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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
The NFL Network’s early Christmas present on Saturday pits the slumping Philadelphia Eagles against the dysfunctional Washington Redskins. The Eagles (9-5) are in must-win mode following last week’s disappointing 38-27 home loss to the Cowboys. The Redskins (3-11) are merely playing the string out with the beleaguered Robert Griffin III back in at quarterback.
Currently a game behind Dallas (10-4), Philadelphia’s playoff hopes are centered around beating Washington this week and the Giants the following with the Cowboys losing either to the Colts on Sunday or these Redskins in Week 17. This is by far the easier path, as the Eagles trail the Lions (current NFC North leader), Packers and Seahawks (all 10-4) for the NFC’s two Wild Card spots.
Philadelphia has beaten Washington three straight times, the most recent coming at home in Week 3. The Eagles won 37-34 behind 325 yards and three touchdowns from Nick Foles, who hasn’t played since Week 9 because of a broken collarbone. Kirk Cousins threw for 427 yards and three scores (with an interception) in a losing effort, but he was benched in Week 7 and hasn’t gotten back on the field since.
Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Philadelphia -8.5
|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: Clean it Up
Since a convincing 33-10 win in Dallas on Thanksgiving, the Eagles have dropped back-to-back games at home to the Seahawks and Cowboys. Seattle’s defense dominated Philadelphia in Week 14 and the Eagles couldn’t get out of their own way against the Cowboys last week. While the offense has struggled recently, rushing for 132 yards in the past two games combined, a more concerning trend has been the sloppy play. Entering Week 16, Philadelphia is No. 1 in the NFL in giveaways with 33. Twelve of these have come in the past five games alone, and the Eagles have gone just 2-3 during this stretch. The defense made a living earlier this season on takeaways, but that production has tapered off. Philadelphia’s turnover margin is minus-three over its last five games. Fortunately for the Eagles, Washington has not done a good job protecting the football (25 giveaways) or taking it away from the other team (16 turnovers forced). Everyone knows that quarterback Mark Sanchez is prone to the occasional mistake, which is why it’s critical that the rest of the team does its part when it comes to ball security. Philadelphia’s margin for error is already razor thin based on its position in the standings. The Eagles can ill afford any mistakes, especially of the self-inflicted variety.
|Washington 2014 Schedule|
|11/16||vs TB||L 7 - 27||Recap|
|11/23||@ SF||L 13 - 17||Recap|
|11/30||@ IND||L 27 - 49||Recap|
|12/7||vs STL||L 0 - 24||Recap|
|12/14||@ NYG||L 13 - 24||Recap|
|12/20||vs PHI||W 27 - 24||Recap|
|12/28||vs DAL||L 17 - 44||Recap|
Washington’s Key to Victory: Win the QB Competition
Colt McCoy was placed on injured reserve because of a neck injury, so head coach Jay Gruden is (begrudgingly) going back to Robert Griffin III at quarterback. No matter how you slice it, it’s been a lost season for RG3. Whether or not this is the beginning of the end of his time with the Redskins remains to be seen, but there’s no question he could really use a strong finish. A good first step towards that goal would be to post some nice numbers against a Philadelphia defense that has been kind to QBs this season. The Eagles have allowed two or more TD passes to 12 different QBs in 14 total games. While this list is fronted by names like Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, it also includes “lesser” signal-callers like now-backup Chad Henne, rookie Zach Mettenberger and Kick Cousins, Griffin’s teammate who tossed three TD passes against Philadelphia in Week 3. As bad as Griffin’s season has been, he couldn’t have asked for a much better matchup to fuel a strong finish. It’s now on him to execute the offense and take advantage of a generous pass defense. The Redskins also could win the QB battle if Mark Sanchez’ production continues to slip. The Eagles are 3-3 since Sanchez replaced an injured Nick Foles, and his numbers have failed to impress. As the starter, he has thrown eight touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions while completing just 61.2 percent of his passes. He has really struggled recently, with more picks (3) than TDs (2) in his last two games combined (both losses), along with just 348 yards passing and a 56.3 completion rate. Sanchez has a reputation for being somewhat turnover-prone, but the onus is on Washington’s defense to take advantage. Simply put, the Redskins needs to force Sanchez into some mistakes or else pin their hopes on a re-occurrence of the infamous “butt fumble.”
For Philadelphia, it’s pretty simple. The Eagles need to win their next two games and hope that the Cowboys slip up at least once, as the NFC East will likely send just one team to the playoffs. Washington just wants this season to end, as the Redskins have some serious soul-searching to do and some tough questions that must be answered this offseason. Robert Griffin III wants to make a good impression these last two games, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe that he can be the miracle elixir for a team as bad as this Washington squad. A motivated Philadelphia team takes care of its pre-Christmas business by dispatching with a Redskins team that’s already checked out for the holidays.
Prediction: Philadelphia 31, Washington 20
A pair of California teams with different playoff aspirations will present NFL fans with some holiday entertainment Saturday evening when the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers face off on CBS. The Chargers (8-6) desperately need a win to stay in the hunt for a Wild Card spot in the AFC, while the 49ers (7-7) have already been eliminated form postseason contention.
San Diego trails Pittsburgh and Baltimore by a game for one of the two Wild Card berths and has been hit by the injury bug at the worst time possible. The Chargers will be without their top wide receiver (Keenan Allen) and possibly their No. 1 running back (Ryan Mathews), while quarterback Philip Rivers has been dealing with some injuries of his own.
For San Francisco, injuries have had a significant impact on this season’s results, while the other prevailing storyline has been the uncertainty regarding head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future with the team. An offense that ranks 27th in the league has certainly added to the 49ers’ woes, and this unit could be really thin in the backfield on Saturday because of the latest rash of injures.
This is just the fourth meeting between these Sunshine State teams. San Diego is a perfect 3-0 against San Francisco with the last matchup occurring four years ago (Chargers 34-7).
San Diego Chargers at San Francisco 49ers
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: San Francisco -1
|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: Cobble Together a Running Game
Top wide receiver Keenan Allen (collarbone, ankle) has already been ruled out for this game and there’s a good chance running back Ryan Mathews (ankle) may not be able to play either. Combine that with a battered and bruised (chest, back) Philip Rivers and this offense is hurting. The easiest way to help Rivers would be to run the ball effectively. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done as the Chargers have averaged less than 60 yards rushing over their past three games. Branden Oliver has had his moments (215 yards rushing in consecutive starts against the Jets and Raiders), but his effectiveness has diminished greatly since then. Oliver and Donald Brown and maybe even veteran Ronnie Brown need to figure out a way to generate some sort of a ground game to, at minimum, take some of the burden off of their quarterback. Rivers is as tough as they come, but his production has slipped recently with just seven touchdown passes in his last six games (and three of those coming in one contest). Although he won’t admit it, it’s perfectly understandable to assume that the punishment Rivers has endured during the season has taken its toll recently. To make matters worse, he won’t have his leading receiver for this game either. Whether it’s using the committee approach or riding the hot hand, the Chargers need to run the ball (and effectively) against the 49ers. Their playoff hopes, not to mention the health of their quarterback, depend on it.
|San Francisco 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ NO||W 27 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||@ NYG||W 16 - 10||Recap|
|11/23||vs WAS||W 17 - 13||Recap|
|11/27||vs SEA||L 3 - 19||Recap|
|12/7||@ OAK||L 13 - 24||Recap|
|12/14||@ SEA||L 7 - 17||Recap|
|12/20||vs SD||L 35 - 38||Recap|
|12/28||vs ARI||W 20 - 17||Recap|
San Francisco’s Key to Victory: Relish Spoiler Role
After three straight NFC Championship Game appearances, the 49ers will be sitting this postseason out. Most of the attention has shifted to Jim Harbaugh’s future and his next destination (Michigan? Jets? Raiders?) should he and the team decide to part ways. However, San Francisco could still have an impact on how the playoffs shape up with games remaining against San Diego and Arizona. The Chargers need a win just to stay in the postseason discussion, while the Cardinals have already wrapped up a playoff spot, but could still need a final victory to hold off the Seahawks for the NFC West crown, which could come with a first-round bye. The 49ers have had to deal with injuries (and other off-the-field circumstances) to key defenders all season long and the offense (27th in yards, 28th in points per game) has not picked up the slack. However, this is still a proud team that can make a strong statement these next two weeks and I am pretty sure the Chargers aren’t expecting the 49ers to just roll over either. Whether this is Harbaugh’s second-to-last game coaching San Francisco remains to be seen, but as competitive and fiery as he is, I fully expect him to go down swinging either way. And just as they have done for these past four seasons, the 49ers should follow their coach’s example and view Saturday’s game as the first of two opportunities to put their stamp on how this season turns out.
San Diego definitely needs this one more, but the Chargers aren’t anywhere near full strength. San Francisco has been playing shorthanded all season and could be really thin in the backfield. Even though the 49ers are the ones who have already been eliminated from playoff contention, I expect for Jim Harbaugh to get his team to embrace its spoiler role and come out fired up and ready to play. San Diego’s offense has been consistently more productive than San Francisco’s, but this unit also is extremely banged up and won’t be whole. Both offenses will struggle to get much going, but the 49ers’ defense puts the clamps on Philip Rivers and company and hand the Chargers a devastating (and potential season-ending) loss.
Prediction: San Francisco 20, San Diego 17
Frank Caliendo recently called into "Mike & Mike," doing several impressions of ESPN personalities reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. Our favorite? Lou Holtz.
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl also features the first meeting in program history between Memphis and BYU. The Tigers were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2014, improving from 3-9 in 2013 to 9-3 this season. Coach Justin Fuente has brought significant and immediate improvement to the Tigers, as this team shared the American Athletic Conference title after a 7-1 mark in league play this year. BYU finished its 10th season under coach Bronco Mendenhall with a solid 8-4 record. The Cougars are 4-1 in their last five bowl appearances.
The Miami Beach Bowl will be Memphis’ first postseason appearance since the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl. A key reason for the Tigers’ improvement in 2014 was the development of the offense behind sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch. After averaging only 4.7 yards per play in 2013, Memphis averaged 5.5 yards per play this season. Lynch threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,725 yards in 2014 and increased his completion percentage to 64 percent after a 58.2 mark last year. While Lynch has started all season for Memphis, it’s been a different situation for BYU. The Cougars lost quarterback Taysom Hill due to a season-ending leg injury against Utah State, which elevated backup Christian Stewart into the full-time role. Stewart has performed well in Hill’s absence, and his job was only made more challenging with the loss of running back Jamaal Williams to a season-ending knee injury against MTSU.
The Miami Beach Bowl is played at Marlins Park in Miami, Fla. The baseball stadium is built on the site of the old Orange Bowl.
