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A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 16, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports' editors.
Dolphins (8-6) at Bills (5-9)
Buffalo edged Miami, 23–21, in Week 7, thanks to a fourth-quarter forced fumble from Mario Williams that set up a game-winning FG. Dolphins by 3
Vikings (4-9-1) at Bengals (9-5)
Andy Dalton is happy to be back in Cincinnati, where he has thrown 14 TDs and five INTs, compared to 13 TDs and 11 INTs on the road. Bengals by 8
Broncos (11-3) at Texans (2-12)
Peyton Manning carries a 16–3 career record vs. Houston — a team with 12 straight losses. Broncos by 13
Titans (5-9) at Jaguars (4-10)
Talk about a slump-buster. J-Ville was 0–8 before beating Tennessee, 29–27, in Week 10. The Jags are 4–2 since their winless start. Titans by 2
Browns (4-10) at Jets (6-8)
Cleveland has hit the 10-loss mark yet again. New York still has a shot with Geno Smith at QB. Jets by 2
Saints (10-4) at Panthers (10-4)
The game of the week pits the NFC South’s top two teams against each other in a winner-take-all heavyweight fight. New Orleans defeated Carolina, 31–13, in Week 14. Panthers by 1
Colts (9-5) at Chiefs (11-3)
A pair of former No. 1 overall picks go head-to-head when Andrew Luck plays Alex Smith. AFC playoff pecking order is also up for grabs in what could be a potential postseason preview. Chiefs by 5
Cowboys (7-7) at Redskins (3-11)
Who would have guessed RG3 would have more detractors than Tony Romo this season? Cowboys by 6
Buccaneers (4-10) at Rams (6-8)
Tampa Bay is 4–2 since an 0–8 start to the year. St. Louis has only won two straight weeks once this year — against the Jaguars and Texans. Rams by 5
Giants (5-9) at Lions (7-7)
Matthew Stafford is coming off a rough week, but nothing like Eli Manning’s five-INT debacle. Lions by 10
Cardinals (9-5) at Seahawks (12-2)
This NFC West birdfight is a rematch of Seattle’s 34–20 win at Arizona in Week 7. Seahawks by 11
Raiders (4-10) at Chargers (7-7)
The Silver-and-Black shocked the Bolts, 27–17, in Week 5, as Philip Rivers threw three INTs. Chargers by 8
Steelers (6-8) at Packers (7-6-1)
Odds are, Matt Flynn will continue to start in place of Aaron Rodgers when Blitz-burgh visits Title Town in a rematch of Super Bowl XLV. Steelers by 1
Patriots (10-4) at Ravens (8-6)
New England lost to Baltimore twice last year — 31–30 in Week 3 and 28–13 in an AFC title game defeat Tom Brady blamed himself for. Ravens by 1
Bears (8-6) at Eagles (8-6)
Strange coincidence, the current division leaders in the NFC East and North are both plus-15 net points this season. Eagles by 3
Falcons (4-10) at 49ers (10-4)
ESPN executives at Monday Night Football were loving this matchup preseason. But not now. 49ers by 13
It’s fantasy football Super Bowl time. This week, the majority of leagues across the country will crown a champion who will win bragging rights, trophies, a few dollars, a trip to Vegas, who knows? And while every league is different, there are several key players acquired throughout the season who push a contender over the top, regardless of scoring, league size or any other variable.
With that in mind, here’s a look at this year’s best fantasy stars — with a mix of high-rounders who lived up to expectations, longshots who panned out and undrafted All-Pros who helped make up for a few expensive, high-pick busts.
QB – Peyton Manning, Broncos
Obviously, Manning wasn’t the fantasy risk in 2013 that he was in 2012, when he was fresh off four neck surgeries and playing for a new team. But the Manning faithful have been rewarded with his best statistical season yet (4,811 yards, 47 TDs).
QB – Nick Foles, Eagles
A waiver wire goldmine, Foles has thrown 23 TDs and just two INTs in just eight starts in place of the injured Michael Vick.
RB – LeSean McCoy, Eagles
“Shady” has bounced back from an injury-riddled 2012 season and thriving in Chip Kelly’s new-look Philly offense — with a league-leading 1,343 rush yards, 507 receiving yards and eight total TDs.
RB – Eddie Lacy, Packers
The rookie out of Alabama got off to a slow start, with 51 yards through the first three games. But he’s been a beast since, with 977 yards and seven TDs in the last 11 games.
WR – Josh Gordon, Browns
Those who stashed away Gordon during his two-game suspension have been rewarded with an NFL-best 1,467 yards and nine TDs.
WR – Alshon Jeffery, Bears
Teammate Brandon Marshall was the early-round pick, but Jeffery has been a second-year sensation, with 1,265 yards and seven TD grabs.
WR – Eric Decker, Broncos
Manning’s WR3 in Denver has been a fringe WR1 in fantasy, with 1,130 yards and eight TDs.
TE – Jimmy Graham, Saints
Drew Brees’ red zone target has scored in nine games, with five multi-TD contests to his credit.
K – Justin Tucker, Ravens
A recent fantasy football playoff hero with six FGs — including two from 50-plus yards — in Week 15.
DEF – Seattle Seahawks
The Legion of Boom has held six opponents to 10 or fewer points.
Ranking all 32 NFL teams, from the soaring two-loss Seahawks to the cellar-dwelling two-win Texans.
1. Seahawks (12-2) Legion of Boom has five INTs in shutout victory.
2. 49ers (10-4) Frank Gore records seventh 1,000-yard season.
3. Broncos (11-3) Loss to Bolts snaps 14-game home winning streak.
4. Saints (10-4) Good grief! Charlie Brown benched in loss to Rams.
5. Panthers (10-4) Captain Munnerlyn posts team-record fifth pick-six.
6. Chiefs (11-3) Clinch playoff berth one year after finishing 2–14.
7. Patriots (10-4) Tom Brady unable to pull off game-winning drive.
8. Bengals (9-5) Kevin Huber has broken jaw, cracked vertebrae.
9. Colts (9-5) Robert Mathis breaks franchise sack record (16.5).
10. Cardinals (9-5) Escape with wild overtime victory at Tennessee.
11. Eagles (8-6) Chip Kelly to Texas? Rumors are pure “speculation.”
12. Ravens (8-6) Justin Tucker 61-yard FG ices road win at Detroit.
13. Packers (7-6-1) Matt Flynn keeps hope alive in epic win at Dallas.
14. Bears (8-6) Jay Cutler returns, leads comeback at Cleveland.
15. Dolphins (8-6) End seven-game losing streak against New England.
16. Chargers (7-7) Time of possession (38:49-to-21:11) beats Denver.
17. Lions (7-7) Megatron defends Matthew Stafford after MNF loss.
18. Cowboys (7-7) Dez Bryant leaves field early after epic collapse.
19. Steelers (6-8) Antonio Brown shines on Sunday night in Cincy.
20. Jets (6-8) Geno Smith “let Rex (Ryan) down” with pick-six.
21. Rams (6-8) Rattle Drew Brees, shock the Saints for upset win.
22. Titans (5-9) Score 17 points in final 3:12 to force overtime, lose.
23. Giants (5-9) Eli Manning ties career-worst with 25th INT of year.
24. Bills (5-9) EJ Manuel earns first road win in return to Florida.
25. Vikings (4-9-1) Optimistic Adrian Peterson will return this week.
26. Falcons (4-10) Score 20 points off of seven Washington turnovers.
27. Raiders (4-10) Matt McGloin tosses four INTs, loses fumble in loss.
28. Buccaneers (4-10) Convert just 1-of-10 on third down in loss to 49ers.
29. Browns (4-10) Have lost at least 10 games in six straight seasons.
30. Jaguars (4-10) Leading receiver Cecil Shorts (groin) placed on IR.
31. Redskins (3-11) RG3 watches from sideline as Kirk Cousins loses.
32. Texans (2-12) Lose 12th straight, fall to 0–12 all-time at Indy.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs
Give the ball to Jamaal. That was the motto of Kansas City coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith during a 56–31 win at Oakland. Charles had just eight carries for 20 yards and one trip to the end zone on the ground. But through the air, the track star out of Texas had eight catches for 195 yards (24.4 ypc) and four scores, including a highlight-reel 71-yard sprint to the end zone. Charles’ five total TDs tied the Chiefs franchise single-game record and his 195 receiving yards were the third-most by a running back since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
Matt Flynn, QB, Packers
With MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers sidelined by a collarbone injury, Flynn stepped up to deliver his best performance of the season in an unlikely 37–36 come-from-behind win on the road in Dallas. Trailing 26–3 at halftime, Flynn threw four second-half TDs — while Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw two INTs in the final three minutes — to earn the Packers’ second straight win and keep Title Town in the NFC playoff picture. Flynn finished 26-of-39 for 299 yards, four TDs and one INT in an unbelievable winning effort. “What a feeling,” Flynn said. “As we were taking a knee, we were thinking, ‘Is this real? Is this happening?’”
Greg Jennings, WR, Vikings
No Adrian Peterson? No problem. Minnesota’s offense was too much for Philadelphia to handle in a 48–30 victory. Jennings hauled in a career-high 11 catches for 163 yards and a 57-yard TD from quarterback Matt Cassel. On the ground, the Vikings were without A.D. and backup Toby Gerhart but were still able to gash the Eagles with third-stringer Matt Asiata, who finished with three TDs — or the same number of career carries he had entering his first start.
Robert Quinn, DE, Rams
St. Louis’ pass rush battered Drew Brees in a 27–16 upset win over New Orleans. Quinn led the charge with two sacks for 16 lost yards, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. In his third season, Quinn has an NFL runner-up 15 sacks and league-leading seven forced fumbles, establishing himself as a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Quinn continues to show marked improvement — with five sacks as a rookie, 10.5 sacks last season and 15 (and counting) this year. The sky is the limit for the 6'4", 264-pound 23-year-old.
College football’s bowl season kicks off on Saturday, Dec. 21 and extends until Jan. 6 with the BCS National Championship in Pasadena between Auburn and Florida State.
With the bowl lineup set and confidence pools and pick’em contests set to start on Dec. 21, Athlon’s editors give their predictions for the bowl season.
There’s plenty of consensus among the staff, starting with East Carolina, Arizona State and Notre Dame all picked as a heavy favorite in the confidence rankings.
Some of the earlier bowl games (Hawaii, New Orleans and Military) are lower on the confidence scale. And it’s no surprise, but two of the BCS bowls feature plenty of confidence in Alabama and Baylor.
