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Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo got caught having breakfast in Boston together last week. Pancakes, before a 113-96 victory by Rondo’s Celtics, then led to speculation about why the two were meeting. But Bryant insists the meal was not a recruiting pitch to the four-time All-Star.
"No, we get along extremely well," Bryant said Friday, as reported by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. ”We see the game in a similar fashion in terms of our aggressiveness and mindset. It was good to get together with him.” Bryant also referred to the sitdown as “a basketball geek conversation.”
And the notion of Rondo going to L.A. doesn’t seem too likely anyway.
Although the Celtics’ starting point guard is on the last year of his contract, and (like Bryant) doesn’t seem to enjoy losing a lot of games with a young, rebuilding team all that much — and although trade rumors about Rondo have persisted since last season — it’s hard to believe one of the game’s most obsessively competitive players is going to jump from one loser to another.
The Lakers aren’t in any better shape than the Celtics, of course. In fact, their standing is much worse, given that they're at the bottom of the suffocating Western Conference:
Fascinating as the Bryant-Rondo combo may be, it’s not one we should anticipate. The Lakers could try selling Rondo on the Hollywood brand, the future, post-Kobe keys to the superstar cockpit of what’s still Tinseltown’s team — as they did to Carmelo Anthony — but how much will it mean without the right roster?
Where Rondo does eventually end up is a mystery. But if he chooses glamour, money, or Kobe over some good old-fashioned title contention, it’ll be out of character for him.
— John Wilmes
Week 14 wraps up with a battle of division leaders, as the Atlanta Falcons will take on the Green Bay Packers on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Despite a 5-7 record the Falcons are leading the NFC South over the Saints (5-8) on the strength of a 4-0 record in divisional play, while the Packers (9-3) are battling the Lions (9-4) for the top spot in the NFC North. Green Bay also is the hottest team in the NFL, winners of four in a row, and is undefeated (6-0) at Lambeau Field.
This matchup features two of the more potent offenses, while both defenses rank closer to the bottom, statistically speaking. The last time Atlanta and Green Bay played each other was a year ago. In Week 14 last season, the Falcons enjoyed an 11-point halftime lead at Lambeau over a Packers team that was without an injured Aaron Rodgers (collarbone). Green Bay’s defense stiffened in the second half, and Matt Flynn capitalized on an early fourth-quarter fumble by Matt Ryan, putting the Packers ahead for good with a short touchdown pass to tight end Andrew Quarless.
Without that 22-21 victory over Atlanta, Green Bay’s 2013 season pretty much would have been over. Prior to that game, the Packers had gone 0-3-1 without Rodgers under center. The come-from-behind win against Atlanta allowed Green Bay to even its record at 6-6-1. The Packers would go on to win two of their final three games, including a Week 17 33-28 victory in Chicago, which gave the Packers (8-7-1) the NFC North crown over the Bears (8-8). Without that win over Atlanta, Green Bay not only wouldn’t have won the division title, it also would have been shut out of the playoffs because Dallas (8-8) would have earned the second Wild Card berth.
Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Green Bay -13
|Atlanta 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ TB||W 27 - 17||Recap|
|11/16||@ CAR||W 19 - 17||Recap|
|11/23||vs CLE||L 24 - 26||Recap|
|11/30||vs ARI||W 29 - 18||Recap|
|12/8||@ GB||L 37 - 43||Recap|
|12/14||vs PIT||L 20 - 27||Recap|
|12/21||@ NO||W 30 - 14||Recap|
|12/28||vs CAR||L 3 - 34||Recap|
Atlanta’s Key to Victory: Fight Fire with Fire
The Falcons are coming off of their most impressive and surprising win of the season, a 29-18 victory at home against Arizona. The Cardinals entered Week 13 tied with Denver and New England for the best record (9-2) in the NFL and with a defense that had given up more than 20 points just once. Atlanta changed both of these statistics, as the Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead and pretty much outplayed the favored Cardinals in all facets of the game. The 29-18 victory kept Atlanta in first place in the NFC South, as the Falcons piled up 500 total yards of offense against one of the league’s better defenses. This week Atlanta faces a new challenge in trying to beat Green Bay at home. The Packers are second in the league in scoring and have been unstoppable at home. They are averaging 40.8 points per game at Lambeau Field and have beaten opponents by an average of 23 points. If the Falcons have any hopes of overcoming these trends, they will need to try and match Green Bay’s offensive firepower. Atlanta torched Arizona for 358 yards passing and that should be the goal tonight too. Statistically, the Packers’ defense has done a pretty good against the pass (235.4 ypg, 11th), but cornerback Sam Shields may not play due to a concussion and this unit has had some trouble against teams with potent passing attacks. Provided Roddy White returns after missing last week because of an ankle injury, the Falcons will definitely have some weapons to attack Green Bay’s secondary with, most notably Julio Jones. And any success through the air should help a running game take advantage of the Packers’ true defensive weak spot – stopping the run. Green Bay is 28th against the run, giving up 4.5 yards per carry and 132.3 yards per game. Atlanta rushed for 142 yards last week against a Cardinals defense that still ranks among the best in that category. Regardless of whether it’s through the air or on the ground, the Falcons will need to be offensive tonight if they have any hope of beating the Packers on their own turf.
|Green Bay 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs CHI||W 55 - 14||Recap|
|11/16||vs PHI||W 53 - 20||Recap|
|11/23||@ MIN||W 24 - 21||Recap|
|11/30||vs NE||W 26 - 21||Recap|
|12/8||vs ATL||W 43 - 37||Recap|
|12/14||@ BUF||L 13 - 21||Recap|
|12/21||@ TB||W 20 - 3||Recap|
|12/28||vs DET||W 30 - 20||Recap|
Green Bay’s Key to Victory: Stay the Course
As far as the Packers are concerned, the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly applies. Green Bay has won four in a row and eight of nine behind an MVP-caliber performance from Aaron Rodgers. The 2011 MVP, Rodgers is well on his way to winning a second. The league’s highest-rated passer (118.6), Rodgers has thrown 32 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, despite leading the way in yards per attempt (8.75). He’s been flawless (20 TDs, 0 INTs) at home, a big reason why the Packers are 6-0 at Lambeau. Green Bay beat New England 26-21 last week behind 478 yards of offense, while holding the Patriots to just 320 yards. The Packers’ defense has had its issues and the statistics aren’t that impressive, but this unit has been playing much better recently. Since a 44-23 Week 8 loss in New Orleans, Green Bay’s defense has given up an average of 19 points per game during its four-game winning streak. The bottom line is with Rodgers playing as well as he has, the Packers don’t need their defense to completely shut down opponents. Even with a running game that’s been inconsistent at times, Green Bay continues to win at an impressive clip. It’s pretty clear that the game plan is working right now, so there’s certainly no reason to change it up against the Falcons tonight.
Credit to Atlanta for proving a lot of people wrong in handily beating Arizona last week. And even though the Falcons enter tonight two games below .500, they are in the driver's seat to win the NFC South, which would get them into the playoffs. However, much will happen between now and the end of the regular season, and with tonight’s matchup against the NFL’s hottest team, the Falcons need to focus on the “now.” Speaking of “now,” Green Bay is on a serious roll and the Packers have been especially tough at home. Matt Ryan is a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, but Aaron Rodgers is making a strong case for his second MVP award. Offense should take center stage tonight, and there’s no one in the league doing that better right now than Rodgers and company.
Prediction: Green Bay 37, Atlanta 24
College football’s regular season is over and the postseason and playoff matchups are set. The bowl season kicks off in New Orleans on Dec. 20 and concludes with the national championship in Arlington, Texas. 39 bowl games are slated for this year's schedule, and the slate will increase to 40 in 2015.
Watching all 39 bowl games isn’t impossible, but it can be difficult prioritizing which matchups are must-see television around the holidays.
Athlon ranks and previews all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid. From No. 1 to No. 39, here’s a look at the bowl matchups in terms of watchability and quality of game.
Ranking All 39 Bowl Games: Must-Watch to Must-See
1. College Football National Championship
Alabama/Ohio State vs. Oregon/Florida State
Jan. 12 – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The new four-team playoff has added a new layer of intrigue to college football’s postseason format. Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State have a chance to advance to Arlington on Jan. 12 to play for the national championship. The Crimson Tide and the Ducks are the favorite to meet in Dallas, but it’s tough to count out the defending champions (Florida State) and a talented Ohio State team. Regardless of which teams make it to Arlington, this game is the No. 1 matchup to watch in the bowl season.
2. Rose Bowl – Oregon (12-1) vs. Florida State (13-0)
Jan. 1 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston. Do we really need to add any additional reason to watch this game? Of course, there’s more at stake than impressing NFL scouts for the two quarterbacks, as a trip to Arlington for the national championship is on the line in the Rose Bowl. Florida State enters this matchup with a 29-game winning streak, while the Ducks cruised to a Pac-12 title after an early loss to Arizona in Eugene. With the offensive firepower on both sidelines, the defense that can make the most plays or generate the most stops will decide this matchup. Florida State has been hit hard by injuries on defense and battled youth on that side of the ball and faces its toughest test of the year against the Ducks. In addition to Mariota, Oregon has a 1,000-yard rusher in Royce Freeman and a handful of playmakers at receiver. This is the first meeting between these two programs – and it may end up being the most entertaining game of the postseason.
3. Sugar Bowl – Alabama (12-1) vs. Ohio State (12-1)
Jan. 1 – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The first playoff game in the Rose Bowl is slightly more intriguing, but there are no shortage of storylines in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Alabama hopes to add to Ohio State’s woes against SEC teams with a victory on Jan. 1. The Buckeyes are 1-5 in their last six bowl games against teams from the SEC, and coach Urban Meyer’s team is considered at least a touchdown underdog in the early lines from the Vegas oddsmakers. Quarterback Cardale Jones performed well in his first start in the Big Ten Championship, and Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman will have to work overtime to get the sophomore ready for all of the wrinkles coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will throw his way. But a bigger problem for Ohio State could be its defense, which has to find a way to slow down the Alabama ground attack, along with receiver Amari Cooper. This is only the fourth time Alabama and Ohio State met on the gridiron. And this is the first meeting between these two programs since 1995.
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4. Cotton Bowl – Michigan State (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-1)
Jan. 1 – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Much like its in-conference brethren and in-state rival TCU, Baylor’s motivation will play a huge role in how the Cotton Bowl is decided. Will the Bears play hungry after being left out of the playoff? Or will coach Art Briles’ team struggle against one of the nation’s top defensive teams? Michigan State isn’t quite as dominant as it was last year on defense, but coordinator Pat Narduzzi kept this unit near the top of the nation in points allowed and fewest yards per play. And even with the strength of the Spartans on defense, stopping Baylor’s offense is a tough assignment. Michigan State needs to get pressure on quarterback Bryce Petty to disrupt the timing of the offense and limit the big plays from receivers Antwan Goodley, Corey Coleman and KD Cannon. And the Spartans can help themselves on offense by establishing running back Jeremy Langford and controlling the time of possession and pace of the game.
5. Peach Bowl – Ole Miss (9-3) vs. TCU (11-1)
Dec. 31 – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Which TCU team will Ole Miss get in the Peach Bowl? Is it a squad angry about being left out of the four-team playoff? Or will the Horned Frogs struggle to find motivation? Either way, this game should be one of the better postseason matchups in 2014. The Rebels led the SEC in scoring defense (13.8 ppg) and forced turnovers (28). The pass defense was also stingy all season, limiting opponents to just eight passing scores in 12 games. TCU’s offense is one of the most-improved units in college football and averaged 46.8 points per game in the regular season. Quarterback Trevone Boykin threw for 30 touchdowns and added eight more scores on the ground. The matchup of TCU’s offense against the Ole Miss defense should be one of the better chess matches of the bowl season. When the Rebels have the ball, coach Hugh Freeze has to continue being creative due to injuries at receiver. Quarterback Bo Wallace has been up and down in his career but will have his opportunities for big plays against a TCU secondary that allowed 24 passing plays of 30 yards or more this year.
6. Outback Bowl – Wisconsin (10-3) vs. Auburn (8-4)
Jan. 1 – Noon ET, ESPN2
The Badgers and Tigers are two of the nation’s top rushing attacks and this Jan. 1 Big Ten-SEC showdown shouldn’t disappoint. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon was held in check against Ohio State, but the junior still finished the regular season with 2,336 yards and 26 scores. And when Gordon needs a rest, backup Corey Clement is capable of providing some pop for the Wisconsin offense. Auburn has a different way of establishing its ground game, as running back Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482 yards) and quarterback Nick Marshall (780 yards) do most of their damage out of the shotgun and on read plays. Wisconsin’s offensive line should open up holes for Gordon against the Tigers’ struggling defense (4.1 ypc allowed, eighth in the SEC against the run), but how much can they get out of quarterback Joel Stave? If Auburn stacks the box, will Stave and his receivers have enough success to keep the Tigers honest?
7. Orange Bowl – Mississippi State (10-2) vs. Georgia Tech (10-3)
Dec. 31 – 8 p.m., ESPN
This Orange Bowl matchup is an unlikely pairing, but both Mississippi State and Georgia Tech have exceeded preseason expectations and meet for an interesting battle of styles in the Orange Bowl. The Bulldogs soared to No. 1 in the first college football playoff standings behind quarterback Dak Prescott. Losses to Alabama and Ole Miss hurt Prescott’s Heisman hopes, but the junior is still one of the top signal-callers in college football. Prescott and running back Josh Robinson anchor an offense averaging 37.2 points per game in 2014 and will be a handful for Georgia Tech to stop after the Yellow Jackets allowed 6.2 yards per play this season. The option offense is tough to prepare for, and Georgia Tech’s passing has improved with quarterback Justin Thomas under center. Even though the Yellow Jackets are a difficult team to simulate in practice, Mississippi State has a month to prepare and ranked fourth in the SEC against the run.