Memphis vs. BYU
Kickoff: Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Memphis - 1
Memphis’ Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
An underrated cog in Memphis’ 9-3 record this season was its +12 in turnover margin. The Tigers forced 27 turnovers and only lost 15. The turnaround in margin was critical after Fuente’s team went -8 last year and finished 3-9 with a handful of close losses. BYU has a -2 turnover margin in 2014 and lost five turnovers over its final three games. Quarterback Christian Stewart has stepped into a difficult situation and played well, completing 58.7 percent of his passes, with 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions. While Stewart has limited mistakes, BYU has lost 14 fumbles this season, which is tied for 119th nationally. Without Williams toting the workload from the backfield, juniors Adam Hine and Nate Carter, senior Paul Lasike and sophomore Algernon Brown have been pressed into more playing time. The Cougars are still having success on the ground with Williams sidelined, as this team recorded 267 rushing yards against UNLV and 264 against Savannah State. Memphis limits opponents to 3.5 yards per carry and ranks second in the American Athletic Conference in pass efficiency defense. Additionally, this defense is active around the line of scrimmage and can get pressure with its front four. BYU has been vulnerable in pass protection, which should allow the Tigers to pressure Stewart, as well as get into the backfield on running plays. Both of those situations create good opportunities to force turnovers. And on offense, Memphis needs to continue limiting their mistakes (15 lost turnovers). Lynch has not tossed an interception in six games, and his efficient play will be valuable against a BYU secondary that has allowed 21 scores in 2014.
BYU’s Key to Victory: Give QB Christian Stewart Time to Throw
As we mentioned previously, Stewart assumed control of BYU’s offense after a season-ending injury to Taysom Hill. The Snow College transfer finished the year on a high note, throwing for 433 yards and five scores against California. Stewart is not as dynamic of a runner as Hill was, but the senior recorded 52 rushing yards against UCF, 47 against Nevada and 38 against UNLV. The mobility could come in handy against an active Memphis defense. Coordinator Barry Odom has transformed the Tigers into one of the nation’s top defenses this year, limiting opponents to 4.8 yards per play (12th nationally). The strength of Memphis’ defense resides in its front seven, as end Martin Ifedi and linebacker Tank Jakes earned first-team all-conference honors in 2014. Jakes led the team with 15.5 tackles for a loss, recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles, while Ifedi picked up 9.5 tackles for a loss and 29 tackles in eight appearances this season. Protecting Stewart and Hill has been a problem on the stat sheet for BYU, as the offensive line allowed 34 sacks in 12 games. Freshman center Tejan Koroma was a bright spot for this line, and it’s tough to place all of the sacks on the front five as mobile quarterbacks often extend the play and are sacked long after a clean pocket was established. If Stewart has time to throw, the receiving corps is capable of producing big plays. Senior Jordan Leslie (14 ypc), and Mitch Mathews (8 TDs, 840 yards) are the favorite targets, but Mitchell Juergens and tight end Devin Mahina are also key weapons for Stewart.
This should be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls. Memphis and BYU should have plenty of motivation to be in this game, and the Tigers are one of the nation’s most improved teams after going 3-9 last season. The Cougars managed to keep things going after injuries to Hill and Williams and finished the season on a four-game winning streak. Memphis has the edge on defense, but BYU also allows less than five yards per play. The growth and continued improvement of the Tigers’ offensive attack – led by quarterback Paxton Lynch and running back Brandon Hayes – is a big reason why Memphis shared the American Athletic Conference title. Expect a close one in Miami. The Tigers edge BYU to record its first 10-win season since 1938.
Prediction: Memphis 27, BYU 24
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 19:
• Buyer beware: Jim Harbaugh is insane.
• For some reason, Claude Giroux bit his opponent's jersey during a stoppage.
• Watch Dwight Howard take out the Nuggets mascot with a playful kick.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
With two weeks to go there are four division races down and four more to go, and the four remaining are far from sewn up. There are 10 teams involved in the chase for those divisions – which is a problem since there are only eight remaining playoff berths.
The wild-card race this year, in fact, is so strong that it’s possible there’ll be at least one 10-win team in each conference that doesn’t make the playoffs. In the NFC there’s a possibility that an 11-5 team will be left out. That’s why winning the division seems more important than ever.
So here’s a look at those all-important races in the four divisions that are up for grabs:
AFC NORTH: Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1), Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5), Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
There was a time earlier this season when the flawed Cleveland Browns were sitting atop the standings that this didn’t look like one of the better divisions in football. But these three teams have made a strong, late-season push. And it could all come down to the Bengals game in Pittsburgh in Week 17.
The Bengals play against the Denver Broncos this week, which makes that finale almost a must-win for them, especially since the Steelers warm up for that game by playing host to the Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s the Ravens, though, who might be in the drivers’ seat. Winners of four of the last five, they have a soft, season-ending schedule with a game at Houston and home against the Browns. They haven’t looked great the last few weeks, and it’s worth noting that they lost back-to-back games to the Bengals and Steelers before this streak began.
The Steelers own the tie-breaker over the Ravens, but they might be forced to win both of their last two games.
Forecast: 1. Steelers 11-5, 2. Ravens 11-5, 3. Bengals 9-6-1
NFC EAST: Dallas Cowboys (10-4), Philadelphia Eagles (9-5)
The Cowboys’ Week 15 win over Philly was absolutely huge, because their tie-breaker scenarios meant they were going to be in danger of not only losing the division, but maybe even missing the playoffs had they lost. Instead, they looked terrific, as they have for much of the season. They may be hampered by the broken hand to RB DeMarco Murray, but early indications are that it's not serious, which could be a boost to get them on a roll.
Their only problem, though, is they have a very difficult game against the Indianapolis Colts this weekend, while the Eagles have an incredibly easy season-ending stretch against Washington and the Giants, the two worst teams in the NFC East.
So while it looks like the bubble sure has burst on QB Mark Sanchez, which doesn’t bode well for the playoffs, they still can win the division by winning their final two games and hoping the Cowboys lose once. If the Cowboys beat the Colts on Sunday, though, the division race is all but over.
Forecast: 1. Eagles 11-5, 2. Cowboys 11-5
NFC NORTH: Detroit Lions (10-4), Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Until the Packers’ shocking loss to the Bills last weekend they looked to be on the Polar Express toward Super Bowl XLIX. And they might still be, especially if it’s the flawed Lions standing between them and at least one, maybe two, playoff games in Lambeau Field.
The Lions, though, have a real chance to win the division. It’s game over for the Packers with one Lions win and one Packers loss. If the Packers beat Tampa Bay on Sunday, though, then no matter what it all comes down to the season finale in Green Bay. Since the Lions play at Chicago this weekend, it’s a good bet they’ll both be 11-4 heading into that winner-take-all game.
Forecast: 1. Packers 12-4, Lions 11-5
NFC SOUTH: New Orleans Saints (6-8), Carolina Panthers (5-8-1), Atlanta Falcons (5-9)
The worst division in the NFL doesn’t deserve a winner, but at least it’s only going to get one playoff berth. The Saints have the easiest path and can clinch by beating the Falcons on Sunday if the Panthers lose. They also have the safety net of a game against the Bucs in their finale – as if anything is really “safe” in this miserable division.
The Falcons can win their last two games and do some damage in the division, since they play the Saints and Panthers. A win over the Saints this weekend would be huge, since it would give them a season sweep and the tiebreaker advantage.
None of them have played particularly well lately and all of them have their issues, so really this division is “anything goes”. They’d be lucky to get a team into the playoffs with a .500 record. It’s hard to see whoever represents them being anything but one and done.
Forecast: 1. Saints 8-8, 2. Panthers 7-9-1, 3. Falcons 6-10
The Boston Celtics are in transition. That's why they just made the tough decision not to hold onto their last vestige of past glory. All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo was the only remaining member of their 2008 championship team that featured Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen — until last night. Now he's a Dallas Maverick.
Rondo seemed out of place with the current, rebuilding Celtics, led by Brad Stevens — the youngest coach in the league. He makes a lot more sense fighting for a championship in the intense, competitive Western Conference with Dirk Nowitzki and coach Rick Carlisle.
Basketball fans come out winners with Rondo heading to Texas. While the gap between the Eastern and Western conferences only grows larger with this move, the popcorn bucket for the playoffs only gets bigger and more buttery with another elite competitor in the fray. In past playoffs, Rondo has regularly been one of the most watchable players alive.
To get Rondo, Dallas is giving up backup big man Brandan Wright along with Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, and two future draft picks — as reported by ESPN's Marc Stein.
It'll be interesting to see how the blockbuster trade plays out on the floor. Dallas already has the best offense in the league, and adding a new general will change a lot of what they do fundamentally. One is tempted to say it will change for the better — Rondo has better passing vision than just about anyone in the NBA — but how can you improve upon No. 1?
Rondo has been a ferocious defender in the past, but the malaise of a rebuild in Boston seems to have changed that. If his drop in effectiveness is all about motivation, then Dallas should rejoice. Because their team just got one of the biggest primetime gamers in the sport.
— John Wilmes
The first-ever Raycom Media Camellia Bowl between Bowling Green and South Alabama also represents the first-ever postseason appearance for one of FBS’ newest programs. Played in the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., this is the newest iteration of the Camellia Bowl, a postseason game whose ties go back to Louisiana and California.
For Bowling Green (7-6), this is the Falcons’ third straight postseason invite and 12th overall. Last season, Bowling Green won the Mid-American Conference championship under Dave Clawson, who departed for Wake Forest prior to the bowl game. Clawson was replaced by Dino Babers, who was the head coach at FCS member Eastern Illinois.
Babers’ first season in Bowling Green featured a home win over Big Ten member Indiana and a second straight MAC East Division title. However, the Falcons ended their regular season with back-to-back losses to Toledo and Ball State before getting demolished 51-17 by Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game.
A win over South Alabama would not only put an end to Bowling Green’s losing streak, it also would be the school’s first bowl victory since 2004. The Falcons have lost their past four bowl games, including last season’s 30-27 setback to Pittsburgh in the Little Caesars Bowl.
For South Alabama (6-6), this will be the program’s first-ever bowl game, which is pretty impressive considering the Jaguars are in their sixth season of existence and just their second as a full-fledged FBS member. Joey Jones led his team to a 6-6 mark last season, but South Alabama was passed over for a bowl game.
This season the Jaguars opened up with a road win over MAC member Kent State, held their own in losses to Mississippi State and South Carolina, and nearly took down Navy at home to close out their slate. South Alabama finished 5-3 in the Sun Belt, part of a three-way tie for fourth place, and is one victory away from capping off the program’s most successful season.
Although a new bowl game to the FBS ranks, the Camellia Bowl has a shared history that dates all the way back to 1948. Hardin-Simmons defeated Wichita (now Wichita State University) 49-12 in the Camellia Bowl in Lafayette, La., on Dec. 30, 1948. The Camellia Bowl also was the name of the NAIA championship game (1961-64), as well as one of the four season-ending games from 1962-75 for what is now known as Division II. All of these games were played in Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, Calif.
Prior to the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, the last game called by this name was the Division I-AA (now FCS) Championship Game played between Boise State and Eastern Kentucky in Sacramento on Dec. 20, 1980. The Broncos won that game 31-29.
Bowling Green vs. South Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 20 at 9:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: South Alabama -3
Bowling Green’s Key to Victory: Get Off the Field on 3rd Down
Last season, the Falcons were 10th in the nation in total defense, a big reason why they won 10 games and their first MAC title since 1992. Unfortunately, Bowling Green’s defense has taken several steps back this season, as the Falcons are ranked 122nd out of 128 FBS teams in yards allowed per game (499.6). After holding opponents to a 35.3 percent conversion rate (29th) on third downs in 2013, the Falcons have allowed teams to convert 43.5 percent of their attempts this fall. That number jumps to well over 50 percent (54.9) in their six losses. Another byproduct of their struggles in this category is time of possession. In their last three games – losses to Toledo, Ball State and to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game – Bowling Green’s defense has been on the field for more than 109 minutes or 61 percent of total game time. Fortunately for Dino Babers’ team, South Alabama’s offense has had their own issues converting on third down. The Jaguars have converted just 36.4 percent of their third down conversions and haven’t fared that better in wins (38.3). The Falcons’ defense needs to minimize the amount of time it’s on the field. Stopping South Alabama on third down would be a huge first step in that direction.
