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Path: /nfl/5-reasons-why-atlanta-falcons-will-win-super-bowl-li
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The Atlanta Falcons could not have provided a more fitting end to the NFL franchise’s storied 25-year history inside the Georgia Dome. The final chapter being a dominant 44-21 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game to earn a trip to Houston to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. It marks just the second Super Bowl berth in the Falcons’ 51-year existence. It also provides Atlanta with an opportunity for redemption, almost two decades after losing to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.

 

It won’t be easy as second-year head coach Dan Quinn and the Falcons have a very tall task in front of them. They must face a Patriots team in search of its second Super Bowl win in three years, led by the quintessential head coach of the modern era in Bill Belichick. Fortunately, a poised Atlanta team seems to have everything in place to meet that challenge head on. In fact, the Falcons actually stand a very good chance of hoisting their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history when all is said and done on Feb. 5 at NRG Stadium in Houston.


Related: 5 Reasons Why the New England Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LI

 

5 Reasons Why the Atlanta Falcons Will Win Super Bowl LI

 

1. Scoring Machine

The Atlanta Falcons not only led the NFL in scoring (33.8 ppg) during the regular season, they also set a new franchise record for points (540). That total tied for the eighth most in the history of the league. Atlanta has won six games in a row and has averaged 39 points per game during this span. The Falcons have averaged 40 points in their two playoff victories.

 

New England allowed the fewest points in the league this season and the Patriots’ offense is certainly no slouch in its own right when it comes to scoring. However, Bill Belichick’s defense has yet to face an offense quite like Atlanta’s. (Pittsburgh’s offense wasn’t the same after running back Le’Veon Bell left the AFC Championship Game due to a groin injury). Orchestrated by potential MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons’ attack is a well-oiled scoring machine that can move the football at will and routinely find the end zone against any defense. Just look at the numbers.

 

2. Matt Ryan is on a Mission

Atlanta’s first-team All-Pro quarterback can take a lot of the credit for the Falcons’ offensive success, and he should. No disrespect to the great Tom Brady, but this has been Ryan’s breakthrough season, which is why he is considered the favorite to win NFL MVP honors. He set new career highs this season for completion percentage (69.9), passing yards (4,944) and touchdown passes (38), while throwing a career-low seven interceptions. Ryan’s 117.1 QB rating was tops in the NFL and 9.26 yards per attempt were far and away the best in the league. He has been even more impressive in the postseason with near-flawless performances in each of Atlanta’s two playoff victories. In those two wins, he has a remarkable 132.5 QB rating and he hasn’t been picked off in a game since early December.

 

While Brady has been paired against an impressive list of quarterbacks in the Super Bowl over the years, none have entered Super Sunday with as much momentum as Ryan. He has almost effortlessly carved up every defense that has been put in front of him during the Falcons’ current six-game winning streak, accounting for 19 total touchdowns without committing a single turnover. Brady is a Super Bowl legend, but he could meet his match on Feb. 5.

 

3. Stellar Supporting Cast

Matt Ryan has had plenty of help in getting the Falcons back to the Super Bowl. Julio Jones led the NFL with 100.6 receiving yards per game and even though he’s been dealing with a nagging toe injury, he showed on Sunday why he’s arguably the league’s best pass catcher. He will be a handful for anyone New England lines up against him, including second-team All-Pro cornerback Malcolm Butler. If by chance the Patriots do manage to keep Jones in check, Ryan has proven that he can easily make do with a number of capable targets, including Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. Torching opposing defenses with a wide range of different receivers has been commonplace for Ryan throughout the season.

 

Despite Atlanta’s affinity for throwing the football, this offense is just as capable and dangerous on the ground. The Falcons finished fifth in the league with 120.5 rushing yards per game thanks to one of the best running back tandems. Devonta Freeman spearheads Atlanta’s running game after posting his second straight 1,000-yard season. Meanwhile, the versatile Tevin Coleman accounted for 11 touchdowns during the regular season and has two more in the playoffs.

 

Keeping the pocket clean for Ryan and paving the way for the run game is an outstanding group of offensive linemen led by All-Pro center Alex Mack. The Falcons have featured the same starting five up front for every game this season. They are the only team in the NFL to do so, and that continuity should once again pay dividends against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

 

4. Emergence of a Young Defense

While the Atlanta defense still has its shortcomings, it has come a long way since struggling mightily in the first half of 2016. Growing pains were to be expected for a defense that has featured as many as eight first-or second-year players at times. But this is a group that has matured dramatically over the course of the season, and it is clearly starting to pay off at just the right time. The Falcons’ defense has been particularly impressive during the playoffs, surrendering just 20.5 points per game against two of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses in Seattle and Green Bay. They even managed to hold a red-hot Aaron Rodgers and Packers’ offense scoreless in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

 

Rookies Keanu Neal and Deion Jones are quickly evolving into two of the best up-and-coming defenders in the NFL. And while second-year pass-rushing dynamo Vic Beasley Jr. has been relatively quiet so far during the postseason, he is fully capable of wreaking havoc on Super Sunday. His league-leading 15.5 sacks during the regular season should provide all the evidence you need. This is indeed a group that is finally starting to gel and complement the league’s most prolific offense with some outstanding play of its own. If the defense can maintain its recent strong play, this unit is capable of providing Tom Brady and company with a stiff challenge in Super Bowl LI.

 

5. Mistake-Free Football

Bill Belichick takes a lot of pride in playing mistake-free football. He takes even more pride in exploiting teams that do not take care of the pigskin, capitalizing on every misstep. The Patriots have been particularly opportunistic when it comes to turnovers over the years. It is a big reason for New England’s success, especially in the postseason. The problem is that Atlanta has been solid with its ball security this season, which make things even more difficult on Belichick’s defense.

 

The Falcons tied the Patriots for the fewest turnovers (11) in the regular season. Atlanta lost just four fumbles, the third-lowest total in NFL history. The Falcons have yet to commit a turnover in the playoffs while the Patriots have coughed it up three times (all vs. Houston) in two games, although they do have five takeaways in those two games. Atlanta has been penalized just six times for 41 yards in the postseason, while New England has been flagged seven times for 60 yards. If the Falcons can continue to play mistake-free football against the Patriots, it only increases their chances of winning by nullifying what has historically been a big advantage for a New England team that is no stranger to Super Bowl success.

 

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

Teaser:
5 Reasons Why the Atlanta Falcons Will Win Super Bowl LI
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 15:45
All taxonomy terms: AFC, New England Patriots, NFL
Path: /nfl/5-reasons-why-new-england-patriots-will-win-super-bowl-li
Body:

Perhaps you’ve noticed, but the New England Patriots have been to the Super Bowl before, as they will soon be making their NFL-record ninth appearance in franchise history, and their seventh since 2001. They have arguably the best head coach, quarterback and owner combination that we’ve ever seen in professional football.

 

As the curtains begin to draw on a vanilla NFL season as a whole, it’s only appropriate that the Patriots are here, yet again. It’s been two years since Deflategate became an actual name for an investigation into alleged deflated footballs. It’s been seven months since Brady announced he would stop the legal process related to his role in the investigation, accepting his four-game suspension initially handed out by commissioner Roger Goodell.

 

So here we stand, four quarters away from Goodell possibly handing off the Lombardi Trophy to the Patriots for the fifth time in the last 16 seasons. How poetic would that be?

 

Related: 5 Reasons Why the Atlanta Falcons Will Win Super Bowl LI

 

5 Reasons the New England Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LI

 

1. Bill Belichick

Belichick has a one-track mind in that he’s focused solely on his team, at that current moment. When asked about facing Atlanta in Super Bowl LI immediately after the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night, Belichick said he didn’t even know the Falcons had won earlier that day. Whether that’s true or not doesn't really matter, it’s just how Belichick operates; his only responsibility is to his team and nothing else, no social media, no other teams, no distractions.

 

It’s perhaps the blinders from the outside world that allow Belichick to be as good as he is, one of the best of all time, and certainly the premiere coach of this modern generation. Certainly no one has the resume that Belichick does: 16 seasons with one franchise that feature seven Super Bowl appearances and a shot at a fifth Lombardi Trophy.

 

2. Next Man Up: The Patriots’ Way

It’s an exhausted cliché used by football coaches everywhere, but never has it been applied so aptly than Bill Belichick’s New England teams. Since the day Belichick took over, the key to success has never been about superstar production (besides Tom Brady) as much as every player knowing his role and simply doing his job on every snap.

