks ago, but the Saints have done some reshuffling along their offensive line and have gotten next-to-nothing from their running game in recent weeks. On the other side, Cam Newton has been at his best at home and the Panthers’ defense wants to redeem itself for what happened in the first meeting.
In the end, New Orleans puts up a good fight, but can’t muster enough offense against a stingy Carolina defense. The Panthers flip the script on the Saints and take control of the division, No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs in process, setting things up for an intriguing finish next week.
Carolina 23, New Orleans 20
NFC division leaders share the spotlight tonight when the Chicago Bears take on the Philadelphia Eagles at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Both the Bears and Eagles enter this game at 8-6 and atop the NFC North and East, respectively, and one of them can punch their playoff ticket with a win and a little help.
If Philadelphia wins and Dallas loses to Washington, the Eagles will win the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL head coach. If Chicago wins and Green Bay and Detroit both lose, then the Bears will win the NFC North in Marc Trestman’s first season as an NFL head coach. And the similarities don’t end there either, as both the Bears and the Eagles are among the NFL’s top offenses and the worst defenses. Put it all together and it should result in an entertaining game with plenty at stake.
3 Things to Watch
Both the Bears and the Eagles are among the top seven offensive teams in the NFL, as each have productive running games and explosive passing attacks. The Eagles lead the league in rushing (152.9 ypg) and Philadelphia is the only team averaging five yards per carry. The Bears are averaging 4.6 yards per carry and have rushed for at least 135 yards in each of their last three games. Running backs LeSean McCoy and Matt Forté are first and third, respectively, in the NFL in rushing with at least 1,200 yards and both are dangerous receivers out of the backfield. Both teams have used multiple starting quarterbacks this season, but that hasn’t slowed down their passing games. Chicago has had both Jay Cutler and Josh McCown under center, and the Bears are fifth in the league in passing at 275.8 yards per game. They also are sixth in terms of completion percentage at 65.1 percent. Because of the success of their running game, the Eagles haven’t had to throw as many passes, yet they are still 10th in passing offense (261.1 ypg). Both offenses have done a good job of protecting the ball, as they have combined for 57 touchdown passes and just 20 interceptions. In fact, Nick Foles, who took over the starting job for the Eagles after Michael Vick got hurt, has posted an impressive 23:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 11 games, eight of those starts. Put it all together and you have two teams that are averaging a collective 55 points per game. Combine that with their defensive issues (see below) and you have the makings of a high-scoring affair at Lincoln Financial Field tonight.
As well as the offenses have produced for these two teams, the defenses have had their struggles. Both rank near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed, with Chicago coming in at 27th (380.4 ypg) and Philadelphia 30th (402.4 ypg). The difference has been in how opposing teams have attacked each defense. The Bears are dead last in the league in stopping the run, as they are giving up 152.4 yards per game on the ground. Prior to holding the Browns to just 98 yards rushing last week, the Bears had been coughing up 204.1 per game over their last seven contests. Chicago also was able to snap its streak of allowing a 100-yard rusher in six straight games, which tied an NFL record. The Bears’ inability to stop the run does not bode well for tonight’s matchup with the league’s No. 1 rushing offense. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ problems on defense revolve around the pass. Philadelphia is second to last in passing defense (291.6 ypg), as Dallas (297.4 ypg) is the only team giving up more yards through the air per game. The defense actually had been playing better recently, but that was until the Eagles gave up 382 yards passing to Minnesota’s Matt Cassel last week. While the Bears have surrendered fewer passing yards per game (228.0) than the Eagles, both defenses have yielded around the same number of touchdown passes (22 for Chicago, 21 for Philadelphia) and are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete better than 60 percent of those passes. Philadelphia has done a better job of minimizing the damage, giving up three points fewer per game (24.9 to 27.9) than Chicago, but both defenses look to have their hands full tonight trying to slow down two of most productive and explosive offenses in the NFL.
Who’s Feeling the Pressure?
