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When Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC) and Kansas State (8-4, 6-3 Big 12) take the field at NRG Stadium in Houston on Dec. 28 in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, it will result in a collision between two former conference foes.

 

Texas A&M jumped out to a hot start (6-0) before stumbling to a 2-4 finish. Two of the losses were against great teams in No. 1 Alabama and then-No. 25 LSU. A 35-28 road loss to Mississippi State followed by a 29-28 home defeat to Ole Miss at the hands of true freshman quarterback Shea Patterson in November restarted the “hot seat” talk for head coach Kevin Sumlin. In Sumlin’s favor, the Aggies did have big wins over ranked teams in 2016 including UCLA, Arkansas, and Tennessee with another notable win over then-unranked Auburn, who is playing Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

 

Kansas State started slow (3-3) but ended hot with the benefit of an easier Big 12 schedule, winning five of its last six games. The Wildcats’ lone loss in the second half of the season was a 43-37 defeat to then-No. 22 Oklahoma State. Kansas State can claim wins over a pair of bowl teams in Baylor and TCU, as well as Texas.

 

Both squads enter the game with powerful rushing attacks and the ability to put points on the board. On paper, Kansas State may have a leg up with a better defense while Texas A&M has a far more effective passing attack than the Wildcats.

 

When you factor in some shared history, as both were members of the Big 12 from its inception in 1996 until 2012 when Texas A&M left for the SEC, It all adds up to what should be another thrilling Texas Bowl.

 

AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Texas A&M vs. Kansas State (Houston)

 

Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 9 p.m. ET

Where: NRG Stadium (Houston)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Texas A&M -2.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Can Kansas State QB Jesse Ertz Exploit Texas A&M’s Pass Defense?

One of the glaring holes in the Aggies’ defense is their secondary. Texas A&M is second to last in the SEC and No. 100 nationally against the pass at 255 yards per game. Ertz’ passing statistics (57.1 percent completion rate, 1,560 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT) don’t exactly jump off of the page, as the Wildcats rely more on running the ball. However, the opportunity is there for the Wildcats to do a little more damage through the air.

 

Ertz’ primary targets have been Dominique Heath (41 rec., 413 yds., 3 TD), Byron Pringle (36-524-3), and Deante Burton (26-379-1). Heath and Pringle are sophomores who are just starting to find their groove at the collegiate level. They will be challenged going up against safety Justin Evans, who leads the Aggies with four interceptions, and cornerback Nick Harvey, who has a pick and team-high 10 pass breakups.

 

2. Can Kansas State Slow Texas A&M’s Passing Attack?

While the Aggies have had trouble defending the pass, the same can be said about the Wildcats. In fact, Kansas State is even lower than Texas A&M in the FBS rankings for passing defense, checking in at No. 110 (270 ypg). Aggies senior quarterback Trevor Knight hasn’t put up gaudy numbers either (2,122-16-6) and has struggled with his accuracy (52 percent), but his receivers possess plenty of big-play ability.

 

Knight’s top targets are Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones. Kirk is one of the more dangerous receivers in the nation with the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Kirk led the Aggies with 77 receptions while notching 842 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Reynolds is the big-play threat at 18.1 yards per catch with a team-high 885 yards and 10 scores.

 

While the Wildcats have given up 23 touchdown passes to this point, they also have 15 interceptions as three different defenders – D.J. Reed, Duke Shelley and Donnie Starks – have three each.

 

3. Which Defense Will Stop the Running Quarterback?

Both Ertz and Knight can punish a team with their legs on designed runs or when a play breaks down. In Kansas State’s system, the quarterback is the focal point of the offense. Ertz led the Wildcats in rushing yards with 945 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Charles Jones was a distant second with 577 yards on 110 carries with just two scores.

 

Knight is more of a scrambler with some run/pass option (RPO) duties for Texas A&M. True freshman running back Trayveon Williams is the Aggies’ leader in the backfield with 1,024 yards and eight scores while Knight is second with 594 yards but a team-high 10 touchdowns.

 

In theory, Texas A&M’s defense can focus on Ertz while Kansas State must be wary of both Knight and Williams, making the ground matchup more difficult for the Wildcats.

 

Final Analysis

 

Perhaps the main thing Kansas State has going its way heading into the Texas Bowl is momentum after winning its final three games to end the regular season. But it should be pointed out that of the Wildcats’ eight wins none of them came against teams that were ranked at the time. Bill Snyder’s teams have gone bowling each of the past seven seasons, but can claim just one season-ending victory.

 

Texas A&M stumbled its way to the postseason yet again, losing three of its past four games. Despite another November stumble, Kevin Sumlin is 3-1 in bowl games as the Aggies’ head coach, including wins over a pair of Big 12 teams – Oklahoma in the 2013 Cotton Bowl (41-13) and West Virginia (45-37) in the ‘14 Liberty Bowl.

 

Texas A&M holds a slight 8-7 edge in the all-time series with Kansas State, including the 10 meetings when the two were Big 12 foes. The last time they played was in 2011 in Manhattan. Even though this game is on a neutral field, NRG Stadium is less than two hours away from the Aggies’ campus in College Station. Advantage goes to the team playing a little closer to home and had to navigate a tougher schedule to get to Houston.

 

Prediction: Texas A&M 45, Kansas State 33

 

— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.

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Texas Bowl Preview and Prediction: Texas A&M vs. Kansas State
Post date: Monday, December 26, 2016 - 12:00
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Utah winning bowl games is not yet as predictable as death, taxes and heated arguments over politics, but it is closer than just about anything else these days.

 

Since Kyle Whittingham took over as co-head coach in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and as head coach in the ‘05 season, Utah has posted a 9-1 record in bowl games. Whittingham's winning percentage in bowl games is the best in NCAA history.

 

That's why Utah (8-4) remains a decisive favorite to close out 2016 on a high note against Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl despite losing three of four games to end the regular season. Utah hasn't lost to a Power Five team in a bowl game since 1996 when the Utes fell 38-10 to Wisconsin. The Utes are 6-0 vs. other Power Five teams in bowl games since that time.

 

The Hoosiers (6-6) are playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1990-91. Indiana also notched a second straight six-win season for the first time since doing it in 1993-94. The Hoosiers enter the Foster Farms Bowl in a state of disarray, though, after head coach Kevin Wilson was forced to resign under allegations of mistreating multiple injured players

 

Utah has beaten Indiana in two of the teams’ previous three meetings. The Utes won the most recent matchup, claiming a 40-13 victory in 2002 behind 229 yards from running back Marty Johnson.

 

Foster Farms Bowl: Indiana vs. Utah (Santa Clara, Calif.)

 

Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Levi’s Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Utah -7

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Can Indiana survive Sack Lake City?

Keeping Utah out of the backfield has been a problem for many opponents this season. The Utes lead the Pac-12 with 40 sacks and 95 tackles for a loss. Utah ranks in the top 15 nationally in both categories.

 

Hunter Dimick leads the way up front when it comes to driving opponents backward. The senior defensive end leads the Pac-12 in sacks (14.5), tackles for a loss (20.5), sacks per game (3.33) and TFL per game (1.7). Dimick has a school-record 29.5 career sacks and, with 44.5 career TFL, he needs just three more to pass Luther Elliss and Filipo Mokofisi Sr. as Utah's career leader in that category.

 

It could spell trouble for Indiana. The Hooisers allowed 87 tackles for a loss for a total of 369 lost yards during the regular season, with Maryland and Rutgers the only Big Ten teams to give up more.

 

2. What will Joe Williams do in his finale?

A relentless running game has been Utah's offensive trademark ever since the school joined the Pac-12. The Utes will run all day on defenses and dare them to make a stop.

 

Williams is a major reason why Utah's run-first philosophy has continued to have success in 2016. He briefly retired for four games early in the season before coming back to shore up a backfield depleted by injuries. In six games since his return, the senior has tallied 1,110 of his 1,185 net yards and all nine of his touchdowns.

 

Williams is the 13th Utah player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He is averaging a school-record 148.1 rushing yards per game overall. If Williams gains at least 49 net yards against Indiana, he'll finish ahead of current record holder Carl Monroe, who averaged 137.0 in 1982.

 

Williams already put his name in the record books when he racked up 332 rushing yards against UCLA. It stands as the fourth-best single-game mark in Pac-12 history and it also is the first 300-yard game by any Utes player.

 

3. Can either team finish drives in the red zone?

Putting points on the board once inside the 20-yard line has not been an area of strength for either Utah or Indiana this season. Both teams rank near the bottom of their respective conferences in red zone production.

 

The Hooisers have converted on just 32-of-45 red zone trips (.711) with only 22 touchdowns. Only Rutgers is worse inside the 20-yard line among Big Ten teams.

 

Indiana certainly has the tools to challenge Utah's defense if they can overcome those red-zone deficiencies. Junior quarterback Richard Lagow has thrown for 3,174 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his passes this season. Lagow could be poised for a big game, with senior cornerback Dominique Hatfield unlikely to play for the Utes due to what Whittingham referred to as a “team issue.”

 

Utah has not done much better than Indiana in finishing off drives. The Utes have cashed in on 38-of-50 red zone trips (.760), good for 11th in the Pac-12, and have scored only 25 touchdowns.

 

Part of the trouble has stemmed from junior quarterback Troy Williams playing through a sprained MCL since the win over USC. Williams has thrown for 2,579 yards and 15 touchdowns, but the injured ligament has limited his mobility and hurt his confidence in his running game. His knee is healing, though, and almost back to 100 percent. Williams is finally practicing and playing without a knee brace for the first time since Utah's loss to California.

 

Final Analysis

 

Drawing Utah in a bowl game is not an ideal for scenario for Indiana. The Utes are a big, physical team that fits the same mold as many of the Big Ten teams Indiana sees all season. The Hoosiers don't do well against those sorts of teams. None of Indiana's six wins came against an opponent with a winning record. Utah can dominate along the line of scrimmage, pound the ball and keep the Hoosiers on their heels for four quarters. It will put the Utes in a favorable position to wrap up the 2016 season with yet another bowl win.

 

Prediction: Utah 31, Indiana 24

 

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.

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Foster Farms Bowl Preview and Prediction: Indiana vs. Utah
Post date: Monday, December 26, 2016 - 11:30
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An old Big East rivalry will be renewed on Dec. 28 in the Russell Athletic Bowl, as West Virginia meets Miami for the first time since 2003. It’s always tough to put too much stock in bowl games, but motivation shouldn’t be an issue for either team. The Mountaineers won 10 games for the second time under coach Dana Holgorsen and a victory over the Hurricanes would give this program 11 wins for the first time since 2007. On the other sideline, Miami ended the regular season with a four-game winning streak and a victory over the Mountaineers would add to the momentum this program has established under new coach Mark Richt.

 

West Virginia entered the season with a little uncertainty surrounding the program but ended 2016 with momentum on its side. Holgorsen’s contract and long-term future was uncertain after an extension wasn’t finalized in the offseason. However, the Mountaineers (and Holgorsen) answered any doubts about this program with a 6-0 start and finished 10-2. West Virginia’s only losses came against Oklahoma (56-28) and at Oklahoma State (37-20). A balanced attack led the way on offense, while a rebuilt defense thrived under coordinator Tony Gibson, limiting Big 12 opponents to just 24.1 points a game.

 

Related: College Football 2016 All-America Team

 

It’s no secret Miami is still looking for its first Coastal Division title and an appearance in the ACC Championship Game, but this program took a big step forward with the addition of Richt. The former Hurricane quarterback arrived in Coral Gables after a lengthy stint at Georgia and guided Miami to an 8-4 mark this fall. The Hurricanes started the year 4-0 and ended the season on a four-game winning streak. A four-game losing skid in the middle of the year prevented a run at the Coastal Division title, but Richt’s team lost three of those games by a touchdown or less. With a majority of the depth chart likely to return in 2017, Miami could start the year as the favorite to win the Coastal. Of course, that depends on a return to Coral Gables by junior quarterback Brad Kaaya.

 

These two teams met every year from 1991-03 as members of the Big East Conference. During that span, Miami won 11 of 13 matchups against West Virginia. The Mountaineers defeated the Hurricanes in 1993 and again in 1997 as conference foes. In the all-time series, Miami holds a 16-3 edge over West Virginia. The Mountaineers are 15-19 in 34 bowl appearances. The Hurricanes are 18-18 in 36 bowl trips.

 

West Virginia vs. Miami (Russell Athletic Bowl)

 

Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 5:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Miami -3

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. The Battle in the Trenches

Even though West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is a disciple of the Air Raid offense, he doesn’t lean on a one-dimensional approach. Instead, the Mountaineers are one of the better running teams in the Big 12. West Virginia averaged 239.5 rushing yards per game in 2016 and surrendered only 21 sacks. The line is the strength of the offense, and this unit is headlined by center Tyler Orlosky (an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2016) and guard Kyle Bosch. Three running backs have received significant playing time out of the backfield for Holgorsen, with Justin Crawford (1,168 yards) leading the team. Rushel Shell (514 yards) was off to a fast start this fall but injuries limited his production over the second half of 2016. Promising freshman Kennedy McKoy (466 yards) is another intriguing option and a rising star to watch over the next couple of years. The match up of West Virginia’s line against Miami’s active front seven is going to play a key role in determining which team wins this game. The Hurricanes have three freshmen starters that have learned on the job at linebacker this year, while the line is anchored by freshman Joe Jackson and tackle Kendrick Norton. Despite the youth at linebacker and the preseason loss of end Al-Quadin Muhammad, Miami ranked third in the ACC by generating 99 tackles for a loss. This unit finished seventh in the ACC against the run but allowed only eight scores on the ground. Can the Hurricanes win the battle up front against West Virginia’s standout line to generate pressure on quarterback Skyler Howard and keep the ground game in check? Or will the Mountaineers prevent the negative plays to keep the offense out of long-yardage situations?

 

Miami’s offensive line hasn’t been as strong as the West Virginia unit this season, but the front five has held its own for Richt. The Hurricanes surrendered 24 sacks and led the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per carry. Injuries hit this group hard, as three starters – Trevor Darling, Sunny Odogwu and Nick Linder – have missed time and forced the coaching staff to shuffle the front five. Running back Mark Walton (1,065 yards) leads the team on the ground and the revamped line will have a chance to clear lanes against a West Virginia defense giving up 175.5 rushing yards per game. The Mountaineers use a 3-3-5 approach on defense and gave up at least 190 rushing yards in each of the last four games. In addition to testing the run defense, protecting quarterback Brad Kaaya is a must. West Virginia only generated 22 sacks this fall but led the Big 12 by limiting opponents to 24 plays of 30 yards or more.

 

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Bowl Game in 2016

 

2. The Quarterbacks

There’s an interesting contrast in quarterback play set to unfold in this matchup. Miami’s Brad Kaaya and West Virginia’s Skyler Howard aren’t drastically different in terms of style, but these two players took an opposite path to starting and the recruiting hype/NFL Draft scouting for both is significantly different.

 

West Virginia’s Skyler Howard wasn’t the biggest catch on the recruiting trail out of the JUCO ranks, but he’s posted back-to-back solid seasons in Morgantown. After throwing for 3,145 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, Howard ended 2016 with 3,194 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. The senior isn’t the biggest quarterback (6-foot) but provides a threat to run (400 yards and nine scores). Additionally, Howard isn’t on the draft radar for scouts like Miami’s Brad Kaaya. However, Howard has settled in this season and has a talented group of receivers at his disposal to test a secondary that ranked third in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Shelton Gibson (40 catches) is the big-play threat on the outside, while Daikiel Shorts (58 catches) and Jovon Durante (32) are two other capable targets.

