Articles By All
On paper, the battle lines are clearly drawn when it comes to this season's Military Bowl matchup between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., will serve as the backdrop for a game featuring the classic contrast in styles – the Bearcats’ potent offense vs. the Hokies’ stingy defense.
Cincinnati (9-3) claimed its third conference title in four seasons, tying Memphis and UCF for the top spot in the American Athletic Conference at 7-1. Tommy Tuberville has led the Bearcats to back-to-back nine-win seasons, as this season’s team weathered an early three-game losing streak and has since reeled off seven straight victories.
This will be Cincinnati’s sixth straight bowl appearance. The Bearcats have gone 2-3 thus far, including a 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl. This also makes it three straight seasons Cincinnati has faced an ACC team in its bowl game. The Bearcats played an ACC foe in each of the past two Belk Bowls – beating Duke in 2012 and losing to North Carolina last season.
Virginia Tech (6-6) meanwhile needed every win it could muster just to keep the nation’s second-longest bowl streak (22 seasons) alive. A perennial contender in the ACC under Frank Beamer, the Hokies picked up one of the biggest non-conference wins of the season when they upset Ohio State 35-21 in the Horseshoe in early September.
Unfortunately that high was followed by many lows, starting with a home loss to East Carolina, as Virginia Tech’s offense struggled to produce consistent points. A three-game losing streak in mid-October ended any thoughts of winning another Coastal Division title, but the cruelest blow of all came in late November in a 6-3 double overtime loss at Wake Forest.
Still, give credit to Beamer’s team for continuing its dominance over in-state rival Virginia, as the Hokies’ 24-20 home win not only secured the Commonwealth Cup for an 11th straight season, it also got them bowl eligible.
The Hokies are just 9-12 in bowl games under Beamer, including last season’s Sun Bowl loss to UCLA.
Including the 2009 Orange Bowl, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech have played each other 10 times. The series is split 5-5 with the Bearcats claiming the most recent victory – 27-24 over the Hokies in September 2012 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Cincinnati -3
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Gunner-ing it on Offense
The Bearcats enter this game 26th in the nation in scoring at 35.4 points per game. Most of this damage has come through the air via the right arm of quarterback Gunner Kiel. An elite prospect that started his career at Notre Dame (after committing to Indiana and then LSU), Kiel has blossomed as a sophomore signal-caller. He’s tied for ninth nationally with 30 touchdown passes and has thrown for more than 3,000 yards. He’s done a good job of spreading the wealth, as six different Bearcats have caught 20 or more passes and eight have hauled in a touchdown. This approach could pay off against Virginia Tech’s defense, which has fared well against the pass. The Hokies are 14th in the nation in passing defense, holding opponents to a 47.6 percent completion rate (third). They haven’t picked off a bunch of passes (10 INTs) though and have been somewhat susceptible to the big play. Virginia Tech has allowed 17 passing plays of 30 or more yards and nine of 40-plus. Still, Cincinnati needs Kiel to continue to have success throwing the ball because the Bearcats’ running game has been inconsistent. Also, as good as the Hokies’ defense has been (20.4 ppg, 17th), the offense is averaging less than 24 points per game. The more success Kiel has throwing against the Hokies, the better for a Cincinnati defense that has had plenty of issues of its own.
Virginia Tech’s Key to Victory: Get Offensive
The only reason the Hokies are playing in their 22nd straight bowl game is because their defense was good enough to win six games. Actually, this defense was good enough to win even more games; it’s just that the offense had trouble scoring points. Even though Virginia Tech held opponents to just 20.4 points per game, the Hokies only outscored teams by 35 points, or less than three per game. Injuries took their toll on the running game, a facet that was a strength during Tech’s best seasons, and Texas Tech transfer quarterback Michael Brewer has struggled because of a combination of turnovers (14 INTs), a lack of proven playmakers on the outside and inconsistent pass protection (31 sacks allowed). If Virginia Tech’s defense does its part, which it has all season, then it stands to reason the offense won’t need to score that many points to put the Hokies in a position to win. Hopefully Brewer and the rest of the offense are using the time off and extra practices to iron out the kinks and find some sort of rhythm and cohesion. It’s not like the offense is expected to carry this team in the first place and it sure would be disheartening to see another stellar defensive performance from coordinator Bud Foster’s unit wasted on a stage like this.
Strictly from an offense vs. defense standpoint, Cincinnati’s O doesn’t seem to quite match up against Virginia Tech’s D. However, a big reason why the Hokies are 6-6 is because their offense has offered minimal support. How else can you explain how the same team that beat Ohio State on the road manages just one field goal in a double overtime loss to Wake Forest? Virginia Tech is certainly no stranger to this stage, playing in its 22nd straight bowl game, but postseason success (9-12) has been tough to come by for Frank Beamer’s team. The Hokies’ D is nasty, but their offense is atrocious and I think Tommy Tuberville’s Bearcats have just enough balance to beat a one-dimensional team.
Prediction: Cincinnati 23, Virginia Tech 17
Hosts Braden Gall and Steven Lassan go in-depth to break down both national semifinal games.
Alabama vs. Ohio State: Does Urban Meyer or Nick Saban have the advantage on the sidelines? Can Cardale Jones handle the Bama defense? Can the Buckeyes defensive line disrupt the Bama offense? Which fan base wins the week off-the-field in New Orleans?
Oregon vs. Florida State: Which QB is better in Pasadena? Which defense is more likely to get stops? Can Marcus Mariota carry his team to victory? Does playing close games all year help or hurt FSU?
The guys cover all of this and make National Championship predictions on this special Playoff Predictions edition of the Cover 2 Podcast.
"You know him," Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott said to reporters Monday — and there was no doubt about who he meant by him. "It's real difficult. He's such a competitor. He wants to go out there and play every minute that he can. The mind is willing, but sometimes the body is not.”
Kobe Bryant, according to his coach, is going to be trying out a new concept in the eighteenth year of his storied NBA career: rest. After showing severe signs of fatigue in a 108-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings on December 21 — in which the 36-year-old legend shot 8-for-30 and committed nine turnovers — it’s become clear that Bryant simply can’t play the way he used to.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen Kobe playing less than spectacular ball, though. For fans of Bryant’s well-deserved spot in the gallery of basketball greatness, any sort of closer look at the Black Mamba’s recent performance has revealed the mustache on the Mona Lisa:
Still lots of noise, but the sample size keeps getting bigger: pic.twitter.com/OLMNbcxcRo— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 22, 2014
"We'll formulate a plan that suits him so when he is on the court, he can go out and play at full strength instead of trying to will his way through these games," Scott went on. "He's such a competitor that he tries to will his way through it no matter how his body feels. I want him to get to the point where his body feels a lot better than it does right now.
"I'm not going to sacrifice his well being for W’s. I have to look out for Kobe to make sure I make it through this season without killing him and playing him too much. There might be some decisions I make that he won't be real happy with. I'll have to live with that. But for me, it's always going to be my players' best interest.”
With or without Bryant, the Lakers are destined to keep losing big in the stacked Western Conference. And as the losses pile up, the games themselves will rarely be in the spotlight — the sideshow of Kobe accepting the dimming of his star has long been the central hooping event in Tinseltown.
— John Wilmes
In a league overflowing with parity and dominated (mostly) by youth, the NFL tends to be an organization of mood swings. One moment a player is on top of the world, heading toward a Pro Bowl season or a lucrative, multi-year contract.
The next, they find themselves on this list, as one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
It happens to a lot of players: Great ones, and ones with great expectations; Pro Bowl players, or ones who were just headed in that direction. As always, there were a lot of things to be disappointed about this season.