South Alabama’s Key to Victory: Take Care of the Football
On the season, the Jaguars’ turnover margin isn’t that bad. They have committed just four more (24) than they have forced (20). However, a closer look at the numbers shows that South Alabama has regressed drastically in this category over the second half of its schedule, which has carried over to its results. In their first seven games the Jaguars turned the ball over a total of eight times. They went 5-2 during this stretch. Since that point, however, South Alabama has coughed it up 16 times in five games, a big reason why the Jaguars are in the midst of a 1-4 slump. Joey Jones’ team doesn’t jump out at you statistically in any one category, which means South Alabama plays with a rather thin margin for error. This is especially the case against a team like Bowling Green, whose plus-seven turnover margin is tied for the seventh-best mark nationally. The Jaguars need to keep both hands on the ball if they want to increase their chances of making the most of their first-ever bowl appearance.
Bowling Green won a division title, but it got trounced in the conference championship game and didn’t beat a single team that finished with a winning record. South Alabama won’t qualify in that respect either, but the Jaguars are hoping to make the most of their first-ever bowl appearance. Joey Jones’ team is new to FCS competition, but not necessarily success. The Jaguars technically were bowl-eligible last season at 6-6; they just weren’t selected to fill one of the Sun Belt’s bids. The Falcons are more established as a program, but the Jaguars are the ones motivated to make their first big splash on the FCS level. And playing a de facto home game in Montgomery certainly doesn’t hurt their chances of accomplishing this goal either.
Prediction: South Alabama 27, Bowling Green 24
My advice for picking bowls?
Don't do it. Stay as far away from these exhibitions as you can. Trying to pinpoint motivation, focus and the holidays at the end of a long, grueling season is virtually impossible.
I finished the regular season 56-53-1 against the spread. Unimpressive but in the black nonetheless during the most unpredictable season since '07. This isn't the regular season though, so these are more like suggestions than iron-clad locks.
Nevada (-1) vs. UL Lafayette
New Orleans Bowl
Dec. 20, 11 a.m., New Orleans
The Cajuns are extremely familiar with this situation and have been very successful. ULL has is 3-0 under Mark Hudspeth with each win coming in the New Orleans Bowl. Stopping Cody Fajardo isn't easy but Lafayette will find a way. The Pick: ULL +1
Utah St (-10.5) vs. UTEP
New Mexico Bowl
Dec. 20, 2:20 p.m., Albuquerque
This is one of the largest spreads in any bowl game and that should give you pause. The Miners have been excellent against the number all season (8-3-1) and should be motivated in their first bowl appearance since 2010. Utah State is getting healthier but got smoked by Boise State 50-19 its last time out. The Pick: UTEP +10
Utah (-2.5) vs. Colorado St
Las Vegas Bowl
Dec. 20, 3:30 p.m., Las Vegas
Both teams have been excellent against the spread, going 8-4 this year. Colorado State has lots of weapons but no head coach. This will be close but Utah's front seven should make enough plays to slow down the Rams' talented offensive trio. The Pick: Utah -2.5
W. Michigan (-1) vs. Air Force
Dec. 20, 5:45 p.m., Boise
It should come as no surprise that this game is a total crap shoot. On one side there's a unique offense that is much tougher to stop at the mid-major levels. On the other is one of the best teams in the nation against the spread (10-2) and three weeks to prepare. Good luck. The Pick: Air Force +1
South Alabama (-2.5) vs. Bowling Green
Dec. 20, 9:15 p.m., Montgomery
Bowling Green is 4-8-1 against the spread this season and has lost three straight. Meanwhile, South Alabama has lost four out of five. Both teams are well coached and are evenly matched, so I'll take the team playing in its first-ever bowl game. The Pick: South Alabama -2.5
BYU (+1.5) vs. Memphis
Miami Beach Bowl
Dec. 22, 2 p.m., Miami
This is the most intriguing early bowl matchup of the year. Both teams are very well coached and play physical defense. BYU would be the pick if Taysom Hill was playing but the Stormin' Mormon won't be back until 2015. Take Memphis to be motivated to get its first bowl win since 2005 in its first bowl appearance since 2008. The Pick: Memphis -1.5
Marshall (-10) vs. N. Illinois
Boca Raton Bowl
Dec. 23, 6 p.m., Boca Raton
Just like the New Mexico Bowl, big spreads in bowl games should be played with caution. Frankly, the Huskies are good enough to win the game outright. The Herd will be tough to beat but that is too many points for a program that knows all about the postseason and has been challenged this year. The Pick: N. Illinois +10
Navy (+2.5) vs. San Diego St
Dec. 23, 9:30 p.m., San Diego
This is a solid Navy team that has won three straight and rolled up efficient offensive numbers all season long. The Aztecs are playing well but won't be able to stop the Middies' triple-option attack. The Pick: Navy +2.5
C. Michigan (+3) vs. W. Kentucky
Dec. 24, Noon, Nassau
Finally, a pre-Christmas bowl game I'd like to cover. The Hilltoppers have played a much tougher slate and have won four straight, including scoring 67 points on previously unbeaten Marshall. In its last five wins (six games), WKY has scored at least 45 points four times. The Pick: Western Kentucky -3
Fresno St (+2) vs. Rice
Dec. 24, 8 p.m., Honolulu
The competition got stiff in the final few weeks for Rice and it gave up huge numbers to Marshall (41) and Louisiana Tech (76) in losses. Fresno State wants to get back to .500 and played very well in a loss to Boise State in the MWC title game. The Pick: Fresno St +2
Here are the 30 best, most entertaining, most dramatic and most important Power 5 football games of the 2014 season:
1. (2) Florida St 31, (5) Notre Dame 27
It’s hard to make an entire nation root for the usually hated Fighting Irish but that is what the Seminoles were able to do in this battle of top-five teams. An evenly matched bout most of the way, Jameis Winston led the Noles on a game-winning touchdown drive with just under eight minutes to go. Not to be outdone, Everett Golson moved the Irish to the FSU two-yard line before the infamous pick penalty erased the game-winning score and pushed ND back to the 18-yard line on fourth down. Winston was star of the show again, going 15-of-16 in the second half.
2. (5) Baylor 61, (9) TCU 58
One of the highest-scoring games in league history eventually decided the Big 12 championship for the Bears. Trailing 58-37 with less than 11 minutes to play, Bryce Petty orchestrated one of the most miraculous comebacks in college football history. He led Baylor on four scoring drives and 24 points in the final quarter with the final three points coming on a 28-yard field goal as time expired. This game might have cost the Big 12 a spot in the Playoff.
3. (11) Ole Miss 23, (3) Alabama 17
For about seven minutes, Bo Wallace was downright brilliant and Alabama's special teams were not. Two Wallace touchdown passes and two 'Bama turnovers led to a historic and memorable victory over the Tide in "College GameDay’s" first-ever visit to The Grove.
4. (1) Alabama 55, (15) Auburn 44
While there was no SEC West or SEC title hanging in the balance, the intensity still delivered for these two hated rivals. Neither team played much defense in this record-setting Iron Bowl, as Alabama outscored Auburn 34-10 over the following 23 minutes after trailing by 12 in the third quarter. The win kept 'Bama in the Playoff picture.
5. Arizona 31, (2) Oregon 24
The upset heard ‘round the world started an unforgettable weekend in the Pac-12. Arizona stunned the Ducks by forcing turnovers, pressuring Marcus Mariota and running the ball. Scooby Wright III became a household name when he stripped Mariota and recovered the fumble to win the game in front of a shocked Autzen Stadium crowd.
6. (5) Alabama 20, (16) LSU 13 (OT)
Always physical and always intense, the heavily-favored Crimson Tide needed a historic drive from Blake Sims to defeat the Tigers. Sims led 'Bama 55 yards over the final 50 seconds to tie the game before going on to win in overtime.
7. (3) Auburn 35, (4) Ole Miss 31
Literally and figuratively, the Rebels' home loss to Auburn might be one of the most painful in school or SEC history. No one on either side of the ledger will forget when Laquon Treadwell fumbled and broke his leg with 1:30 to go, as he was falling into the end zone for the game-winning score. The back-and-forth affair never featured a lead of more than seven points.
8. (25) TCU 37, (4) Oklahoma 33
Barely ranked, TCU entered the national conversation by outscoring the Sooners at home. Trevone Boykin and Trevor Knight both topped 300 yards in the dramatic affair. The game was tied at the end of the first quarter and was never more than a one-score game after that. Paul Dawson’s 41-yard interception return early in the fourth quarter was the game-winning touchdown.
9. (3) Oregon 46, (7) Michigan St 27
Few gave the Spartans a chance to go to Autzen Stadium and win. But through three quarters, everyone in Eugene had respect for Michigan State. The Spartans gave the Ducks all they could handle until a late tipped interception landed in the hands of All-American corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The Ducks surged over the final few minutes.
10. (24) LSU 10, (3) Ole Miss 7
It wasn’t always pretty but it was extremely memorable. The physical units beat each other up for 60 minutes before Ole Miss had a chance to win in the final moments. But a bizarre decision by Bo Wallace (and, to some extent, Hugh Freeze) in the final moments of the game began a tough final month for the Rebs.
11. (16) Georgia Tech 30, (9) Georgia 24 (OT)
It didn’t really mean much in the standings or rankings but the 109th edition of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate won’t ever be forgotten by either side. Georgia scored with 18 seconds to go to seemingly win a sixth straight over its in-state rival but somehow Justin Thomas ran his team into field goal range on the ensuing possession. Harrison Butker drilled a 53-yarder to tie the game as time expired and the Jackets' defense kept the Dawgs out of the end zone for the win.
12. Arizona St 38, (16) USC 34
It was the wildest weekend of the season, as four of the top 10 games of the year took place in Week 6. The wildest of finishes happened in Los Angeles when backup quarterback Mike Bercovici connected with Jaelen Strong on the final play of the game from 46 yards out. Arizona State and USC combined for 34 points in the final quarter.
13. (1) Florida St 23, (22) Clemson 17 (OT)
The day before the big Atlantic Division showdown, Jimbo Fisher suspended Jameis Winston for the entire game. Clemson, buoyed by a confident defense and the emergence of true freshman DeShaun Watson at quarterback, played mostly excellent football for 58 minutes. But a gut-wrenching fumble deep in Florida State territory with two minutes to play and a questionable fourth-down decision in overtime left the Tigers dumbstruck when the final whistle blew.
14. (19) Utah 24, (20) USC 21
It was arguably the biggest win for Utah since moving to the Pac-12 and it happened because Travis Wilson threw a game-winning touchdown pass with eight seconds left. The final drive may be Wilson’s finest of his career, moving the Utes 73 yards on 11 plays with just 2:08 to play. The score was the game’s fifth lead change.