 

Since he stepped onto campus in 2014, Kaaya has been the starter for Miami. And the junior has been one of the biggest beneficiaries from the coaching change, as Richt is an accomplished play-caller and has plenty of experience in developing quarterbacks. Kaaya threw for 3,250 yards and 23 scores this season and guided the offense to an average of 34.6 points a game – the highest mark over the last nine years. It’s no secret Kaaya has a big decision to make after this game. The junior is considered one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft and could leave campus a year early. However, before Kaaya can decide on the next level, he will have to face an athletic (and active) West Virginia secondary. The Mountaineers led the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and limited opponents to 17 passing scores. Cornerback Rasul Douglas is one of the best cover men in the nation and intercepted eight passes this fall. Kaaya doesn’t have a deep group of receivers at his disposal but freshman Ahmmon Richards and tight end David Njoku will be a tough matchup for the Mountaineers.

 

Kaaya is the heralded NFL Draft prospect and a one of the nation’s most-talented passers. West Virginia’s defense may bend a little but will tighten in the red zone and on third downs. Can Kaaya keep the offense moving while also landing a couple of big plays? On the other sideline, Howard was the unheralded prospect who has turned in two solid seasons with the Mountaineers. Miami’s fast and athletic defense can generate pressure in the pocket, which could be problematic for Howard (24 career interceptions).  

 

3. The Turnover Battle

Both teams finished on the positive side of turnover margin in 2016. Miami tied for 14th nationally at plus-eight, while West Virginia tied for 31st nationally at plus-five. There was a slight difference in the math at how both teams reached that total. The Hurricanes were better at taking care of the ball (only 10 turnovers lost), while the Mountaineers specialized in takeaways (25) after giving up 20. And in West Virginia’s two losses, this team posted a minus-six margin. With a close game expected, this area should play a key role in the outcome. Can West Virginia continue to generate takeaways while limiting mistakes against an aggressive front seven? Or will the Hurricanes take care of the ball and force Howard into a couple of interceptions?

 

Final Analysis

 

Not much separates these two teams. Miami has the edge at quarterback, but West Virginia is deeper at running back and receiver and possesses the better offensive line. On defense, the Hurricanes limit opponents to 4.8 yards per play, while the Mountaineers hold offenses to 5.6 in the wide-open Big 12. West Virginia may give up some yards to Kaaya, but this unit gets timely stops and holds in the red zone and on third downs. This one is tough to call. However, the guess here is Kaaya outduels Howard, and Miami’s defense forces a late takeaway to seal the victory.

 

Prediction: Miami 27, West Virginia 24
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Russell Athletic Bowl Preview and Prediction: West Virginia vs. Miami 2016
Post date: Monday, December 26, 2016 - 11:00
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The New Era Pinstripe Bowl has seen its share of high-scoring games in its relatively short past, with Duke defeating Indiana 44-41 in overtime in 2015. Heading into this contest that features Pittsburgh and Northwestern, it is entirely possible that the 2016 version may be another offensive shootout.

 

Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3 ACC) finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Coastal Division with Miami and North Carolina. Running back James Conner has inspired college football fans everywhere with his return to the gridiron after a successful battle against cancer. This game will mark the conclusion of Conner's collegiate career, as he has already declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. Pittsburgh was heavily involved in how the College Football Playoff field turned out, as the Panthers defeated both Penn State (42-39) and Clemson (43-42). The Tigers still got in, while the Nittany Lions were the first team out.

 

Northwestern began this season poorly, losing by one point (22-21) to eventual MAC champion and Cotton Bowl participant Western Michigan in the first week, followed up by a 9-7 loss to FCS member Illinois State 9-7, both of those coming at home. Since that inauspicious beginning, Pat Fitzgerald was able to rally his Wildcats, going 6-4 the rest of way. This stretch included a close loss (24-20) at Ohio State and victories over Duke, Iowa and Indiana, all bowl teams.

 

New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. Northwestern (Bronx, N.Y.)

 

Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 2 p.m. ET

Where: Yankee Stadium (Bronx, N.Y.)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Pittsburgh -5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Northwestern's Passing Game vs. Pitt's Pass Defense

Northwestern's Austin Carr is the leading receiver for the Wildcats and has been one of the most productive in the nation, hauling in 84 receptions for 1,196 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even though Pat Narduzzi is a defensive-oriented coach, the Panthers rank 127th in FBS against the pass. Only one team (Arizona State) has given up more yards through the air than Pitt’s 4,117 through 12 games (343.1 ypg). The Panthers also have surrendered 27 touchdown passes while registering just even interceptions. Look for Carr and quarterback Clayton Thorson to hook up early and often, hoping to connect on the appropriately named home-run play considering the game’s setting.

 

2. Pitt's Running Game vs. Northwestern's Defense

The best way for the Panthers to keep control in this game is to hold onto the ball. The aforementioned James Conner rushed for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns on 208 carries. Look for Pittsburgh to try to control the clock by using Conner, as well as wide receiver Quadree Henderson on jet sweeps; Henderson averaged 10 yards per carry this season when carrying the ball. As a team, Pitt’s ground game is averaging nearly 230 yards per game (26th nationally) and eight different Panthers have combined for 35 rushing touchdowns, a total that is surpassed by just seven other teams.

 

The Wildcats have done a decent job against the run, holding opponents to 137 rushing yards per game, but had trouble against Georgia Tech, another run-oriented team from the ACC. The Yellow Jackets plied up 241 yards and two touchdowns on 45 carries when they played Northwestern on Oct. 8. Will Pitt have similar success on the ground against the Wildcats?

 

Related: 20 Players on the Rise Entering College Football's 2016-17 Bowl Season

 

3. Both Teams Have Disruptive Pass Rushers

Pitt's Ejuan Price has 12 sacks this season and finished second to Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker in the voting for the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Northwestern’s top pass rusher is Ifeadi Odenigbo, who ranks second in the Big Ten with 10 sacks. Both have similar size (Price is 6-1, 255; Odenigbo 6-3, 265) and will loom large in the offensive game plans for each team to make sure they are accounted for in obvious passing situations.

 

To that end, the Panthers have been among the nations best in protecting the quarterback with just nine sacks allowed, while the Wildcats are on the opposite end of the spectrum (35). Does this set Price up for more success or can Odenigbo give the Wildcats an advantage by doing something that few teams have been able to against Pitt this season?

 

Final Analysis

 

Pittsburgh needs to keep this game at a tempo and pace that is conducive to success for the Panthers. If they allow this game to turn into a shootout, the likelihood of a win decreases. Pitt will want to keep Northwestern under 30 points, as the Wildcats averaged just 13.3 points per game in six losses compared to 37.8 in their six wins. Look for James Conner and the Panthers to grind out a close win at Yankee Stadium.

 

Prediction: Pittsburgh 35, Northwestern 31

 

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.

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Post date: Monday, December 26, 2016 - 10:30
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Had you heard at the beginning of the season that Baylor and Boise State would meet in a bowl game in Arizona, most college football fans would have expected the Bears and Broncos to cap off successful campaigns in the prestigious Fiesta Bowl. Instead, thanks to late-season struggles for both, 6-6 Baylor will face 10-2 Boise State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl at Chase Field in Phoenix.

 

It’s been a rough season for Baylor. Jim Grobe stepped in following the firing of head coach Art Briles in May and led the Bears to a 6-0 start. But they have dropped their last six and are now in danger of their first losing season since 2009. Following the bowl game, former Temple head coach Matt Rhule will replace Grobe, ushering in a new era of Baylor football.

 

Most college football programs would love a 10-win season, but disappointing losses to Wyoming and Air Force in the second half of the season cost Boise State an opportunity to play for a conference title and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Nevertheless, the Broncos can improve to 3-0 all-time against Big 12 opponents and carry momentum into the offseason with their third victory over a Power Five opponent this season.

 

Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: Boise State vs. Baylor (Phoenix)

 

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 27 at 10:15 p.m. ET

Where: Chase Field (Phoenix)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Boise State -7.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. A Balanced Boise State Offense

Boise State has a rare combination in college football: a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,600-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers. Quarterback Brett Rypien led the Mountain West with 3,025 passing yards, as well as 3,325 yards of total offense. Rypien finished second in the conference with 23 touchdown passes.

 

Rypien’s top target, Thomas Sperbeck was the Mountain West leader with 72 receptions and 1,193 receiving yards. He also caught nine touchdown passes. Sperbeck now has a school-record 3,522 receiving yards in his career. Fellow receiver Cedrick Wilson caught 50 passes for 1,041 yards (an impressive 20.8 ypr) and 10 TDs. Sperbeck and Wilson became the first Boise State teammates to record 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.

 

Rounding out the Broncos’ playmakers, running back Jeremy McNichols ranked fifth nationally with 1,663 rushing yards and 2,185 all-purpose yards during the regular season. McNichols ran for 23 touchdowns, making him the first Bronco to score 20-plus rushing TDs in two different seasons, and also caught 32 passes for 450 yards and four more scores.

 

2. Unfamiliar Territory for Baylor

Unlike Boise State, no Baylor player has 3,000 passing yards, 1,000 rushing yards, or 1,000 receiving yards this season. Under former head coach Art Briles, those figures were almost a guarantee. Baylor featured a 3,000-yard passer from 2010-14. From 2010-15, seven players recorded 1,000 or more rushing, including two – Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson – last season. The Bears have fielded at least one 1,000-yard receiver every season since 2011.

 

This year, Seth Russell leads the Bears with 2,126 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, but missed the final three games of the regular season due to injury. Freshman Zach Smith is set to make his fourth start, and he has thrown for 1,151 yards, 10 TDs and six interceptions.

 

Terence Williams has a good shot to extend the Bears’ streak of 1,000-yard rushers. He enters the bowl game leading the way with 945 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Linwood ranks second with 751 yards and has run for two scores. However, Linwood will not play against Boise State after choosing to sit out in anticipation of the 2017 NFL Draft. Like Williams, KD Cannon can hit 1,000 yards against Boise State. Cannon leads the Bears with 73 receptions for 989 yards and 11 touchdowns.

 

Overall, Baylor is averaging 34.9 points and 523.3 yards of total offense per game. As impressive as those numbers may seem, both are the lowest for the program since 2010.

 

3. The Turnover Battle

On paper, Boise State holds a distinct defensive advantage over Baylor. The Broncos have held opponents to 379.3 yards of total offense this season, and have surrendered 5.1 yards per play. Meanwhile, Baylor surrendered 434.4 total yards per contest, as well as 5.5 yards per play. Boise State has allowed 179.8 rushing yards per game this season, while opponents have gained 210.5 yards on the ground against Baylor.

 

However, it’s worth noting that Baylor has played six teams that rank among the top 25 nationally in total offense while the Broncos have faced only one. Also, the Bears held four opponents to 13 points or fewer, while all but two teams scored at least 16 points against Boise State.

 

Therefore, the defensive statistics of the two squads aren’t entirely reliable, with the possible exception of turnovers. Both Boise State and Baylor rank No. 107 in the country with a minus-7 turnover margin.

 

The Boise State defense has forced just eight turnovers all season, which is tied with East Carolina for the fewest in the nation. Fortunately, the Boise State offense has done a good job holding onto the football, and ranks No. 23 nationally with 15 turnovers.

 

Baylor has done a better job taking the ball away, and ranks 61st nationally with 19 takeaways. However, the Bears have turned the ball over 26 times, which ranks them the bottom (No. 120) of the FBS.

 

Final Analysis

 

Boise State has a tremendous offense, and despite a drop in points and yards, Baylor also is very capable of lighting up the scoreboard. The Broncos and Bears each have bright spots defensively, though both units are also quite vulnerable.

 

In the end, the outcome will likely be decided by which team is more disciplined. Since Boise State has been the more stable program over the course of the season, both on and off the field, and has done a better job taking care of the football, expect the Broncos to come out on top.

 

Prediction: Boise State 35, Baylor 31

 

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

 

(Top photo courtesy of www.broncosports.com)

Teaser:
Cactus Bowl Preview and Prediction: Boise State vs. Baylor
Post date: Monday, December 26, 2016 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/holiday-bowl-preview-and-prediction-minnesota-golden-gophers-washington-state-cougars-2016
Body:

The 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl: It's the bowl game that almost wasn't. Or, at least, the 39th edition of the San Diego-hosted contest almost got a drastic makeover when the Minnesota Golden Gophers teased a boycott, the result of 10 player suspensions.

 

Much to the chagrin of Northern Illinois – the next team up in line for a bowl bid – Minnesota reversed course. The Holiday Bowl's Big Ten vs. Pac-12 showcase is on as planned.

 

The bowl season does not have another game pitting two more differently constructed teams than this. Washington State boasts the nation's second-ranked passing offense – typical for any team coached by air-raid offense guru Mike Leach. Minnesota ranks No. 108 nationally with the pass, and the Gophers have more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (8) through the air.

 

Nevertheless, Minnesota reached eight wins under head coach Tracy Claeys with a multifaceted rushing attack and stout defense, keeping in place the identity Claeys' former colleague Jerry Kill instilled while turning this program around earlier in the decade.

 

Indicative of just how substantially Kill improved Minnesota football, consider that 2016 marks the Gophers' fifth consecutive bowl season, matching a program-best run from 2002-06. Washington State's enjoying its own milestone of prosperity, pursuing the nine-win mark for the second time in as many seasons.

 

The last time the Cougars hit nine wins in back-to-back campaign was 2002-03. The latter campaign also ended in the Holiday Bowl, which Washington State won over Texas, 28-20.

 

National Funding Holiday Bowl: Minnesota vs. Washington State (San Diego)

 

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 27 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Qualcomm Stadium (San Diego)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Washington State -10.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Luke Falk's Last Hurrah?

Washington State’s quarterback has not yet announced his intentions for the 2017 season. However, NFL scouts reportedly warmed on him over the course of a 2016 regular season in which Falk threw for 37 touchdowns, 4,204 yards and completed 71 percent of his attempts.

 

Falk could give professional scouts and front-office personnel more warm feelings with a grand finale at the Holiday Bowl, but the Minnesota passing defense will test him.

 

The Golden Gophers limited opponents to 6.3 yards per attempt, tied for 16th-best in college football. Falk isn't necessarily a quarterback reliant on lofty per-attempt numbers to flourish – his 7.2 ranks near the bottom of the nation's most prolific passers. That's a byproduct of the diversity needed to make the Washington State air raid work.

 

To that same end, however, Falk needs an effective deep ball to effectively spread the field. Losing River Cracraft to injury late in the campaign limited Falk's ability to stretch the field to its max, and result in losses against Colorado and Washington were two of the quarterback's worst statistical outings of 2016.

 

2. Getting it Going on the Ground

The importance of an effective rushing game plan goes without saying for Minnesota. The Gophers average nearly 190 rushing yards per game, have scored more than four times as many touchdowns on the ground (33) as through the air (8), and employ a multiple-ball carrier look that's resulted in four different players rushing for at least 242 yards on the season.

 

For Washington State, however, a multifaceted rushing approach has given an offense that previously relied almost exclusively on the pass a new look.