Chicago and Philadelphia are each among the top five offenses in the NFL in touchdown passes and in the bottom half of the rankings in interceptions thrown. One of the easiest ways to disrupt a productive passing game is with pressure. Unfortunately, that has not come easy for either defense this season. The Eagles are tied for 23rd in the league in sacks with 32 and the Bears are dead last with just 26. Chicago has done a better job when it comes to protecting the quarterback, especially compared to last season. After giving up 44 sacks in 2012, the Bears addressed the offensive line in both free agency and the draft and the results are clearly visible. Through 14 games, Jay Cutler and Josh McCown have been sacked a total of 24 times, only Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford (16 each) have gone down fewer times. The Eagles have been a little more generous in the sack department, as Nick Foles (21), Michael Vick (15) and Matt Barkley (3) have been brought to the turf a total of 39 times, which is tied for the tenth-most. If Chicago’s defense were able to take advantage of this apparent weakness tonight that could help take the pressure off of a secondary that’s without All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman and let the unit focus its efforts more on stopping the run. The Bears could get a boost in that department with the potential return of All-Pro linebacker Lance Briggs, who has missed the past seven games with a shoulder injury. Whether it’s Chicago or Philadelphia, if neither defense can find a way to make the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket, it could end up being a long and frustrating night at the office.
Chicago Key Player: Jay Cutler, QB
In the final year of his contract, Cutler has been limited to nine games this season due to a groin and ankle injury. He’s posted the best numbers of his Bears tenure in first-year head coach Marc Trestman’s offense, including a career-high 63.9 completion rate, but he’s still prone to turnovers (16 TDs, 13 TOs) and also has been largely out-performed by backup Josh McCown. A 10-year veteran, McCown got his first start since 2011 when Cutler went down with a groin injury in Week 7. McCown started the next week against Green Bay and then took over again after Cutler hurt his ankle in Week 10 against Detroit. In five starts and seven games total, McCown has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 1,809 yards (258.4 per game) and 13 touchdowns with just one interception. Cutler is averaging 241.4 yards per game with a 16:10 TD:INT ratio in his nine games. McCown was doing so well that there were reports of locker room discord when Trestman made the decision last week to start Cutler against the Browns. After starting out slowly, including two first-half interceptions one of which was returned for a touchdown, Cutler picked things up. He finished the game 22-of-31 with 265 yards passing, three touchdowns and those two picks, as the Bears won 38-31 on the road to put them in first place in the NFC North. Cutler’s strong second half silenced some, but certainly not all, of the critics. Tonight he gets a shot at the 31st-ranked passing defense in the NFL and an opportunity to put his team one step closer to a division title. Trestman said all along that Cutler was his starting quarterback, now’s the time for the player to show everyone why.
Philadelphia Key Players: Secondary
Chicago’s offense is fifth in the NFL in passing thanks to the production of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett, as well as running back Matt Forté. These are the Bears’ leading receivers, who have combined for 295 catches, 3,631 yards and 24 touchdowns. Besides being productive, they also are big targets. All four are at least six feet tall, with Jeffery (6-3), Marshall (6-4) and Bennett (6-6) looking like they belong on a basketball court and not the gridiron. This trio has used its size to its advantage this season and it also could be a problem tonight for the Eagles’ secondary. None of the defensive backs on Philadelphia’s roster are taller than 6-1 and of the 10 total cornerbacks and safeties, only four are at least 6-0. Philadelphia has struggled in pass defense to begin with, ranking second to last in the league in that category, and it could be another tough night against these lanky, rangy and athletic Bear receivers. Despite the clear height disparity, the Eagles’ defensive backfield needs to find a way to stand tall tonight.
Chicago and Philadelphia both enter tonight’s game leading their respective divisions, but still in must-win mode. The Bears lezad the Packers by less than a game in the NFC North, but need to win out because of Green Bay’s earlier tie and the fact that Chicago would lose the division tiebreaker with Detroit should they end up tied. The Eagles are in a similar situation, leading the Cowboys by one game, but trailing Dallas in divisional play.
