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The inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl will reunite Central Michigan and Western Kentucky as postseason foes, but don’t expect either team to complain. From a destination standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than Nassau in the Bahamas, even if the game takes place on Christmas Eve.
Two seasons ago, the Chippewas and Hilltoppers met in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit to finish out the 2012 season. Central Michigan used a fourth quarter touchdown to beat Western Kentucky 24-21, as both teams finished 7-6. The rematch could feature even more points, as the two teams are combining to average nearly 70 per game.
Most of that damage has been done by the Hilltoppers (7-5), who are sixth in the nation in scoring (44.0 ppg) in their first season under former Louisville quarterback Jeff Brohm. Western Kentucky is coming off of a 67-point effort in its overtime win at Marshall, which put an end to the Thundering Herd’s dreams of going undefeated, and has scored 45 or more points five other times. The Hilltoppers finished in a three-way tie in Conference USA’s East Division with a 4-4 record.
This is just Western Kentucky’s second bowl appearance despite the fact they went 8-4 under current Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino last season.
Central Michigan (7-5) also is back in the postseason for the first time since beating the Hilltoppers two seasons ago in Detroit. The Chippewas went 6-6 last season, but were not selected to fill one of the Mid-American Conference’s bowl slots. With a win in the Bahamas, Dan Enos’ team would finish with the most victories in a season since CMU went 12-2 in 2009 under Butch Jones, who is now the head coach at Tennessee.
Unlike Western Kentucky, Central Michigan has gotten it done with defense this season. The Chippewas are 16th in the nation in total (331.2 ypg) and 32nd in scoring (23.2 ppg) defense.
The 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is the only other time these two schools have met on the gridiron.
Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Western Kentucky -4
Central Michigan’s Key to Victory: Get Off to Fast Start
The Chippewas have outscored opponents 101-36 in the first quarter. Not surprisingly they are 6-2 in games in which they have led after the first 15 minutes. From then on, Central Michigan has been outscored 242-201 over the final three periods. Fortunately, the Chippewas have done a good job maintaining leads, going 5-0 when up at halftime. More of a defensive-oriented team, they have not been successful when having to playing catch up, posting a 1-4 mark when trailing at the half. Fast starts are important, but especially against a high-scoring team like Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are averaging 44 points per game, with much of that damage coming in the first half. WKU has outscored opponents 310-213 in the first half, which means on average it has an eight-point lead (26-18) at halftime. The Hilltoppers haven’t been that great at protecting leads (4-3 when up at halftime), but they possess considerably more offensive firepower than the Chippewas. Even if Central Michigan’s defense is successful in slowing down WKU’s high-powered attack, it’s critical that the Chippewas take the fight to the Hilltoppers and get out to an early lead because this is not the type of team they want to have to mount a comeback against.
Western Kentucky’s Key to Victory: Brandon Doughty’s Arm
A senior, Doughty leads the nation with 4,344 yards passing and 44 touchdowns. He’s completed 67.5 percent of his passes (ninth in FBS), thrown just 10 interceptions in 510 attempts (third) and his 163.6 passer rating is fifth nationally. Doughty is a big reason why the Hilltoppers are sixth both in total (525.3 ypg) and scoring (44.0 ppg) offense and third in passing (365.0 ypg). Western Kentucky obviously is a team that leans on its passing offense, and when Doughty has been on, he’s been near perfect. In the Hilltoppers’ seven wins, Doughty’s touchdown-to-interception ratio is a sparkling 32:3, compared to 12:7 in the five losses. Central Michigan enters this game with one of the nation’s top defenses, statistically speaking. The Chippewas are allowing just over 23 points per game and have limited passing attacks to 211.4 yards per game while intercepting 14 passes (versus 19 TD passes allowed). As well as this defense has played, it has yet to face a passing offense as prolific as Western Kentucky’s. And Doughty is just one part of the problem; as seven different Hilltoppers have caught at least 23 passes and nine have two or more touchdown receptions. Only one team (Louisiana Tech) has really been able to shut down Doughty (134-1-4 in 59-10 loss) this season, which does not bode well for Central Michigan’s defense.
Two teams with opposite strengths. Central Michigan has gotten the job with defense, while Western Kentucky has lit up the scoreboard this fall. Dan Enos’ team is back in a bowl game and beat Purdue earlier this season, but the Boilermakers went just 3-9 and other than a road win over eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois, the Chippewas haven’t defeated an FCS team with a winning record. The Hilltoppers have wins over three bowl teams, including MAC member Bowling Green and previously undefeated Marshall. Central Michigan’s defense has been solid, but it has yet to face an offense like Western Kentucky’s. Brandon Doughty shows why he’s one of the nation’s most dangerous passers, as the Hilltoppers overwhelm the Chippewas to exact a little revenge from two years ago and earn the program’s first-ever bowl victory in the process.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 37, Central Michigan 27
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl provided plenty of fireworks. The back-and-forth offensive battle ended with Memphis winning 55-48 in double overtime.
While this game might end up as one of the top bowl matchups of 2014-15, the Miami Beach Bowl – at least for some – won’t be remembered for the quality on-field play. Instead, the bowl is likely to be remembered for a postgame brawl that erupted after Memphis intercepted BYU quarterback Christian Stewart to clinch the victory.
Here are a few videos and clips of the postgame fight in Marlins Park:
Why do football players wear crazy colored contact lenses?
Part of it is intimidation. Imagine looking across the line of scrimmage at physical freak Mario Williams; now, throw in a demonic, blood-red pair of contacts, and you've got some real nightmare fuel. “It’s a psyche thing for me,” said Williams. “It’s nothing about my performance. But it’s like wearing a mask without wearing a mask."
Other football players who’ve sported crazy contacts include Clemson’s Kalon Davis, Vanderbilt’s Caleb Azubike, NFL receiver Santonio Holmes, and retired NFL player Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Will anyone ever break Peyton Manning’s career record for TD passes?
It’s possible, although it won’t happen any time soon. Manning has left Brett Favre’s career mark of 508 safely in his rear-view mirror, and no other active player has as many as 400. Manning’s closest active pursuer, 35-year-old Drew Brees, could average 35 TD passes through age 40 and still fall short. But one guy to keep an eye on is Manning’s successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, who has an excellent chance to end his third season with more TD passes than Peyton tossed in his first three campaigns. Luck is young, healthy and in an offense that’s built for him to put up huge numbers.
NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. took to Twitter recently to show off a Jesus-adorned "Birthday Boy" sweater. Not to be outdone, his girlfriend, Amy Reimann, took it once step further, sporting a red and white sweater with, um, reindeer humping.
Marshawn Lynch may be terrible at post-game press conferences, but he more than makes up for it on the field. During Sunday night's game against the Cardinals, Lynch went "Beast Mode" and broke one for a 79-yard TD run, where he went around, through and over the Arizona defense.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of his new job, NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave an extended interview to ESPN’s Andy Katz. High on the list of topics broached was widespread fan and media speculation that there is a plague of tanking in the NBA, with suspicions being particularly aroused by what the 2-23 Philadelphia 76ers are doing.
Silver thinks the reports of teams losing intentionally are overblown. "I absolutely don't think any team is trying to lose," he said to Katz.
"No player is going out there to lose. In terms of management, I think there's an absolute legitimate rebuilding process that goes on. It's so hard to win in this league, and it's so complex. I think what's happened in the case of Philadelphia — their strategy has been reduced into a tweet. This notion, 'be bad to be good’… when it gets reduced into a headline, I understand the reaction.”
Philadelphia, first of all, is the only team in the league clearly doing this. All the other dragging franchises, upon a close look, seem just to be mismanaged and simply bad.
Silver is right. The complex, lengthy strategy employed by Philly general manager Sam Hinkie is rare, unrepresentative, and a high-stakes gambit to boot. The 76ers are looking to exploit a sort of loophole by constructing a roster too young and untalented to compete at a high level, and climbing up the draft ladder. But the loophole is narrow, and if the Sixers come out of this muddy tunnel as clean winners, it won’t be because they sucked for a while.