8. Alamo Bowl – Kansas State (9-3) vs. UCLA (9-3)
Jan. 2 – 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
These two teams were on the doorstep of playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl, but late losses pushed UCLA and Kansas State just out of the mix. While both programs would prefer to be in the Cotton or Fiesta, their meeting in the Alamo Bowl should be one of the better matchups outside of the playoff games. UCLA hopes to rebound after a disappointing loss to Stanford in the regular season finale, and this game is expected to be the last for quarterback Brett Hundley in a Bruins’ uniform. Hundley tossed only five picks this season and completed 70.4 percent of his throws. Kansas State’s Jake Waters doesn’t get the national recognition of Hundley, but the senior threw for 3,163 yards and 20 scores and added 471 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Waters needs to get the ball to dynamic receiver Tyler Lockett, as UCLA’s secondary allowed 15 passing plays of 30 yards or more this season.
9. Fiesta Bowl – Boise State (11-2) vs. Arizona (10-3)
Dec. 31 – 4 p.m., ESPN
Boise State is one of the big winners from the new format, as the Broncos claim the Group of 5 bowl spot and draw an intriguing matchup against Arizona. The Wildcats were easily handled by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, but coach Rich Rodriguez’s team didn’t fall far in the rankings. Both teams feature high-scoring offenses and defenses that are relatively similar in terms of points allowed (26.5 for Boise State and 27.5 for Arizona). The Broncos lean on running back Jay Ajayi (1,689 yards) to jumpstart the offense, and quarterback Grant Hedrick led the Mountain West in completion percentage (70.9). Arizona hopes the month off will allow quarterback Anu Solomon to return to full strength after the freshman dealt with an ankle injury late in the year. In addition to Solomon, running back Nick Wilson needs a rebound performance after he was held to 26 yards against Oregon. The Wildcats should have the edge in fan support with a short trip to Tucson to University of Phoenix Stadium. However, Boise State won’t be intimidated by the big stage and has two previous wins in the Fiesta Bowl.
10. Belk Bowl – Georgia (9-3) vs. Louisville (9-3)
Dec. 30 – 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Georgia and Louisville have never met on the gridiron, but there’s plenty of familiarity between the two programs. Todd Grantham spent four seasons as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and joined coach Bobby Petrino’s staff at Louisville prior to the 2014 season. Grantham has helped to mold a Cardinals defense that quickly adapted to his 3-4 approach and limited opponents to 4.6 yards per play. Louisville’s defensive prowess will be put to the test on Dec. 30, as Georgia led the SEC by averaging 41.7 points per game. The Bulldogs lost running back Todd Gurley to a season-ending ACL tear against Auburn. However, freshman Nick Chubb has been outstanding over the second half of 2014, and quarterback Hutson Mason tossed only four picks on 262 attempts. The Cardinals led the ACC in rush defense but allowed three out of their last four opponents to record at least 150 rushing yards. There’s uncertainty at quarterback for Louisville after Reggie Bonnafon suffered a knee injury in the finale against Kentucky. If Bonnafon can’t start, Kyle Bolin will get his first start under center.
11. Music City Bowl – LSU (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (7-5)
Dec. 30 – 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Music City Bowl is one of the big winners in the new SEC vs. ACC/Big Ten tie-in system. Even though both programs are fringe top 25 teams this year, in terms of name value, it doesn’t get much better for the Nashville bowl to have LSU and Notre Dame. While the name value is critical to the bowls, the matchup on the field may not live up to the hype. The Fighting Irish has allowed at least 30 points in seven consecutive games, and the rush defense is giving up 161.7 yards per contest. That’s a bad sign against the Tigers, as coach Les Miles’ team averages 219.5 yards per game on the ground, led by true freshman Leonard Fournette. LSU has struggled with its passing attack all season, but it may not matter if Notre Dame’s defense struggles at the point of attack. The Fighting Irish also need quarterback Everett Golson to regain his early-season form, as the junior has tossed seven picks over the last four games.
12. Texas Bowl – Arkansas (6-6) vs. Texas (6-6)
Dec. 29 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
The combined records of Arkansas and Texas is just 12-12, but there’s plenty of intrigue and momentum behind both programs to propel this matchup into the must-see category for bowl season. The battle in the trenches is worth the price of admission, as the Razorbacks own one of the top offensive lines in the SEC, while the Longhorns counter with an active defensive front that features standout tackle Malcom Brown. Neither team is prolific with the forward pass, but Arkansas has made improvement in its passing offense with quarterback Brandon Allen’s second year under center. These two teams are old rivals from the Southwest Conference and a low-scoring, hard-hitting game in Houston should be anticipated. Regardless of the outcome of this matchup, the arrow for both programs is clearly pointed up headed in 2015.
13. Holiday Bowl – Nebraska (9-3) vs. USC (8-4)
Dec. 27 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
In terms of name value and brands, it doesn’t get much better than Nebraska and USC. The Holiday Bowl is known for high-scoring games, so there’s some potential for this matchup to be one of the must-see pre-Jan. 1 contests. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty for Nebraska, as the program is in transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley. Will the Cornhuskers be ready to play under interim coach Barney Cotton? The Trojans were up and down in 2014, losing three games by a touchdown or less and suffering a blowout at the hands of rival UCLA. USC’s offense is explosive (35.1 ppg) behind quarterback Cody Kessler and receiver Nelson Agholor. This is the Trojans’ first trip to the Holiday Bowl.
14. Liberty Bowl – Texas A&M (7-5) vs. West Virginia (7-5)
Dec. 29 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
If you like offense, this game should be high on the must-watch list for bowl season. West Virginia and Texas A&M run a version of the Air Raid offense, with both programs averaging over 30 points a game in 2014. The Aggies finished the season by losing their last two games, and the defensive struggles cost coordinator Mark Snyder his job. Mark Hagan will serve as the interim play-caller for this game. The Mountaineers should have quarterback Clint Trickett back under center after he missed the season finale due to a concussion. Trickett and receiver Kevin White will be a tough matchup for a Texas A&M defense that allowed 30 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014. But the Mountaineers will also have their hands full on defense, as the Aggies led the SEC with 306.4 passing yards per game. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen previously worked under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston.
15. Sun Bowl – Arizona State (9-3) vs. Duke (9-3)
Dec. 27 – 2 p.m. ET, CBS
Duke’s remarkable improvement under coach David Cutcliffe continued with a solid 9-3 record this season. The Blue Devils fell short of reaching the conference title game again, but the trip to El Paso is the program’s third consecutive bowl appearance. Cutcliffe has done a lot of good things for Duke football over the last seven years, but the Blue Devils are still looking for their first postseason win since 1961. Arizona State is a tough matchup for Duke, as the Sun Devils feature an attacking defense and an explosive offense. Quarterback Taylor Kelly never seemed to regain his mobility after a foot injury suffered in September, but the month off should help the senior return to full strength. The Sun Devils are loaded with talent at the skill positions, including standout receiver Jaelen Strong (75 catches) and running back D.J. Foster (1,648 total yards). And the Arizona State defense is aggressive around the line of scrimmage, recording 97 tackles for a loss in 12 games. This is the first meeting between these two programs.
16. Russell Athletic Bowl – Oklahoma (8-4) vs. Clemson (9-3)
Dec. 29 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Both Oklahoma and Clemson enter the bowl season with question marks surrounding their offense. The Sooners played the last three games without starting quarterback Trevor Knight, and it’s uncertain if the sophomore will return to the lineup by bowl season. In addition to Knight’s status, running back Samaje Perine suffered an ankle injury against Oklahoma State and it’s uncertain if he will be limited in any capacity prior to the game. On the Clemson side, the offense has new co-coordinators on offense after Chad Morris left for SMU. Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott were promoted to replace Morris, with Scott listed as the play-caller. Losing Morris is a blow to Clemson’s offense, but there’s no shortage of talent. Despite playing with a torn ACL, Watson threw for 269 yards and two scores against South Carolina. Watson is joined by fellow freshmen Wayne Gallman and Artavis Scott as key pieces in the offensive attack. The Tigers also boast one of the nation’s top defensive lines and recorded 44 sacks during the regular season. This game also features some familiarity between the two schools, as Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables worked at Oklahoma from 1999-2011.
17. Boca Raton Bowl – Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)
Dec. 23, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
Marshall and Northern Illinois missed out on the Group of 5 bowl spot that went to Boise State, but this meeting between conference champions in the Boca Raton Bowl is the most intriguing non-Power 5 postseason matchup. The Thundering Herd has a balanced attack on offense, led by standout senior quarterback Rakeem Cato and running back Devon Johnson. While Marshall’s offense garners most of the attention nationally, its defense led C-USA by limiting opponents to 4.7 yards per play. Northern Illinois has been a model of consistency as the MAC’s top program recently, recording at least 10 wins in each of the last five seasons. The Huskies led the MAC by averaging 252.9 rushing yards per game this year, but their defense has been opportunistic (30 sacks and 24 forced turnovers). This is the first meeting between Marshall and Northern Illinois since 2001.
18. Citrus Bowl – Missouri (10-3) vs. Minnesota (8-4)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC
This matchup features two of the nation’s most underrated coaches in Minnesota’s Jerry Kill and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, and this is a good landing spot for two programs that are coming off successful seasons. The Tigers won the SEC’s East Division for the second consecutive year, while the Golden Gophers were a victory against Wisconsin away from playing Ohio State in Indianapolis. The battle in the trenches will be critical on Jan. 1, as Missouri’s defensive line is one of the best in the nation, and Minnesota wants to establish running back David Cobb to take the pressure off of quarterback Mitch Leidner. Cobb averages 129 yards per game, and it’s critical for the senior to get on track with Minnesota struggling to establish a consistent passing game. Missouri’s offense ranked 11th in the SEC by averaging 5.3 yards per play, but this unit plays to its strength (defense), doesn’t make a lot of mistakes (14 turnovers) and has playmakers at running back and receiver to help quarterback Maty Mauk.
19. Independence Bowl – Miami (6-6) vs. South Carolina (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
If anyone would have mentioned Miami and South Carolina meeting in a postseason game in August, it’s likely most would have predicted these two teams would matchup in a bowl in Orlando, Jacksonville or Charlotte. But Shreveport for the Independence Bowl? Likely very low in the list of guesses. It’s been a disappointing year for both programs, and motivation will play a key role in which team wins on Dec. 27. South Carolina’s rush defense (allowing 214.4 ypg) has been problematic all year and faces a tough assignment in stopping Miami running back Duke Johnson. The junior is likely playing in his last college game and finished with 1,520 yards and 10 scores in the regular season. True freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya led the ACC in quarterback rating (148.2) but could be without tight end Clive Walford due to a knee injury. The Hurricanes made strides on defense this year, and linebacker Denzel Perryman is one of the best in the nation. Miami’s improvement will be put to the test, as South Carolina averages 6.1 yards per play and features a 3,000-yard passer (Dylan Thompson) and a talented running back in Mike Davis.
20. Las Vegas Bowl – Utah (8-4) vs. Colorado State (10-2)
Dec. 20 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Two old Mountain West rivals meet in Las Vegas in perhaps the best matchup on the first Saturday of bowl action. Colorado State is under the direction of an interim coach in Dave Baldwin, as Jim McElwain left for Florida in early December. Utah capped its best season since joining the Pac-12 with an 8-4 record and lost two games by three points or less. The strength of coach Kyle Whittingham’s team is a strong defense, as end Nate Orchard anchors a pass rush that led the nation with 52 sacks in 2014. Colorado State will test Utah’s defense with a balanced attack. Running back Dee Hart (and Alabama transfer) averaged 6.7 yards per carry this year and recorded 16 rushing scores. Receiver Rashard Higgins (89 catches for 1,640 yards) had an All-America caliber season, and quarterback Garrett Grayson was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. These two programs have not met since 2010, and the Utes hold a 55-21-1 series edge over the Rams.
21. TaxSlayer Bowl – Tennessee (6-6) vs. Iowa (7-5)
Jan. 2 – 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tennessee is back in the postseason after a three-year absence. The Volunteers are headed in the right direction under coach Butch Jones, yet this program still has a lot of work to do in order to contend for the SEC East title next season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a promising sophomore, but he struggled against Vanderbilt and Missouri after accounting for nine total touchdowns in wins over Kentucky and South Carolina. Having a mobile quarterback like Dobbs is critical for Tennessee, as its offensive line has struggled to protect all season and faces a tough challenge from a formidable Iowa defensive front. The Hawkeyes had a favorable schedule but finished 7-5 after an overtime loss to Nebraska to close out the regular season. Iowa’s offense starts with its rushing attack, but quarterback Jake Rudock has been efficient (5 INTs on 337 attempts) this year.
22. Pinstripe Bowl – Penn State (6-6) vs. Boston College (7-5)
Dec. 27 – 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Points could be at a premium in Yankee Stadium. Boston College averages 25.9 points per game, while Penn State ranked last in the Big Ten with 19.8 per contest. The Nittany Lions struggled to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and allowed 42 sacks this season. Those numbers have to be appealing to Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown, as the Eagles ranked fourth in the ACC by recording 84 tackles for a loss in 2014. Penn State’s defense carried the team to a bowl bid and limited opponents to just 17.7 points per game. The Nittany Lions stingy rush defense will be a good matchup for the Boston College rushing attack and dual-threat quarterback Tyler Murphy.