Here are 10 who were as disappointing as any in the league:
QB Colin Kaepernick, 49ers
Three straight trips to the NFC championship game and one trip to the Super Bowl seemingly cemented him as being on the verge of greatness, and the things he could do with his arm and his legs made many believe he signaled the arrival of the next generation of quarterback weapons. Then this season he stopped winning and even seemed to slow down when running (until his big game against San Diego last weekend). Mostly, though, the offense wilted under his direction. His stats are middling with one game to go and he may not even reach 20 touchdown passes – not good for the quarterback on what was supposed to be one of the best teams in the league.
RB Reggie Bush, Lions
He had three straight seasons of 1,000 rushing yards (OK, one was 986, but still …) and a year ago he was such a dual threat he had 1,500 total yards, too. Then this year, as his injuries returned, he has 278 rushing yards and 231 receiving yards and he’s no longer much of a threat in either area. He’s also going to be 30 in March and after a brief career revival it looks once again like he’ll never live up to his promise and hype.
QB Andy Dalton, Bengals
He got a six-year, $96 million contract extension in August, and then looked terrific as Cincinnati got off to a 3-0 start. Since then? Not so good. Passer rating isn’t everything, but in that category he ranks behind the likes of Mark Sanchez, Austin Davis, Zach Mettenberger and Mike Glennon. He has thrown 17 touchdown passes in 15 games and 15 interceptions. He doesn’t look like a franchise quarterback anymore, and if the Bengals had waited just two more months he’d never have gotten a deal that size.
TE Vernon Davis, 49ers
There certainly are a lot of disappointing players in San Francisco, in what surely will end up being Jim Harbaugh’s final season. Davis might be one of the biggest and, quite possibly, one of the biggest mysteries. Over the previous five seasons he had established himself as a dangerous weapon. Last year he had 850 receiving yards, an impressive 16.3 yards per catch and 13 touchdowns. Now? He’s an after thought. His 25 catches for 236 yards and two TDs, not to mention a yards-per-catch average of just 9.4, add up to his worst season since his injury shortened rookie year.
RB Doug Martin, Buccaneers
Another injury-plagued season has ruined the value of this former star who memorably had 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. This season he’ll be lucky to top the 456 he had last season. Granted, after last year’s disaster maybe this should’ve been expected. But he did play 10 games, just not very well. He starts, but he doesn’t do much and has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, making him a truly awful part of one of the worst teams in the league.
QB Cam Newton, Panthers
Before the accident and the fractured back, Newton had responded since his excellent 2013 season by dipping back to his 2012 levels. His completion percentage is back under 60 and he’s got just 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Yes, he lost his best receiver, Steve Smith, but he replaced him with a superb rookie in Kelvin Benjamin. This was supposed to be Newton’s arrival as an elite quarterback. Instead, he’s led the Panthers to a losing record in the worst division in the NFL.
WR Michael Crabtree, 49ers
He was supposed to be one of the next great receiving super stars when he was drafted 10th overall in 2009. Now, after a couple of good years, he’s clearly not much more than a possession receiver. His 64 catches are OK, especially with a struggling quarterback. But for 657 yards and just a 10.3 yards per catch average? That’s a career low and an indication that he either has no ability to shake a tackler or he’s lost his speed.
WR Rueben Randle, Giants
It was all set up for the former second-round pick, especially after Victor Cruz got hurt. Instead, rookie Odell Beckham breezed past him. Even worse, Randle couldn’t take advantage of defenses leaving him alone and focusing on the Giants’ first-round pick. He has just 65 catches for 780 yards and three touchdowns through 15 games, which are decent numbers, but not for a guy who could’ve been his team’s No. 1. Worse, he’s been benched twice for the first quarter of a game by his coach for unspecified violations of team rules.
DE Jared Allen, Bears
Age has caught up to him at 32 as he’s seen his playing time reduced and he’s on his first single-digit sack season since 2006. He had started to tail off for the Vikings a year ago, but still managed 11.5 sacks. Now he’s down to 5.5 in 14 games.
RB LeSean McCoy, Eagles
It’s not that he’s having a bad season (1,220 rushing yards with a game to go), it’s that he’s not living up to the hype of a star back in what was supposed to be the NFL’s most dangerous offense. And for the first five games of the season he was average, with just 273 yards. He eventually got going, but still had only four 100-yard games and won’t approach the 1,607 yards he had a year earlier. He also will likely be under 200 receiving yards – and he hadn’t finished under 300 once in his entire career.
—by Ralph Vacchiano
Berea, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - Johnny Football's rookie season is over.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel will miss Sunday's finale against Baltimore with what his coach said Monday is a "pretty significant" hamstring injury.
Manziel was hurt on a scramble in the final minutes of the first half Sunday when he was hit by two Carolina players while going out of bounds.
The first-round draft pick was replaced by Brian Hoyer, whose status for this weekend's game is up in the air after he suffered a shoulder injury against the Panthers.
The injuries have left Browns coach Mike Pettine uncertain of who will start at quarterback against the Ravens.
Undrafted rookie Connor Shaw will see more reps in practice this week but Pettine said on a conference call Monday he hasn't ruled out other options, according to the team's official website.
Manziel struggled after replacing Hoyer to make his first NFL start against Cincinnati last week and didn't fare much better in four series against the Panthers on Sunday.
He completed 13 of 26 passes in the two starts for 112 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Browns (7-8) have lost four games in a row but will finish with their best record since going 10-6 in 2007.
Allen Park, MI (SportsNetwork.com) - The NFL suspended Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola one game without pay for stomping on Chicago Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson's leg in Sunday's game.
Raiola violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 12 (b) of the NFL Rule Book prohibiting "kicking or kneeing an opponent." The incident took place in the third quarter of Detroit's 20-14 win.
Raiola said after the game he didn't intentionally step on Ferguson's ankle and apologized to him after the game.
"Obviously, I took a good look at it," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday before any suspension had been levied by the league. "I looked at both the coaches copy and also the television copy as well. I believe what Dom told me, that it was inadvertent, but I could also see why it's obviously being reviewed by the league and everybody is taking a real good look at it."
This is Raiola's sixth safety-related rules violation since 2010. He was fined $10,000 earlier this year for striking a New England player in the back of the helmet in the final minute of a Nov. 23 game.
Raiola must stay away from the team during his suspension. He will be reinstated on Dec. 29.
The suspension may be appealed within three business days. Appeals are heard and decided by either Derrick Brooks or Ted Cottrell. Raiola is expected to appeal the suspension.
The Lions play at the Packers on Sunday in a winner-take-all game for the NFC North title. Rookie Travis Swanson will likely start in Raiola's place.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 23:
• The Jags haven't done much right in a while, but they did give us one outlet's NFL Cheerleader of the Year, Whitney Cowart.
• BYU and Memphis played a great bowl game, then had a massive brawl.
• This is actually a little depressing: Peyton Manning is finally playing like a 38-year-old. His showing against Cincy led to a Twitter debate over his arm strength.
• Vince Carter turned back the clock for a sweet old-man jam. Not quite Vinsanity, but still.
• Peyton threw what had to be the worst pick-6 of his career last night.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
A pair of surprising postseason participants will get the post-Christmas bowl action going when Illinois and Louisiana Tech meet up in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. After each program won just four games in 2013, neither the Fighting Illini nor the Bulldogs were picked by many to earn a bowl invite this fall. Now they have an opportunity to cap off successful seasons with a win in the historic Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
For Illinois (6-6) head coach Tim Beckman, the bowl game will hopefully serve as a springboard for even better things in 2015. After going 6-18 with just one Big Ten win (1-15) in his first two seasons in Champaign, Beckman entered this fall squarely on the hot seat.
The Illini struggled to open up conference play, losing their first three, but rebounded to post three victories in their final five Big Ten games. More importantly, a 47-43 win in Northwestern on Nov. 29 gave Illinois that critical sixth victory.