 

Chris Hogan, the former Penn State lacrosse player, is the perfect example of “The Patriots’ Way,” New England’s version of “next man up.” Hogan wasn’t even drafted upon entering the NFL three years ago, but that didn’t matter on Sunday night as he had the biggest game of his career on the biggest stage of his life. Hogan had nine catches, setting a franchise record with 180 receiving yards, and two touchdowns.

 

It’s not just Hogan that makes the Patriots’ machine run so efficiently. It’s running back LeGarrette Blount, who was undrafted and couldn’t last with Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh before finding home in Foxborough. It’s also fellow back Dion Lewis, a former fifth-round pick that came to the Patriots by way of the Eagles and Browns and overcame a serious knee injury to score a touchdown three different ways in the divisional round win over Houston. And that’s just two examples. While many teams make large contract splashes in free agency to impact their roster, the Pats build through the draft and find the right puzzle pieces for their next masterpiece.

 

3. Tom Brady

He’s the best to ever do it, no question. His seven Super Bowl appearances are more than any other quarterback, and with a potential fifth victory looming, Tom Brady is knocking on the door of yet another record and laying claim as one of the most decorated American athletes of all time.

 

At 39 years old, Brady hasn’t lost his edge, if anything, he’s still at the top of his game. After being suspended the first four games of the season, Brady thrust himself into the MVP discussion by completing 67 percent of his passes for 3,554 yards, 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

 

Brady typically takes the same approach of his head coach, limiting distractions and focusing on the task at hand, but deep down one would have to believe that he wants nothing more than a fifth championship ring. A fourth Super Bowl MVP would be the icing on the cake, as commissioner Roger Goodell would have to present the honor to Brady in front of an audience of more than 100 million people, seemingly giving the quarterback the last word in an overinflated, two-year public he-said-he-said saga.

 

Standing in the way of Brady’s fifth Lombardi Trophy is an Atlanta defense that allowed 25 points and 371 yards per contest, and a pass rush that was tied for 16th in sacks.

 

4. Defense Wins Championships

Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense are used to the headlines, but coordinator Matt Patricia’s defense has been stealing the show in New England all season long, reminding fans of the units that helped the franchise win three Super Bowl titles in four seasons in the early 2000s.

 

The Patriots’ defense was No. 1 in scoring this season, surrendering only 250 points all season long and 15.6 per game. Much like New England’s offense, the defense isn’t led by a multitude of superstars, but by the group as a whole.

 

The defensive success comes with a caveat, the Patriots have really only faced one “elite” quarterback this entire season, and that was Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday night. Outside of Big Ben, the biggest names the Pats have faced are Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill and Carson Palmer. With that being said, New England kept Pittsburgh’s big three of Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell (who left early due to a groin injury) in check on Sunday night, allowing just 17 points, but facing the NFL’s No. 1 offense in the Matt Ryan-led Falcons is a whole other can of worms.

 

5. Too Many Weapons

Vegas is predicting that this could be the highest-scoring Super Bowl that we’ve ever seen. With Matt Ryan and Tom Brady leading the NFL’s two most efficient offenses this season, Super Bowl LI is destined to have some fireworks. Ryan of course has the explosive Julio Jones at receiver and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield for the NFL’s top offense, but don't sleep on Brady’s options.

 

The Patriots will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski, but still have plenty of talent to go around. Stopping Julian Edelman, Brady’s favorite target this season, will be the first task for the Atlanta defense, followed by finding someone to cover tight end Martellus Bennett, especially in the red zone. Running backs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis can hurt opposing defenses as well, especially Lewis out of the backfield as a receiver. The Patriots’ ability to spread the ball around to all their assets, especially against a vulnerable Falcons defense, could prove to be the difference in Super Bowl LI.

 

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

Teaser:
5 Reasons Why the New England Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LI
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 15:30
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/johnny-manziel-talks-about-donald-trumps-twitter-fingers-browns-potus
Body:

Johnny Manziel has a lot of free time on his hands, and some would say he isn't using it wisely.

 

On Monday, for whatever reason, the former Browns quarterback decided to send off a series of tweets regarding Donald Trump and his Twitter usage. 

 

 

 

 

Obviously the great people on twitter weren't going to let it end there.

 

 

 

Shortly after, Manziel deleted his account.

 

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 15:22
All taxonomy terms: Ryan Newman, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/ryan-newman-2017-nascar-season-driver-preview
Body:

There are questions surrounding Ryan Newman heading into the 2017 season, but perhaps the biggest one was already answered last season after Newman — who many believed would be looking for a new ride this year — re-signed with Richard Childress Racing to drive the No. 31 Chevrolet for the foreseeable future. That means he enters his 16th full season in NASCAR’s top series on solid ground.

Stats about NASCAR driver Ryan Newman
But what can he do with the opportunity?


RCR’s racecars are good, but they are a step behind the top Chevrolet teams. The organization has struggled in recent seasons to sustain three cars at a competitive level, despite having good sponsorship deals and solid drivers. They’ll get solid finishes and contend for wins, but all three RCR teams fell just short of the winner’s circle last year.


Newman himself is also a bit of a mystery. What happened to the driver who won rookie honors (over Jimmie Johnson, no less) in 2002 and followed that up with an eight-win, 11-pole season in 2003? Newman is no doubt a solid, consistent driver, but he also has only five wins in the last 10 seasons, with the rest of his 17 career victories coming between 2002-05. He has seven top-10 points finishes but just one since 2011. Yet he’s two years younger than his former rookie rival Johnson and has raced for Chase-contending organizations, making his decline puzzling. 


But while Newman’s best years are in the rear-view mirror, he’s still valuable because he’s solid. With 20 cars capable of top 10s most weeks, Newman puts his car near the front a decent share of the time. He’s failed to finish only five races in the last three seasons. He’s a solid top-15 driver week-in and week-out. To a team like RCR, that’s still worth something — even though Newman has a reputation for not always being a team player.

2017 NASCAR Preview MagazineAthlon Sports’ 2017 Racing magazine delivers full NASCAR driver profiles, schedules, track information, fantasy insight, as well as complete 2017 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today or visit your local newsstand!


Crew chief Luke Lambert returns to the pit box for his fourth season with Newman. The two mesh well; Newman can be volatile in the car, and Lambert takes it in stride. However, it’s hard to ignore a pair of inspection failures that cost Newman 25 points over the course of the year — not quite enough to be the sole cause of Newman missing the Chase, but damaging nonetheless, and part of a whopping 100 points lost for penalties in the last two seasons. The team needs to be careful not to let penalties take the wind out of its sails.


Car owner Childress certainly believes in Newman. Many believed that he’d replace Newman with his grandson, Ty Dillon, this season, but Childress offered Newman an extension and found a ride outside the immediate organization for Dillon. That kind of confidence goes a long way in instilling a team with determination, and Childress isn’t the only one who believes in the 39-year-old; sponsors have shown support as well. Caterpillar returns as primary backer for most of the season, and Grainger is back for several races as well, further solidifying Newman’s value to the team.


That confidence isn’t without its limits, though. With Dillon still waiting in the wings for an RCR seat, Newman needs to rekindle the magic that made him one of the sport’s hottest commodities in his early years — or at least the consistency that made him formidable for so many years afterward.

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 12:01
All taxonomy terms: NFL, Overtime
Path: /overtime/skip-bayless-calls-aaron-rodgers-most-over-hyped-qb-history-pro-football-green-bay-packers-undisputed-fs1
Body:

Skip Bayless wasn't impressed with Aaron Rodgers when the Packers beat the Cowboys, and not much has changed since then.

 

The Packers lost to the Falcons in the NFC Conference Championship game, 44-21, and throughout the game it seemed like the offense could never really get going. On FS1's Undisputed, Bayless went after the Green Bay quarterback, calling him the "most over-hyped in the history of pro football." Pretty harsh words from the host. 

 

 

It's safe to say it takes a lot to impress Bayless; but then again, does anyone really want to?

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 11:50
All taxonomy terms: AJ Allmendinger, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/aj-allmendinger-2017-nascar-season-driver-preview
Body:

There is positive momentum at JTG Daugherty Racing, but there is also significant change afoot at the organization. The end result promises to be more of the same for AJ Allmendinger this season, a topsy-turvy ride of highs and lows as the organization continues its fight just to pull even with NASCAR’s top teams.