Note: Number in parentheses indicates confidence in prediction. A No. 35 ranking indicates more confidence in the prediction, while a lower number indicates less confidence in a pick.
College Football's 2013-14 Bowl Predictions
|Beef 'O' Brady's||(31)||(23)||(34)||(31)||(32)|
|Buffalo Wild Wings||(12)||(13)||(21)||(14)||(25)|
|Heart of Dallas||(1)||(1)||(19)||(2)||(5)|
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 17.
• Here's a fun slideshow: Scantily clad sports fans. Gotta love 'em: ignoring the elements while singlehandedly keeping the body paint industry alive.
• Another thing you gotta love: Creative Wikipedia page edits. This one for kicker Justin Tucker after his game-winning 61-yard field goal last night.
• Speaking of Tucker's brief takeover of the Internet, here he is giving a shout-out to his fantasy team owners in his postgame interview.
• The weekly "Sorry Your Team Lost" NFL roundup. It was a rough week of watching teams like the Cowboys and Lions and players like Eli live down to their stereotypes.
• The Catch of the Week came courtesy of an alert airport security guard. Note to Megatron: This is how you do it.
• Here some pretty amazing then-and-now photos of college basketball coaches. Some highlights: Kevin Stallings rocking a righteous comb-over, and Tom Izzo channeling a '70s porn star.
• Excellent debate fodder: the best and worst NFL broadcast crews, quantified scientifically.
• Jason Dufner had a humiliating Silly Season putting mishap. He consoled himself by Dufnering with beautiful women.
• Newly minted Heisman winner Jameis Winston stopped by the David Letterman Show to deliver the Top 10.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
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 15 of the NFL season:
23: Russell Wilson's record wins by a QB in his first two seasons
During the Super Bowl era, no quarterback has ever won more games in his first two seasons as a starter than Seattle's Russell Wilson. Wilson's Seahawks handled the Giants with ease in East Rutherford on Sunday 23-0, moving their NFC-best record to 12-2. After an 11-5 record in 2012, Wilson now boasts a 23-7 record as a starter in just under two full seasons as the starting quarterback in Seattle. The Seahawks are the only team in the NFC to have clinched a playoff spot. Ben Roethlisberger owned the previous NFL record with 22 wins.
9: Miami's league-leading TDs in the final two minutes of a half
In a critical win over division foe New England, Ryan Tannehill did his best Tom Brady impersonation by leading the Dolphins down the field to take the lead 24-20 with just over a minute to play. The Dolphins beat the Patriots for the first time since 2009 when Tannehill connected with Marcus Thigpen with 1:15 left in the fourth quarter. He did the same thing at the end of the first half when he found Mike Wallace for a 39-yard touchdown strike with only 32 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Miami now leads the NFL with nine touchdowns scored in the final two minutes of a half — of six of which are Tannehill touchdown passes. He also has a league-leading 17 scoring drives that began with less than five minutes left to play in a half. The win not only puts Miami in great wild card position but actually keeps it alive in the AFC East race as well.
1: Players who've scored four receiving TDs and a rushing TD in a game
Jamaal Charles and Alex Smith rolled through the Oakland Raiders 56-31 on Sunday to clinch a playoff spot in the AFC. Charles rushed just eight times for 20 yards but accomplished something no player in the NFL has ever done. He is the first player in history to catch four touchdown passes and score a rushing touchdown in the same game. His five touchdowns are tied for fourth-most in NFL history because three players — Ernie Nevers (1929), Dub Jones (1951) and Gale Sayers (1965) — own the NFL record with six touchdowns in a game.
2: Saints takeaways in the last seven games
In the first seven games of the season, the Saints had 15 takeaways and boasted a 6-1 record. After losing to the Rams 27-17 without forcing a turnover or generating a sack, the Saints dropped to 4-3 over their last seven games. New Orleans has forced just two turnovers during that span. In those three losses, the Saints have turned the ball over six times without creating a single turnover on defense. They are now tied with the Panthers at 10-4 for the NFC South lead with two games to play — including a trip to Carolina next weekend.
34-10: Green Bay outscored Dallas in the second half
The Cowboys entered halftime of a pivotal showdown with an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers in complete control up 26-3. The Packers came storming back behind the running of Eddie Lacy (141 yards) and two Tony Romo interceptions in the final five minutes to outscore the Cowboys 34-10 in the second half. Dallas ran the ball six times in the second half, allowing the Packers to make the improbable 23-point comeback. The Pack now sits a half of a game behind in the NFC North race while the Cowboys missed a chance to tie the Eagles for first place in the East.
45,873: Lowest attendance at Heinz Field
The Steelers jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead over the division-leading Bengals at Heinz Field on Sunday. Pittsburgh held on to win 30-20 despite only 290 yards of offense and going 2-of-10 on third down conversions. No one seemed to notice, however, as the 45,873 in attendance was the smallest in the 13-year history of Heinz Field. Ironically, James Harrison's first game back in the building where he built a reputation as a physical force on defense ended when he left in the first quarter with a concussion.
16.5 and 108: Robert Mathis' Colts single-season and career sack records
The Colts got back on track with an impressive 25-3 home win over division foe Houston. Robert Mathis, a front-runner for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, posted 4.0 total tackles, 1.0 sacks and forced a safety in the win. The sack gave him an NFL-best 16.5 sacks on the season, breaking former teammate and friend Dwight Freeney's Colts franchise single-season and career records. Mathis now has 108 career sacks. Freeney's records were 16 and 107.5 respectively.
93: Rushing yards allowed by Chicago
The Bears welcomed back Jay Cutler and won a huge road game over the Browns by scoring 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. More importantly, however, the embattled Bears' rushing defense played much better by holding Cleveland to just 93 yards rushing. It was the lowest total by any Bears opponent since Week 5 (New Orleans, 64) and it snapped an NFL record six-game streak of allowing a 100-yard rusher. This unit had allowed 234 yards rushing per game over the last three and had allowed 204.1 yards on the ground over the last seven contests.
4-0: Arizona's record against the AFC South, Chicago's record against the AFC North
The Cardinals topped the reeling Titans 37-34 in overtime in Nashville, moving their record to a perfect 4-0 against the AFC South. Earlier on Sunday, Chicago overcame a slow start from quarterback Jay Cutler to come from behind and beat Cleveland 38-31 on the road to finish undefeated (4-0) against the AFC North. Arizona is nipping at the wild card heels of teams like Carolina, San Francisco and New Orleans (one game back), while the Bears (8-6) control their own destiny in a crowded NFC North. If either team ends up in the postseason, their fans can thank their crossover AFC schedule. This marks the first sweep by an NFC team of an AFC division since realignment in 2002.
College football’s regular season is officially in the books. After Saturday’s Army-Navy game, only 35 bowl matchups stand in the way of a long offseason.
With the completion of the regular season, it’s time to take a look at some of the top players in college football. Last week, Athlon Sports awarded its all-conference and All-America honors for 2013. And this week, it’s a look at the top freshmen in college football.
Each season, a handful of freshmen make an impact on the national stage. Last year, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel led the Aggies to an 11-2 record in the Aggies’ debut season in the SEC. In 2013, Jameis Winston guided Florida State to a perfect 13-0 mark and an appearance in the national championship.
Putting together an all-freshman task is no easy assignment. Talent and recruiting ranks don’t always equal success as a freshman. With that in mind, our task of picking players for the three teams was split based on production and talent. Players like Wisconsin running back Corey Clement and Pittsburgh’s James Conner are future standouts, but we awarded the production from two non-BCS players. However, players like Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche – 2013’s No. 1 recruit – didn’t necessarily have the biggest stats but clearly made an impact beyond the box score.
College Football's Freshman All-America Team for 2013
|First-Team Offense||Second-Team Offense||Third-Team Offense|
|QB Jameis Winston, Florida State||QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State||QB John O'Korn, Houston|
|RB Alex Collins, Arkansas||RB Thomas Tyner, Oregon||RB Aaron Jones, UTEP|
|RB Shock Linwood, Baylor||RB Kareem Hunt, Toledo||RB Elijah McGuire, ULL|
|WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh||WR Stacy Coley, Miami||WR Tyler Winston, SJSU|
|WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss||WR Corey Davis, W. Michigan||WR Marquez North, Tennessee|
|TE Hunter Henry, Arkansas||TE O.J. Howard, Alabama||TE Maxx Williams, Minnesota|
|C Dan Voltz, Wisconsin||C Deyshawn Bond, Cincinnati||C Cory Helms, Wake Forest|
|G Germain Ifedi, Texas A&M||G Alex Kozan, Auburn||G Denver Kirkland, Arkansas|
|G Alex Redmond, UCLA||G Caleb Peterson, North Carolina||G Dan Skipper, Arkansas|
|T Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss||T Jerald Hawkins, LSU||T Chad Wheeler, USC|
|T Jack Conklin, Michigan State||T Jonathan McLaughlin, Virginia Tech||T Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt|
|AP Myles Jack, UCLA||AP Dontre Wilson, Ohio State||AP Khalfani Muhammad, California|
|First-Team Defense||Second-Team Defense||Third-Team Defense|
|DE A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama||DE Carl Lawson, Auburn||DE Shaq Lawson, Clemson|
|DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State||DE Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA||DE Avery Moss, Nebraska|
|DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss||DT Darius Philon, Arkansas||DT Montravius Adams, Auburn|
|DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State||DT Monty Nelson, NC State||DT Isaiah Golden, Texas A&M|
|LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame||LB Scooby Wright, Arizona||LB Ben Weaver, Boise State|
|LB Addison Gillam, Colorado||LB Steve Longa, Rutgers||LB T.J. Holloman, South Carolina|
|LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia||LB Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M||LB Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma|
|CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech||CB Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech||DB Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma|
|CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida||CB Cam Sutton, Tennessee||DB Tre'Davious White, LSU|
|S Su'a Cravens, USC||S Tony Conner, Ole Miss||DB Desmond King, Iowa|
|S Jalen Ramsey, Florida State||S Ryan Janvion, Wake Forest||DB Nate Andrews, Florida State|
|First-Team Specialists||Second-Team Specialists||Third-Team Specialists|
|K Roberto Aguayo, Florida State||K Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State||K Andy Phillips, Utah|
|P Austin Rehkow, Idaho||P Cameron Johnston, Ohio State||P Sean Covington, UCLA|
|RS Ryan Switzer, North Carolina||RS DeVon Edwards, Duke||RS William Likely, Maryland|
Making an impact as a college football true freshman isn’t an easy task. Although recruiting rankings and ratings matter to some degree, it’s all an inexact science. Until a player gets to campus and learns the schemes and spends time in a weight room, it’s just a guess on who the top players will be from a recruiting class.