Ironically enough, both teams finish up with divisional games against their closest pursuer, which makes a win tonight even more meaningful and possibly season-defining. The Bears are just 3-4 on the road this season, but are coming off of a big 38-31 win in Cleveland last week that saw the return of starting quarterback Jay Cutler. The Eagles had their five-game winning streak snapped by Minnesota, a disappointing stumble for a team that seemed to have grabbed full control of the NFC East.
Marc Trestman and Chip Kelly are both rookie NFL head coaches, who could make huge statements by leading their team not only to the playoffs, but a division title in their first seasons. Both are offensive-minded, which shows in the production of their respective systems. The defenses have had their issues, however, so don’t be surprised if this game features plenty of offensive fireworks.
Kelly has used three different starting quarterbacks with Nick Foles emerging as the best of the bunch. But again, offense hasn’t been the problem for Philadelphia and while I think the Eagles will fare just fine against Chicago’s defense, the same can be said for the Bears offense against Kelly’s defense. In the end, I think Chicago’s size at wide receiver and tight end will be too much for Philadelphia’s secondary to handle and the Bears leave The City of Brotherly Love victorious following an exciting, back-and-forth affair.
Chicago 31, Philadelphia 27
Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs welcome Andrew Luck and the AFC South champion Colts into Arrowhead for a 1:00 p.m. ET game on CBS that will likely be a preview for a playoff matchup just two weeks from now. If the season ended today, Kansas City, as the five seed, would be on its way to Indianapolis to take on the Colts, as the four seed, in one of the AFC's two wild card games.
Kansas City, despite its impressive 11-3 record has been unable to supplant Denver, who has defeated them twice this year. Indianapolis, on the other hand, has taken full advantage of playing in the NFL's worst division, where the other three teams have a combined win percentage of .262.
After starting the season at 6-2 with wins over Denver, Seattle and San Francisco, the Colts have gone 3-3 since. In that six-week span Indy has been blown out by St. Louis, Arizona and Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have won their last two games after dropping three straight. Despite the 11-3 record, the Chiefs only have a single win against a team, the Eagles, with a plus .500 record.
The Colts are 11-8 in the regular season and 3-0 in the playoffs against the Chiefs. The matchup between these two teams came almost exactly one year ago in which the Colts won 20-13, despite 226 yards rushing from Jamaal Charles.
3 Things to Watch
Who can stop Jamaal Charles?
Anyone who owns or was playing against Charles in fantasy football last week can now appreciate his game-breaking abilities. Against Oakland, his 215 yards from scrimmage were a season-high and four receiving touchdowns were the most by a running back in a single game in NFL history. Charles is responsible for 37 percent of the Chiefs' rushing and receiving yards this season. That's the league high for any player on his team. On the season he is fourth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Where Charles separates himself is the extra dimension he brings with his 655 receiving yards, seven touchdowns and 630 yards after the catch. Charles has posted over 100 yards from scrimmage in 12 of 14 games in 2013, with seven games over 80 yards rushing and four games with over 50 yards receiving. Charles is a touchdown machine with 10 over the last month of play. He should find room to run against a Colts defense that has allowed 13 rushing touchdowns and enters this game as the NFL's 27th-ranked rushing defense, allowing 128.9 yards per game.
Reliable Alex Smith vs. Inconsistent Andrew Luck
A major part of the recipe for success in Kansas City has been the remarkably steady play of Alex Smith. Smith is coming off of his best game as a pro, in which he posted a perfect passer rating and threw for five touchdowns against Oakland. Smith has just one game with more than a single interception and has just four other games in which he's thrown even a single pick. He has posted nine games with over an 80 quarterback rating, with six games with a 94.0 rating or higher. Smith is throwing nearly four touchdowns for every interception, which ranks as one of the best ratios in the NFL. While he doesn't pile up the yardage, with zero 300-yard games, he succeeds at protecting the ball and making quick decisions. Smith certainly has a great deal of talent around him, which is why his style of play in 2013 has been the perfect addition to the Chiefs' offense. On the other hand, Andrew Luck hasn't been getting much help in Indy, which may be the reason for much of his inconsistency. Luck himself has only three 300-yard passing games. In fact, over the last month Luck has 200 yards or less in three of four games. Luck has struggled with his accuracy, as he has seven games with a completion percentage in the fifties. After throwing three interceptions in the first eight games, he has thrown eight touchdowns to six interceptions in the last six. Over the first seven games of the season, Luck's passer rating was 92.8; however, since Reggie Wayne went down in Week 7, Luck's passer rating has dropped to a mediocre 79.9.