23. Miami Beach Bowl – BYU (8-4) vs. Memphis (9-3)
Dec. 22 – 2 p.m., ESPN
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl game lands an intriguing matchup between BYU and Memphis. The Cougars had to overcome a lot this year, as the offense lost quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams to season-ending injuries. Despite losing Hill and Williams, BYU won its final four games to finish 8-4. Christian Stewart filled in admirably for Hill under center, throwing for 14 touchdowns and just one interception over his last four contests. Memphis has made significant progress under coach Justin Fuente, and the Tigers shared the American Athletic Conference after finishing 7-1 in league play this year. After averaging only 19.5 points per game last season, Memphis’ offense has made significant progress and ranked third in the conference by recording 34.7 points per contest in 2014. However, the strength of the Tigers is on defense, as coordinator Barry Odom has developed a group that limits opponents to 4.8 yards per play.
24. St. Petersburg Bowl – NC State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)
Dec. 26 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
UCF should have a strong contingent at Tropicana Field for this one, and the Knights will be looking to win their fourth consecutive postseason trip. NC State is back in the bowl scene after a one-year absence. The second season under coach Dave Doeren saw the Wolfpack improve their win total by four games, including a win over in-state rival North Carolina in the finale. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett ranked fourth in the ACC by averaging 236.8 total yards per game, and running back Shadrach Thornton averaged 5.5 yards per carry to rush for 811 yards in 2014. NC State’s offense will have its hands full against an active, speedy UCF defense. The Knights allow just 17.9 points per game and limit opponents to 4.3 yards per play. On offense, UCF isn’t as explosive as it was last season, but coach George O’Leary’s group scored at least 30 points in five out of their last six games.
25. Birmingham Bowl – East Carolina (8-4) vs. Florida (6-5)
Jan. 3 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2
Motivation could be an issue for Florida, as interim coach D.J. Durkin will oversee a trip to Birmingham before the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville starts in 2015. If the Gators show up to play, they are a tough matchup for East Carolina’s offense. The Pirates average 37.2 points per game behind quarterback Shane Carden, but Florida’s athletic defensive line could be a problem for an East Carolina offensive line that allowed 28 sacks this year. The matchup between Pirates receiver Justin Hardy and Gators cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III could be one of the best one-on-one battles of the bowl season.
26. Poinsettia Bowl – Navy (6-5) vs. San Diego State (7-5)
Dec. 23 – 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Navy is making its 11th consecutive bowl trip and the second visit to the Poinsettia Bowl four seasons. The Midshipmen still has one game remaining against Army on Dec. 13, and with a win in one of their final two matchups, Navy will clinch a winning record for the fourth consecutive season. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the catalyst for the offense, recording 51 rushing scores over the last two years. San Diego State is making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance and this is the third trip to the Poinsettia Bowl – its home stadium – in five years. The Aztecs’ rush defense will be tested against Navy’s option attack, but Rocky Long’s group held Air Force (another option team) to 140 yards in late November. San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey led the Mountain West with 1,761 rushing yards this season.
27. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Western Michigan (8-4) vs. Air Force (9-3)
Dec. 20 – 5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
What a difference a year makes. Last season, Western Michigan and Air Force combined for just three victories. In 2014, the Broncos and Falcons combined for 17 wins. Expect to see plenty of rushing attempts between these two teams, as Air Force ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense, and Western Michigan is led by Jarvion Franklin (1,525 yards in 2014). Franklin’s emergence was a key reason for the Broncos’ turnaround, but quarterback Zach Terrell’s improvement (23 TDs, 10 INTs) shouldn’t be overlooked. Air Force won’t have running back and leading rusher Jacobi Owens (season-ending foot injury) for this game. However, quarterback Kale Pearson is expected to play after missing the season finale due to injury. Both teams also made major strides on defense this season, with Air Force limiting opponents to 24.2 points per game after allowing 40 per contest last season. This is the first meeting between these two programs.
28. Quick Lane Bowl – Rutgers (7-5) vs. North Carolina (6-6)
Dec. 26 – 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Quick Lane Bowl is essentially the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl rebooted with Power 5 conference tie-ins. Even though Rutgers averages only 25.6 points per game this year, it would not be a surprise to see this game feature plenty of offensive fireworks. North Carolina’s offense ranks third in the ACC with an average of 34.3 points per contest, and quarterback Marquise Williams closed the regular season by recording at least 300 total yards in two out of his last three games. It’s a good thing the Tar Heels can score, as their defense allowed 6.4 yards per play and 38.9 points per game. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova has struggled with turnovers during his career, but the senior finished the year on a high note by tossing four touchdowns in a win over Maryland. Expect Nova and receiver Leonte Carroo to test a secondary that allowed 28 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014.
29. Cactus Bowl – Washington (8-5) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)
Jan. 2 – 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Oklahoma State’s upset over Oklahoma extended the Cowboys’ bowl streak to nine consecutive seasons. And coach Mike Gundy’s team should benefit from the extra practices, especially with true freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph expected to earn another start in this matchup. Washington finished its first season under coach Chris Petersen at 8-5, but two losses came by a touchdown or less. The offense is still finding its rhythm under coordinator Jonathan Smith and scored at least 30 points in back-to-back games to close out the regular season. The defense is Washington’s strength, as the Huskies limit opponents to 24.4 points per game and ranked second in the Pac-12 by recording 49 sacks. These two teams have not met since 1985.
30. Foster Farms Bowl – Stanford (7-5) vs. Maryland (7-5)
Dec. 30 – 10 p.m. ET, ESPN
Expect a low-scoring affair when Maryland and Stanford meet on Dec. 30. The Cardinal opened 2014 with high expectations, but the program slipped to 7-5 and salvaged part of their season by defeating UCLA in late November to avoid a 6-6 mark. The Terrapins’ Big Ten debut wasn’t bad, as coach Randy Edsall’s team won seven games, including victories at Michigan and Penn State. Both teams average under 30 points a contest and have struggled to develop a consistent passing attack this season. Maryland is expected to have star receiver Stefon Diggs back in the mix after a lacerated kidney forced him to miss the final three games. However, Diggs and the Terrapins offense will find little room to maneuver against a Stanford defense that limited opponents to 16 points a game.
31. GoDaddy Bowl – Arkansas State (7-5) vs. Toledo (8-4)
Jan. 4 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Arkansas State is making its fourth straight trip to Mobile to play in the GoDaddy Bowl. But unlike previous years, the Red Wolves will play in this game with no uncertainty at head coach. First-year coach Blake Anderson was the fourth Arkansas State coach in four years and guided the program to its fourth consecutive winning record in 2014. The Red Wolves ranked second in the Sun Belt by averaging 36.1 points per game, and quarterback Fredi Knighten led the conference with 304.1 total yards per game. Toledo is back in the postseason after a one-year absence, and the Rockets tied for the MAC West title. The offense leads the way for coach Matt Campbell’s team, as running back Kareem Hunt (151.1 ypg) might be one of the nation’s most underrated players.
32. New Orleans Bowl – UL Lafayette (8-4) vs. Nevada (7-5)
Dec. 20 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
This will be UL Lafayette’s fourth consecutive trip to the New Orleans Bowl under coach Mark Hudspeth. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 3-0 in three previous trips to the Big Easy. ULL’s four losses came against teams with winning records, including Ole Miss and Boise State. Nevada is back in the postseason after a one-year absence, and the Wolf Pack is led by dynamic senior quarterback Cody Fajardo. Fajardo averages 280.9 total yards per game and leads the team in rushing (997 yards). Nevada’s rush defense (allowing 179.1 yards per game) will be tested by the Ragin’ Cajuns one-two punch of Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris.
33. Armed Forces Bowl – Houston (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)
Jan. 2 – Noon ET, ESPN
Thanks to its Week 14 upset win over Miami, Pittsburgh sneaks into the postseason with an at-large berth in the Armed Forces Bowl. And with a win over Houston, the Panthers will match their win total from last year (seven) and build momentum for a team that returns a good chunk of the depth chart in 2015. The Cougars are one of the American Athletic Conference’s top defensive teams in the regular season and have specialized in forcing takeaways over the last two years. But this unit will have its hands full against Pittsburgh’s offense. Running back James Conner earned ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors by averaging 139.6 yards per game and finishing with 24 rushing scores. Houston’s offense enters the bowl game with three consecutive games of at least 30 points scored. Quarterback Greg Ward is a playmaker with dual-threat ability, and receiver Deontay Greenberry is an intriguing NFL talent.
34. Military Bowl – Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Military Bowl features an intriguing contrast in styles. Cincinnati’s offense averages 35.4 points per game, while Virginia Tech’s defense ranked second in the ACC by limiting opponents to 20.4 points a contest. The Hokies have been prone to allowing big plays in the passing game (38 plays allowed of 20 yards or more), which is a concern against the Bearcats’ passing offense. Quarterback Gunner Kiel led the American Athletic Conference with 30 passing scores, and six receivers caught at least 20 passes this year. While Cincinnati has no trouble putting points on the board, defense has been an issue for coach Tommy Tuberville. However, the Bearcats are facing an offense that scored just 23.3 points a game and was hit hard by injuries at the running back position.
35. Bahamas Bowl – Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5)
Dec. 24 – Noon ET, ESPN
In terms of destination bowl trips, it doesn’t get much better than this game. The Hilltoppers and Chippewas meet in the inaugural Bahamas Bowl and for the second time in three years in a postseason game. Central Michigan defeated Western Kentucky 24-21 in the 2012 Little Caesars Bowl. This season’s matchup could feature more points, as the Hilltoppers average 44 points a game behind senior quarterback Brandon Doughty. The Chippewas led the MAC in total defense, and the secondary is limiting opponents to just 211.4 yards per game through the air. Running back Thomas Rawls leads the way for Central Michigan’s offense (122.6 ypg), but the offense has had trouble holding onto the ball this season (26 turnovers).
36. New Mexico Bowl – Utah State (9-4) vs. UTEP (7-5)
Dec. 20 – 2:20 p.m. ET, ESPN
The last two versions of the New Mexico Bowl featured over 90 points scored. While bowl games are unpredictable, it’s probably a safe bet UTEP and Utah State won’t combine for 90 points on Dec. 20. The Miners average 28.3 points per game on the strength of their rushing attack. Quarterback Jameill Showers – a Texas A&M transfer – and running backs Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffery headline an offense that averages 212.7 rushing yards per game. UTEP may have to open it up to get its ground game on track, as Utah State leads the Mountain West (129.3) in rush defense. The Aggies had to overcome another season of injuries at quarterback, as true freshman Kent Myers is the fourth signal-caller to play this year. This game is also a matchup of two second-year coaches doing a good job at their alma mater (Matt Wells (Utah State) and Sean Kugler (UTEP).
37. Heart of Dallas Bowl – Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)
Dec. 26 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Louisiana Tech and Illinois weren’t picked by many to reach the postseason, but both programs rebounded into a bowl after each won just four games last season. The Fighting Illini’s 6-6 record was enough for coach Tim Beckman to return in 2015, and the staff hopes to use this game as a way to build momentum for next year. Quarterback Wes Lunt was injured midway through the season and never appeared to be at full strength after he returned from a leg injury. The month off should help Lunt return to 100 percent. Louisiana Tech’s defense made significant progress under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, limiting opponents to 25.2 points per game and forcing 40 takeaways. The Bulldogs will present some challenges for Illinois’ defense, which allowed 33.9 points per contest. Running back Kenneth Dixon led C-USA with 21 rushing scores and averages 5.2 yards per carry.
38. Camellia Bowl – South Alabama (6-6) vs. Bowling Green (7-6)
Dec. 20 – 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
South Alabama’s football program is only six years old, and coach Joey Jones has done a good job of getting the Jaguars competitive in a short amount of time. This is not only the inaugural Camellia Bowl, but this game marks South Alabama’s first trip to a postseason game. The Jaguars lost four out of their last five games to close out the regular season but played a tough schedule late, including matchups against UL Lafayette, Arkansas State, Texas State, South Carolina and Navy. Bowling Green also struggled late, winning only two out of its last six games. The Falcons lost their starting quarterback (Matt Johnson) after the season opener and backups James Knapke and Cody Callaway combined for 14 touchdowns and 13 picks. With the passing game struggling, Bowling Green needs to lean on its ground attack, which is led by junior Travis Greene (908 yards). This is the first meeting between these two programs.
39. Hawaii Bowl – Fresno State (6-7) vs. Rice (7-5)
Dec. 24 – 8 p.m. ET – ESPN
Fresno State is the only team in the bowl season with a losing record, but coach Tim DeRuyter’s squad makes a postseason trip to Hawaii after winning the West Division and playing in the Mountain West title game. The Bulldogs are reloading after losing quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams, and DeRuyter’s team is looking for its first postseason win since 2007. Rice has quietly won 24 games over the last three seasons and is led by a rushing offense averaging 170.3 yards per game. Fresno State has won all six previous meetings between these two teams.
Baylor is upset that it beat TCU head-to-head and won the Big 12 championship by any logical or rational definition and is sitting at home. TCU is upset because the Horned Frogs won a game 55-3 and dropped from third to sixth and finds itself out of the tournament.
Everyone is upset that Ohio State — a team with the worst loss, the fewest good wins and an injured Heisman caliber quarterback — is in the bracket at all.
Common sense is upset at Bob Bowlsby and the Big 12.