 

None of the Cougars' three primary ball carriers – James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks – match Minnesota's Rodney Smith or Shannon Brooks. Smith has 1,084 yards on the season, with Brooks providing 599. However, each of the three Washington State running backs exceeded or approached 500 yards – a downright astronomical number in Leach's offense – and all three average between 5.4 and 6.6 yards per game.

 

Neither offense is likely to have an easy time establishing its rushing attack. Minnesota and Washington State boast two of the best defenses against the run in their respective conferences. The Gophers held opponents to just 3.47 yards per carry, powered by an outstanding front seven.

 

Linebacker Jonathan Celestin does a little of everything, while the team's best blitzer, Steven Richardson, wreaks havoc in the backfield.

 

Washington State's holding opponents to 4.1 yards per carry, with the line setting the tone. Hercules Mata'afa and Nnamdi Oguayo are two of the best the Pac-12 has to offer up front.

 

Related: College Football’s 20 Best Position Battles to Watch in December Bowl Games

 

3. Turnovers Come at a Premium

Barring a sudden rainstorm – they do roll into typically sunny San Diego this time of year (see last week’s Poinsettia Bowl) – expect a cleanly played game on offense for both teams. The Gophers and Cougars each rank in the top 26 nationally in turnover margin, and have matching 16 giveaways on the season.

 

Washington State’s tendency to throw the ball does not translate to many interceptions, surprisingly. Minnesota's ability to generate one could be game-changing. Falk was picked off at least once in all four of the Cougars' losses.

 

Moreover, Washington State went 1-2 in games it lost the turnover battle this season. The lone win came over Oregon State, a common opponent shared with Minnesota.

 

Maintaining possession is equally vital to Minnesota's outlook – perhaps more so, since the Gophers play a slower tempo. Claeys' ball club went 0-3 in games it fell on the negative side of the turnover margin.

 

Final Analysis

 

"Distraction" is one of those clichés tossed around during bowl season, the significance of which is debatable. Teams play with interim head coaches, without star players, and with little more on the line than pride. Minnesota enters the Holiday Bowl in uncharted territory on this front, however, only lifting its boycott a few days prior to the Gophers' schedule leave date of Dec. 23.

 

Las Vegas sees the possibility for shake-up, evident in a full touchdown jump in the Vegas Insider point-spread consensus.

 

Still, this is an intriguing styles clash, one in which the Golden Gophers could force the Cougars into their style of play. Washington State must get its defense off the field quickly in the early going to establish a heightened tempo.

 

Prediction: Washington State 38, Minnesota 24

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

Teaser:
Holiday Bowl Preview and Prediction: Minnesota vs. Washington State
Post date: Monday, December 26, 2016 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, NFC, syndicated, NFL
Path: /nfl/detroit-lions-vs-dallas-cowboys-preview-and-prediction-2016
Body:

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford returns to the metroplex he grew up in for a “Monday Night Football” clash with the Dallas Cowboys that will have an impact on the postseason picture for the visitors and could serve as a nice preview of what’s to come in January for both sides.

 

The Lions remain in tentative control of the NFC North but are suddenly looking to take advantage of a Cowboys squad that may be ready to take their foot off the gas after locking up the top seed in the conference. Stafford has been on the fringes of the MVP conversation thanks to his late-game heroics for a team that loves a fourth-quarter comeback but he’ll need to be on his game from start to finish if he wants to beat his hometown team in primetime.

 

As for the Cowboys, this may be the last time we’ll see them at full strength and playing with much fire until the middle of next month, wih the NFC East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs locked up. The dynamic rookie duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were both named to the Pro Bowl squad recently and remain in the running to take home MVP honors as the focal point for the powerhouse of an offense. While those two get most of the attention nowadays, don’t discount the team’s defense either, which has been playing much better down the stretch and will be looking to prove doubters wrong heading into this one.

 

These two teams are no strangers with each other given their history in recent years, which includes a split of the last six meetings the past decade. Dallas won the last meeting back in a crazy 2015 NFC Wild Card game but the Lions claim victories in the past two regular season outings thanks to dramatic touchdowns in the final two minutes.

 

It should all make for a fun one at AT&T Stadium between two of the more electric teams in the league.

 

Detroit at Dallas

 

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 26 at 8:25 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Cowboys -7.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Cowboys Effort

Owner/GM Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett have insisted that they will play their starters and go for the win on Monday despite clinching the top seed and securing home-field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl. Despite that message going out during the week, you do have to wonder how much the Cowboys will really push themselves, especially if they get behind early on. This has been a magical season in Dallas and you can bet they want to close it out with a nice home win, but we’ll see just how hard the pads pop come kickoff for the ‘Boys. If Garrett decides to pull the starters, one can’t help but wonder if these final two games will then serve as an audition for backup signal-caller Tony Romo and a possible offseason trade to a quarterback-needy franchise.

 

2. All-Purpose Tailbacks

Rookie Ezekiel Elliott continues to live up to high expectations by leading the NFL with in rushing yards and scoring 14 touchdowns (tied for third) entering this game. He has a chance at shattering several franchise and league records on the ground for a first-year player and is coming off a career-high 159 yards and a score last week. Not only is he good on the ground, but also he’s an all-purpose threat out of the backfield and is a dangerous player the Lions will need to keep track of on third down. Detroit’s Theo Riddick is one of the best running backs in the league at doing damage through the air (133 receptions since 2015) and could be back starting after missing the past two games with a wrist injury. The Lions’ offense has slowed since he left the lineup and a return would be huge for the team looking to top the league’s best on the road. At a time where the league is as pass-happy as ever, both of these teams have a guy in the backfield who rarely needs to come off the field and have to be a joy to have if you’re the offensive coordinator.

 

3. Marinelli’s Revenge?

Lions fans know Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli all too well as he was the head coach in Detroit back when the team went 0-16 back in 2008. Not surprisingly, he was fired shortly after that final game but bounced back quickly as a coach in the league and has done a fantastic job in Big D leading a group of mostly no-names to a nice resurgence. Might he have something special saved up for this one? After the Giants provided a nice game plan to beating the Lions last week, chances are high there are a few wrinkles that Marinelli has in store for his old team.

 

Final Analysis

 

A little over a week ago, this loomed as a potentially gigantic game for each team as they made one final push toward the playoffs with a berth there for the taking. That’s not exactly how things have turned out since, as a must-win for Dallas has become more of an afterthought thanks to New York’s loss to Philadelphia on Thursday night, which sewed up the NFC’s top seed for the Cowboys.

 

That’s not the case for the Lions, which saw their fourth-quarter magic disappear in their last game and need to finish strong in order to stay ahead of those pesky (and red-hot) Green Bay Packers in the playoff standings. There is little margin for error and, thanks to injuries to starters like cornerback Darius Slay and center Travis Swanson, the pressure will be on Matthew Stafford to deliver a big-time performance and a win. Motivation may be a factor for the home team but it certainly isn’t for a hungry Lions squad that would love nothing more than to grab a win against a team they may face again next month.

 

Dallas may not have anything but pride to play for on “Monday Night Football” as a result but the Cowboys are still the better (and healthier) team heading into this one. They’ll showcase just that and secure a solid win in the end during yet another close game with the Lions that the latter will be kicking themselves for losing.

 

Prediction: Cowboys 28, Lions 20

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

Teaser:
Detroit Lions vs. Dallas Cowboys Preview and Prediction
Post date: Monday, December 26, 2016 - 09:00
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-week-16-2016-injury-updates-aj-green-raiders-wrs-sammy-watkins-brandon-marshall
Body:

Week 16 is the fantasy championship for most leagues. Fantasy owners have to put forth their best lineup, even knowing that many of the players are banged up at this point. Also, fantasy owners need to remember that most games are on Saturday so lineups need to be set early.

 

Please note that if a player did practice in full by the end of the week (wide receivers such as Steve Smith and Stefon Diggs), even if they are listed as questionable, they are going to play. Julio Jones, after missing two weeks, isn't even on the injury report. Fantasy owners will start him, but beware: he's been active as a decoy in the past, although not being on the injury report is a good sign. Sammie Coates is doubtful (but not likely to play).

 

Be sure to check out the running back/quarterback/tight end injuries, and as always, check the inactive report before game time just to be sure.

 

Positional Rankings: QB I RB I WR I TE I DST I K I Flex

 

Note: All games are on Saturday, Dec. 24 and times are ET.

 

A.J. Green (hamstring) WR, Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans, 8:30 p.m.

After injuring his hamstring in Week 11 (and sinking fantasy teams in the process), Green looks to make his return Saturday night. He's put in limited practices for the past two weeks, and all signs point to him being active. He is at risk for a setback mid-game, so fantasy owners need to beware. He's a WR2.

 

Amari Cooper (shoulder) and Michael Crabtree (finger), WRs, Oakland Raiders vs. Indianapolis Colts, 4:05 p.m.

Both Oakland receivers are on the injury report, but both will play. Crabtree (above right) has been playing through the finger injury for weeks, and Cooper has been on the injury report for weeks as well. Both receivers have been up-and-down and both are WR3s for Week 16. Cooper had 585 receiving yards in the first six games of the season and 251 in the last six. Crabtree is coming off a six-reception, 60-yard with a touchdown effort in Week 15. The matchup against the Colts is a good one, but Crabtree is hard to trust.

 

Sammy Watkins (foot), WR, Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins, 1 p.m.

After what was supposed to be a big game in Week 15, fantasy owners are likely a little gun-shy about starting Watkins again in what is a tougher matchup. He's going to play, but expectations should be lowered. He's a WR3 this week.

 

Brandon Marshall (shoulder, back), WR, New York Jets at New England Patriots, 1 p.m.

Bryce Petty is still at quarterback, which means Robby Anderson is going to get the targets, regardless of Marshall's health. Marshall did practice in a limited fashion all week, so he'll likely be active, but he's struggled with Petty. Between the injuries and the quarterback, Marshall is a WR4.

 

Randall Cobb (ankle), WR, Green Bay Packers vs. Minnesota Vikings, 1 p.m.

Odds are fantasy owners aren't starting Cobb this week as he has been a disappointment this season. In the past six games, he has only had more than 50 yards once. He didn't even have a catch in Week 15. The ankle injury isn't a concern; the lack of production is. Leave him on the bench.

 

John Brown (illness), WR, Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks, 4:25 p.m.

Brown is still dealing with issues regarding the sickle-cell trait and the Cardinals are managing his snaps. He did play more in Week 15 than he had in awhile and managed five receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown. However, against the Seahawks, he's merely a WR3.

 

— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.

Teaser:
Fantasy Football Week 16 Injury Updates: A.J. Green, Raiders WRs, Sammy Watkins, Brandon Marshall
Post date: Saturday, December 24, 2016 - 07:00
Path: /fantasy/week-16-2016-fantasy-football-injury-updates-lamar-miller-tom-brady-jeremy-hill-jordan-reed
Body:

Welcome to the injury report for Week 16, otherwise known as fantasy football championship week. At this point, fantasy owners know that they are going to be playing starters that are not 100 percent healthy. And because most games are on Saturday this week, the practice schedule was a little skewed. Friday's practice (usually the most important of the week) was simply a walkthrough for some teams.

 

For many players, they are listed as questionable, but if they practiced in full on Thursday and are likely going to play, those quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends aren't listed here (Greg Olsen, Cam Newton, for example). Please note that Matt Forte and Ladarius Green are doubtful, and Theo Riddick (Lions play on Monday night) will likely be doubtful as well. Adrian Peterson, James Starks, Melvin Gordon and Tyler Eifert have already been ruled out.

 

As for the rest, the key QB, RB and TE injuries are below, while the wide receivers can be found here. Be sure to check out the inactive report before game just to be sure and don’t forget most of this week’s games are on Saturday.

 

Positional Rankings: QB I RB I WR I TE I DST I K I Flex

 

Note: All games are on Saturday, Dec. 24 and times are ET.

 

Tom Brady (thigh), QB, New England Patriots vs. New York Jets, 1 p.m.

Brady put in limited practices all week, and no one has been concerned with his status for the game. He's going to play, and despite last week's rough outing against a tough Denver defense, he's a QB1 this week. The Jets allow the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks.

 

Lamar Miller (ankle), RB, Houston Texans vs. Cincinnati Bengals, 8:30 p.m.

After not practicing all week, Miller is a true questionable. He'll likely come down to a game-time decision, which is tough for fantasy owners as Houston plays on Saturday night. Based on his up-and-down season, the injury, and the matchup, fantasy owners would be safest to leave Miller on the bench if they are playing for a fantasy championship.

 

Jeremy Hill (knee), RB, Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans, 8:30 p.m.

Hill played in Week 15 and didn't appear to suffer any injury, so it was worrisome when he missed practice on Wednesday. He did return to limited practice on Thursday and full practice Friday, so he is on track to play Saturday night. However, the Texans are a tough run defense, so Hill is only a RB2.

 

Jordan Reed (shoulder), TE, Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears, 1 p.m.

After injuring his shoulder and missing time, Reed has tried to come back in each of the past two weeks. He's given his fantasy owners one reception in each of game – or one point in standard scoring. The shoulder is still an issue and isn't going to get better. Leave him on the bench.

 

Martellus Bennett (ankle), TE, New England Patriots vs. New York Jets, 1 p.m.

Every week, Bennett is on the injury report and every week he plays. This week should be no exception. However, he hasn't really stepped with Rob Gronkowski out. Bennett had one good game in Week 14, but that's been it. He's a TE2 this week.

 

Charles Clay (knee), TE, Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins, 1 p.m.

Clay, like Bennett, has been on the injury report week after week, but continues to play in the game. He's scored touchdowns in the past two weeks, but he's still just a touchdown-dependent TE2. The Dolphins have allowed three touchdowns to tight ends in the past four weeks, so it's possible, but don't count on it.

 

— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.

 

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Teaser:
Week 16 Fantasy Football Injury Updates: Lamar Miller, Tom Brady, Jeremy Hill, Jordan Reed
Post date: Saturday, December 24, 2016 - 07:00
Path: /nfl/minnesota-vikings-vs-green-bay-packers-preview-and-prediction-2016
Body:

Back in Week 2, Minnesota defeated Green Bay 17-14 in the first game played in brand-new U.S. Bank Stadium. That victory was part of the Vikings’ impressive 5-0 start and gave them an early two-game lead over the Packers.

 

Fast-forward to Week 16 and it’s Green Bay (8-6) that is peaking at the right time, while Minnesota (7-7) has won just two of its past nine games. In fact, the Packers’ current four-game winning streak has not only put them in position to get one of the wild card spots, they also still have a shot at catching Detroit (9-5) for the NFC North title.

 

Meanwhile the Vikings have gone from having the best record in the NFC to the brink of being eliminated from playoff contention. Green Bay has all of the momentum, but can ill afford a loss with Tampa Bay currently holding the tiebreaker for the second wild card spot. Also the Packers need a victory to give them a chance of winning the NFC North, otherwise a Green Bay loss and Detroit win in Dallas will clinch the division for the Lions and render their Week 17 rendezvous meaningless in that regard.

 

There’s nothing better than a meaningful game on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field between two longtime divisional rivals on Christmas Eve, right?

