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From the files of strange timing: UMass has decided to fire coach Charley Molnar. In his two years as the coach of the Minutemen, Molnar went 2-22 and both victories came against MAC teams.
The timing of this decision is odd, especially since UMass has missed out on a couple of weeks of a coaching search, plus recruiting for the new regime.
Molnar had a difficult task at UMass, as the program was transitioning from the FCS to the FBS level and had to play games at Gillette Stadium instead of an on-campus facility.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 26.
• Rachel Washburn went from the sidelines as an Eagles cheerleader to tours of duty in Afghanistan as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Ladies and gentlemen, the Hottest American Hero.
• Paul Rudd replicated Dennis Green's legendary postgame meltdown. Paul Rudd is who we thought he was.
• Cool story: In the wake of Tony Romo's injury, the Cowboys have plucked retired QB Jon Kitna out of a Tacoma high school. That high school is where all his Cowboys earnings are going.
• Wanna see pure joy? Watch this Auburn kid open his BCS tickets on Christmas morning.
• Now that Christmas is over, let the year-end countdowns commence in earnest. Here are the 15 best viral videos of the year. And here are the 50 best sports pics of 2013. And the 10 most ridiculous shots in the NBA in 2013.
• This Mike Woodson reaction reel pretty much sums up the Knicks' abysmal season.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The end of the year is a time of reflection.
In that spirit, think back to the highlight of the first day of college football season. On that Thursday in August, Ole Miss defeated Vanderbilt 39-35 in a game that featured two lead changes in the final two minutes.
The game, it turned out, was a perfect preface to the SEC season, even if neither the Rebels nor the Commodores would be the most dramatic team of the year. They weren’t even the most dramatic SEC team of the first month (that would be Georgia).
The 2013 season will be remembered as the Auburn made magic. Our countdown of the top 10 moments of 2013 starts on the Plains. College football fans love to debate anything and everything, but there’s little room for argument here.
Top 10 College Football Moments of the 2013 season
1. Auburn’s Kick Six
It will go down as perhaps the most memorable play in the history of college football: Chris Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed field goal as time expired that gave Auburn a 34–28 win over rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The victory secured the SEC West title for the Tigers, who are now playing for the BCS National Championship.
2. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare
In any other season, this would be the play of the year. Georgia scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter at Auburn to take a 38-37 lead, but Auburn wasn’t finished. Nick Marshall heaved a desperation pass that bounced off the hands of Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and into the waiting arms of Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis, who scored the game-winning 73-yard touchdown.
3. Nebraska’s Hail Mary to beat Northwestern
A tumultuous season in Lincoln delivered at least one highlight when Ron Kellogg III, a reserve quarterback, tossed a Hail Mary to beat Northwestern 27–24 on Nov. 2. Kellogg’s heave as time expired deflected off a host of players ahead of the goal line into the hands of Jordan Westerkamp in the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown.
4. Ed Orgeron’s big win over Stanford
Ed Orgeron made it OK to root for USC again, especially when the interim coach helped set up a celebration at the Coliseum after the Trojans ended Stanford’s national title hopes with a 20–17 win. Andre Heidari kicked a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining for the Trojans’ victory.
5. Jameis Winston bursts onto the scene against Boston College
Before the Boston College game Sept. 28, Jameis Winston was a freshman phenom. He left as a true Heisman contender. With the game tied in the waning seconds of the first half, Winston escaped the rush to hit Kenny Shaw for a 55-yard touchdown pass.
6. Aaron Murray’s two-step
Before Auburn, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was the king of late-game drama in the SEC. Murray finally got over his big-game bugaboo with a win over South Carolina on Sept. 7 and followed it with a back-and-forth fourth quarter in a 44–41 win over LSU two games later. Alas, Georgia’s injury bug finally caught up to him in November.
7. Texas A&M challenges Alabama again
In the most anticipated game of September, Alabama fell behind by two touchdowns, scored the next 35 points and ended up clinging to a one-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter. The offensive explosion in College Station signaled a new kind of season in the SEC.
8. Baylor clinches the Big 12
Oklahoma State’s Bedlam loss earlier in the day turned Texas-Baylor into a Big 12 championship game. The Bears returned to their early season form just in time to beat the Longhorns 30–10 to cap an 11–1 season and Baylor’s first outright conference title since 1980.
9. Duke beats North Carolina for 10-win season
It’s not often that the Duke-North Carolina game has football implications, but the Blue Devils’ 27–25 win in Chapel Hill sealed one of the best seasons in Duke history. Coach David Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to the ACC title game and the first 10-win season for the program.
10. The SEC championship track meet
A season that began with SEC teams running up and down the field ended with the highest-scoring SEC Championship Game in history when Auburn and Missouri combined for 101 points and seven lead changes. Tre Mason rushed for 304 yards to lead Auburn to the national championship game and himself to the Heisman ceremony.
Mack Brown’s final Red River win. It hadn’t become official yet, but this year’s Red River Rivalry certainly seemed to be Mack Brown’s last even at the time. The Longhorns made it memorable with a 36-20 win that was rarely in doubt.
Minnesota wins for Jerry Kill. With their coach sidelined as he took steps to treat epilepsy, the Gophers put together a banner season. The biggest win came Oct. 26 with a 34-23 over then-No. 24 Nebraska.
UCF swipes undefeated season from Louisville. Louisville’s bid to play for a national title ended when UCF’s Blake Bortles threw a touchdown pass with 23 seconds left to win 38-35. Both teams finished with one loss, but UCF was the one that earned a BCS bid, the first in school history.
Penn State’s wild finish to beat Michigan. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg solidified his spot as future star with a sensational game-tying drive against Michigan. After both teams exchanged missed kicks, Penn State won 43-40 in the fourth overtime.
Oklahoma’s Bedlam win. One of the most lopsided rivalries in college football will remain that way despite Oklahoma State’s major strides over the years. Blake Bell, a former starter and the third quarterback in the game for OU, led the game-winning drive in the final 19 seconds for a 33-24 win to spoil Oklahoma State’s bid for a Big 12 title.
Washington will try and cap off the program’s most successful season since 2000 with a win over BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park in San Francisco. And if the Cougars weren’t enough of a challenge, the Huskies will play this game with an interim head coach on the sideline.
After leading Washington to eight wins and a third-place finish (5-4) in the Pac-12’s North Division, head coach Steve Sarkisian left Seattle to take over at USC. The Huskies hired Boise State’s Chris Petersen as Sarkisian’s replacement, but former quarterback and now position coach Marques Tuiasosopo will lead the team in the bowl game against BYU, which also happens to be Sarkisian’s alma mater.
The Huskies are in their fourth straight bowl game, but have dropped their last two postseason contests. Two years ago Washington was overwhelmed in the Alamo Bowl by Baylor and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, as the Bears beat the Huskies 67-56 in the highest-scoring regulation bowl game in college football history. Last season, Washington fell to Boise State 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl.
A win over BYU would be Washington’s ninth of the season and the most by the Huskies since Rick Neuheisel’s 2000 team went 11-1, with its only loss being to Purdue in the Rose Bowl.
BYU has enjoyed considerably more success over the past 14 years, as the Cougars have won at least seven games in each of their past eight campaigns. In fact, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has yet to post a losing record in his nine seasons in Provo, Utah, and has led his team to a bowl game every year.
In their third year as a FBS Independent, BYU went 8-4, including a five-game winning streak that included victories over Utah State, Georgia Tech and Boise State. The Cougars’ schedule this season also featured games against five other bowl teams – Houston, MTSU, Notre Dame, Texas and Wisconsin – and they went 6-2 in those contests.
Under Mendenhall, BYU is 6-2 in bowl games and have won its last four. Last season the Cougars defeated San Diego State 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl, which was played in San Diego.
Washington and BYU have split their eight all-time meetings, but the Cougars have won the last three. The last one took place in 2010 in Provo, a 23-17 BYU victory.
BYU vs. Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -3
Three Things to Watch
Washington’s Coaching Transition
Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward made a terrific hire in luring Chris Petersen away from Boise State after Steve Sarkisian departed for USC. The problem is it truly won’t be Petersen’s team until after the bowl game, as Marques Tuiasosopo will serve as the interim head coach against BYU. A former star quarterback for Washington, Tuiasosopo served as the quarterbacks coach for Sarkisian, but he has added quite a bit more to his plate. The good news for the Tuiasosopo and the Huskies is that both coordinators – Eric Kiesau on offense and Justin Wilcox on defense – stayed, at least for the bowl game. What changes Petersen makes to the coaching staff after this game remains to be seen, but the coaches, as well as the players who will be back next season, know they are being evaluated by the new head coach. With so much uncertainty in the locker room and the attention already being shifted to 2014, how will this Huskies team and its skeleton coaching staff close out the ’13 campaign?
BYU’s Run Defense vs. Washington’s Ground Game
The third-ranked defense in the country last season, BYU took a few steps backwards this fall. The Cougars are still a respectable 52nd in total defense, but have seen their yards allowed per game rise from 266.1 per game in 2012 to 383.8. Against the run, BYU was No. 2 in FBS last season, giving up just 86.9 yards per game on the ground. This season the Cougars have surrendered 157.4 (56th) per contest and have given up more than that in four of their past five games. BYU will need to tighten up its run defense if it wants to slow down Washington’s potent ground game led by running back Bishop Sankey. The junior enters this game third in the nation in rushing yards per game with 147.9 and is averaging nearly six yards (5.8) per carry. Sankey has been held under 100 yards rushing just three times this season and also has gone over 200 on three different occasions. As a team, Washington is averaging 243.1 yards rushing per game and has scored 33 touchdowns on the ground. BYU’s defense is giving up fewer than four yards (3.8) per carry and has surrendered just nine rushing touchdowns, but this unit has a tough task ahead of it in trying to slow down Sankey and company.