As much as I enjoy the role of contrarian, I can't really disagree with any of that. If I were a TCU fan, I'd be furious. If I was a Baylor fan, I'd be livid. There is some justified Texas-sized diaper rash in Waco and Fort Worth. Both teams were deserving.
But we expected this.
We knew the advent of a selection committee was going to create inherent doubt and endless debate. The top three were going to be obvious and a small number of teams, say two or three, were going to feel like they earned that fourth spot. It's the nature of the beast we now call the College Football Playoff.
But it's an extremely small price to pay for the end result: Two historic playoff showdowns in college football for the first time in history. The landmark four-team, three-game tournament is going to be extraordinary and I'm going to love every snap.
The likely Heisman Trophy winner is going to face the unbeaten defending national champs. The flashiest program in the country that everyone loves to watch versus the most controversial franchise that America loves to hate. Marcus Mariota v. Jameis Winston. Need I say more?
Oregon-Florida State in Pasadena would be a outstandingly juicy matchup if it was the BCS national championship game. But college football gets another epic 60 minutes in New Orleans.
The sixth-winningest program in college football history (Ohio St) will face the eighth-winningest program in college football history (Alabama) in a game that features six combined BCS title game appearances. The undisputed king of the Big Ten will square off against the czar of the Southeastern Conference in football's modern embodiment of the North-South rivalry. Urban Meyer will match wits with Nick Saban in what amounts to their third national semifinal against one another in search of their combined seventh national title ring.
You'd have to be a corpse not to get excited.
Could I make a case that TCU looked like the best challenger with a reinvented offense and playmaking defense? Of course. Could I make a case that Baylor was, in fact, the one true champion of the Big 12 and was clearly the most deserving team in the conversation? Yes sir. Could I make the case that Ohio State is the most talented of the three, playing the best football of the three and would be the toughest out of the three? You bet.
But why waste all that time? These two playoff games are the first of their kind and will be remembered throughout college football history. When people talk about the 2014 season, they will always include "the first playoff games in college football history." It's a lot to live up to.
I am thankful that these two matchups will be deserving of such folklore.
College football’s new four-team playoff format starts on Jan. 1 with Oregon and Florida State meeting in the Rose Bowl, while Alabama takes on Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl to close out the first round. The Crimson Tide ranked as the No. 1 seed in the new format, with the Ducks ranked No. 2 over the defending national champs. The winner of the Sugar and Rose Bowl games on Jan. 1 are set to meet on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
The Sugar and Rose Bowls won’t take place for almost another month, but it’s never too early to look ahead. Athlon’s editors predict the first two games and offer their national championship pick in the early playoff predictions.
College Football Playoff Predictions
David Fox (@DavidFox615): Alabama over Oregon
The showdown we’ve wanted to see for years — Oregon’s high-powered offense vs. Alabama’s shutdown defense. Never mind that the architect of the offense coaches for the Eagles now, and this is merely a “good” Alabama defense rather than an outstanding one. The Ducks’ defense will be the difference here, and not in a good way. Alabama re-tooled its attack this season to a spread, no-huddle and this is the endgame, a national championship over the best in the West.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven): Alabama over Florida State
There is plenty of intrigue in the first four-team playoff and any of the matchups would provide an entertaining national championship. Alabama is the nation’s most-talented team, and the defense is the best among the teams in the playoff. It’s hard to pick against the Crimson Tide with a month to prepare for an Ohio State team that has a quarterback making his second career start. The Rose Bowl should be a high-scoring affair, but I’ll differ with my colleagues and take Florida State over Oregon. The Ducks have an explosive offense and the top player in college football this year in quarterback Marcus Mariota. However, the time off should help the Seminoles get healthy on defense, and I like the coaching edge and experience in big games of Jimbo Fisher. Regardless of which team wins the Rose Bowl, I don’t think either is getting by Alabama in the national championship. The Crimson Tide win their third title in four years.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): Alabama over Oregon
I tried to find a reason to pick a team other than Alabama — but couldn't pull the trigger on any team but the Crimson Tide. Nick Saban's team is far from perfect but has fewer issues than any of the other three schools in the College Football Playoff field. The offense is loaded with elite playmakers and is thriving under first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin. The defense has had some problems in the secondary but is still one of the best in the nation. Oregon will no doubt present a difficult test, but I can't envision a scenario in which the Ducks have enough answers defensively for the Tide's diverse offense.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall): Alabama over Oregon
Ohio State has SEC-type talent and a former SEC mad scientist running the show, but Nick Saban and Alabama will have more than three weeks to prepare for a third-string quarterback making his second career start. That doesn't bode well Urban Meyer. Out West, Marcus Mariota will be the difference against a Florida State defense that has lived on the edge all season. The Seminoles have struggled against the run and their inability to get stops will create a role reversal in the Rose Bowl as Mariota leads a game-winning drive in the waning moments, costing Jimbo Fisher a second straight championship. In Arlington, the Crimson Tide uses physicality and defense to push around and disrupt the Ducks offense en route to Saban's fifth national championship.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR): Oregon over Alabama
With all of the debate surrounding the fourth team, I don't think there's much argument when it comes to which two we will see play on Jan. 12. Give Urban Meyer and Ohio State plenty of credit for accomplishing what they have despite losing a Heisman Trophy candidate (QB Braxton Miller) before the season even started. That said, Nick Saban will have Alabama's defense ready for Cardale Jones/Ezekiel Elliott, and the Crimson Tide's ability to attack teams both on the ground and through the air will be enough to get past the Buckeyes. On the other side of the bracket, I look for Oregon and Marcus Mariota to be the team that finally makes Florida State and Jameis Winston pay for a sluggish start. Besides, isn't it appropriate that the next Heisman Trophy winner takes the mantle from the former one by beating him? That leaves us, fittingly, with a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup at Jerry Jones' house for all of the marbles. I'm probably in the minority here, but I am going to take my chances with Mariota putting a stamp on his spectacular season by bedeviling Alabama's defense to lead his Ducks to their first-ever national title. After all, in a season that has been as crazy as this one, doesn't it make perfect sense to pick the only team (and head coach for that matter) in the bracket that has never won a national title to do just that?
The NFL and Major League Baseball playoffs have their wild cards. The College Football Playoff does, too. If not in name, Ohio State is the wild card in practice.
The Buckeyes were the last team in the four-team field, and the most controversial. Ohio State’s 59-0 win over Wisconsin the Big Ten Championship put the Buckeyes over the top ahead of TCU and Baylor. Personnel-wise, Ohio State is also a wild card. The Buckeyes have played only one game with the quarterback who will start the Sugar Bowl.
Intentionally or not, the selection committee provided plenty of fodder for pre-game storylines in pairing Ohio State with Alabama. The Buckeyes will face a representative from the conference that denied the Buckeyes the 2006 and 2007 BCS championship. Meanwhile, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will face his biggest on-field nemesis from his days at Florida (Nick Saban) and his biggest off-field pest (Lane Kiffin).
Now that the bracket is set and the storylines are established, it’s time to wonder if Ohio State can win this thing. Here are five reasons why they might.
5 Reasons Why Ohio State Will Win the CFB Playoff
1. Cardale Jones
This is counterintuitive but perhaps crazy enough to work against Alabama. If Cardale Jones really is as good as his performance against Wisconsin indicates, Ohio State will be in good shape at the quarterback position despite all the odds. Jones completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns against a top-five defense in Wisconsin. And that’s essentially all the game film Nick Saban and his staff will have to dissect. We know Jones has a big arm (15.1 yards per attempt against the Badgers) and one of the best deep threats in the field in Devin Smith (26.6 yards per reception). A dropback passer also is a different look for Meyer against Saban, who faced Tim Tebow in their two SEC championship matchups.
2. Joey Bosa
Perhaps one statistical surprise among the four teams in the field: Only one of them ranked in the top 20 in sacks this season. Led by Joey Bosa, Ohio State is that team at more than three sacks per game. Bosa may be the most disruptive defensive player on any of the four playoff teams with 13.5 sacks (fourth nationally) and 20 tackles for a loss (tied for fifth).
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3. Ezekiel Elliott
Meyer went his entire career without a 1,000-yard running back before Carlos Hyde did it last season. Now, Meyer has had two in two seasons. Elliott will make Jones’ job much easier if he can continue his hot streak into the playoff. Elliott rushed for 220 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against Wisconsin, nearly tripling Melvin Gordon’s output in that game. Elliott is averaging nearly nine yards per carry in his last three games.
4. A ball-hawking defense
Every offense in the playoff can throw the ball, so making defensive plays in the passing game is going to be a major factor. In that case, Ohio State has a nice track record. Ohio State finished the season ranked fourth nationally with 21 interceptions, including seven in the last four games. Only three teams didn’t throw a pick against Ohio State. Then again, that might be a concern. The top quarterback Ohio State faced all season was Michigan State’s Connor Cook, who completed 25-of-45 passes for 358 yards with two touchdowns and no picks.
5. Urban Meyer
Facing Saban in the semifinal evens the odds a bit, but few coaches have as good a track record as Meyer in championship or elimination-type games (Saban is one of them). Meyer is 5-2 in BCS championship games or conference title games in which a trip to the title game, or in the case, the playoff, are on the line. Again, Saban’s record is pretty unimpeachable itself, but Meyer’s is close. The matchup includes a 1-1 record in SEC championship games between Florida and Alabama, games that were in effect national semifinals.
When the guy who correctly predicts presidential races down to the electoral vote is thrown off the scent, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that following the weekly College Football Playoff horse race is not the best use of time.
As the season wrapped up Saturday night, Nate Silver posted that FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model pegged TCU as 91.1 percent likely to earn a playoff spot, a more solid prediction than even undefeated Florida State.
Nevertheless, Silver wrote he believed Florida State was more safe than the model indicated and TCU less so. Silver’s gut turned out to be more on point than the statistical model.
By Sunday morning, Ohio State was in and TCU was out. A victory for the 8.9 percent chance.
Let’s not be harsh on Silver, though. This the same person whose statistical models predict presidential and congressional races with regular accuracy. He gets a mulligan on trying to predict a process that has no precedent.
The playoff selection committee threw everyone off in the final rankings. Certainly, there was a sense that Ohio State, on the strength of a 59-0 win over Wisconsin and a Big Ten title, could move from No. 5 to No. 4 even though TCU defeated Iowa State 55-3. It also remained plausible Baylor, facing the top opponent of any of the three in No. 9 Kansas State, could move ahead of TCU.
But anyone Saturday night saying they were certain Ohio State would end up in the playoff was simply guessing.
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For six weeks, the selection committee met, deliberated, ranked a top 25 and explained why each team fit in each spot. Each week, TCU ranked ahead of both Ohio State and Baylor.
Ohio State slowly gained on the top four, and Baylor inched closer and closer to the team it defeated on Oct. 11. All the while, though, TCU maintained the upper hand.
In the only ranking that matters, Ohio State moved to No. 4 followed by Baylor and TCU in a complete about-face to the earlier top 25.
Not that the movement is unjustifiable — Ohio State played in one more game than the two teams from the Big 12, and that game ended in a 59-0 rout on a neutral field over a top 20 team that entered the game as a four-point favorite.
And hours after the committee released the top six, it revealed another significant change in its rankings: Mississippi State finished No. 7 and Michigan State finished No. 8. A week earlier, the Spartans were two spots ahead of the Bulldogs.
This flip-flop occurred despite neither team playing in the final week. Moreover, the two teams that defeated Michigan State (Oregon and Ohio State) went on to win conference titles in the final week of the season compared to the one for Mississippi State (Alabama).
That move may not seen substantial, but it allowed Mississippi State to take a spot in the Orange Bowl, the bowl destination anticipated for Michigan State. The Spartans instead will go to the Cotton Bowl.
Now, unless you’re a Michigan State fan who already booked travel to Miami, this isn’t a big deal. It simply underscores that the weekly reveal of the rankings and the weekly meetings were little more than TV programming.
The weekly top 25 in the end offered little insight into what the selection committee actually would do when it came time to fill out a bracket and send teams to bowls.
The process displayed transparency but only to a point. Committee chair Jeff Long ably spoke to the media each week and justify one ranking or another. At the same time, Long dodged any mention of which of the 12 voices held the most sway, if any, or which committee members dissented.
And in the end, the weekly rankings did little to predict how the final rankings would end up.
The weekly rankings deserve skepticism for this exact reason. The entire process left Long explaining why a team that was ranked third five days ago and won 55-3 in the last week of the season ended up sixth.
And this is what we wanted, too, even if no one said it. The polls had a formula and generally stuck to it late in the season: Keep winning and you won’t move down — even if you beat 2-10 Iowa State while the teams behind you picked up comfortable wins over top-20 teams. Wrote Silver:
In other words, the committee appears to engage in a more thorough reassessment of the teams with its final rankings. For better or worse, it’s more concerned about getting the “right” answer in the end than in being consistent from week to week.
The question now is if the committee will go through the same process of producing what now seem to be meaningless weekly rankings.
That is for the bureaucracy to decide.
“I think that the committee will look at this year, look at this season, look at how the entire process went,” Long said. “We will discuss it as a committee and we will discuss it with the management committee and we’ll probably make some recommendations, but it’s up to the management committee how the process will change and if those weekly rankings will change.”
The process could remain the same. Perhaps the committee will release fewer rankings. Maybe it will follow the basketball committee’s lead and simply let the bracket speak for itself.
In any case, we’ll all watch. Just don’t expect us to take it too seriously.