Team-building is still done by smart coaching, sharp management, hard-working players and — of course — good luck. There’s a lot more to it than that, though: accurately explaining the difference between NBA teams who thrive, and those who don’t, would require dozens of pages. Organizational aptitude is a big, tricky beast, and Silver smartly reduces the popular “tanking” conversation into the sliver of an argument it is.
— John Wilmes
Dear Tennessee Titans fans,
You don’t want Jay Cutler as your starting quarterback.
When a general manager or head coach evaluates an NFL quarterback, be it through free agency, trades or the NFL Draft, a dozen different qualifications must be addressed.
With the exception of a strong arm, Cutler doesn’t have a single one.
Physically, Cutler has the arm strength (1) that NFL teams have always desired. But other than that, he has been hurt frequently (2) throughout his career and no longer has the mobility (3) he displayed in college. Cutler hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2010, missing six games in 2011, five games in 2013 and the second half of the most important game of his entire life (more on this later).
From an accuracy standpoint (4), Cutler has been average his entire career. His career 61.7% completion rate is 12th among all active passers, behind Matt Schaub and Ryan Tannehill. His poor precision is better illustrated with his inability to protect the football (5). Cutler is leading the NFL with 18 interceptions and leads the NFL with 12 fumbles this season. He’s thrown multiple interceptions in seven of his 14 starts this year.
Only once since his rookie season has Cutler thrown fewer than 12 interceptions in a season and has led the league twice in the category. He has a career 3.4% interception ratio (interceptions/attempt) — which 68th in NFL history behind Joey Harrington, Josh Freeman, Charlie Batch, Chad Henne and David Carr. His career TD:INT ratio is 1.4.
By comparison, his archrival Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL all-time with a career 3.9 TD:INT ratio, a career 105.8 QB-rating and a career 1.7% interception ratio. For the record, Rodgers has thrown more than 11 interceptions once in his entire career.
That said, turnovers can be overcome if you produce (6) at a Brett Favre-type level, but Cutler isn’t doing that either.
In the modern era of passing football, throwing for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns has become a normally accessible benchmark of success. Over the last four years (including 2014), a quarterback topped 4,000 yards 38 times. Basically, the top third of the NFL throws for at least 4,000 yards each season. Jay Cutler has topped 4,000 yards in a season once ('08) and has never thrown more than 28 touchdowns in a season.
It's not like he's devoid of supporting playmakers either. Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett make the Titans roster look more like a Sun Belt team than an NFL squad.
From a leadership standpoint (7), various players from around the NFL have been outspoken about his influence in the locker room or huddle. They “don’t like Cutler as a teammate.” He pouts constantly, publicly berates teammates and has arguably the worst body language of any quarterback of this generation.
He’s terrible with the media (8), and has had an interesting off-the-field track record (9) — mostly dating back to his college days (search: phone booth). Let’s be honest, he’s the second most famous member of his own marriage (to Kristin Cavallari). He’s simply doesn’t qualify as a “face of the franchise.”
Again, most of these deficiencies will be overlooked if a QB can “just win baby.” But Cutler is anything but a winner (10). In nine seasons as a starter, Cutler has posted a winning record just three times and he’s never won more than 10 games in a year. He was 17-20 as the starter in Denver, is 44-37 in Chicago and is 61-57 overall as an NFL starter. Matthew Stafford has won at least 10 games as many times as Cutler (twice) and he’s played only four full seasons as a starter… FOR THE LIONS!
More important than winning in the regular season is winning in the postseason (11). Cutler has led his team to the postseason once in his nine-year career and never took his college team (Vanderbilt) to a bowl game — he was 11-35 as a starter in college. He did win his first playoff game at home against Seattle in 2010 before losing to Green Bay at home in the 2010 NFL Championship game.
In the most important game of his entire career, he completed six passes for 80 yards, no touchdowns and one interception in the embarrassing loss to their archrival with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. He missed most of the second half with an injury as teammates questioned his toughness.
How about what it will take to acquire (12) Cutler? To obtain this mediocre signal caller, a team would have to give up some package of draft picks — which might not be too hefty a price considering Cutler’s lack of production — and then would be on the hook for a huge contract. Cutler hits the cap between $16-17 million per year for the next four seasons before it rises to over $20 million in 2019-20. Cutler would be 38 when his contract runs out in 2020.
If the Bears were to cut Cutler, then at least there is some logic in signing the player, but trading for him with his current contract seems idiotic.
So why are Titans fans seemingly obsessed with bringing in Cutler?
He has a strong arm, is available and is better than Zach Mettenberger? He played his college football in Nashville and has a famous wife?
Sure, he’s more experienced and proven than Mettenbeger by a wide margin. But really, the Titans rookie QB is just a dramatically cheaper version of Cutler — a big armed passer with an “interesting attitude” who isn’t all that accurate and hasn’t really won much of anything. At least, Mettenberger has upside.
It’s no sure thing, but why not draft a rookie superstar with huge upside — Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston — and package him with Cutler 2.0 (aka, Mettenberger) and go to battle in 2014?
No, Nashville, you don’t want Jay Cutler in a Titans uniform.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 22:
• The most popular female athletes, according to Google. No. 4 is lovely tennis player Eugenie Bouchard (pictured).
• Despite yesterday's close game, the Pats and Jets are speeding in opposite directions.
• Marshawn Lynch's media trolling was particularly polite yesterday. He's turned postgame lockerroom interviews into performance art.
• This is new to me, although they might have been doing it all year: Every TD from every game of Week 16, from NFL RedZone.
• Relive Marshawn Lynch's earth-shaking Beast Mode moment from yesterday.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of football. With that in mind, Athlon Sports rounded up the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from Week 16 of the NFL season.
New England clinched a first-round playoff bye with a 17-16 road win against the New York Jets. The Patriots have earned a first-round bye for the fifth consecutive season, the longest streak of any NFL team since the current playoff format began in 1990, surpassing Dallas (1992-95) and San Francisco (1992-95).
Patriots coach Bill Belichick earned his 230th career win, surpassing Pro Football Hall of Famer Curly Lambeau (229) for the fourth-most total victories by a head coach in NFL history.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers passed for 318 yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ 20-3 win at Tampa Bay. Rodgers has passed for 4,155 yards and 36 touchdowns, his third career season with at least 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns. He is tied with Drew Brees for the second-most such seasons in NFL history, trailing Peyton Manning (4).
Packers running back Eddie Lacy rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown, pushing his season totals to 1,039 rushing yards and 13 scrimmage touchdowns. Lacy is the first player in franchise history to rush for at least 1,000 yards and score 10+ scrimmage touchdowns in each of his first two seasons.
With a 44-yard touchdown Lacy hit 1,000 yards rushing for the second time in his two-year career. The last Packer to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons was John Brockington (1972-72).
Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant had a 19-yard touchdown catch in the Cowboys’ 42-7 win over Indianapolis. Bryant has a touchdown catch in 12 consecutive games against the AFC, extending the longest interconference streak since the 1970 merger.
Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson had six catches for 103 yards in the Lions’ 20-14 win at Chicago. Johnson now has 44 career 100-yard receiving games, the second-most in a player’s first eight NFL seasons. Only Randy Moss (45) has more.
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell notched his 11th win, tying Potsy Clark for the most victories by a first-year head coach in franchise history. Clark won 11 games (11-3) for the 1931 Portsmouth Spartans.
New York Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, had eight catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the Giants’ 37-27 win at St. Louis. He has 79 receptions, the most in NFL history for a player in his first 11 career games. Beckham is the first rookie in NFL history with at least 130 receiving yards and a touchdown catch in three consecutive games. Beckham (11) and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (11) each have at least 10 receiving touchdowns, the first time in NFL history two rookie wide receivers have done so in the same season.
Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson had six receptions for 65 yards in the Texans’ 25-13 win against Baltimore, becoming the 10th player in NFL history to reach 1,000 career catches. Johnson, who has 1,002 receptions in 168 career games, is the second-fastest player to reach 1,000 catches, trailing only Marvin Harrison, who reached the milestone in 167 games. Johnson also surpassed Hines Ward (1,000) for No. 9 on the all-time receptions list.
Dallas was up 28-0 and had 17 first downs in a 42-7 win over visiting Indianapolis before the Colts collected their first first down of the game. Indy finished with 17 first downs to Dallas' 25. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had 16 straight completions that included four touchdown passes in the rout.
Miami became the first team in NFL history to record a go-ahead safety in the final minute of the fourth quarter when defensive end Terrence Fede blocked a punt out of bounds for a safety in a 37-35 Dolphins win over the Vikings.
Atlanta scored a 30-14 win at New Orleans Sunday to push its NFC South record to 5-0 while the Falcons are 1-9 against other teams this season. This was the first time Atlanta has swept New Orleans since 2005.
The Sacramento Kings are a spectacle of franchise upheaval right now. And after eager second-year owner Vivek Ranadive had coach Mike Malone fired last week — despite undeniable improvement from last season, and an extended absence from their best player DeMarcus Cousins — the team looks like it’s not quite done making major moves.
While the hunt for a proper replacement for Malone (to take the seat of interim man Ty Corbin, who’s believed to be short for the job) looks like it will wait for later, Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro has been making some phone calls about acquiring other players.
The most recent word is that D’Alessandro and Billy King of the Brooklyn Nets have discussed a deal that would land All-Star point guard Deron Williams with the Kings. Brooklyn would get Darren Collison, Derrick Williams and Jason Thompson in return. ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo and Ohm Youngmisuk have the scoop.
Ranadive’s desire to win is immense, so he’s willing to make big moves. His thirst for the home run trade or hire seems to be an extension of some of the tech biz principles that made him a billionaire.
"The NBA has become like the high-tech business," Ranadive recently told ESPN. "Just because you invented the iPhone doesn't mean you can rest on your laurels because somebody else is building a better iPhone. Just because you win 50 games doesn't mean you can be satisfied with the status quo. So we live in a time when good enough isn't, and we need to keep getting better. So while we have a good foundation, we needed to pivot. We needed to go."
Whether Williams is the man to turn Sacramento into a veritable NBA supercomputer is hard to know. He’s a very compromised player after a litany of ankle injuries, and as such his contract — which owes him about $63 million through 2016-17 — makes him less than an ideal asset for any salary cap.
But he’s still a wildly talented, shrewd, skilled player when he’s healthy, and an obvious upgrade over Collison. With Cousins and Rudy Gay, he’d make for a trio that might cause some more heat in the thick of the Western Conference.
— John Wilmes
Week 16 of the NFL season concludes with a battle of AFC division leaders as the Denver Broncos are set to take on the Cincinnati Bengals on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Broncos (11-3) have already clinched their fourth straight AFC West title and could secure a first-round bye with a victory tonight. The Bengals (9-4-1) are trying to hold off the Steelers (10-5) for the AFC North crown, but more importantly a win would guarantee a fourth straight playoff berth.
Denver has won four in a row behind a rejuvenated running game and Peyton Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati. The Bengals have won four out of five (all on the road), but haven’t fared too well in primetime this season. Cincinnati got blasted by New England 43-17 on Sunday night in Week 5 and was embarrassed 24-3 by Cleveland at home on Thursday night in Week 10.
Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Denver -3.5
|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: Don’t Forget About Peyton
The Broncos have won four in a row and they have done it in a somewhat unusual way. Instead of riding Peyton Manning’s right arm, Denver has been content with punishing teams on the ground. The Broncos have 659 yards rushing and nearly as many rushing touchdowns (five) as passing (seven) over the past four games. C.J. Anderson has been a revelation, but the grind may be getting to him as he’s averaged 2.9 yards per carry over the last two games. Meanwhile, Manning has seen his attempts and completions drop in each of the past five games. Whether it’s injury-related (has been dealing with a thigh issue) or there’s more to the reports of diminished arm strength with the weather turning colder, Denver has relied less on its future Hall of Fame signal-caller lately. However, tonight may be a perfect opportunity to change things up, considering Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati with a 20:5 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 106.8. The Bengals are 11th in the NFL in passing defense, but they will have their hands full against Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of Denver’s pass-catchers. The running game has worked recently, but the Broncos have enjoyed a fair amount of success through the air too. Perhaps tonight they should take a page out of their old playbook?
|Cincinnati 2014 Schedule|
|11/6||vs CLE||L 3 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||@ NO||W 27 - 10||Recap|
|11/23||@ HOU||W 22 - 13||Recap|
|11/30||@ TB||W 14 - 13||Recap|
|12/7||vs PIT||L 21 - 42||Recap|
|12/14||@ CLE||W 30 - 0||Recap|
|12/22||vs DEN||W 37 - 28||Recap|
|12/28||@ PIT||L 17 - 27||Recap|
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Is Andy Dalton Ready for Primetime?
The Bengals have leaned on Jeremy Hill recently, and the second-round pick out of LSU has responded. In the last five games alone, Hill has rushed for 473 yards on 91 carries with three touchdowns. For the season, he’s averaging five yards per carry and has shown that he can handle a heavy workload (18.2 carries per game during this span). However, Denver’s defense has really clamped down on the run this season. The Broncos are second only to the Lions in rushing defense, giving up 71.6 yards per game. Only one rusher (Tre Mason) has gone over 100 yards on the ground against them and they have allowed just 67 yards per game over the last four contests. With Hill’s seemingly tough matchup, Cincinnati will need Andy Dalton to make more plays through the air to try and loosen up Denver’s defense. Unfortunately, Dalton has not played his best when he’s been in the national spotlight. His playoff struggles (0-3, 1 TD, 6 INTs) have been well documented, but he’s also just 2-6 in his career in primetime (Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights) games. When the stadium lights are on, Dalton’s production goes down – 53.6 percent completion rate, 199.1 yards passing per game and as many interceptions (8) as total touchdowns (7 pass, 1 rush). The Bengals are on doorstep of their fourth consecutive playoff berth, a first for this franchise, but for this team to have any success in January, Dalton needs to play better when the stakes are highest. What better practice than tonight against one of AFC’s top teams?
Denver has already punched its playoff ticket and now is just playing for a bye and home-field advantage. Cincinnati can get in with a win tonight, which would certainly take some pressure off prior to Sunday’s division-deciding finale in Pittsburgh. The Bengals have won four of their last five because of their defense and a bruising running game, but they had all sorts of issues against the Steelers, an offensive team in the mold of the Broncos, and are matched up against one of the NFL’s stingiest rushing defenses tonight. Peyton Manning has been rather ordinary lately, but he’s still a future Hall of Famer while Andy Dalton has not held up well in primetime settings. Denver sticks to its recent script (running the ball, playing tough defense) with a few deviations courtesy of No. 18, as the Broncos wrap up a first-round bye, setting the stage for a massive Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh showdown Sunday in the Steel City.
Prediction: Denver 27, Cincinnati 20
Marshall and Northern Illinois were each on the cusp of an appearance in a bigger bowl game, but the two programs meet for the first time since 2001 in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. The Thundering Herd and Huskies were two of the nation’s top teams from the Group of 5 conferences and were in contention for a spot in one of college football’s top bowl games until Boise State was picked for that designation after it defeated Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship. Marshall and Northern Illinois combined for 23 wins this season, and Tuesday night’s matchup is only the third bowl game (Rose, Sugar and Boca Raton) where both teams are conference champions.
Marshall cruised to an 11-0 start but lost by a point in overtime to Western Kentucky on the final weekend of action in November. Even though the loss to the Hilltoppers ended the Thundering Herd’s hopes of a perfect season, coach Doc Holliday’s team won 10 of their 13 games by at least 15 points and claimed their first conference title since 2002. Northern Illinois continued to dominate the MAC by recording its fifth season of at least 11 victories and won its third conference championship in four years by defeating Bowling Green 51-17.