Allmendinger, 35, is hardly a stranger around the No. 47 Chevrolet these days. He’s been with the team on a full-time basis since 2014 with a win and four top-5 finishes. But 2017 brings a new challenge as the team expands for the first time to a second car.AJ Allmendinger's NASCAR stats


Chris Buescher, still a Roush Fenway Racing and Ford driver by contract, has been loaned to the JTG outfit along with the No. 16 Charter. This new team — Buescher’s Chevrolet will carry the No. 37 — marks Allmendinger’s first opportunity to work directly with a teammate since his unceremonious departure from Team Penske in the middle of the 2012 season.


On its face, adding a teammate to the single-car JTG operation (the team has had a recurring contract with Richard Childress Racing in recent years for technical assistance) seems like a positive development for Allmendinger. There will be additional data collection and sharing of setup information. But the upgrade in information may not be enough to counteract how the team will adjust to the logistics of operating a full second team for the first time.


Signed to the team through 2020, Allmendinger has always appeared to relish his team’s role as an underdog with an understanding that improving results at JTG Daugherty is a multi-stage, multi-year journey. But Allmendinger is also the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve.


“I take it personal,” Allmendinger said before last season. “And I feel like I’ve let the team down if I’m not going out there and winning races.”


A run of bad luck last summer had Allmendinger feeling particularly down. He told reporters at a July Watkins Glen test that he had a feeling of being “gut-punched and kicked in the not-so-fun place” after a disappointing 14th-place finish at his bread-and-butter Sonoma road course. Add in a pair of crashes and a failure to finish due to overheating, and it was clear that Allmendinger expected more.

2017 NASCAR Preview MagazineAthlon Sports’ 2017 Racing magazine delivers full NASCAR driver profiles, schedules, track information, fantasy insight, as well as complete 2017 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today or visit your local newsstand!


Ultimately, he delivered. At season’s end, Allmendinger had scored nine top-10 finishes and an average finish of 17.8, his best showing in both categories since his 2011 season at Richard Petty Motorsports. Allmendinger also tied his career-high mark of 26 lead lap finishes. He rolled to top-10 finishes in four of last season’s final six races and tied for the series lead in improvement in average finish compared to his average running position midway through each race (plus-3.4 positions). A second-place finish at the spring Martinsville race showed Allmendinger could remain an outside threat on both short tracks and road courses.


It’s those two road course events where Allmendinger needs to capitalize if a postseason berth is to be in the cards. A 2014 win at Watkins Glen previously earned Allmendinger that opportunity.


But other than those races, Allmendinger’s best hope for improvement this season comes in continuing to string together good finishes while limiting those that deliver the “gut-punch.” It promises to be a challenge as JTG Daugherty tries out expansion for the first time.

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/early-look-top-heisman-trophy-contenders-2017
Body:

For better or worse, college football's Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious individual award in team sports, drawing hype and controversy from the beginning of the season till the end. Lamar Jackson won it last year, but that didn’t stop the annual “Heisman remorse” storyline from taking hold after runner-up Deshaun Watson tore through the postseason — despite the fact that, well, the postseason has zero bearing on the Heisman, which is presented in early December. (Again, for better or worse.)

 

In any event, it’s never too early to look ahead at who may contend for the honor in 2017. Heck, odds are that some athletic departments from the schools listed below are already doing the same, devising creative plans to promote their candidates to voters and to the nation.

 

Here are the top five players to watch, with five more who could jump on voters’ radars in the fall.

 

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

Jackson won it in 2016 and returns as a junior this fall, with what he can only hope is an improved offensive line. The Cards’ three straight losses to close last season dimmed the spotlight on Jackson a bit, and his early-season exploits were so video game-like that duplicating them with so much attention on him seems nearly impossible. Of course, he was the proverbial dark horse candidate last year and delivered, so he remains No. 1 here.

 

Related: Top 5 Plays from Lamar Jackson's 2016 Heisman Trophy Season

 

2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Mayfield was a finalist in 2016, finishing third in the voting one year after finishing fourth. He threw for more yards (3,965), more TDs (40) and had a better completion percentage (70.9) than he did in 2015, and any more improvement — especially with a new cast of skill players around him — will give Mayfield a great chance to win the trophy this time. Public familiarity as a three-year starting QB undoubtedly helps, too.

 

3. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama

If healthy — and unfortunately, that has become a big if these past two years — the 6-foot-2, 228-pound Scarbrough looks like the nation’s most unstoppable running back. His MVP performance in the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Washington proved that — as did his 93 yards and two TDs in the title game against Clemson before leaving with a leg injury.

 

4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Did you see the throw Darnold made to tie the Rose Bowl?! He supplanted Max Browne early in the season as a redshirt freshman and the Trojans took off shortly afterward, winning their final nine games to enter 2017 as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Darnold, who looks every bit the part of the next great USC QB, is the biggest reason why.

 

5. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

If Guice led the SEC in rushing during a season in which he entered as a backup to Leonard Fournette, what can he do for an encore? If it’s more than the 1,387 yards and 15 TDs on 183 carries that he tallied in 2016, then Guice could find himself in New York in December.

 

Five More to Watch

 

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
PSU enters 2017 as a College Football Playoff threat and Barkley is the biggest reason why. Much like with Sam Darnold, watch just one Rose Bowl play to understand the running back’s talent.

 

J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Being a three-year — or is it a four-year? — starting QB who’s already helped lead his program to a pair of CFP appearances is a perfect recipe for a star who will be surrounded by plenty of new faces offensively in 2017.

 

Jake Browning, QB, Washington
The reigning Pac-12 offensive player of the year tossed 43 TDs against just nine picks. If he leads the Huskies to similar heights as he did in 2016, watch out.

 

Quinton Flowers, QB, USF
Any Group of 5 player has an uphill climb, but the QB’s 2016 numbers — 4,377 yards of offense and 42 TDs — and his inspiring story make him a potential candidate for a Bulls team that should be favored in every game in 2017.

 

Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
The D-lineman by day doesn’t play quite as many positions as Jabrill Peppers did, but his impact may be even bigger for the Tigers. Oh, and the rest of the nation is now privy to his athleticism thanks to some dance moves.

 

— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.

Teaser:
Early Look at the Top Heisman Trophy Contenders for 2017
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/assessing-head-coaching-changes-fcs-college-football-2017
Body:

There have been offseasons with more head coaching changes in the FCS, but the way the carousel has spun recently, this is one of the wilder rides.

 

The subdivision has had changes at 16 schools, including five that finished in the Top 25. Among the coaching losses are two who won national titles in the last decade, Eastern Washington’s Beau Baldwin (Cal offensive coordinator) and Villanova’s Andy Talley (retirement).

 

But new head coaches bring renewed energy to programs, so their campuses are anticipating the 2017 season already.

 

Here’s a quick assessment of the coaching changes:

 

Most High-Profile Hire: Danny Rocco, Delaware

Rocco made the rare jump by a head coach across a conference, going from to Richmond to Delaware in CAA Football. He led Richmond to the national semifinals (2015) and quarterfinals (2016) in the last two seasons, but he left the Spiders after five seasons when Delaware made him one of the higher-paid coaches in the FCS. He’s charged with reviving the Blue Hens’ once-elite program.

 

Best Hire: Russ Huesman, Richmond

It took a mere 24 hours for Richmond to replace Rocco with Huesman. The 56-year-old had turned Chattanooga into a national power, with three Southern Conference titles and three playoff appearances over the last four years. He has nearly 20 years of coaching experience in the CAA, including five years as Richmond’s defensive coordinator, with the final one resulting in the Spiders winning the 2008 FCS title.

 

Biggest Loss: Jamey Chadwell, Charleston Southern

It was going to be difficult for Big South program Charleston Southern to keep up-and-coming Chadwell much longer, but it still stung when he departed to become associate head coach and offensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina, an intrastate rival that is rising to the FBS level next season. He went 35-14 with two conference titles and two playoff appearances in four seasons after the Buccaneers won only eight games in the three seasons prior to his arrival.

 

Most Underrated Hire: Adam Dorrel, Abilene Christian

Abilene Christian has been on the FCS level only four years, but the Southland Conference program is on the upswing under Dorrel. He just wrapped up a six-year run at Northwest Missouri State in which he won three of the last four Division II national titles and posted a 76-8 (.905) record. He became Abilene Christian’s first coach with previous collegiate head coaching experience, and the program dates to 1919. What a way to get started as the Wildcats will debut a new on-campus stadium in September.