Both teams bring excellent pass-rushers into this game. The Colts boast the NFL's current leader in sacks, with 16.5, and all-time leader in strip sacks, with 42. That man is Robert Mathis, who has 4.5 more sacks than anyone in the AFC, and accounts for 49 percent of Indianapolis' sacks. Meanwhile, Kansas City is third in the NFL with 43 sacks, as their roster is chock full of elite pass-rushers. The combination of outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, who have each accounted for 11 sacks, makes it impossible for an offensive line to slide protection in any one direction. The Chiefs also register sacks from other positions on the field as defensive tackle Dontari Poe has 4.5 and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry each have 3.5. The good news for Indy is that Houston, who was expected to play this week, has been progressing slower than expected and will likely remain shelved due to an elbow injury for the sixth straight week.
Key Player for Indianapolis: T.Y. Hilton, WR
Hilton is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury for today's game. Hilton's absence would be huge as he has been Luck's top option since Reggie Wayne tore his ACL. Hilton's eight-catch, 78-yard performance last week was the best game he'd had since a pair of back-to-back 110-yard games in early November. Despite his struggles over the second half of the year, Indianapolis lacks any proven receiving threat behind him. If Hilton sits, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Da'Rick Rogers, who have a combined 37 receptions, will see a bigger role in the offense.
Key Player for Kansas City: Sean Smith, CB
The Colts, as it has been all year, will not be able to run the football; especially not against the quality front seven in Kansas City. Therefore, the only way the Colts will move the ball will be through the air. Thus, Smith should be busy all day as it wouldn't be unusual to see Luck drop back more than 50 times. Smith, standing 6-3, is huge for a corner and won't struggle with bigger receivers like Da'Rick Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey. If Smith does his job on the perimeter, Luck's only option may be tight end Coby Fleener down the middle. Even so, Fleener will be covered by either one of the Chiefs' athletic linebacking corps or one of the big, physical Kansas City safeties.
If the Chiefs win their final two regular-season games, they will have the largest win improvement from one season to the next in NFL history. The Chiefs, 2-14 last season, would finish 13-3 by winning out, an improvement of 11 games. If this is to happen look for the Chiefs to make use of a formula that has worked extremely well for them thus far; that is, returns and turnovers. The Chiefs, with 11 return touchdowns, are the first team in NFL history to score multiple touchdowns via interceptions (5), kickoff returns (2), punt returns (2) and fumble returns (2). Additionally, they lead the league with a plus-21 turnover differential, turning those takeaways into 115 more points off turnovers than their opponents.
The Colts just aren't the same team they were early in the season, when then had several impressive victories and a healthy Reggie Wayne; however, they will be the best team Kansas City has faced all year. While the numbers appear to favor Kansas City, the Colts are never out of a game with Luck involved. Home field advantage in Arrowhead will make the difference in this game, but things may be different in two weeks at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Kansas City 21, Indianapolis 17
It’s Week 16, which means championship week for most fantasy leagues. Will the reigning NFL MVP be available to help your team try and win a title? Here’s the latest update on Adrian Peterson and some other key running backs.
Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, RBs, Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals
Neither Peterson nor Gerhart suited up last week, leaving Matt Asiata left to carry the load. Asiata did just that, rushing for 51 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries in the win over Philadelphia. Peterson practiced some on Wednesday and Thursday, but was still getting treatment for his sprained foot. He’s listed as Questionable, but Peterson pronounced himself “ready to roll.” Peterson is as tough as they come, but there’s nothing wrong with making sure he’s in the lineup before starting him, especially this week. Meanwhile, Gerhart is Probable after missing last week because of a hamstring injury. His value is tied soley to Peterson’s availability and workload, if he plays. As for Asiata, it looks like he’s a one-week wonder, as he’s Questionable with an ankle injury and pretty much an afterthought as long as Peterson and Gerhart are active.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans
Jones-Drew missed last week’s game because of his hamstring injury and he only logged a limited practice on Friday. He is listed as Questionable and could end up being a game-time decision. Watch his status very carefully, especially since backup Jordan Todman rushed for 109 yards against Buffalo. If MJD does play, I would consider throwing him out there given the matchup with a Titans defense that’s giving up the second-most fantasy points to RBs.
Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins
Jackson was limited in practice earlier this week because of a rib injury, but he was a full go on Friday and is considered Probable. Jackson and C.J. Spiller have been splitting the carries for the most part, but both could see more touches than usual today considering the Bills will be without quarterback EJ Manuel (knee injury) and wide receiver Stevie Johnson (personal). The Dolphins are giving up the tenth-most fantasy points to running backs, so Jackson and Spiller are both probably in the RB2 conversation this week. Spiller is the more explosive runner, but Jackson leads the team in carries, has seven rushing touchdowns (to Spiller’s two) and has been more active in the passing game. From a rankings standpoint, Jackson is ahead of Spiller, but not by a lot.
Daniel Thomas, RB, Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
After making a near-miraculous return from an injured ankle ligament, Thomas apparently re-injured the same ankle last week. He practiced on a limited basis on Friday and is listed as Questionable for today’s game in Buffalo. Last week against the Patriots, Lamar Miller got 15 carries, while Thomas had five. Should Thomas play, I would expect a similar workload split, which makes Miller the more appealing option. If Thomas is out, Miller’s outlook gets even better based on the assumed increase he would see in carries.
Already Ruled Out
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers – Stewart will miss a second straight game because of the torn MCL in his right knee that he sustained a few weeks ago. DeAngelo Williams should see the majority of the touches today against New Orleans, and he's coming off one of his best games of the season (168 total yards, TD) against the Jets. The Saints have really struggled against the run, so this week Williams could finally break out.
If your fantasy team is still alive, Week 16 is what you have been working towards all season. With no margin for error when it comes to setting your lineup here are some running back injuries you need to know about.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
Rice sat out Wednesday’s session and was a limited participant on both Thursday and Friday. He’s officially listed as Questionable with a thigh injury, but he’s been nursing several injuries during the season and there doesn’t appear to be any real concern regarding his availability for this afternoon. There is quite a bit at stake in this game, but Rice has struggled with his production all season. The Patriots have been susceptible to the run, but Rice is on pace for less than 700 yards rushing. I’m not saying don’t start Rice, but at this point you should be well aware of the potential for disappointing results.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
For the second straight week, Lacy’s practice participation was limited to a brief appearance on Friday, but he is still listed as Probable to face the Steelers. Then again he did rush for 141 yards against Dallas last week despite practicing very little, so perhaps this was the team’s plan all along. Either way, Lacy needs to be in your lineup as the weather forecast could result in a more run-centric offense for the Packers.
Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers
Just when it looked like McFadden’s season was over, he was back at practice this week and is considered Probable to return against the Chargers this afternoon. If anything, McFadden’s presence could impact Rashad Jennings’ productivity, even though Jennings will remain the starting running back. I wouldn’t hesitate to use Jennings, but it would probably be wise to downgrade him slightly with McFadden now added to a backfield mix that already included Marcel Reece.
In Case You Missed It…
Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans – Tate was placed on injured reserve this week after breaking another rib (his fifth) in last week’s loss to Indianapolis. Dennis Johnson and Deji Karim will handle the carries, and even against Denver’s suspect defense neither inspires a lot of confidence, especially with so much on the line.
One Giant wide receiver has already been sidelined for the rest of the season. Are there any other key wideouts in danger of not playing in Week 16?
Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants at Detroit Lions
Cruz suffered a concussion and a knee injury last week. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on Thursday and is Out for the rest of the season. Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle will serve as the Giants’ starting wide receivers. This presents a big opportunity for Randle to prove he can be a reliable starter, especially with Nicks a free agent after the season. Fantasy-wise, Nicks has been a disappointment, while Randle has been productive with his targets (37 rec., 6 TDs). Even with a somewhat appealing matchup in Detroit, I would consider both nothing more than a WR3 this week.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions vs. New York Giants
Johnson’s knee injury is nothing new, but what is new is that it severely limited his ability to practice this week. While he has logged minimal practice time and been good to go for much of this season, the fact that he is listed as Questionable on the injury report is more than enough reason to pay a little more attention. There have been no reports out of Detroit indicating Johnson won’t play, but it would be advisable to follow up on his status later this morning, especially given the later (4:05 p.m. ET) kickoff time.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
Fitzgerald suffered a concussion when he was part of the Cardinals’ “hands team” on an onside kick in last week’s game. He practiced on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday, but was still going through the league-mandated concussion protocols as of late Friday. He is considered Questionable, and has been as durable as they come, having played in 98 straight games going back to Week 13 in 2007. However, between his health, the fact his quarterback is a game-time decision himself and the matchup with the NFL’s No. 1 defense on their home turf, I’m just not sure Fitzgerald can offer that much assistance this week.
Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints
Smith dislocated his middle finger in practice this week, but he’s Probable and there’s no way he’s missing this huge NFC South game against the Saints. The problem with Smith is that he just hasn’t been putting up the numbers we are accustomed to, as his season-high in yards is 69 and he has one touchdown catch in his last eight games. Smith’s days as a WR1 are long gone, as he’s no more than a WR3/flex at this point.
Denver will be missing one of its key weapons for its Week 16 meeting with Houston, but the Texans should have their main horse in their lineup. Here is the latest information on some other injured wide receivers to get you ready for championship week.
Wes Welker, WR, Denver Broncos at Houston Texans
Welker missed last week’s loss to San Diego because of a concussion and he will miss at least two more games. The Broncos have already ruled Welker Out for today’s game in Houston and the regular-season finale, with the hope he will be ready to return for the playoffs. The Texans are second in the NFL in passing defense, but have still given up 25 touchdown passes. With Welker out, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both should see plenty of targets, along with tight end Julius Thomas. All three are must-starts regardless of matchup.
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos
Johnson is dealing with a wrist injury that limited his practice participation. However, he’s listed as Probable and should be just fine for today’s game. One thing that will be slightly different is the return of Matt Schaub under center due to an injury to Case Keenum. Schaub has had his issues this season, but he and Johnson also have been productive during their time together. Denver’s defense is 28th in the league against the pass and it’s not like you’re sitting Johnson in the first place.
Vincent Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams
Good news for Jackson and his owners. He practiced fully on both Thursday and Friday and is listed as Probable. It appears that he has just about put his hamstring issue in the rear-view mirror and he’s locked in as a WR1.
Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneeers
Austin’s ankle is still an issue, as he was absent from practice both Thursday and Friday. He’s listed as Questionable on the injury report, but I have a hard time believing the Rams would risk putting their first-round pick out there. It looks like Austin’s rookie season, from both a fantasy perspective and for the Rams, has come to an end.
Not Playing Today…
Stevie Johnson, WR, Buffalo Bills – Johnson will miss today’s game following the recent passing of his mother. Robert Woods will assume Johnson’s No. 1 role against the Dolphins, but Miami has been solid against the pass and Thad Lewis, not EJ Manuel, is starting at quarterback. Be sure to temper your expectations for Woods.
Cecil Shorts, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars – Shorts was placed on injured reserve last week and underwent surgery to repair his groin. With Shorts sidelined, there’s not much to like regarding the Jaguars’ passing game.
Several quarterbacks and tight ends are either dealing with injuries or have already been ruled out for Week 16. Athlon Sports has the latest information on the names you need to know.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
Flacco sustained a slight knee injury in the Monday night win over Detroit, as he took a hit from a helmet to his left knee. He was limited in practice and is officially listed as Questionable, but barring a setback he will be out there for this critical game against the Patriots. Flacco will wear a knee brace, but he has yet to miss a game in his six-year career. His numbers haven’t been what people were hoping or expecting for, but the Patriots’ defense hasn’t exactly been shutting opposing offenses down either. It’s really going to come down to if you trust Flacco enough to start him or have a better option you are more comfortable employing.
Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers (Mon.)
Gonzalez is listed as Questionable yet again, but he’s also caught a touchdown pass in three straight games, so I fully expect him to play. Since this is a rather important week, however, just be sure you are confident he will play before deciding to stick with them. Otherwise you may not be in the holiday spirit come Monday night should something happen that causes Gonzalez to be inactive.
Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
First it was an elbow, now it’s his ankle. But the end result is the same. Palmer is listed as Questionable and will be a game-time decision, yet he is still expected to start. What is different this week, however, is the matchup against the NFL’s No. 1 defense on the road. Palmer is not the most mobile quarterback in the first place and the fact that he may be playing on a gimpy ankle against the Seahawks in their building? No thank you. Or did you forget what the Seahawks did to Drew Brees and the Saints a few weeks ago or the Giants on the road just last week.
Garrett Graham, TE, Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos
Graham missed last week’s game because of a hamstring injury and he didn’t practice at all this week. He’s listed as Questionable, but even that appears to be optimistic. Chances are the final call on Graham’s availability will be made around game time, so at least the 1 p.m. ET kickoff helps there. If Graham can’t go Ryan Griffin would get the start. He’s definitely of the deep sleeper variety, but he did catch six passes for 62 yards last week.
QBs and TEs Already Ruled Out:
Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns – Cameron has already been ruled Out for today’s game because of a concussion. Be sure to take him out of your starting lineup and look elsewhere for a TE.
John Carlson, TE, Minnesota Vikings – Carlson has been placed on injured reserve due to lingering concussion symptoms. He joins teammate Kyle Rudolph (foot) as Viking tight ends who saw their season come to an early end.
Case Keenum, QB, Houston Texans – Keenum has already been ruled Out due to a thumb injury. Matt Schaub will take over at quarterback. As poorly as Schaub has performed this season, don’t forget he is a two-time Pro Bowler who’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season three times. I’m not saying I would rely on Schaub to win me a fantasy championship, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t fare well enough against Denver’s 31st-ranked passing defense to maintain Andre Johnson’s WR1 status.
EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills – Even though he finished last week’s game, Manuel sustained some sort of injury to his left knee. That’s good news since it means it’s not the same knee he hurt earlier in the season, which caused him to miss four games. However, that’s now three knee injuries the rookie has sustained in his first season, including one in the preseason, which is why the team has already ruled him Out for today’s game. Thad Lewis, who started three of the games Manuel missed, will get the call. With so much on the line today, you really aren’t going to take your chances with Lewis are you?
Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Detroit Lions – Pettigrew injured his ankle last week and has already been ruled Out. This will mean increased opportunities for Joseph Fauria, who has certainly made the most out of the ones has gotten so far. Fauria has just 12 catches on the season, but seven of those have gone for touchdowns. He’s clearly a viable red zone target for Matthew Stafford, but that also makes Fauria the perfect boom-or-bust candidate.
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins – Reed is Out for a fifth straight game because of a lingering concussion. There is no reason to not think the rookie’s season is over.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers – The long wait continues in Green Bay as Rodgers was ruled Out on Friday. For whatever reason, he just hasn’t been cleared to return to action, and it’s now looking like the Packers’ playoff hopes are in the hands of Matt Flynn. He answered the bell last week against Dallas (299 yards, 4 TD passes in the second half), but Pittsburgh’s defense should be a little tougher challenge and the elements also could be a factor. Flynn has gotten results, but he still carries plenty of risk from a fantasy perspective.
Tulane is back in postseason play for the first time since 2002, when Chris Scelfo guided the Green Wave to the Hawaii Bowl after a 7–5 regular season. This time around, Tulane will be playing its bowl game in its home stadium, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The players no doubt would have preferred to leave the city of New Orleans, but any bowl is a good bowl for a program that averaged 2.9 wins from 2005-12. Curtis Johnson, who spent 10 years on the staff at Miami (Fla.) from 1996-05, won only two games in 2012, his first as the Wave’s head coach. This year, Tulane won six of its first eight games before struggling late and settling for a 7–5 record. The Wave’s 5–3 mark in Conference USA was the school’s first winning league record since the 1998 team went undefeated.