Can the Huskies Force the Cougars to Throw?
As productive as Washington’s running game has been, BYU has posted even better numbers on the ground. The Cougars are 10th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 274.7 yards per game. Both quarterback Taysom Hill (above, right) and running back Jamaal Williams have rushed for more than 1,200 yards and they will draw plenty of attention from Washington’s defense. The Huskies enter this game giving up about 160 yards rushing per game, but have held four of their past five opponents to 131 yards or fewer. In Washington’s four losses opponents have rushed for an average of 245 yards per game. If the Huskies can make things tough on the Cougars’ running game, it will fall to Hill to make plays through the air. Hill has thrown for 2,645 yards this season, but he’s completed just 54.1 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman is a legitimate playmaker, but he has just 45 catches for 727 yards and five touchdowns after posting 100 receptions for 1,248 yards and 11 scores last season. BYU is clearly comfortable running the ball, but is the offense too one-dimensional? Can Washington’s defense force Hill to rely on his arm instead of his legs? The Huskies are hoping they get a chance to find out.
Key Player: Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU
A 6-3, 245-pound linebacker, Van Noy is the senior leader of the Cougars’ defense. His numbers have not been as impressive this season as last season, but he’s still a difference-maker who is capable of changing the direction of a game on any given play. Last season, Van Noy had 13 sacks, along with 22 tackles for a loss, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks. This season, he has four sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He also is no stranger to saving his best for last, as he was named defensive MVP following BYU’s 23-6 win over San Diego State in last season’s Poinsettia Bowl. Van Noy owned the fourth quarter against the Aztecs, scoring two touchdowns, one on a fumble return and the other on a 17-yard interception return, to bring his Cougars from behind for the win. He also had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks and blocked a punt. Many thought that Van Noy might forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft following that performance but he returned to school and now has the opportunity to post one more impressive postseason stat line to finish out his BYU career.
Washington is a team in transition with its coaching staff so it would be understandable if the Huskies didn’t bring their “A” game to San Francisco. On top of that, BYU’s offensive strength – running the ball – has been a point of weakness at times for Washington’s defense. That said, I believe the Huskies have been energized by the hiring of Boise State’s Chris Petersen and will look at this game as an opportunity to impress their new head coach. I’m also not convinced that the Cougars will be able to throw the ball consistently against Washington’s defense, which makes their offense a little too one-dimensional. In the end, the Huskies’ running game, led by Bishop Sankey, and the aerial attack orchestrated by senior quarterback Keith Price, will be just enough to outlast the Cougars as Washington ushers in the Petersen era in Seattle with a win to close out 2013.
Prediction: Washington 31, BYU 30
Unless you’re still a Garrett Hartley owner, there’s no reason to switch kickers now.
Matt Prater, Stephen Gostkowski, Adam Vinatieri all got you here and none of them are playing for anything this week. No pressure.
Justin Tucker, Mason Crosby, Nick Novak, Dan Bailey, each of them do have postseason aspirations on the line. Tons of pressure. But they have come through for the most part this season.
But if you do want to get cute and need to find a sleeper, look at Graham Gano. He and his Carolina Panthers have an NFC South title on the line against an Atlanta team allowing the most to kickers, including 10 points to Gano in Week 10.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Kickers
|1||Matt Prater||DEN||at OAK|
|2||Stephen Gostkowski||NE||vs. BUF|
|3||Steven Hauschka||SEA||vs. STL|
|4||Justin Tucker||BAL||at CIN|
|5||Mason Crosby||GB||at CHI|
|6||Nick Novak||SD||vs. KC|
|7||Dan Bailey||DAL||vs. PHI|
|8||Adam Vinatieri||IND||vs. JAC|
|9||Phil Dawson||SF||at ARI|
|10||Nick Folk||NYJ||at MIA|
|11||Jay Feely||ARI||at SF|
|12||Blair Walsh||MIN||vs. DET|
|13||Caleb Sturgis||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|14||Shaun Suisham||PIT||vs. CLE|
|15||Graham Gano||CAR||at ATL|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
PATs = 1 point
39 yards and under = 3 points
40-49 yards = 4 points
50-59 yards = 5 points
60+ yards = 6 points
Carolina has been a double-digit scoring defense/special teams 11 times this season, and gets an Atlanta team that was one of those 11.
The Panthers will go for the NFC South title against a Falcons team that they scored 21 against in Week 9, and have scored in double digits four more times in the seven games following.
It gets a little shaky projecting a good defense after that.
The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, and their solid DSTs, are battling each other for playoff spots. San Fran won the DST score 14-6 in Week 6, but Arizona has been on fire the last few weeks.
Seattle is back at home and likely fuming from a rare home loss to an NFC West opponent last week in Arizona and now gets a Rams team it scored 13 against in Week 8.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Defense/Special Teams
|1||Carolina Panthers||at ATL|
|2||San Francisco 49ers||at ARI|
|3||Seattle Seahawks||vs. STL|
|4||Denver Broncos||at OAK|
|5||Arizona Cardinals||vs. SF|
|6||Cincinnati Bengals||vs. BAL|
|7||New England Patriots||vs. BUF|
|8||Miami Dolphins||vs. NYJ|
|9||Kansas City Chiefs||at SD|
|10||Cleveland Browns||at PIT|
|11||New Orleans Saints||vs. TB|
|12||New York Jets||at MIA|
|13||Indianapolis Colts||vs. JAC|
|14||St. Louis Rams||at SEA|
|15||Tennessee Titans||vs. HOU|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
0 points allowed = 12 points
1-6 points allowed = 10 points
7-13 points allowed = 8 pts
14-20 points allowed = 6 points
21-27 points allowed = 2 pts
28+ points allowed = 0 points
Safeties = 2 points
Fumbles recovered = 2 points
Interceptions = 2 points
Sacks = 1 point
Defensive/Special Teams TDs = 6 points
Jimmy Graham, the game’s top tight end, will be trying to help the Saints keep pace for an NFC South title Sunday against a Tampa Bay team he destroyed near the beginning of the season. His 10 catches for 179 yards on 16 targets were all season highs in Week 2. He also scored a TD against the Buccaneers, who have held TEs to six scores this season.
Vernon Davis had scored a touchdown in five straight games entering Monday night, and only been held off the scoreboard in three games. He is killing it in TD-only leagues and PPR leagues, and gets an Arizona team had eight catches, 180 yards and two scores on 11 targets — all season highs — in their Week 6 meeting.
Green Bay’s Andrew Quarless should be a decent sleeper against a Chicago team that has allowed a TD to the position in three of the last five games, and 5.6 catches per game to tight ends. Quarless had a dud last week, but had back-to-back 15.6-point games the two weeks prior.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Tight Ends
|1||Jimmy Graham||NO||vs. TB|
|2||Vernon Davis||SF||at ARI|
|3||Greg Olsen||CAR||at ATL|
|4||Julius Thomas||DEN||at OAK|
|5||Jason Witten||DAL||vs. PHI|
|6||Tony Gonzalez||ATL||vs. CAR|
|7||Martellus Bennett||CHI||vs. GB|
|8||Antonio Gates||SD||vs. KC|
|9||Charles Clay||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|10||Jordan Cameron||CLE||at PIT|
|11||Coby Fleener||IND||vs. JAC|
|12||Delanie Walker||TEN||vs. HOU|
|13||Tim Wright||TB||at NO|
|14||Heath Miller||PIT||vs. CLE|
|15||Brandon Myers||NYG||vs. WAS|
|16||Marcedes Lewis||JAC||at IND|
|17||Andrew Quarless||GB||at CHI|
|18||Anthony Fasano||KC||at SD|
|19||Zach Ertz||PHI||at DAL|
|20||Logan Paulsen||WAS||at NYG|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points
Fantasy’s top three running backs close out the 2013 regular season with three fantastic matchups.
LeSean McCoy draws a Dallas team allowing the most points to running backs. Jamaal Charles gets a San Diego team he scored 30 fantasy points against in Week 12. Matt Forte plays host to a Green Bay team he scored 26 points against in Week 9.
DeMarco Murray has been solid when given the ball, and there’s no reason to think that will stop this week against an Eagles team he did not see in the Week 8 meeting.
Adrian Peterson stays up there in the rankings this week because he is Adrian Peterson. Health was not an issue in the Week 16 dud — a beatdown by the Bengals was. You would like to think he closes out the year strong the same way he began it — racking up a season-high 32 points against Detroit in Week 1.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Running Back
|1||LeSean McCoy||PHI||at DAL|
|2||Jamaal Charles||KC||at SD|
|3||Matt Forte||CHI||vs GB|
|4||DeMarco Murray||DAL||vs. PHI|
|5||Adrian Peterson||MIN||vs. DET|
|6||Eddie Lacy||GB||at CHI|
|7||Reggie Bush||DET||at MIN|
|8||Knowshon Moreno||DEN||at OAK|
|9||Marshawn Lynch||SEA||vs. STL|
|10||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||vs. CLE|
|11||Ryan Mathews||SD||vs. KC|
|12||Zac Stacy||STL||at SEA|
|13||Chris Johnson||TEN||vs. HOU|
|14||Bobby Rainey||TB||at NO|
|15||Alfred Morris||WAS||at NYG|
|16||Fred Jackson||BUF||at NE|
|17||Rashad Jennings||OAK||vs. DEN|
|18||Dennis Johnson||HOU||at TEN|
|19||Maurice Jones-Drew||JAC||at IND|
|20||Danny Woodhead||SD||vs. KC|
|21||Ray Rice||BAL||at CIN|
|22||Joique Bell||DET||at MIN|
|23||Giovani Bernard||CIN||vs. BAL|
|24||DeAngelo Williams||CAR||at ATL|
|25||Frank Gore||SF||at ARI|
|26||Pierre Thomas||NO||vs. TB|
|27||C.J. Spiller||BUF||at NE|
|28||Andre Ellington||ARI||vs. SF|
|29||Donald Brown||IND||vs. JAC|
|30||Steven Jackson||ATL||vs. CAR|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points
The greatest fantasy football season for a quarterback — assuming he can score five more points — comes to an end this week as Peyton Manning goes to Oakland.