Marshall and Northern Illinois have played in seven previous meetings. The Huskies own a 4-3 edge over the Thundering Herd, but these two programs have not played since 2001. Northern Illinois has won the last two matchups between these two teams.
Marshall vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET (Tuesday, Dec. 23)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Marshall -10
Marshall’s Key to Victory: QB Rakeem Cato
The keys to victory in the Boca Raton Bowl are essentially tied together. It might be too simplistic to just list Cato here, but the senior is the catalyst for Marshall’s offense and one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Cato threw for 37 touchdowns and 3,622 yards this season and added 457 yards and six scores on the ground. The senior threw for 725 yards over his last two games and faces a stiff test against a Northern Illinois defense limiting opponents to 5.4 yards per play and 23.6 points per game. The Huskies also led the MAC with 30 sacks and forced 24 turnovers. Despite losing standout safety Jimmie Ward to the NFL, this defense remained stingy and no opponent over the last six games scored more than 24 points. Cato has done a good job of limiting mistakes all season, but in Marshall’s only loss of the year (Western Kentucky), he tossed four interceptions. Northern Illinois relies heavily on its ground attack to carry the offense and coming back from 14-0 or a 17-3 deficit could be difficult. Cato is surrounded by an array of weapons, including receivers Tommy Shuler, Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and tight end Eric Frohnapfel. In addition to the explosive passing offense, the Thundering Herd has balance with the emergence of converted tight end Devon Johnson at running back. Johnson rushed for 1,636 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Marshall’s offense is the best Northern Illinois has played this year. If Cato doesn’t turn the ball over and the offensive line gives their senior quarterback time to throw, the Thundering Herd can enforce their style of play and create plenty of problems for the Huskies defense.
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Establish the Run
As we mentioned above, the keys to the game go hand-in-hand. Northern Illinois has a tough assignment on defense trying to slow down the explosive Marshall offense. However, the Huskies can help their defense by establishing their style of play. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey doesn’t have a standout like Jordan Lynch at quarterback, but new starter Drew Hare threw for 17 touchdowns to only two picks and rushed for 850 yards and eight scores in 2014. Hare only had one game of more than 250 passing yards, and it’s clear the offensive identity of Carey’s team rests with the ground game. In addition to Hare, senior running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels and sophomore Joel Bouagnon will each play a significant role on the ground. Stingily led the team with 895 yards and 13 rushing scores this season and will challenge a Marshall defense that ranked ninth in Conference USA (league-only games) against the run. In nine C-USA contests, the Thundering Herd gave up 182.9 yards per game and allowed four yards per carry. Northern Illinois has to win the battle at the point of attack and keep Hare in third-and-short situations. The Huskies’ best shot at winning is to keep Marshall’s offense on the sidelines and allow their ground attack to control the pace of the game.
There’s no shortage of intrigue in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. Marshall and Northern Illinois are two of the nation’s top Group of 5 teams and this could be a high-scoring affair if both offenses get on track. The Thundering Herd would prefer to push the tempo and force the Huskies to get away from the ground attack. For Northern Illinois, it’s all about winning the battle on the line of scrimmage and finding a way to keep Cato and the Marshall offense on the sidelines. Expect both teams to have success in establishing their style of play, but the Thundering Herd’s offense is too much for the Huskies.
Prediction: Marshall 38, Northern Illinois 30
Bowl season at West Point may as well be a short game week.
Thanks to Navy’s unique schedule and bowl arrangement, the Midshipmen won’t have the normal off hours to sit back, stretch and enjoy bowl swag.
After defeating Army on Dec. 13, Navy will have 10 days between its regular season finale and its bowl, tied for the quickest turnaround between a regular season game and a bowl in college football history. In recent years, Navy has played its annual game with Army a week after the conference championship games. Only this season, that game has run right up to to Navy’s contracted bowl.
Navy is also squeezing finals into its hectic schedule, including exams on the Wednesday and Thursday before the Army game and the Monday through Thursday after.
In all, Navy will spend only three full days in San Diego before the bowl game on Dec. 23.
Meanwhile, opponent San Diego State completed its regular season on Nov. 29, giving the Aztecs more than three weeks since its last game — not to mention shorter travel.
Navy vs. San Diego State
Kickoff: Dec. 23, 8:30 p.m.
Spread: San Diego State by 3
Navy’s Key to Victory: Keenan Reynolds
Navy will be in good shape if its quarterback is the best player on the field, and that generally means Keenan Reynolds is finding the end zone. Reynolds carries the career (64) and single-season (31 in 2013) records for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback despite missing two games this season. And if Reynolds is running, Navy’s probably winning. Reynolds has attempted 10 or more passes in four games this season; the Midshipmen have lost all four. San Diego State has a solid defense, ranking second in the Mountain West in yards allowed per carry (3.8).
San Diego State’s Key to Victory: Stop the fullback ... despite playing shorthanded
San Diego State coach Rocky Long made clear what he believes is the key to slowing Navy in the flexbone, and it’s not the 1,000-yard quarterback with 21 touchdowns. “If the fullback gets going, everything else works,” Long said. “You have to make him only get three yards a carry.” Navy fullback Noah Copeland is averaging 7.6 yards per carry this season. Only four teams have held him to fewer than four yards per carry, and Navy is 2-2 in those games. San Diego State will have to defend the fullback and the option without tackle Alex Barrett, the Aztecs’ top defensive lineman.
The layoff for San Diego State and lack thereof for Navy makes for an interesting storyline, and the Aztecs’ injury situation will be worth watching. That said, this game may come down to which team is able to sustain drives. With the option, Navy will get its rushing yards. So will San Diego State. The Aztecs have the top rusher in the Mountain West in Donnell Pumphrey (1,755 yards, 19 touchdowns). He’ll be running behind a line that should have a size advantage against Navy’s front. That may be the difference for San Diego State.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, Navy 20
There’s plenty on the line tonight when the Seattle Seahawks take on the Arizona Cardinals on NBC. Not only is the NFC West Division title hanging in the balance, but the top seed in the conference could be as well.
The Cardinals (11-3) secured a playoff berth in their touchdown-free win against St. Louis. It is the first postseason trip for Arizona since 2009, Kurt Warner's last season. And they could use Warner now, as they will go into Sunday's game with third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley under center after injuries to starter Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton.
The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks (10-4) won the first meeting between these teams this season 19-3, a game that kick-started their current four-game winning streak. Arizona is 7-0 at home this season, while Seattle is 4-3 on the road.
Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinalss
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Seattle -9
|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: Lower the Boom
The Legion of Boom defense is peaking at just the right time. Seattle has held its last four opponents to 27 total points and an average of 188.0 yards per game. In eliminating San Francisco this past Sunday, Seattle sacked Colin Kaepernick six times and allowed only 141 passing yards. They wouldn’t admit it, but the Seahawks’ defenders have to be licking their chops for a shot at Cardinals third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley. The Seattle pass rush has produced 16 sacks in the last four games, and the Seahawks will look to punish Lindley with frequency. “That is a real good part of our game right now,” coach Pete Carroll said of the pass rush. “We're going to try and keep pushing it. I always think it starts up front with the guys rushing the passer, but we certainly feed off one another and it will certainly be important down the stretch.”
|Arizona 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs STL||W 31 - 14||Recap|
|11/16||vs DET||W 14 - 6||Recap|
|11/23||@ SEA||L 3 - 19||Recap|
|11/30||@ ATL||L 18 - 29||Recap|
|12/7||vs KC||W 17 - 14||Recap|
|12/11||@ STL||W 12 - 6||Recap|
|12/21||vs SEA||L 6 - 35||Recap|
|12/28||@ SF||L 17 - 20||Recap|
Arizona’s Key to Victory: A First-string Performance from its Third-string Quarterback
We’re tempted here to say that the Cards’ key to victory is to force Kurt Warner out of retirement, but we’ll resist. Instead, we’ll merely say that Ryan Lindley, the Cards’ third-string quarterback, must do his best Warner impersonation and make enough plays in the passing game to keep the Legion of Boom from pinning its ears back and attacking. Lindley, who was signed off the Chargers’ practice squad a few weeks ago, feels like he’s come a long way since his 2012 start against the Seahawks — a 58–0 loss in which he completed eight passes for 59 yards. For Lindley’s sake, one would hope so. “It’s night and day,” he said. “The amount I've learned and not only grown as a person in two years, but from these guys — B.A. (Bruce Arians), from Carson (Palmer), from Drew (Stanton). I'm a totally different person and totally different player from that point.”