15. (3) Florida State 30, Miami 26
FSU started out slowly, trailing both 16-0 and 23-7 in the second quarter. But Jameis Winston and tailback Dalvin Cook flipped a switch in the second half, as Florida State went on a 23-3 run. Cook sprinted 26 yards with 3:05 left in the game to give the Noles their 26th straight win and fifth in a row over the archrival Hurricanes.
16. Utah 30, (8) UCLA 28
The Bruins lived on the edge for most of the first month and it finally caught up with them at home against the underdog Utes. After UCLA allowed the eighth, ninth and tenth sacks of the game against Brett Hundley, Kendal Thompson led the game-winning drive to give Utah a win on the road over a to-10 foe. Andy Phillips nailed a 29-yard field goal with 34 seconds left to give Utah the lead. UCLA then missed not one, but two 50-plus-yard field goal attempts as time expired.
17. Arizona 49, Cal 45
It didn’t feature a ranked team at the time and no one realized at the time how important it would become in the Pac-12 South Division race. Arizona’s successful Hail Mary on the game’s final play capped a 36-point fourth quarter. The record-setting comeback would help propel the Wildcats into the Pac-12 title game and put Anu Solomon on the nation’s radar.
18. (14) Ohio St 49, (8) Michigan St 37
There wasn’t a Hail Mary or last-second field goal, but this was easily the most important Big Ten game of the year. Ohio State went on the road and matched the Spartans punch for punch. In the end, J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott were too much for the defending champs. The win eventually gave the Buckeyes the division crown, the league title and a Playoff berth.
19. (24) South Carolina 38, (6) Georgia 35
This SEC East rivalry has become one of the most important and entertaining in the league and this year’s version didn’t disappoint. Todd Gurley and Dylan Thompson went back and forth all game while special teams and a goal-line stand played critical roles in the second half.
20. (13) Ohio St 31, Penn St 24 (2OT)
J.T. Barrett played one of the worst games of his season while Penn State played arguably its best as a team, coming from 17 points back to force overtime. Yet, after two overtimes and four turnovers, Penn State’s offensive line woes eventually cost the Lions the game. Joey Bosa capped a remarkable evening with a game-ending sack on fourth down in double overtime.
21. (2) Florida St 42, (25) Louisville 31
(Stop me when you’ve heard this before?) Florida State stumbled out of the gate in primetime on a Thursday night in Papa John’s Stadium. Michael Dyer led a surging Cardinals squad to a 21-0 second-quarter lead before a fortunate bounce helped FSU get into the end zone with just 33 seconds left before halftime. The second half was the James Winston and Dalvin Cook show, as the duo combined for five touchdowns — all of which came from at least 35 yards away. The Noles finished on a 42-10 run over the final 31 minutes of play.
22. Texas A&M 41, (3) Auburn 38
The thrilling road upset by the Aggies was highlighted by two of the most bizarre fumbles the SEC has ever seen. After a furious second-half rally, Auburn appeared to have the game won or at least tied at two different times in the final moments. But a tangled exchanged at the two-yard line and a bizarre center snap on the 28 cost Auburn the game. Texas A&M was a 23-point underdog and this win also helped christen Kyle Allen as the future in College Station
23. (14) Kansas St 31, (11) Oklahoma 30
It wasn’t Michael Hunnicutt’s day to say the least. Several miscues and a late missed field goal cost the Sooners the game. That said, Oklahoma couldn’t stop Jake Waters and company all day, as the two offenses went back and forth for 60 minutes. Two old-school Hall of Fame coaches did battle and everyone who watched was a winner.
24. (14) Arizona St 19, (17) Utah 16 (OT)
The low-scoring affair featured plenty of special teams action, as two of the best kickers in the game went toe-to-toe. Zane Gonzalez made four field goals, including the game-tying kick from 30 yards out with 5:47 to play and the game-winner in overtime from 36 yards out. Utah’s Andy Phillips also made three FGs during the game, but missed twice from 35 yards out (timeout was called negating the first attempt) on the first possession of overtime.
25. (6) Texas A&M 35, Arkansas 28 (OT)
The Hogs appeared to be poised for their first SEC win under Bret Bielema until Kenny Hill snatched victory away from Arkansas. Trailing by two touchdowns in the final frame, Hill connected on two long touchdown throws and added the game-winner on the first play of overtime to score 21 unanswered points and give Texas A&M the win.
26. Oklahoma St 38, (20) Oklahoma 35
The Bedlam Series has never seen an ending quite like this and it couldn’t make Mike Gundy any happier. A heavy underdog, the Pokes faced certain defeat with just under a minute to play. But Tyreek Hill delivered a 92-yard, game-tying punt return to send the game into overtime.
27. (17) Missouri 21, Arkansas 14
The Hogs played extremely well for three quarters before a road-grading, old-school touchdown drive gave Missouri the SEC East championship. The Tigers ran 12 plays for 85 yards to score the game-winner with just six minutes left in the game. A turnover forced by Markus Golden eventually sealed the win in what should develop into an underrated border rivalry.
28. Virginia Tech 35, (8) Ohio St 21
This was one of the biggest upsets of the year regardless of conference. The Hokies rattled and tormented J.T. Barrett all night in a shocking two-touchdown win in Columbus. It was a memorable night for college football and VT quarterback Michael Brewer.
29. (14) USC 13, (13) Stanford 10
It wasn’t a well-played game, but it sure was fun to watch. Stanford’s inability to score in the red zone coupled with some big plays from Cody Kessler and the USC defense gave the Trojans yet another upset win over Stanford. The game was highlighted by bizarre sideline behavior from Steve Sarkisian and Pat Haden.
30. (9) Notre Dame 17, (14) Stanford 14
It wasn’t pretty but the finish lived up to the rich history between these two cross-country foes. From the 23-yard line, Everett Golson found Ben Koyack in the end zone on fourth down trailing 14-10 with just 1:01 left on the clock. The defensive battle finished with three lead changes in the final eight minutes.
The Best of the Rest:
(4) Florida St 37, (11) Georgia Tech 35
After allowing boatloads of yards in the first half, it looked like Tech would be up to the task. However, the Seminoles' defense tightened in the second half and Jameis Winston, like always, led multiple scoring drives in the final 20 minutes of play. It was just enough for Florida State to win its third consecutive ACC title.
USC 28, (10) Arizona 26
Arizona led after the first quarter and USC led after the second and third. In fact, the Trojans entered the final frame up 28-13 before Anu Solomon led another furious rally. A failed two-point conversion with 1:07 to play left the Cats down by two, but a successful onside kick gave Zona new life. Solomon then raced his offense into field goal range but a last-second, 36-yard attempt sailed wide right and USC escaped Tucson with a critical win.
(25) Minnesota 28, (23) Nebraska 24
With just minutes left in the game and trailing, it appeared that Nebraska had made the game-winning play. But Jerry Kill’s Gophers, without running back David Cobb no less, once again made an unexpected play. Briean Boddy-Calhoun capped an epic road comeback for Minnesota when he ripped the ball away from Nebraska on his own goal line with 1:19 left in the game. It was Minnesota’s first win in Nebraska since 1960.
Nebraska 37, Iowa 34 (OT)
The Huskers had lost two straight and were trailing 24-7 late in the third quarter when Tommy Armstrong led one of the most improbable comebacks in school history. Armstrong led three touchdown drives over the final 20 minutes, capped off by the game-tying drive that ended with eight seconds left in the game and then threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Kenny Bell in overtime — his fourth of the game.
Florida 36, Kentucky 30 (3OT)
Kentucky fans will only remember what happened before the play and certainly won’t ever forget what happened at the end. After the play clock appeared to hit zero, Jeff Driskel connected with Demarcus Robinson on 4th-and-7 in overtime to tie the game and keep Florida alive. Two overtimes later, Matt Jones scored the game-winning touchdown.
Indiana 31, (18) Missouri 27
The biggest non-conference win and biggest upset of the year — regardless of conference — came from Kevin Wilson’s bunch in Columbia, Mo. Tevin Coleman rushed for 132 yards, Nate Sudfeld was excellent and D’Angelo Roberts scored the game-winning touchdown with just 22 seconds left. The SEC East champs lost just twice in the regular season.
(5) Auburn 42, South Carolina 35
South Carolina came to Auburn as a heavy underdog but proved to be anything but an easy out. The two high-powered offenses traded scores for the better part of 60 minutes before Auburn’s defense finally got a few stops in the fourth quarter. The two teams combined for 1,086 yards of offense and three total punts.
(14) Arizona 27, Washington 26
The star of this wild game was a kicker. One week after missing a kick that cost Arizona a win over USC, Casey Skowron not only made the game-winning field goal as time expired, but scored every point in the fourth quarter for either team and scored a touchdown on a fake field goal in the second quarter. Washington dominated the third quarter but RichRod’s bunch owned the final frame in this wild interdivisional game.
(11) Arizona 42, (13) Arizona St 35
Despite Rich Rodriguez’ best efforts, about midway through the game, both teams realized that The Territorial Cup had become the Pac-12 South championship game. Anu Solomon played solid football all game, as did the Cats defense, regardless of which Arizona State quarterback was in the game. The Sun Devils simply couldn’t close the touchdown gap that existed for most of the game. An early defensive TD was the difference.
(5) Auburn 20, (20) Kansas St 14
It wasn’t pretty and wasn’t well played but it was hard-hitting and dramatic. Jake Waters and Nick Marshall battled to the final moments in Manhattan but red zone and special teams mistakes kept the Cats from the win.
In an honest moment, UCLA coach Steve Alford might roll his eyes at Kentucky’s current dilemma heading into Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
The Wildcats lost junior forward Alex Poythress for the remainder of the season a week ago to a torn ACL. The injury means Kentucky coach John Calipari must either find a 10th man to play in his unconventional platoon system or simply deal with a nine-man rotation filled with McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA prospects.
Alford only wishes he could sympathize with that problem.
Kentucky’s opponent Saturday has a five-man rotation and little else. In UCLA’s last game, an 87-74 loss to Gonzaga, Alford played four of his starters for at least 35 minutes. The fifth starter played 25 minutes, and only one other player logged more than six minutes.
Meanwhile, Kentucky could still conceivably change its entire lineup wholesale. Since this is Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country, the Wildcats’ substitution patterns in the face of the Poythress injury are noteworthy.
“We'll platoon nine, and we're going to have time to see if (sophomore forward) Derek Willis or (sophomore guard) Dom Hawkins deserve to be in the rotation of 10,” Calipari said. “I'm not going to take minutes away from any player just to platoon. That's not the idea. We were platooning for one reason — to try to take care of 10 players.”
Kentucky vs. UCLA
Site: United Center, Chicago
Time: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
David Fox: Kentucky 74-58
Braden Gall: Kentucky 83-68
Mitch Light: Kentucky 78-54
Jake Rose: Kentucky 82-64
The Poythress injury is the first major test of Calipari’s unorthodox platoon system in which he has white and blue squads for liberal and sometime wholesale substitutions.
While the loss of a starter — and an experienced and versatile defender at that — Calipari has to find a way to fill the minutes. Certainly, he has the bodies to do it, but he’ll have to juggle the egos of talented players along the way.
The truth is, the true platoon system has faded a bit in recent games. In a 58-38 win over Providence on Nov. 30, Kentucky made eight five-man substitutions, including the first four substitutions of the game.