 

Most Surprising Hire: Mike London, Howard

If Lane Kiffin can move to Florida Atlantic then London (above, right) can move to a MEAC program. London guided Richmond to the 2008 FCS title and turned his success there into the job at Virginia, where he went 27-46 in six seasons from 2010-15. He served as the associate head coach and defensive line coach at Maryland this past season. At Howard, he will try to lift a program that finished 2-9 this past season.

 

Best First-Time Hire: Clay Hendrix, Furman

Hendrix was probably overdue to become a head coach, but the wait was worthwhile as he’s returned home to his alma mater, Furman in the Southern Conference. He spent the last 10 seasons at Air Force, including seven as offensive coordinator. A former offensive lineman at Furman from 1982-85, he coached the position with the Paladins for 19 seasons from 1988-2006. During that time, they won 1988 FCS title and were the national runner-up in 2001.

 

— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.

 

(Top photo by Northwest Missouri State Athletics)

Teaser:
Assessing Head Coaching Changes in FCS College Football
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 09:30
Path: /college-football/10-college-football-players-who-will-replace-nfl-draft-early-entrants-2017
Body:

In case you missed it: A number of high-profile college football stars declared early for the NFL Draft. Several even skipped their bowl games, which caused hysterics in some corners. In any event, it is now time for a new crop of talented reserves to step into the spotlight and fill some pretty big shoes for their respective programs.

 

Related: College Football's NFL Draft Deadline Winners and Losers for 2017


Here are the 10 newcomers who have the biggest tasks on their hands in replacing their teams’ early exits.

 

1. Clemson

Gone: Deshaun Watson, QB

What more needs to be said about Watson, who exits Clemson with a 32-3 record, three MVP awards over the four College Football Playoff games he played in, more than 11,000 yards of total offense and 115 touchdowns?

 

In: Kelly Bryant, rising junior

Dabo Swinney has said Bryant will enter spring atop the depth chart. Of course, it would be too much to ask Bryant to be the next Watson, and he’ll also face stiff competition for the job from Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper and early enrollee Hunter Johnson.

 

Related: 10 ACC Players Who Will Replace NFL Draft Early Entrants in 2017

 

2. Michigan

Gone: Jabrill Peppers, ATH

There was no player in the country like Peppers, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist and lined up at 15 different positions during the 2016 campaign for the Wolverines. The likely first-round pick will probably be a defensive back and/or return man early on in the NFL, but we’d put nothing past him.

 

In: TBD

Where do you even begin? As stated above, Peppers was unique, with head coach Jim Harbaugh at one point comparing his versatility to that of Jim Thorpe’s. Michigan has recruited well, but sorry, there is just not one man who can be expected to do all that Peppers did on both sides of the ball.

 

Related: 10 Big Ten Players Who Will Replace NFL Draft Early Entrants in 2017

 

3. USC

Gone: Adoree’ Jackson, CB/return specialist

Much like Peppers, Jackson is so tough to replace because of his versatility. Yes, he’s a corner, and his five picks, 11 breakups and two fumble recoveries are noteworthy. But one of the fastest men in college football also returned two kicks for TDs, two punts for TDs and played some receiver as well.

 

In: Jack Jones, rising sophomore; and Deontay Burnett, rising junior

There are two people here for obvious reasons: Jones was a highly-touted recruit from Long Beach Poly who could take over as a starting corner. Burnett, meanwhile, has experience returning punts. (And had three receiving TDs in a memorable Rose Bowl.)

 

4. Florida State

Gone: Dalvin Cook, RB

Cook exits FSU as one of the best players in program history, and his Orange Bowl performance was a fitting finale. Cook rushed for 4,464 yards and 46 TDs in just three seasons, adding 935 receiving yards and two TD catches, often while playing hurt.

 

In: Jacques Patrick, rising junior

Patrick has rushed for 655 yards and nine TDs in reserve duty the past two seasons, but he — nor anyone else, for that matter — will likely not replicate what Cook was able to do. Elite tailback prospect Cam Akers has enrolled early and could figure into the picture from the start as well.

 

5. Stanford

Gone: Christian McCaffrey, RB

The only reason McCaffrey isn’t higher on this list is because, unfortunately, the Cardinal already received a small taste of life without him, thanks to injury in 2016. Still, the 2015 Heisman runner-up set the NCAA record for all-purpose yards that fall, and he was a first-team All-Pac 12 performer again this season. He will be missed.

 

In: Bryce Love, rising junior

Love stepped into the spotlight throughout 2016, rushing for 779 yards and three TDs on just 112 carries, good for seven yards per carry. He added eight grabs for 83 yards and another score. Is he McCaffrey? No. But Stanford did go 10-3 this past season, with Love serving as the top offensive threat in several contests.

 

6. Texas A&M

Gone: Myles Garrett, DE

Garrett was a pass-rushing force for the Aggies, tallying 32.5 sacks in three years. An ankle injury limited him to just 8.5 sacks this year, but he improved against the run and figures to be one of the top players taken on the draft’s first night — if not the top pick overall.

 

In: Jarrett Johnson, rising senior; and Qualen Cunningham, rising senior

Johnson had 4.5 sacks and received extensive playing time when Garrett was injured. But it’s important to note that the Aggies lose Daeshon Hall, too, meaning they’ll need contributions from rising senior Qualen Cunningham and JUCO transfer Micheal Clemson as well.

 

7. Tennessee

Gone: Derek Barnett, DE

Much like Garrett, Barnett was seemingly unstoppable for the Volunteers, tallying double-digit sack numbers in each of his three years to top the late Reggie White’s school career record, as he finished with a career-best 13 sacks in 2016 for 33 in his career.

 

In: Kyle Phillips, rising junior

Phillips will undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but he has seen a good bit of playing time these past two seasons, tallying 3.5 tackles for a loss and one sack in mostly reserve action. He has shown the ability to play inside as well.

 

8. Washington

Gone: Budda Baker, S

Baker was a consensus first-team All-American, helping lead the Huskies to a Pac-12 title and the College Football Playoff by tallying a team-best 71 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss. He was, in some ways, a program-changing player for Chris Petersen in the head coach’s quest to help restore Washington to the top.

 

In: Taylor Rapp, rising sophomore

Rapp saw a bigger role as the season progressed and, given all of the turnover in the Huskies’ secondary in 2017, figures to become one of the leading faces of the defensive backfield. He earned multiple first-team freshman All-America honors after finishing fifth on the team with 53 tackles.

 

9. LSU

Gone: Leonard Fournette, RB

Fournette was an absolute stud for the Tigers, rushing for 1,953 yards and 22 TDs during a 2015 campaign that looked destined for him to win the Heisman Trophy. Injuries slowed him in 2016, as he missed five games, but he still tallied 843 yards on just 129 carries — including a school-record 284 yards against Ole Miss.

 

In: Derrius Guice, rising junior

There is a reason that Fournette — one of the greatest running backs in SEC history — is not ranked higher on this list. And that is because of Guice, who led the SEC in rushing in 2016, tallying 1,387 yards and 15 TDs on 183 carries, a clip of 7.6 ypc. Not bad.

 

10. Notre Dame

Gone: DeShone Kizer

Kizer ranks in the top 10 of Fighting Irish history in 19 different categories, winning team MVP honors after passing for 2,925 yards and 26 TDs, along with rushing for 472 yards and eight more scores. Though he oversaw a 4-8 season, Kizer was the definition of cool, calm and collected — something he showed on a moment’s notice in 2015, when he led the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl after starting the spring at No. 3 on the depth chart.

 

In: Brandon Wimbush, rising redshirt sophomore

The coaching staff loves Wimbush, a highly-coveted prospect out of New Jersey. That said, he could be replacing the top QB taken in the draft. And he’ll be working with a new offensive coordinator (Chip Long) in what is shaping up to be a make-or-break season for head coach Brian Kelly. No pressure, kid.

 

— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.

Teaser:
10 College Football Players Who Will Replace NFL Draft Early Entrants in 2017
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2017 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: Super Bowl 51, Super Bowl LI, NFL
Path: /nfl/what-channel-super-bowl-li-51-2017
Body:

What time is the 2017 Super Bowl on?

Super Bowl LI (aka Super Bowl 51) between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will be broadcast on FOX on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017. The game will take place at NRG Stadium in Houston with kickoff set for 6:30 p.m. EST and also will be streamed online for free on FOX Sports GO.