Arizona should be able to play loose and relaxed, given that the Cardinals have clinched their first playoff appearance since 2009. But to have any shot at playing a home game on Super Sunday — the Super Bowl is at University of Phoenix Stadium — they need home-field advantage in the playoffs, meaning they need to win this game. When you’re on your third quarterback and facing the NFL’s most dominant defense, that’s too much to ask.
Prediction: Seattle 21, Arizona 10
Forget the records, whichever team wins the NFC South is going to the playoffs, which makes today’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints on FOX the most important of their respective seasons.
The Saints (6-8) are in the driver’s seat and can clinch the division title with a win at home and a loss by the Panthers. The Falcons (5-9) trail the Saints by a game, but a win would give them the season sweep and a 5-0 record in divisional play. Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on this one.
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: New Orleans -6.5
New Orleans moved back into first place in the mediocre NFC South with a 31-15 victory on Monday night against a reeling Chicago team. Drew Brees (375-3-0) had little trouble carving up an overmatched Bears secondary, and the Saints sealed Jay Cutler’s fate with three interceptions.
Now the hope is that the Saints that can put together a similar performance at home against the Falcons, a thought that seemed ludicrous not too long ago. Usually near unbeatable in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans is looking to snap a four-game losing streak there.
Since beating Green Bay 44-23 in Week 8, the Saints have lost at home to the 49ers (in overtime), Bengals, Ravens and Panthers. Carolina drubbed New Orleans 41-10 two weeks ago, as the Panthers put up 497 yards of total offense.
Atlanta’s offense can be perceived as being even more potent than Carolina’s, but New Orleans could catch a break if Julio Jones is unable to play because of a hip injury. Jones is Matt Ryan’s favorite and most dangerous target, and his absence would be a huge blow.
The Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime way back in Week 1, a game that featured 1,040 yards of total offense. Ryan and Brees combined for 788 yards passing, four touchdowns and one interception (Brees) and Jones led all players with seven catches for 116 yards.
If Jones can’t go, Roddy White and Harry Douglas will need to pick up the slack against a New Orleans pass defense that’s had trouble with teams who like to air it out (Green Bay, Pittsburgh). For the Saints, Monday night was a welcome sight in that All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham got back in the act with five catches for 87 yards. He had totaled just three grabs for 25 yards in the prior two games combined. Graham led the team with eight receptions (82 yards) in the first meeting against Atlanta, and it’s a safe bet he will be targeted often as he looks to take advantage of the NFL’s worst pass defense.
With these two pass-heavy offenses, the ground game often takes a back seat. Both defenses have been susceptible to the run, but neither offense appears to have much appetite for taking the air out of the football. The Falcons’ running game may be under a little more pressure to produce, however, especially if Jones is unable to play.
New Orleans is in first place, but Atlanta also is in control of its playoff destiny. The NFC South is only getting one team into the playoffs and it could be the team that wins today.
The Saints were the popular pick to make it to the playoffs entering this season, and their path sets up nicely with the final two games at home. It hasn’t been easy, especially at home, but New Orleans shows Atlanta why the Superdome is still one of the best home-field advantages in the league and gets a step closer to another division title in the process.
Prediction: New Orleans 31, Atlanta 24
A pair of 10-4 teams at two different points on the playoff path will intersect when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Dallas Cowboys later today on CBS. The Colts have already clinched their second straight AFC South title, while the Cowboys can win the NFC East with a win at home.
Dallas took over control of the division with a 38-27 win in Philadelphia last week, and now just needs one more victory to end its postseason drought following the Eagles' shocking loss to the Redskins on Saturday. The Eagles control all of the tiebreakers, but the Cowboys would need to lose today and next week to Washington to give Philadelphia any hope. And even then the Eagles would still need to beat the Giants on the road next Sunday to force the tiebreaker.
The Cowboys may be without DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher, who is trying to play just days after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his left hand. With Murray leading the way, Dallas has used its running game to not only move the ball, but also control the clock, and the Cowboys may be forced to rely on backups Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar if Murray can’t play.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Dallas Cowboys
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Dallas -3
|Indianapolis 2014 Schedule|
|11/16||vs NE||L 20 - 42||Recap|
|11/23||vs JAC||W 23 - 3||Recap|
|11/30||vs WAS||W 49 - 27||Recap|
|12/7||@ CLE||W 25 - 24||Recap|
|12/14||vs HOU||W 17 - 10||Recap|
|12/21||@ DAL||L 7 - 42||Recap|
|12/28||@ TEN||W 27 - 10||Recap|
|1/4||vs CIN||W 26 - 10||Recap|
Indianapolis’ Key to Victory: Pass with Purpose
No team has attempted more passes than the Colts, which is why Andrew Luck leads the league in both yards (4,492) and touchdowns (38). The secret to Indianapolis’ success is pretty straightforward – a lot of Luck. With 10 wins, no one can really argue with the Colts’ approach, although it does have some downsides. For one, teams that lean heavily towards the pass can be easier to defend, although Indianapolis’ offensive statistics portray a different tale. However, throwing the ball a lot does open up the possibility for more mistakes. Case in point, over the past four games Luck has thrown four picks and lost four fumbles, accounting for more than half of the team’s 13 turnovers during this span. Despite posting a minus-six turnover margin during this stretch, the Colts went 4-0 because they scored nearly 29 points per game. For all of Dallas’ success this season, the defense is giving up nearly 250 yards passing per game and has allowed 20 touchdown passes. Luck and the Colts will be able to take their deep shots against the Cowboys’ defense, they just need to be careful to not take too many chances through the air. Dallas’ offense could be shorthanded both in the backfield and up front, and the last thing Indianapolis would want to do is give Tony Romo and company extra possessions. The Colts have been able to overcome their mistakes recently, but with the playoffs looming now is the perfect time to focus on ball security and cleaning up other things. With Indianapolis’ playoff ticket already punched, the focus these next two weeks should be on laying the groundwork so the Colts can be successful come January.
|Dallas 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ JAC||W 31 - 17||Recap|
|11/23||@ NYG||W 31 - 28||Recap|
|11/27||vs PHI||L 10 - 33||Recap|
|12/4||@ CHI||W 41 - 28||Recap|
|12/14||@ PHI||W 38 - 27||Recap|
|12/21||vs IND||W 42 - 7||Recap|
|12/28||@ WAS||W 44 - 17||Recap|
|1/4||vs DET||W 24 - 20||Recap|
Dallas’ Key to Victory: Take a Page out of Indianapolis’ Playbook
The Cowboys have made a living this season out of running the ball. Behind DeMarco Murray, they have the third-most productive ground game (146.6 ypg) and have used that to control the clock. Dallas is second only to Pittsburgh in time of possession (32:50). However, the Cowboys could be without the NFL’s leading rusher this afternoon (trying to play through a broken hand) and their offensive line is pretty banged up too. If Murray can’t go or is limited, the burden falls on Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar to pick up the slack, and this may be too much to ask of them, especially if the line isn’t at 100 percent. So instead of focusing on running the ball, perhaps Dallas should let Tony Romo do his best Andrew Luck impression and air it out a little more. For one, Indianapolis is 19th in the league in passing defense (240.6 ypg) with 21 touchdown passes allowed and just 12 interceptions. Secondly, the Colts’ best cover guy, cornerback Vontae Davis, is dealing with a groin injury, which has caused him to miss a game and could impact his effectiveness this afternoon. A limited Davis is a good sign for Dez Bryant and the other Cowboy wide receivers. Lastly, it’s not like Romo has been a bad passer this season. He’s second in the league in passer rating (110.4) and is tied for seventh in TD passes with 28, even though he’s 22nd in attempts. Romo has thrown just eight interceptions all season and a total of two over his last six games. Dallas hasn’t needed Romo to throw the ball a lot, but health concerns and matchup are just two reasons to at least consider changing things up against Indianapolis.