With the 2013 regular season in the books, we can take a look at the top freshmen from this season. There’s no question this list of players could look a lot different three years from now. Some freshmen start from the first day of camp, while others work their way into the lineup through the first few games.
It’s tough to rank or grade freshmen just based on stats. You have to look at playing time, production, talent and impact on the team to get an accurate representation.
With the criteria in mind, here’s a look at Athlon’s top 25 freshmen for 2013. It’s a deep crop of talent this season, led by Heisman winner Jameis Winston. The redshirt freshman is clearly the No. 1 player on this list, but Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller also had outstanding seasons.
College Football's Top 25 Freshmen from 2013
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Winston’s debut easily ranks among the best seasons by a freshman during the BCS era. The redshirt freshman opened his career by completing 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns against Pittsburgh and never looked back. Winston torched Clemson for 444 yards and three scores and threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-7 victory over rival Florida. Winston ended the year with 3,820 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, while completing 67.9 percent of his throws. The Alabama native threw just 10 picks on 349 attempts. And after a stellar debut, the hardware came in bunches for Winston. He was picked as the ACC’s Player of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year. And as expected, Winston claimed the Heisman in a landslide victory. With a chance to win a national championship on Jan. 6, Winston can only add to what has been one of the most-impressive seasons by a quarterback (regardless of year of eligibility) in recent years.
2. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
There wasn’t much good news coming out of Gainesville this season, but Hargreaves III was one of the few bright spots for coach Will Muschamp. Hargreaves wrestled his way into the starting lineup by the third game of the year and started the next 10 contests. The Florida native recorded 38 tackles, three interceptions and broke up 11 passes. Hargreaves tied for the SEC lead with 14 passes defended and was a first-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press.
3. Kendall Fuller/Brandon Facyson, CB, Virginia Tech
Fuller ranked as the No. 4 defensive back in the nation in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100, and with an older brother (Kyle) currently playing, and two older brothers that played for Virginia Tech, there was plenty of pressure on the true freshman’s shoulders to perform. Fuller had no trouble living up to the hype, earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and second-team All-ACC honors. The true freshman stuffed the stat sheet, recording 56 tackles, six interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Fuller also defended 16 passes and forced one fumble. Facyson could stand on his own in the top 25, but we will group him with Fuller. Facyson played in 11 games, recording 25 tackles and five interceptions. He also defended 12 passes.
4. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
It’s not easy starting as a true freshman on any offensive line for any FBS team. But it’s even more challenging starting as a true freshman on the offensive line in the SEC. That was the assignment for Tunsil this year, but he easily passed his first test with flying colors. Tunsil entered the starting lineup against Texas and finished the season with nine starts at left tackle. The Florida native was a second-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press. With another offseason to work in the weight room, Tunsil is set to contend for All-America honors in 2014.
5. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
Jameis Winston’s season set the bar high for opposing quarterbacks, but Hackenberg quietly had a solid freshman campaign. The Virginia native started all 12 games for coach Bill O’Brien, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. Hackenberg completed 58.9 percent of his passes and finished 2013 on a high note, completing 21 of 30 throws for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin. The freshman’s 2,955 yards ranked as the third-most passing yardage in a single season in Penn State history.
6. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
Jack’s position is listed as linebacker, but the true freshman was an all-purpose threat by the end of 2013. Jack started 11 games on defense, recording 70 tackles (five for a loss), one interception, 10 pass breakups and one blocked kick. While those numbers alone are good enough to be a top-10 player on this list, Jack became one of UCLA’s top offensive weapons late in the season. The Washington native recorded 267 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, including 120 yards on six attempts against Arizona. With Anthony Barr off to the NFL, Jack is expected to see a more prominent role on UCLA’s defense in 2014.
7. Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas
It’s no secret Arkansas’ coach Bret Bielema loves to run the football. With Collins leading the way, the Razorbacks should have no trouble establishing a run-first, physical approach on offense. In 12 games this year, Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns. The Florida native was picked as the SEC Freshman of the Year and was the first freshman in SEC history to start his career with three straight 100-yard rushing performances. He also caught 11 passes for 63 yards.
8. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
Bosa began 2013 as a backup to Adolphus Washington, but the freshman became a significant contributor and a starter by the end of the year. The true freshman finished with 39 tackles (12.5 for a loss), 6.5 sacks and one pass breakup. Bosa came up big at the end of the year, recording 3.5 tackles for a loss over Ohio State’s final two games. With Bosa, Noah Spence and Washington returning in 2014, the Buckeyes should have one of the nation’s top defensive lines.
9. A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama
Robinson made only two starts, but that’s a bit of a misnomer, as the true freshman rotated into the game for a healthy amount of snaps each week. Defensive linemen in a 3-4 defense usually aren’t asked to make a bunch of plays behind the line of scrimmage, but Robinson did just that this year, recording 36 stops (seven for a loss) and 5.5 sacks. With Ed Stinson departing, Robinson could be the new anchor for Alabama’s line in 2014.
10. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State
Ramsey was the first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders. But due to an injury to Tyler Hunter, Ramsey moved to safety in the fourth game of the season. The Tennessee native started all 13 games and finished with 41 tackles, one sack, one interception and one forced fumble. Ramsey’s ability to move around in the secondary is valuable asset for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and the 6-foot-1 safety is only going to get better with another offseason to work with Florida State’s coaching staff. In addition to his size, Ramsey’s athleticism and ball skills should make him one of the top safeties in the nation by the start of 2014.
11. Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
The Spartans’ offensive line was one of the most-improved units in the Big Ten this year, and Conklin was a key cog in this group’s emergence. After a redshirt season in 2012, Conklin earned the starting spot at right tackle for the opener. But after four games, the Michigan native was moved to the left side, where he started the final nine contests of 2013.
12. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
Smith ranked as the No. 1 linebacker in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and became the first freshman at Notre Dame to start at linebacker since 1995. Smith lived up to his recruiting hype this year, finishing third on the team with 61 tackles (6.5 for a loss), one interception and one forced fumble.
13. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
Boyd teamed with senior Devin Street to form one of the ACC’s top receiving duos this season. The freshman grabbed 77 passes for 1,001 yards and seven scores. Boyd’s best game came against Duke, as he caught eight passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns.
14. Su’a Cravens, S, USC
Cravens ranked as the No. 1 safety in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and didn’t disappoint in his debut at USC. He started 12 of the Trojans’ 13 regular-season contests and finished with 51 tackles, one forced fumble and four interceptions. Cravens earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors.
15. Chris Jones, DL, Mississippi State
Jones seemed to get better with each snap, and the Mississippi native is set for a monster 2014 season. In 12 games this year, Jones finished with 31 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.
16. Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss
Nkemdiche missed three games with a hamstring injury, but he still finished with 34 tackles (two for a loss) and one forced fumble. At 6-foot-5 and 294 pounds, Nkemdiche has the size and strength to play on the outside or on the interior. If he played in all 12 contests, it’s likely Nkemdiche would have ranked higher on this list. But there’s no question he has immense talent and is a future star on Ole Miss’ defense.
17. Addison Gillam, LB, Colorado
Gillam was simply everywhere for Colorado’s defense in 2013. In 12 games, he recorded 119 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and six pass breakups. Gillam also recorded one interception and earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors.
18. John O’Korn, QB, Houston
In his first start, O’Korn threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns against Rice. And after his performance, combined with David Piland’s retirement, O’Korn never relinquished the starting spot. The Florida native finished his true freshman campaign with 2,889 yards and 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.
19. Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, UCLA
Jim Mora is accumulating some impressive young talent in Los Angeles, as Vanderdoes and Myles Jack are set to anchor the Bruins’ defense for the next two years. Vanderdoes finished 2013 with 38 tackles and one forced fumble and showcased his athleticism with a touchdown run and an 18-yard catch.
20. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
Treadwell was picked as the SEC’s Freshman of the Year, and he led all Ole Miss receivers with 67 receptions and tied for the team lead with five receiving scores.
21. Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU
Hawkins was overshadowed by Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil, but the redshirt freshman finished with 11 starts at right tackle in 2013.
22. Alex Kozan, OG, Auburn
Kozan was a key reason why Auburn leads the nation with an average of 335.7 rushing yards per game. The redshirt freshman started all 13 games in 2013.
23. Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss
Conner was another freshman from Hugh Freeze’s top-10 recruiting class to make an impact in 2013. He finished the regular season with 59 tackles (four for a loss), one sack and five pass breakups.
24. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
Floyd finished 2013 as Georgia’s No. 1 sack producer, recording 6.5 in 12 contests. He also picked up 47 tackles and two forced fumbles.
25. Stacy Coley, WR, Miami
Coley was one of the ACC’s top all-around threats, finishing with 30 catches for 559 yards and seven touchdowns, rushing for 80 yards and a score and 618 yards on returns.
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 fall.
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. There wasn't a defining singular moment in the Pac-12 that stood above the rest, but there is a long list of amazing games the fans out West were given this season.
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 the Pac-12's most entertaining and pivotal games of the 2013 season.
1. Oregon 36, Oregon State 35 (Nov. 29)
From a pure enjoyment standpoint, few games in the nation can match the drama of the Beavers-Ducks Civil War rivalry. The 117th edition of the in-state rivalry featured a huge performance from Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks for Oregon State and an even better one from Marcus Mariota. The Ducks jumped out to a quick lead, owning the first quarter while Oregon State stormed back to tie it at 17 at halftime. It all set up an incredible fourth quarter that saw four lead-changing touchdowns — and four failed two-point conversions — over the final 11 minutes of play. The game ended when Mariota connected with Josh Huff from 12 yards out and just 29 seconds left on the clock. It will be one of the most memorable Civil War battles of all-time. It had history, tradition, excitement, drama and, unfortunately, two teams with a combined seven losses.
2. Stanford 31, Washington 28 (Oct. 5)
Only three teams managed to top 400 yards of offense against Stanford and Washington was the best of the group, totaling 28 points and 489 yards. But timely stops, a few interesting calls by the refs and an all-time performance by the Cardinal's all-purpose dynamo gave Stanford the narrow three-point win. Ty Montgomery totaled 290 all-purpose yards and two long touchdowns to earn the game's MVP. From the 1:03 mark in the second quarter, these two traded touchdowns seven different times, alternating scores for more than 30 minutes of football. It was physical, dramatic and season-defining for two teams who were unbeaten at the time.