Alabama enters the college football playoff as the No. 1 overall seed and the odds-on favorite to win the 2014-15 national championship. The Crimson Tide has won two out of the last three titles and enters the playoff with an eight-game winning streak, including a 42-13 win over Missouri in the SEC Championship and a 55-44 victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
The Crimson Tide’s formula for success hasn’t changed. Nick Saban’s team leans on a strong defense to win games, but the offense also proved capable of carrying this team, as the rushing attack is solid with backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, while receiver Amari Cooper is the best in college football. Blake Sims has developed into a solid starter and potential All-SEC quarterback under coordinator Lane Kiffin.
5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Win the CFB Playoff
1. Best Roster and Coach in College Football
Recruiting rankings aren’t necessary 100 percent accurate, but there’s some truth in the evaluations. Alabama has landed the No. 1 class in four consecutive seasons and ranked No. 5 in 2010. There’s talent and depth at every position, and the Crimson Tide has the best overall collection of players in college football this year. In addition to the depth on the roster, Nick Saban is the best coach in the nation. Saban won three BCS Championships at Alabama and claimed the 2003 title at LSU. The X’s and O’s matter, but the Crimson Tide has the best roster and coach in the nation. And considering this program’s success in the BCS era, it’s hard to pick against Alabama in the four-team playoff.
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2. Blake Sims
Alabama went into fall camp with uncertainty at quarterback. Jacob Coker was expected to win the job, but Blake Sims edged the Florida State transfer for the starting job and has turned in a solid all-around year. Sims finished with 3,250 yards and 26 scores and completed 64.8 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 321 yards and six touchdowns. The senior had only 39 career pass attempts entering 2014, but Sims could be an All-SEC player, which comes as a surprise after the preseason debate under center. The senior tossed three picks against Auburn but rallied with a strong performance against Missouri (23 of 27 for 262 yards). Sims entered the year as a big question mark. However, after 13 games, it’s clear the senior is capable of making enough plays in the passing game and is no longer Alabama’s biggest concern.
3. Defense Wins Championships
If the old adage “defense wins championships” holds true in 2014, then Alabama is set with the best group in the four-team playoff. The Crimson Tide allow just 4.7 yards per play (tied for ninth in the nation) and limit opponents to 16.6 points per contest. The secondary has been prone to allow a few big plays, but the rush defense has been rock solid all year. Alabama ranks second nationally against the run by holding opponents to 88.7 yards per game and limiting rushers to 2.8 yards per carry. And the Crimson Tide has allowed just three rushing scores all year. With the concerns in the secondary, it’s important for Alabama to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide has 28 sacks in 13 games and ranked fourth in the SEC by recording 85 tackles for a loss. The stats backup what the depth chart shows: Alabama has the best defense in the playoff.
4. WR Amari Cooper is Unstoppable
Using the term unstoppable is a bit of a cliché, but receiver Amari Cooper capped an outstanding regular season with 12 catches for 83 yards against Missouri in the SEC Championship. Cooper always had elite talent and appeared poised for a monster sophomore season after catching 58 passes for 999 yards as a freshman in 2012. However, Cooper’s numbers dropped to 45 catches for 736 yards. New coordinator Lane Kiffin has made Cooper a priority in the offense, and the junior emerged as a Heisman candidate by finishing the year with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns. Cooper recorded three 200-yard games and caught a touchdown pass in six out of Alabama’s nine SEC matchups. The Crimson Tide has an elite defense and a good rushing attack, but no team had an answer for Cooper in 2014. That narrative should continue in the playoffs.
5. One-Two Punch of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry
While Amari Cooper and Blake Sims’ emergence has allowed Alabama to open up the offense this season, the gameplan still revolves around establishing the run. The Crimson Tide average 209.5 yard per contest, with Yeldon and Henry forming one of the nation’s top tandems at running back. Yeldon was banged up at the end of the year but still finished with 932 yards and 10 scores. Henry is a bigger back and can pound away at defenses in the second half. The sophomore has 895 yards and 10 touchdowns on 159 attempts this year. Henry is coming off his best performance of the year by recording 141 yards and two scores against Missouri. Stopping Alabama’s rushing attack is easier said than done. Only one team held the Crimson Tide under 100 yards (Arkansas, 66 yards) and this offense rushed for 130 yards only three times in 2014. Defenses have to commit extra defenders into the box to slow down Yeldon and Henry, which opens up the play-action pass to Cooper. That’s quite a dilemma for any coordinator.
Florida State enters the college football playoff with a 29-game winning streak and a tough first-round matchup against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. The Seminoles aren’t the same team that claimed the BCS Championship last season, but coach Jimbo Fisher’s team is loaded with young talent and one of the top quarterbacks (Jameis Winston) in the nation.
Despite finishing unbeaten, Florida State dropped in the committee’s rankings throughout the year. The Seminoles weren’t dominant in most of their games, but Fisher’s team consistently found ways to win, while overcoming youth and injuries on defense.
5 Reasons Why Florida State Will Win the CFB Playoff
1. Jameis Winston
Winston has experienced his shares of ups and downs this season, but when the sophomore is locked in, he’s one of the best in college football. The sophomore missed one game due to suspension and finished the season with 3,559 yards and 24 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. In the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech, Winston turned in one of his best performances of the year by throwing for 309 yards and three scores on 21 completions. An ankle injury bothered Winston late in the year, and with nearly a month to heal, the sophomore should be at his best in the playoffs. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Winston will have plenty of time to work on getting in rhythm with young targets like Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson and Ermon Lane. In the playoffs, a quarterback that’s on fire can carry a team to a championship. Winston is that type of player.
2. Defensive Improvement and Better Health
Florida State’s defense isn’t as dominant as it was last year, but this unit also had to overcome a lot of injuries, a new coordinator and youth in the starting lineup. The Seminoles allow 5.3 yards per play, which ranks 11th in the ACC. And under the direction of first-year coordinator Charles Kelly, the defense ranks sixth in the conference in points allowed per game (23). Kelly has done a good job of making adjustments within the game, as the defense stepped up in the second half against Louisville, Georgia Tech and Miami. While those numbers are up from last season, it’s important to consider Florida State could have zero senior starters in its first playoff game. Standout defensive tackle Eddie Goldman suffered an ankle injury in the ACC Championship, and his status for the playoff games is uncertain. If Goldman can’t play, that’s a huge blow for a defensive line that is already without Nile Lawrence-Stample due to a season-ending injury. Injuries also hit the linebacking corps hard, including ailments to junior Terrance Smith and redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas. It’s possible the time off is going to benefit Florida State’s defense more than any other unit in the four-team playoff.
Listen to the College Football Playoff Committee podcast:
3. Freshman Talent on Offense
The Seminoles have veteran playmakers like seniors Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary, but the time to prepare for the playoffs will help coach Jimbo Fisher develop some of the team’s young talent. Running back Dalvin Cook emerged as the team’s top running back over the second half of the season and finished the year with 905 yards and eight scores. The true freshman from Miami gashed Georgia Tech for 177 yards and rushed for 144 yards against Florida. In addition to Cook’s emergence, the receiving corps features an emerging star in freshman Travis Rudolph (32 catches for 459 yards), and true freshman Roderick Johnson is now the team’s starting left tackle. All three players have been major contributors over the last half of the season, and with the additional time to prepare, all three will be more comfortable in Florida State’s offense. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the playoff teams.
4. Experience Winning Close Games
The knock on Florida State’s resume heading into the national championship last year was the lack of close wins. The Seminoles dispelled that narrative after scoring a late touchdown to beat Auburn in the BCS Championship. A year later, the narrative on coach Jimbo Fisher’s team is the Seminoles are simply winning too many close games. Regardless of whether that should be held against Florida State in the seeding, it could come in handy in the playoffs. Florida State won seven games by a touchdown or less and only two of its final seven matchups were decided by more than 10 points. If the Seminoles are locked into another tight matchup in the playoffs, this team has the experience and confidence to overcome a late deficit.
5. Best Kicker in College Football
If Florida State plays another close game, kicker Roberto Aguayo could be a difference maker. Yes, that’s right – we are highlighting a kicker in this section. The sophomore is the best kicker in the nation and the defending Lou Groza Award winner. Aguayo connected on 25 of 27 field goals this season, including 9 of 11 attempts from 40 yards or more. Both Alabama and Oregon have struggled at times with their field goal attempts this season. If either team is locked into a close game with Florida State, Aguayo’s ability to hit 50-yard attempts is a valuable asset for coach Jimbo Fisher.
Oregon is in. And it's going to be a tough out.
Mark Helfrich has led his program to the Pac-12 Championship, the inaugural College Football Playoff and likely the school's first Heisman Trophy. But his team has much left to accomplish as it begins a month-long preparation for what will be the first of two possible playoff games.
The Ducks are playing as well as any team in the nation, winners of eight straight games by an average of 26 points per game. Here is how Oregon will win the national championship:
5 Reasons Why Oregon Will Win the CFB Playoff
1. Marcus Mariota stays healthy
It's not about Mariota protecting the football, being an efficient passer, making plays with his legs, handling the defensive pressure or any other traditional concern coaches have about quarterbacks heading into big games. Because no one can stop Marcus Mariota. The only concern fans should have with the likely Heisman Trophy winner is an injury. It might be the only thing that can keep Mariota from producing at a high level. That and maybe the Heisman buffet circuit.
2. Spread the wealth on offense
How can Helfrich keep Mariota upright and healthy? By spreading the ball around on offense to a developing collection of electric offensive weapons. Mariota isn't the only reason the Ducks offense is surging into the playoffs, and his supporting cast has gone from a question mark to coordinator's nightmare. In the win over Arizona, Oregon featured nine different ball carriers and four different players caught at least five passes. Helfrich has a power workhorse (Royce Freeman), a speedy deep threat (Devon Allen), a steady possession guy (Darren Carrington) and dynamic all-purpose threats (Byron Marshall, Charles Nelson). When all of these pieces are clicking, the Ducks can rip off huge chunks of yards and protect their star quarterback in the process.
Listen to the College Football Playoff Committee podcast:
3. Waves of defensive linemen
The Ducks aren't a dominant defensive team by any means but have enough talent to cause plenty of problems in the playoff. Oregon is 21st nationally in both sacking the quarterback (34.0) and tackles for loss (85.0). Don Pellum's front seven tormented the Arizona offense in the Pac-12 championship game, holding RichRod's unit to just 25 yards at halftime. He had five different players register at least a portion of a sack (4.0 total) and finished with 7.0 tackles for loss as a team. This unit comes in waves as 14 different players have registered a sack this season. In order to win a national championship, this group has to play its best football of the season — or, at least, match what it accomplished against Arizona.
4. Avoid Alabama altogether
There is a chance Oregon won't have to face Alabama in order to win a national championship this season. The Tide is the most talented roster in the nation led by the best coach in the land and likely would be the Ducks toughest possible matchup. If Alabama loses in the Sugar Bowl to Ohio State, the Oregon Ducks immediately become the favorite in the national championship game — if, of course, they can get past the defending national champions in Pasadena. Speaking of the Rose Bowl...
5. Play games west of the Mississippi
Oregon enters the first college football tournament the No. 2 seed and picked as the top challenger to Alabama. Part of the reason the Ducks have the best chance to knock off No. 1 and win a championship is that Oregon will play both games west of the Mississippi. As far as logistics and travel are concerned, the current path to a title is about as fortunate a draw an Oregon head coach could ever ask for. A semifinal in Pasadena is the best possible location for the Ducks to land in any round and a national final in Arlington keeps the Pacific Northwest program on one half of the country throughout the tourney.
The Buffalo Bills will try and improve their playoff standing when they take on the Denver Broncos this afternoon on CBS. The Bills (7-5) have three teams ahead of them in the AFC Wild Card pecking order while the Broncos (9-3) have an outside shot of wrapping up a playoff spot, depending on the outcome of numerous other games
Buffalo is part of a six-pack of 7-5 teams currently jockeying for the second Wild Card spot with San Diego (8-4) claiming the other. The Bills are behind the Dolphins (better winning percentage in divisional play) and Chiefs (better winning percentage in conference games), thanks in part to losses to each the past two weeks. Buffalo’s remaining slate is not easy with Green Bay on tap next week and back-to-back road games on opposite sides of the country (Oakland then New England) to finish things up. The Bills need to win just to keep pace with the pack, but face a tough test this afternoon against a Broncos team that’s undefeated at home.
Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Denver -10
|Buffalo 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs KC||L 13 - 17||Recap|
|11/13||@ MIA||L 9 - 22||Recap|
|11/24||vs NYJ||W 38 - 3||Recap|
|11/30||vs CLE||W 26 - 10||Recap|
|12/7||@ DEN||L 17 - 24||Recap|
|12/14||vs GB||W 21 - 13||Recap|
|12/21||@ OAK||L 24 - 26||Recap|
|12/28||@ NE||W 17 - 9||Recap|
Buffalo’s Key to Victory: Get Offensive
The Bills rank among the top 10 in the NFL in the four major defensive categories. They are second in scoring defense (18.1 ppg) and fifth in both total (312.4 ypg) and passing (216.1 ypg) defense. Buffalo also leads the league with 48 sacks and has collected 20 in the past four games alone. All of this is well and good, especially going against a Peyton Manning-led Denver offense that’s fifth in both yards (413.9) and points (30.1) per game, but the Bills will still need to find a way to score some points. After all, the Broncos are 6-0 this season at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, averaging 35.3 points per game. Buffalo is 17th in the league in scoring at 17 points per game and has scored more than 35 points just twice. Both of those games were against the 2-10 Jets. The Bills have done a little better job putting points on the board on the road (21.8 ppg), but Denver’s low-water mark at home so far is the 24 it scored in a Week 2 win over Kansas City. Since that game, the Broncos have put up 41 on the Cardinals, 42 on the 49ers, 35 on the Chargers, and 39 on the Dolphins. Buffalo’s defense is capable of limiting any team’s offense, but it will be difficult for them to completely shut down Manning and the Broncos. And that’s just part of the battle, as the Bills’ offense will still need to cobble some scoring drives together and do so against a Denver defense that has given up less than 23 points per game at home.
|Denver 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ OAK||W 41 - 17||Recap|
|11/16||@ STL||L 7 - 22||Recap|
|11/23||vs MIA||W 39 - 36||Recap|
|11/30||@ KC||W 29 - 16||Recap|
|12/7||vs BUF||W 24 - 17||Recap|
|12/14||@ SD||W 22 - 10||Recap|
|12/22||@ CIN||L 28 - 37||Recap|
|12/28||vs OAK||W 47 - 14||Recap|
Denver’s Key to Victory: Stay Balanced
The Broncos have the luxury of a future Hall of Fame quarterback running their offense, but that doesn’t mean they at their best when Peyton Manning is throwing the ball all over the field. In each of Denver’s three losses, the Broncos’ offensive game plan was extremely pass-heavy. Against Seattle, Manning attempted 49 passes compared to 20 rushes. The pass vs. run distribution was even more lopsided against New England (57/17) and St. Louis (54/10). For whatever reason, the 22-7 loss to the Rams three weeks ago must have served as a tipping point because Denver has since recommitted to the run in a big way. In Week 12 against Miami, it was a 50/50 split and then last week the Broncos ran the ball 10 more times than they passed it. And in those two games, all the team did was rush for 415 yards, dominate time of possession and, most importantly, beat a pair of playoff-contending teams. In fact, this run-heavy approach fueled a fourth-quarter comeback against the Dolphins and allowed the Broncos to hold the ball for more than 38 minutes against the Chiefs. Running back C.J. Anderson, who was buried on the depth chart earlier this season, has been the catalyst for Denver’s rejuvenated ground attack (335 yards rushing in the last two games) and there’s no reason to deviate from that approach now. Buffalo’s defense has been tough against the run (96.3 ypg), but the Broncos’ offensive line is playing exceptionally well and Anderson has been punishing opponents on the ground. Manning is perfectly capable of beating teams by himself, but as this season has showed, it’s not always in the Broncos’ best interests to rely on that strategy. And as far as the Bills’ defense is concerned, facing a potent, two-dimensional offense run by a future Hall of Fame quarterback on the road certainly does not bode well for their interests.
Buffalo is in the thick of the Wild Card chase and has one of the NFL’s toughest defenses. Denver is positioned to not only win its fourth straight AFC West crown, but also to wind up with one of the top two seeds and a first-round bye. On paper, the Bills appear equipped to keep Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense in check. However, that was before Denver recommitted to the run, as C.J. Anderson has jumpstarted a rushing attack that’s piled up more than 400 yards in the last two games. Buffalo has had issues scoring points all season and this won’t get any easier against a Broncos defense that’s been pretty stingy at home. Going up against a future Hall of Fame quarterback is just one of the challenges facing the Bills, who will come up short in their attempt to hand the Broncos their first loss at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Prediction: Denver 27, Buffalo 17
Playoff positioning will be at stake when the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles get together this afternoon on FOX. The Seahawks (8-4) are one game behind the Cardinals for the lead in the NFC West and currently maintain a slight edge over the other Wild Card contenders. Even with a loss, the Eagles (9-3) would still be ahead of the Cowboys in the NFC East thanks to an unblemished (3-0) record in divisional play.
Both teams enter this afternoon’s game having won their past two contests and four out of five. Seattle has looked more like the defending Super Bowl champions of late, beating divisional rivals Arizona and San Francisco by a combined score of 38-6. Philadelphia is coming off of a convincing 33-10 win in Dallas on Thanksgiving and are 6-0 at home this season.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Philadelphia -1
|Seattle 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs NYG||W 38 - 17||Recap|
|11/16||@ KC||L 20 - 24||Recap|
|11/23||vs ARI||W 19 - 3||Recap|
|11/27||@ SF||W 19 - 3||Recap|
|12/7||@ PHI||W 24 - 14||Recap|
|12/14||vs SF||W 17 - 7||Recap|
|12/21||@ ARI||W 35 - 6||Recap|
|12/28||vs STL||W 20 - 6||Recap|
Seattle’s Key to Victory: Stop Shady
After getting off to a slow start LeSean “Shady” McCoy has gotten it going. The reigning rushing champion, McCoy is coming off of a season-high 159 yards on the ground last week against Dallas and has four 100-yard efforts over his last seven games. That’s after not rushing for more than 81 yards in each of his first five games. A big-play threat whenever he touches the ball, Philadelphia is 6-1 when McCoy goes over 100 total yards. It’s not like the Eagles can’t win when McCoy doesn’t have a good game, but his presence in Chip Kelly’s offense shouldn’t be overlooked either. The Seahawks are fifth in the league in rushing defense and have given up more than 64 yards rushing only once in their last five games. If Seattle can bottle up McCoy that would put more pressure on Mark Sanchez to make plays from the pocket. Since taking over for an injured Nick Foles, Sanchez has directed Philadelphia to a 3-1 record as the starter, but he’s still prone to the occasional mistake (eight turnovers vs. nine total TDs) and isn’t always the most accurate (63.4 percent completion rate this season) with his throws. Kelly’s offensive system may be quarterback-friendly, but Sanchez vs. Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” could be one ugly matchup. And that’s exactly what the Seahawks are hoping for.
|Philadelphia 2014 Schedule|
|11/10||vs CAR||W 45 - 21||Recap|
|11/16||@ GB||L 20 - 53||Recap|
|11/23||vs TEN||W 43 - 24||Recap|
|11/27||@ DAL||W 33 - 10||Recap|
|12/7||vs SEA||L 14 - 24||Recap|
|12/14||vs DAL||L 27 - 38||Recap|
|12/20||@ WAS||L 24 - 27||Recap|
|12/28||@ NYG||W 34 - 26||Recap|
Philadelphia’s Key to Victory: Beat Seattle at its Own Game
One of the hallmarks of Seattle’s defense last season was the unit’s ability to create turnovers. The Seahawks were first in the NFL in takeaways (39), interceptions (28) and turnover margin (plus-20). After forcing just five takeaways in their first six games (3-3 record), business has picked up for Pete Carroll’s defense to the tune of 13 turnovers forced over the past six contests. Not surprisingly, the defending Super Bowl champions have gone 5-1 during this stretch. While the Eagles’ defense will never be mistaken for the “Legion of Boom,” Philadelphia’s defense has fared pretty well in this category this season. The Eagles have collected 22 takeaways thus far, which is four more than the Seahawks’ total and places them in a tie for fifth in the league. What’s more, Chip Kelly’s team has made the most of its takeaways, as the Eagles have scored six defensive touchdowns. Contrast that to Seattle, which has gotten just two scores from its defense. Philadelphia’s success carries over to special teams as well, which has accounted for four touchdowns and five blocked kicks. The Seahawks have two blocked kicks, but no special teams scores. Statistically speaking, Seattle’s defense is ranked No. 1 in the league in yards allowed and third in points. Philadelphia’s defense is 24th and tied for 19th in those same categories. However, similar to what the Seahawks did last season, the Eagles’ defense has made a healthy living off of turnovers this season. Maintaining that edge this afternoon could be key to Philadelphia’s chances of winning, especially considering how good a job Seattle does with ball security (9 giveaways, tied for second-fewest) compared to the Eagles (league-worst 28).
A potential playoff preview? Perhaps, but right now the focus of these two teams is to just get into the postseason. Philadelphia is a little more secure in that respect, but Seattle is the defending champions and appears to be rounding into form at the right time. Coming off of dominating victories over Arizona and San Francisco, the Seahawks are a team no one wants to face now, let alone in January. The Eagles have the edge over the Cowboys in the NFC East, but also are in the mix for one of the top two seeds and a first-round bye. Philadelphia is undefeated at home and has more offensive firepower, but I’ll take my chances with the “Legion of Boom” against Mark Sanchez, regardless of where the game is played.
Prediction: Seattle 27, Philadelphia 23
The AFC North race takes center stage this afternoon when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals get together on CBS. The Bengals (8-3-1) currently lead the NFL’s most competitive division, with the Steelers (7-5) falling in between the Ravens and Browns as it relates to playoff pecking order.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Cincinnati -3.5
As the AFC playoff picture stands right now, Cincinnati would be the only team in. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland are part of a six-pack of 7-5 teams currently jockeying for one Wild Card berth, which is why divisional matchups like this will be so critical from here out.
This is the first of two Bengals vs. Steelers matchups between now and the end of the regular season. And while the Week 17 return date in Pittsburgh could end up being a winner-take-all situation, this game is just as important. A win would not only give the Bengals some breathing room between them and potentially the rest of the division, it also would give the Steelers a loss they can ill afford.
Since getting manhandled by Cleveland 24-3 at home in Week 10, Cincinnati has won three in a row, all on the road. Improved defensive play (12.0 ppg, 280.3 ypg) has been a factor during this streak, as has the return of two key offensive weapons (A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard) from injury.
Offense has been Pittsburgh’s calling card this season, as the Steelers rank third in the league in yards (417.3) and eighth in points (26.7) per game. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have been putting up huge numbers, but the problem has been the defense has given up its fair share too. Last week, Drew Brees threw five touchdown passes as New Orleans piled up nearly 400 yards in its 35-32 victory in the Steel City.
While Pittsburgh’s offense vs. Cincinnati’s defense is probably the key matchup, don’t overlook the Bengals’ offense. With Green and Bernard back in the fold, Andy Dalton has plenty of weapons at his disposal and this Steelers defense is not exactly the Steel Curtain of old.
The AFC North is the only division in the NFL with four winning teams, but Cincinnati is the team that’s been most consistent. The Bengals’ defense appears to be rounding into form and I think it will be the difference in what should be a typical AFC North matchup – physical, intense and likely to come down to the wire.
Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Pittsburgh 24
It’s only Week 14, but in many ways this matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins on CBS may as well be viewed as a playoff-elimination game in the AFC. The Dolphins and Ravens both enter today’s game at 7-5, part of a group of six teams with the same record. Miami is currently the leader of this pack, thanks to a series of tiebreakers. With so many teams bunched together, neither Miami nor Baltimore can afford a loss at this point, especially considering neither is leading their respective division.
Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Miami -2.5
Baltimore is looking to regroup following last week’s 34-33 home loss to San Diego. John Harbaugh’s Ravens led by 10 with 6:13 to go in the fourth quarter, but the Chargers scored the game-winning touchdown with just 38 seconds left. Miami on the other hand needed a 10-point fourth quarter comeback of its own to avoid disaster Monday night in the Big Apple against the Jets. Even though the Jets ran roughshod over the Dolphins (277 yards rushing), Caleb Sturgis’ 26-yard field goal with 1:57 on the clock saved Joe Philbin’s team from an embarrassing loss that could have basically wrecked Miami’s playoff aspirations.
The key to this game may be how each offense attacks the other’s perceived weak spot on defense. For Baltimore this means taking advantage of a Miami run defense that’s giving up nearly 120 yards per game. Justin Forsett has been a revelation for the Ravens this season, already over 1,000 yards rushing and leading all running backs with an average of 5.6 yards per carry. Forsett is dealing with a knee issue, but he said he expects to play so he can get a shot at a defense that has surrendered 478 yards on the ground in its last two games.
Baltimore’s recent troubles on defense have come through the air. The Ravens gave up 420 yards passing and three touchdowns to Drew Brees two weeks ago, followed by 383 yards and three scores to Philip Rivers. Miami’s not known for throwing the ball all over the field, but Ryan Tannehill has been extremely efficient lately. He has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in each of the past five games. Last week also marked the first game all season in which Tannehill didn’t throw at least one touchdown pass.
The Dolphins have been pretty tough at home this season, having already defeated the Patriots and shutting out the Chargers while losing to the Packers on a last-second touchdown pass by Aaron Rodgers. The Ravens have experienced some highs (beating the Saints) and lows (losing 43-23 to the Steelers) on the road and their passing game has been inconsistent, while the defense has had to deal with the occasional breakdown or lapse in execution.
Baltimore probably needs this win more considering it is part of the highly competitive AFC North, but Miami has been more consistent over the past few months. This game will be close, but Tannehill makes enough plays in the second half and a late defensive stop will be enough to help the Dolphins maintain possession of a Wild Card berth, for at least one more week.
Prediction: Miami 24, Baltimore 20
The reigning kings of December will collide in Qualcomm Stadium, as the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers will face off tonight on NBC. Tom Brady and Philip Rivers rival Santa Claus for ownership of this month; they have a combined December record of 75–13 and rank first (Brady) and second (Rivers) in the NFL in December winning percentage since 1950 among quarterbacks with 25 starts or more. The Patriots (9-3) are in bounce-back mode after seeing their seven-game winning streak snapped in a 26–21 loss to Green Bay, while the Chargers (8-4) are coming off a key comeback win over Baltimore.