 

This will be the eighth time FOX has broadcast the Super Bowl, the last one being Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, 2014 when Baltimore beat San Francisco 34-31 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Also called the “Blackout Bowl,” that Super Bowl was memorable for the 34-minute power outrage inside the Superdome that interrupted the game early in the third quarter with the Ravens up 28-6.

 

Play-by-play man Joe Buck and color analyst Troy Aikman will call their fifth Super Bowl together with Chris Myers and Erin Andrews serving as sideline reporters. FOX’s pregame show will feature host Kurt Menefee with analysts Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson and Michael Strahan.

 

The Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl LI Halftime Show will be headlined by GRAMMY Award-winning global superstar Lady Gaga.

 

The cost of a 30-second commercial during Super Bowl LI is a reported $5 million.

Teaser:
What Channel is Super Bowl LI (51) On?
Post date: Sunday, January 22, 2017 - 20:30
All taxonomy terms: Super Bowl 51, Super Bowl LI, NFL
Path: /nfl/what-time-does-super-bowl-li-51-start-2017
Body:

Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons is set to kick off at 6:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017 on FOX. The game will take place at NRG Stadium in Houston and also be streamed online for free on FOX Sports GO.

 

New England will be making its record ninth Super Bowl appearance. The Patriots are 4-4 on Super Sunday, including a win two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX. This will be Atlanta’s second appearance. The Falcons lost to the Broncos 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII back in 1999.

 

The Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl LI Halftime Show will be headlined by GRAMMY Award-winning global superstar Lady Gaga.

 

The cost of a 30-second commercial during Super Bowl LI is a reported $5 million.

Teaser:
What Time Does Super Bowl LI (51) Start?
Post date: Sunday, January 22, 2017 - 20:30
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/what-nfl-playoff-games-are-tv-today-january-22-2017
Body:

The path to Super Bowl LI will finally be paved on Sunday with the outcome of the AFC and NFC Championship Games determining who will meet in Houston on Feb. 5. The NFL’s final four features a quartet of the game’s best quarterbacks who have already won a combined seven Super Bowls. The two conference title games also serve as rematches from the regular season.

 

The NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons will get things started. This game is set to kick off in the Georgia Dome at 3:05 p.m. ET and can be seen on FOX. The Packers have already beaten the Giants at home and last week knocked off the No. 1 seed Cowboys in Dallas to advance to the conference title game, while the Falcons beat the Seahawks at home last Saturday.

 

Related: NFC Championship Game Preview and Predictions

 

This game features the NFC’s hottest team, as Green Bay has won eight games in a row against the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense led by potential MVP Matt Ryan. Aaron Rodgers has been playing light outs for the Packers of late, so don't be surprised if this contest features plenty of scoring. These two teams met back in Week 8 with the Falcons winning 33-32 as the two Pro Bowl quarterbacks combined for 534 passing yards and seven touchdowns.

 

In the AFC, New England hosts Pittsburgh at Gillette Stadium. That game will kick off at 6:40 p.m. ET and can be seen on CBS. The Patriots are the AFC’s top seed and considered the favorite, but the Steelers have won nine in a row, including last Sunday’s 18-16 victory in Kansas City over the AFC West champion Chiefs.

 

​Related: AFC Championship Game Preview and Predictions

 

This will be Tom Brady’s 11th AFC Championship Game, the most of any player at any position in NFL history, but Ben Roethlisberger is no stranger to playoff success himself with two Super Bowl victories on his resume. The winning franchise also will take the lead in terms of total Super Bowl appearances, as Pittsburgh and New England are currently tied with Dallas and Denver with eight each.

 

The Patriots went on the road and beat the Steelers 27-16 back Week 7, but it should be pointed out that Roethlisberger didn’t play in that game because of a knee injury.

 

Today’s winners will advance to play in Super Bowl LI, which will take place on Sunday, Feb. 5 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

Teaser:
What NFL Playoff Games are on TV Today, January 22?
Post date: Sunday, January 22, 2017 - 05:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL, Overtime
Path: /overtime/tom-brady-dodges-awkward-donald-trump-question-afc-championship-president-new-england-patriots
Body:

Anyone who has a big game coming up can usually only focus on that game. Some people don't get that concept.

 

With that being said, it's odd that someone would ask Tom Brady about Donald Trump during a press conference just days before the AFC Conference Championship. One reporter asked Brady to talk about the call he allegedly made to Trump to congratulate him on the presidency. His response was pretty much what you would expect.

 

"Let's talk about football," Brady answered.

 

 

Although some fans may want to know that information, it's probably not the best time to ask about it.

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 15:14
All taxonomy terms: Overtime, News
Path: /overtime/15-tweets-prove-donald-trump-americas-worst-sports-fan
Body:

Donald Trump is now president of the United States, and it’s no secret he knows how to utilize social media, specifically Twitter.

 

While general tweets about politics can create their own firestorm, Trump also has a collection of comments about sports. His sports interests are well publicized, as he played a key role in the USFL’s demise and recently tried to buy the Buffalo Bills.   

 

After reading Trump’s Twitter history, he seems to have some terrible hot takes, bad scouting, and a lot of contradictory statements. Which, of course, we thought we'd share.

 

Here's a look at 14 that grabbed our attention:

 

1. It doesn't appear Donald has too good of an eye for quarterback talent: 

 

2. Only Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon...

 

3. Donald tweets Penn State should suspend its team in 2012. And then takes a completely different tone a year later:

 

4. Tim Tebow was a great college quarterback. It was clear he was not a starter in the NFL:

 

5. The Jets are going to have a terrific season with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow? They finished the season 6-10 and tied for last in the AFC East:

 

6. That's right, the beginning of the end for the NFL. Of course, Donald decided to keep tweeting and watching the NFL over the last two years and tried to buy the Bills in that same span:

 

7. Manti Te'o and a fake controversy for the Heisman? Te'o was doing pretty good without any sympathy from voters and was already considered one of the top players in the nation:

 

8. For the 2016 Super Bowl, Trump decided to pick both teams:

 

9. He seems to know a lot about legal issues and suing to get a favorable ruling...and Brady still lost versus the NFL:

 

10. The NFL is definitely in trouble...according to Donald:

 

11. All of that time saved by not watching the NFL seemed to fuel that run to the White House:

 

12. At least he's honest. Or didn't decide to pick both teams:

 

13. Sorry, Donald. Joe Flacco is not among the NFL’s top quarterbacks:

 

14. Really?

Teaser:
15 Tweets that Prove Donald Trump is America's Worst Sports Fan
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 11:45
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /nascar/ricky-stenhouse-jr-2017-nascar-season-driver-preview
Body:

The 2017 NASCAR season will mark Jack Roush’s 30th season of owning at least one car in NASCAR’s Premier Series. It will also be a throwback of unexpected sorts, as Roush-Fenway Racing will take the grid in the season opener with a lineup of drivers who have a total of one Cup win. It’s the first time that’s happened since 1990.


Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne are the face of RFR’s Cup program these days, and the lone win between the two of them is Bayne’s surprise Daytona 500 victory in 2011. Veteran Greg Biffle left the team at the end of last season as RFR downsized to a two-car operation for the first time since 1996.


Stenhouse is poised to operate as the team’s leader for the first time. Racing for an organization that has struggled consistently for several seasons, Stenhouse has narrowed his focus. 


“I feel like as a leader of this company my role is making sure that when we go back to the shop I give the right feedback of what to go work on to make our cars faster,” Stenhouse says. “That’s been a bit different process than normal.”


It certainly has. Stenhouse’s time in both the Cup and XFINITY series has always included a veteran as a teammate. From Biffle to Carl Edwards in the Cup Series, to Biffle, Edwards and Matt Kenseth in XFINITY, Stenhouse has rarely been the most experienced driver in the debrief room. “Now I feel like it’s kind of my place to become that role, and that’s something I still got to get better at as well,” says Stenhouse.


The added pressure of change hasn’t fazed Stenhouse. He’s not worried about the loss of Biffle or a third team from the struggling organization.

2017 NASCAR Preview MagazineAthlon Sports’ 2017 Racing magazine delivers full NASCAR driver profiles, schedules, track information, fantasy insight, as well as complete 2017 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today or visit your local newsstand!