3. Arizona State 38, UCLA 33 (Nov. 23)
Late in the year with the Pac-12 South championship hanging in the balance, the Sun Devils won a wild affair on the road in Los Angeles to clinch the division. Taylor Kelly led the Sun Devils to a huge 35-point first half, taking a 35-13 halftime advantage. But the Bruins defense held ASU to three points in the second half, allowing the Bruins to get back into the contest. With 11:25 minutes to go in the game, Brett Hundley got UCLA back to within five points. From there, it was a defensive struggle for both teams. The Bruins had two long possessions with a chance to win in the final quarter but Todd Graham's defensive line kept the Bruins off the scoreboard.
4. USC 20, Stanford 17 (Nov. 16)
Coming off a huge win over Oregon, Stanford was in a clear letdown alert situation against a surging USC team late in the year. With the leadership of interim head coach Ed Orgeron and a depth chart featuring less than 50 scholarship players, the Trojans kicked a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds left to win a physical and historic battle. The loss knocked No. 4 Stanford out of the BCS title race and would have cost the Cardinal a Pac-12 title had Oregon not laid an egg the following week in Arizona. USC held Stanford to a season-low 17 points and its second-lowest yardage total of the year (337 yards).
5. Utah 27, Stanford 21 (Oct. 12)
The Utes didn't win many Pac-12 games this year (two), but they played in a lot of close and exciting games. The signature performance of the season for Utah — and possibly the Pac-12 — came when Utah held Stanford out of the end zone on a final minute goal-line stand that likely knocked the Cardinal out of the national championship game. Kevin Hogan drove Stanford to the Utah six-yard line and failed on two plays to score, giving Utah its first win over a top-five team in program history when his fourth-down pass sailed just out of Devon Cajuste's reach with 47 seconds left. Rice-Eccles rejoiced while the loss will likely haunt Cardinal fans for years to come.
6. Stanford 26, Oregon 20 (Nov. 7)
It wasn't the most dramatic or exciting game of the year, despite an intense rally from the Ducks in the final 10 minutes. But it was the game the entire nation point to as the most important and, as it turned out, it decided the Pac-12 title as expected. Stanford's defense stifled the powerful Ducks attack, holding Oregon scoreless for the first 50 minutes of play. Tyler Gaffney became a household name nationally by setting a school record with 45 carries in the impressive and physical win over the rival Ducks. It wasn't the most dramatic performance of the year but it certainly was one of the most important games in the nation this fall.
7. Arizona State 20, Utah 19 (Nov. 9)
Another one of the heart-breaking losses for Utah this fall came at the hands of Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly. An exhausting and physical game came to an end when Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton snagged an improbable interception with a minute left in the game. Trailing most of the game and lacking the ability to make plays, Kelly finally got the ball moving and led the Sun Devils on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to take the lead with 2:37 left. The win kept the Sun Devils alive in the South race and embodied the perseverance of a team that would eventually finish with the league's best record.
8. Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30 (Sept. 14)
In one of the most bizarre endings to a game in any conference this year, Arizona State walked away winners while Gary Andersen’s Badgers stood stunned on the field in Sun Devil Stadium. The refs mishandled a game-ending situation that would have given Wisconsin a short game-winning field goal attempt. Instead the clock inexplicably ran out on the Badgers, giving Arizona State a big non-conference win and the Big Ten one of the most memorable and infamous losses in league history.
9. Notre Dame 37, Arizona State 34 (Oct. 5)
Arizona State couldn't pick up a marquee non-conference win for the Pac-12, but it was still a thrilling, back-and-forth battle in the Cathedral for Football against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Taylor Kelly and Tommy Rees both giveth and both tooketh away, throwing big touchdowns and big interceptions all game long. A low-scoring first half (14-13) gave way to a 34-point fourth quarter that featured three scores in the final three minutes. Rees and the Irish held on for a tight victory in what would be one of only two regular-season losses for the Sun Devils.
10. Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20 (Nov. 30)
Lost in the shuffle of a wild Saturday that featured the Iron Bowl and Ohio State-Michigan, two long-standing archrivals played an excellent game in Palo Alto. With revenge on the mind following last year's infamous goal-line stand. Wayne Lyons' two late interceptions and Tyler Gaffney's 189 yards allowed Stanford to hold off a second-half Notre Dame rally. David Shaw's bunch got revenge and won its tenth game of the season as it got warmed up for what turned out to be their best performance of the season the following week in the Pac-12 title game win over Arizona State.
Just missed the cut:
11. Stanford 38, Arizona State 14 (Dec. 7)
It wasn't a close game but it decided the championship so it lands on the list by default.
12. Oregon State 51, Utah 48 (OT, Sept. 14)
One of the few overtime games in the league featured 60 second-half points and over 1,000 yards of offense.
13. UCLA 41, Nebraska 21 (Sept. 14)
An emotional weekend for the UCLA family featured a 21-point comeback.
14. USC 38, Arizona 31 (Oct. 10)
A furious late rally from B.J. Denker and Ka'Deem Carey came up short and gave Coach O a win in his debut.
15. UCLA 31, Arizona 26 (Nov. 9)
Myles Jack made his offensive debut and carried UCLA to victory in a tight road affair.
Best of the Rest:
16. UCLA 34, Utah 27 (Oct. 3)
17. Washington State 10, USC 7 (Sept. 7)
18. Arizona State 62, USC 41 (Sept. 28)
19. Stanford 42, Arizona State 28 (Sept. 21)
20. Oregon 45, Washington 24 (Oct. 12)
21. Stanford 20, Oregon State 12 (Oct. 26)
22. Notre Dame 14, USC 10 (Oct. 19)
23. Washington State 24, Arizona 17 (Nov. 16
24. Auburn 31, Washington State 24 (Aug. 31)
25. Eastern Washington 49, Oregon State 46 (Aug. 31)
A handful of Big Ten teams are still striving for an identity at this stage of the season, meaning the league may not have a quite the depth top-flight teams as it did last season.
The Big Ten, though, may be the most watchable league in the country again.
Even in losses, Michigan and Iowa managed to entertain during the weekend. Michigan gave No. 1 Arizona all it could handle, and Iowa lost in the waning seconds on the road against Iowa State in the biggest game for the rivalry since 1987.
And that’s not even getting to undefeated Wisconsin and Ohio State and preseason top-four team Michigan State. Even a team like Penn State will be dangerous with the high-scoring duo of Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill.
By the time the conference season comes around, Indiana, Iowa and Michigan will hope they’re ready to take their place as Big Ten title contenders with the top three in the league.
If that happens, the Big Ten won't be far off last season's pace.
Early Season Report Card: Big Ten
Bubble watch: Indiana, Illinois, Michigan
Best win: Michigan State 78, Kentucky 74
Worst loss: Illinois State 68, Northwestern 64
Power rankings so far
2. Ohio State
3. Michigan State
9. Penn State
Important non-conference games remaining
Ohio State vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21)
Michigan State at Texas (Dec. 21)
Michigan vs. Stanford (Dec. 21)
Illinois vs. Missouri (Dec. 21)
Purdue at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
Compared to other leagues, the Big Ten doesn’t have a clear MVP (especially when you’ve already decided to list Frank Kaminsky, Noah Vonleh and Rayvonte Rice elsewhere). Appling is as good a candidate as anyone. Tom Izzo hasn’t hesitated to put more pressure on Appling this season as Gary Harris missed two games this season with an ankle injury and Adreian Payne has dealt with a foot injury. Appling has career highs in scoring (16.9 points per game), assists (5.1) and shooting (54.7 percent). With Harris out, Appling scored 21 to escape Oakland 67-63 to avoid an upset.
Top freshman: Noah Vonleh, Indiana
Vonleh leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 9.6 per game, but his offensive game will need to take the next step if Indiana is going to be a strong NCAA Tournament contender out of the Big Ten. Vonleh is a combined 6 of 11 from the field in the Hoosiers’ three losses to Connecticut, Syracuse and Notre Dame this season.
Top newcomer: Rayvonte Rice, Illinois
Rice has stepped into a team that replaced guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. The junior from Champaign, Ill., who started his career at Drake is averaging 17.7 points and shooting 49.7 from the field. Rice scored 25 points and added 10 rebounds and four steals in Illinois’ signature win of the season at UNLV. Illinois hasn’t fared as well in other games outside of Champaign (Oregon, Georgia Tech), but Rice has given the Illini a major leg up in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
Surprise player: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
The seven-foot junior shocked everyone with a 43-point effort against North Dakota in the fourth game of the season after averaging 4.2 points last season. Kaminsky has done enough for the undefeated Wisconsin to prove that game wasn’t a fluke. Kaminsky is averaging 14.7 points in the Badgers’ other 11 games this season. Bo Ryan has a knack for finding his big man, and it seems Kaminksy is the guy this season.
Early season flop: Michigan
Michigan lost its national player of the year point guard and replaced him with a freshman. It’s probably not fair to call Michigan a flop. A two-point loss to Charlotte on a neutral court is the worst offense here, and the Wolverines put up a spirited effort in a 72-70 loss to AP No. 1 Arizona on Saturday. That’s a sign that things may be coming together for Michigan. Saturday was especially encouraging for Glenn Robinson III, who was 8 of 9 from the field with 20 points against the Wildcats. Robinson and Mitch McGary are still adjusting to playing without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr, but freshman point guard Derrick Walton has to be able to deliver more than the 14 minutes he did against Arizona.
Lingering concerns: How good is Ohio State?
Ohio State is 10-0 and ranked second by KenPom.com, but we know little about the Buckeyes. Ohio State has played once outside of Columbus, demolishing Marquette 52-35. The second-best win on the schedule is against Maryland. Even an upcoming non-conference game against Notre Dame has lost luster. Ohio State won’t really be tested until the Buckeyes face Michigan State and Iowa in back-to-back games on Jan. 7 and Jan. 12. By then, Ohio State will hope to have a go-to scorer.
Best NCAA resume: Wisconsin
Never doubt Bo Ryan. The Badgers’ coach who has never finished lower than fourth may have a Big Ten championship team on his hands. The Badgers don’t have a lot of dead weight on their 12-0 schedule so far. Wisconsin has defeated Florida and Marquette at home, Virginia on the road and St. John’s, Saint Louis and West Virginia on neutral courts.
One shot from a point guard in a slump has helped change the perception of the new Big East.
Ryan Arcidiacono has been in a shooting funk before Villanova coach Jay Wright drew up a play for him in the waning seconds against Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Arcidiacono hit the 3 to beat Kansas, moving Villanova to the final against Iowa.