All of the attention entering this one has been on the health of DeMarco Murray’s left hand, and rightfully so. However, even if Dallas has to go without the NFL’s leading rusher, I think the Cowboys have enough depth in their backfield to weather Murray’s absence. In fact, I think Dallas’ best course of action should Murray not play is to open up the playbook and have Tony Romo throw it more than usual. Andrew Luck may be the league’s most prolific passer, but Romo has weapons of his own to use, namely Dez Bryant, and could be facing an Indianapolis secondary that’s not at full strength. The Colts don’t really need to win this game, whereas this victory would mean everything to the Cowboys. Behind an impressive aerial attack, Dallas ends its four-season playoff with a big win at home.
Prediction: Dallas 31, Indianapolis 27
Carolina should have their field general back for Week 16, but New England’s backfield is at anything but 100 percent. Other RB injuries we’re tracking include Eddie Lacy’s eye, Jamaal Charles knee/ankle and Arian Foster’s groin, or is it his hip?
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Probable – Eye
Last week it was a hip issue, now it’s some sort of eye irritation that Lacy is dealing with. He was a limited participant in practice, but that could be precautionary more than anything. The key is that he was Probable last week and is Probable again today. Lacy will be out there and considering what he did last week against a tough Buffalo defense (97 yards rushing, TD), he’s a must-start RB1 for today’s game against a much more generous Buccaneers D.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers vs. Cleveland Browns
Probable – Back
Less than two weeks removed from a car accident in which he sustained two back fractures, it looks like Super Cam will be back on the field. Newton was limited on Wednesday, but a full participant both Thursday and Friday and is listed as Probable. All indications are that Newton will get the start against the Browns. Newton’s injury is similar to what Tony Romo went through earlier, so his quick recovery isn’t unheard of. Still it’s tough to gauge just how effective Newton will be and if the injuries will result in him running less. The Browns have been pretty stingy against QBs in fantasy, so it’s safe to at least temper expectations when it comes to Newton.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers
Probable – Knee/Ankle
Charles was limited on Wednesday, but a full go both Thursday and Friday. Between this and his Probable designation, he’s safe to employ as usual. It should be an entertaining matchup between Charles and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, a pair of must-start RB1s that should put up some pretty nice numbers.
Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens
Probable – Hip
Different injury, but same story for Foster. He didn’t practice on Wednesday, was limited on Thursday and a full go on Friday. He’s listed with a hip injury, as opposed to last week’s groin issue, but the important piece of information is he’s Probable. Case Keenum, who rejoined the Texans after Ryan Fitzpatrck and Tom Savage went down with injuries, will be making the start, which means Foster should be plenty busy. The Ravens have allowed the fewest fantasy points to opposing RBs, but you start Foster regardless of matchup.
LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen, RBs, New England Patriots at New York Jets
Out – Shoulder; Questionable – Ankle
The Patriots’ backfield duo was limited in practice all week by injuries and when the injury report came out on Friday, were each listed as Questionable. However, Blount was ruled out Saturday night, meaning Jonas Gray will handle the bulk of the carries. Gray did rush for 201 yards several weeks ago, but before you get too excited about his prospects, just remember who his head coach is. Also as bad as the Jets have been, the defense has still done a pretty good against the run, so it’s likely New England will focus on the passing game today. Even with the roles a little more defined following Blount's deactivation, it's probably safest to view Gray and Vereen as flex options this week.
Matt Asiata, RB, Minnesota Vikings at Miami Dolphins
Probable – Foot
Asiata was limited on Wednesday and Thursday, but was a full go on Friday. He’s listed as Probable and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of concern with his foot injury. Asiata has taken over as the Vikings’ lead rusher, but his primary value comes in his nose for the end zone (7 rushing touchdowns), although he has caught three or more passes in six straight games. Miami’s rushing defense has been struggling lately, so this at least appears to be a good matchup for Asiata. I would still put Asiata's ceiling as a RB2 at best, considering he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry.
DeAngelo Williams, RBs, Carolina Panthers vs. Cleveland Browns
Questionable – Hand
Williams missed a second straight game last week because of a broken bone in his hand and it’s likely he won’t be on the field today either. Williams was able to practice some, but head coach Ron Rivera has already declared Jonathan Stewart the starter and said Williams would probably only be used in an “emergency.” Stewart’s clearly in the RB2 conversation, as he has put up 230 yards rushing the last two weeks. In fact, Cam Newton’s expected return today could mean even more carries for Stewart. Williams meanwhile shouldn’t even be on your radar at this point.
The most important injury everyone’s keeping an eye on for Week 16 is DeMarco Murray’s hand. Will the Cowboys have their leading rusher this afternoon? And what’s been bothering Peyton Manning?
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Mon.)
Questionable – Thigh
Manning was limited in practice this week by a thigh injury and is listed as Questionable. However, barring something unforeseen happening between today and Monday night, Manning will be out there against the Bengals. The only games Manning has ever missed in his career is when he sat out the 2011 season after undergoing spinal fusion surgery. Manning’s numbers have been pretty ordinary lately (average of 12.1 fantasy points over last three games), but some of that is due to the effectiveness of C.J. Anderson running the ball. He also has been dealing with this thigh injury for a few weeks and last week he was battling some sickness. As long as Manning plays, he’s a must-start QB1.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys vs. Indianapolis Colts
Questionable – Hand
Will he or won’t he? That’s what everyone wants to know regarding the NFL’s leading rusher. Murray had surgery earlier this week to have screws and a protective plate inserted to protect his broken left hand. He practiced on a limited basis both Thursday and Friday, and is officially considered Questionable. He will be a game-time decision and apparently the final decision will be made by Murray himself. Several people, including owner Jerry Jones, have stated they believe Murray will play. There are still concerns regarding Murray’s effectiveness with an injured left hand, not to mention the concern that his workload may be reduced. With a guy as important as Murray, it’s worth waiting as long as possible before setting your lineup. With this being a later afternoon kickoff (4:25 p.m. ET) that means making sure you have a viable backup plan in place, but for now I would lean towards keeping Murray in the lineup. For what it’s worth, I prefer Joseph Randle over Lance Dunbar in terms of fantasy potential, especially if Murray doesn’t play. Randle would likely take over the rushing duties, while Dunbar could see enough targets to merit flex consideration in deep PPR leagues.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
Probable – Back
Same routine for Lynch, who’s being rested earlier in the week to save some wear and tear on his body. He’s listed as Probable and will be plenty busy tonight against the Cardinals. It should be pointed out that Arizona held Lynch to just 39 yards rushing the first time these two teams played, but Lynch is a must-start RB1 regardless of matchup.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills at Oakland Raiders
Probable – Shoulder
Spiller has missed the past seven games because of a broken collarbone, but he was activated from injured reserve earlier this week and is expected to play today. Spiller wasn’t that productive before the injury, so it’s very risky to expect much from him in his first game back after a long absence. Chances are the Bills will ease Spiller back into action, meaning Fred Jackson will continue to see the lion’s share of touches. There’s no reason to rush Spiller back into your lineup or even to run out and pick him up if he’s on your waiver wire.
Already Ruled Out:
Rashad Jennings, RB, New York Giants – Jennings’ injury-plagued debut season with the Giants continues, as a nagging ankle injury will keep him from playing today. He’s rushed for eight yards in the last two games combined, so it’s possible he won’t be seen on the field again this season. In Jennings’ absence, rookie Andre Williams will get another start. Williams has thrived in this role before, but the Rams are a tough defense. Williams can be employed since he’s likely to see 20 touches, but he’s probably nothing more than a flex option because of the matchup.