“There’s things that we have that are changing, and I think everything’s changing for the better,” Stenhouse says. “It gives us that opportunity to move things around and get better. Because we’re definitely not happy with where we are, and so if we just stay the course, then you’re just going to kind of stay where you are.”


What’s a realistic expectation for the once-proud organization this year? Stenhouse would like to see the team replicate the gains it made before last season — he improved his average finish by 4.7 spots in 2016 — and then maintain that level of performance. 


“I think we were off on downforce throughout the middle part of (last) year,” Stenhouse says. “I thought that was one of our strong suits at the beginning of the year, the aerodynamics of our car. But as we went throughout the season, I feel like that was an area that we didn’t keep up in and are kind of are lacking.”


A hope for Stenhouse is that the arrival of Stewart-Haas Racing to the Ford camp will lift all Blue Oval boats, even in unexpected areas.


“I think when there’s only a few Fords out there, I feel like you might not be able to get through tech line as good as you want,” says Stenhouse, referencing how teams stretch gray areas of the rulebook. “Whether that be templates or whatever, now (officials) have to look at bigger group of Fords.”


Regardless, Stenhouse says his hopes haven’t changed.


“Your goal going into every season is to compete, and compete for wins and run out front,” Stenhouse says. “That’s still our mindset every time we go to the race track.”

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 11:35
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/derek-carr-gets-has-twitter-argument-over-trump-inaguration-oakland-raiders-quarterback-protest
Body:

Athletes have to be ready to hear their fans' opinions when they decide to tweet about anything.

 

Derek Carr is no exception to the rule. The Raiders quarterback expressed his thoughts on the transition of the presidency from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, and he quickly got pushback from those on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The key with a platform like twitter is to be as clear and concise as you can. It's easy for things to misinterpreted and Carr learned the hard way that just because he says it, doesn't mean everyone will suddenly agree.

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 11:10
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/betting-against-spread-nfl-conference-championship-games-picks-and-odds-lines-2017
Body:

We are now down to arguably four of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and four teams that are capable of winning the Super Bowl. Vegas gets a whole lot sharper, the later we get in the postseason so sometimes player or team props might be the way to go.

 

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5), 3:05 p.m.  ET (Sun.)

The first thing that stands out with this contest is the total that is around 61. We don't see a number that high that often when it comes to NFL games in general, but it might be about right. You've got a mediocre Atlanta defense and a Green Bay defense that is extremely banged up. Aaron Rodgers is the hottest quarterback in the league right now and he'll look to play better than he did when these teams played each other in October. Atlanta won 33-32 holding Rodgers and the Packers to 223 yards through the air. Neither team had a turnover as both have continued to exhibit good ball security. Both squads have banged-up WRs with Jordy Nelson likely not playing due to broken ribs while Julio Jones could be limited because of a nagging toe injury. Atlanta has covered just 10 of its last 24 home games while the Packers are 16-12 ATS on the road the last three seasons. To me, there are two thoughts dominating this game. Do you want to play against Rodgers who can do no wrong or an Atlanta offense that is averaging more than 35 points per game at home? The Falcons are getting early money. If it gets to 6, then I think I'm on the Packers. SELECTION: Atlanta 35-30

 

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2), 6:40 p.m. ET (Sun.)

These two teams also played back in October, a 27-16 New England win in Pittsburgh, although you can throw a lot of it out considering Landry Jones was at quarterback for the Steelers because Ben Roethlisberger was injured.  The Patriots did not look very good last week and still won 34-16 against Houston. The offense had three turnovers and the defense allowed Brock Osweiler to move the ball a little. Pittsburgh's offense wasn't great either in the win in Kansas City considering all of the scoring came via six field goals. The Steelers do have one less day to prepare, but I don't think that's much of a factor in this one. Both of these defenses don't get enough credit for what they can do. Pittsburgh has held six of its last eight opponents to 20 points or fewer while New England has done so in seven of its last eight. The ironic thing is that as I type that, I still think this could be a shootout. We know that Big Ben has had his issues on the road so that will come into play. New England is 18-7 against the spread the last three years at home while Pittsburgh is 12-6 ATS over that span against teams with a winning record. SELECTION: New England 28-17

 

— 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 Conference Championship Games Picks and Odds
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 11:00
Path: /nfl/nfl-scouting-combine-watch-ohio-state-wide-receiver-noah-brown-2017
Body:

Although it’s early in the evaluation process, it doesn’t look the 2017 NFL Draft will feature many wide receivers taken in the first round. That doesn’t mean there aren’t quality options available, however, as the position could end up as the one with the most selections that make an immediate impact as rookies.

 

Related: 2017 NFL Mock Draft 1.0

 

One of those intriguing prospects is Ohio State redshirt sophomore Noah Brown. Brown shocked many people when he announced in early January that he would be turning pro. Though he showed promise athletically, his stat line was fairly pedestrian.

 

Brown caught 32 passes for just 402 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. Aside from Ohio State's win over Oklahoma in September where he hauled in four touchdowns, he was never an integral part of the Buckeye offense. In fact, he caught just six passes for 79 yards and no scores during the last four games of the season.

 

 

But as he proved against the Sooners, Brown can be a dangerous weapon — he just needs to be involved in the offense and given targets. His big frame (6-2, 220) will make him hard to miss at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis later this February, but it's his speed and hands that could set him apart from his peers.

 

A solid 40 time, combined with crisp route-running and catching every ball that hits his hands is what he needs to move up from his initial projection as a third- or fourth-round selection. If everything falls into place, he could enter the conversation early in the second round.

 

The fact that Brown has shown an ability to do a little of everything — including seeing snaps as an H-back and contributing on special teams — also should help his cause. That will certainly draw the attention of teams like Kansas City, New England and Green Bay. All three are constantly in search of big, versatile receivers.

 

Because of his inexperience, Brown will be looked at as a gamble with high upside no matter what. It will be his performance at the Combine that will ultimately decide how much of risk teams are willing to take.

 

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.

Teaser:
NFL Scouting Combine Watch: Noah Brown
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 10:30
Path: /nfl/draftkings-lineup-picks-nfl-conference-championship-games
Body:

Trying to pick the optimal DraftKings lineup for the NFL's (NFC and AFC) conference championship games on Sunday? Our football experts are here to help.

 

Here’s what our optimal DFS lineup looks like.

 

QB Matt Ryan ($7,700) – Green Bay at Atlanta

The NFL MVP front-runner against a beat-up and very generous Green Bay secondary? YES PLEASE! The fact that Ryan already torched this defense back in week 8 puts the icing on the cake.

 

RB Ty Montgomery ($5,600) – Green Bay at Atlanta

Montgomery probably isn’t going to rack up a ton of yards on the ground. But when you combine his potential in the passing game and the red zone, he makes for a no-brainer at this price point.

 

RB LeGarrette Blount ($4,400) – Pittsburgh at New England

This doesn’t look like a very good matchup for Blount on paper. But keep in mind that he lit the Steeler defense up for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns in Pittsburgh back in week 7. Furthermore, if the Patriots get anywhere near the goal line on Sunday, it’s a safe bet that Blount is getting the football.

 

WR Antonio Brown ($8,800) – Pittsburgh at New England

Brown comes at a hefty price tag, but that is because he is as close to a sure-thing as you will find at WR this week. He hauled in 7 passes for 106 yards against New England in their October 23 matchup. And that was with Landry Jones at quarterback. It’s not difficult to like his chances with Big Ben under center this time around.

 

WR Julian Edelman ($7,300) – Pittsburgh at New England

Edelman racked up a season-high nine receptions against the Steelers back in week 7. He is a threat to go the distance any time he touches the football as well. Tom Brady will likely target him early and often in this matchup.

 

WR Randall Cobb ($5,900) – Green Bay at Atlanta

The Green Bay receiving corps is starting to look like a MASH unit. Cobb is easily the best healthy option at receiver that Aaron Rodgers has left to target. That should pay off on Sunday.

 

TE Martellus Bennett ($3,300) – Pittsburgh at New England

He is a little dinged up with a slight knee injury. But he will be good to go on Sunday. Bennett’s potential in the red zone makes him a value at this price.

 

FLEX Tevin Coleman ($4,800) – Green Bay at Atlanta

Coleman is sort of a boom-or-bust pick, but he is always a threat to find pay dirt. The fact that he did not play in the first meeting against the Packers, making him somewhat of an unknown commodity, provides a sneaking suspicion that he will be heavily involved in the Falcons’ game plan on Sunday.