As a result, Beckman has Illinois in a bowl game for the first time since it beat UCLA 20-14 in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
That’s also the last season Louisiana Tech (8-5) was in a bowl game, losing 31-24 to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Bulldogs actually went 9-3 in 2012 under Sonny Dykes, but wound up not playing in a bowl after initially declining an invitation from the Independence Bowl before being left out of the mix altogether.
Dykes left to become California’s new head coach just two days after the bowl fiasco. Skip Holtz replaced Dykes and Louisiana Tech stumbled to a 4-8 record last season. Holtz has turned things around this season, winning eight games and Conference USA’s West Division.
The Bulldogs came up short against Marshall in the C-USA Conference Championship Game, but still have a shot at nine wins. That’s something that’s been accomplished by this program just twice over the past 30 seasons.
This will be the second time these two schools have met. Louisiana Tech beat Illinois 52-24 in Champaign back on Sept. 22, 2012. It was the fourth game in Beckman’s tenure with the Fighting Illini.
Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisiana Tech -6
Illinois’ Key to Victory: Get Wes Lunt Going
Big things were expected of Oklahoma transfer Wes Lunt entering his first season as the Fighting Illini’s starting quarterback. The sophomore got off to a great start, leading Illinois to a 3-1 record in non-conference play before injuries derailed his season. Lunt has played in just three of the past eight games due to a leg injury, and the Illini’s offense has suffered. For the season, Lunt has 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, compared to backup Reilly O’Toole’s nine scoring strikes and seven picks. All six of Illinois’ most productive offensive games (yardage-wise) have been in ones Lunt has started, with an average of 444 total yards per game. Also, in the six games Lunt finished (replaced by O’Toole in the Jan. 22 win over Penn State), he averaged 313.8 passing yards per game. Considering the Illini are ranked near the bottom nationally in rushing offense (117.1 ypg, 3.7 ypc), they need to get the most out of their passing game. Lunt hasn’t played since Nov. 22, so hopefully the month off will be all the time he needs to get back to full strength and get his game back to where it was in September.
Louisiana Tech’s Key to Victory: Apply Heavy Dose of Kenneth Dixon
Dixon, a junior, leads the Bulldogs with 1,236 rushing yards while his 21 rushing touchdowns have him tied for fifth among FBS players. Over three seasons, Dixon has averaged 5.7 yards per carry with 59 total touchdowns (52 rushing). Louisiana Tech has a fairly productive passing attack (252.6 ypg, 29 TDs, 3 INTs), but the weak spot on Illinois’ defense this season has been stopping the run. The Fighting Illini are 123rd out of 128 FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing nearly 250 yards on the ground per game. Opponents are averaging 5.1 yards per carry and have scored 28 rushing touchdowns. Five teams (all from the Big Ten) have run for at least 296 yards against Illinois, including 458 by Nebraska. Dixon may not be as feared as the Cornhuskers’ Ameer Abdullah (208 yards, 3 TDs vs. Illinois) or Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon (175, 4), but he’s gotten the job done for the Bulldogs for three seasons. Louisiana Tech would be wise to give the ball to Dixon and see what he can do against one of the nation’s worst rushing defenses.
Tim Beckman got Illinois back to a bowl game, but barely. The Fighting Illini needed to win their last two games just to get bowl eligible. This team still has its share of holes, especially when it comes to defending the run. Louisiana Tech won eight games in the regular season, but also lost to FCS member Northwestern State and in overtime to Old Dominion. The Bulldogs came up short versus Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game, but they more than held their own against a team that has lost just once. Louisiana Tech’s defense has shown remarkable improvement under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, and Skip Holtz’ team can do some damage on offense as well. Beckman may finally have Illinois going in the right direction, but I don’t think his Fighting Illini will be able to hang with a deeper, more balanced Bulldogs squad.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 34, Illinois 24
Teams that were in drastically different positions a year ago will wrap up their seasons on the same field when NC State takes on UCF in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl. Less than a year removed from its Fiesta Bowl triumph, the Knights are looking for their fourth straight postseason win while the Wolf Pack are back in a bowl game a season after going winless in ACC play.
It’s been quite the run for UCF (9-3) under head coach George O’Leary. A win over NC State would give the Knights their fourth 10-win season over the past five. Although it didn’t come with another prime bowl invite, UCF did defend its American Athletic Conference title, finishing 7-1 and claiming a share of the crown along with Memphis and Cincinnati.
The Knights are still reveling in last season’s 52-42 win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and have won their past three postseason games overall. This also will be their third appearance in the St. Petersburg Bowl. UCF lost to Rutgers in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl and beat Ball State in the ‘12 edition.
On the other side, Dave Doeren has NC State (7-5) back in a bowl game after more than doubling his win total from his 3-9 debut season in Raleigh. The Wolfpack went 0-8 in the ACC last season and got off to another tough start this fall with four straight losses. But they turned things around late, winning three of their last four including a 35-7 thumping of rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
NC State’s last postseason appearance came in 2012 when the Wolfpack lost to Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl. That game was played in the Commodores’ hometown of Nashville, Tenn., while this game in St. Petersburg, Fla., is just down the road from Orlando, UCF’s home.
This will be the third matchup between these two programs, with each winning on the other’s home field. The most recent meeting took place early in the 2010 season when NC State beat UCF 28-21 in Orlando.
NC State vs. UCF
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UCF -2
NC State’s Key to Victory: Establish the Run
In his first season with the Wolfpack, Florida transfer quarterback Jacoby Brissett has put together a solid season. He has 22 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, but this offense has been most successful when the emphasis has been on running the football. Brissett is second on the team with 498 yards rushing, one of four players with at least 282. Shadrach Thornton leads the way with 811 yards (5.5 ypc) and nine touchdowns, 271 of those coming in back-to-back wins against Wake Forest and North Carolina. In NC State’s three ACC wins the Wolfpack had more than twice as many rushing yards (871) than passing (335). In their five conference losses, the split was 606 rushing vs. 1,004 passing. Dave Doeren runs a spread offense, but this NC State offense has been at its best employing the old-school approach of simply trying to cram the football down your opponent’s throat. Whether it will work against UCF’s stout rushing defense (5th in FBS) remains to be seen, but given the results, you certainly can’t fault the Wolfpack for at least trying.
UCF’s Key to Victory: Play to Your Strength
Blake Bortles isn’t the only player missing from last season’s Fiesta Bowl championship team, but he and 1,100-yard rusher Storm Johnson are arguably the two biggest losses on offense. Yet, the Knights successfully defended their conference title and are on the verge of another 10-win season. A pretty good defensive team last season, George O’Leary’s unit has taken things to a whole different level this fall. UCF finished 2013 29th in the nation in total defense. This season the Knights enter this game ranked third, behind only Clemson and Penn State. They have been difficult to run on (97.4 ypg, 5th) and have allowed just three teams (Missouri, UConn and East Carolina) to score 30 or more points. UCF has forced 27 turnovers (18 INTs) and features one of the nation’s top defenders in senior linebacker Terrance Plummer. Sophomore Justin Holman has done a respectable job replacing Bortles at quarterback and the Knights have experienced playmakers at wide receiver, but this team has been able to build on the success of last season behind a stout defense. UCF’s strength (stopping the run) seems to play into NC State’s (running the ball), so as long as the offense puts some drives together and takes care of the ball (28 giveaways), the Knights shouldn’t need many points to pick up their 10th win of the season. Of course that’s what happens when you are giving up fewer than 18 per game.
Former UCF quarterback Blake Bortles is just up the road toiling for the Jacksonville Jaguars, while his Knights continue to take care of business. George O’Leary has put together a program with staying power, even if it’s in a non-Power 5 conference. This Knights team is built around defense, which should prove to be a tough test for NC State’s run-heavy approach. It’s not the Fiesta Bowl in primetime, but UCF’s postseason success continues as the Knights shut down the Wolfpack in their de facto home game at Tropicana Field.