The pair of wins is the shining moment this season for a Big East still finding its way. The league will have its share of NCAA Tournament teams, but no team in the league has a single win as good as as the pair Villanova picked up in the Bahamas.
We can’t call the league a disappointment, though. Doug McDermott remains an All-America candidate. Georgetown remains in contention despite the departure of Greg Whittington. Xavier is poised to make a run in the NCAA Tournament despite missing the postseason a year ago. Preseason favorite Marquette has four losses, but those have come against four quality teams, including two who remain undefeated.
Early Season Report Card: Big East
Bubble watch: Marquette, Butler
Best win: Villanova 63, Kansas 59
Worst loss: Fairleigh Dickinson 58, Seton Hall 54
Power rankings so far
7. St. John’s
10. Seton Hall
Important non-conference games remaining
Georgetown at Kansas (Dec. 21)
Xavier at Alabama (Dec. 21)
Marquette vs. New Mexico (Dec. 21)
Cal at Creighton (Dec. 22)
Villanova at Providence (Dec. 28)
In the year of superstar freshmen, Doug McDermott remains one of the few upperclassmen in National Player of the Year contention. McDermott has done what he’s done throughout his career, averaging a Big East-best 25.3 points per game. A couple of question marks though: McDermott is averaging a career-low — but still very good — 50.3 percent form the floor. And George Washington may have given McDermott’s new Big East completion some ideas on limiting the Creighton forward. McDermott had trouble finding his shot in a 2-of-12 performance against the Colonials.
Top freshman: Myles Davis, Xavier
The Big East is not a league flush with high-profile freshmen. The top-scoring freshman in the league ranks 24th and plays for DePaul. Davis, though, has become a key rotation player for Xavier with a knack for the big shot. The 6-2 guard hit two 3-pointers in overtime to avoid a bad loss to Bowling Green in addition to a 3-pointer during the decisive run against Cincinnati. Davis is averaging 9.5 points in 22 minutes off the bench for the Musketeers.
Top newcomer: Joshua Smith, Georgetown
Smith so far is delivering on his talent in a way that rarely happened at UCLA. He’s playing fewer than 20 minutes per game, but he’s averaging a career-high 13.6 points. He’s still huge (6-10, 350 pounds), so his pace will be worth monitoring once the Hoyas get into conference play.
Surprise player: James Bell, Villanova
Villanova is usually at its best with big-time point guards, but this season, the Wildcats are led by their wings. No one has been a bigger revelation than Bell. A bit player last year, Bell is averaging 16.1 points per game. After scoring 20 points with nine rebounds against Iowa on Nov. 30, Bell was named the MVP of Villanova’s breakout performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Early season flop: Marquette
The preseason conference favorite has started 6-4 with only one decent win (George Washington). Marquette doesn’t have any awful losses according to the rankings, but it’s tough to forget the utter futility of a 52-35 loss at Ohio State. The Eagles are missing Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan, but Marquette also ranks ninth in the Big East in 3-point shooting (30.1 percent) and free-throw shooting (64.5 percent).
Lingering concerns: Besides Villanova, who has big wins?
Villanova is one of the surprise teams of the season after knocking off Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis, but the rest of the Big East is short on marquee wins despite ample opportunities. Georgetown has defeated VCU (but lost to Northeastern), Creighton has defeated Arizona State, and Xavier has defeated Tennessee and Cincinnati (but lost to the Volunteers on a neutral court weeks later). Our guess is that a Big East team or two will get burned by this by selection Sunday.
Best NCAA resume: Villanova
Villanova used wins over Louisville and Syracuse during the Big East season to seal an NCAA bid. The Wildcats this season have picked up two wins over ranked teams on neutral courts (Kansas, Iowa) and three Big 5 wins (Penn, St Joe’s, La Salle) during a 10-0 start. Villanova will have a shot at a major road win when it faces Syracuse on Dec. 28 during a stretch of four of five games on the road.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 16.
• Vintage supermodel and 1982 SI Swimsuit cover girl Carol Alt did an interview where she sorta slammed Kate Upton. We'll forgive her, because she still looks pretty amazing at age 53.
• A wild day in the NFL produced a tasty menu of GIFs, leading off with the facefumble.
• Losing to the Phins obviously sticks in Tom Brady's craw. He dropped an s-bomb and then walked out of his press conference.
• The Onion piles on Tony Romo and the 'Boys after their latest fourth-quarter collapse. That self-inflicted implosion does beg a question: Why didn't the Cowboys simply run the ball to protect their lead?
• Fox microphones picked up a young fan's assessment of Eli Manning's five-interception day. Kid's got a future; he's already a better analyst than Matt Millen.
• Cutler? McCown? Doesn't matter who's throwing it. Alshon Jeffery is going to catch the ball.
• Note to drunk bar patrons: Don't pick a fight with a renowned hockey goon like Milan Lucic.
• The 10 Worst Christmas Movies of all time. I had no idea that Hulk Hogan had made a movie called "Santa With Muscles."
• Is Texas going to poach an SEC coach to replace Mack Brown? If they're smart, they will. But before they do, they should know that Jose Canseco would like to throw his hat into the ring.
• James Harden went Karate Kid with his free throws on an injured ankle.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens travel to Ford Field to take on Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions as both teams seek to keep themselves in the playoff picture. Both teams are coming off of snowy affairs as the Lions fell to the Eagles 34-20 last week thanks in large part to LeSean McCoy's Philadelphia franchise-record 217 rushing yards. Meanwhile, the Ravens battled back-and-forth with the Vikings for a thrilling 29-26 home victory that saw five lead changes in the final 2:05.
Both teams sit at 7-6 and very much a part of the playoff hunt. The Ravens look to grab the final Wild Card spot in the AFC, while the Lions will claim first place in the NFC North with a win. With New England and Cincinnati left on the schedule, this appears to be a must win for Baltimore. On the other hand, the Lions have winnable games against the Giants and Vikings to end the season, but a win would make their path to the postseason easier.
This is only the third overall meeting between the two teams, with the Ravens holding a 2-1 advantage. The last game between these two teams came four years ago in Baltimore. The Ravens won easily 48-3, as Ray Rice led the way with 166 yards rushing a touchdown.
3 Things to Watch
No Room to Run
These aren't two of the strongest rushing teams in the league as the Lions rank 20th and the Ravens are 29th. Ray Rice has had the worst season of his career averaging 3.0 yards per carry, with just one game over 75 yards. He has scored touchdowns in three games, with just one multi-touchdown game. Much of the explosiveness we are used to seeing from Rice has disappeared, as he has recorded just a single rush of more than 15 yards. Even his production in the passing game has seen a noticeable decline as he's averaging 5.3 yards per reception, which is three yards fewer than his career average of 8.3. He is on pace to finish with fewer than 60 receptions for the first time since he split tailback duties as a rookie in 2008. Things haven't been any better for backup Bernard Pierce, who is averaging an even worse 2.7 yards per carry. Pierce, a skilled inside rusher, hasn't scored a touchdown in 10 weeks. Meanwhile, the Lions may rank low statistically, yet they have an superb combination in the explosive Reggie Bush and the tough Joique Bell. Bush has six games with over 80 yards rushing and has been a force in the passing game averaging 10 yards per reception. However, Bush has missed time this season; most recently, last week's loss at Philadelphia. Bush is listed as questionable for Monday night with a calf injury as he has practiced on a limited basis this week. If he can't go, the Lions feel comfortable with Joique Bell. Bell actually leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns, with three in the Lions' last four contests. Either way, both teams will struggle to rush the ball as these defenses each rank in the top 10 in rushing defense. The Lions, despite their strategy of stopping the run on their way to the passer, have the league's sixth-ranked rushing defense. They were torn up last week by LeSean McCoy to the tune of 217 yards and two touchdowns. However, these Lions held Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte (twice) and Alfred Morris all under 100 yards rushing. On the other hand, the Ravens' defense, despite being ranked a spot below the Lions, actually have a more impressive rushing defense that still has some punch despite the litany of offseason departures. Their worst performance as a rushing defense came against the Packers as Eddie Lacy rushed for 120 yards. However, the Ravens have kept opponents out of the end one as they've allowed a league-best three rushing touchdowns. Additionally, the are fifth in the NFL allowing 3.8 yards per carry. If one team can establish a consistent ground game, it will receive an enormous advantage in third-and-short situations and in the red zone.
Stafford entered Week 15 ranked fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 3,976 yards and fourth in touchdowns with 27. He's one of only three quarterbacks, along with future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, that averages over 300 passing yards per game. Stafford looks poised to crack the 4,000-yard mark for the third year in a row. Only Brees, currently at seven, has more consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. Despite these milestones, Stafford has struggled with turnovers lately, throwing a league-high six interceptions over the last three weeks. Last week, he threw for a season-low 151 yards with no touchdowns, although it's worth noting that he played amidst a snowstorm in Philadelphia. Upon further investigation, Stafford's passing yardage seems to be due mostly to the fact that his 525 passing attempts are second-most in the league. What many overlook is a poor 58 percent completion rate that is 31st in the NFL and worse than those of Terrelle Pryor, Christian Ponder and Chad Henne. Stafford continues to frustrate Lions fans with his inconsistency, as he has recorded seven games with a quarterback rating over 90.0 along with three games with a quarterback rating under 75.0. The bad news for the Lions is that all three of these low-performing games have come in the last month. After the first nine games Stafford had 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but he has thrown eight touchdowns to seven interceptions in the four games since. If the Lions are going to stay ahead in the NFC North, they need a better Stafford than the one who has thrown six interceptions in his last two home starts. We'll see tonight if Stafford is ready to arrive as a true elite quarterback in the NFL.
Don't forget about Megatron
It turns out that there is something that can slow Calvin Johnson down... the weather. Johnson had just three catches for 52 yards and had trouble controlling the ball in the middle of the Philadelphia snowstorm. He won't have to worry about that this week as the Lions return home to climate-controlled Ford Field. Over the past two years he's averaged seven catches and 120 yards per game at home. Despite the disappointing week, Johnson still entered this week second in the NFL in receiving yards and his 33 receiving touchdowns since 2011 lead the league. Johnson will draw coverage from Lardarius Webb, who had four passes defended last week. Perhaps, the best matchup for Johnson will be Jimmy Smith. Smith is battle-tested as he's guarded five of the top 10 receivers in terms of yardage: Cleveland’s Josh Gordon (first), Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (fourth), Chicago's Alshon Jeffrey (sixth) and Brandon Marshall (ninth), and Cincinnati's A.J. Green (seventh). Against such receivers, the 6-2 Smith has only allowed 22 catches and has surrendered no touchdowns. The problem for Baltimore is that Smith hasn't been strictly assigned to a single receiver for an entire game. When lined up against other defenders, these receivers have had big games. As a whole, the Baltimore secondary has been gashed by Demaryius Thomas, Jeffrey, Gordon, Green and, just last week, Cordarrelle Patterson. Athletic, play-making wideouts are the weakness for a Ravens secondary that has yet to get stable play from its safeties.