 

Minnesota at Green Bay

 

Kickoff: Sat., Dec. 24 at 1 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Green Bay -6.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Aaron Rodgers’ Mobility

After a slow start (at least by his standards), Rodgers is once again among the league leaders in several passing categories. He’s tied for second with 32 touchdown passes, fifth in passer rating (100.3), and he hasn’t thrown an interception in five straight games. However, it has been anything but a typical season for the two-time league MVP. Not only did Green Bay endure a four-game losing streak that had the Packers sitting at 4-6 entering Week 12, but he’s dealt with hamstring and calf injuries that have at times either forced him out of a game or put his playing status somewhat in question.

 

Rodgers’ mobility is as important to his success as his strong arm, as he’s not only capable of picking up yards with his legs, they also allow him to extend plays when protection breaks down and make something out of nothing. In the first game, Minnesota’s defense battered Rodgers, sacking him five times and forcing him into two turnovers. The Vikings are third in the NFL in passing defense and have registered 35 sacks. If the hamstring/calf issues continue to hamper Rodgers, it could be a grind for the Packers’ offense, unless Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael can repeat their performance from last week when they combined for 207 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries against the Bears.

 

2. Can the Vikings Unwrap Their Offense?

Adrian Peterson played last week for the first time since going down with a torn meniscus in his right knee in Week 2 against Green Bay. Unfortunately, Peterson wasn’t effective, picking up just 22 rushing yards on six carries and losing a fumble in the 34-6 home loss to Indianapolis. After missing practice earlier this week with groin and knee injuries, the Vikings have ruled Peterson out for this game, and it’s possible he won’t play in Week 17 either.

 

Not having its MVP in the lineup is nothing new for this Minnesota offense, but it also shows in the statistics. The Vikings are 30th in the NFL in total offense (301.5 ypg) and dead last in rushing (70.6 ypg). As a team, they are gaining just three yards per carry with Jerick McKinnon leading the way with 400 rushing yards. The lack of a ground game has put more pressure on Sam Bradford, who has 14 touchdown passes. The lack of offense has definitely caught up to Minnesota, which is averaging 16.1 points per game since its Week 6 bye. Not surprising, the Vikings are 2-7 during that stretch. With Green Bay’s offense averaging about 28 points per game over its last nine games, Bradford and company are going to have to figure out a way to put points on the board when they have the ball or for all practical purposes, their season will come to an end on Saturday.


3. Getting Defensive
With Peterson going down in Week 2 and the passing game struggling to find its footing, Minnesota has leaned heavily on its defense this season. And for the most part, that side of the ball has done its job, as the Vikings rank third in both total and passing defense and sixth in scoring. The defense also has scored three touchdowns with special teams chipping in three more scores. However, injuries have become a factor, as two defensive linemen are on injured reserve and safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Trae Waynes have both missed the past two games and are no guarantees to play in this one either.

 

Whether it’s the combined impact of these injuries or the long grind of the season taking its toll, Minnesota’s defense had its worst showing last week as the Colts came into U.S. Bank Stadium and routed the Vikings 34-6. Indianapolis’ points, total yards (411) and rushing yards (161) were the most Minnesota has given up this season. In addition, the defense didn’t produce a single takeaway and has just two in the last four games combined after coming up with 20 in the first 10. The Vikings rode their defense to a win over Green Bay in Week 2, but the Packers offense they faced back in September isn’t the same one that’s averaged nearly 30 points and 370 yards per game during their current four-game winning streak.

 

For Green Bay, defense has been an issue all season, particularly against the pass. But Minnesota isn’t a team that’s done a lot of damage throwing the football and has struggled to run it with any consistency — a bad combination. With the offense clicking and being at home, the Packers’ defense just needs to hold serve and not be the cure-all to what’s been ailing the Vikings’ offense.

 

Final Analysis

 

It’s only fitting that these two teams meet at Lambeau Field in December with so much on the line. For all intents and purposes, it’s a must-win situation for both, but especially for Minnesota, who is eliminated from playoff contention with a loss. Green Bay has all the momentum and is very much a threat to wrest the NFC North away from Detroit, but first the Packers must take care of business at home.

 

Aaron Rodgers may be hampered by his hamstring/calf injuries, but it’s yet to really materialize on the field. The Vikings have had trouble generating offense all season and that doesn't figure to change, even against a fairly generous Green Bay defense. Although it will be cold, neither precipitation nor the wind should be a factor on Saturday. Rodgers, however, will be and with an assist from a rejuvenated running game, the Packers do their part to set up a potential winner-take-all matchup with Detroit on New Year’s Day.

 

Prediction: Packers 24, Vikings 17

Teaser:
Minnesota Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers Preview and Prediction
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 16:00
Path: /college-football/military-bowl-preview-and-prediction-temple-owls-vs-wake-forest-demon-deacons-2016
Body:

A few months ago, a game between these two teams probably doesn't garner much interest.

 

Well, to say that's changed a bit is an understatement.

 

When the investigation into former Wake Forest radio analyst Tommy Elrod revealed that he purposely forwarded Demon Deacons' game plan information to opposing teams, it set off one of the more bizarre sports stories in recent memory, a controversy that hilariously came to be known as "WakeyLeaks."

 

Of course, this type of counter-intelligence subterfuge usually only brought to light in spy movies isn't really a laughing matter. Who knows how many games Wake Forest could have won that went the other way due to the incomprehensible actions of Elrod? The fallout included $25,000 fines by the ACC levied at Virginia Tech and Louisville for accepting confidential information.

 

Within all that drama has been a season that has been split right down the middle between its ups and downs.

 

The Demon Deacons won their first four games and five of their first six, only to lose five of their last six as the schedule toughened, culminating in a disappointing, 17-14 loss at home to Boston College. Overall, with a 6-6 mark and 3-5 in ACC play, it was a bit of a letdown after the strong start.

 

For Temple, though, the season has been a roaring success, as the program earned its third double-digit-win season ever and an American Athletic Conference championship by beating Navy in the title game. The conference title was just the second of any kind in program history.

 

The only downside to the 10-3 season was the loss of Matt Rhule, who left to take over the head coaching position at Baylor. Rhule oversaw a turnaround where the Owls went from 2-10 in his first year to back-to-back double-digit-win seasons.

 

Interim head coach Ed Foley will lead the Owls against Wake, with former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins waiting in the wings to take over full-time duties afterward.

 

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman: Temple vs. Wake Forest (Annapolis, Md.)

 

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (Annapolis, Md.)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Temple -12

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Double-barrel attack

One of the key matchups in Annapolis Tuesday will be how the Wake Forest defense is able to defend the two-pronged Temple attack of running backs Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead. The two have each rushed for exactly 918 yards on the season, with Armstead reaching the end zone 14 times to Thomas' 13. Armstead also owns has the edge in yards per carry – 6.2 to 4.6. Stats aside, these are simply two players Wake Forest will have to account for all game, and the Demon Deacons’ run defense has been a little bit better than middle of the road at 50th in the nation. But Wake will have to be better than simply adequate to hold Temple's rushing attack in check.

 

2. Passing the test

Wake Forest is better on the ground than through the air, but there will be times when the Demon Deacons will need to throw in order to have success. Quarterback John Wolford has been a bit inconsistent, completing 156-of-280 passes (55.7 percent) for 1,591 yards with seven touchdowns to nine interceptions. He's spread the ball around well, as five different players have 22 or more catches, but the passing game in general does not have much of an explosive element. The challenge against Temple in that regard will be significant, as the Owls are 14th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Whether or not the Demon Deacons can overcome that matchup disparity will be a key component to their ability to move the ball with success.

 

3. Stock watch

In addition to being able to grab one more win, a bowl acts as a showcase for NFL prospects to put on one more big performance for scouts. In this game, one player to keep an eye on is Temple edge rusher Haason Reddick. A 6-foot-1, 230-pound redshirt senior, Reddick isn't the biggest player for his position, but he doesn't lack for production. He is tied for first in the country with 21.5 tackles for a loss to go along with 9.5 sacks. He is projected by most to go somewhere in the first three rounds, and a dominant effort against Wake couldn't hurt his stock.

 

Final Analysis

 

This game has more than your usual subplots for any run-of-the-mill bowl. The fact that Wake Forest is playing in its first post-WakeyLeaks contest brings its own level of intrigue for a controversy of which has its own unique place in college football history. Just how the Demon Deacons respond after what happened will be worthy of attention. Temple is going through a coaching transition, which could cause some players to check out of they are upset over the loss of Matt Rhule. How Ed Foley handles running the show in his interim status will be key for keeping his team motivated. But if you strip away all the other factors, Temple simply has been the better team this year. At the end of the day, leaks or no leaks, coach or no coach, Temple has more going for it on the field than Wake. Look for the Owls to feast on the ground and stifle the Demon Deacons' offense en route to victory.

 

Prediction: Temple 31, Wake Forest 17

 

— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.

Teaser:
Military Bowl Preview and Prediction: Temple vs. Wake Forest
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 11:00
Path: /college-football/heart-dallas-bowl-preview-and-prediction-army-black-knights-north-texas-mean-green-2016
Body:

The historic Cotton Bowl Stadium plays host to this end-of-year rematch between teams standing within striking distance of long-term successes. Both Army and North Texas return to the bowl scene after agonizingly long absences in the minds of their fans (Army 2010, North Texas ‘13), which is precisely why Heart of Dallas Bowl executives anticipate a sold-out stadium and festive environment for the 2016 bowl season's only rematch.

 

While these two teams struggled to a collective 12-12 mark this season, it still marked a significant step forward for both programs.

 

This will be the fifth meeting between the teams, with the Black Knights holding a commanding 4-1 lead in the series. But the Mean Green came out on top back on Oct. 22, beating Army 35-18 up in West Point, New York.

 

Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl: Army West Point vs. North Texas

 

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 27 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Cotton Bowl (Dallas)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Army -9.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. The hot hands

Following a mid-season slump in which Army went 2-5 after starting 3-0, it will be more than revenge North Texas needs to be on the look out for. The Black Knights boast one of the nation’s top defenses (tied for fourth), from a statistical standpoint. Army enters with a modest two-game winning streak, including the big victory over Navy in Baltimore, in which it has outscored the opposition 81-20. For the season, the Black Knights average 29 points per game, while the Mean Green give up around 32. Will these trends stay true or does Army continue to light up the scoreboard?

 

2. Can Army once again ignite its high-powered option offense?

The Black Knights come into this game with an average of 404.0 yards of offense per game, which ranks them 71st in the nation. There’s no secret to Army’s game plan, which revolves around an option attack that is second in rushing with 327.8 yards per game. Stopping, or at least slowing down, the Black Knights on the ground is North Texas’ top priority on defense, and it could be a tall task. The Mean Green have given up 219.5 rushing yards per game, which places them near the bottom (105th) of all FBS teams. Even though North Texas knows what to expect when Army has the ball, the Mean Green still appear to be at a distinct disadvantage against the Black Knights.

 

3. Which North Texas team shows up?

After an adequate 4-3 start under first-year head coach Seth Littrell, the Mean Green limped down the stretch to a 1-4 finish. The main reason for the late fade was that the offense couldn’t score (20.2 ppg over last five games), while the defense couldn’t stop the other team (39.2 ppg allowed). Even so, the five wins are quite impressive considering the team went 1-11 last season, resulting in the departure of head coach Dan McCarney and the hiring of Littrell. So will the Mean Green be content with what they have already accomplished or will this team show up in the Cotton Bowl, which is less than an hour away from North Texas’ campus in Denton, with something to prove?

 

Final Analysis

 

No doubt about this one folks, North Texas’ defense is simply not ready to match up against a healthy and confident Army ground game. It won't just be smash-mouth; it'll be a cruisin'-for-a-bruisin' sort of game with the Black Knights chewing up the Cotton Bowl turf with their option attack. They didn't fare so well against North Texas earlier this season, which is even more reason to expect Army to come out fired up and intent on putting forth a better effort.

 

Regardless of this outcome, the futures for both programs appear bright under the leadership of their young, capable head coaches. As for this game, it’s all Black Knights.

 

Prediction: Army 42, North Texas 17

 

— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network and a native Iowan currently based in Southern California. Boleyn attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and is a former contributing writer for The Daily Iowan and a die-hard Hawkeye. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.

Teaser:
Heart of Dallas Bowl Preview and Prediction: Army West Point vs. North Texas
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 10:30
Path: /college-football/independence-bowl-preview-and-prediction-nc-state-wolfpack-vs-vanderbilt-commodores-2016
Body:

The Camping World Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, will feature a pair of 6-6 teams in NC State and Vanderbilt. Both are coming into the game with momentum, having knocked off their in-state rivals in their regular-season finales. The Wolfpack defeated North Carolina 28-21 on the road, while the Commodores kept Tennessee out of the Sugar Bowl with a 45-34 win of their own.

 

Vanderbilt finally has emerged with a decent offense to couple its stout defense. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur played well in the final two weeks of the season against Ole Miss and Tennessee to help the Commodores get bowl eligible — and running back Ralph Webb has always been a threat in the backfield.

 

While Vanderbilt’s offense has improved, it will face a difficult challenge in trying to move the ball against the Wolfpack. NC State has the ACC's No. 1 rushing defense (statistically), which also ranks fifth in the FBS. It will be interesting to see which team has the advantage up front. The Wolfpack could have an equally tough challenge scoring points against the Commodores’ stout front seven.

 

The winner of this game will finish above .500 and carry momentum into the offseason as each program tries to climb the ladder in its respective conference. It should be a good one in Shreveport.

 

Camping World Independence Bowl: NC State vs. Vanderbilt (Shreveport, La.)

 

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. ET

Where: Independence Stadium (Shreveport, La.)

TV Channel: ESPN2

Spread: NC State -4

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb vs. NC State Front Seven

Webb has more than 1,100 rushing yards on the ground for the Commodores this season. The junior has had a great season, currently sitting fourth in the SEC in yards on the ground. He also has benefitted from a great offensive line blocking for him. However, NC State has the ACC's No. 1 rush defense, allowing just 105 yards per game on the ground. That's also good for fifth nationally in that category. Overall, the Wolfpack are 28th in total defense and 32nd in scoring defense in the FBS. It's not like NC State’s defense is impenetrable — the pass defense isn't great — but this run D is for real. Vanderbilt could have a very difficult time in this game if Webb doesn’t get some help from the passing attack.

 

2. NC State's Offensive Playmakers vs. Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham

The Wolfpack have plenty of offensive playmakers, including senior running back Matthew Dayes, who has run for more than 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Sophomore wide receiver Stephen Louis ranks near the top of the ACC in receiving yards as well, but overall, NC State is a middle-of-the-pack (pardon the pun) offense compared to its ACC peers. Vanderbilt has a solid front seven, led by arguably the SEC's best defensive playmaker in Cunningham. The junior linebacker is 12th in the nation with 119 total tackles to this point. With a likely future in the NFL, this could be the last opportunity for the Commodores’ best defender to shine in college.

 

Related: College Football’s 20 Best Position Battles to Watch in December Bowl Games

 

3. Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur

Because of NC State’s success in stopping the run, Shurmur could end up being the ultimate deciding factor in this game. If the Wolfpack are able to stuff the box and shut down Webb, Vanderbilt is going to have to throw. Shurmur had a ton of success against Ole Miss and Tennessee — throwing for a combined 689 yards and four touchdowns. Nothing against Shurmur, but both of those defenses are really bad... and depleted. That's not to say he can't have success against NC State. The Wolfpack's secondary is certainly not on the level of the front seven. NC State ranks 11th out of 14 ACC teams in passing defense. The point is, while Vanderbilt doesn't have to shred the Pack through the air, it needs to take advantage of a weaker secondary in order to win this game.