New England Patriots vs. San Diego Chargers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: New England -4
|New England 2014 Schedule|
|11/16||@ IND||W 42 - 20||Recap|
|11/23||vs DET||W 34 - 9||Recap|
|11/30||@ GB||L 21 - 26||Recap|
|12/7||@ SD||W 23 - 14||Recap|
|12/14||vs MIA||W 41 - 13||Recap|
|12/21||@ NYJ||W 17 - 16||Recap|
|12/28||vs BUF||L 9 - 17||Recap|
|1/10||vs BAL||W 35 - 31||Recap|
New England’s Key to Victory: Maintain Focus
A trip to the warm climes of San Diego can seem like a vacation, and L.A. is just a quick drive up the coast, as we saw when tight end Rob Gronkowski took in a Clippers game with Justin Bieber earlier this week. The Patriots have a reputation for being the most business-like, results-driven team in the game, but it’s critical that this group regain the level of intensity that led to its recent seven-game surge. They need to be particularly focused on preventing big plays; after Aaron Rodgers burned New England’s secondary for first-half touchdown passes of 32 and 45 yards, leading to a nine-point halftime deficit that proved too much to overcome. “It’s important for us to not be distracted by nice weather and things that are going on out here and realize that we have a job to do this week,” left guard Dan Connelly said. “We have to treat it as much like a regular week as we can.”
|San Diego 2014 Schedule|
|11/16||vs OAK||W 13 - 6||Recap|
|11/23||vs STL||W 27 - 24||Recap|
|11/30||@ BAL||W 34 - 33||Recap|
|12/7||vs NE||L 14 - 23||Recap|
|12/14||vs DEN||L 10 - 22||Recap|
|12/20||@ SF||W 38 - 35||Recap|
|12/28||@ KC||L 7 - 19||Recap|
San Diego’s Key to Victory: Reverse the Curse
The history of this series favors the Patriots — overwhelmingly. Tom Brady has never lost to San Diego, boasting a 5-0 record against the Bolts. His counterpart, Philip Rivers, is 1-5 against the Patriots, with the one win coming against a Matt Cassel-led New England team in 2008. The respective stats tell the story: Rivers has a 5-to-8 TD-to-interception ratio against the Brady-led Pats, with a 73.4 passer rating, while Brady has 11 TD passes and a 91.4 rating against San Diego. But Rivers made a salient point on this subject: These franchises haven’t met since 2011, and every year is new. “We’ve never played this Patriot team,” he said. “We’re 0-0 against this group. There are a lot of guys in that locker room that have never played the Patriots in their life. You can’t really say this team is 1-5 against them.” It’s up to these Chargers to ignore the history and play loose and confident.
The loss in Green Bay and the end of the seven-game winning streak was in all likelihood the wakeup call New England needed. Look for the Patriots to embark on yet another December surge with a key road win over a Chargers team that has been living on the edge all season.
Prediction: New England 27, San Diego 24
The saying goes that the backup quarterback is the most popular person in football.
At Ohio State, that may be no exaggeration.
Quarterback injuries have been the norm for Urban Meyer in Columbus, but lucky for the Buckeyes, the next man up has been more than prepared.
At one point, Cardale Jones spent time as the third-string quarterback. Braxton Miller was the starter until he went down with a shoulder injury to give way to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. With a broken ankle, Barrett gave way for Jones, the third backup quarterback to enter a game because of injury for Ohio State the last two seasons.
This, though, was different. On Saturday, Ohio State started the day ranked No. 5 in the playoff rankings and would face a top-five defense in the Big Ten championship game.
A win, and especially strong play from Jones, would strengthen Ohio State's cause for the playoff.
Jones responded with a dominant performance in a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin. In his first career start, Jones completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers against the Badgers to earn Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors.
Wisconsin started the day ranked fifth in fewest yards per play (4.4) and 17th in yards per pass attempt.
Those numbers will take a hit after facing Ohio State.
Under Jones, Ohio State averaged 10 yards per play, and the quarterback averaged 17.1 yards per attempt against the Badgers.
National Defensive Player of the Week: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
If you picked an Ohio State player to have nearly three times as many rushing yards as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon on Saturday, you could have won a few bets. Certainly, part of that is on the Buckeyes’ Ezekiel Elliott (220 yards), but some is on defensive tackle Michael Bennett and the Ohio State defense. Bennett finished with four tackles for a loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles as Ohio State held Gordon to 76 yards on 26 carries. For the first time all season, Gordon failed to produce a 20-yard carry. He topped out with his longest run going for 13 yards.
National Freshman of the Week: Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Jameis Winston played perhaps his best game of the season in the ACC championship, but he was in danger of being upstaged by a freshman tailback. Cook rushed for 177 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown for the best Florida State rushing day in 39 games. On one possession in the first and second quarters against Georgia Tech, Cook had all seven touches on a 75-yard touchdown drive. Later, he had the key 10-yard run on third-and-7 in the fourth quarter that sealed the 37-35 win for Florida State.
National Coordinator of the Week: Don Pellum, Oregon
In short, Oregon has two weaknesses as it tries to win the school’s first national championship: Arizona and its own defense. The Ducks solved both in the Pac-12 championship on Friday in a 51-13 win over Arizona. Pellum’s defense had arguably its best game of the season. Arizona amassed only 224 yards and 3.7 yards per play against the Ducks. Of Arizona’s 113 passing yards, 69 came on a single touchdown on a broken coverage. Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon was injured during the course of the game, but Wildcats quarterbacks combined to go 9-of-26 with an interception.
It’s Week 14, which means the fantasy playoffs are either here already or will begin soon. Everyone needs their top guys available, but that may not be the case in Baltimore’s backfield.
Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars
Probable – Groin
Foster returned last Sunday after missing two games because of a groin injury. He finished with 105 total yards and a touchdown against the Titans. Foster was limited in practice at the start of the week, but he was a full go on Friday and is listed as Probable. Foster has another appealing matchup today, against a Jacksonville defense that has given up the sixth-most fantasy points to RBs, which is why he checks in at No. 1 on our Week 14 RB rankings.
Justin Forsett, RB, Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins
Questionable – Knee
Forsett injured his knee last week and wasn’t able to practice until Friday, and even then he was limited. The lack of practice time is concerning, but Forsett has said he’s confident he will be able to play. He’s listed as Questionable, but it looks like Forsett may end up being a game-time decision. Forsett is fourth in the league in rushing, so production hasn’t been a question. If he plays, Forsett must be started. If he’s unable to go, however, Bernard Pierce would likely replace Forsett in the starting lineup. Miami has given up some big rushing totals lately, so Forsett’s status is definitely worth keeping an eye on leading up to kickoff (1 p.m. ET).
Reggie Bush, RBs, Detroit Lions vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Probable – Ankle
Bush hasn’t played since Week 10, but after being a full practice participant this week, he’s listed as Probable. Bush’s season has been a disappointment, whether it’s been the lack of production or different injuries. Head coach Jim Caldwell called Bush the Lions’ starting running back on Thursday, but Joique Bell has been more productive and consistent by far and I don’t expect that to change much with Bush’s return. Bush has scored one touchdown and is averaging 3.6 yards per carry when he’s been on the field. Yes, he can be effective as a receiver, but I have a hard time endorsing Bush even as a flex this week. Bell is the Lions back I would want to have, as he’s ranked inside our top 15 RBs this week.
Already Ruled Out:
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Carolina Panthers – Williams broke a bone in his hand last week and he’s already been ruled out for today’s game against the Saints. Jonathan Stewart will get the start and with touches likely to be less of a concern, he’s worthy of at least flex consideration. Game situation/circumstances, as well as the presence of Cam Newton, Mike Tolbert and Fozzy Whitaker are still factors to consider, but this is one instance where it may be worth it to take a flyer on Stewart.
The Giants could be a man down in Week 14 while Cleveland’s backfield may not be operating at full strength either. Here’s the latest on those situations as well as the Saints and Vikings.
Rashad Jennings, RB, New York Giants vs. Tennessee Titans
Questionable – Knee
Jennings injured his ankle last week, and it’s still bother him. He didn’t practice at all on Wednesday or Thursday and was limited on Friday. He’s officially Questionable, which puts his chances at 50/50, but the final decision probably won’t be made until prior to kickoff (1 p.m. ET). If Jennings can’t go, Andre Williams would get the start. Only one other team has given up more fantasy points to RBs this season than the Titans, so whether it’s Jennings or Williams, whoever gets the call could be in store for a truly Giant afternoon. If you do have Jennings, however, I would certainly have a back-up plan in place.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Cleveland Browns vs. Indianapolis Colts
Questionable – Hip
Crowell missed Wednesday’s practice and was limited on Thursday and Friday because of a hip injury. He’s listed as Questionable, but all signs seem to point towards him playing against the Colts. The rookie has emerged as the Browns’ most productive rusher, as seven of his 107 carries have resulted in touchdowns. Crowell, like most rookies, has been up-and-down at times and also has had some ball security issues, but he’s been getting the call fairly consistently over Terrance West. As long as Crowell plays, he should make for a viable RB2 this week.
Travaris Cadet, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, RBs, New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers
Probable – Hamstring; Probable – Shoulder; Probable – Forearm
The Saints’ backfield should be back to full strength today with Robinson on track to return after missing the past six games. Cadet and Ingram also are listed as Probable, while Pierre Thomas doesn’t even appear on this week’s injury report. Last week Ingram and Thomas did the heavy lifting, getting all of the carries while combining for 143 yards on the ground. Even with Robinson returning, I don’t really expect the pecking order to change much. Ingram is a must-start, while Thomas is flex-worthy. I don’t think Cadet or Robinson will see enough touches to make much of an impact, at least fantasy-wise.
Already Ruled Out:
Jerick McKinnon, RBs, Minnesota Vikings – On Saturday, the Vikings put McKinnon on injured reserve because of a back injury. What happens now with the Vikings’ backfield is really anyone’s guess. Matt Asiata led the way with 14 carries last week, but Ben Tate and Joe Banyard got involved as well and the trio combined for 75 yards rushing (3.6 ypc) and five receiving (all Asiata). That’s barely flex production as a group, let alone an individual RB, so this is a backfield committee you probably don’t want to rely on this week.
Andre Ellington has already been ruled out for Week 14, but he’s not the only running back on the injury report. Here are the other ailing RBs you need to know about before the late afternoon games get started.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles
Probable – Back
Lynch is on the injury report, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. He was held out of Wednesday’s practice for rest, eased back into things on Thursday and was a full go on Friday. He’s listed as Probable and is a must-start against an Eagles defense that’s among the top 10 in fantasy points allowed to opposing RBs. Lynch has three 100-yard efforts over his last four games and seems to have gotten stronger as the season has worn on.
Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders vs. San Francisco 49ers
Probable – Concussion
After missing last week, Murray was a full participant in practice both Thursday and Friday. He has passed the concussion protocols, is listed as Probable and expected to get the start this afternoon. Even though he gained 112 yards on just four carries the last time he was on the field, don’t expect Murray to pick up where he left off. For one, interim head coach Tony Sparano has already made a point to say that Murray will not be used as a workhorse the rest of the way, which means Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcel Reece could impact his touches. Secondly, the 49ers have done a pretty good job against RBs and it’s not like the Raiders have a lot of other offensive weapons for defenses to worry about. I have no problem with plugging Murray in and seeing what he can do, but he’s probably best viewed as a flex with upside this week.
Shane Vereen, RB, New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers
Questionable – Ankle
Vereen was limited in practice because of an ankle injury and he’s listed as Questionable. However, these are the Patriots we are talking about, as Vereen is one of 10 who are designated as being Questionable. There doesn’t appear to be any real danger of Vereen missing this game, but it’s not like running backs and Bill Belichick are a fantasy match made in heaven in the first place. Don’t forget that since Jonas Gray ran for 201 yards against the Colts in Week 11 he’s had one carry (for four yards). LeGarrette Blount rejoined the team a few weeks ago and since his return he’s been the No. 1 option. Vereen is a legitimate pass-catching threat, but he’s scored a total of four touchdowns and is averaging just over 10 touches per game. Vereen was already more suited for flex duty to begin with, so it’s just a matter of whether you think he will be limited tonight against the Chargers.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers at Oakland Raiders
Probable – Shoulder
Hyde was limited in practice by a shoulder injury, but he’s listed as Probable so he should play. The rookie has gotten opportunities (75 att.) and he leads the team with four rushing touchdowns, but he’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and still deferring to Frank Gore. The matchup against the Raiders is appealing, but Hyde is nothing more than a flex possibility this week.
Already Ruled Out:
Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals – Ellington hasn’t been healthy all season, as he’s dealt with a tendon issue in his foot since Week 1. But he also hadn’t missed any games, until now. Ellington left last week’s game against Atlanta with a hip pointer. It’s bad enough that he wasn’t able to practice, which combined with his other bumps and bruises led to the team ruling him out for today. Stepfan Taylor will get the start in Ellington’s place, but Marion Grice and possibly even Robert Hughes figure to be involved as well. Even though Ellington is a must-start RB, the same can’t be said for Taylor. If you have Ellington and need a replacement, Taylor will suffice, just be sure to temper your expectations.
Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, RBs, Denver Broncos – Still no practice for either Ball (groin) or Hillman (foot), so this will be a third straight game missed for the former and No. 4 for the latter. The good news for the Broncos is that C.J. Anderson has taken the job and run with it, to the tune of 335 yards over the last two games. Even against a tough Buffalo defense, Anderson still ranks among our top 10 RBs this week.