That may have been the end of Kentucky's platoon system.
In the following four games, Calipari has subbed all five on the court only six times. That said, the first substitutions against Texas, Eastern Kentucky and Columbia was a five-man change.
Against North Carolina, Kentucky’s first game without Poythress, the Wildcats subbed four at the first timeout and followed more conventional substitution patterns for the remainder of the game. Calipari subbed four seven times against the Tar Heels and never subbed an entire lineup.
The Poythress injury is a curve ball, but the kind of change that was bound to happen to Kentucky’s best-laid plans. An injury, a player or two not keeping up with the pack or anything else could have turned a 10-man platoon into a more conventional, yet still deep, rotation.
“We did talk in terms of, 'Hey, if we get to the point where eight of those guys or seven have separated from the rest, it'll be pretty cut-and-dried that it's done on the court and it's proven on the court and those guys will play.'” Calipari said. “So I'm not married to anything.”
Two of the nation’s most improved teams – Air Force and Western Michigan – meet for the first time in program history in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Falcons and Broncos each improved their win total by seven games last season and scored some impressive wins in the process. Air Force beat Colorado State and Boise State – arguably the top two teams in the Mountain West – this year and claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after beating Army and Navy. The Broncos went 0-2 against Power 5 opponents but lost by one to Toledo and defeated MAC East champion Bowling Green 26-14 in mid-October.
Improvement on defense has spurred the seven-game jump in wins by Air Force this season. The Falcons allowed 40 points per game in 2013 but lowered that number to 24.2 in 2014. Western Michigan experienced a similar turnaround on defense, limiting opponents to 23.8 points per game after giving up 35.4 per contest last season. But the Broncos also took a step forward on offense, as the emergence of running back Jarvion Franklin and quarterback Zach Terrell propelled Western Michigan to lead the MAC with an average of 34.6 points per game.
This will be the 18th bowl matchup of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The bowl name has changed a couple of times since its inception in 1997, but the last two meetings in Boise were blowouts. Utah State dominated Toledo 41-15 in 2012, while San Diego State defeated Buffalo 49-24 last season.
Air Force vs. Western Michigan
Kickoff: 5:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Air Force -1.5
Air Force’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
In Air Force’s 3-4 alignment, its three listed starters on the depth chart for the defensive line average 262 pounds. That’s a light defensive front compared to some of the other teams Western Michigan has played this year. The Broncos lean on their ground attack to setup the pass, and running back Jarvion Franklin emerged as one of the top freshmen in college football this season. Franklin recorded 1,525 yards and 24 scores on 294 attempts and earned MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors for his performance. Air Force may not measure up in terms of overall size up front, but the Falcons are active around the line of scrimmage and ranked second in the Mountain West against the run in 2014. Under the direction of coordinator Steve Russ, Air Force ranks third in the Mountain West with 77 tackles for a loss and finished the season on a high note by containing Colorado State’s offense to just 106 rushing yards on 32 attempts. The Broncos will try to establish the run from the opening snap, and it’s critical the Falcons win the battle on first and second down to force Western Michigan into third-and-long situations. Quarterback Zach Terrell completed 70 percent of his throws this season and tossed only 10 picks on 330 attempts. But how important is it for Franklin to have success? In all four of Western Michigan’s losses, Terrell attempted over 30 passes. In eight wins by the Broncos, Terrell attempted less than 30.
Western Michigan’s Key to Victory: Third-down Defense and Turnovers
Regardless of the time to prepare, playing a team that runs an option offense is no easy assignment. Western Michigan faces a tough task trying to slow down an Air Force offense that averages 272.2 yards per game and led the nation with 732 rushing attempts. The Falcons use a variety of rushers, with Jacobi Owens and quarterback Kale Pearson leading the team in yardage this year. However, Owens is out for the rest of the season due to injury, and Pearson did not play in the regular season finale. Pearson is expected to go against Western Michigan, while Devin Rushing, D.J. Johnson and Shayne Daveren will be counted upon more out of the backfield with Owens sidelined. Despite the injury to Owens, Air Force’s ground attack will test the Broncos rush defense, which ranks fourth in the MAC by allowing 142.7 yards per game. Western Michigan held six opponents under 100 rushing yards this season, but Northern Illinois gashed the defense for 196 yards, while Toledo recorded 234 yards on 36 attempts. Teams that had the right pieces up front and in the backfield had success against the Broncos. However, stopping the run isn’t necessarily the only task for Western Michigan, as this defense needs to get off the field on third downs and force turnovers. Pearson has been efficient when he’s asked to throw, but this offense isn’t built to rally from 14 or 17 points down on a consistent basis. When Air Force gets its ground attack established and continues to eat up the clock on third downs, it’s difficult for a defense to get off the field and get the ball back to its offense.
This matchup could be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls. Both teams have plenty of motivation to cap a season of significant improvement with a win in Boise, while the overall matchup is fairly even between the Broncos and Falcons. Western Michigan should benefit from the extra time to prepare for Air Force’s option attack. However, it may take some time to adjust in game speed. Pearson and the Falcons’ rushers should have success, but the Broncos will also land a few punches behind the one-two punch of Franklin on the ground and Terrell through the air. Limiting big plays in the passing has been a challenge for Air Force this year, and Terrell has a dangerous outside threat in receiver Corey Davis (17.6 ypc). Expect a back-and-forth affair, with Air Force edging Western Michigan for the win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Air Force 31, Western Michigan 27
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 18:
• Kate Upton and Justin Verlander have sent out their Christmas card. Not what we're used to from Ms. Upton, is it?
• Tis the season: Mandatory's passive-aggressive holiday insult generator.
• Somebody strapped a GoPro to an eagle before the Eagles game. Enjoy.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Not many bowl games feature two teams that have met 79 previous times but that is the case when former conference rivals Utah and Colorado State meet on Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Utes own the series over Rams (55-22-2) and is 6-1 against the Colorado State under Kyle Whittingham — the only loss came in Whittingham’s first season in Salt Lake City.
After missing the postseason four straight years, Jim McElwain led the Rams to their second straight bowl game and a 10-win season. However, Dave Baldwin will be running the ship after McElwain departed Fort Collins for Gainesville, Fla.
Opposite Baldwin, Whittingham has led a resurgent Utah program back to the postseason after two years without a bowl bid.
Utah is making its fourth appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl while Colorado State is making its postseason debut in Sin City.
Utah vs. Colorado State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Dec. 20)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Utah -3.5
Utah’s Key to Victory: Efficient and balanced offense
Utah has arguably the best special teams in the nation and has more than held its own along the defensive front. So it falls to the offense to find balance and not turn the ball over. Travis Wilson has had his share of impressive moments this fall but has also made plenty of mistakes. He needs to rely on All-Pac-12 running back Devontae Booker (1,350 yds, 9 TDs) to make plays and not be afraid to throw the ball away. If Wilson protects the football and plays it conservatively, the Utes are good enough to win with defense and special teams.
Colorado State's Key to Victory: Protect the QB
Few teams in the nation have as talented an offensive trio as Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson, Rashard Higgins and Dee Hart. Grayson has been sterling under center (32 TDs, 6 INTs) while Higgins is leading the nation with 17 touchdown catches. Hart brings balance to the offense (1,254 yds, 16 TDs). Needless to say, the trio has been tough to stop this year, but the Utes led the nation in sacks (52) and Baldwin can bet on plenty of pressure from Utah. Keeping Grayson upright and protected on passing downs (while giving Hart some space to work with on the ground) will give CSU its only chance at the upset. If the Rams can’t block Nate Orchard and a healthy Hunter Dimick, it could be a long day for Grayson and company.
Colorado State has an advantage with its talented trio on offense but they haven’t faced too many defensive fronts like what the Utes bring to the table. And Wilson hasn’t been consistent enough for the Utes to lean on him on offense. Instead, Utah will focus heavily on getting Booker the football on offense — he has carried the ball at least 23 times in a game seven times this year — and allowing the nation’s best special teams to win the field position battle. With the nation’s top punter (Tom Hackett), one of the best kickers (Andy Phillips) and an elite return man (Kaelin Clay), Whittingham’s bunch should outlast the Rams for his seventh bowl win in eight tries at Utah.
Prediction: Utah 27, Colorado State 23
“Underrated” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but this is a collection of men who simply don’t get mentioned nearly enough. While players like Marc Gasol, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis aren’t often properly credited on NBA fan radars — small market size will do that — this, here, is a team of ballers who simply can’t even get on that radar, but should be on yours.
7. Robin Lopez
The Portland Trail Blazers were hit hard this week when they learned of starting center Robin Lopez’s broken hand. Next to LaMarcus Aldridge, he provides just about the perfect complement of dirty work. His rim-protection, rebounding and general banging around in the lane free up Aldridge to be the futuristic, deep-shooting big that so often kills defenses.
As far as role players go, it’s hard to find a better one than the affable Lopez. His good humor and attitude are essential to the Blazers’ locker room, too, and Portland (a stealth Western Conference contender) will receive a terrific shot in the arm when he returns later this winter.
6. Andrew Bogut
Open your ears, and you’re sure to hear about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson — better known as the Splash Brothers. The Golden State Warriors hum along with one of the best offenses of the year in large part due to having the league’s best shooting combo. Thompson and Curry are also, for many fans, what makes GSW fun to watch.
But the wins and losses wouldn’t be the same without their linchpin back-line defender, Andrew Bogut, who's also insanely skilled on the perimeter for a 7-footer. The Warriors’ offense truly leaves the stratosphere when Bogut's passing outside the paint enters the playbook. If you like to watch big men behave like guards, Andrew’s your man.
5. Ty Lawson
Ty Lawson hasn’t let his undersized frame stop him from NBA ascension. The tiny dynamo goes unnoticed on a mismatched Denver Nuggets roster in the loaded Western Conference, but he’s secretly one of the very best pick-and-roll players in basketball. Lawson only needs an inch to kill you with his speed, and a screen can usually give him a few.
And when Denver is tight with their opponents down the stretch, there’s no doubt about who they’ll be calling the play for. Ty is high on the moxie rankings and can usually cross you over to get room for a clutch jumper that you’ll not soon forget.
4. Serge Ibaka
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that last year’s NBA title hung on the tendons of Serge Ibaka’s calf. When Ibaka got injured and missed Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, his Oklahoma City Thunder struggled to do anything right defensively.
Having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is always nice, but you’ve got to perform exquisite team defense to get past the game-planning of the reigning NBA champs. With a healthy Ibaka keeping the restricted area on lockdown, the currently streaking Thunder won’t have to advance too far up the standings to make noise in this year’s playoffs. With home-court advantage or without it, they’ll be able to beat anybody.
3. Trevor Ariza
Going into free agency this past summer, Trevor Ariza was plagued by one season of his career. Because his production dipped in 2009-10 when he signed a new deal, Ariza was widely cited as a “contract-year player,” who wouldn’t play up to standards once money wasn’t on the table.
But after signing a four-year, $32 million sheet with the Houston Rockets in July, Ariza has thoroughly disproved that notion. He’s been an essential piece of the surging Rockets, who look much more fearsome than last year with a defense loaded with real teeth. Ariza’s a premier perimeter stopper who brings conviction and elite 3-point shooting to Houston, too.