 

Related: 20 Players on the Rise Entering College Football's 2016-17 Bowl Season

 

Final Analysis

 

The best matchup in this game will be the NC State front seven against Vanderbilt’s running game — and that will certainly be fun to watch. But the most interesting question I have is, what will the Commodores do when the Wolfpack load the box? Whether or not Kyle Shurmur can make plays through the air against a susceptible defense is really the most intriguing storyline here. That may end up deciding the winner. Both of these teams finished the season strong and are plenty capable of leaving Shreveport with a victory. But the way Vanderbilt played in the last two weeks of the season was even more impressive. The Commodores will get it done in a tight game.

 

Prediction: Vanderbilt 26, NC State 20

 

— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.

Teaser:
Independence Bowl Preview and Prediction: NC State vs. Vanderbilt
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/denver-broncos-vs-kansas-city-chiefs-preview-and-prediction-2016
Body:

The Chiefs are looking to bounce back from last week’s heartbreaking, last-second home loss to the Titans and earn their third playoff berth in four seasons under Andy Reid. While the defeat was distressing, it wasn't a death sentence for Kansas City’s AFC West title hopes. A win on Sunday night against the Broncos, and a Raiders loss to the Colts on Saturday, means the two teams would have the same record heading into Week 17.

 

Denver’s offense has picked the worst time to start falling apart, with just 13 points in the last two games, all while fighting for a wild card spot. A win against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium is needed if the Broncos want to keep alive any hope of getting back to the postseason to get the opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title.

 

Denver at Kansas City

 

Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 25 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: NBC

Spread: Kansas City -3.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Denver’s Front Line Woes
No one expected Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian to be a Pro Bowl-caliber signal-caller in his first season as a starter. What was expected was that the Broncos‘ impressive offensive line that did so well protecting a limited Peyton Manning a season ago would hold up for Siemian. That hasn’t been the case in recent weeks, and the Broncos’ playoff chances are slipping because of the line’s inability to protect Siemian. He has been sacked 18 times in his last four starts, including five by the Chiefs in the teams’ first meeting in Week 12.

 

But it’s not just protecting Siemian that has been the problem. The running game that was the fail-safe for Denver’s offense a season ago has become non-existent, as the Broncos rank 27th in the league in rushing offense. Denver has to find a way to pick up some yards on the ground and protect Siemian or else it wont be such a holly jolly Christmas in the Mile High City.

 

2. Siemian v. Smith, Part Deux

The matchup of Siemian and Alex Smith doesn't exactly elicit nostalgia of Brady vs. Manning, but the quarterback play on Sunday night very likely will decide the playoff of fates of these two teams. As noted above, Siemian has essentially been running for his life in recent weeks, putting the already novice quarterback in too many no-win situations for the Broncos to be successful. But the last time these two teams met, Siemian clearly outplayed Smith, throwing for 368 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. With the Broncos’ running game in shambles, Siemian is going to be called upon to make plays — hopefully his receivers can hang on to the ball this time around.

 

No one expects Smith to be a stat sheet-stuffer. As the ultimate game manager, that’s not Smith’s m.o. But at some point the Chiefs’ football future will rest on the arm of Smith, which if you’re a Kansas City fan, is cringeworthy. Smith is the ultimate underneath thrower, not one to go downfield (even when he has to), and the numbers back it up. On third down with between four and six yards to go, Smith is completing just 54 percent of his passes and averaging six yards per attempt. On third down with seven to nine yards to go, Smith is completing just 37 percent of passes and only averaging 3.8 yards per attempt. Against a stout Denver defense, Smith will have to find tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin as much as possible. A repeat of last week’s 15-for-28, 163-yard performance against the Titans wont get it done against the Broncos or in the playoffs.

 

3. Last Back Standing

Justin Forsett is the quintessential NFL running back journeyman, the type you’d expect to see on the Patriots’ roster at some point. Forsett is on his third team in 2016 and seventh of his career after being released by the Ravens and Lions earlier this season. The 31-year-old is the Broncos’ last-ditch effort to find any semblance of a running game this season.

 

Rookie Devontae Booker is the team’s leading rusher, but he has been limited in recent weeks — likely due to multiple knee surgeries prior to this season. But even before being replaced by Forsett, Booker’s production was marginal, averaging only 3.8 yards per carry and 37 rushing yards per game. Last year’s duo of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman was broken up before the season began as Denver moved on from the latter, while the former was placed on injured reserve in late October. Reserve Kapri Bibbs also was lost for the season because of injury.

 

So now the backfield burden falls on Forsett, who’s only been with the team for a few weeks, to give some balance to the Broncos’ offense.

 

Final Analysis

 

Despite reports of infighting between the offense and the defense, the Broncos swear everything is fine — while the ship slowly sinks. The defense, led by Von Miller, is as stout as any in the league, but can’t catch seem to catch a break. Not only is leading tackler, safety T.J. Ward, in the league’s concussion protocol, linebacker Brandon Marshall has missed time with a hamstring injury. With a struggling offense, Denver’s playoff hopes are slipping away and the defending Super Bowl champions could find themselves eliminated with a loss on Christmas Eve night.

 

Prediction: Chiefs 21, Broncos 18

 

— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.

Teaser:
Denver Broncos vs. Kansas City Chiefs Preview and Prediction
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 09:30
Path: /nfl/baltimore-ravens-vs-pittsburgh-steelers-preview-and-prediction-2016
Body:

The bitter AFC North rivalry between the Steelers and Ravens will be renewed on Christmas night in Pittsburgh. And as usual between these two teams, the stakes are high. The Steelers hold a one-game lead in the battle to win the AFC North and can clinch the division title with a victory over the Ravens. Baltimore needs a win to keep its division title hopes alive. However, even with a loss, head coach John Harbaugh’s team is still in the mix to claim a wild card spot. 

 

In the first meeting between these two teams, Baltimore won 21-14 on the strength of a couple of timely plays. Receiver Mike Wallace scored on a 95-yard pass in the first quarter, the Ravens converted an interception into three points and later returned a blocked punt for a score. While the final result was only a seven-point win for Baltimore, the margin certainly felt bigger thanks to a stagnant Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers didn’t score until the fourth quarter and recorded 205 of their 277 total yards over the final three drives. A big reason for the offensive struggles in that game was Baltimore’s defense, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also returned to the lineup after missing a game due to a knee injury. Roethlisberger was clearly rusty (23 of 45), and the ground game struggled to generate anything positive (36 yards on 18 carries).

 

However, since the last meeting, Pittsburgh has emerged as one of the hottest teams in the league. After the Steelers lost to the Ravens, they dropped a last-minute game against Dallas (35-30) but have won five in a row. On the other sideline, Baltimore has won three out of its last four. The Ravens dropped a 30-23 matchup at New England on Monday night two weeks ago but hammered Miami (38-6) and defeated Philadelphia by one (27-26) in that stretch.

 

Baltimore has won six out of the last seven meetings against Pittsburgh. The last victory by the Steelers in this series came on Nov. 2, 2014 (43-23). However, that 20-point win by Pittsburgh is an outlier in this rivalry. The last three meetings have been decided by seven points or less. Additionally, only four out of the last 17 were decided by more than a touchdown.

 

Baltimore at Pittsburgh

 

Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 25 at 4:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: NFL Network

Spread: Steelers -5.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Baltimore’s Ground Game Against Pittsburgh’s Front Seven

Despite losing standout end Cam Heyward due to a torn pectoral in the loss to Dallas, Pittsburgh’s rush defense has held five straight opponents to less than 100 rushing yards. However, the Steelers' line will face another obstacle this week, as starting end Stephon Tuitt is questionable due to a knee injury suffered against Cincinnati. Depth and overall bodies up front are a huge problem for the Steelers if Tuitt is sidelined or limited. Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton, Daniel McCullers and Javon Hargrave are the top four linemen on the roster outside of Tuitt, but linebackers James Harrison or Bud Dupree could slide to end to contribute a handful of snaps.

 

With or without Tuitt in the lineup, Baltimore’s offensive line and ground attack is going to challenge the stingy Pittsburgh front. The Ravens only rushed for 50 yards in the first matchup between these two teams but posted 151 against the Eagles last week and their line seems to be gaining momentum with the emergence of left tackle Ronnie Stanley. The rookie struggled in the first matchup and will be tested once again versus Harrison, Dupree and fellow linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier.

 

Terrance West (729 rushing yards) is the lead back for Baltimore, but rookie Kenneth Dixon (281 yards) has recorded more carries (20 to 15) over the last two weeks. If Tuitt plays, how healthy and effective will he be? And if Tuitt doesn’t play, can the Steelers replicate the success this unit had last week with Hargreaves, McCullers, Walton and Mathews up front?

 

2. Baltimore’s Defense Against Le’Veon Bell

Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell is making a strong late-season push for MVP honors. The fourth-year running back missed the first three games of the season due to a suspension and recorded only one 100-yard performance in his first six contests. However, since the loss to Dallas, Bell has averaged 142.6 rushing yards over Pittsburgh’s last five games, including 236 in a 27-20 win at Buffalo and 118 in a 24-24 victory over the Giants.

 

As we mentioned above, Baltimore’s defense completely contained Bell in the first matchup, as he managed only 32 rushing yards on 14 attempts and caught six passes for 38 yards. Additionally, the Ravens have kept Bell relatively in check during his career. Over six matchups, Bell is only averaging 67.7 rushing yards in games against Baltimore.

 

Finding running room on Christmas Day won’t be easy for Bell and Pittsburgh’s standout line. Baltimore ranks second in the NFL against the run and limits opponents to just 3.5 yards per carry. The battle in the trenches between the physical Ravens’ front seven and Pittsburgh’s standout line will be a must-see matchup and play a key role in whether or not Bell can get on track.

 

3. The Quarterbacks

For all of the focus on Baltimore’s defense or Bell, the outcome of this game is still going to depend on the two quarterbacks. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco hasn’t shown any side effects from a season-ending knee injury in 2015, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 3,788 yards and 19 scores. Flacco threw for 241 yards against the Steelers in the first matchup but was largely quiet outside of the 95-yard connection with Mike Wallace. Flacco is 9-7 in his 16 matchups against Pittsburgh and faces a secondary that has showed steady improvement throughout the 2016 campaign. Rookies Artie Burns (cornerback) and Sean Davis (safety) have emerged as key contributors, while Ross Cockrell also has developed into a solid coverman for head coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers are familiar with Wallace’s speed on the outside, but the Ravens will test the middle of the field too with Steve Smith (60 catches) and tight end Dennis Pitta (67).

 

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not 100 percent in the first meeting between these two teams. However, the 34-year-old signal-caller has knocked the rust off in recent weeks and was instrumental in last week’s 24-20 win at Cincinnati (21 of 36 for 286 yards). Roethlisberger has been better at home than on the road this year, but he could be down a few targets on Sunday night. Tight end Ladarius Green is in the concussion protocol, and receiver Sammie Coates is dealing with a hamstring injury. It’s no secret the Ravens will look to contain receiver Antonio Brown, but that task could be tougher without cornerback Jimmy Smith (ankle injury). Assuming Baltimore devotes extra attention to Brown, which receiver will step up to help Roethlisberger? Is it Eli Rogers or tight end Jesse James?

 

Final Analysis

 

Considering the playoff implications and the rivalry aspect, this won’t be a friendly atmosphere on Sunday night. Pittsburgh’s injuries on the defensive line are a problem against a big and physical Baltimore offensive line. However, the Steelers' defense has played better in the second half of the season, and the offense has been a different unit at home. With Ladarius Green likely sidelined, Ben Roethlisberger needs a big effort from his secondary options – Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Jesse James – to prevent the Ravens from focusing too much on Antonio Brown. Even though Pittsburgh’s injuries cast doubt on both sides of the ball, Roethlisberger and Le'Vevon Bell carry the offense to a couple of key drives in the second half, while the defense prevents the Ravens from landing any big plays this time around. Another close game should be expected, but the Steelers clinch the division with a win over the Ravens.

 

Prediction: Pittsburgh 24, Baltimore 20

Teaser:
Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Preview and Prediction
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/betting-against-spread-nfl-week-16-picks-and-odds-lines-2016
Body:

Welcome to the holiday season where there is NFL football on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Last week's 3-2 record provided reinforcement that I know what I'm doing, but it also confused me more. How could the Vikings lay such an egg at home against a Colts team that they are better then? How could the Chiefs lose at home to the Titans? I'll continue to say that motivation is a big factor and so is the weather. We've seen several teams check out already on the season and don't expect them to change with just two weeks last to go.

 

Note: All games are on Sat., Dec. 24 and times ET.

 

Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at Carolina Panthers (6-8), 1 p.m.

This one is purely a situational play as I really don't like taking the Falcons on the road. I think the Panthers put a lot into their Monday night game against the Redskins. To me, Carolina is a team still with a lot of flaws and now has to contend with Julio Jones, who is back after a two-game absence. Remember what Jones and Matt Ryan did the first time these teams met in Week 4. The wide receiver went for 300 yards and a touchdown while the quarterback threw for 503 and four scores. Money is coming in on the Falcons. I'd take them up to -3 although I'd also be aware of Luke Kuechly's status (concussion) for the home team. SELECTION: Falcons -3

 

New York Jets (4-10) at New England Patriots (12-2), 1 p.m.

This is a huge number, I know, but the Jets are one of those teams that have mailed it in. They have allowed 34 points to the Dolphins and 41 to the Colts in the last three weeks. Bryce Petty has been OK so far, but he's running into a Patriots team that likes to take away what you do well. New England's offense really hasn't exploded much yet this season. The Baltimore game two weeks ago featured more than 400 yards, but three turnovers. I don't think the Patriots will be looking ahead to the Dolphins next week. New England has covered in 11 of 14 games. SELECTION: Patriots -16.5

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6) at New Orleans Saints (6-8), 4:25 p.m.

These two teams met just 13 days ago with the Buccaneers winning 16-11 at home in an ugly contest. Tampa Bay managed just 270 yards of offense in the victory while Drew Brees threw three interceptions. The scene shifts to New Orleans where games typically feature plenty of points. The Saints average 31 points while allowing 30.3 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Buccaneers are on the road for the second straight game so who knows how effective they will be. What we do know is that there should be points. The Bucs have put up 67 in their last three road contests (Kansas City, San Diego and Dallas). New Orleans has gone over in 18 of its last 29 dome games. SELECTION: Over 52.5

 

Notes:

 

— Last week I came really close to adding the Panthers and they won outright against the Redskins. Now Washington is traveling to Chicago to play a Bears team that has had a pulse as of late. It’s a short week for the Skins, who are clearly the better team with a lot to play for, but there are too many variables for me to make a pick either way.

 

— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.

Teaser:
Betting Against the Spread: NFL Week 16 Picks and Odds
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Football, syndicated, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/why-you-must-start-todd-gurley-and-other-start-sit-fantasy-advice-week-16-2016
Body:

Welcome to Week 16, most likely the fantasy championship game. This is the week fantasy owners have been playing for, have been preparing for. At this point, you're starting the players that have gotten you this far.

 

Week 15 was tough in terms of matchups, and some of the so-called studs didn't produce enough to help their teams/owners. However, if studs got you to Week 16, odds are you should start them... with some exceptions.