Julio Jones is a game-time decision for the big Week 16 showdown in New Orleans because of a hip injury. Will he miss a second straight game? Here’s the latest on Jones and some other key WR injures for the early kickoffs.
Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, WRs, New England Patriots at New York Jets
Out – Thigh/Concussion; Questionable – Shoulder
Both Edelman and LaFell were limited in practice once again, but only one made the trip to the Big Apple. Edelman was downgraded to Out on Saturday night, which could result in more looks for LaFell, who is officially Questionable, but expected to play. The Jets' weakness on defense has been against the pass, so LaFell, Rob Gronkowski and even Shane Vereen out of the backfield could be very busy. The combination of Edelman's absence and the appealing matchup is enough for me to bump up LaFell to the back end of WR2 territory.
Harry Douglas, Julio Jones and Roddy White, WRs, Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans
Probable – Foot; Questionable – Hip; Probable – Knee
Even though Douglas and White missed some practice time, both are listed as Probable and should be good to go today. Jones is the one generating the most attention, as he didn’t practice at all for the second straight week. He sat out last Sunday, so another week of no practice is certainly concerning. Jones will be a game-time decision, so owners should have plenty of time to make other plans before the 1 p.m. ET games kick off. Even if Jones plays, you have to figure he will be limited, but he probably should still be started. Just be sure to have a backup plan ready to go. Along those lines, Douglas could once again benefit from Jones’ absence, increasing his fantasy appeal.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears
Probable – Ankle
The only reason Johnson even shows up here is because he’s Megatron. He was a practice participant to some degree every day this week and is listed as Probable. The Bears’ secondary hasn’t been able to stop anyone lately, so Johnson could very well repeat his Thanksgiving Day (11-146-2) performance. It’s a good week to have Megatron on your team.
Percy Harvin, WR, New York Jets vs. New England Patriots
Probable – Ankle
Harvin made a somewhat miraculous return last week, but had minimal impact (1 rush, 10 yards,3 targets, 0 receptions) on the Jets’ win against the Titans. He was a limited practice participant both Thursday and Friday, and his Probable designation is a pretty strong sign he will play. Harvin did have a big game (6-124-1) a couple of weeks ago, but those performances have been few and far between. If you want to use him as a WR3 or flex, go ahead, but just be prepared to be disappointed.
Houston’s starting a third-string quarterback and its top two wide receivers are on the injury report entering Week 16. What you need to know about this situation as well as the condition of some of Minnesota’s top targets.
DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson, WRs, Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens
Questionable – Ankle; Probable – Concussion
Hopkins was described by head coach Bill O’Brien as “day-to-day” earlier this week. The troubling thing is that he wasn’t able to practice at all. Hopkins will be a game-time decision, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on him being available. Johnson meanwhile is still listed on the injury report with a concussion. He didn’t play last week, but the fact he’s Probable seems to indicate Johnson will be back. Hopkins’ potential absence helps Johnson’s fantasy appeal, but keep in mind that Case Keenum is starting at quarterback for the injury-ravaged Texans. Keenum was re-signed this week, so that’s not exactly a ringing vote of confidence. In Hopkins’ case, I would look at other options to fill his spot, and I would think long and hard before inserting Johnson in as anything more than a WR3/flex.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings at Miami Dolphins
Doubtful – Ankle/Knee
It has pretty much been a lost season for Rudolph. He missed six games because of a sports hernia and now is dealing with an ankle/knee injury. He led the Vikings with seven grabs last week, but he was only able to practice on a limited basis on Friday. He’s listed as Doubtful, and it’s probably best to just move on at this point.
Greg Jennings, WR, Minnesota Vikings at Miami Dolphins
Probable – Hamstring
Jennings has been bothered by a couple of ailments during the season. A hamstring issue impacted his practice participation this week, but he was a full go on Friday and is listed as Probable. Jennings hasn’t put up huge numbers in 2014, but he does have three touchdown catches over his last four games. He could be worth consideration as a WR3 or flex option.
Charles Clay, TE, Miami Dolphins vs. Minnesota Vikings
Probable – Hamstring/Knee
Unlike most players, Clay actually seems to be getting healthier as the season winds down. After being Questionable last week and playing, Clay is Probable for today’s game. He caught six passes for 59 yards against the Patriots last week, which were his second-highest totals of the season in each category. This speaks to Clay’s inconsistency, as he also has just two touchdown catches. Unless you’re in a 2-TE league, I wouldn’t bother with this Dolphin.
Some pretty big matchups on tap for later Sunday and Monday night in Week 16. Indianapolis may be without its No. 1 WR, while Denver’s pass-catching corps is now dealing with illness on top of injury.
Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, WRs, Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals (Mon.)
Questionable – Illness; Probable – Ankle
Illness normally doesn’t merit inclusion, but for Sanders we will make an exception. He was excused from practice on Saturday because of flu-like symptoms, but at this point there’s no real concern regarding Sanders’ availability for Monday night. However, if the sickness lingers, Sanders could be limited and he’s already facing a pretty tough matchup to begin with. The Bengals have allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to WRs this season. Thomas meanwhile is good to go after practicing in full this week. He’s Probable and is a must-start WR1. Sanders should probably be viewed as a WR2 with upside this week because of his illness and the matchup.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys
Questionable – Hamstring
Hilton did not practice this week because of a hamstring issue and is listed as Questionable. However, several beat reporters have already opined that they don’t think Hilton will play, and the fact that the Colts have already clinched the AFC South and a playoff spot only increases that likelihood. In other words, there’s no reason for Hilton to play and risk aggravating his hamstring injury. At best, Hilton will be a game-time decision, but I wouldn’t count on having him in my lineup today.
Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals (Mon.)
Probable – Ankle
As expected, Thomas returned last week after missing two games because of an ankle injury. He had just one catch for 30 yards, but he was a full participant in practice this week, so he’s definitely good to go on Monday night. Thomas is a must-start whenever he plays, but he could be even more productive this week depending on the health of Emmanuel Sanders, who’s dealing with some sickness.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks
Probable – Knee
Fitzgerald has played in the past two games since missing Weeks 12 and 13 because of a knee injury. He was a full practice participant both Thursday and Friday and is listed as Probable, so it’s a pretty safe bet he will play. Fitzgerald led the team with seven catches last Thursday, but those went for just 30 yards and he hasn’t caught a touchdown since Week 8. There’s also the small matter of tonight’s matchup against the Legion of Boom and the fact that third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley will be starting. It hasn’t been a great season for Fitzgerald in the first place, so there’s no reason to rely on him this week.
Week 16 offers a holiday treat with two games on Saturday. The only game that’s really worth paying attention to injury-wise is San Diego vs. San Francisco. Get caught up to speed below.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers at San Francisco 49ers (Sat.)
Probable – Chest/Back
With Keenan Allen and Ryan Mathews already ruled out, it’s only fitting that Rivers shows up on the injury report too. Not surprisingly, the grind of a long season is starting to take its toll, as Rivers is pretty banged up. He missed practice on Wednesday because of chest and back injuries, with the latter reportedly worse than anyone’s letting on. However, he was a full participant on Thursday and Friday and is listed as Probable. Rivers will get the start, but considering he’s thrown seven touchdown passes in the last six games (and three of those came in one contest) and the 49ers are among the stingiest (sixth-fewest fantasy points allowed to QBs) pass defenses, I’m not sure I would place my championship hopes in his hands.
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers vs. San Diego Chargers (Sat.)
Questionable – Concussion
Gore was able to practice on a limited basis Thursday and Friday, so that certainly bodes well for his chances of playing. He’s listed as Questionable, however don’t forget that he will need to pass the necessary concussion-related tests before he’s completely cleared to play. The short week certainly complicates this, but the feeling is that he will be out there against the Chargers. The 49ers certainly could use him with Carlos Hyde already ruled out. Backing up Gore is journeyman Alfonso Smith and recently signed Phillip Tanner. If Gore does play, he should see plenty of touches, making him worthy of flex consideration at minimum. However, I wouldn’t get too excited about his prospects of busting out and definitely would make sure Gore is active before putting him in the lineup.