Prediction: UCF 23, NC State 17
Move over, Mike Malone firing. The Detroit Pistons have made the most shocking move of the 2014-15 NBA season by dropping underperforming star forward Josh Smith.
It’s not surprising that Stan Van Gundy (team coach, as well president of basketball operations) doesn’t want Smith around. Since signing a four-year deal worth $54 million in 2013, the former Atlanta Hawks phenom has been lousy. This year, he’s shot just 39 percent from the floor, including a devastatingly bad 24 percent from three, and an almost unbelievable 47 percent mark from the charity stripe.
What does come as news, however, is that Van Gundy had the chutzpah — and owner Tom Gores’ backing — to actually cut Smith loose. NBA contracts are largely made up of guaranteed money, and J Smoove’s is no exception. Despite being excused from his duties as a Piston, he’ll still be getting every penny of what he signed up for. He’ll now be paid, essentially, to simply stop being around anymore.
Detroit will get to use a “stretch provision” on his deal to allow them to spread the payments out over more years, which will free up salary cap space and make their roster more flexible going forward. But the maligned Smith is still, ultimately, owed something close to $40 million. That’s no small pill to swallow.
Rumblings prior to the waiving suggested that the Pistons had daily pursued trades involving Smith, with all 29 other teams in the league, and that zero were interested in making a swap at a reasonable price.
But now that Smith’s available for a much smaller price tag, there’s something like a bidding war for his services among playoff-eligible teams. The Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and Sacramento Kings are all pursuing a deal with Smith, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein. Stay tuned for details as this story continues to unfold.
— John Wilmes
Points should not be in short supply when Rutgers and North Carolina square off in the inaugural Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Essentially a retooled version of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl with Power 5 conference tie-ins, Ford Field will feature a pair of defenses that combined are giving up more than 900 yards and nearly 70 points per game.
Making the move from the American Athletic Conference to the much more competitive Big Ten, many expected Rutgers to finish at the bottom of its division and well out of postseason consideration. Instead Kyle Flood made it three bowl invites in three seasons, as the Scarlet Knights (7-5) knocked off Michigan and Maryland on their way to a fourth-place finish (3-5) in the Big Ten’s East Division.
Next up for Flood is to get his first bowl victory. Rutgers lost to Virginia Tech 13-10 in overtime in the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl and 29-19 to Notre Dame in last season’s Pinstripe Bowl. Those two losses ended a streak of five straight bowl wins under former head coach Greg Schiano.
Expectations for North Carolina (6-6) entering the fall were considerably higher, but another slow start doomed the Tar Heels’ ACC Coastal Division title hopes. A four-game losing streak forced Larry Fedora’s team to put together another strong second half just to get bowl eligible.
Fedora is 21-16 in three seasons in Chapel Hill, which isn’t that bad considering what he has had deal with off of the field. A bowl game ban in 2012, which was the final product of the Butch Davis era, is the only thing keeping Fedora from a third straight postseason appearance as Carolina’s head coach.
Instead, Fedora will look to improve his bowl record with the Tar Heels to 2-0. North Carolina beat Cincinnati 39-17 in last season’s Belk Bowl to conclude a 6-1 run to finish out the 2013 campaign.
This represents the seventh meeting between these two schools. Rutgers and North Carolina have split the previous six mtachups, the last being a 24-22 Tar Heels victory in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2011. That was Schiano’s final season with the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers vs. North Carolina
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -3
Rutgers’ Key to Victory: Take Advantage of Bad North Carolina D
The Scarlet Knights are not an offensive powerhouse by any means. They rank 84th in the nation and seventh in the Big Ten in total offense (378.8 ypg) and 89th and ninth in scoring offense (25.6 ppg). Rutgers has scored 38 or more points four times, but it also was held to a total of 54 points in its five Big Ten losses. However, the Scarlet Knights’ offensive inefficiency does not compare to North Carolina’s defensive struggles. The Tar Heels are 118th in total defense (495.7 ypg), 119th in scoring defense (38.9 ppg), 117th in rushing defense (232.2 ypg), and 108th in passing defense (263.5 ypg). There’s no way to sugarcoat it, this defense has been horrendous. Five different teams have scored 43 or more points on North Carolina, including 70 by East Carolina. As bad as the Heels’ defense has been, it’s still up to Rutgers to take advantage of this seemingly favorable matchup. This means that quarterback Gary Nova needs to avoid the turnovers that have plagued his career and give junior wide receiver Leonte Carroo (1,043 yds. 10 TDs), a chance to operate against a secondary that has already allowed 28 passing plays of 30 yards or more. The Knights also may be able to get their young running backs going on the ground too. Whatever the game plan, Rutgers needs to figure out a way to generate some points or run the risk of being the only offense to not enjoy success against one of the nation’s worst defenses.
North Carolina’s Key to Victory: Put Together a Complete Game
Given the Tar Heels’ preseason expectations, it’s perfectly fine to label this season a disappointment. Defense has been a major problem for Larry Fedora’s team all season, but so has consistency. North Carolina has looked pretty bad, as it did in a 70-41 loss at East Carolina followed up by a 50-35 thrashing at Clemson, but it’s also had its moments. The Tar Heels hung with Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., before falling 50-43, beat ACC Coastal Division champ Georgia Tech and thumped Duke 45-20 in Durham. And of course they followed up that huge win by laying an absolute egg against NC State (35-7 home loss) to close out their slate. As poorly as the defense has performed, this offense (34.3 ppg, 3rd in the ACC and 35th nationally) is capable of scoring enough points to win shootouts (see Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, even Notre Dame). If junior quarterback Marquise Williams can continue his solid play (300.6 ypg of total offense, 19th in FBS), the Tar Heels should be able to do some things against Rutgers’ defense, which hasn’t exactly shut opponents down. However, the defense will need to rise to the occasion as well, and a contribution on special teams, a strength last season, certainly wouldn’t hurt. Coincidentally, the circumstances surrounding this game are similar to those of last season. Last November, Carolina lost its regular-season finale to finish 6-6 and everyone was wondering which team would show up for the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati. Well, the Tar Heels put together one of their best all-around efforts, with offense, defense and special teams all making sizeable contributions in their convincing 39-17 victory over the Bearcats. Will there be a repeat performance against the Scarlet Knights?
Rutgers has the better record, but the Scarlet Knights’ signature win this season was a come-from-behind victory at Maryland to close out the regular season. Otherwise, Kyle Flood’s team has defeated just one other bowl team (Navy) while getting thumped by the Big Ten’s better teams. For all of its defensive woes, North Carolina still won six games, including victories over ACC Coastal Division champion Georgia Tech and Duke. The Tar Heels beat four bowl teams (Pittsburgh, San Diego State) and nearly took down Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. North Carolina’s defense has had trouble stopping anyone this fall, but I am not convinced that Rutgers has enough offensive firepower to take full advantage of this matchup. On the other hand, I do think Larry Fedora’s offense will be effective against the Scarlet Knights’ defense with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams being the difference-maker in the end. There should be no lack of offensive fireworks at Ford Field as the Tar Heels have just enough firepower to outlast the Scarlet Knights in a back-and-forth, highly entertaining affair in the Motor City.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, Rutgers 30
Avoiding the sights and sounds of Honolulu will be challenging for Fresno State and Rice, as the two programs meet for the first time since 2004 in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The Bulldogs and Owls had to overcome their share of issues to reach the postseason, but both teams were rewarded with a trip to Hawaii to close out the year and an opportunity to build momentum for 2015.
Fresno State was 3-6 in mid-November, but the Bulldogs rallied to finish the regular season at 6-6. Coach Tim DeRuyter’s team lost to Boise State in the Mountain West Championship, yet getting to a bowl and winning three out of the last four games is a positive sign for a team that had to replace offensive standouts in quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams heading into 2014. Rice also started 2014 slow by losing its first three matchups of the season. However, the Owls played a tough schedule – Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Old Dominion – and coach David Bailiff’s team eventually settled and won six consecutive games before a loss at Marshall on Nov. 15. Rice has had to overcome injuries to two of its standout players, as defensive tackle Christian Covington had season-ending knee surgery in November, and receiver Jordan Taylor missed the first three games of 2014.