Part of the 5,211 yards and 51 touchdowns he has so far came via a 31.7-point day against Oakland in Week 3. And that was only his ninth-best game of the season.
With Manning setting the NFL record for TD passes in a season, will he give way to Brock Osweiller at some point Sunday? Maybe. But predicting a win, a blowout, a close games is useless this season. So ride the Bronco that got you to your Week 17 championship game.
The only thing stranger than a Week 17 championship game would be you pulling Manning for said title game.
While Manning is not playing for anything for the Broncos this weekend, Nick Foles, Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Jay Cutler — the rest of your top five — are all playing for division titles., and have very friendly matchups in the process.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings - Quarterbacks
|Peyton Manning||DEN||at OAK|
|Nick Foles||PHI||at DAL|
|Cam Newton||CAR||at ATL|
|Drew Brees||NO||vs. TB|
|Jay Cutler||CHI||vs. GB|
|Matthew Stafford||DET||at MIN|
|Andrew Luck||IND||vs. JAC|
|Matt Flynn||GB||at CHI|
|Tony Romo (*check injury reports)||DAL||vs. PHI|
|Ben Roethlisberger||PIT||vs. CLE|
|Tom Brady||NE||vs. BUF|
|Ryan Fitzpatrick||TEN||vs. HOU|
|Alex Smith||KC||at SD|
|Russell Wilson||SEA||vs. STL|
|Colin Kaepernick||SF||at ARI|
|Andy Dalton||CIN||vs. BAL|
|Jason Campbell||CLE||at PIT|
|Ryan Tannehill||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|Philip Rivers||SD||vs. KC|
|Matt Ryan||ATL||vs. CAR|
|Kirk Cousins||WAS||at NYG|
|Joe Flacco||BAL||at CIN|
|Eli Manning||NYG||vs. WAS|
|Terrelle Pryor||OAK||vs. DEN|
|Chad Henne||JAC||at IND|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
- All touchdowns are 6 points
- 1 point for 25 yards passing
- 1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
- Receptions are .5 points
- Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points
Dez Bryant leads the Week 17 receivers charge as the Dallas Cowboys play host to the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday night’s NFC East title game. Bryant gets an Eagles team that allows the most to catches, yards and TDs per game to receivers. He had eight catches for 110 yards on 16 targets in their Week 7 meeting.
Despite the gimpy knee, Calvin Johnson stays near the top of the rankings in Week 17. It’s hard to sit the game’s best when he gets a Minnesota Vikings team allowing the second-most to receivers this year. He will definitely be one of the biggest ones to monitor this week with the knee and the fact that the Lions are now out of the playoff picture.
Josh Gordon can wrap up a stellar season against a Steelers team he caught a season-high 14 balls for 237 yards and a score against in Week 12.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Wide Receivers
|1||Dez Bryant||DAL||vs. PHI|
|2||Calvin Johnson||DET||at MIN|
|3||Josh Gordon||CLE||at PIT|
|4||A.J. Green||CIN||vs. BAL|
|5||Brandon Marshall||CHI||vs. GB|
|6||Antonio Brown||PIT||vs. CLE|
|7||Eric Decker||DEN||at OAK|
|8||Pierre Garcon||WAS||at NYG|
|9||Julian Edelman||NE||vs. BUF|
|10||Demaryius Thomas||DEN||at OAK|
|11||DeSean Jackson||PHI||at DAL|
|12||Alshon Jeffery||CHI||vs. GB|
|13||Jordy Nelson||GB||at CHI|
|14||Keenan Allen||SD||vs. KC|
|15||Larry Fitzgerald||ARI||vs. SF|
|16||Andre Johnson||HOU||at TEN|
|17||Marques Colston||NO||vs. TB|
|18||Mike Wallace||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|19||Cordarrelle Patterson||MIN||vs. DET|
|20||Vincent Jackson||TB||at NO|
|21||Riley Cooper||PHI||at DAL|
|22||Roddy White||ATL||vs. CAR|
|23||Brian Hartline||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|24||Jarrett Boykin||GB||at CHI|
|25||T.Y. Hilton||IND||vs. JAC|
|26||Andre Caldwell||DEN||at OAK|
|27||Harry Douglas||ATL||vs. CAR|
|28||Torrey Smith||BAL||at CIN|
|29||Nate Washington||TEN||vs. HOU|
|30||Danny Amendola||NE||vs. BUF|
|31||Rueben Randle||NYG||vs. WAS|
|32||Brandon LaFell||CAR||at ATL|
|33||Michael Crabtree||SF||at ARI|
|34||Dwayne Bowe||KC||at SD|
|35||Michael Floyd||ARI||at ARI|
|36||Kendall Wright||TEN||vs. HOU|
|37||Anquan Boldin||SF||at ARI|
|38||Robert Woods||BUF||at NE|
|39||Nate Burleson||DET||at MIN|
|40||Hakeem Nicks||NYG||vs. WAS|
|41||James Jones||GB||at CHI|
|42||Rishard Matthews||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|43||Aaron Dobson||NE||va. BUF|
|44||Golden Tate||SEA||vs. STL|
|45||Terrance Williams||DAL||vs. PHI|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 17, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports' editors.
Panthers (11-4) at Falcons (4-11)
The Cats can wrap up the NFC South crown and a first-round bye with win in Cam Newton’s hometown of Atlanta. In Week 9, Carolina cruised to a 34–10 win over the Dirty Birds. After a 1–3 start to the season, the Panthers are 10–1 — with only a loss at New Orleans, the team Carolina vanquished 17–13 last week. Panthers by 8
Packers (7-7-1) at Bears (8-7)
Mike McCarthy wants a “quicker” decision on the Week 17 status of Aaron Rodgers, who has missed the past eight games due to a collarbone injury suffered against, you guessed it, Da Bears in Week 9. The 188th meeting in the league’s longest running rivalry — which dates back to 1921 — may or may not have Mr. Discount “Daaa-ble Check” on the field. But he will be seen frequently during commercial breaks in the series Chicago leads 93–88–6 all-time. Chicago needs a win or a tie to clinch the NFC North. Bears by 1
Texans (2-13) at Titans (6-9)
Will this be the final game of Mike Munchak’s strained facial expressions? Or Chris Johnson’s strained no-gain runs? For all the grief he takes, CJ-might-make-it-to-1K needs just 50 yards on the ground to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth consecutive season. Titans by 5
Browns (4-11) at Steelers (7-8)
Pittsburgh needs to win and have the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers all lose in order to make playoffs. Is that all? Steelers by 10
Redskins (3-12) at Giants (6-9)
The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year will watch from the sideline as his backup battles a two-time Super Bowl MVP in a throw away game that will mark the end of two of the stranger (and disappointing) 2013 seasons. Giants by 4
Ravens (8-7) at Bengals (10-5)
Cincinnati is a perfect 7–0 at home in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium this year. Bungles no more, the Bengals have scored at least 40 points in each of their last four games at home, with Andy Dalton throwing a combined 15 TD passes during that stretch. Bengals by 5
Jaguars (4-11) at Colts (10-5)
Indy clinched the AFC South long ago, following tap outs by the Titans, Texans and Jags. Now, Andrew Luck and Co. are hoping to earn a first-round playoff bye with a win and losses by both the Patriots and Bengals. Colts by 8
Jets (7-8) at Dolphins (8-7)
Rex Ryan is coaching to save his job, while Miami is holding out hope for a playoff berth. The Fins need to win plus have the Ravens lose or the Chargers win — or both lose or tie. Dolphins by 1
Lions (7-8) at Vikings (4-10-1)
Detroit has five losses in its last six games and has been eliminated from postseason contention. But don’t boo Jim Schwartz. Lions by 3
Bills (6-9) at Patriots (11-4)
Watch your back Tom Brady, Buffalo is the first team with three players with 10-plus sacks — Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5) and Jerry Hughes (10) — since the 2000 Saints. Patriots by 10
Buccaneers (4-11) at Saints (10-5)
New Orleans has lost five of its last six on the road. Luckily, this game is in the Superdome, where the Saints are 7–0 and Drew Brees has thrown 23 TDs and just three INTs. Saints by 11
Broncos (12-3) at Raiders (4-11)
Peyton Manning tossed his 10th, 11th and 12th TDs of his record-breaking season during a 37–21 win over the Raiders in Week 3. Broncos by 10
49ers (11-4) at Cardinals (10-5)
Arizona has won seven of its last eight games and look to be a serious challenge for the defending NFC champs. Before the hot streak, the Cardinals lost to the Niners, 32–20, in Week 6. 49ers by 3
Chiefs (11-4) at Chargers (8-7)
What did Andy Reid eat during Kansas City’s Week 10 bye. The Chiefs were 9–0 entering the off week and are 2–4 since then. Chargers by 1
Rams (7-8) at Seahawks (12-3)
All Seattle has to do is win or tie and the “12th Man” will be rocking the Pacific Northwest with an NFC South title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Seahawks by 7
Eagles (9-6) at Cowboys (8-7)
Can Tony Romo finally win the big one? Wait… what? Romo isn’t going to play Week 17 due to a herniated disk in his back. That’s too bad. Romo is 0–2 with four INTs the last two years in Week 17 win-or-go-home division contests against the Redskins and Giants, respectively. It was the Eagles turn. Now, Kyle Orton will shoulder the responsibility of leading the Cowboys to the Super Bowl — which is what it will likely take to save Jason Garrett’s job in Big D. Eagles by 1
Last week: 11–5 // Season: 155–84–1
The holidays are a time for gift giving. For most NFL players, the ultimate prize is the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to the winning team in the Super Bowl. Outsdie of the highest honor in team sports, however, individual awards are pretty sweet.