Plenty of recognizable wide receivers appear on the Week 14 injury report. Which ones can you count on and which ones may not play? Have no fear, Athlon Sports has got these key targets covered.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Probable – Ankle
Nothing to see or be worried about here. Johnson was limited on Wednesday more out of precaution than anything. He was a full go on Thursday and Friday and is listed as Probable. Johnson was in vintage Megatron form (11-146-2) last week against Chicago and he’s ranked among our top 5 WRs this week.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Probable – Thigh
Green missed three games earlier this season because of a toe injury, but this time it’s a thigh issue giving him some problems. He was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday, but was a full go on Friday. He’s listed as Probable, so you can pretty much count on him being out there. Green has a favorable matchup against a Steelers secondary that has struggled at times. Green is a must-start WR1, as he has scored at least 14.7 fantasy points in each of his past three games.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins vs. St. Louis Rams
Questionable – Shin
Jackson wasn’t able to practice because of a shin contusion, so his Questionable designation may be wishful thinking. The Redskins are going to give Jackson every opportunity to play, which means he will probably end up being a game-time decision. Jackson has been a boom-or-bust type of player this season and Colt McCoy doesn’t have the strongest arm, so it's probably best to leave DJax on your bench this week.
Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans vs. New York Giants
Questionable – Hand
The same week the Titans put Justin Hunter on injured reserve with a lacerated spleen, Wright cracked a bone in his right hand during practice on Wednesday. He wasn’t able to go Thursday or Friday, so his Questionable designation should be taken seriously. Wright’s production has been disappointing, so you have to wonder how effective he can be if he does end up playing. Unless you don’t have another option, I wouldn’t rely on Wright this week.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns
Probable – Hamstring
Hilton is dealing with a hamstring issue, but it doesn’t appear to be too serious. He was limited in practice on Wednesday, but a full participant both Thursday and Friday. He’s listed as Probable, so Hilton should be safe to employ. Hilton has scored at least 13.5 fantasy points in eight of his last nine games, one of the reasons why he’s been a top-10 fantasy WR this season. Hilton falls just outside of the top 10 in this week’s WR rankings, even with the prospect of being matched up against shutdown cornerback Joe Haden this afternoon.
Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace, WRs, Miami Dolphins vs. Baltimore Ravens
Probable – Knee; Probable – Chest
Hartline joins Wallace on the injury report, but both are Probable and expected to play. Hartline hurt his knee last week and was limited some in practice, but the bigger concern is that rookie Jarvis Landry has passed Hartline in the pecking order. Wallace continues to post solid numbers, making him a reliable and safe WR2. Hartline doesn’t really register on the fantasy radar at this point.
Torrey Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins
Probable – Knee
Smith didn’t practice at all on Wednesday or Thursday, but he’s still listed as Probable, so it looks like the coaching staff isn’t too concerned about his knee. Torrey has outpaced teammate Steve as the more productive Smith for the Ravens over the past month, and he should be safe to utilize as a WR2/3.
It’s Week 14, which means every game really counts from here out in both the NFL and fantasy. Between later this afternoon, tonight and tomorrow there are six games that need to be considered before setting your lineup. Here are some wide receiver injuries in those games that you really need to pay attention to.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Questionable – Knee
The good news is that Fitzgerald was able to increase his practice participation and was out there for at least a little bit every day. The bad news is that while he’s listed as Questionable, head coach Bruce Arians said on Friday that Fitzgerald still isn’t 100 percent and will be a game-time decision once again. Arizona is struggling right now and the Cardinals’ offense will be without running back Andre Ellington. With the late kickoff and the uncertainty surrounding Fitzgerald’s status, I would just consider him as being Out and move on.
Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos vs. Buffalo Bills
Probable – Ankle
The Broncos already had one hobbled Thomas (Julius, ankle), but got another scare when Demaryius got his ankle stepped on by a teammate during Wednesday’s practice. He sat out Thursday, but was back on the field Friday. That information along with his Probable designation seems to signal that he will play against the Bills. Thomas hasn’t gone over 100 yards receiving in either of his past two games, but he has caught four touchdown passes during this span, cementing his status as an elite WR1.
Harry Douglas and Roddy White, WRs, Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers (Mon.)
Probable – Foot; Questionable – Ankle
Douglas missed four games earlier this season with a foot injury. It continues to limit him in practice, but that’s more precautionary than anything. Douglas is Probable, all but assuring he will play. The same can’t be said for White, who was Questionable last week and ended up not playing after he was unable to practice. Along those lines, White was a limited participant on Saturday and afterwards he said he was confident he would be able to go on Monday night. He’s still Questionable, but it certainly sounds like White’s got a much better chance of playing this week compared to last. But can you wait until Monday night to find out? White has picked things up lately (3 TDs over his past five games), but Douglas also fared pretty well (9 rec. 116 yds.) last week in White’s absence. Julio Jones is the top dog when it comes to Atlanta’s wide receivers, but White’s capable of putting up WR2 production of his own. Douglas’ value is tied directly to whether White plays or not, but there’s plenty of risk when it comes to either this week because of the timing (play on Monday night) and uncertainty surrounding White’s status.
Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, WRs, New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers
Questionable – Thigh; Questionable – Shoulder
Both Edelman and LaFell were limited in practice this week and even though both are Questionable, they are expected to play tonight. Rob Gronkowski is the No. 1 option in the Patriots’ passing game, but Tom Brady has not been afraid to throw the ball Edelman’s or LaFell’s way either. Edelman has been more the PPR guy (team-high 77 rec.) while LaFell has made the most of his opportunities (7 TDs). With Gronk getting the majority of the looks, Edelman and LaFell are probably best if employed as WR3/flex options, with each having the potential of putting up bigger numbers.
Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, WRs, Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos
Probable – Hip; Probable – Ankle
Watkins suffered a hip injury last week and was limited by it in in practice. It’s the same story for Woods, except he’s dealing with an ankle injury. It looks like it will be a happy ending for both (and their fantasy owners), however, as each is listed as Probable. Denver’s defense has done a decent job against WRs this season, but the possibility of Buffalo being forced to throw because of the game situation is tempting enough to recommend finding a way to get both Watkins and Woods into the starting lineup. Both are more WR3/flex options, but each is capable of doing more.
Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers at Oakland Raiders
Probable – Knee
It has been a disappointing season for Crabtree, who has four touchdown receptions and is averaging only 11.3 yards per catch. Injuries have been somewhat to blame and he’s now dealing with a knee issue that limited his practice participation Wednesday and Thursday. He was a full go on Friday and is listed as Probable, but that doesn’t mean you should have Crabtree in your starting lineup. Consider this: He’s reached double-digits in fantasy points just twice over his last nine games.
Julius Thomas isn’t the only elite tight end on the Week 14 injury report. Will the Broncos get their other Thomas back today and what’s the TE situation for the Panthers, Colts and Browns? Keep reading and you’ll find out.
Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints
Questionable – Knee
Olsen was limited when he did practice this week and is listed as Questionable, but there doesn’t appear to be any major concern regarding his availability. He should play and if he does, Olsen needs to be in your lineup. Just double-check before kickoff (1 p.m. ET) and make sure the No. 4 fantasy TE this season is indeed active.
Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos vs. Buffalo Bills
Questionable – Ankle
This week Thomas was able to practice on a limited basis all three days, so it looks like he’s making progress. Will it be enough for him to get back out there this afternoon? That remains to be seen, but Thomas has said he’s “close.” He’s officially Questionable and most likely is going to be a game-time decision yet again, so it’s a matter of how much risk are you willing to take considering the late (4:05 p.m. ET) kickoff. We ranked Thomas third this week, for what that’s worth.
Dwayne Allen, TE, Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns
Probable – Ankle
After missing the past two games, Allen is on track to return today. He was a full participant in practice and is listed as Probable. How many snaps he will get is a question worth asking, but don’t be surprised if Allen’s return impacts Coby Fleener’s opportunities. Fleener has thrived since Allen got injured early in Week 11, catching 13 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns (both last week) over the past three games. But Allen had better numbers than Fleener prior to his injury, which is why he is ranked a few spots higher than his teammate despite the missed time. At best, both should be viewed as borderline TE1 options this week.
Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns vs. Indianapolis Colts
Questionable – Concussion
Cameron has missed the past five games because of a concussion, but he has been able to practice on a limited basis. He was able to participate to some degree every day this week, which earned him a Questionable designation. However, Cameron’s fate really isn’t in the hands of the coaching staff as much as it is in the neurologist who must clear him to play. The bottom line is that Cameron has missed more than a month’s worth of action, so even if he plays, rust should be expected. At this point in the fantasy season, it’s probably not worth it to take a chance with Cameron unless you have no other choice.
Charles Clay, TE, Miami Dolphins vs. Baltimore Ravens
Questionable – Hamstring
Clay has missed the past two games, but he’s making progress and could be back out there today. He was a limited practice participant every day this week and his Questionable tag is an upgrade from last week’s Doubtful. Even if Clay plays, he’s too risky to trust this week.
Already Ruled Out:
Jace Amaro, TE, New York Jets – Amaro will miss a second straight game as he’s still going through the league-mandated concussion protocols.
With a 55-3 win over Iowa State, TCU didn’t give the College Football Playoff selection committee any reason to drop the Horned Frogs out of the top four.
Now, the Horned Frogs will wait to find out of that’s enough.
TCU entered the week ranked No. 3 in the selection committee rankings. In theory, a rout of Iowa State, a team that finished winless in conference play, should keep TCU in a playoff scenario.
Yet TCU knows it won’t have the last word.
No. 6 Baylor, which defeated TCU 61-58 and outgained the Horned Frogs by nearly 300 yards on Oct. 11, has an opportunity for a statement win against No. 9 Kansas State.
Patterson: "I don’t know what happens tomorrow, but the bottom line is we’ve done everything we can do …. Now we’ll just wait and watch.”— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 6, 2014
TCU will have a share of the Big 12 title and a better non-conference win (Minnesota) compared to Baylor. The word “share” is key. The Big 12 will not declare a champion in the event of a tie and will present co-champions to the committee as TCU and either Baylor or Kansas State will finish with one Big 12 loss apiece.
In nearly every other tiebreaker situation, head-to-head would be the first determining factor. One of the criteria used by the selection committee will be conference championships. By naming co-champions, the Big 12 is putting the onus on the selection committee to pick the team with the better body of work.
In a week in which Baylor hired a public relations firm, TCU coach Gary Patterson said he won’t state his case any more than his team already had.
Gary Patterson on if TCU belongs in: "I don't see why they shouldn't consider us. This team has done everything we asked them to do..."— Chuck Carlton (@ChuckCarltonDMN) December 6, 2014
TCU could have crossed the 60-point barrier Saturday against Iowa State but elected to take two knees from the Iowa State 25.
In any event, TCU has engineered a remarkable turnaround. The Horned Frogs are 11-1 overall and 8-1 in the Big 12 only a year removed from going 4-8. The Frogs have won two more Big 12 games this season than they did during the first two seasons in the league (6-12).
Quarterback Trevone Boykin, who spent time at receiver last season, may have put the finishing touches on his bid to be a Heisman finalist by going 30-of-41 for 460 yards with four touchdowns and an interception against the Cyclones.
Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon are the favorites for the award with Alabama’s Amari Cooper making a bid for New York.
By the evening, though, all TCU eyes will be on Baylor.
Here’s how the two teams stacked up entering Saturday
|TCU vs. Baylor|
|Head-to-Head||Lost 61-58||Won 61-58|
|Loss||at No. 6 Baylor 61-58||at West Virginia 41-27|
|Best non-Big 12 win||Minnesota 30-7||at Buffalo 63-21|
|Offensive Yards/Play*||6.7 (First)||6.0 (Fifth)|
|Defensive Yards/Play*||5.7 (Sixth)||5.7 (Fifth)|
|Scoring Differential*||Plus-153 (19.1 per game)||Plus-134 (16.8 per game)|
|Yard Differential*||Plus-766 (95.8 per game)||Plus-1,084 (134.5 per game)|
|*Big 12 games only|
Anthony Davis’ MVP coming-out party hit a bump last night, when his New Orleans Pelicans rolled into Oakland to take on Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Behind the tutelage of new coach Steve Kerr and the flaming hot shooting hands of Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors have looked like basketball’s best team this season, with their 112-85 dismantling of New Orleans extending their winning streak to 11 games and improving their record to a scary 16-2.
Curry, this week, was named the Western Conference Player of the Month, and he deserves every bit of the accolades. His unbelievably good shooting doesn’t really even scratch the surface of his deep value to GSW. He’s also one of the game’s best ball-handlers and distributors, and he has greatly expanded his effect upon defenses in 2014-15 with more dribble penetration and mid-range scoring.
And with Kerr’s new democratic-feeling rotations — which evoke the hyper-intelligent ethos of one of his old teams, Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs — production has been coming from unexpected places, too. Reserve big man Marreese Speights is enjoying his best season as a pro, clocking a staggering 26.18 player efficiency rating to go with 55 percent shooting from the floor. Starting center Andrew Bogut, long depressed within Mark Jackson’s retrogressive offensive sets, is now free to push the ball up the floor himself and behave like a wingman.
The Warriors can hit you in so many ways. They’ve gone on this run without yet even having great play from Andre Iguodala, easily their most versatile forward and their best defender outside the paint. Don’t be surprised if this isn’t the last time you read about how great this team is.
— John Wilmes
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 5:
• Leading off today, SI swimsuit models in Christmas masks and bikinis. Season's greetings.
• Details are emerging about Kosta Karageorge, the Ohio State player who took his own life.
• The insane catches keep coming. This one's by Brandon Marshall.
• Darwin Awards nominee: A Nebraska defensive end tried to take a selfie with a raccoon and got bitten.
• A promotional blimp crashed into some fans at the Blazers game.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]