Fresno State and Rice have met six previous times. The Bulldogs have won all six matchups against the Owls. These two programs are former rivals from the Western Athletic Conference.
Fresno State vs. Rice
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Rice -2.5
Fresno State’s Key to Victory: Protect QB Brian Burrell
Replacing Derek Carr at quarterback wasn’t expected to be easy, and Fresno State averaged only 233.8 passing yards per game after recording nearly 400 yards through the air per contest last season. Brian Burrell was left with big shoes to fill under center, and the junior experienced his share of ups and downs in 2014. Burrell finished the season with 2,576 yards and 22 passing scores and should have an opportunity to shine in the Hawaii Bowl against a struggling Rice secondary. The Owls ranked 10th in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and allowed 27 scores through the air this season. While the pass defense has been a problem for Rice, getting to the quarterback is not. The Owls tied for first in Conference USA with 35 sacks, and Fresno State’s offensive line allowed 36 sacks to opposing defenses in 2014. Ends Zach Patt and Brian Nordstrom (combined 16 sacks) led the charge off the edge, while six other players have at least two tackles for a loss. Burrell does have mobility (328 yards, 3 TDs), which should come in handy against a solid Rice defensive line. If Burrell has time to throw, he should hit on big plays, especially to receiver Josh Harper (86 receptions, 1,072 yards, 7 TDs). Also, running back Marteze Waller (6.2 ypc) is a big-play threat on the ground, and his presence could help slow the Rice pass rush.
Rice’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
Partially due to its inability to establish a ground game against Marshall and Louisiana Tech, Rice lost two out of its last three games this season. The Owls were held to 34 rushing yards in a 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech and only 81 yards on 35 attempts against Marshall. There’s not a 1,000-yard rusher on this team, but Rice has three players capable of making plays on the ground. Running back Jowan Davis (910 yards) leads the team in rushing yardage, with the bigger Darik Dillard pacing the offense in rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Driphus Jackson is also a factor on the ground (360 yards), but the junior also has an opportunity to take advantage of a Fresno State secondary that ranks 116th nationally in pass efficiency defense. While the overall statistics leave plenty to be desired, the Bulldogs have held their last four opponents to only 23.2 points per game and generated 10 sacks over the final three contests. Balance on offense is critical for Rice’s victory hopes on Dec. 24. In three losses this season, the Owls attempted 34 or more passes. In Rice’s seven victories, passers never attempted more than 28 throws. Fresno State has made improvement on defense over the last few weeks of the season. Can the Bulldogs continue that into the postseason? Or will Rice’s balance and mistake-free game-plan be enough to maintain successful drives (and win) against Fresno State’s defense?
Fresno State’s last appearance in the Hawaii Bowl wasn’t a trip to remember. The Bulldogs lost 43-10 to SMU, and coach Tim DeRuyter is looking for his first bowl win at Fresno State after losing to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl last year. Rice is 2-1 in its last three bowl matchups and is making its first trip to Hawaii since 2003. It’s hard to find a glaring edge for either of these two teams in this game. Conference supremacy doesn’t mean much in bowl games, but Fresno State played in a better league and had a more challenging non-conference slate. Does that mean anything for this game? Hard to say. However, the Bulldogs were playing better defense at the end of the year, and Burrell to Harper combination will be tough for Rice to stop.
Prediction: Fresno State 34, Rice 31
The inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl will reunite Central Michigan and Western Kentucky as postseason foes, but don’t expect either team to complain. From a destination standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than Nassau in the Bahamas, even if the game takes place on Christmas Eve.
Two seasons ago, the Chippewas and Hilltoppers met in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit to finish out the 2012 season. Central Michigan used a fourth quarter touchdown to beat Western Kentucky 24-21, as both teams finished 7-6. The rematch could feature even more points, as the two teams are combining to average nearly 70 per game.
Most of that damage has been done by the Hilltoppers (7-5), who are sixth in the nation in scoring (44.0 ppg) in their first season under former Louisville quarterback Jeff Brohm. Western Kentucky is coming off of a 67-point effort in its overtime win at Marshall, which put an end to the Thundering Herd’s dreams of going undefeated, and has scored 45 or more points five other times. The Hilltoppers finished in a three-way tie in Conference USA’s East Division with a 4-4 record.
This is just Western Kentucky’s second bowl appearance despite the fact they went 8-4 under current Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino last season.
Central Michigan (7-5) also is back in the postseason for the first time since beating the Hilltoppers two seasons ago in Detroit. The Chippewas went 6-6 last season, but were not selected to fill one of the Mid-American Conference’s bowl slots. With a win in the Bahamas, Dan Enos’ team would finish with the most victories in a season since CMU went 12-2 in 2009 under Butch Jones, who is now the head coach at Tennessee.
Unlike Western Kentucky, Central Michigan has gotten it done with defense this season. The Chippewas are 16th in the nation in total (331.2 ypg) and 32nd in scoring (23.2 ppg) defense.
The 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is the only other time these two schools have met on the gridiron.
Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Western Kentucky -4
Central Michigan’s Key to Victory: Get Off to Fast Start
The Chippewas have outscored opponents 101-36 in the first quarter. Not surprisingly they are 6-2 in games in which they have led after the first 15 minutes. From then on, Central Michigan has been outscored 242-201 over the final three periods. Fortunately, the Chippewas have done a good job maintaining leads, going 5-0 when up at halftime. More of a defensive-oriented team, they have not been successful when having to playing catch up, posting a 1-4 mark when trailing at the half. Fast starts are important, but especially against a high-scoring team like Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are averaging 44 points per game, with much of that damage coming in the first half. WKU has outscored opponents 310-213 in the first half, which means on average it has an eight-point lead (26-18) at halftime. The Hilltoppers haven’t been that great at protecting leads (4-3 when up at halftime), but they possess considerably more offensive firepower than the Chippewas. Even if Central Michigan’s defense is successful in slowing down WKU’s high-powered attack, it’s critical that the Chippewas take the fight to the Hilltoppers and get out to an early lead because this is not the type of team they want to have to mount a comeback against.
Western Kentucky’s Key to Victory: Brandon Doughty’s Arm
A senior, Doughty leads the nation with 4,344 yards passing and 44 touchdowns. He’s completed 67.5 percent of his passes (ninth in FBS), thrown just 10 interceptions in 510 attempts (third) and his 163.6 passer rating is fifth nationally. Doughty is a big reason why the Hilltoppers are sixth both in total (525.3 ypg) and scoring (44.0 ppg) offense and third in passing (365.0 ypg). Western Kentucky obviously is a team that leans on its passing offense, and when Doughty has been on, he’s been near perfect. In the Hilltoppers’ seven wins, Doughty’s touchdown-to-interception ratio is a sparkling 32:3, compared to 12:7 in the five losses. Central Michigan enters this game with one of the nation’s top defenses, statistically speaking. The Chippewas are allowing just over 23 points per game and have limited passing attacks to 211.4 yards per game while intercepting 14 passes (versus 19 TD passes allowed). As well as this defense has played, it has yet to face a passing offense as prolific as Western Kentucky’s. And Doughty is just one part of the problem; as seven different Hilltoppers have caught at least 23 passes and nine have two or more touchdown receptions. Only one team (Louisiana Tech) has really been able to shut down Doughty (134-1-4 in 59-10 loss) this season, which does not bode well for Central Michigan’s defense.