 

Positional Rankings: QB I RB I WR I TE I DST I K I Flex

 

Quarterback

 

Start 'Em

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens (Sun.)

After two road games where Roethlisberger failed to throw for 300 yards in either and had more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (one), he returns home. The Steelers throw the ball more at home and Roethlisberger is significantly better at home than on the road. This season, he has 17 TD passes at Heinz Field compared to nine on the road.

 

Sit 'Em

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (Mon.)

It doesn't seem that the finger injury is hindering him, although Stafford did not throw a touchdown in Week 15. However, he now faces the Cowboys. In the past three weeks, Dallas’ defense has not allowed a quarterback to throw for more than 250 yards, and has given up a total of four TD passes. The Cowboys try to win the time of possession each week, and that hurts Stafford.

 

Running Back

 

Start 'Em

Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers (Sat.)

We know. Trust me, we know. Gurley has been a giant disappointment. But, if for some reason, you made it to the fantasy championship in spite of him, he has a great matchup against the defense allowing the most fantasy points to opposing running backs. Devonta Freeman had 139 yards and three touchdowns just last week against the 49ers. This is Gurley's chance to finally help his fantasy owners.

 

Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders vs. Indianapolis Colts (Sat.)

Murray has four touchdowns in the past four weeks. He's had more than 80 rushing yards in each of the past three games, and now he faces the Colts, who can be beat on the ground. He's lost some work to DeAndre Washington, but Murray should still have a good outing in Week 16.

 

Sit 'Em

T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans (Sat.)

On the season, the Tennessee Titans have given up the fifth-fewest fantasy points to opposing RBs. Chris Ivory is back and will likely have a bigger workload than he did in Week 15. Even though Yeldon has been a factor in the passing game, he's a risky start in Week 16.

 

Matt Forte, RB, New York Jets at New England Patriots and Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (Sat.)

These two running backs have been lumped together because they have so much in common. Both are 31. Both are banged up and dealing with multiple injuries (Forte has a knee issue and shoulder; Peterson has knee and groin injuries). Both may not even play in Week 16. If either is active, they are a huge risk.

 

Wide Receiver

 

Start 'Em

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars (Sat.)

Two words: Tom Savage. Who would have thought Savage would provide Hopkins with fantasy value? The 17 targets in Week 15 speak for themselves. Savage knows the best offensive weapon on the team is Hopkins and he'll force the ball to him. With Lamar Miller banged up, Hopkins will be the focal point of the Texans’ offense in Week 16.

 

DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears (Sat.)

D-Jax was the best offensive player on the field on Monday night for the Redskins. He had seven receptions for 111 yards, his third 100-yard game in the past four weeks. The Bears just allowed Jordy Nelson to go for 124 on seven catches. While Jackson is boom or bust, he should continue the former in Week 16.

 

Sit 'Em

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears vs. Washington Redskins (Sat.)

Fantasy owners that started Jeffery after his four-game suspension were getting nervous in Week 15 as he didn't have a catch until the third quarter. He dropped a pass earlier in the game and Matt Barkley didn't target him again until after the half. He'll likely see a lot of Josh Norman, and if he and Barkley aren't on the same page, it will affect his targets, and ultimately receptions as well as fantasy points.

 

Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers and A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans (Sat.)

Two elite No. 1 wide receivers each with injuries that caused them to miss multiple weeks. Green has been out since injuring his hamstring in Week 11. Jones has been out with a toe sprain he suffered in Week 13. Both players are vowing to play this week and both are at risk to re-injure themselves. They certainly have potential to score a touchdown, but they also could just as easily serve as a decoy. Both are high-risk receivers coming off of injury in a week where everything is on the line.

 

Tight End

 

Start 'Em

Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers at Cleveland Browns (Sat.)

Coming off a one-catch, 11-yard game in Week 15, Gates is hard to trust. However, with two touchdowns, he ties Tony Gonzalez's record for a tight end. This may be Gates' last season, and Philip Rivers knows he wants that record. Want to bet he forces Gates the ball in the red zone?

 

Sit 'Em

Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears (Sat.)

It's not clear if Reed is going to play, but if he is active, he should be on fantasy benches. He's dealing with a painful shoulder injury (as evident by him grimacing) that is affecting his performance. After treating fantasy owners to back-to-back one-reception games, he should not be in starting lineups for Week 16.

 

Defense/Special Teams (DST)

 

Start 'Em

San Diego Chargers (vs. Cleveland Browns, Sat.)

Cleveland has phoned in the season at this point and is just trying to get through the last two games with as little pain as possible. Robert Griffin III has struggled and no one is replacing him. While the Chargers’ defense isn't amazing, it should still put up points against the Browns, who allow the third-most fantasy points to opposing DSTs.

 

Sit 'Em

Baltimore Ravens (at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sun.)

The Steelers at home are better than the Steelers on the road, and the Ravens at home are better than the Ravens on the road. Ben Roethlisberger also doesn't turn the ball over as much at home, only throwing three interceptions at Heinz Field this season. The Ravens’ defense has been struggling lately and is not one you want to trust to help you win a fantasy championship.

 

— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.

Teaser:
Why You Must Start Todd Gurley and Other Start/Sit Fantasy Advice For Week 16
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: BYU Cougars, Utah Utes, Overtime
Path: /overtime/10-best-christmas-day-moments-sports-history
Body:

Christmas may be a holiday, but the sports world doesn’t take Dec. 25 off. This year’s offerings include an NFL double-header of two divisional rivalries (Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh, Denver vs. Kansas City), while the NBA will go five games deep, including a NBA Finals rematch between Golden State and Cleveland.

 

Whether any of these games produces some memorable moments remains to be seen, but as you can see from our top 10 list below, the competition to go down in sports history on Christmas Day is pretty deep.

 

10. 1991: The Soviet Union Falls

The only non-sporting event on this list deserves to be here because it unleashed a slew of Eastern Europe athletes who would have only been allowed past the Iron Curtain to compete in amateur events. The Detroit Red Wings’ “Russian Five,” which won the 1997 Stanley Cup and boxing’s Klitschko brothers are the most notable examples, but the fall of the USSR also benefited the NBA and NFL.

 

9. 2003: Hawaii Beats Houston in Triple Overtime in the Hawaii Bowl

Those who tuned into ESPN on Christmas night got a glimpse at the future of Big 12 football. The Cougars were led by future Baylor head coach Art Briles and the Warriors had Timmy Chang, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NCAA history. The two engaged in a good, old-fashioned offensive shootout and were tied 34-34 at the end of regulation. Each team scored a touchdown on the first two overtime possessions. Hawaii got the ball first in the third overtime and Michael Brewster ran eight yards into the end zone, but the Warriors failed on the two-point conversion. However, Houston’s overtime possession ended on downs and Hawaii came away with a 54-48 victory.

 

8. 1941: Detroit Red Wings Beat Brooklyn Americans in Overtime

The NHL used to have a tradition of playing on Christmas Day and this game is the only one to ever go into overtime, as the Red Wings beat the Americans 3-2 18 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The NHL eliminated overtime in 1942 because of wartime restrictions and did not reinstitute it until the 1983-84 season. The 1941-42 season was the last for the Americans franchise and the NHL operated with its Original Six teams until 1967.

 

7. 1994: Don Shula Breaks NFL Regular-Season Victory Record

This game between the Miami Dolphins and the Detroit Lions already had a lot going for it. Both teams were 9-6 and battling for a playoff spot and Barry Sanders entered the game with 1,831 rushing yards and a shot at 2,000. The Dolphins took control early, holding Sanders to only 52 yards, and scoring on five of their first seven possessions to take a 27-10 halftime lead and held on for a 27-20 win. The victory was head coach Don Shula’s 319th regular-season victory, putting him ahead of George Halas (Shula had broken the overall wins record in 1993.).

 

6. 1984: Bernard King Scores 60 Points

In front of a Madison Square Garden crowd, King torched the New Jersey Nets for a Christmas Day-record 60 points. His New York Knicks still lost 120-114, but the only memory from that game was his performance. King won the scoring title that season and this Christmas Day milestone was his highest point total of the season.

 

5. 1933: Frank Klick Upsets Kid Chocolate for Junior Lightweight Title

Believe it or not, boxing matches used to be held on Christmas Day and the biggest one was this title match. Eligio Sardinias, aka Kid Chocolate, is considered by many boxing enthusiasts to be one of the 50 best fighters of all-time and had held the junior lightweight title since 1931. Despite being long in the tooth, he was favored to beat the light-punching Klick. The 5,000 fans in the Philadelphia Arena were shocked when Klick stopped the sluggish Kid in the seventh round to take the title (NOTE: No professional boxing matches on Christmas Day have been held in the U.S. since 1969.).

 

4. 2008: Phil Jackson Gets 1,000th Win

The NBA has always made a priority of scheduling a marquee matchup on Christmas Day and it is usually a rematch of the previous year’s Finals. That was certainly the case in 2008. The defending champion Boston Celtics were riding a 19-game winning streak and facing the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time since defeating them in the most recent NBA Finals. On this night, four Lakers scored in double digits and beat the Celtics 92-83. The win was Laker head coach Phil Jackson’s 1,000th of his career.

 

3. 1971: NHL Ends Christmas Day Tradition

From the 1920s until 1971, hockey games were played every Christmas Day, until the NHL ended the tradition to give players a holiday break. On this day, six games were played and the last goal ever scored on Christmas Day came courtesy of Stan Gilbertson, as his California Golden Seals beat the Los Angeles Kings 3-1. In 2008, the NHL added its own holiday event with the New Year’s Day’s Winter Classic.

 

2. 2004: Kobe and Shaq Face Off for First Time

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal three-peated as world champions when they played on the Lakers together… and they also hated each other’s guts. In July of 2004, the Lakers traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat and the NBA scheduled their first meeting for Christmas night. The game lived up to its hype, as Bryant scored 42 points and drew O’Neal’s fifth and sixth fouls, sending Shaq to the bench with the two teams tied 91-91. The game went into overtime where Dwayne Wade led the Heat to a 104-102 win. Bryant missed a three-pointer as time expired.

 

1. 1971: Chiefs and Dolphins Play Longest Game in NFL History

The first NFL games ever played on Christmas Day ended up being the last for many years. Earlier in the day, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings 20-12. Then at 4 p.m. ET, the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins met in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium. The two teams battled back and forth and were tied 24-24 at the end of regulation. After a scoreless first overtime, they went into a second one. Finally, with 7:20 left in the second overtime period, Miami’s Garo Yepremeian kicked the game-winning field goal. The game was actually only three hours and 21 minutes long in real time, but the outcry of how it cut into Christmas Day prompted the NFL to avoid scheduling another game on this day until 1989.

 

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

 

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Teaser:
10 Best Christmas Day Moments in Sports History
Post date: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 07:00
Path: /nfl/cincinnati-bengals-vs-houston-texans-preview-and-prediction-2016
Body:

NRG Stadium will provide the backdrop for a primetime Christmas Eve matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans. The Texans (8-6) enter Week 16 tied with the Titans atop the AFC South standings (but in first place courtesy of two head-to-head wins) following last week’s 21-20 comeback victory over the Jaguars. But perhaps the bigger story was Bill O’Brien’s benching of $72 million quarterback Brock Osweiler. Backup Tom Savage, who has never started an NFL game, will now be tasked with trying to lead Houston to the division crown. The Texans can clinch the AFC South with a win against the Bengals combined with a Titans loss to the Jaguars.

 

The Bengals (5-8-1) sealed their postseason fate by blowing a late lead against division rival Pittsburgh last week. The 24-20 debacle marked Cincinnati’s fourth straight loss to the Steelers, and a franchise record of five straight playoff appearances has come to an end. In turn, Marvin Lewis’ seat suddenly got a whole lot warmer, so a strong finish would go a long ways towards silencing some of the talk regarding his job security.

 

A positive first step would be solving a Houston team that has had Cincinnati’s number recently. The Texans have won six of the past seven meeting between the teams, dating back to 2008, including wins in the wild card round in the 2012 and ’13 seasons.

 

Cincinnati at Houston

 

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 8:25 p.m. ET

TV Channel: NFL Network

Spread: Houston -1.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. The Tom Savage Era Begins
Bill O’Brien’s benching of Brock Osweiler may have been a desperate act by a desperate coach. But it was a move that quite possibly salvaged the Texans’ postseason outlook. While Tom Savage’s performance against the Jaguars last week was not perfect, it was good enough to help lead Houston to a come-from-behind victory. Savage also injected a spark into a passing attack that ranks 30th in the NFL and has just 14 touchdown passes in 14 games. Star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (8 rec., 87 yds.) certainly seemed to benefit from the change under center.

 

It’s impossible to know for sure if Savage will be the long-term answer for the Texans based on one game. However, he did pass his first test with flying colors and his performance against a solid Jacksonville pass defense showed enough promise to provide optimism for the rest of this season. We will learn a lot more on Saturday night when Savage makes his first career NFL start. Cincinnati has twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdown passes allowed (three) over its last three games, so this as good a test as any for Houston’s new starting quarterback.

 

2. Houston Running Game vs. Cincinnati Rushing Defense
One way the Texans can take some of the pressure off of Savage in his first NFL start will be with plenty of ground support. Lamar Miller is sixth in the league with 1,073 rushing yards as Houston ranks fifth in rushing offense (122.7 ypg). Cincinnati has had its issues stopping the run, currently checking in at No. 26 (117.5 ypg) in that department.

 

This is an obvious matchup that the Texans will look to exploit. That being said, there is a good chance that the Bengals will load the box in an attempt to slow down Miller and his backfield mates to force Savage to try and beat them with his arm. This could complicate matters if Savage is not up for that challenge. Miller is dealing with a slight ankle injury as well, but early indications are that he will be good to go for Saturday night’s matchup against Cincinnati’s suspect run defense.

 

3. The Return of A.J. Green
Barring any setbacks, Green is set to play for the first time since a hamstring injury forced him out the Week 11 loss to Buffalo. Green’s presence on the field alone should provide a big boost to Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ aerial attack against the NFL’s No. 2-ranked pass defense. The elite wide receiver’s return also provides an opportunity for him to make history on Saturday night. Green needs just 36 yards to join Randy Moss as the only players in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards in each of their first six seasons in the league.

 

While Green should be able to reach that milestone, he could have a tough time trying to shake off the rust against a top-flight Houston secondary. Veteran cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson will be charged with trying to keep tabs on Green, who has been held in check by the Texans in his career. In five games, two of those coming in the playoffs, Green has yet to catch a touchdown against Houston and he’s averaging 74.8 receiving yards per contest with only one 100-yard effort.

 

Final Analysis

 

Despite their poor record, the Bengals may just have the better team in this matchup. If the effort is there, they definitely have the talent to win the game, especially with A.J. Green returning after missing the past four games. Unfortunately, last week’s loss to the Steelers, and subsequent elimination from playoff contention, may have sucked the last bit of wind right out of their sails. It’s far from certain if Cincinnati’s players are even capable of giving 100 percent at this point in the season.

 

The Texans should have no problem putting their best foot forward. Quarterback Tom Savage could struggle at times in his first NFL start. But a solid Houston running game should complement Savage’s efforts and provide just enough firepower. A stellar Texans defense should be able to take care of the rest against a potentially demoralized bunch of Bengals at home. Houston may need a Christmas miracle (i.e, Jacksonville beating Tennessee) earlier on Saturday to have the opportunity to sew up the AFC South, but Savage’s first career win as a starter would be a nice gift too. A victory also would keep the Texans in the driver’s seat for a potential winner-take-all showdown with the Titans on New Year’s Day.