We’ve made a list and checked it twice to determine which players are deserving of recognition — and the corresponding trophy-case hardware — for their performances in 2013.
Most Valuable Player
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
A four-time MVP already, Manning has outdone himself this year. After exploding out of the blocks with a seven-TD effort on opening night, Manning has not slowed down — posting his best statistical season to date, with 5,211 yards, a record 51 TDs and 10 INTs while leading Denver to a 12–3 record.
Offensive Player of the Year
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
“Shady” produced one of the most memorable efforts of the season with his 217-yard, two-TD effort in a Philly snowstorm during a comeback win over the Lions in Week 14. He has also been the catalyst in coach Chip Kelly’s new offense.
Defensive Player of the Year
Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks
The leader of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” is also the league’s INT leader with eight picks returned for 125 yards (15.6 ypr) and a highlight-reel 58-yard TD.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers
With Aaron Rodgers banged up for much of the season’s second half, Lacy has carried the load to keep Title Town in the playoff hunt. The first-year phenom out of Alabama has rushed for 1,112 yards and 10 TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Sheldon Richardson, DE, Jets
The 6'3", 294-pounder has anchored the Jets’ run defense while also pushing the pocket for 3.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. He also scored a “fat boy” TD as a fullback.
Comeback Player of the Year
Alex Smith, QB, Chiefs
After being benched in San Fran last season, Smith has charged back with a vengeance in Kansas City.
Coach of the Year
Andy Reid, Chiefs
K.C. is just the fourth team in history to earn a trip to the playoffs the season after losing 14 games.
Executive of the Year
John Elway, Broncos
“This one’s for John!” The signing of Wes Welker is just the latest high-profile bull’s-eye at Mile High.
Ranking all 32 NFL teams, from the stampeding Broncos to the staggering Texans.
1. Broncos (12-3) Von Miller out for season following ACL injury.
2. Seahawks (12-3) Fourteen-game home winning streak snapped.
3. Panthers (11-4) Cam Newton throws last-minute game-winning TD.
4. Saints (10-5) Kenny Vaccaro carted off field with broken ankle.
5. Patriots (11-4) LeGarrette Blount mocks Ray Lewis dance in win.
6. Colts (10-5) Jerrell Freeman hauls in two INTs in win at K.C.
7. 49ers (11-4) Say so long to Candlestick Park after 42 seasons.
8. Chiefs (11-4) Three of four losses have come at Arrowhead.
9. Bengals (10-5) Andy Dalton throws four TDs in blowout victory.
10. Cardinals (10-5) Carson Palmer throws four INTs, wins at Seattle.
11. Eagles (9-6) Soar to prime time 43-point victory over Chicago.
12. Cowboys (8-7) Tony Romo to miss rest of season with back injury.
13. Bears (8-7) Apparently, it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia.
14. Ravens (8-7) Joe Flacco denies knee was cause of poor play.
15. Chargers (8-7) Win three-straight games for first time all year.
16. Dolphins (8-7) Ryan Tannehill sacked seven times in shutout loss.
17. Steelers (7-8) Troy Polamalu forces late fumble in wild win.
18. Packers (7-7-1) Lose heartbreaker to Steelers in Lambeau snow.
19. Lions (7-8) Jim Schwartz outburst at fans may be last straw.
20. Jets (7-8) Did Rex Ryan coach his last game at home?
21. Rams (7-8) Robert Quinn breaks team sack record with 18.
22. Titans (6-9) Rally from 10-point deficit to win at Jacksonville.
23. Giants (6-9) Win in overtime despite Eli Manning’s 26th INT.
24. Bills (6-9) Set new franchise season sack record with 56.
25. Vikings (4-10-1) Adrian Peterson rushes for just 45 yards in return.
26. Raiders (4-11) Penalized 12 times for 73 yards in sloppy defeat.
27. Falcons (4-11) Gearing up for draft, worst-to-first season in 2014.
28. Browns (4-11) Ed Reed INT caps off sixth consecutive defeat.
29. Jaguars (4-11) Retiring center Brad Meester has first career catch.
30. Buccaneers (4-11) Set new season low with just 170 total yards.
31. Redskins (3-12) Fall to 0–5 in NFC East following loss to Dallas.
32. Texans (2-13) Extend franchise record with 13th straight defeat.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
“Shady” shined under the bright lights on Sunday night, with 18 carries for a Week 16-best 133 yards (7.4 ypc) and two trips to the end zone during a 54–11 blowout victory over the Bears. But McCoy wasn’t the only Eagle to take flight — albeit on the ground. Bryce Brown added nine carries for 115 yards (12.8 ypc) and a 65-yard TD. First-year coach Chip Kelly’s offense was in top form, as Philadelphia totalled 28 first downs and 514 total net yards, including 289 yards rushing on 36 carries (8.0 ypc).
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
Another week, another prime time performance from Peyton. The four-time MVP — who is on a drive for five — completed 32-of-51 passes for 400 yards, four TDs and zero INTs during a 37–13 win over Houston. Manning broke Tom Brady’s single-season record for touchdown passes, with his 48th, 49th, record-tying 50th and record-breaking 51st scoring strikes of an amazing 2013 season. “It’s a unique thing and a neat thing to be a part of NFL history, even though it may be temporary,” said Manning, who also joked that Brady might retake the top spot as soon as next season. “I’m going to enjoy it as long as it lasts, and hopefully the Hall of Fame will send the ball back once somebody throws for more.”
Nate Washington, WR, Titans
Sure, Titans-Jaguars was one of only three games without playoff implications. And two Broncos receivers — Eric Decker (10 catches, 131 yards, two TDs) and Demaryius Thomas (eight catches, 123 yards, one TD) — had bigger days statistically. But Washington’s six catches for 117 yards (19.5 ypc) and one TD should not be overlooked. Tennessee was able to pull off a come-from-behind victory thanks to Washington’s big plays, none bigger than his 30-yard fourth-quarter go-ahead TD, which helped the Titans earn their first AFC South win.
Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals
Cincy’s red-haired signal-caller was red-hot during a 42–14 win over Minnesota. Dalton completed 27-of-38 passes for 366 yards, four scoring strikes and no picks for a season-high 136.5 passer rating. The Bengals improved to 7–0 at home and clinched the AFC North division crown thanks to a Baltimore loss to New England later in the day. A second-round pick out of TCU in 2011, Dalton has led Cincinnati to the postseason in all three of his seasons as the team’s starting quarterback.
Northern Illinois’ quest for a second straight trip to a BCS bowl was derailed by Bowling Green in the MAC Championship Game. The 47–27 loss cost the Huskies a spot in the Fiesta Bowl and a shot at the school’s first undefeated season since 1963. But a week in San Diego is not a bad consolation prize — especially when you make DeKalb, Ill., home.
Northern Illinois opened the season with wins over two Big Ten schools (Iowa and Purdue) in September before sweeping through the MAC without a loss for the second consecutive year. The Huskies won their eight league games by an average of 22.3 points, with only one game decided by less than 14 points. Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch pilots an offense that leads the MAC and ranks fifth nationally with 535.5 yards per game. The Huskies’ defense is average (at best), but it didn’t matter for the majority of the 2013 season.
Defense is the specialty for NIU’s opponent in San Diego, the Utah State Aggies. Matt Wells, in his first season as the head coach, did a masterful job guiding his team — ravaged by injuries — to the Mountain West Championship Game. Chuckie Keeton, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, missed the final seven games, but Utah State still managed eight wins, including a 7–1 mark during the regular season in the MWC. The Aggies rank first in the league and 12th in the nation in total defense (332.2 ypg) and have held nine of their 13 opponents to 17 points or less.
Northern Illinois vs. Utah State
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 26 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Northern Illinois -1.5
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Play some defense
In the biggest game on the season — with a berth in a BCS bowl on the line — the Northern Illinois defense was shredded by a good (but hardly great) Bowling Green offense for 574 total yards, including an alarming 393 through the air. The lack of defense was not an issue against teams like UMass, Kent State and Eastern Michigan, but NIU will have to be better on that side of the ball in the bowl game. Very few teams have rolled up a big number on Utah State — the Aggies held Fresno State to 24 in the MWC title game — so NIU can’t simply rely on Jordan Lynch & Co. to win this game. Utah State has had its issues on offense, but this team did score 40 points or more four times in the regular season. The Huskies could catch a break if quarterback Darell Garretson, who was knocked out of the Fresno State game with a helmet-to-helmet hit, is not able to play.
Utah State’s Key to Victory: Slow down Jordan Lynch
It’s a bit of stretch to say that Bowling Green shut down Jordan Lynch — he did throw for 219 and run for 126 — but the senior quarterback was clearly not at his best in the MAC Championship Game. He only completed 52.5 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions in the Huskies’ 20-point loss. Utah State has been outstanding against the pass for the majority of the season. The Aggies held their opponents to under 60 percent passing in all but two games and led the Mountain West by limiting opposing quarterback to 6.5 yards per passing attempt. Lynch will get his yards on the ground — he’s had at least 90 in all but three games — but it’s key for Utah State to limit his effectiveness throwing the ball. A one-dimensional Northern Illinois offense is much easier to contain.