 

DST Falcons ($2,200) – Green Bay at Atlanta

There really isn’t a good or safe pick for defense/special teams given the options this week. The Falcons just make the most sense for the money. Regardless, no one is going to rack up a bunch of points with any of these DST’s.

 

DraftKings Best Lineup for NFL Conference Championship Games

 

Additional Info:

 

NFC Championship Game: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

 

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 22 at 3:05 p.m. ET

Where: Georgia Dome – Atlanta, GA

TV Channel: FOX

 

AFC Championship Game: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots

 

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 22 at 6:40 p.m. ET

Where: Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, MA

TV Channel: CBS

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 10:15
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/10-absolute-worst-nfl-teams-expansion-2017
Body:

NFL expansion teams often suffer early in their existence. For instance, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers set an NFL record with 26 straight losses before picking up their first-ever victory. Prior to the new millennium, the new Cleveland Browns started 0-7 in 1999 and finished 2-14 with both wins coming in nail-biting fashion. The NFL’s most recent expansion franchise, the Houston Texans, won in their debut in 2002 but finished the season 4-12 and didn’t post a winning record until ‘09.

 

Of course, there have been many terrible teams in NFL history without the excuse of recent expansion. In fact, most of the most unsuccessful teams in pro football history had decades of drafts, free agency and trades with which to build a roster, only to see it fail miserably on the field. With that in mind, we take a look at the worst NFL teams since expansion in 2002.

 

1. 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16)

Point Differential: -249 (268 points for, 517 points against)

Offense: 27th (16.8 ppg), 30th (268.3 ypg)

Defense: 32nd (32.3 ppg), 32nd (404.4 ypg)

 

The 2008 Detroit Lions are the unquestioned No. 1 team on our list because of the big, fat, ugly zero they put in the win column. The first NFL team in the modern era to go winless, and the only winless team since the league expanded to a 16-game regular season schedule, the Lions suffered primarily because of a defense that ranked dead last in scoring defense (32.3 ppg), total defense (404.4 ypg), interceptions (4), and flirted with the NFL record for points allowed in a single season (553). The Lions avoided the embarrassing distinction of becoming the worst defense in NFL history by a mere 16 points.

 

The offense wasn’t much better, ranking No. 27 in the league in scoring (16.8 ppg), No. 30 in total offense (268.3), allowing 52 sacks, which was more than all but one other club, and rotating five quarterbacks that combined for a 71.3 passer rating with 19 interceptions.

 

Simply put, the 2008 Lions have a case not only as the worst team since the 2002 expansion, but may possibly be the worst team in NFL history.

 

2. 2009 St. Louis Rams (1-15)

Point Differential: -261 (175 PF, 436 PA)

Offense: 32nd (10.9 ppg), 29th (279.4 ypg)

Defense: 31st (27.3 ppg), 29th (372.8 ypg)

 

The Rams reached some of their highest highs following the move from Los Angeles, winning Super Bowl XXXIV and losing on professional football’s biggest stage two years later, but the franchise also suffered through their fair share of embarrassing seasons in St. Louis as well. The Rams looked nothing like the “Greatest Show on Turf” in 2009, having ranked dead last in scoring offense (10.9 ppg). St. Louis managed just 175 points all season, which was 35 points more than the 1992 Seattle Seahawks – the worst scoring offense in league history.

 

One of just three teams since 2002 to win one or fewer games, the Rams threw 21 interceptions and just 12 touchdowns, were shutout twice, scored 10 or fewer points on nine occasions and were outscored by 261 points over the course of the season – a franchise record.

 

3. 2007 Miami Dolphins (1-15)

Point Differential: -170 (267 PF, 437 PA)

Offense: 26th (16.7 ppg), 28th (287.5 ypg)

Defense: 30th (27.3 ppg), 23rd (342.2 ypg)

 

The only franchise in NFL history to complete an undefeated season, the Dolphins nearly became the first team since the 1976 Tampa Bay Bucs to go winless for an entire year in 2008 – escaping that fate thanks to an overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15.

 

Miami surrendered a franchise-record 437 points and ranked No. 30 in the league in scoring defense. The offense struggled mightily as well under a trio of quarterbacks – Cleo Lemon, John Beck and Trent Green – that combined to throw just 12 touchdown passes all year.

 

4. 2016 Cleveland Browns (1-15)

Point Differential: -188 (264 PF, 452 PA)

Offense: 31st (16.5 ppg), 30th (311.0 ypg)

Defense: 30th (28.25), 31st (392.4 ypg)

 

In 2016, the Browns came dangerously close to becoming just the second NFL team to finish a season 0-16. Following 14 consecutive losses to begin the season, which sealed a ninth straight losing campaign for the franchise, Cleveland finally broke through with a 20-17 victory at home over San Diego in Week 16. But a loss to the hated Steelers in the season finale sealed a franchise-worst 1-15 campaign.

 

However, despite such historically bad results in the win column, it’s worth noting that the Browns played better then their record would indicate. Cleveland played one of the toughest schedules in the league, and fought hard in several close losses, including three by less than a field goal. Still, with only a single victory, the Browns were a lock for this list.

 

5. 2008 St. Louis Rams (2-14)

Point Differential: -233 (232 PF, 465 PA)

Offense: 31st (14.5 ppg), 27th (287.3 ypg)

Defense: 31st (29.1 ppg), 28th (371.9 ypg)

 

In 2008, the Rams were blown out in each of their first four games by an average score of 37-11. Things improved with back-to-back wins in Weeks 6 and 7, but St. Louis lost 10 straight to finish the season. This team was equally bad on both sides of the ball, ranking second to last in both scoring offense (14.5 ppg) – having scored just 19 offensive touchdowns all season - and scoring defense (29.1). Making matters worse, the St. Louis offense allowed seven defensive touchdowns, which tied for the most in the NFL.

 

The first team to appear on our list twice, the 2008 St. Louis Rams produced the worst season in franchise history, but were only setting the stage for an even more disastrous 2009 campaign.

 

6. 2009 Detroit Lions (2-14)

Point Differential: -232 (262 PF, 494 PA)

Offense: 27th (16.4 ppg), 26th (299.0 ypg)

Defense: 32nd (30.9 ppg), 32nd (392.1 ypg)

 

The 2009 Detroit Lions actually showed modest improvement – most noticeably on the scoreboard. The Lions snapped their 19-game losing streak with a 19-14 victory over Washington in Week 3, then picked up a thrilling 38-37 victory over the Browns in Week 11. Detroit showed modest improvement on defense, though the unit still finished last in the NFL in both scoring (30.9 ppg) and total defense (392.1 ypg) and also posted a league-worst minus-18 turnover margin.

 

Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford showed flashes of the talent that would help Detroit make the playoffs two years later, but the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft suffered a season-ending injury in Week 11 and the Lions finished the year on a six-game losing streak with Stafford on the sidelines.

 

7. 2011 St. Louis Rams (2-14)

Point Differential: -214 (193 PF, 407 PA)

Offense: 32nd (12.1 ppg), 31st, (283.6 ypg)

Defense: 26th (25.4 ppg), 22nd (358.4 ypg)

 

After arguably the two worst seasons in franchise history in 2008 and ‘09, the Rams managed to win seven games in 2010, but quickly collapsed again the following year. The 2011 Rams were again plagued by one of the worst offenses in the NFL, finishing dead last in scoring offense (12.1 ppg) and No. 31 in total offense (283.6 ypg). The St. Louis offensive line allowed a league-high 55 sacks, and the Rams managed just nine touchdown passes and seven rushing scores all season, both of which ranked dead last in the league. Also, second-year quarterback Sam Bradford was lost for the final six games of the season due to injury.

 

8. 2010 Carolina Panthers (2-14)

Point Differential: -212 (196 PF, 408 PA)

Offense: 32nd (258.4 ppg), 32nd (12.3 ypg)

Defense: 26th (25.5 ppg), 18th (335.9 ypg)

 

Carolina skipped the growing pains that come with expansion by winning seven games in their first season in 1995 and making it to the NFC Championship Game in Year 2. However, the Panthers hit a few rough patches, such as a 1-15 2001 campaign and the 2-14 record in 2010 that included a franchise-worst 212-point differential and an 18-year low 196 points scored under the direction of quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore and Brian St. Pierre. That triumvirate managed to combine for 21 interceptions and just nine touchdowns.