 

Prediction: Texans 20, Bengals 17

 

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.

 

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Teaser:
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Houston Texans Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, December 22, 2016 - 13:00
Path: /nfl/arizona-cardinals-vs-seattle-seahawks-preview-and-prediction-2016
Body:

The soap opera that is the Seattle Seahawks continues to be the gift that keeps gives on giving during this holiday season. On the field, Seattle took care of business against the Los Angeles Rams last Thursday night at CenturyLink Field, as they won going away 24-3. Russell Wilson got back on track a little bit against the Rams as he completed 19 of 26 passes for 229 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

 

Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and the rest of the Seahawks’ defensive line had their way with Jared Goff and the Los Angeles offense, as the Rams could not get much going all game long. But off the field, cornerback Richard Sherman popped off about the play calling at the 1-yard line against and yesterday went after local 710 ESPN Seattle host Jim Moore during his weekly press conference.

 

Arizona showed plenty of fight last week against the New Orleans Saints before falling 48-41 at home in a high-scoring affair that was one of the more entertaining games this season in the NFL. Carson Palmer took care of the football and made plenty of big plays in the passing game, while David Johnson continued to prove why he has emerged as one of the top playmakers in the game.

 

Defensively, head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim have to be concerned as Drew Brees torched the Cardinals for 389 yards and four touchdowns. So while the effort appeared to be there for Arizona, there still is a need for players to make plays, something that has not happened the past two weeks against Miami and New Orleans, especially in key moments.

 

Arizona at Seattle

 

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Seahawks -8

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Richard Sherman vs. Carson Palmer
This week Sherman has added the latest chapter to the non-stop Seahawks soap opera that should be titled “As the Seahawks Turn,” with his going off on local media members and the play-calling. It is becoming clear that the fame and Stanford education has given Sherman a sense of entitlement that he is the smartest person in the room and frankly, it is becoming a very tired act. If Sherman is truly the leader that he likes to portray himself to be, his sole focus in press conferences should be on the opponent at hand. Which this week is the veteran Palmer, who is more than capable of shredding the Seattle secondary like Aaron Rodgers did two weeks ago at Lambeau Field.

 

Consequently, it will be fascinating to see which version of Sherman shows up this week, as his teammates need his big-time play on the field instead of his big-time mouth in the press, which detracts from the great work that the All-Pro does off the field through his foundation, Blanket Coverage.

 

2. The battle in the trenches
If the Cardinals are going to get out of CenturyLink Field with a win on Saturday, they are going to have to protect Palmer at a high level. You can rest assured that the Seahawks will be in attack mode from the opening snap to try to take away big plays in the passing game. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett earned Pro Bowl invitations this week and they are going to have to continue to play at that level in order for Seattle to get the victory and get one step closer to the No. 2 seed (which comes with a first-round bye) for the NFC playoffs. It also will be very crucial for Arizona to create holes in the running game for David Johnson, who is the first player in NFL history to have 100 or more yards from scrimmage in each of the first 14 games of a season.

 

3. Seahawks’ running game
When these two teams met in Glendale, Arizona, back on Oct. 23, Seattle simply could not run the ball, finishing the overtime tie with just 52 yards on 19 carries. Thomas Rawls didn’t play in that game, so it’s going to be important to get him going with a goal of about 20 carries and hopefully at least 80 yards on the ground. Any sort of contribution from Rawls will keep the Cardinals honest on defense, which should make things easier for Russell Wilson. He also will likely have to pick up a couple of first downs with his legs, which should be easier considering he’s healthier than he was the first the faced Arizona’s aggressive defense. Do not be surprised to see some jet sweeps or other running plays for wide receiver Tyler Lockett either, as offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will look to mix things up and keep the Cardinals off balance.

 

Final Analysis

 

For the Seahawks, it is going to be vital that they start strong and try to throw a knockout punch at Arizona right away. The Cardinals have already been eliminated from playoff contention so if Seattle can jump ahead early you may Arizona pack it in. However, look for a closer-than-expected contest, barring a rash of turnovers, as the Seahawks get one step closer to the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a one-score victory over the Cardinals. It also means the 12s (and football fans in general) don’t have to worry about unwrapping another tie on Christmas Eve.

 

Prediction: Seahawks 24, Cardinals 17

 

— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and also writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottWhittum.

Teaser:
Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, December 22, 2016 - 12:30
Path: /nfl/tampa-bay-buccaneers-vs-new-orleans-saints-preview-and-prediction-2016
Body:

Despite New Orleans’ victory in Arizona last Sunday, Atlanta’s victory over San Francisco ended the Saints hopes of winning the NFC South. They still have a mathematical shot a wild card, but need to win their final two games and hope the Redskins, Packers and Buccaneers all lose in Weeks 16 and 17.

 

Speaking of Tampa Bay, Sunday night’s 26-20 loss in Dallas ended the Bucs’ five-game winning streak. More importantly, it dropped them a game behind Atlanta for first place in the NFC South. Tampa Bay can still clinch a playoff spot with a win over New Orleans on Saturday... and quite a bit of help. Green Bay, Detroit and Washington all have to lose, so the more probable scenario has the Bucs taking care of business against the Saints and hoping that the Falcons fall at Carolina to set up a win-and-you’re-in scenario in Week 17.

 

New Orleans leads the all-time series against Tampa Bay 30-19, including eight of the last 10 meetings. The Buccaneers beat the Saints 16-11 at home two weeks ago and also were victorious in New Orleans last season. The Bucs have not beaten the Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in consecutive seasons since 2009-10 and are looking for the first season sweep of their division rivals since ’07.

 

Tampa Bay at New Orleans

 

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Buccaneers -3

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Holding the line on third and fourth downs and holding off the flags
Tampa Bay’s defense has given opponents too many free yards while allowing multiple first downs at crunch time. The Buccaneers are tied for second in the NFL in penalties (110) and are fourth in penalty yards (957). They are middle of the pack when it comes to first downs allowed (283, 17th), thanks to the second-best third down conversion rate (34.5 percent), but teams have been successful on six of eight fourth down attempts.

 

The Saints have earned their status as one of the top offenses in the league, leading the league in first downs with 344 and only 22 of those are due to penalties. New Orleans have converted nearly half of its third downs (49.5 percent, first) and have been quite successful on fourth down (10-for-12) as well. The downside is that the Saints’ offense has penalized quite a bit (94 for 840 yards).

 

These statistics aside, New Orleans’ offense struggled mightily against Tampa Bay to weeks ago. The Saints were just four of 13 on third down, and two of those were courtesy of penalties. For the game, New Orleans was hit with 13 accepted penalties for 104 yards, seven of those by the offense. Have the Buccaneers solved Drew Brees and company or will the Saints rediscover their offensive groove inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome?

 

2. What has happened to Mike Evans?
In the past three weeks, Evans has hardly been a factor. Opponents have held him to four receptions or fewer and less than 60 receiving yards in each game with no touchdowns. Despite the recent struggles, he is still Tampa Bay’s leading receiver by far with nearly the same amount of yards (1,159) as the next two (Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries) on the Buccaneers’ stat sheet combined (1,164). Evans also has accounted for 10 of Jameis Winston’s 26 touchdown passes this season.

 

Tampa Bay has won two of the three games during Evans’ slump, but the offense needs their best weapon to start producing again. In three of Bucs’ six losses he has been held to 60 receiving yards or fewer and has just three touchdowns in those games combined. Tampa Bay’s defense has done its part during the team’s recent surge, but for this team to reach its full potential it needs Evans to produce and come up with big plays.

 

3. Motivation for the Saints?
This contest will kick off in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve. New Orleans is all but officially eliminated from playoff contention and could be so before this game even gets started.

 

How many Saints fans will not show up in favor of holiday gatherings with family or friends? The game will not be blacked out locally. Therefore, diehard members of the Who Dat Nation could still watch the game without venturing to the Superdome.

 

One has to wonder about the mindset of the Saints on game day. How many will become last-second pre-game scratches from the starting lineup? How many players will take a seat on the bench in favor of their backups, either by request of the starter or because the coach wants to see a reserve in action? Depending on how some of the earlier games play out, fans should expect to see such substitutions.

 

In the recent weeks, rumors have swirled and incidents have occurred calling into question the cohesion of the team. Some in the media have reported negotiations involving a trade of head coach Sean Payton, to Los Angeles in particular. A few weeks ago, Brandin Cooks openly expressed his discontent in his lack of involvement in the game plan, prompting discussions that he wants out of New Orleans. Last week, Mark Ingram had an angry confrontation with Payton on the sideline late in the win at Arizona. If the playoffs are out of the question, will these and other issues boil over in a meaningless game?

 

Final Analysis

 

The Saints’ chances to reach the playoffs this season greatly resemble the possibility of snow on Christmas in New Orleans. While both are theoretically possible, anyone betting on either is wasting money. Their last gasp in the pursuit of the playoffs may already be snuffed out by kickoff of this game. A victory by either Washington or Green Bay in the early games would officially end New Orleans’ postseason hopes. It seems likely that attendance in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be sparse. The crowd will be prone to bailing early should Tampa Bay jump out to a large early lead.

 

On the other side, the Buccaneers have plenty of play for. A loss would cripple their shot at an NFC South championship, as the Atlanta would be able to seal up the crown with a win in Carolina. As much as the Bucs might hate the idea of arriving home late on Christmas Eve, they must take care of business on the road.

 

Prediction: Buccaneers 30, Saints 20

 

— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.

Teaser:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New Orleans Saints Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, December 22, 2016 - 12:00
Path: /nfl/indianapolis-colts-vs-oakland-raiders-preview-and-prediction-2016
Body:

Fresh off of clinching its first playoff berth since 2002, Oakland returns home to face Indianapolis, a team that is still in the postseason conversation. The Raiders (11-3) now have their sights set on an AFC West title, while the Colts (7-7) must win (and get plenty of help) to maintain any hope of winning the South.

 

Last week, Oakland’s defense had one of its best performances in a 19-16 road victory over San Diego. The Raiders held the Chargers to just 263 total yards, as Bruce Irvin had a big game with two sacks and a forced fumble. Oakland leads Kansas City by one game in the AFC West and can win the division with a win over Indianapolis and a Chiefs loss to the Broncos on Christmas night.

 

The Colts appear to be a longshot at best to get in the playoff considering they trail both the Texans and Titans by a game. But Indianapolis is coming off of one of its most dominating wins of the season after drubbing Minnesota 34-6 on the road. The Colts scored on five of their first six possessions to jump out to a 27-0 lead and never looked back.

 

Saturday will mark the 14th time the Colts and Raiders have met with Oakland holding a slim 7-6 advantage. The two teams last met in Indianapolis in 2013, a game the Colts won 21-17.

 

Indianapolis at Oakland

 

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24, 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Oakland -3.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Indianapolis’ balanced attack
Many people believe that Indianapolis’ offense is just quarterback Andrew Luck and the passing game. While that could be true, the Colts have had more success when they run the ball efficiently.

 

Last week against Minnesota, Luck handed the ball off on 40 of 68 snaps. Since Luck was drafted No.1 overall in 2012, the Colts are 24-3 when the team has 30-plus rushing attempts in a game.

 

While Luck finished with 250 passing yards against the Vikings, the running game produced 161 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries. The yardage total tied a season high for Indianapolis and was the most the Vikings have given up. With Oakland giving up 116.9 rushing yards per game, the Colts could once again have success on the ground with Frank Gore and Robert Turbin leading the way.

 

2. Derek Carr
Despite dealing with a finger injury the last few weeks, the Raiders’ quarterback led this team to another fourth-quarterback comeback win, this time in San Diego. His final stat line wasn’t that impressive (19-for-30, 213 yards, TD), but the important thing is he once again found a way to help his team wind up victorious.

 

Carr has been operating primarily out of the shotgun or pistol formation since he injured his pinky finger last month on a bad snap from under center in a win over Carolina. That could be troublesome for Indianapolis, who ranks near the bottom of the NFL in passing defense (261.4 ypg). Look for Carr, fellow Pro Bowler Amari Cooper and tag-team partner Michael Crabtree look to take advantage of a Colts secondary that has had to deal with a rash of injuries this season, and it shows on the stat sheet.

 

3. Colts’ offensive line
Indianapolis’ front line has long been an issue ever since Luck was drafted, but the group is coming off of a strong showing last week in which the Colts’ offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage against Minnesota. The Vikings have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, but Luck was not sacked and was hit just twice all game, and Indianapolis ran for 161 yards as well.

 

Minnesota has had some injuries along its defensive line, but Indianapolis’ show of strength up front was impressive nonetheless. But the Colts will face an entirely different challenge on Saturday going up against Khalil Mack and the rest of Oakland’s front seven.

 

While Mack’s sack streak ended at eight games last week, Bruce Irvin stepped up and recorded two sacks and a forced fumble in the win over San Diego. All told, the Raiders sacked Philip Rivers three times and held him to just 206 yards with two touchdowns and an interception on 17-of-30 passing.

 

Indianapolis’ offensive line has performed much better during the second half of the season, giving up just nine sacks in the last six games. This is after surrendering 31 in the first eight games. If the Colts want to keep the momentum going on offense, the line will need to keep up its recent strong play against a pass rush that features Mack, one of the leading contenders for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.

 

Final Analysis

 

Last week, Oakland’s defense was able to slow down a San Diego offense that is among the NFL’s most productive. The Raiders will need a repeat performance at home on Saturday against an equally potent Indianapolis attack. Oakland’s offense has managed just 32 points over its last two games, so the Raiders can’t rely strictly on Derek Carr and company to win this game.

 

Indianapolis might be a .500 team, but the Colts are better than their record indicates. Five of their losses have been by a touchdown or less and only one has been to a team that does not have a winning record (Jacksonville). Oakland also is no stranger to close games, as eight of its 11 wins have been by seven points or fewer.

 

Neither team has a great defense, so it will most likely come down to which unit can make a play in a critical moment. In that respect, the edge goes to the Raiders, thanks to the presence and playmaking ability of All-Pro Khalil Mack.

 

Prediction: Raiders 30, Colts 24

 

— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.

Teaser:
Indianapolis Colts vs. Oakland Raiders Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, December 22, 2016 - 11:30
Path: /nfl/miami-dolphins-vs-buffalo-bills-preview-and-prediction-2016
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New England may have already wrapped up the AFC East, but there’s still important business in the division to attend to when Buffalo hosts Miami on Christmas Eve. The Dolphins (9-5) are a game clear of the pack for the second wild card spot, while the Bills (7-7) must win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

 

Even though Buffalo is coming off of a 33-13 win over Cleveland, these last two games (Bills finish at the Jets) could determine whether head coach Rex Ryan keeps his job or not. At least on paper, there’s a big difference between finishing 9-7 or even 8-8 compared to 7-9. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor also could be auditioning for his job, as the structure of the contract extension (six years, $90 million, but option for 2017) he signed in August gives the Bills some flexibility should they decide to go in another direction.

 

For Miami, it’s pretty simple – win out and the Dolphins are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season. In fact, if Miami wins and Baltimore, Tennessee and Denver all lose, the Dolphins can sew up the wild card and not have to worry about the regular season finale at home against the Patriots.