Key Player: Darell Garretson, QB, Utah State
Things weren’t looking good for Utah State in early October. The Aggies were 3–3 overall and had just lost star quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a torn ACL. Wells was forced to turn to Garretson, and the true freshman from Arizona responded. Utah State lost his first start, 34–23 to Boise State, but proceeded to win five in a row to capture the Mountain Division title. Garretson has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,325 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He isn’t as much of a threat on the ground as Keeton, but he does have a run for at least 10 yards in each of the last five games. Garretson was knocked out of the MWC title game with a concussion but is expected to be ready to go in the bowl game.
This is an intriguing matchup between two of the top mid-major programs in the country. With a BCS trip last year and a Heisman finalist this season, Northern Illinois is more known nationally, but Utah State has been very good in recent years. The Aggies broke through in 2011 with a 7–6 record — the first winning season at the school since 1996 — and then won 11 games in ’12, Gary Andersen’s final season. Wells, in his first season as a head coach, carries an 8–5 record into the postseason.
The key for Utah State will be on defense. Assuming Garretson plays, the Aggies should be able to score some points on the NIU defense. But it will be difficult for USU to shut down Lynch, who should be motivated in his final game in college.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Utah State 24
A visit to Motown is just fine for Bowling Green and Pittsburgh.
No, Detroit isn’t everyone’s ideal day-after-Christmas destination, but the two teams playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl have reason to be pleased with their bowl trip.
For Bowling Green, the Falcons are here after upsetting undefeated Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game, a run good enough to garner a new head coaching job for Dave Clawson at Wake Forest. The Falcons will attempt to win their first bowl game since 2004 under interim coach Adam Scheier before new coach Dino Babers takes over.
This bowl bid isn't too shabby for Pittsburgh, either. After three consecutive seasons ending in Birmingham, Pittsburgh is finally on its way to a new bowl destination and under the same coach, Paul Chryst, for consecutive seasons. The Panthers reached bowl games in 2010 and 2011 under interim coaches.
In Detroit, Pittsburgh will look to cap an inconsistent first season in the ACC. Although the Panthers defeated Duke on Sept. 21 and Notre Dame on Nov. 9, the Panthers haven’t won back-to-back games since the end of September (and they won’t have an opportunity to rectify that in Detroit after losing the regular season finale to Miami).
Meanwhile, Bowling Green has used the top defense in the MAC to win its last five games. The Falcons intercepted two Jordan Lynch passes in the MAC title game as Northern Illinois scored a season-low 27 points.
Bowling Green vs. Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Dec. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Bowling Green by 3.5
Bowling Green’s Key to Victory: Contain the Pittsburgh passing game
Led by senior All-MAC safety BooBoo Gates, Bowling Green finished in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense, yards allowed per pass and passing yards per game. Pittsburgh has an above average passing game, led by an excellent duo of receivers in freshman Tyler Boyd, who topped the 1,000-yard mark in his first season, and veteran Devin Street. Rutgers transfer Tom Savage can get them the ball ... provided he stays upright. His jersey has changed, but Savage again has been one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the country. Opponents have sacked Savage 41 times this season. Adding to that total will be a key for Bowling Green.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Win on third down and in the red zone
Northern Illinois had the unblemished record and the Heisman finalist, but it’s not tough to see why Bowling Green ended up winning the MAC. In addition to having the MAC’s best defense, Bowling Green led the league in third down offense and red zone defense and finished second in third down defense. In other words, Bowling Green made the critical plays to make up for a lack of star power. Pittsburgh has enough holes where the Panthers need to make these margin plays to secure a win.
Key player: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Don’t overthink it: Donald will be the best player on the field. By winning the Outland, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi, the defensive tackle is the most decorated defensive player since Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson was brilliant against Northern Illinois, but the Falcons’ run game has been the constant during the five-game winning streak (5.2 yards per carry in that span). Donald could play a key role in shutting down both facets of the offense.
Bowling Green has the hot hand for sure. The Falcons knocked off their top competition in the MAC East on the road (Buffalo) and then an undefeated team in Detroit (Northern Illinois) in the last two weeks of the season. Pittsburgh has the edge in overall talent, particularly any time Aaron Donald is on the field. With a strong defense, Bowling Green has done enough in the final month of the season to show it’s capable of defeating a mid-level ACC team.
Prediction: Bowling Green 27, Pittsburgh 21
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of the game. Any game, for that matter.
Some fall on the sabermetric side of things, while others like to keep it simple and use the ol' eyeball test. In the football world, that means total offense, total defense and points scored versus points per play and defensive efficiency ratings. Rational and logical arguments can be made for the legitimacy and relevance of both sides of the stats spectrum.
With that in mind, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from Week 16 of the NFL season:
51: Peyton Manning’s single-season passing TD record
Dan Marino set a bunch of NFL passing records well ahead of his time in 1984. One of which was the prestigious single-season passing touchdown record he set in 1984 with 48 scoring strikes. It stood for 20 years until Peyton Manning broke the record with 49 TD passing in 2004. Tom Brady came along during his perfect 2007 campaign to top Manning with 50 scoring tosses. Until Week 16 of the 2013 season, Brady had been the only player in NFL history with 50 touchdown passes. Manning threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout win over Houston this weekend and it gives Manning an NFL record 51 touchdown passes. He should be able to extend that record in the season finale — should he play more than one series.
5: Different NFL players to throw for 5,000 yards in a season
In the Manning edition of Amazing Stats, another superlative for what many consider the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. Manning’s huge game against the lowly Texans pushed his already record-setting season even further into the annals of time. With one game to play, Manning sits at 5,211 yards passing, making him just the fifth player in NFL history to top 5,000 yards in a single season. Manning joins Tom Brady in 2011 (5,235), Dan Marino in 1984 (5,084), Matthew Stafford in 2011 (5,038) and Drew Brees, who did it three times in 2008, 2011 and 2012. Manning needs (if he plays enough) just 266 yards to break Brees’ single-season record of 5,476 set in 2011. Brees needs 219 in his final game to reach 5,000 for the fourth time in his career this season.
11: NFL-record division titles by Tom Brady
When the Dolphins in explicably lost 19-0 to the Buffalo Bills (but before the Patriots destroyed the Ravens), Tom Brady and New England clinched the AFC East championship outright. It marks the NFL record 11th division championship for Brady and the Pats. New England has finished in first or tied for first in the AFC East every single season since 2001 — Brady’s first full season as the starter. The only two seasons the Patriots did not win the division outright were in 2008 when Brady was lost for the entire season with a torn ACL and 2002. In both of those years, the Patriots tied for the division crown but lost out on a tiebreaker. Only the 2001 season did the Patriots win the division via tiebreaker. That is 10 outright AFC East titles in the last 11 years — and this one might be the most impressive. Manning won the AFC West with Denver this season, giving him 10 division titles as a starter. He is the only other NFL player in history with at least 10 division crowns and is second only to Brady.
7: Yards Andrew Luck needs to set a two-year NFL passing record
To start a career, Cam Newton owns the NFL record with 7,920 yards passing in his first two seasons. Peyton Manning was second with 7,874 until Andrew Luck passed him with his 241 yards in the impressive road win over Kansas City this Sunday. Luck, who owns the NFL rookie passing record with 4,374 yards last season, sits at 7,914 yards and is just seven yards away from setting a new NFL passing record for a player in his first two seasons. Luck’s 21 victories are also tied for third all-time with Dan Marino for the most wins by a starting quarterback in his first two seasons. Russell Wilson owns the record with 23 (and could build on that next week). Ben Roethlisberger is No. 2 all-time with 22.
24: Single-game NFL tackles record tied by Luke Kuechly
Speaking of Cam Newton, the Panthers toppled the Saints 17-13 on Sunday to clinch an NFC playoff spot for the first time since 2008 and just the fifth time in the franchises’ 19-year history. Newton has been excellent but it’s the defense that deserves much of the credit for the amazing turnover in Carolina. First-round pick Luke Kuechly led the NFL tackles last season as a rookie and he posted 24 total tackles against the mighty Saints on Sunday. Since the stat began being tracked in 1994, no player in the game has made more tackles than Kuechly’s 24. He tied the NFL record set by the Jets David Harris on November 4, 2007.
0: NFC divisions that have been clinched with one week to play
What a season it has been in the NFC. The Saints, who entered Week 16 in first place in the NFC South, are in danger of missing the playoffs all together should they lose in Week 17 and Arizona wins. The NFC East and NFC North are winner take all situations between the Eagles and Cowboys and Packers and Bears respectively. The 49ers and Saints, however, could also still win their respective divisions should they both win and their division leaders Seattle and Carolina lose in the season finale. In the AFC, four different teams are battling for the final wildcard sport. Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh could all win the final Wildcard next weekend.
Oct. 31, 2010: The last time Tony Romo missed a game
After leading the Cowboys to a dramatic win over the Redskins to set up a winner-take-all finale against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17, Adam Schefter reported that quarterback Tony Romo will miss the rest of the 2013 season with a back injury. Romo takes a lot of flack — most of which is poorly timed and unwarranted commentary from his ridiculous owner Jerry Jones — but his numbers speak for themselves. He is tied with Tom Brady as the NFL’s all-time fifth-rated quarterback (95.8) and he hasn’t missed a game since Oct. 31, 2010. He has started every game since the start of the 2011 season behind one of the worst offensive lines and most ineffective running games. Now that Romo is out for the final game of the season, Chip Kelly is poised to win the NFC East and take the last place Eagles to the postseason in just his first season.
How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? Oregon State (6–6, 4–5 Pac-12) and Boise State (8–4, 6–2 Mountain West) will do just that when the Hawaii Bowl kicks off as the only game on television Christmas Eve.