2. Jeff Teague
Don’t look now, but the Eastern Conference is growing their own version of the Spurs. Under the direction of former Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer, point guard Jeff Teague has become the motor to an offense with an uncanny amount of selfless passers and potent three-point shooters.
The Hawks’ motion-heavy offense is a thrill to watch, even if almost no one sees it. Teague’s penetration into the lane keys defensive breakdowns that often end in the enemy’s nightmare: Kyle Korver draining an open three. But the fifth-year Wake Forest alum can also finish the play himself, as a 47 percent shooter with a fierce finishing touch at the rim.
1. Kyle Lowry
The Toronto Raptors are the No. 1 team in the East, and no one deserves more credit for that than Kyle Lowry. One of the league’s best game managers in crunch time, Lowry is a pugnacious point guard who can kill you with force as much as he can touch.
An excellent, aggressive defender as well, Lowry is the soul at the middle of a Canadian basketball renaissance. Don’t be surprised if you see him smiling this springtime, while his dark horse Toronto squad emerges out of the Eastern Conference and fights in the Finals behind his stellar, steady play.
— John Wilmes
If you’re looking forward to watching tonight’s matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars on the NFL Network, you’re either a Draftnik who wants to see who’ll have a shot at the top pick; you have a son on one of the teams; or you have a serious gambling problem.
It’s hard to imagine any other motivation for tuning in for a pairing of the two of the NFL’s worst franchises, who sport matching 2–12 records. Of course, we are talking about professional football players (of a sort), so some small measure of pride and athleticism will still be on display at EverBank Field. We hope.
Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguarss
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Jacksonville -3.5
|Tennessee 2014 Schedule|
|11/23||@ PHI||L 24 - 43||Recap|
|11/30||@ HOU||L 21 - 45||Recap|
|12/7||vs NYG||L 7 - 36||Recap|
|12/14||vs NYJ||L 11 - 16||Recap|
|12/18||@ JAC||L 13 - 21||Recap|
|12/28||vs IND||L 10 - 27||Recap|
Tennessee’s Key to Victory: A Mistake-Free Game from Clipboard Charlie
Third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst is being forced back into action for the Titans following injuries to Zach Mettenberger and Jake Locker, but the news isn’t all bad on the Titans QB front. Whitehurst led the Titans to victory in the last meeting between these two teams, completing 17-of-28 passes for 233 yards in Tennessee’s 16–14 Week 6 win over Jacksonville in Nashville. If the Titans are to snap an NFL-worst eight-game losing streak, Whitehurst needs to protect the football and make some plays in the passing game. Whitehurst’s 89.1 passer rating actually leads the team (albeit in limited action), and his 5-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio is respectable. “I feel good about Charlie and what he's done. ... He started against Jacksonville the last time and played a pretty good game,” said coach Ken Whisenhunt. “He’s been a great support in the room, and we have confidence in him that when he plays he’s going to be successful.”
|Jacksonville 2014 Schedule|
|11/23||@ IND||L 3 - 23||Recap|
|11/30||vs NYG||W 25 - 24||Recap|
|12/7||vs HOU||L 13 - 27||Recap|
|12/14||@ BAL||L 12 - 20||Recap|
|12/18||vs TEN||W 21 - 13||Recap|
|12/28||@ HOU||L 17 - 23||Recap|
Jacksonville’s Key to Victory: Protect Blake Bortles
When Jags rookie Blake Bortles has had time to throw, he’s looked like a competent quarterback. Sadly, though, he’s had virtually no time to throw at any point this season. Bortles has been sacked an NFL-worst 41 times since Oct. 9 alone, and that punishment has to be adding up and putting a dent in his confidence when he drops back to pass. Bortles has 15 interceptions and a meager 70.9 passer rating, learning the hard way how tough life in the NFL can be. “In college, you can run around and do more stuff, but in the NFL guys are a lot faster and stronger,” he said. “So it’s a little more difficult. You want to be able to get rid of the ball and live another down, not lose 5, 10 yards on third down and create longer field-goal situations. Those are definitely things I’m working on.” The Jags would gladly take a repeat of Bortles’ Nov. 30 showing against the Giants, when he threw for 194 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in a 25–24 Jags win. If given time, he can easily produce similar numbers against a struggling Titans defense.
The stats say that these teams are in the NFL’s bottom five in both offense and defense, and the stats don’t lie. The Jags have managed to force 18 turnovers, two more than the Titans, so we’ll go with that as our tiebreaker.
Prediction: Jacksonville 17, Tennessee 13
The last two New Mexico Bowls featured over 90 points in each game, but this year’s meeting between Utah State and UTEP is expected to have a decidedly different outlook. The Aggies own one of the top defenses in the Mountain West by limiting opponents to 20.8 points per game, while the Miners led Conference USA in time of possession and averaged 26.6 points in league play this year. After watching the offenses light up the scoreboard at University Stadium in recent bowl matchups, defense and running the ball should take center stage on Saturday.
For the second year in a row, Utah State coach Matt Wells has navigated significant injuries at the quarterback position. Chuckie Keeton suffered a torn ACL last season but returned in time for the opener against Tennessee. However, Keeton was later ruled out for the remainder of 2014 due to knee issues. Sophomore Darell Garretson replaced Keeton, but he suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Third-stringer Craig Harrison suffered a knee injury against UNLV, leaving true freshman Kent Myers as the No. 1 quarterback. Myers has performed well in six appearances, throwing for 798 yards and five scores. Despite the injuries at quarterback, Utah State won nine games for the second consecutive season in a row.
UTEP has experienced a quick turnaround under second-year coach Sean Kugler. The Miners went 2-10 in 2013 but improved to 7-5 and are back in a bowl for the first time since 2010. Kugler – a former UTEP offensive lineman – has built this program on a run-first offense. The Miners started 2-3 but finished the season by winning five out of their last seven games.
Utah State and UTEP have met only two times in previous seasons. The Aggies hold a 2-0 edge over the Miners, but this is the first matchup between these two programs since 1961.
UTEP vs. Utah State
Kickoff: 2:20 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Utah State -10
UTEP’s Key to Victory: Establish the Run and Limit Mistakes
UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers started his career at Texas A&M but transferred to El Paso after losing the starting job to Johnny Manziel. Showers has been efficient for Kugler’s offense in 2014, throwing 12 touchdowns to only five interceptions. The senior has only one passing score in his last four games and has not thrown for more than 210 yards in a contest this year. When Showers throws, his go-to target is Ian Hamilton (21.7 ypc), while tight end Eric Tomlinson (18 catches) is also a valuable threat in the passing game. UTEP ranks last in Conference USA in passing yards per game, but this offense has a clear identity. As a former offensive lineman, Kugler has shaped the Miners into one of the top running teams in C-USA. UTEP averaged 212.7 yards per game on the ground this season, with running back Aaron Jones (1,233 yards) leading the way. Jones will be joined by Nathan Jeffery (513 yards) and Showers (288 yards) as threats on the ground. Despite the success of the Miners on the ground this season, running room will be limited against Utah State’s defense. Anchored by standout linebacker Zach Vigil, the Aggies lead the Mountain West in rush defense. Utah State allows only 3.3 yards per carry and limited opponents to 20.8 points per game. Considering the strength of the Aggies up front, the Miners may need to throw early to help open up lanes for Jones and Jeffery. Another factor in UTEP’s victory hopes will be the turnover margin. The Miners recorded a +8 margin this season and need to be in the positive range on Saturday to have a shot at winning.
Utah State’s Key to Victory: QB Kent Myers
As we mentioned in the intro, Myers is Utah State’s fourth starting quarterback in 2014. The true freshman was expected to redshirt but ended up getting pressed into duty after injuries to Keeton, Harrison and Garretson. Myers hasn’t been overly prolific, but he’s done everything asked by the coaching staff. Myers has yet to top more than 186 passing yards in a game. However, he’s been efficient (only two interceptions on 107 attempts) and is completing 69.2 percent of his passes. Myers also has 235 yards and four scores on the ground. The true freshman isn’t the only weapon on Utah State’s offense, as freshman running back LaJuan Hunt averages five yards per carry and leads the team with 529 yards. Junior JoJo Natson is an all-purpose, dynamic playmaker, averaging 10.2 yards per rush, catching 49 passes and taking two punt returns back for a score. UTEP’s defense is allowing 6.3 yards per play this year and has been prone to allowing big plays (34 plays allowed of 30 yards or more). Myers deserves praise for stepping into a difficult situation and keeping Utah State’s offense performing at a high level. With an extended preparation time before the bowl, he could have his best performance of the season. However, it’s also critical the true freshman doesn’t try to do too much against a UTEP defense that limited C-USA opponents to 26 points per game (fourth in the conference). And with the Miners looking to keep this game a low-scoring affair, Utah State can’t afford to have any turnovers to give UTEP’s offense a short field.
Considering UTEP’s struggles last season, and Utah State’s injuries at quarterback in 2014, it’s a credit to both coaching staffs for their teams landing in the postseason and finishing with a winning record. The Miners need to keep this game a low-scoring affair and force a couple of mistakes from Utah State freshman quarterback Kent Myers to give their offense short fields to work from. UTEP’s rushing attack could be the key to the game. The Aggies were tough all season against the run but gave up 240 yards on the ground over their last three matchups. If Utah State stuffs the run and jumps out to an early lead, the Miners will have their hands full trying to rally. Expect UTEP to have some success on the ground, but the Aggies are the better team and finish the season with a win to post their second double-digit victory total in three years.
Prediction: Utah State 30, UTEP 17
The SEC still might be the best league in college football but no conference had more fun in 2014 than the Pac-12.
Week after week, the Pac-12 delivered with elite talent, high-quality coaching and dramatic finishes — both in conference and out. Not even the powerful SEC West could match the theater that the Pac-12 South had to offer this year. And anytime Oregon took the field, it was must-see TV.
There were more Hail Mary’s and overtime finishes in the Pac-12 than anywhere else in the nation. Here are the most dramatic and memorable Pac-12 games of the year:
1. Arizona 31, (2) Oregon 24
Oct. 2, Eugene
The upset heard ‘round the world started the best weekend of action out West. Arizona stunned the Ducks by forcing turnovers, pressuring Marcus Mariota and running the ball. Scooby Wright III became a household name when he stripped Mariota and recovered the fumble to win the game in front of a shocked Autzen Stadium. (The Ducks would have their revenge, however.)
2. Arizona St 38, (16) USC 34
Oct. 4, Los Angeles
It was the wildest weekend of the season as four of the top 10 games of the year took place in Week 6. The wildest of finishes happened in Los Angeles when backup quarterback Mike Bercovici connected with Jaelen Strong on the final play of the game from 46 yards out. Arizona State and USC combined for 34 points in the final quarter.
3. (3) Oregon 46, (7) Michigan St 27
Sept. 6, Eugene
Few gave the Spartans a chance to go to Autzen Stadium and win. But through three quarters, everyone in Eugene had respect for Michigan State. The Spartans gave the Ducks all they could take until a late tipped interception landed in the hands of All-American corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The Ducks surged over the final few minutes.