Key Player for Baltimore: Marlon Brown, WR
Brown has been a nice surprise for Joe Flacco this year as he leads the team with six touchdown receptions. Brown has come up with a series of big catches, including the toe-tapping game-winner last week against Minnesota. After being targeted just six times in the three games following his two-touchdown performance against Cleveland last month, Brown was targeted a season-high 11 times last week. Torrey Smith tends to struggle as poor weather tends to negate some of his speed; therefore, Flacco needs a reliable secondary option. In fact, Smith has gone over 80 yards just once in 10 career December games. Detroit will still focus most of its coverage on the speedster, which should open things up underneath for the undrafted rookie. With both top corners, Darius Slay and Chris Houston out, Brown should be a factor in this one.
Key Player for Detroit: Joique Bell, RB
With Reggie Bush questionable because of a calf injury, Bell becomes even more of a factor. If Bush is out, expect a heavy workload for Bell as his running style is similar to other backs (Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell) that have had success against Baltimore this year. Bell isn't just a brutish runner, as he's caught 90 passes over the past two seasons
This may simply come down to the venue of the game. Baltimore is 6-1 at home, but has limped to just a 1-5 record on the road. The Lions, built for their home turf, are a healthy 4-2 in the friendly confines of Ford Field. Calvin Johnson should have a big game against the Baltimore defense, while I expect Joe Flacco, the fourth-most sacked quarterback in the NFL, to be on that turf several times throughout the game. A healthy Reggie Bush would put the Lions over the time, but Joique Bell should be able to handle things if Bush needs to sit. A win will give the Lions a nice leg up in the race for the NFC North division crown, while a loss will put a dent in Baltimore's chances of defending their Super Bowl title.
Detroit 30, Baltimore 22
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. In the Big Ten, one team dominated the league for all but one quarter — when Michigan State put the pedal down in the Big Ten title game to win the championship.
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 the Big Ten's most entertaining and pivotal games of the 2013 season.
1. Ohio State 42, Michigan 41 (Nov. 30)
Most years, The Game is the most important and most anticipated matchup in the Big Ten season. This fall was no exception despite the Michigan Wolverines having very little to play for when these two met in Week 14. The two archrivals went back and forth for 60 minutes delivering body blows with big plays and long drives. From start to finish, this appeared to be an even match — much more so than anticipated. In the fourth quarter, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde delivered on a long touchdown drive that gave the Buckeyes a touchdown lead with only minutes to play. Not to be outdone, Devin Gardner and the Michigan offense — playing its best game of the season — drove right down the field to score what appeared to be the game-tying touchdown with 32 seconds to play. With nothing really to lose, Brady Hoke went for two in dramatic fashion but was thwarted when Gardner’s pass was intercepted at the goal line. The 110th meeting between these college football powerhouses was arguably the most dramatic
2. Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24 (Dec. 7)
With the Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl berth on the line for the Spartans and a BCS National Championship berth hanging in the balance for Ohio State, these two locked horns in Lucas Oil Stadium in the Big Ten title game. The Spartans jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead only to watch the Buckeyes come storming back with 24 unanswered points to take the lead late in the third quarter. But Sparty responded in a big way, scoring the game’s final 17 points to snap Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak, knock OSU out of the BCS title game and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1987. It was probably the best-played conference championship game of the season.
3. Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30 (Oct. 5)
The peak of the Wildcats' season came when they were 4-0 and ranked No. 16 in the nation — and unbeaten Ohio State was coming to town. Northwestern held a lead for most of the first and second quarters and all of the third quarter. But the Buckeyes never went away and the two traded touchdowns in dramatic fashion in the final period. Carlos Hyde’s breakout performance featured 26 carries, 168 yards and three touchdowns in the final 19 minutes of play. The Buckeyes survived what many pointed to in the preseason as the pivotal upset alert of the season. Ohio State would stay unbeaten until the conference championship game while Northwestern wouldn’t win another game until its finale.
4. Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24 (Nov. 2)
It may not have been the best or most important game of the Big Ten season but it certainly had the most exciting finish. The Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary will go down in Big Ten lore as one of the most famous plays in conference history. The Wildcats jumped out to a 21-7 lead halfway through the third quarter but the Huskers came storming back to tie the game entering the fourth quarter. With 1:20 to go, the Cats took a lead on a field goal and then stopped Nebraska at midfield with one play to go. Bo Pelini’s prayers were answered when Westerkamp snatched the tipped heave out of the air to score his first career touchdown — and keep Nebraska’s Big Ten title hopes alive for one more week.
5. Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24 (Sept. 28)
A game between the top two rushing teams in the Big Ten doesn’t normally feature quarterback play but that is what happened when these two rivals met early in the season. Braxton Miller returned after missing two games to throw a career-high four touchdown passes while Wisconsin’s Joel Stave threw for a career-high 295 yards (since broken) to keep his team in contention. Both running games were held in check as both teams posted season lows in rushing yards. In the end, Ohio State was too much and the Buckeyes outlasted the Badgers in the most critical Leaders Division game of the season.
6. Penn State 43, Michigan 40 (4OT, Oct. 12)
The Legend of Christian Hackenberg, should he continue on his meteoric career path, began with this four-overtime thriller in Happy Valley. He led his team down the field with two long improbable completions in the final 30 seconds to tie the game at 34 at the end of regulation. In four overtime periods, both teams had multiple chances to win but couldn’t capitalize on numerous field goal tries. Eventually, Bill Belton scored on a two-yard touchdown run to end the longest game in Penn State history with a win over then-No. 18 Michigan.
7. Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30 (Sept. 7)
It’s bizarre to think that the word “Heisman” was tossed around after Devin Gardner’s performance against Notre Dame. Wearing No. 98 for the first time, Gardner threw for 294 yards, rushed for 82 and accounted for five total touchdowns (six if you count the one he gifted the Irish in his own end zone) in a win over then-No. 14 Notre Dame. The game was the national spotlight game of Week 2 and set a record for largest crowd in NCAA history with 115,109 attendants.
8. Michigan 27, Northwestern 19 (3 OT, Nov. 16)
Northwestern’s heart-breaking season continued in rare fashion when Michigan came to town and walked away with a three-overtime win. The Wolverines' kicking unit sprinted onto the field and got a 44-yard, game-tying field goal attempt off with one second left in regulation to send the game to extra time. The two teams then traded touchdowns in the first overtime and field goals in the second before Devin Gardner scored from five yards out.
9. Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30 (Sept. 14)
In one of the most bizarre endings to a game in any conference this year, Arizona State walked away winners while Gary Andersen’s squad stood stunned on the field in Sun Devil Stadium. The refs mishandled a game-ending situation that would have given Wisconsin a short game-winning field goal attempt. Instead the clock inexplicably ran out on the Badgers, giving Arizona State a big non-conference win and the Big Ten one of the most memorable and infamous losses in league history.
10. Minnesota 42, Indiana 39 (Nov. 2)
In a back and forth shootout for the ages, these two middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams gave fans an epic showdown in Bloomington. For three quarters, the Golden Gophers showed why they were one of the Big Ten’s best stories, taking a 35-13 lead early in the second half. But Indiana came storming back to score four unanswered touchdowns over the final two quarters to take a 39-35 lead with just over five minutes to play. On the ensuing drive, Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson completed the best pass of his career when he connected with freshman tight end Maxx Williams for a 50-yard touchdown. However, the drama wasn’t over, as Indiana marched inside Minnesota’s nine-yard line needing only a field goal to tie. But the Hoosiers pounced on a juggled Indiana pitch to end the game in dramatic fashion. The loss eventually cost Indiana a trip to the postseason.
Just missed the cut:
11. Nebraska 23, Penn State 20 (OT, Nov. 23)
Huskers kicker Pat Smith made three clutch late field goals to top Penn State.
12. Nebraska 17, Michigan 13 (Nov. 9)
An ugly but dramatic game ended on an impressive Nebraska TD drive in the final minutes.
13. Ohio State 34, Iowa 24 (Oct. 19)
Iowa played valiantly in The Shoe before Ohio State pulled away in the final quarter.
14. Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 13 (Sept. 21)
A painful and controversial early-season loss cost MSU a trip to the BCS title game.
15. Penn State 24, Illinois 17 (OT, Nov. 2)
Christian Hackenberg worked his late-game magic in yet another PSU overtime affair.
Best of the rest:
16. Penn State 31, Wisconsin 24 (Nov. 30)
17. Iowa 24, Michigan 21 (Nov. 23)
18. Iowa 17, Northwestern 10 (OT, Nov. 2)
19. UCF 34, Penn State 31 (Sept. 14)
20. Minnesota 34, Nebraska 23 (Oct. 26)
21. Michigan 63, Indiana 47 (Oct. 19)
22. Northwestern 37, Illinois 34 (Nov. 30)
23. Northern Illinois 30, Iowa 27 (Aug. 31)
24. Wisconsin 27, BYU 17 (Nov. 9)
25. Navy 41, Indiana 35 (Sept. 7)
After a 34-7 loss to Navy on Saturday, Rich Ellerson’s tenure at Army is over. Ellerson was fired on Sunday, ending his five-year tenure at West Point with a 20-41 mark.
Army went 12-13 in Ellerson’s first two years, including a 7-6 mark in 2010.
However, the Black Knights did not win more than three games in each of the last three years.
Prior to coming to Army, Ellerson went 56-34 at Cal Poly.
Army is not an easy job, and the next coach will have quite a challenge to get this program into a bowl game every season. Another challenge for the next coach: Beat Navy. The Black Knights have lost 12 in a row to the Midshipmen.
Spoke with Rich Ellerson. Said on his firing,"I lost to our rival 5 timesl. C’mon. It’s just arithmetic. I know the business I’m in."— Sal Interdonato (@salinterdonato) December 16, 2013
Ellerson: I knew this was hard & I knew it was. I have no regrets none at all. I couldnt be prouder of guys who have chose to follow us here— Sal Interdonato (@salinterdonato) December 16, 2013
Ellerson: "I’d like to be guy that got it done. I’m proud of the work we did here & I think whoever who ends up in this job has a chance."— Sal Interdonato (@salinterdonato) December 16, 2013
Thanks to the Heisman Trust, media folks and other voters had to wait until the day after the ceremony to reveal their ballots.