 

Miami beat Buffalo 28-25 back in Week 7 behind 214 rushing yards from Jay Ajai. The Dolphins have lost their last four games at New Era Field (formerly Ralph Wilson Stadium).

 

Miami at Buffalo

 

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Buffalo -3.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Moore Good Things to Come from Matt?

Prior to this past Saturday’s game in New York, Miami had won seven of its last eight and was really starting to click. Ryan Tannehill had found his own groove, throwing 13 touchdowns and just five interceptions during that span while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. But in Week 14 Tannehill was sacked late in the win over Arizona. Although he escaped serious injury, Tannehill sprained the ACL and MCL in his left knee and more than likely played his final game of this season.

 

Veteran Matt Moore replaced Tannehill and even though he made his first start in five seasons last week against the Jets, he showed little rust in throwing a career-high four touchdowns and just one pick in the 34-13 road rout. Moore completed 12 of his 18 passes, including two long scoring strikes (52 yards to Kenny Stills, 66 to Jarvis Landry), as the Dolphins poured it on in the third quarter. Can Moore do the same at home against Buffalo? The Bills have been one of the best against the pass this season and held Tannehill to just 204 passing yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. But part of that was due to the damage Jay Ajayi did on the ground, and it’s been a while since Buffalo has faced Moore and vice versa. In this matchup of unfamiliar foes which side has the advantage?

 

2. Jump-starting Jay?

In the first game against Buffalo, Miami running back Jay Ajayi torched the Bills for 214 rushing yards on 29 carries. He scored just one touchdown, but he averaged 7.4 yards per carry and had eight runs of 10 or more yards. Ajayi was a big reason why the Dolphins won 28-25, but he hasn’t been the same productive ball carrier since that Week 7 game. He ran for 111 yards in a 27-23 victory in Week 9 over the Jets, but has just 361 yards on the ground and a single touchdown over the past six games. He’s averaging just 3.5 yards per carry during this span and while Miami is 5-1 in those games, now is as good a time as any for Ajayi to get going again. Buffalo has had trouble stopping the run all season (124.4 ypg) and gave up 236 yards and three scores (on 38 carries) to Le’Veon Bell two weeks ago. The Dolphins need a balanced offensive approach to give them the best chance for success, both now and looking ahead to the playoffs, and more production from Ajayi also will take pressure off of Moore and the passing game.

 

3. Buffalo’s Healthier Herd

Even though the Bills lost by just three points in Week 7, the Dolphins outgained Buffalo 454 to 267 and had 26 first downs compared to 16. Penalties (13 for 116 yards) helped keep the Bills in the game, as Miami also dominated time of possession (37:02 to 22:58). But another factor in the first meeting was that running back LeSean McCoy managed just 11 yards on eight carries before leaving after aggravating a hamstring injury and Sammy Watkins did not play because he was on injured reserve. Both will be in the starting lineup on Saturday, which immediately makes Buffalo’s offense that much more dangerous.

 

McCoy has struggled with some injuries this season, but he’s rushed for 100 or more yards in three of his last four games, including a season-high 153 on just 19 carries (8.1 ypc) last week against Cleveland. Statistically speaking, the Dolphins have been even worse against the run (132.5 ypg) than the Bills, so McCoy and Mike Gillislee could play a huge role in this game, especially since it’s in Buffalo and it’s the middle of December. Meanwhile, Watkins hasn’t done a lot since returning from IR (11 rec., 182 yds., TD in four games), but his mere presence makes the Bills’ passing game that much harder to defend. Watkins also is averaging 17.8 yards per reception in four career games against Miami.

 

Final Analysis

 

Miami is leading the chase for the second wild card spot, but that doesn’t mean this game isn’t important for Buffalo. That’s especially the case if you believe the scuttlebutt regarding Rex Ryan’s tenuous job security. The Dolphins beat the Bills by just three points in their first meeting, but the score doesn’t indicate how dominant Miami was at home. Much has changed since then, as Buffalo is back to full strength on offense and the Dolphins have backup Matt Moore at quarterback.

 

The keys to this game will be which team can run the ball better and protect it, especially if the weather takes a turn for the worse. Jay Ajayi lit up the Bills for 214 rushing yards back in Week 7 and even though he hasn’t done a lot since, I think he breaks out of his funk. Ajayi and LeSean McCoy lead a ground assault for their respective teams, but Miami gets one step closer to the playoffs with a sweep of its longtime AFC East rivals.

 

Prediction: Dolphins 23, Bills 20

Teaser:
Miami Dolphins vs. Buffalo Bills Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, December 22, 2016 - 10:30
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Path: /college-football/college-footballs-2016-postseason-all-freshman-team
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Every college football season is a new opportunity for the true or redshirt freshmen players on 128 FBS teams to make a statement. While each year always produces a handful of freshmen standouts, it seems more first-year players are making an impact at a high level. The 2016 season produced plenty of standouts in the freshmen ranks, including quarterbacks Jalen Hurts (Alabama), Deondre Francois (Florida State) and Sam Darnold (USC). The impressive freshman class continues at running back with Ohio State's Mike Weber and Texas A&M's Trayveon Williams. Additionally, there's a strong group of linemen in the freshmen ranks, including Alabama's Jonah Williams and Oregon's Jake Hanson. On defense, Houston's Ed Oliver headlines the first-team unit, while Clemson's Dexter Lawrence and Ohio State's Nick Bosa are two other rising stars to watch over the next couple of seasons.

 

Compiling the all-freshman team at the end of the regular season is no easy task. Several worthy players missed the cut, as we tried to combine stats, competition level talent and playing time to piece together the all-freshman teams for 2016. Additionally, we also used some position flexibility to award some of the best players instead of sticking with a true positional alignment.

 

2016 All-Freshman Teams by Conference

 

ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

 

2016 All-Conference Teams

 

ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | All-America

 

College Football's 2016 Postseason All-Freshman Team
 

First-Team

Offense

Second-Team

Offense

Third-Team

Offense

Fourth-Team

Offense

QB

Jalen Hurts

Alabama 

Sam Darnold

USC  

Deondre Francois

Florida State 

Shane Buechele

Texas 

RB

Mike Weber

Ohio State 

Justice Hill

Oklahoma State 

Devin Singletary

FAU 

Devwah Whaley

Arkansas 

RB

Trayveon Williams

Texas A&M 

Benny Snell

Kentucky 

Damarea Crockett

Missouri 

Chris Evans

Michigan 

AP

N'Keal Harry (WR)

Arizona State 

Bryan Edwards (WR)

South Carolina 

Van Jefferson (WR)

Ole Miss 

James Williams (RB)

Washington State 

WR

Ahmmon Richards

Miami 

Deshaunte Jones

Iowa State 

James Proche

SMU 

Donnie Corley

Michigan State 

WR

Demetris Robertson

California 

Dimetrios Mason

Missouri 

Kevin Stepherson

Notre Dame 

Ty Lee

MTSU 

TE

Isaac Nauta

Georgia 

Daniel Imatorbhebhe

USC 

JJ Arcega-

Whiteside (WR)

Stanford 

Nigel Kilby

Eastern Michigan 

C

Jake Hanson

Oregon 

Erik McCoy

Texas A&M 

Nate Herbig (OL)

Stanford 

Dedrick Mills (RB)

Georgia Tech 

OL

Bobby Evans

Oklahoma 

Coy Cronk

Indiana 

Michael Jordan

Ohio State 

Kennedy McKoy (RB)

West Virginia 

OL

Ryan Bates

Penn State 

Tim Lynott

Colorado 

Colton McKivitz

West Virginia 

Vic Johnson

App. State 

OL

Gus Lavaka

Oregon State 

Marcus Keyes

Oklahoma State 

Jawaan Taylor

Florida 

Jon Dietzen

Wisconsin  

OL

Jonah Williams

Alabama 

Ben Bredeson

Michigan 

Parker Braun

Georgia Tech 

Scott Frantz

Kansas State 

         
 

First-Team

Defense

Second-Team

Defense

Third-Team

Defense

Fourth-Team

Defense

DL

Ed Oliver

Houston 

Malcolm Roach

Texas 

Anthony Nelson

Iowa 

Joe Dillon

UL Lafayette 

DL

Dexter Lawrence

Clemson 

Dre'Mont Jones

Ohio State 

Benito Jones

Ole Miss 

Jabari Zuniga

Florida 

DL

Reggie Walker

Kansas State 

Joe Jackson

Miami 

Clelin Ferrell

Clemson 

McTelvin Agim

Arkansas 

DL

Nick Bosa

Ohio State 

Brian Burns

Florida State 

Marlon Davidson

Auburn 

Rashan Gary

Michigan 

LB

Troy Dye

Oregon 

Bryan London

Texas State 

Logan Wilson

Wyoming 

Kevin Givens (DL)

Penn State 

LB

Joe Giles-

Harris

Duke 

Josiah Tauaefa

UTSA 

David Reese

Florida 

Michael Pinckney

Miami 

LB

Shaq Quarterman

Miami 

Leo Lewis

Miss. State 

Markus Bailey

Purdue 

Jordyn Brooks 

Texas Tech 

DB

Xavier Crawford

Oregon State 

Marcelino Ball

Indiana 

Patrick Nelson

Illinois 

Alohi Gilman

Navy 

DB

Clifton Duck

App. State 

Javaris Davis

Auburn 

Antoine Winfield

Minnesota 

Justin Tranquill

W. Michigan 

DB

Taylor Rapp

Washington 

Mike Lee

Kansas 

Julian Love

Notre Dame 

Ben DeLuca

Charlotte 

DB

Jessie Bates

Wake Forest 

Jaylon Jones

Ole Miss /

Brenden Schooler

Oregon 

Myles Hartsfield

Ole Miss 

Trae Williams

Northwestern 

         
         
 

First-Team

Specialists

Second-Team

Specialists

Third-Team

Specialists

Fourth-Team

Specialists

K

Louie Zervos

Ohio 

Rodrigo Blankenship

Georgia 

Butch Hampton

W. Michigan 

Ricky Aguayo

Florida State 

P

Sterling Hofrichter

Syracuse 

Blake Gillikin

Penn State 

Josh Growden

LSU 

Dom Maggio

Wake Forest 

KR

Tony Pollard

Memphis 

Kene Nwangwu

Iowa State 

Adrian Killins

UCF 

Jabir Frye 

Troy 

PR

Austin Conway

Wyoming 

Johnathon Johnson

Missouri 

Keidrien Wadley

Tulsa 

Tony Nicholson

Baylor 

 

Teaser:
College Football's 2016 Postseason All-Freshman Team
Post date: Thursday, December 22, 2016 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/quick-lane-bowl-preview-and-prediction-maryland-terrapins-vs-boston-college-eagles-2016
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While this may not be the sexiest matchup of the college football bowl season, it carries a good bit of weight for each team as the two put a bow on their 2016 campaigns.

 

For Boston College, the Eagles had to deal all season with the possibility that an extra loss here or there could result in the firing of head coach Steve Addazio. After posting a winless record in ACC play in 2015, Addazio came into this season on the hot seat.

 

But with a couple of late wins in conference and a 17-14 triumph over Wake Forest in the last game of the regular season, it appears that Addazio just may have saved his job with a 6-6 record.

 

No, the progress Addazio and Co. made over the course of the season was not earth-shattering, as the Eagles had blowout losses to the best opponents on their schedule (Virginia Tech, Clemson, Louisville and Florida State all beat Boston College by 38 or more points). However, in Addazio's fourth season at The Heights, he has now brought the program to three bowl games, so the chance to finish on a high note is significant for what has no doubt been a trying year for him, his staff and his players.

 

The Terrapins also come into this game with a 6-6 record following a 3-8 season the previous year, but the trajectory and overall feeling in the program is a bit different.

 

DJ Durkin, in his first year as Maryland's head coach, came over from his position as Michigan's defensive coordinator and proved that there may be some reason for optimism in the wake of the failed Randy Edsall era, which ended after he began last year with a 2-4 record and 0-2 mark in Big Ten play.

 

The Terps started this season hot, winning their first four games and five of their first seven. The rebuild process obviously hit its inevitable wall late in the season with blowout losses to two of the best teams in the country in Michigan and Ohio State, but the Terps generally beat who they were supposed to and survived perhaps the best division in college football to make a bowl.

 

If Durkin and Co. beat Boston College, the Terps can feel even better about turning around a program that, like its counterpart, is looking up toward some pretty daunting teams in its division every year.

 

Quick Lane Bowl: Maryland vs. Boston College (Detroit)

 

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 26, 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Field (Detroit)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Maryland -1

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Ground and pound
This will not be a wide-open, 7-on-7 type of shootout. Both of these teams make a living on running the football; and the matchup on both sides will be interesting to see play out. For the Terps, they have a bit of an underrated attack in this regard, ranking 40th in the country — just behind Florida State and ahead of teams like Wisconsin and Tennessee. The Terps have suffered some injuries in the backfield, but leading rusher Ty Johnson, who has gained 845 yards at nearly nine yards per carry, is a capable weapon. He will be going up against a Boston College defense that is ranked eighth in the nation against the run. Like Maryland, the Eagles have battled through some injuries in the front seven, but linebackers like Connor Strachan and Matt Milano have combined for 125 tackles, including 19.5 for a loss, and made life difficult for opposing backs all year. The Eagles have at times really struggled to move the ball on the ground, as they rank 100th in rushing offense this season. But, really, the offense in general has been poor for them this season, and if they can find a way to get running back Jon Hilliman going, they'll be in better shape. And despite Boston College’s struggles on the ground, it's possible the Eagle find some success against Maryland's run defense, which at 101st in the nation, has been porous this year.

 

2. Making connections
Neither passing game is all that much to write home about because it's not really the focus. However, in a game where the rushing attacks could cancel each other out, whichever team throws the ball better could come out on top. Maryland's Perry Hills has been solid, if unspectacular, for the Terps this season. After battling through injuries to both shoulders late in the season, he finished the year completing 66 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns to three interceptions. That is a bit of a step up from what Boston College quarterback Patrick Towles has been able to accomplish, as the graduate transfer from Kentucky is completing just 51 percent of his throws. However, each player presents a bit of a threat to run, adding an element of dual-threat ability to the position.

 

3. Pressure-packed
In a game that figures to be close throughout, one big sack can swing momentum, stop a drive or force a turnover, and each team has a disruptive pass rusher. Boston College’s Harold Landry already has 15 sacks this season, and the defensive end has boosted his draft stock to the point where some feel the junior should declare early. For Maryland, junior defensive lineman Jesse Aniebonam has nine sacks on the year. Neither team is expected to live by the pass, but when they do, expect all eyes to be on either Landry or Aniebonam.


Related: 20 Players on the Rise Entering College Football's 2016-17 Bowl Season

 

Final Analysis

 

This game is far from a marquee matchup, and with it taking place in Detroit and neither school being all that close to Ford Field, don't expect a great atmosphere, either. Still, both teams would desperately love to finish over .500. Look for a low-scoring, defensive struggle. Neither team has the greatest offense, but Maryland's passing game is more efficient and should have enough to push the Terrapins over the top.

 

Prediction: Maryland 17, Boston College 16

 

— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.

Teaser:
Quick Lane Bowl Preview and Prediction: Maryland vs. Boston College
Post date: Thursday, December 22, 2016 - 09:30

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