The Beavers are making their first trip to the big island of Oahu and are just the second Pac-12 school to play in the Hawaii Bowl. Arizona State lost to hometown favorite Hawaii, 41–24, in 2006. Oregon State did play in the now defunct Oahu Bowl in 1999, losing to Hawaii, 23–17, on Christmas Day. Coach Mike Riley started his second stint at OSU with a 5–0 record in bowl games from 2003-08. But Oregon State is 0–2 in bowls since then.
This year’s trip to Honolulu snaps a three-year Las Vegas bender for the Broncos, who are riding a four-bowl win streak following three straight wins in Vegas (2010-12) and a memorable Fiesta Bowl victory following the 2008 season. This is Boise State’s second appearance in the Hawaii Bowl, having been upset as 10-point favorites by East Carolina, 41–38, in 2007. In that game, ECU track star Chris Johnson accounted for 255 total yards and two TDs.
In the all-time series, OSU has a 4–3 edge over Boise, although the Smurf Turfers have a 3–2 advantage since stepping up to FBS status in 1996. Most recently, the Broncos defeated the Beavers, 37–24, in 2010.
Oregon State vs. Boise State
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon State -3
Oregon State’s Key to Victory: Sean Mannion to Brandin Cooks
Oregon State has an NFL-caliber quarterback and this year’s Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver. As Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks go, so go the Beavers. When OSU jumped out to a 6–1 start to the season, Mannion threw for 2,992 yards, 29 TDs and three INTs, while Cooks hauled in 76 catches for 1,176 yards (15.5 ypc) and 12 TDs. When OSU fell apart to go 0–5 down the stretch to end the year, Mannion threw for 1,411 yards, seven TDs and 11 INTs, while Cooks had 44 catches for 494 yards (11.2 ypc) and three TDs.
Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence will be charged with applying a pass rush to Mannion. The Broncos’ top defender has been a terror off the edge this season, with 19.5 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Up front, Lawrence is joined by 300-pound fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, who will command attention as a monster in the middle. In the Boise State secondary, cornerback Donte Deayon and safety Jeremy Ioane, a pair of All-MWC selections, will have their hands full stopping the Beavers’ aerial attack. Only a sophomore, the 5’9” Deayon will be put to the test by the nation’s best in the 5’10” Cooks.
Boise State’s Key to Victory: Expose Beavers’ Weak Defense
Oregon State’s defense is one of the worst statistical units playing in a bowl this season. The Beavers rank 94th in total defense, allowing 482.2 yards per game; 95th in scoring defense, allowing 32.1 points per game; and 120th in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score an eye-popping 93.2 percent of the time the ball is inside the 20-yard-line. And it wasn’t just Pac-12 powers like Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State that lit up the Beavers defense. FCS power Eastern Washington scored 49 points in an upset win and Utah scored 48 points in an overtime nail-biter.
Boise State’s offense will be led by junior quarterback Grant Hedrick, who passed for 1,443 yards, 15 TDs and five INTs, while going 4–2 as a starter after replacing injured senior Joe Southwick. Recently, waves were made when Southwick — who had returned from a right ankle injury — was sent home from the Hawaii Bowl for disciplinary reasons. Redshirt freshman Nick Patti was also suspended, although he has been reinstated and will serve as the backup to Hedrick. Capable wideouts Matt Miller and Shane Williams-Rhodes provide firepower on the outside, while senior O-linemen Charles Leno Jr. and Matt Paradis pave the way in the trenches.
Key Player: Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State
Regardless of who lines up under center for the Broncos, Ajayi will be the centerpiece of the Boise State attack. The 6’0”, 215-pound sophomore out of Plano, Texas, was named first-team All-MWC after posting 226 carries for 1,328 yards (5.9 ypc) and 17 TDs, while hauling in 16 catches for 189 yards (11.8 ypc) and one score. Ajayi had six contests with over 100 total yards and five multi-TD games this season. Only twice did Ajayi fail to rush for at least 80 yards — with a 54-yard, one-TD effort in a 41–40 loss at Fresno State, and a 70-yard, three-TD performance in a 48–7 blowout of Wyoming as his worst outings of a brilliant 2013 campaign.
Longtime Boise State coach Chris Petersen — who went 92–12 in eight seasons, including two undefeated years (2006, 2009) — has moved on to take the top spot at Washington, leaving interim head coach Bob Gregory to coach the Hawaii Bowl. Gregory previously served as the Broncos defensive coordinator and was coaching linebackers prior to being named interim head coach. Former Boise offensive coordinator and Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin will take over as the next coach of the Broncos following the bowl game. On the other sideline, Oregon State coach Mike Riley appears to have coached his way off of the proverbial hot seat with his second straight bowl trip after a two-year postseason drought in 2010-11.
Both teams are happy to be in Hawaii, for the weather as much as the football. With two high-octane offenses, the defense in this year’s Hawaii Bowl could be reminiscent of the NFL’s Pro Bowl in Honolulu. Expect plenty of scoring, lots of hula dancing and plenty of people getting lei’d on Christmas Eve.
Prediction: Oregon State 42, Boise State 40
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 23.
• Enjoy this rundown of the year in lovely sports ladies. Consider it my little Christmas gift to you.
• Tom Brady, who's won a record 12 division titles, was left hanging yet again. What's a guy got to do to get a high-five? Win 13 division titles?
• Matt Stafford's girlfriend tried to defend the Lions via Twitter. The first commenter took her feeble attempt and napalmed it.
• A bad day for one Redskins fan was made worse when a security guard threw him down the stadium stairs. For reasons that will become clear, that story reminds me of this story from the Onion.
• When bowls troll: Funny Facebook bowl game trash talk.
• You might be getting bored with these, but I don't care: A returning serviceman surprises his parents.
• Once again, I may be the only one, but I'm not tired of Blake Griffin jams, either.
• This epic LeBron dunk was made even moreso by adding a call from Jim Ross.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The 2013 college football regular season had distinct and unique character. The No. 2 team in the nation didn’t lose every weekend like in 2007. And one player didn’t captivate the nation like Cam Newton in 2010 or Johnny Manziel last season.
Every major conference race — and some of the smaller ones as well — came down to the final weekend, and, in some cases, the final moments of the final game. It was a season to remember for college football fans.
So that is what Athlon Sports is going to do. For some, this will be a stroll down memory lane while others may develop reoccurring nightmares. Here are college football's most entertaining and pivotal games of the 2013 season.
10. UCF 38, Louisville 35 (Oct. 18)
It was biggest and most dramatic game of the inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference. Louisville led 28-7 midway through the third quarter when the Knights' offense came to life with three touchdowns in the final five minutes of the frame. In the fourth quarter, UCF took their first lead of the game with just under eight minutes to play. Louisville bounced back with what appeared to be a game-winning 15-yard touchdown run from Dominique Brown. However, Blake Bortles tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey with just 23 seconds remaining. The win eventually led to a conference championship and BCS bowl berth for UCF.
11. South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (2OT, Oct. 26)
The first three quarters were rather tame as Missouri commanded the score board and the line of scrimmage 17-0 when the fourth quarter began. But then Connor Shaw did his best Willis Reed impersonation, limping around Faurot Field to give South Carolina one of the most historic and improbable wins in SEC history. Shaw led the Cocks to 17 unanswered points, including a game-tying TD with 42 seconds left and a 4th-and-15 game-tying TD pass in overtime. When Missouri missed a short field goal in double-overtime, Carolina stormed the field and Shaw supplanted his legacy in Gamecocks lore.
Best of the Rest:
Alabama and LSU is always one of the most anticipated and physical games of the season regardless of conference affiliation. The Tigers fought hard and were tied at 17 late in the third quarter. However, the Crimson Tide proved its mettle by pounding the rock to 21 unanswered points over the final 20 minutes to stake a claim atop the SEC West (well, for the time being).
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl didn’t go according to plan for Buffalo. The Bulls were easily defeated by San Diego State, and an onside kick in the fourth quarter was an epic fail.
Punter Tyler Grassman attempted an onside kick, but instead of giving his team a chance to recover, the ball barely moved off the tee.
East Carolina will try and cap off one of the most successful seasons in program history with a victory over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.
East Carolina went 9-3 this season, including road victories over in-state brethren North Carolina and North Carolina State. Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates posted a 6-2 mark in Conference USA, finishing second in the East Division to Marshall. McNeill has his Pirates in a bowl game for the third time in his four seasons at the helm.
East Carolina has lost its last four bowl games, including a 43-34 defeat to Louisiana-Lafayette in last season’s New Orleans Bowl. A win over Ohio would be just the second 10-win season in school history, topped only by Bill Lewis’ 1991 team that finished 11-1.
This represents Ohio’s fifth straight bowl appearance, as the Bobcats have become one of the most successful programs in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) under the direction of Frank Solich.
Ohio started this season strong, beating bowl teams Marshall and North Texas to jump out to a 6-2 record by end the of October. The Bobcats struggled down the stretch, however, losing three conference games in a row by a combined score of 123-16. They rebounded with a convincing win over UMass in the regular-season finale to finish at 7-5 and 4-4 in the MAC’s East Division.
After picking up the program’s first-ever bowl win two seasons ago, the Bobcats made it two in a row last year with a 45-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl. A victory over East Carolina would give Ohio five straight seasons of at least eight wins.
These two schools have played twice before with East Carolina winning both games. The last meeting was in 1998 when the Pirates beat the Bobcats 21-14 in Athens, Ohio.