Two teams with opposite strengths. Central Michigan has gotten the job with defense, while Western Kentucky has lit up the scoreboard this fall. Dan Enos’ team is back in a bowl game and beat Purdue earlier this season, but the Boilermakers went just 3-9 and other than a road win over eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois, the Chippewas haven’t defeated an FCS team with a winning record. The Hilltoppers have wins over three bowl teams, including MAC member Bowling Green and previously undefeated Marshall. Central Michigan’s defense has been solid, but it has yet to face an offense like Western Kentucky’s. Brandon Doughty shows why he’s one of the nation’s most dangerous passers, as the Hilltoppers overwhelm the Chippewas to exact a little revenge from two years ago and earn the program’s first-ever bowl victory in the process.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 37, Central Michigan 27
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl provided plenty of fireworks. The back-and-forth offensive battle ended with Memphis winning 55-48 in double overtime.
While this game might end up as one of the top bowl matchups of 2014-15, the Miami Beach Bowl – at least for some – won’t be remembered for the quality on-field play. Instead, the bowl is likely to be remembered for a postgame brawl that erupted after Memphis intercepted BYU quarterback Christian Stewart to clinch the victory.
Here are a few videos and clips of the postgame fight in Marlins Park:
Why do football players wear crazy colored contact lenses?
Part of it is intimidation. Imagine looking across the line of scrimmage at physical freak Mario Williams; now, throw in a demonic, blood-red pair of contacts, and you've got some real nightmare fuel. “It’s a psyche thing for me,” said Williams. “It’s nothing about my performance. But it’s like wearing a mask without wearing a mask."
Other football players who’ve sported crazy contacts include Clemson’s Kalon Davis, Vanderbilt’s Caleb Azubike, NFL receiver Santonio Holmes, and retired NFL player Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Will anyone ever break Peyton Manning’s career record for TD passes?
It’s possible, although it won’t happen any time soon. Manning has left Brett Favre’s career mark of 508 safely in his rear-view mirror, and no other active player has as many as 400. Manning’s closest active pursuer, 35-year-old Drew Brees, could average 35 TD passes through age 40 and still fall short. But one guy to keep an eye on is Manning’s successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, who has an excellent chance to end his third season with more TD passes than Peyton tossed in his first three campaigns. Luck is young, healthy and in an offense that’s built for him to put up huge numbers.
NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. took to Twitter recently to show off a Jesus-adorned "Birthday Boy" sweater. Not to be outdone, his girlfriend, Amy Reimann, took it once step further, sporting a red and white sweater with, um, reindeer humping.
Marshawn Lynch may be terrible at post-game press conferences, but he more than makes up for it on the field. During Sunday night's game against the Cardinals, Lynch went "Beast Mode" and broke one for a 79-yard TD run, where he went around, through and over the Arizona defense.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of his new job, NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave an extended interview to ESPN’s Andy Katz. High on the list of topics broached was widespread fan and media speculation that there is a plague of tanking in the NBA, with suspicions being particularly aroused by what the 2-23 Philadelphia 76ers are doing.
Silver thinks the reports of teams losing intentionally are overblown. "I absolutely don't think any team is trying to lose," he said to Katz.
"No player is going out there to lose. In terms of management, I think there's an absolute legitimate rebuilding process that goes on. It's so hard to win in this league, and it's so complex. I think what's happened in the case of Philadelphia — their strategy has been reduced into a tweet. This notion, 'be bad to be good’… when it gets reduced into a headline, I understand the reaction.”
Philadelphia, first of all, is the only team in the league clearly doing this. All the other dragging franchises, upon a close look, seem just to be mismanaged and simply bad.
Silver is right. The complex, lengthy strategy employed by Philly general manager Sam Hinkie is rare, unrepresentative, and a high-stakes gambit to boot. The 76ers are looking to exploit a sort of loophole by constructing a roster too young and untalented to compete at a high level, and climbing up the draft ladder. But the loophole is narrow, and if the Sixers come out of this muddy tunnel as clean winners, it won’t be because they sucked for a while.
Team-building is still done by smart coaching, sharp management, hard-working players and — of course — good luck. There’s a lot more to it than that, though: accurately explaining the difference between NBA teams who thrive, and those who don’t, would require dozens of pages. Organizational aptitude is a big, tricky beast, and Silver smartly reduces the popular “tanking” conversation into the sliver of an argument it is.
— John Wilmes
Dear Tennessee Titans fans,
You don’t want Jay Cutler as your starting quarterback.
When a general manager or head coach evaluates an NFL quarterback, be it through free agency, trades or the NFL Draft, a dozen different qualifications must be addressed.
With the exception of a strong arm, Cutler doesn’t have a single one.
Physically, Cutler has the arm strength (1) that NFL teams have always desired. But other than that, he has been hurt frequently (2) throughout his career and no longer has the mobility (3) he displayed in college. Cutler hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2010, missing six games in 2011, five games in 2013 and the second half of the most important game of his entire life (more on this later).
From an accuracy standpoint (4), Cutler has been average his entire career. His career 61.7% completion rate is 12th among all active passers, behind Matt Schaub and Ryan Tannehill. His poor precision is better illustrated with his inability to protect the football (5). Cutler is leading the NFL with 18 interceptions and leads the NFL with 12 fumbles this season. He’s thrown multiple interceptions in seven of his 14 starts this year.
Only once since his rookie season has Cutler thrown fewer than 12 interceptions in a season and has led the league twice in the category. He has a career 3.4% interception ratio (interceptions/attempt) — which 68th in NFL history behind Joey Harrington, Josh Freeman, Charlie Batch, Chad Henne and David Carr. His career TD:INT ratio is 1.4.
By comparison, his archrival Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL all-time with a career 3.9 TD:INT ratio, a career 105.8 QB-rating and a career 1.7% interception ratio. For the record, Rodgers has thrown more than 11 interceptions once in his entire career.
That said, turnovers can be overcome if you produce (6) at a Brett Favre-type level, but Cutler isn’t doing that either.
In the modern era of passing football, throwing for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns has become a normally accessible benchmark of success. Over the last four years (including 2014), a quarterback topped 4,000 yards 38 times. Basically, the top third of the NFL throws for at least 4,000 yards each season. Jay Cutler has topped 4,000 yards in a season once ('08) and has never thrown more than 28 touchdowns in a season.
It's not like he's devoid of supporting playmakers either. Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett make the Titans roster look more like a Sun Belt team than an NFL squad.
From a leadership standpoint (7), various players from around the NFL have been outspoken about his influence in the locker room or huddle. They “don’t like Cutler as a teammate.” He pouts constantly, publicly berates teammates and has arguably the worst body language of any quarterback of this generation.
He’s terrible with the media (8), and has had an interesting off-the-field track record (9) — mostly dating back to his college days (search: phone booth). Let’s be honest, he’s the second most famous member of his own marriage (to Kristin Cavallari). He’s simply doesn’t qualify as a “face of the franchise.”
Again, most of these deficiencies will be overlooked if a QB can “just win baby.” But Cutler is anything but a winner (10). In nine seasons as a starter, Cutler has posted a winning record just three times and he’s never won more than 10 games in a year. He was 17-20 as the starter in Denver, is 44-37 in Chicago and is 61-57 overall as an NFL starter. Matthew Stafford has won at least 10 games as many times as Cutler (twice) and he’s played only four full seasons as a starter… FOR THE LIONS!
More important than winning in the regular season is winning in the postseason (11). Cutler has led his team to the postseason once in his nine-year career and never took his college team (Vanderbilt) to a bowl game — he was 11-35 as a starter in college. He did win his first playoff game at home against Seattle in 2010 before losing to Green Bay at home in the 2010 NFL Championship game.
In the most important game of his entire career, he completed six passes for 80 yards, no touchdowns and one interception in the embarrassing loss to their archrival with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. He missed most of the second half with an injury as teammates questioned his toughness.