Not that it added to any of the suspense Saturday night: Jameis Winston’s coronation as the Heisman winner has been clear for weeks. Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota played themselves out of serious contention. The running back trio of Auburn’s Tre Mason, Boston College’s Andre Williams and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey played themselves onto ballots in the final weeks.
All of that, and an investigation into a sexual battery allegation that yielded no charges, did not hinder Winston’s Heisman campaign. The Florida State quarterback turned in one of the most lopsided Heisman wins in the award's history. Winston had the seventh-largest margin of victory and ninth-most first-place votes, according to Chris Huston of HeismanPundit.com.
While the Heisman ceremony gave us little drama, we did learn a bit beyond Winston’s win.
Three Things We Learned from the 2013 Heisman Voting
Forget preseason Heisman lists. Midseason Heisman lists are meaningless, too. The 2014 Heisman watch has already begun, but the last four years should teach us not to give such lists much credence. Athlon isn’t exempt. Our preseason magazine will have a Heisman watch, of course. The Heisman watch is a fun discussion, and that’s about it. Of the last four Heisman winners, only Baylor’s Robert Griffin III even played the season before. Winston’s win gives us two redshirt freshmen and a junior college transfer to win the Heisman in the last four years. Preseason favorites AJ McCarron (second), Jordan Lynch (third), Johnny Manziel (fifth) and Braxton Miller (ninth) all made appearances, but the rest of the field was nowhere to be found on a list in August or September. Sixth-place finisher Tre Mason from Auburn hadn't even built enough clout to be a Doak Walker finalist before a 304-yard performance in the SEC championship game. That alone put him 277 points ahead of Bryce Petty, who was on everyone’s short list in October. Even Boston College’s Andre Williams used a monster November to finish ahead of defending winner Johnny Manziel. In future seasons, it wouldn't be inconceivable for a contender to appear on the scene and win the award in a span of two or three games in November.
Regional biases are still a big deal. Jameis Winston won every region by a significant margin, but the voters were provincial in picking the second and third spots on their ballots. Only the Far West didn’t show a regional bias with Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey finishing sixth. Elsewhere, the voters favored candidates in their backyard. Jordan Lynch was second in the Midwest. Johnny Manziel west second in the Southwest. Andre Williams was second in the Northeast. The Mid-Atlantic had AJ McCarron second, but ACC country also had Williams third. In the South, McCarron, Tre Mason and Johnny Manziel all lined up behind Winston.
Playing in front of a captive audience matters. On the surface, the Heisman resumes for Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch and Fresno State’s Derek Carr weren’t all that different. Both contenders had eye-popping statistics — Lynch’s 1,881 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns, Carr’s 4,866 passing yards and 48 touchdowns. Both lost their chance at BCS games late in the season. And both came into the season with notable fanfare. So how did Lynch finish third and Carr finish eighth? Lynch’s last four games were all primetime ESPN2 broadcasts on a Tuesday, two Wednesdays and a Friday. Lynch’s previous five games were only televised locally. Meanwhile, Fresno State had four kickoffs after 10 p.m. Eastern, all on Saturdays, in the final six games. Carr led his team to a Mountain West title on a game featured on CBS ... in a game that ended well after midnight Eastern. Lynch’s exposure late in the season in wins over Ball State, Toledo and Western Michigan, vaulted the NIU quarterback to third in the voting.
Division rivals that find themselves in unusual positions are on tap tonight when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field at 8:30 pm. ET on NBC. Marvin Lewis’ Bengals (9-4) could clinch a playoff spot with a win and some help, while Mike Tomlin’s Steelers (5-8) have to be content with playing the roll of spoiler.
Cincinnati leads Baltimore by two games in the AFC North with three to play. A win over Pittsburgh along with a loss or tie by either Baltimore or Miami would put the Bengals into the playoffs for the third straight season, which would be a first for the franchise. If the Bengals win and the Ravens lose or tie, then Cincinnati would claim its eighth division crown and first since 2009.
Pittsburgh meanwhile isn’t worried about the postseason, as the Steelers are all but guaranteed of missing the playoffs for the second straight season. The last time that happened was 1998-2000. The Steelers also are faced with the task of winning out or else they will finish below .500 for the first time since 1999 (6-10).
Three Things to Watch
When Last We Met…
Cincinnati defeated Pittsburgh 20-10 in Week 2. Both teams were coming off of season-opening losses, but the Bengals got into the win column at home behind a balanced offensive attack and some stingy defense. The Bengals outgained the Steelers 407-278 on offense, including a commanding 127-44 edge on the ground. Rookie running back Giovani Bernard scored both Bengal touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) and quarterback Andy Dalton completed 25 passes to eight different receivers. The Bengals didn’t turn the ball over, while the Steelers committed two miscues – a Ben Roethlisgerger interception and Dennis Paulson fumble. The Steelers averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and were 3-of-12 on third down conversions. The win was the second in a row for Cincinnati over Pittsburgh, the first time that had happened since the Bengals swept the series in 2009.
Will the Bengals Stick to the Script?
Since losing back-to-back overtime games on the road to Miami and Baltimore, Cincinnati has won three in a row. The recipe for the Bengals’ success this season has pretty much been let the defense do its job while not putting too much pressure on the offense. Cincinnati is eighth in the NFL in total defense (320.5 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (18.8 ppg). The Bengals have given up more than 400 yards in a game once and have held every opponent to 30 points or fewer. The offense has had its moments, in particular a four-game stretch in October, but inconsistency and turnovers have both been issues. The Bengals have produced less than 300 total yards of offense on three different occasions this season and half of their turnovers have come in their four losses. The fact that Cincinnati is 3-3 when scoring 20 points or fewer is a testament to its defense. The Bengals are tied for third in the AFC with 23 total takeaways (13 INTs, 10 fumbles) yet have a minus-1 differential because of the offense’s 24 miscues. As long as the offense can stay out of its own way, Cincinnati’s defense should be able to take care of business tonight.
Can the Steelers Finish Strong?
It has largely been a season to forget for Mike Tomlin and company. After losing their first four games to start the season, the Steelers battled back to 5-6 entering Week 13, but have lost their past two games. Once again, the lack of a running game has stymied an offense that’s been devastated by injuries along the offensive line. Only Jacksonville has rushed for fewer yards than Pittsburgh (77.4 ypg), as the Steelers have mustered a total of five touchdowns on the ground. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 39 times and he’s also responsible for 16 (10 INTs, 6 fumbles) of the team’s 19 turnovers. On the other hand the defense has struggled to produce takeaways and has given up some big numbers to the opposition on more than one occasion. The Steel Curtain didn’t produce a single takeaway in its first four games combined and has just 15 (8 INTs, 7 fumbles) on the season. The 407 yards allowed to Cincinnati in Week 2 are one of three such 400-yard games, including the franchise-record 610 surrendered to New England in Week 9. The 55 points the Patriots scored also represent an all-time low for this defense, which has had trouble consistently stopping the run. Pittsburgh is 24th in the NFL in rushing defense (120.2 ypg) and gave up 181 on the ground in last week’s home loss to Miami. The Steelers’ issues are well documented, but the real question for tonight is does this team have any fight left in it?
Cincinnati Key Player: Andy Dalton, QB
The Bengals’ second-round draft pick (35th overall) in 2011, Dalton is on the verge of doing something that has never been done in franchise history – earn a third straight postseason berth. He is on pace for his first 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown season and also is enjoying a career year in terms of quarterback rating. The problem, however, is that Dalton’s career-best rating at this point is still just 87.7 and while he’s on pace for 31 touchdown passes, he’s also on track for 20 interceptions. Dalton has had his moments of brilliance, such as the three-game stretch in October in which he averaged 345 yards passing per game and posted an 11:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, he followed that up with just six touchdowns and nine picks in his next four outings. Dalton is 0-2 in playoff games in his career and he knows that he needs to play better in the games that count the most. It may not be a postseason game, but tonight on the road against a division rival in a tough environment would be a good place for Dalton to start.
Pittsburgh Key Player: Le’Veon Bell, RB
The Steelers’ second-round pick (48th overall) in April, Bell’s debut was delayed by a preseason foot injury that sidelined him for the first three games. His first season has been a bit of a mixed bag, as he’s rushed for 93 yards on 19 carries in a win over Baltimore, but is averaging 3.4 yards per carry on the season and has scored a total of five touchdowns. Bell missed the first game against Cincinnati and the Steelers’ offense managed just 44 yards on the ground without him. The Bengals are fifth in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 98.2 yards per game and running the ball has been a problem for Pittsburgh all season. A strong finish by Bell, starting tonight, would not only increase the Steelers’ chances of beating the Bengals, but also would serve as a positive sign for both the team and fans alike as the focus shifts to turning things around in 2014.
Barring a pretty big collapse, Cincinnati will be in the playoffs for the third straight season, a first for the franchise. The Bengals also are in the driver’s seat for the AFC North title and have a shot at earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Pittsburgh meanwhile is headed in the opposite direction, pretty much guaranteed of missing the playoffs for the second straight season. The Steelers need to win out if they don’t want to finish below .500 for the first time in nearly 15 years.
The Bengals have done it all season with good defense and some timely contributions from the offense. There’s no reason to expect this team to stray from what has worked for it. The Steelers have had trouble with the running game on both sides of the ball and have had their depth tested by a rash of injuries.
Cincinnati has struggled in the Steel City, having lost four of the past six games at Heinz Field, but this is neither your typical Bengals team nor your typical Steelers squad. In the end, Cincinnati sticks to the script – tough defense, balanced offense, take care of the football – that has worked so well. The Bengals get one step closer to a franchise first by doing something they haven’t done since 1990 – win three in a row against the Steelers.
Cincinnati 23, Pittsburgh 20
Which running backs can you count on in Week 15 and which should you be concerned about today? Athlon Sports has the information you need to keep your backfield in motion.
Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, RBs, Minnesota Vikings vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Peterson left last week’s game on a cart, but fortunately escaped serious injury. He did sprain his right foot, however, which has him listed as Questionable for today’s game. Complicating matters is the fact that Gerhart, Peterson’s backup, also is Questionable with a hamstring injury. With so much at stake this week, I would be very careful with Peterson and make sure he ends up being active before leaving him in the lineup. At least the early kickoff (1 p.m. ET) should help with this decision. If Peterson can’t go, I would think twice before replacing him with Gerhart, since it’s apparent he won’t be at 100 percent himself even if he plays.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Buffalo Bills
Jones-Drew came up lame late last week against Houston, injuring his hamstring. He underwent an MRI and wasn’t able to practice at all this week. He is listed as Doubtful to play today, which means you should not count on having MJD in your lineup. It’s a shame too since he rushed for 102 yards against the Texans before getting hurt and he has been playing better recently. Jordan Todman is expected to start in Jones-Drew’s place, but he’s not 100 percent himself (shoulder) and shouldn’t be mistaken for an obvious replacement.