4. (19) Utah 24, (20) USC 21
Oct. 25, Salt Lake City
It was arguably the biggest win for Utah since moving to the Pac-12 and it happened because Travis Wilson threw a game-winning touchdown pass with eight seconds left in the game. The final drive may be Wilson’s finest of his career, moving the Utes 73 yards on 11 plays in the final two minutes. The score was the game’s fifth lead change.
5. Utah 30, (8) UCLA 28
Oct. 4, Pasadena
The Bruins lived on the edge for most of the first month and it finally caught up with them at home against the underdog Utes. After UCLA allowed the eighth, ninth and tenth sacks of the game against Brett Hundley, Kendal Thompson led the game-winning drive to give Utah a win on the road over a top 10 foe. Andy Phillips nailed a 29-yard field goal with 34 seconds left to give Utah the lead. UCLA then missed not one but two 50-plus-yard field goal attempts as time expired.
6. Arizona 49, Cal 45
Sept. 20, Tucson
It didn’t feature a ranked team at the time and no one realized how important it would become in the South Division race. Arizona’s successful Hail Mary on the game’s final play eventually would help propel the Wildcats into the Pac-12 title game and first put Anu Solomon on the nation’s radar. The Cats scored 36 points in the final quarter to cap the record-setting comeback.
7. (14) Arizona St 19, (17) Utah 16 (OT)
Nov. 1, Tempe
The low-scoring affair featured plenty of special teams as two of the best kickers in the game went toe-to-toe. Zane Gonzalez made four field goals, including the game-tying kick from 30 yards out with 5:47 to play and the game-winner in overtime from 36 yards out. Utah’s Andy Phillips also made three of his own kicks during the game but missed twice on the first overtime possession from 35 yards after a timeout game him a second chance.
8. (14) USC 13, (13) Stanford 10
Sept. 6, Palo Alto
It wasn’t a well-played game of football but it sure was fun to watch. Stanford’s in ability to score in the redzone coupled with some big plays from Cody Kessler and the USC defense gave the Trojans yet another upset win over Stanford. The game was highlighted by bizarre sideline behavior from Steve Sarkisian and Pat Haden.
9. USC 28, (10) Arizona 26
Oct. 11, Tucson
Arizona led after the first quarter and USC led after the second and third. In fact, the Trojans entered the final frame up 28-13 before Anu Solomon led another furious rally. A failed two-point conversion with 1:07 to play left the Cats down by two, but a successful onside kick gave Zona new life. Solomon then raced his offense into field goal range but a last second 36-yard attempt sailed wide right and USC escaped Tucson with a critical win.
10. (14) Arizona 27, Washington 26
Nov. 15, Tucson
The star of this wild game was a kicker. One week after missing a kick that cost Arizona a win over USC, Casey Skowron not only made the game-winning field goal as time expired but scored every point in the fourth quarter for either team and scored a touchdown on a fake field goal in the second quarter. Washington dominated the third quarter but RichRod’s bunch owned the final frame in this wild interdivisional game.
11. (9) Notre Dame 17, (14) Stanford 14
Oct. 4, South Bend
It wasn’t pretty but the finish lived up to the rich history between these two cross-country foes. From the 23-yard line, Everett Golson found Ben Koyack in the endzone on fourth down trailing 14-10 with just 1:01 left on the clock. The defensive battle finished with three lead changes in the final eight minutes.
12. (11) Arizona 42, (13) Arizona St 35
Nov. 28, Tucson
Despite Rich Rodriguez’ best efforts, about midway through the game, both teams realized that The Territorial Cup had become the Pac-12 South championship game. Anu Solomon played solid football all game, as did the Cats defense, regardless of which Arizona State quarterback was in the game. The Sun Devils simply couldn’t close the touchdown gap that existed for most of the game. An early defensive TD was the difference.
13. (23) Utah 20, Stanford 17 (2OT)
Nov. 15, Palo Alto
Both teams were held under 300 yards of offense and they played two extra periods. Defense won the day as the game was tied 7-7 for most of three quarters. The two teams matched touchdowns in the first overtime before Travis Wilson connected with Kenneth Scott in the second OT to finally win the physical throwdown.
14. (12) UCLA 20, Texas 17
Sept. 13, Arlington
With Brett Hundley on the sideline, UCLA watched Texas’ Tyrone Swoopes lead the Longhorns to what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown with 5:13 left. Down 17-13 with three minutes left in the game, Jerry Neuheisel found Jordan Payton streaking down the sideline for a 33-yard touchdown pass in JerryWorld.
15. Washington St 28, Utah 27
Sept. 27, Salt Lake City
Connor Halliday threw for 267 of his 417 yards in the second half to overcome a 17-point second-half deficit. He finished off the comeback by connected with Vince Mayle for an 81-yard touchdown with less than five minutes left in the game. After starting the game up 21-0 at home, Utah lost the rest of the way 28-6.
The Best of the Rest:
16. (20) Utah 29, Oregon St 23 (2OT)
17. Cal 59, Colorado 56 (2OT)
18. (25) UCLA 40, Colorado 37 (2OT)
19. Cal 60, Washington St 59
20. Oregon St 35, (6) Arizona St 27
21. (22) UCLA 17, (12) Arizona 7
22. (14) Arizona St 24, Washington 10
23. Rutgers 41, Washington St 38
24. (6) Oregon 59, Cal 41
25. (11) UCLA 42, Memphis 35
26. UCLA 36, Cal 34
27. (12) Oregon 42, (18) UCLA 30
28. (4) Oregon 51, (17) Utah 27
29. (16) Stanford 20, Washington 13
30. Washington 59, Eastern Washington 52
The 2014 bowl season will kick off in the Big Easy with UL Lafayette taking on Nevada in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. This marks the fourth straight season UL Lafayette will end its season playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as the Ragin’ Cajuns have won the past three New Orleans Bowls. For Nevada this represents the Wolf Pack’s ninth bowl invite in the past 10 years.
UL Lafayette (8-4) is in search of its fourth straight nine-win season under coach Mark Hudspeth, who is sure to get a look for one of the current openings among the Power 5 schools. The Ragin’ Cajuns are a perfect 3-0 in bowl games under Hudspeth, with all three victories coming in the New Orleans Bowl. UL Lafayette beat Tulane 24-21 last season with its previous two New Orleans Bowl victories coming against East Carolina (43-34, 2012) and San Diego State (32-30, ’11).
Nevada (7-5) is back in a bowl game after last season’s 4-8 record ended a streak of eight consecutive postseason appearances. In his second season as head coach of the Wolf Pack since taking over for Hall of Famer Chris Ault, Brian Polian is hoping to snap the team’s two-game losing streak in bowls. Nevada’s last victory in a bowl game was a 20-13 win over Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2011.
This will be just the second game ever between UL Lafayette and Nevada. The Wolf Pack defeated the Ragin’ Cajuns 38-14 on their own turf (Reno, Nev.) back on Sept. 2, 1995 when both programs were in the Big West Conference.
Nevada vs. UL Lafayette
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 20 at 11 a.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UL Lafayette -1
Nevada’s Key to Victory: Unleash Cody Fajardo
A senior, the New Orleans Bowl will represent Fajardo’s 43rd and final career start as the starting quarterback. One of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation; Fajardo is one of two players (Colin Kaepernick) in FBS history with 9,000 yards passing and 3,000 yards rushing in his career. This season, he’s 25th nationally in total offense (280.9 ypg) with 997 yards rushing (most on the team) and 2,374 yards passing, while accounting for 31 total touchdowns (18 passing, 13 rushing). He’s clearly the engine that makes the Wolf Pack’s offense hum and no doubt would like to end his run with the team on a winning note. Fajardo did not perform well in his previous two bowl games, both losses, so he has one final chance to change this part of his collegiate resume. Fajardo may be a California native, but he’s hoping to be a big hit in New Orleans in his final game for the Wolf Pack.
UL Lafayette’s Key to Victory: Stay Grounded
The Ragin’ Cajuns have made plenty of noise on the ground this season. They enter this game ranked 25th in FBS in rushing offense at 229.4 yards rushing per game. The big ground-gainer has been Elijah McGuire. A sophomore, McGuire is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and put up 265 on the ground in a win over Arkansas State. McGuire has been complemented in the running game by senior Alonzo Harris (737 yards, 12 TDs) and quarterback Terrance Broadway (4.9 ypc). Whoever ever carries the ball for UL Lafayette should find success against a Nevada rushing defense that’s given up nearly 180 yards per game. The Wolf Pack have really struggled in this department recently, as each of their past three opponents have run for at least 200 yards, including 342 by Air Force. An effective running game also could help the Ragin’ Cajuns’ defense by eating up clock and also keeping Cody Fajardo and Nevada’s offense off of the field, limiting their opportunities. Sometimes a team’s best defense can be its offense. If that indeed is the case, expect UL Lafayette to stay grounded against the Wolf Pack.
Not surprisingly, UL Lafayette has made itself at home in the New Orleans Bowl. The Ragin’ Cajuns have played in and won each of the past three “minor” bowl games played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mark Hudspeth’s team actually has a lot of confidence playing in the Big Easy, but Nevada doesn’t figure to be intimidated. More importantly, the Wolf Pack have Cody Fajardo, one of the nation’s most productive dual-threat quarterbacks, who just needs a bowl victory to polish off his impressive resume. UL Lafayette has home-field advantage and a potent rushing attack, but Nevada has the best player. In his final game for the Wolf Pack, I’ll take Fajardo to overcome the Cajuns’ home cooking and finish his collegiate career on a winning note.
Prediction: Nevada 34, UL Lafayette 31
Pittsburgh is looking for its fourth head coach in five seasons after Paul Chryst was hired to replace Gary Andersen at Wisconsin. Chryst’s move to the Big Ten comes as no surprise, as the third-year coach is a Madison native and worked on the Badgers’ staff in 2002 and again from 2005-11. In three seasons as Pittsburgh’s head coach, Chryst went 19-19 and guided the program to three bowl appearances.
The Panthers should have plenty of interested candidates, perhaps including Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Ball State coach Pete Lembo and former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
Who might replace Chryst at Pittsburgh? Here are 11 names to watch.
11 Candidates to Replace Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh
Matt Campbell, Head Coach, Toledo
Campbell is one of the rising stars from coaches outside of a Power 5 conference. In three full seasons at Toledo, the Ohio native is 25-13. He also coached the 2011 Military Bowl after Tim Beckman left for Illinois and guided the Rockets to a 42-41 victory. Under Campbell’s watch, the Rockets are 18-6 in the MAC and claimed a share of the West Division title with a 7-1 mark in conference play this season. Prior to taking over as Toledo’s head coach, Campbell worked as an assistant with the Rockets for two years (2009-11) and at Bowling Green (2006-08). Campbell played at Mount Union and is one of the youngest college football coaches at 35 years old.
Rod Carey, Head Coach, Northern Illinois
Carey has continued to keep Northern Illinois at the top of the MAC with a 23-5 record in two full seasons as the head coach in DeKalb. The Wisconsin native was an assistant under Dave Doeren prior to his promotion to the head coach spot and also spent time working on staffs at North Dakota and Illinois State. Carey also coached the Huskies in the Orange Bowl against Florida State after Doeren left for NC State.