A trip to the Big Easy has become a December tradition for Tulane’s opponent, Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns will be playing in the New Orleans Bowl for the third straight season — and they will be searching for their third straight bowl victory after beating San Diego State 32–20 in 2011 and East Carolina 43–34 in ’12. Mark Hudspeth’s team opened the season with two losses and closed the season with two losses. In between, the Cajuns won eight straight and have now gone 8–4 in the regular season in each of Hudspeth’s three years on the job.
Tulane vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Tulane -2.5
Tulane’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
The Green Wave rank second in Conference USA in rushing defense, allowing only 119.7 yards per game. Those stats have been padded a bit by quarterback sacks — Tulane had 34 for a negative-235 yards — but this defense does an outstanding job defending the run. The Wave held eight of their 12 opponents to under 4.0 yards per carry and four of those eight to under 2.0 yards per carry. Those are impressive numbers. Tulane will be tasked with slowing down a Louisiana-Lafayette team that leads the Sun Belt in rushing with 208.7 yards per game. The Cajuns have two backs who rushed for 800 yards — including Elijah McGuire, who averaged 8.9 yards on his 92 attempts — and also get production on the ground from quarterback Terrance Broadway (421 yards, eight TDs). Turnovers will also be key for Tulane. The Wave are third in the nation in turnovers forced (33) and tied for ninth in turnover margin (plus-1.00). Tulane, which struggles on offense, can have a tough time putting points on the board when it is not forcing turnovers and setting up the offense with solid field position. The Wave were plus-15 in their seven wins and minus-3 in their five losses.
Louisiana-Lafayette’s Key to Victory: A healthy and productive Terrance Broadway
With Broadway in the lineup, Louisiana-Lafayette went 8–3, with losses at Arkansas, at Kansas State and vs. ULM (by three points). Without their starting quarterback, the Cajuns lost 30–8 at South Alabama in the season-finale. The lesson here is that Broadway is very, very important to this team. The senior broke his arm in the fourth quarter against ULM and is questionable for the bowl game. Three redshirt freshmen played in the South Alabama game, combining to complete 9-of-26 passes for 143 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. If Broadway can’t play, the Cajuns figure to struggle in the passing game and will be forced to rely on their running game against the stout Tulane rush defense.
Key Player: Orleans Darkwa, RB, Tulane
Darkwa needs 75 yards to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. He struggled in the season-finale, rushing for only 26 yards on 14 carries in a 17–13 loss to Rice. In the two previous games, however, he combined for 240 yards on 37 carries as the Wave lost to UTSA and beat UTEP. Earlier in the year, he had 118 yards (on a 6.9-yard average) in a season-changing win at ULM, and he averaged 4.7 yards and 5.1 yards in key wins over East Carolina and Tulsa, respectively. The Nashville native was not offered by any SEC schools coming out of Ensworth High School, but he’s had a very solid career in Conference USA.
So much of this game hinges on Broadway’s availability. Louisiana-Lafayette has multiple weapons at running back, but its offense will be too one-dimensional if one of the redshirt freshmen is forced to start. Hudspeth has done a great job during his time in Lafayette, but this is probably the worst of his three teams — each of which won eight games in the regular season. The 2013 Cajuns have only one win over a bowl team (Arkansas State) and struggled in some of their wins against lesser opponents. Tulane‘s schedule was a bit more challenging, and this game probably means more to the Green Wave, who will playing in their first bowl game in over a decade.
Prediction: Tulane 27, Louisiana Lafayette 20
Wisconsin’s 2014 Big Ten title hopes received a boost on Friday, as running back Melvin Gordon announced his intention to return for next season.
Gordon is only a junior but could have left early for the NFL Draft, as he redshirted after playing sparingly in 2011.
Gordon rushed for 1,466 yards and 12 touchdowns on 181 attempts in 2013.
Gordon should be one of the top returning running backs in college football next season.