East Carolina vs. Ohio
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: East Carolina -13.5
East Carolina’s Key to Victory: Stick to the script
The Pirates enter this game 30th in the nation in total offense (459.8 ypg) and 10th in both passing (331.5 ypg) and scoring (40.4 ppg) offense. It’s pretty easy to win nine games when you score at least 31 points in eight of them. Quarterback Shane Carden is the key to this offense, as he’s seventh in nation with 322.2 passing yards per game for 32 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Carden leads FBS with his 71 percent completion rate, which is impressive considering he’s attempted 504 passes, which ties him for the fifth in the nation. Carden also has 10 rushing touchdowns, so he’s capable of making plays with his legs too. The Pirates run enough (128.3 rushing ypg) to make it harder for opponents to focus on stopping the passing game, and have produced nearly as many touchdowns on the ground (27) as through the air (33). Ohio has had its issues on defense, allowing nearly 27 points per game on the season. The Bobcats really struggled in November, surrendering 427 yards and 36.5 points per game over their last four. As long as the Pirates stick with what has worked so well for them, this offense should be able to move the ball and put plenty of points on the scoreboard
Ohio’s Key to Victory: Remember 2012
Last season, the Bobcats won their first seven games and found themselves well positioned for a possible BCS bowl bid entering the final weekend of October. Ranked 24th in the BCS standings and 23rd in the Associated Press poll, Ohio lost a heart-breaker to in-state rival Miami (Ohio) when it passed on a potential, chip-shot, game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter before running out of time, and would finish the regular season with three straight defeats. Very few gave Ohio a shot against Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl, as the Bobcats entered the contest as more than a touchdown underdog to the Warhawks. Someone apparently forgot to tell Ohio it was supposed to lose, however, as the Bobcats jumped out a 24-7 halftime lead and used a balanced offensive attack and stifling defense to post a convincing 45-14 victory. Ohio finds itself in a similar situation this season having dropped three of its last four to end the regular season and entering its bowl game an underdog of nearly two touchdowns to East Carolina. This is a veteran Bobcats team with many of the key players from last season’s improbable win over Louisiana-Monroe now seniors. Proving the naysayers wrong is nothing new to this team, it’s just a matter of remembering what worked so well a year ago.
Key Player: Tyler Tettleton, QB, Ohio
The son of MLB All-Star catcher Mickey Tettleton, Tyler (above, right) is a three-year starter who will be wrapping up his record-setting Ohio career against East Carolina. The holder of numerous school records, Tettleton has thrown for more than 8,900 yards and rushed for nearly 900 in his four seasons under center, although he played sparingly as a freshman. The dual threat has accounted for 72 total touchdowns, including one touchdown reception. He has thrown for more than 2,600 yards in each of the past three seasons and has completed better than 63 percent of his passes during that span. He struggled at the end of this season, averaging just 148.5 yards passing per game and throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions (3 apiece) in his last four contests. However, Tettleton has risen to the occasion more than once, as he has led his team to back-to-back bowl wins. Two years ago, Tettleton scored the game-winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left to propel Ohio over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl for the Bobcats’ first-ever bowl victory. Last season, Tettleton helped his underdog Bobcats handily defeat Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl by throwing for 331 yards and two touchdowns. Tettleton has put up his share of big numbers in big games and he will need to do so again against East Carolina if he wants to finish his collegiate career on a winning note.
Ohio is a well-coached, veteran team that has overcome the odds to win a bowl game before. This stage and the underdog status is nothing new to this team, which is led by a group of seniors who are playing in their fourth straight bowl game. However, East Carolina brings to St. Petersburg, Fla., one of the nation’s most productive offenses. The Pirates have had no trouble scoring this season and have road victories over big brothers North Carolina and North Carolina State to prove it. Ohio has wins over two bowl teams (Marshall and North Texas), but also lost to three others (Bowling Green, Buffalo and Louisville) by a combined score of 128-10. The Bobcats put up a fight, but in the end the Pirates’ offense is simply too much for them to overcome.
Prediction: East Carolina 41, Ohio 28
NFC South supremacy and playoff positioning are both squarely on the line today when the New Orleans Saints pay a visit to the Carolina Panthers at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. The Saints (10-4) can secure both the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs with their second win over the Panthers (10-4) in three weeks.
The Saints are coming off of a discouraging 27-16 loss to the Rams on the road, which only brought more attention to Sean Payton’s team’s struggles away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Meanwhile Ron Rivera’s Panthers rebounded from their loss two weeks ago in New Orleans by beating the Jets 30-20 at home, running their record at Bank of America Stadium to 6-1 this season.
3 Things to Watch
Two Weeks Ago…
The Week 14 Sunday primetime showdown between Carolina and New Orleans didn’t exactly materialize, as the Saints took control in the second quarter and never looked back, winning 31-13. Tied atop the NFC South entering this game at 9-3, the Saints did what they usually do – play really well at home – and the Panthers weren’t able to put up a lot of offense or stop Drew Brees and the passing game. Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the sixth-ranked passing defense at the time, as the Saints scored touchdowns on four of five trips into the red zone. The Panthers converted on just one of two possessions inside the Saints’ 20-yard line, as Cam Newton threw for just 160 yards on 22 completions (4.7 ypc) and was sacked five times. Carolina led 6-0 after the first quarter, but New Orleans scored 31 unanswered points, including three touchdowns in the second quarter alone. The Panthers outgained the Saints 128-69 on the ground and won the time of possession battle, but the duo of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, who combined for 15 catches, 183 yards and all four touchdowns, were too much to overcome. New Orleans finished the night 7-0 at home and fully in the driver’s seat in the division.
Can the Saints Rebound Again?
New Orleans finds itself in familiar territory as all four losses have come on the road. The Saints are 7-0 at home, but just 3-4 on the road and have been beaten soundly in their last two games away from the friendly (and loud) confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Sean Payton’s team got off to a strong start on the road, winning their first two away dates in Tampa Bay (Week 2) and Chicago (Week 4). However, the Saints have won just one since, a 17-13 victory over lowly Atlanta in Week 12. The four road losses have been to the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks and last week to the Rams, with the last two being blowouts. Seattle and St. Louis beat New Orleans by a combined score of 61-23, as the Saints averaged 310 yards of offense in those two games, or nearly 90 fewer than they have been gaining on the season. The common factor in both of these games is defense, as the Seahawks held the Saints to 188 total yards of offense, the fewest in the Sean Payton era, and the Rams battered and bruised Brees to the tune of four sacks and three turnovers (2 INTs, fumble). Carolina’s defense is just as capable of doing what Seattle and St. Louis did, especially at home, as the Panthers are second in the NFL in both total (296.3 ypg) and scoring (14.9 ppg) defense. Entering this week, every time New Orleans has lost, it has gotten off the mat and won its next game. That was the case two weeks ago when the Saints returned from their Monday night beating in Seattle to defeat the Panthers. The difference here is that the previous three games following losses were played at home. This one is on the road, where the Saints have clearly had their issues, especially against teams that have solid defenses and can put pressure on the quarterback. So if the Saints want to continue their rebound trend today, seal up the division crown and guarantee themselves at least one home playoff game in the process, they will need to reverse another trend and prove that they are more than just a dome team.
Two weeks ago, Carolina got a taste of some New Orleans home cooking, as the Saints dominated the Panthers on both sides of the ball, winning 31-13. This is nothing new for New Orleans, who has won 15 games in a row in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with Sean Payton (suspended for the 2012 season) on the sideline. Today, however, Carolina is the home team, and just like the Saints, the Panthers have been at their best at Bank of America Stadium. They are 6-1 at home, with their only loss being to Seattle, 12-7, in the season-opener. The NFL’s No. 2 defense, the Panthers are allowing less than 12 points and 290 yards per game at home. They also have a plus-eight turnover differential at home compared to plus-three on the road. The team’s offensive numbers are better at home too, with one of the most glaring statistics coming in the pass protection department. Cam Newton has been sacked 28 times on the road, the most of any quarterback. He’s gone down just 10 times in seven home games. Carolina also has seen an increase in the production of its ground game recently, which could be a big factor against New Orleans. The Panthers are averaging 139.5 yards rushing per game over their last four, which includes 131 against the Jets, the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense at the time. On the other side, the Saints have struggled against the run on the road, giving up an average of 136.4 yards per contest. Two weeks ago, New Orleans capitalized fully on its home-field advantage. Carolina would love to return the favor today by adding to the Saints’ road woes.
New Orleans Key Players: Offensive Line
The Saints will have a new starting left tackle today as rookie Terron Armstead will replace Charles Brown. Brown was benched prior to the end of last week’s loss in St. Louis after committing a penalty that nullified a touchdown and partly due to the Rams sacking Drew Brees four times. Armstead and the rest of the offensive line will have its work cut out for it today, as Carolina’s defense is second in the NFL in sacks with 45. The Panthers got to Brees just twice in their first meeting two weeks ago; a big reason why he threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns and the Saints won 31-13. However, New Orleans is not the same team on the road as they are at home, and likewise Brees’ numbers also take a hit in games not played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. If the Saints want to have any success against the NFL’s No. 2 defense today, the offensive line must not only protect Brees, it also needs to find a way to help jumpstart a running game that’s averaging 58 yards rushing per game over the last three contests. With the playoffs approaching, Sean Payton knows his team has to start playing better on the road. Fixing an offensive line that has shown some cracks in recent weeks is as good a place to start as any.
Carolina Key Players: Secondary
The Panthers are fifth in the NFL in passing defense (211.4 ypg) and have more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (14) allowed. Opponents have completed better than 66 percent of their passes, but the Panthers have been able to limit the damage. Not surprisingly, the defense’s worst performance against the pass this season came on the road against New Orleans. Two weeks ago, Drew Brees completed 30-of-42 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns. The Saints finished with just 69 yards rushing, but still managed to post 373 total yards of offense against the NFL’s No. 2 defense. New Orleans hasn’t been anywhere near as productive on the road as it has been at home. The Saints average 32.9 points per game at home compared to just 18.4 on the road. A win today and Carolina replaces New Orleans as the frontrunner for not only the NFC South title, but also the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. For that to happen, however, the secondary will have to play much better this time against Brees and company.