Already Ruled Out:
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers – Hyde underwent an MRI earlier this week for his back and ankle and apparently the team didn’t like what they saw. He was held out of practice and has been ruled out for tonight’s game. Frank Gore’s starting job is safe, assuming he plays (concussion), with Alfonso Smith and maybe even Phillip Tanner lining up behind him. Gore’s status aside, are you going to trust Smith or Tanner? I didn’t think so.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers – Mathews was Questionable last week because of an ankle injury, but no one was surprised he didn’t play since he didn’t practice. Same routine this week, except for the fact the Chargers have already ruled Mathews out for tonight’s game against San Francisco. Branden Oliver and Donald Brown will probably get most of the work, but Ronnie Brown is hanging around too. Between a timeshare of some sort and the fact that the 49ers have done a decent job against the run, it’s probably best to stick to Sunday/Monday for your starting RBs this week.
Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers – Last week’s loss to Denver was especially costly for Allen, who not only injured his ankle, he also broke his collarbone. Chances are we’ve seen the last of Allen for this season, unless the Chargers make the playoffs, but even then I’m not sure. Of course, the focus here is on this week, as Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal could see more targets in Allen’s absence. Gates of course is a must-start TE1 and I can endorse Floyd as a WR3/flex with upside. I can’t really get behind Royal, who’s very streaky, and don’t see any need to mess with any other Charger WR or TE.
Friday: Chicago Bulls @ Memphis Grizzlies, 8:00 PM ET
Two of the league’s toughest, biggest teams meet at the FedEx Forum for a slugfest between opposing conference titans as a limping Bulls squad — which has had almost no games with their full starting lineup together — challenge the surging Grizzlies, who picked up big wins over the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs this week to improve to 21–4.
Friday: Portland Trail Blazers @ San Antonio Spurs, 8:00 PM ET
Tune in for a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semi-finals as Damian Lillard looks to shoot the Blazers into a win, on the heels of losing starting center Robin Lopez to a hand injury. Although the Spurs have been less than their amazing best selves this year, they always stand tall for future playoff competition.
Saturday: Atlanta Hawks @ Houston Rockets, 8:00 PM ET
In a surprise turn of NBA fate, this game features one of the best league offenses (Atlanta) trying to penetrate the walls of one of its best defenses in Houston. If the hot Hawks — who crushed LeBron’s Cavs 127-98 on Wednesday — win this one, maybe they’ll get their overdue attention from the rest of the sport.
Saturday: San Antonio Spurs @ Dallas Mavericks, 8:30 PM ET
Rajon Rondo is a Maverick now, and the Texas roundball gridlock just got all the more interesting for it. Don’t miss his debut, in which the best offense in the NBA tries to get even better with a new passing visionary behind the wheel.
Sunday: New Orleans Pelicans @ Oklahoma City Thunder, 7:00 PM ET
The Thunder are on a roll since getting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back, but taking down MVP candidate Anthony Davis is never an easy task. Make sure to catch this showcase, featuring three of the game’s finest athletes competing for playoff spots in the brutal Western Conference.
— John Wilmes
Opportunities for big-time non-conference wins are dwindling as the calendar closes on Christmas and league play begins. For Ohio State and North Carolina, with non-conference resumes that are uneven at best, the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago is each team’s final opportunity to put a bow on their non-conference schedule before their respective conference play begins.
Ohio State comes into this meeting with North Carolina not only looking for a highlight win for themselves, but for the Big Ten as a whole.
The less-than-stellar early season performance of the conference has seen losses of probable tournament teams to three directional schools (Eastern Michigan, Eastern Washington, North Florida), a school without a conference (NJIT) and a Division I newcomer (Incarnate Word). Not exactly the power conference we are used to seeing.
Barring disaster, the Buckeyes are tournament-bound. A win over a ranked, ACC opponent, especially after losing to the only team they’ve played in the top 50, Louisville, earlier this month, can only help the Bucks' chances of getting a top three or four seed in the Big Dance.
North Carolina has had a mediocre start to the 2014-15 campaign by Chapel Hill standards. Many pundits saw the Tar Heels as Duke’s biggest challenger in the juggernaut that is the ACC. A loss at home to Iowa after losing to then unranked Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis, sent the Tar Heels reeling, stunned, looking for answers.
The Heels offense has yet to come together and may be lacking the perimeter attack that Roy Williams’ offense needs. Carolina may have to refocus its offensive strategy to become more inside-out, utilize their front court length, and 6-foot-9 sophomore Kennedy Meeks (13.8 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game).
Ohio State vs. North Carolina
Site: United Center, Chicago
Time: Saturday, noon
What’s on the line for Ohio State
Ohio State can add something to its resume that's in short supply in the Big Ten, a signature win. The Buckeyes’ early schedule has been anything but noteworthy, having only played two power conference teams (Marquette, Louisville). Ohio State has the 329th toughest schedule in the country according to kenpom.com. The Buckeyes have played only one road non-conference game, losing to No. 5 Louisville 64-55 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. A win against the Tar Heels on a neutral floor could pay dividends come Selection Sunday.
What’s on the line for North Carolina
Ten games into the season and North Carolina has yet to establish an identity. Roy Williams’ team picked up two November non-conference wins in the Battle 4 Atlantis against UCLA and Florida. While losing to Kentucky at Rupp is hardly shameful, losses to a less talented Iowa squad at home and to an undersized Butler team on a neutral court are worrisome. A win against a top 15 team would work wonders for North Carolina come March, especially after the gauntlet that is the new ACC conference schedule.
You’ll tune into watch: Freshman D’Angelo Russell’s coming out party
No other freshman in the country — heck, maybe no other player in the country — could be as productive as Ohio State’s freshman combo guard D’Angelo Russell. Through his first 10 games, the 6-5 Louisville product is averaging 18 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, all while shooting 43 percent from behind the arc. Against Sacred Heart, Russell went off, scoring 32 points with nine rebounds and five assists while connecting on four of his eight three-point attempts. If Russell can catch fire against North Carolina’s stout defense on the national stage, D’Angelo could be a household name come January and Wooden Award candidate in March.
Pivotal player: North Carolina’s Marcus Paige
The Athlon All-American has struggled so far this season. Paige, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, is more than four points off of last year’s scoring average of 17.5 points per game, shooting a lackluster 35.4 percent from deep and 34.8 percent from the floor as a whole. What’s bugging Marcus Paige? Hard to say. Whatever it is, the Tar Heels will need Paige to find his touch if they want to compete with the likes of the ACC’s elite this winter.
Biggest question: Who has the bigger advantage, the Buckeye’s offense or Tar Heels’ defense?
This Ohio State squad has pure scoring ability, something that Thad Matta’s teams don't normally exhibit outside of one, maybe two, players. The early season Buckeyes boast one of the country’s most efficient offenses, including three players scoring in double figures. Ohio State ranks 10th in scoring (84.2 per game), 13th in assists (17.4 per game), fourth in field goal percentage (53.7 percent) and third in effective field goal rate (60.3 percent). Granted, those offensive numbers largely come from playing lesser teams (with the exception of Louisville), and this North Carolina group is much more stout defensively than the Colgate Raiders. The Tar Heels use their athleticism on the perimeter and collective frontcourt length to keep teams at bay offensively. Thus far, North Carolina is 16th in defensive efficiency (90.0), according to kenpom.com, forcing teams to shoot just 40.4 in field goal efficiency and 25.2 percent from three. If the Tar Heels can force D’Angelo Russell to turn the ball over, like he is prone to do (3.2 turnovers per game), and get out in transition, they’ll be celebrating in Chapel Hill come Saturday night.
-By Jake Rose
David Fox: Ohio State 64-60
Braden Gall: North Carolina 74-67
Mitch Light: Ohio State 75-70
Jake Rose: Ohio State: 76-70