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gore was limited in practice this week because of an ankle injury, but he is considered Probable to face the Buccaneers. The veteran has been averaging around 17 carries per game this season, it’s just a matter of what he’s able to do with them. His 110-yard effort last week against Seattle certainly is reason for optimism, but Tampa Bay has been better against the run than the Seahawks. Regardless of matchup, you are likely sticking with Gore and just hope he’s still got some juice left in his legs.
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots
Miller suffered a concussion last week against Pittsburgh, limiting him to just six carries (20 yards) and two catches (13 yards). He was back at practice by Tuesday and was a full go the rest of the week. He is considered Probable for today’s game and barring a setback Miller will play. However, thanks to a near-miraculous recovery from an ankle injury by Daniel Thomas it appears that Miller will be a part of some sort of time-share in the Dolphins’ backfield. This alone limits Miller’s value to a lower-end RB2 at best and probably more of a flex option.
With the fantasy playoffs upon us, lineup decisions are even more critical as it’s win or go home in Week 15. Here’s the latest information on some injured running backs playing in the late games that you need to consult before deciding on your starting backfield.
Reggie Bush, RB, Detroit Lions vs. Baltimore Ravens (Mon.)
Bush did not play in the snow in Philadelphia last week after re-aggravating his calf injury in warm ups. His practice participation this week was limited to appearances on just Friday and Saturday, and he is officially Questionable for the Monday night tilt with Baltimore. The fact that he did practice some is a positive development, but that’s not to say something can’t happen to him in warm ups again either. Unless you are content to assume the risk, a decision will have to be made on Bush well before Monday night so as not to limit your replacement options.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Even though he didn’t practice at all until Friday, Lacy is considered Probable and expected to play this afternoon. Lacy sprained his ankle in the second quarter last week, but returned and finished the game. He’s not at 100 percent, so don’t be surprised to see Lacy’s workload limited with James Starks getting a few more carries. Still against Dallas’ woeful defense, Lacy should get enough opportunities to produce along the lines of a RB2 this week.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers vs. New York Jets
Stewart suffered a torn MCL in his right knee in last week’s loss in New Orleans. While he has not yet been ruled out for the rest of the season, he will miss today’s game. Usually this means that DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert both get a significant bump in their respective outlooks, but the Jets are No. 2 in the NFL in rushing defense. Williams remains ahead of Tolbert in the pecking order, but Williams is still nothing more than a flex option this week.
Rashad Jennings and Darren McFadden, RBs, Oakland Raiders vs. Kansas City Chiefs
McFadden is Out once again because of ankle injury and injured reserve is very much a possibility for the fragile, soon-to-be free agent. Jennings is expected to return after missing last week because of a concussion. He was able to practice fully on Thursday and Friday and is listed as Probable. Even with today’s matchup against Kansas City, Jennings should be in your starting lineup based on his recent production. Marcel Reece should be a factor as well, as he rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown last week against the Jets with Jennings and McFadden sidelined.
Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans
After missing one game because of a knee injury, Ellington returned last week and rushed for 46 yards and a touchdown. The knee is still an issue, but Ellington is considered Probable and should share the load with Rashard Mendenhall. While Mendenhall’s presence limits Ellington’s potential, the Titans have been susceptible to the run this season, surrendering 18 rushing touchdowns. Ellington should see enough touches to merit flex consideration with the potential for even better numbers, depending on how the touches are distributed between him and Mendenhall.
Several teams’ passing games may be missing some of their top targets in Week 15. Here are some wide receivers whose playing statuses you may want to check before kickoff.
Cecil Shorts, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Buffalo Bills
Shorts’ groin is so bad that he said this week he will likely need surgery after the season to repair the damage. As far as today goes, he is listed as Questionable with head coach Gus Bradley adding “very” to that designation. Shorts has said he wants to play through the injury, but it’s clear that there is reason for concern. At best, Shorts is a game-time decision to face the Bills, but I would strongly consider another option this week.
Vincent Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. San Francisco 49ers
Just like last week, Jackson missed practice time due to his hamstring injury and is listed as Questionable to play. A game-time decision last week, Jackson not only played, but he caught three passes for 70 yards and a touchdown against the Bills. This afternoon’s matchup with the 49ers figures to be a little tougher, but Jackson is the Bucs’ No. 1 target and as long as he plays, he needs to be in your lineup.
Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons vs. Washington Redskins
Having already dealt with an ankle and hamstring injury, White bruised his knee last week against Green Bay and was limited in practice this week because of it. He is listed as Questionable but he himself has said he will be fine for today’s game. It has been a disappointing season for White, but he’s playing his best right now with 18 catches for 217 yards in his last two games. If you have held on to him this long, today’s matchup with Washington could bring a smile to your face.
Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Crabtree is dealing with an ankle injury in addition to getting himself back to full speed following his return from a torn Achilles. He is listed as Probable and should be out there today, but considering his limited impact thus far (6 receptions for 108 yards in two games) and a potential matchup with All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, it’s probably safest to keep Crabtree on the bench and revisit his status next week.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
Hopkins is dealing with an ankle injury, which limited him during practice this week. He is listed as Questionable and just like his teammate tight end Garrett Graham, he will be a game-time decision. Hopkins has had his moments this season, but the rookie also has gone through extended stretches of inconsistency, which has made him hard to trust recently. He does have at least 76 yards receiving in his last two games, but his last touchdown came back in Week 7. It’s up to you if you want to wait (1 p.m. ET kickoff) to see if Hopkins will play. I just hope he’s no more than a WR3/flex in your lineup.
Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks at New York Giants
Harvin has already been ruled Out for today’s game and head coach Pete Carroll said it would likely be a while before the wide receiver’s surgically repaired hip was “right.” Unless you just can’t let go, there’s no need to keep Harvin in non-keeper leagues.
These wide receivers are playing in Week 15’s late games and may not be at 100 percent or on the field at all. Keep these players in mind when setting your starting lineup.
Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams vs. New Orleans Saints
Austin injured his left ankle on a 56-yard run against the Cardinals last week. He didn’t practice at all this week and is considered Questionable for this afternoon’s game. Outside of one big game against Indianapolis a few weeks ago, Austin hasn’t had the impact as a rookie that many expected. The Rams are out of playoff contention, so there’s no reason for the team to risk the long-term health of their first-round draft pick. Leave Austin on your bench and look elsewhere to help fill our your lineup.
Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans
Floyd’s ankle doesn’t appear to be getting any better, as he’s listed as Questionable this week. He was able to practice, but was limited both Thursday and Friday and is coming off of a game in which he caught just two passes for 26 yards. With Floyd apparently not at 100 percent and a matchup with a Titans defense that has been pretty good against the pass, Floyd is probably relegated to WR3 status this week at best.
Denarius Moore, WR, Oakland Raiders vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Moore was back at practice in a limited capacity this week after missing the past three games because of a shoulder injury. He is listed as Questionable but is expected to be out there against the Chiefs in some fashion. How involved Moore will be remains to be seen, as Rod Streater and Andre Holmes have both been effective, and at times impressive, in Moore’s absence. If I were to handicap the field, I would go with Streater first followed by Holmes and then Moore, mainly because it’s possible his snaps will be limited and/or he could come off of the bench. Of the three, Streater is the safest, but he’s probably limited to WR3 status this week.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Sanders was a late addition to the injury report as he was limited on Thursday and Friday with some sort of foot issue. He’s still considered Probable to play and will be looking to extend his touchdown streak to four games. Antonio Brown is the Steelers’ top target with Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery sharing the leftovers. Even with Sanders’ hot streak, he should be viewed as nothing more than a WR3/flex option.
Tight ends litter the Week 15 injury report. Which ones can you count on this week? Athlon Sports breaks down the latest information.
Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers vs. New York Jets
Olsen didn’t get in a full week’s worth of practice, but he was a full go on Friday and is considered Probable to face the Jets. His foot injury appears to be a non-issue at this point, an observation that’s reinforced by the 36 targets he has seen over his last four games. The Jets have had some problems defending tight ends this season, so maybe the pipeline between Olsen and Cam Newton will continue this afternoon.
Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons vs. Washington Redskins
Gonzalez is listed as Questionable, but he practiced in some capacity all week and there’s no reason to not expect him to play. The toe injury is still limiting him in practice, which appears to be the reasoning behind the Questionable designation. He’s caught a touchdown in each of his past two games, so maybe the future Hall of Famer is peaking at just the right time for his owners.
Delanie Walker, TE, Tennessee Titans vs. Arizona Cardinals
Walker missed last week’s game due to a concussion but he was back at practice in full this week and is considered Probable to play today. Arizona is giving up the most fantasy points to tight ends this season, including 14 touchdown catches, so if there’s a week to start Walker, this is it.
Garrett Graham, TE, Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
Graham didn’t practice on Friday because of a hamstring injury. He is considered Questionable for today’s game against the Colts and will be a game-time decision. Graham has been productive during Owen Daniels’ extended absence, as he’s averaged nearly 12 targets over the last four games and has two touchdown receptions during that span. This game kicks off at 1 p.m. ET, so you should have time to check on Graham’s status before making a decision, as long as you have a backup plan in place.
John Carlson, TE, Minnesota Vikings vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Carlson has already been ruled Out for today’s game because of a concussion. Kyle Rudolph, who Carlson replaced after Rudolph fractured his foot, went on injured reserve this week, which means the Vikings are digging deep into their depth chart for a tight end this week.
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins at Atlanta Falcons
Reed hasn’t played since Week 11 because of a concussion. And he won’t play today either, as he has been ruled Out for a fourth straight game. It was reported this week he was still experiencing headaches and going through the league-mandated testing, it’s possible that we have seen the last of Reed this season.
In Case You Missed It…
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots – Gronkowski’s injury-saddled season took one final turn last week when he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee on a low tackle against the Browns. Gronk’s 2013 season is over and his 2014 campaign also is up in the air with him facing another lengthy period of recovery and rehabilitation. Gronk’s loss likewise impacts Tom Brady, as well as running back Shane Vereen and wide receivers Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and others, but exactly how and to what extent remains to be seen. As it relates to the Patriots’ remaining tight ends, however, it’s pretty simple – nothing to see here.