How about what it will take to acquire (12) Cutler? To obtain this mediocre signal caller, a team would have to give up some package of draft picks — which might not be too hefty a price considering Cutler’s lack of production — and then would be on the hook for a huge contract. Cutler hits the cap between $16-17 million per year for the next four seasons before it rises to over $20 million in 2019-20. Cutler would be 38 when his contract runs out in 2020.
If the Bears were to cut Cutler, then at least there is some logic in signing the player, but trading for him with his current contract seems idiotic.
So why are Titans fans seemingly obsessed with bringing in Cutler?
He has a strong arm, is available and is better than Zach Mettenberger? He played his college football in Nashville and has a famous wife?
Sure, he’s more experienced and proven than Mettenbeger by a wide margin. But really, the Titans rookie QB is just a dramatically cheaper version of Cutler — a big armed passer with an “interesting attitude” who isn’t all that accurate and hasn’t really won much of anything. At least, Mettenberger has upside.
It’s no sure thing, but why not draft a rookie superstar with huge upside — Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston — and package him with Cutler 2.0 (aka, Mettenberger) and go to battle in 2014?
No, Nashville, you don’t want Jay Cutler in a Titans uniform.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 22:
• The most popular female athletes, according to Google. No. 4 is lovely tennis player Eugenie Bouchard (pictured).
• Despite yesterday's close game, the Pats and Jets are speeding in opposite directions.
• Marshawn Lynch's media trolling was particularly polite yesterday. He's turned postgame lockerroom interviews into performance art.
• This is new to me, although they might have been doing it all year: Every TD from every game of Week 16, from NFL RedZone.
• Relive Marshawn Lynch's earth-shaking Beast Mode moment from yesterday.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of football. With that in mind, Athlon Sports rounded up the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from Week 16 of the NFL season.
New England clinched a first-round playoff bye with a 17-16 road win against the New York Jets. The Patriots have earned a first-round bye for the fifth consecutive season, the longest streak of any NFL team since the current playoff format began in 1990, surpassing Dallas (1992-95) and San Francisco (1992-95).
Patriots coach Bill Belichick earned his 230th career win, surpassing Pro Football Hall of Famer Curly Lambeau (229) for the fourth-most total victories by a head coach in NFL history.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers passed for 318 yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ 20-3 win at Tampa Bay. Rodgers has passed for 4,155 yards and 36 touchdowns, his third career season with at least 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns. He is tied with Drew Brees for the second-most such seasons in NFL history, trailing Peyton Manning (4).
Packers running back Eddie Lacy rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown, pushing his season totals to 1,039 rushing yards and 13 scrimmage touchdowns. Lacy is the first player in franchise history to rush for at least 1,000 yards and score 10+ scrimmage touchdowns in each of his first two seasons.
With a 44-yard touchdown Lacy hit 1,000 yards rushing for the second time in his two-year career. The last Packer to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons was John Brockington (1972-72).
Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant had a 19-yard touchdown catch in the Cowboys’ 42-7 win over Indianapolis. Bryant has a touchdown catch in 12 consecutive games against the AFC, extending the longest interconference streak since the 1970 merger.
Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson had six catches for 103 yards in the Lions’ 20-14 win at Chicago. Johnson now has 44 career 100-yard receiving games, the second-most in a player’s first eight NFL seasons. Only Randy Moss (45) has more.
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell notched his 11th win, tying Potsy Clark for the most victories by a first-year head coach in franchise history. Clark won 11 games (11-3) for the 1931 Portsmouth Spartans.
New York Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, had eight catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the Giants’ 37-27 win at St. Louis. He has 79 receptions, the most in NFL history for a player in his first 11 career games. Beckham is the first rookie in NFL history with at least 130 receiving yards and a touchdown catch in three consecutive games. Beckham (11) and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (11) each have at least 10 receiving touchdowns, the first time in NFL history two rookie wide receivers have done so in the same season.
Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson had six receptions for 65 yards in the Texans’ 25-13 win against Baltimore, becoming the 10th player in NFL history to reach 1,000 career catches. Johnson, who has 1,002 receptions in 168 career games, is the second-fastest player to reach 1,000 catches, trailing only Marvin Harrison, who reached the milestone in 167 games. Johnson also surpassed Hines Ward (1,000) for No. 9 on the all-time receptions list.
Dallas was up 28-0 and had 17 first downs in a 42-7 win over visiting Indianapolis before the Colts collected their first first down of the game. Indy finished with 17 first downs to Dallas' 25. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had 16 straight completions that included four touchdown passes in the rout.
Miami became the first team in NFL history to record a go-ahead safety in the final minute of the fourth quarter when defensive end Terrence Fede blocked a punt out of bounds for a safety in a 37-35 Dolphins win over the Vikings.
Atlanta scored a 30-14 win at New Orleans Sunday to push its NFC South record to 5-0 while the Falcons are 1-9 against other teams this season. This was the first time Atlanta has swept New Orleans since 2005.
The Sacramento Kings are a spectacle of franchise upheaval right now. And after eager second-year owner Vivek Ranadive had coach Mike Malone fired last week — despite undeniable improvement from last season, and an extended absence from their best player DeMarcus Cousins — the team looks like it’s not quite done making major moves.
While the hunt for a proper replacement for Malone (to take the seat of interim man Ty Corbin, who’s believed to be short for the job) looks like it will wait for later, Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro has been making some phone calls about acquiring other players.
The most recent word is that D’Alessandro and Billy King of the Brooklyn Nets have discussed a deal that would land All-Star point guard Deron Williams with the Kings. Brooklyn would get Darren Collison, Derrick Williams and Jason Thompson in return. ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo and Ohm Youngmisuk have the scoop.
Ranadive’s desire to win is immense, so he’s willing to make big moves. His thirst for the home run trade or hire seems to be an extension of some of the tech biz principles that made him a billionaire.
"The NBA has become like the high-tech business," Ranadive recently told ESPN. "Just because you invented the iPhone doesn't mean you can rest on your laurels because somebody else is building a better iPhone. Just because you win 50 games doesn't mean you can be satisfied with the status quo. So we live in a time when good enough isn't, and we need to keep getting better. So while we have a good foundation, we needed to pivot. We needed to go."
Whether Williams is the man to turn Sacramento into a veritable NBA supercomputer is hard to know. He’s a very compromised player after a litany of ankle injuries, and as such his contract — which owes him about $63 million through 2016-17 — makes him less than an ideal asset for any salary cap.
But he’s still a wildly talented, shrewd, skilled player when he’s healthy, and an obvious upgrade over Collison. With Cousins and Rudy Gay, he’d make for a trio that might cause some more heat in the thick of the Western Conference.
— John Wilmes
Week 16 of the NFL season concludes with a battle of AFC division leaders as the Denver Broncos are set to take on the Cincinnati Bengals on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Broncos (11-3) have already clinched their fourth straight AFC West title and could secure a first-round bye with a victory tonight. The Bengals (9-4-1) are trying to hold off the Steelers (10-5) for the AFC North crown, but more importantly a win would guarantee a fourth straight playoff berth.
Denver has won four in a row behind a rejuvenated running game and Peyton Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati. The Bengals have won four out of five (all on the road), but haven’t fared too well in primetime this season. Cincinnati got blasted by New England 43-17 on Sunday night in Week 5 and was embarrassed 24-3 by Cleveland at home on Thursday night in Week 10.
Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Denver -3.5
|Denver 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ OAK||W 41 - 17||Recap|
|11/16||@ STL||L 7 - 22||Recap|
|11/23||vs MIA||W 39 - 36||Recap|
|11/30||@ KC||W 29 - 16||Recap|
|12/7||vs BUF||W 24 - 17||Recap|
|12/14||@ SD||W 22 - 10||Recap|
|12/22||@ CIN||L 28 - 37||Recap|
|12/28||vs OAK||W 47 - 14||Recap|
Denver’s Key to Victory: Don’t Forget About Peyton
The Broncos have won four in a row and they have done it in a somewhat unusual way. Instead of riding Peyton Manning’s right arm, Denver has been content with punishing teams on the ground. The Broncos have 659 yards rushing and nearly as many rushing touchdowns (five) as passing (seven) over the past four games. C.J. Anderson has been a revelation, but the grind may be getting to him as he’s averaged 2.9 yards per carry over the last two games. Meanwhile, Manning has seen his attempts and completions drop in each of the past five games. Whether it’s injury-related (has been dealing with a thigh issue) or there’s more to the reports of diminished arm strength with the weather turning colder, Denver has relied less on its future Hall of Fame signal-caller lately. However, tonight may be a perfect opportunity to change things up, considering Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati with a 20:5 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 106.8. The Bengals are 11th in the NFL in passing defense, but they will have their hands full against Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of Denver’s pass-catchers. The running game has worked recently, but the Broncos have enjoyed a fair amount of success through the air too. Perhaps tonight they should take a page out of their old playbook?
|Cincinnati 2014 Schedule|
|11/6||vs CLE||L 3 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||@ NO||W 27 - 10||Recap|
|11/23||@ HOU||W 22 - 13||Recap|
|11/30||@ TB||W 14 - 13||Recap|
|12/7||vs PIT||L 21 - 42||Recap|
|12/14||@ CLE||W 30 - 0||Recap|
|12/22||vs DEN||W 37 - 28||Recap|
|12/28||@ PIT||L 17 - 27||Recap|
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Is Andy Dalton Ready for Primetime?
The Bengals have leaned on Jeremy Hill recently, and the second-round pick out of LSU has responded. In the last five games alone, Hill has rushed for 473 yards on 91 carries with three touchdowns. For the season, he’s averaging five yards per carry and has shown that he can handle a heavy workload (18.2 carries per game during this span). However, Denver’s defense has really clamped down on the run this season. The Broncos are second only to the Lions in rushing defense, giving up 71.6 yards per game. Only one rusher (Tre Mason) has gone over 100 yards on the ground against them and they have allowed just 67 yards per game over the last four contests. With Hill’s seemingly tough matchup, Cincinnati will need Andy Dalton to make more plays through the air to try and loosen up Denver’s defense. Unfortunately, Dalton has not played his best when he’s been in the national spotlight. His playoff struggles (0-3, 1 TD, 6 INTs) have been well documented, but he’s also just 2-6 in his career in primetime (Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights) games. When the stadium lights are on, Dalton’s production goes down – 53.6 percent completion rate, 199.1 yards passing per game and as many interceptions (8) as total touchdowns (7 pass, 1 rush). The Bengals are on doorstep of their fourth consecutive playoff berth, a first for this franchise, but for this team to have any success in January, Dalton needs to play better when the stakes are highest. What better practice than tonight against one of AFC’s top teams?
Denver has already punched its playoff ticket and now is just playing for a bye and home-field advantage. Cincinnati can get in with a win tonight, which would certainly take some pressure off prior to Sunday’s division-deciding finale in Pittsburgh. The Bengals have won four of their last five because of their defense and a bruising running game, but they had all sorts of issues against the Steelers, an offensive team in the mold of the Broncos, and are matched up against one of the NFL’s stingiest rushing defenses tonight. Peyton Manning has been rather ordinary lately, but he’s still a future Hall of Famer while Andy Dalton has not held up well in primetime settings. Denver sticks to its recent script (running the ball, playing tough defense) with a few deviations courtesy of No. 18, as the Broncos wrap up a first-round bye, setting the stage for a massive Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh showdown Sunday in the Steel City.
Prediction: Denver 27, Cincinnati 20
Marshall and Northern Illinois were each on the cusp of an appearance in a bigger bowl game, but the two programs meet for the first time since 2001 in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. The Thundering Herd and Huskies were two of the nation’s top teams from the Group of 5 conferences and were in contention for a spot in one of college football’s top bowl games until Boise State was picked for that designation after it defeated Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship. Marshall and Northern Illinois combined for 23 wins this season, and Tuesday night’s matchup is only the third bowl game (Rose, Sugar and Boca Raton) where both teams are conference champions.
Marshall cruised to an 11-0 start but lost by a point in overtime to Western Kentucky on the final weekend of action in November. Even though the loss to the Hilltoppers ended the Thundering Herd’s hopes of a perfect season, coach Doc Holliday’s team won 10 of their 13 games by at least 15 points and claimed their first conference title since 2002. Northern Illinois continued to dominate the MAC by recording its fifth season of at least 11 victories and won its third conference championship in four years by defeating Bowling Green 51-17.
Marshall and Northern Illinois have played in seven previous meetings. The Huskies own a 4-3 edge over the Thundering Herd, but these two programs have not played since 2001. Northern Illinois has won the last two matchups between these two teams.
Marshall vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET (Tuesday, Dec. 23)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Marshall -10
Marshall’s Key to Victory: QB Rakeem Cato
The keys to victory in the Boca Raton Bowl are essentially tied together. It might be too simplistic to just list Cato here, but the senior is the catalyst for Marshall’s offense and one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Cato threw for 37 touchdowns and 3,622 yards this season and added 457 yards and six scores on the ground. The senior threw for 725 yards over his last two games and faces a stiff test against a Northern Illinois defense limiting opponents to 5.4 yards per play and 23.6 points per game. The Huskies also led the MAC with 30 sacks and forced 24 turnovers. Despite losing standout safety Jimmie Ward to the NFL, this defense remained stingy and no opponent over the last six games scored more than 24 points. Cato has done a good job of limiting mistakes all season, but in Marshall’s only loss of the year (Western Kentucky), he tossed four interceptions. Northern Illinois relies heavily on its ground attack to carry the offense and coming back from 14-0 or a 17-3 deficit could be difficult. Cato is surrounded by an array of weapons, including receivers Tommy Shuler, Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and tight end Eric Frohnapfel. In addition to the explosive passing offense, the Thundering Herd has balance with the emergence of converted tight end Devon Johnson at running back. Johnson rushed for 1,636 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Marshall’s offense is the best Northern Illinois has played this year. If Cato doesn’t turn the ball over and the offensive line gives their senior quarterback time to throw, the Thundering Herd can enforce their style of play and create plenty of problems for the Huskies defense.
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Establish the Run
As we mentioned above, the keys to the game go hand-in-hand. Northern Illinois has a tough assignment on defense trying to slow down the explosive Marshall offense. However, the Huskies can help their defense by establishing their style of play. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey doesn’t have a standout like Jordan Lynch at quarterback, but new starter Drew Hare threw for 17 touchdowns to only two picks and rushed for 850 yards and eight scores in 2014. Hare only had one game of more than 250 passing yards, and it’s clear the offensive identity of Carey’s team rests with the ground game. In addition to Hare, senior running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels and sophomore Joel Bouagnon will each play a significant role on the ground. Stingily led the team with 895 yards and 13 rushing scores this season and will challenge a Marshall defense that ranked ninth in Conference USA (league-only games) against the run. In nine C-USA contests, the Thundering Herd gave up 182.9 yards per game and allowed four yards per carry. Northern Illinois has to win the battle at the point of attack and keep Hare in third-and-short situations. The Huskies’ best shot at winning is to keep Marshall’s offense on the sidelines and allow their ground attack to control the pace of the game.
There’s no shortage of intrigue in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. Marshall and Northern Illinois are two of the nation’s top Group of 5 teams and this could be a high-scoring affair if both offenses get on track. The Thundering Herd would prefer to push the tempo and force the Huskies to get away from the ground attack. For Northern Illinois, it’s all about winning the battle on the line of scrimmage and finding a way to keep Cato and the Marshall offense on the sidelines. Expect both teams to have success in establishing their style of play, but the Thundering Herd’s offense is too much for the Huskies.