The NFC South title, No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye are pretty much all on the line today. New Orleans can clinch all three with a win, while Carolina can put itself in the driver’s seat by holding serve at home. The Saints have not played nearly as well on the road as they have at home, an attribute the Panthers would no doubt love to continue to exploit.
Drew Brees carved up the Panthers two weeks ago, but the Saints have done some reshuffling along their offensive line and have gotten next-to-nothing from their running game in recent weeks. On the other side, Cam Newton has been at his best at home and the Panthers’ defense wants to redeem itself for what happened in the first meeting.
In the end, New Orleans puts up a good fight, but can’t muster enough offense against a stingy Carolina defense. The Panthers flip the script on the Saints and take control of the division, No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs in process, setting things up for an intriguing finish next week.
Carolina 23, New Orleans 20
NFC division leaders share the spotlight tonight when the Chicago Bears take on the Philadelphia Eagles at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Both the Bears and Eagles enter this game at 8-6 and atop the NFC North and East, respectively, and one of them can punch their playoff ticket with a win and a little help.
If Philadelphia wins and Dallas loses to Washington, the Eagles will win the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL head coach. If Chicago wins and Green Bay and Detroit both lose, then the Bears will win the NFC North in Marc Trestman’s first season as an NFL head coach. And the similarities don’t end there either, as both the Bears and the Eagles are among the NFL’s top offenses and the worst defenses. Put it all together and it should result in an entertaining game with plenty at stake.
3 Things to Watch
Both the Bears and the Eagles are among the top seven offensive teams in the NFL, as each have productive running games and explosive passing attacks. The Eagles lead the league in rushing (152.9 ypg) and Philadelphia is the only team averaging five yards per carry. The Bears are averaging 4.6 yards per carry and have rushed for at least 135 yards in each of their last three games. Running backs LeSean McCoy and Matt Forté are first and third, respectively, in the NFL in rushing with at least 1,200 yards and both are dangerous receivers out of the backfield. Both teams have used multiple starting quarterbacks this season, but that hasn’t slowed down their passing games. Chicago has had both Jay Cutler and Josh McCown under center, and the Bears are fifth in the league in passing at 275.8 yards per game. They also are sixth in terms of completion percentage at 65.1 percent. Because of the success of their running game, the Eagles haven’t had to throw as many passes, yet they are still 10th in passing offense (261.1 ypg). Both offenses have done a good job of protecting the ball, as they have combined for 57 touchdown passes and just 20 interceptions. In fact, Nick Foles, who took over the starting job for the Eagles after Michael Vick got hurt, has posted an impressive 23:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 11 games, eight of those starts. Put it all together and you have two teams that are averaging a collective 55 points per game. Combine that with their defensive issues (see below) and you have the makings of a high-scoring affair at Lincoln Financial Field tonight.
As well as the offenses have produced for these two teams, the defenses have had their struggles. Both rank near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed, with Chicago coming in at 27th (380.4 ypg) and Philadelphia 30th (402.4 ypg). The difference has been in how opposing teams have attacked each defense. The Bears are dead last in the league in stopping the run, as they are giving up 152.4 yards per game on the ground. Prior to holding the Browns to just 98 yards rushing last week, the Bears had been coughing up 204.1 per game over their last seven contests. Chicago also was able to snap its streak of allowing a 100-yard rusher in six straight games, which tied an NFL record. The Bears’ inability to stop the run does not bode well for tonight’s matchup with the league’s No. 1 rushing offense. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ problems on defense revolve around the pass. Philadelphia is second to last in passing defense (291.6 ypg), as Dallas (297.4 ypg) is the only team giving up more yards through the air per game. The defense actually had been playing better recently, but that was until the Eagles gave up 382 yards passing to Minnesota’s Matt Cassel last week. While the Bears have surrendered fewer passing yards per game (228.0) than the Eagles, both defenses have yielded around the same number of touchdown passes (22 for Chicago, 21 for Philadelphia) and are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete better than 60 percent of those passes. Philadelphia has done a better job of minimizing the damage, giving up three points fewer per game (24.9 to 27.9) than Chicago, but both defenses look to have their hands full tonight trying to slow down two of most productive and explosive offenses in the NFL.
Who’s Feeling the Pressure?
Chicago and Philadelphia are each among the top five offenses in the NFL in touchdown passes and in the bottom half of the rankings in interceptions thrown. One of the easiest ways to disrupt a productive passing game is with pressure. Unfortunately, that has not come easy for either defense this season. The Eagles are tied for 23rd in the league in sacks with 32 and the Bears are dead last with just 26. Chicago has done a better job when it comes to protecting the quarterback, especially compared to last season. After giving up 44 sacks in 2012, the Bears addressed the offensive line in both free agency and the draft and the results are clearly visible. Through 14 games, Jay Cutler and Josh McCown have been sacked a total of 24 times, only Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford (16 each) have gone down fewer times. The Eagles have been a little more generous in the sack department, as Nick Foles (21), Michael Vick (15) and Matt Barkley (3) have been brought to the turf a total of 39 times, which is tied for the tenth-most. If Chicago’s defense were able to take advantage of this apparent weakness tonight that could help take the pressure off of a secondary that’s without All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman and let the unit focus its efforts more on stopping the run. The Bears could get a boost in that department with the potential return of All-Pro linebacker Lance Briggs, who has missed the past seven games with a shoulder injury. Whether it’s Chicago or Philadelphia, if neither defense can find a way to make the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket, it could end up being a long and frustrating night at the office.
Chicago Key Player: Jay Cutler, QB
In the final year of his contract, Cutler has been limited to nine games this season due to a groin and ankle injury. He’s posted the best numbers of his Bears tenure in first-year head coach Marc Trestman’s offense, including a career-high 63.9 completion rate, but he’s still prone to turnovers (16 TDs, 13 TOs) and also has been largely out-performed by backup Josh McCown. A 10-year veteran, McCown got his first start since 2011 when Cutler went down with a groin injury in Week 7. McCown started the next week against Green Bay and then took over again after Cutler hurt his ankle in Week 10 against Detroit. In five starts and seven games total, McCown has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 1,809 yards (258.4 per game) and 13 touchdowns with just one interception. Cutler is averaging 241.4 yards per game with a 16:10 TD:INT ratio in his nine games. McCown was doing so well that there were reports of locker room discord when Trestman made the decision last week to start Cutler against the Browns. After starting out slowly, including two first-half interceptions one of which was returned for a touchdown, Cutler picked things up. He finished the game 22-of-31 with 265 yards passing, three touchdowns and those two picks, as the Bears won 38-31 on the road to put them in first place in the NFC North. Cutler’s strong second half silenced some, but certainly not all, of the critics. Tonight he gets a shot at the 31st-ranked passing defense in the NFL and an opportunity to put his team one step closer to a division title. Trestman said all along that Cutler was his starting quarterback, now’s the time for the player to show everyone why.
Philadelphia Key Players: Secondary
Chicago’s offense is fifth in the NFL in passing thanks to the production of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett, as well as running back Matt Forté. These are the Bears’ leading receivers, who have combined for 295 catches, 3,631 yards and 24 touchdowns. Besides being productive, they also are big targets. All four are at least six feet tall, with Jeffery (6-3), Marshall (6-4) and Bennett (6-6) looking like they belong on a basketball court and not the gridiron. This trio has used its size to its advantage this season and it also could be a problem tonight for the Eagles’ secondary. None of the defensive backs on Philadelphia’s roster are taller than 6-1 and of the 10 total cornerbacks and safeties, only four are at least 6-0. Philadelphia has struggled in pass defense to begin with, ranking second to last in the league in that category, and it could be another tough night against these lanky, rangy and athletic Bear receivers. Despite the clear height disparity, the Eagles’ defensive backfield needs to find a way to stand tall tonight.
Chicago and Philadelphia both enter tonight’s game leading their respective divisions, but still in must-win mode. The Bears lezad the Packers by less than a game in the NFC North, but need to win out because of Green Bay’s earlier tie and the fact that Chicago would lose the division tiebreaker with Detroit should they end up tied. The Eagles are in a similar situation, leading the Cowboys by one game, but trailing Dallas in divisional play.
Ironically enough, both teams finish up with divisional games against their closest pursuer, which makes a win tonight even more meaningful and possibly season-defining. The Bears are just 3-4 on the road this season, but are coming off of a big 38-31 win in Cleveland last week that saw the return of starting quarterback Jay Cutler. The Eagles had their five-game winning streak snapped by Minnesota, a disappointing stumble for a team that seemed to have grabbed full control of the NFC East.
Marc Trestman and Chip Kelly are both rookie NFL head coaches, who could make huge statements by leading their team not only to the playoffs, but a division title in their first seasons. Both are offensive-minded, which shows in the production of their respective systems. The defenses have had their issues, however, so don’t be surprised if this game features plenty of offensive fireworks.
Kelly has used three different starting quarterbacks with Nick Foles emerging as the best of the bunch. But again, offense hasn’t been the problem for Philadelphia and while I think the Eagles will fare just fine against Chicago’s defense, the same can be said for the Bears offense against Kelly’s defense. In the end, I think Chicago’s size at wide receiver and tight end will be too much for Philadelphia’s secondary to handle and the Bears leave The City of Brotherly Love victorious following an exciting, back-and-forth affair.
Chicago 31, Philadelphia 27