Bud Foster, Defensive Coordinator, Virginia Tech
Foster popped up in the mix during Pittsburgh’s last coaching search. Could the long-time Virginia Tech assistant show interest again in the job? Foster is one of the nation’s highest-paid assistants and has worked under Frank Beamer in Blacksburg since 1987. Under Foster’s direction, the Hokies have consistently ranked among the nation’s top defenses. However, the veteran assistant does not have any experience as a head coach. A longshot but worth mentioning since he was in the mix last time.
Justin Fuente, Head Coach, Memphis
Fuente should be one of the leading candidates for national coach of the year honors after guiding Memphis to a share of the American Athletic Conference title in 2014. The Tigers are 16-20 under Fuente’s watch, but the Oklahoma native inherited a mess after Larry Porter was fired after a 3-21 record in two years at Memphis. The Tigers also transitioned from Conference USA to the tougher American Athletic Conference, and Fuente’s team nearly won at UCLA earlier this season. Prior to taking over at Memphis, Fuente worked under Gary Patterson at TCU from 2007-11.
Doc Holliday, Head Coach, Marshall
Holliday is a native of West Virginia and played with the Mountaineers from 1976-78. Considering his ties to West Virginia, Holliday presents an interesting dynamic in the Pittsburgh coaching search. Would the Panthers want to hire a West Virginia guy? Regardless of his ties to Morgantown, Holliday is known as a good recruiter and was a long-time assistant prior to taking the job at Marshall. In five seasons with the Thundering Herd, Holliday is 39-25 and 22-5 over the last two years.
Pete Lembo, Head Coach, Ball State
Lembo is a native of New York and has been successful at three different stops as a head coach, including a five-year stint at Lehigh from 2001-05. During his five years at Lehigh, Lembo went 44-14 and the Mountain Hawks made two appearances in the FCS playoffs. From 2006-10, Lembo coached at Elon and went 35-22 in five seasons. He also led the Phoenix to a spot in the 2009 FCS playoffs and won at least seven games in three of those years. Lembo’s track record of success has continued at Ball State, guiding the Cardinals to a 19-7 mark from 2012-13 and back-to-back bowl appearances. Despite a 5-7 record this year, Lembo is considered one of the top coaches in the MAC.
Joe Moorhead, Head Coach, Fordham
Moorhead is a name Pittsburgh fans may remember from his stint as an assistant at UConn from 2009-11. And he's also a native of the Steel City. In three years at Fordham, Moorhead has guided the Rams to a 29-10 record and two FCS playoff appearances. Considering Moorhead is working at his alma mater and recently had his contract extended, he may not be interested in leaving Fordham. However, he’s been a successful FCS coach and would be a good fit at Pittsburgh.
Pat Narduzzi, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi is regarded as one of the top assistant coaches in college football and is ready for his opportunity to run a Power 5 program. The Connecticut native has worked at Michigan State under Mark Dantonio since 2007. Under Narduzzi’s guidance, the Spartans have ranked among the nation’s best on defense. Michigan State limited opponents to just four yards per play in 2013 and ranked in the top four of the Big Ten in scoring defense in four consecutive seasons. Narduzzi also has experience as an assistant from stops at Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Rhode Island. Narduzzi should be high on Pittsburgh’s list.
Matt Rhule, Head Coach, Temple
Rhule is a coach with several years of experience in the state of Pennsylvania. He’s a native of State College and played under Joe Paterno at Penn State. Rhule’s coaching career started at Albright College in 1998 and continued with stops at Buffalo and UCLA before landing at Western Carolina from 2002-05. After a four-year stint with the Catamounts, Rhule coached under Al Golden at Temple from 2006-10 and remained on staff during Steve Addazio’s first season. Rhule left Philadelphia to coach with the Giants in 2012 but returned to Temple after Addazio was hired by Boston College. In two years with the Owls, Rhule’s record is 8-16, but the program made significant progress from 2013 to 2014. Temple was bowl eligible this season but did not receive a postseason bid after a 6-6 mark.
Greg Schiano, former Rutgers and Tampa Bay head coach
Schiano has been out of work since he was fired at the end of the 2013 NFL season at Tampa Bay. In two years with the Buccaneers, Schiano went 11-21, but he was a successful college coach at Rutgers from 2001-11. Under his watch, the Scarlet Knights went 68-67 and made six bowl appearances over the last seven years in his tenure. Schiano didn’t inherit much to work with when he was hired at Rutgers and needed a few years to build the talent base, which is why the Scarlet Knights went 8-27 through his first three seasons. Schiano’s recruiting connections in New Jersey could be a huge boost for Pittsburgh.
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Shoop has emerged as one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators over the last four years and deserves consideration as one of the top assistant hires in 2014 after Penn State’s defense held opponents to 17.7 points per game this season. Prior to 2014, Shoop worked at Vanderbilt under James Franklin. The Commodores ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring defense in 2012 and sixth in the conference in fewest yards per play in 2013. Shoop also has stops as an assistant at William & Mary, UMass, Boston College, Army, Villanova, Yale and Northeastern. He also spent three years as Columbia’s head coach (2003-05).
Matt Wells, Head Coach, Utah State
Wells’ name has popped up on the radar for jobs at Tulsa and Oregon State this offseason, but he decided to remain at Utah State after interest from both programs. Wells coaches at his alma mater, so it’s not going to be easy for him to leave Utah State. Could a job at a Power 5 program interest the Oklahoma native? Wells spent time as an assistant at Navy, Tulsa, New Mexico and Louisville prior to joining Gary Andersen’s staff at Utah State in 2011. After Andersen left for Wisconsin, Wells was promoted to head coach and the Aggies are 18-9 under his watch. Wells’ record at Utah State is impressive considering the program has been dealing with significant injuries at quarterback the last two years and is starting a true freshman after its top three options were injured in 2014.
Oregon’s hopes of winning the college football national championship took a hit on Wednesday, as reports indicated top cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a significant knee injury in practice.
Yahoo Sports reported Ekpre-Olomu’s injury occurred during Tuesday’s practice and there’s concern the top cornerback suffered a torn ACL. The senior is not expected to play in Oregon’s upcoming game against Florida State.
Ekpre-Olomu was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports and the Associated Press for 2014. The senior recorded 63 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 13 games this season.
Without Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks are expected to ask more of Dior Mathis and Chris Seisay at cornerback.
Troy Hill is expected to slide into the No. 1 cornerback spot, and the senior has recorded 57 tackles, one interception and 16 pass breakups this season. Hill was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection this season.
Losing Ekpre-Olomu – one of the nation’s top defenders – is a significant loss for Oregon’s defense in the Rose Bowl against Florida State. The matchup between the Ducks and Seminoles was expected to be a high-scoring affair. Now, Oregon coordinator Don Pellum has to regroup with less than a month to prepare.
The Ducks struggled at times on defense this year but held opponents to 23.8 points per game in Pac-12 matchups this year. Pellum’s group also allowed 5.4 yards per play and ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in third-down defense.
Needless to say, those numbers (and struggles) will be magnified in the Rose Bowl without Ekpre-Olomu against Florida State’s explosive offense.
The Seminoles average 34.8 points per game and 6.4 yards per play. Quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman in 2013 but tossed 17 picks in 2014. Winston’s increase in interceptions was due to a variety of factors, including new targets at receiver and a struggling offensive line.
However, despite the increase in turnovers, Florida State’s offense has been operating at a high level and became even more dangerous over the second half of 2014 with the emergence of running back Dalvin Cook.
Ekpre-Olomu was expected to be aligned against top receiver Rashad Greene, who caught 93 passes for 1,306 yards and seven scores in 2014. Greene was also an Athlon Sports All-American in 2014 and is clearly the favorite target for Winston.
By no means does Ekpre-Olomu’s injury end Oregon’s national title hopes. With quarterback Marcus Mariota and an array of weapons on offense, the Ducks can outscore any team in the playoff. However, the Ducks are going to need stops at some point to beat Florida State. Can Pellum mix and match the right combinations in the secondary to slow down Winston and Greene? If not, the Ducks are going to be looking at a quick exit in the playoff.
Sources: #Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered what is believed to be a serious knee injury in practice yesterday. Concern it's a torn ACL.— Rand Getlin (@Rand_Getlin) December 17, 2014
Jabari Parker is the face of the Milwaukee Bucks’ future. He was, also, set to be the Rookie of the Year by almost all accounts — until something very unfortunate happened.
The former Duke standout and Chicago native has an advanced, veteran-like knack for scoring that goes beyond simple skills like shooting, jumping, and running. He’s got that next-level touch for putting points up; that creative gene we evoke when we so emphatically say “buckets.” Jabari’s got a singular way of finding the hole, and he’s still only 19 years old.
That’s why the latest news about him is so heartbreaking. Parker’s knee buckled in Monday night’s road game against the Phoenix Suns, and late last night the worst was confirmed by ESPN and other outlets: Parker has torn his ACL, and he’ll miss the remainder of his rookie season.
The Bucks were just becoming quite the team to watch, too. Next to the incredibly lengthy 20-year-old Giannis “the Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo, Parker had managed to become one of the faces of a new, rising generation of NBA superstardom.
Parker, who was drafted No. 2 overall by Milwaukee in June, still has many bright days ahead of him. Torn ACLs are terrible, but they’re not the end of the world. Chris Paul, a perennial MVP candidate, certainly survived his. But the recovery is rough, as Derrick Rose (who happens to have gone to the same high school as Jabari, Simeon Academy) is proving with his slow climb back to basketball prominence.
Luckily, the man is still young. He still won’t be able to legally drink by the time he hits the floor again, and he’ll have more than a decade of professional balling ahead of him. While Jabari will now definitely miss out on the Rookie of the Year award he was destined for — and we’ll miss the chance to watch him light the screen up for a season — he’ll still have more than ample opportunity to compete for much greater glory.
— John Wilmes
Seahawks (11–3) at Cardinals (10–4)
All that's on the line for both teams is the NFC's top seed at best and the NFC West Division title at worst. Arizona secured its playoff berth in a touchdown-less win against St. Louis. It is the first postseason trip for the Cardinals 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. The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks won the first meeting 19-3, which kick started their current four-game winning streak. Arizona is 7-0 at home this season, while Seattle is 4-3 on the road.
Falcons (5–9) at Saints (6-8)
OK, this is likely one of the farthest games away from being "can't miss," but who can turn their head away when passing by the train wreck that is the NFC South? Both teams are currently drafting inside the top 12 while at the same time playing for a division title. Back in Week 1, when both teams had optimism for a great season, the Falcons won 37-34 in overtime behind a franchise-record 448 yards passing from Matt Ryan. Atlanta, 4-0 in the division, enters on a two-game losing skid. New Orleans is 3-4 at home.
Chiefs (8–6) at Steelers (9–5)
This is a Wild Card-securing game for Pittsburgh, which still has the AFC North title in its sights with two more wins. The Chiefs need the win to keep their postseason hopes alive, but a number of scenarios have them alive even if they lose out. The Steelers are 7-3 in conference play with a 5-3 home record while the Chiefs are 6-4 against AFC opponents and 3-4 on the road.
Ravens (9–5) at Texans (7–7)
Baltimore enters Week 16 as the third AFC North team holding down a spot in the "if the playoffs ended today" scenario. The Ravens currently have the final Wild Card spot, and will make the playoffs with two more wins; the division title is still within reach as well. Meanwhile, Houston is still in contention as the fourth team on the outside looking in, but will need two wins and some help.