 

Of course, looking on the bright side, the Panthers were able to secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft to use on quarterback Cam Newton, who won league MVP honors in 2015 and took the franchise to Super Bowl 50.

 

9. 2011 Indianapolis Colts (2-14)

Point Differential: -212 (196 PF, 408 PA)

Offense: 32nd (258.4 ppg), 32nd (12.3 ypg)

Defense: 26th (25.5 ppg), 18th (335.9 ypg)

 

From 1999-2010, the Indianapolis Colts made the playoffs 11 times, won Super Bowl XLI and came up just short of a second world championship in Super Bowl XLIV. Quarterback Peyton Manning won four NFL MVP awards over that span, but an unfortunate neck injury sidelined the veteran quarterback for the entire 2011 season.

 

With Manning sidelined, the Colts relied on Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky under center and the offense sank all the way to the bottom of the league. Following a 0-13 start to the season, Orlovsky actually did something he couldn’t do for the Lions in 2009 – he helped Indianapolis avoid the embarrassment of a winless season by leading the team to victories in two of its final three games.

 

Still, the Colts selected Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, which led to Manning's eventual release and signing with Denver.

 

10. 2014 Oakland Raiders (3-13)

Point Differential: -199 (253 PF, 452 PA)

Offense: 31st (15.8 ppg), 32nd (282.2 ypg)

Defense: 32nd (28.2 ppg), 21st (357.6 ypg)

 

There were other teams that won fewer games than the 2014 Oakland Raiders that could make a claim for a spot on this list, including the 2006 Oakland squad that finished 2-14. However, only two teams on our list fielded a worse defense – the 2008 and ‘09 Lions – than the Raiders, who surrendered a staggering 452 points despite finishing 21st in the league in total defense (357.6 ypg).

 

With rookie quarterback Derek Carr under center and a running game that ranked last in the league in yards (1,240) and touchdowns (4), the Raiders suffered through 10 losses to open the season before splitting the final six games of the year.

And, despite winning three games down the stretch, Oakland still managed to lose 52-0 to St. Louis and 47-14 to Denver over that same six-week period.

 

Dishonorable Mention

(In chronological order)

 

2002 Houston Texans (4-12)

The Texans’ NFL debut wasn’t the worst record in team history from a won-loss standpoint, but Houston scored just 213 points all season, which is still a team record for futility. The team ranked last in the NFL in total offense and allowed a league-high 76 sacks.

 

2004 San Francisco 49ers (2-14)
In 2004, the 49ers tied the franchise record for fewest wins in a season, set in 1978 and matched in ‘79. The Niners posted the worst scoring defense in the league (28.3 ppg), allowed 452 points (just one point shy of a franchise record), and were outscored by a pitiful 193 points, which set a team record. San Francisco also came incredibly close to going winless, with only a pair of overtime victories over the Arizona Cardinals standing between the team and a big, fat zero in the win column.
 

2005 Houston Texans (2-14)

The most recent expansion franchise in the NFL, the Texans barely missed the top 10 with a 2-14 record in their fourth season. The Texans were outscored by 171 points, ranked last in the league in scoring defense (26.9 ppg), and averaged just 253.3 yards of offense per game while allowing 364, which ranked No. 30 and No. 31 in the league, respectively.

 

2006 Oakland Raiders (2-14)

The 2006 Oakland defense actually ranked in the top three in the NFL in yards allowed, but the offense scored just 168 points all season, which was a team record that includes every team that played just 14 games and the 1982 Los Angeles Raiders that played nine games in a strike-shortened season. In fact, the Raiders narrowly missed the NFL record for fewest points in a season by 28. Oakland also finished dead last in total offense, sacks allowed and turnover margin.

 

2008 Kansas City Chiefs (2-14)

The worst team in Chiefs history, the 2008 team ranked No. 31 in the league in total defense, surrendered a franchise-record 440 points, and managed to sack opposing quarterbacks just 10 times all season.

 

2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)

Tampa Bay looked like a playoff team early in the 2011 season after jumping out to a 4-2 record. However, a 48-3 loss to San Francisco in Week 5 foreshadowed what would come as the Bucs were outscored 349-174 during a 10-game losing streak to end the season. When the dust settled, Tampa Bay had allowed a franchise-record 494 points.

 

2012 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)

Like the Panthers, the Jaguars were competitive early in their franchise history, making the playoffs in four of their first five seasons. However, the Jags haven’t made the postseason since 2007, and stumbled all the way to 2-14 in 2012, setting a franchise record in point differential (-189) that was broken by the 2013 4-12 squad (-202).

 

2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14)

The Bucs were actually more competitive in 2014 that most of the teams listed here, having been outscored by 133 points for the season after losing 10 one-possession games (including two overtime losses). However, a struggling offense that ranked No. 29 in scoring, No. 30 in total yardage and No. 31 in interceptions was the primary reason Tampa Bay fell to 2-14 despite playing in a division that didn’t have a single team with a winning record.

 

2014 Tennessee Titans (2-14)

The Titans opened the 2014 season with a 26-10 victory over Kansas City, but lost 14 of their final 15 games – including 10 in a row to close the schedule. The team ranked No. 30 in the league in scoring offense and scored just 254 points all year – the worst since the franchise moved to Nashville prior to the 1997 season. The defense was nearly as bad, allowing 438 points, which produced a franchise-worst minus-184 point differential.

 

2016 San Francisco 49ers (2-14)

The 49ers played in Super Bowl XLVII to conclude the 2012-13 season and made it to the NFC Championship Game again the following year. Unfortunately, the franchise suffered a quick drop thereafter and crashed in 2016, head coach Chip Kelly’s only season at the helm. Following a 28-0 victory in Week 1, San Francisco lost 13 in a row and 14 of its final 15 games. Despite Kelly’s reputation as an offensive genius, the 49ers ranked 27th in the NFL with just 309 points. Worse, the defense was last in the league at 30.0 points per game allowed.

 

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work can also be found on SaturdayDownSouth.com, SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

Teaser:
10 Absolute Worst NFL Teams Since Expansion
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/outrageous-predictions-nfl-conference-championship-games-2017
Body:

You can't get much more outrageous than what happened in the NFL's divisional round last weekend. Aaron Rodgers threw one of the greatest passes in NFL playoff history. The Atlanta Falcons out-muscled and physically dominated the Seattle Seahawks like we haven't seen a team do in years. The Pittsburgh Steelers won a playoff games without scoring a touchdown. The New England Patriots beat the NFL's best defense by double digits with Tom Brady having his worst game of the season.

 

That was my kind of weekend.

 

You can expect much more outrageousness as the NFL's four hottest teams battle it out on Sunday for a couple of spots in the biggest event in American sports.

 

Outrageous Predictions for the NFL Conference Championship Games

 

DeAngelo Williams scores two touchdowns for the Steelers

Williams didn't touch the ball once against Kansas City. Look for him to be much more involved this Sunday — especially near the goal line. After getting pass-happy and coming up empty-handed in the red zone last weekend, look for Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley to switch things up and lean on the run inside the 20 on Sunday. New England will be keying on Le'Veon Bell in this area, so keep an eye on whether or not Williams checks into the game inside the 10-yard line and takes a couple of draw plays to paydirt.

 

Vic Beasley Jr. logs at least four sacks

The second-year phenom had 15.5 sacks on the season. He was shut out in that department last weekend, but his presence was felt. This Sunday, he'll pin his ears back and chase the hottest player in the league, Aaron Rodgers. The circumstances and shootout nature of this game will call for Rodgers to drop back somewhere in the range of 50 times. Look for an underrated secondary to cause Rodgers to hold the ball longer than he normally does, giving Beasley plenty of chances to record a career high in the sack department.


Aaron Rodgers throws at least two interceptions

Rodgers has thrown just one interception since mid-November — and that was last weekend against Dallas. Those 50-or-so previously mentioned pass plays are also going to include a couple of balls he's going to need to force in an attempt to keep pace. Between tight coverage and that aforementioned pressure, you can expect at least two of Rodgers' passes to end up in the hands of Falcon defenders. It's worth noting that Rodgers is 0-3 against Dan Quinn as a head coach or defensive coordinator.

 

Chris Hogan leads all Patriot receivers in yards and touchdowns

Dion Lewis got it done last weekend. Martellus Bennett will get attention. Everyone knows about Julian Edelman. Look for Hogan to take advantage of the extra attention the Steelers pay to New England's usual suspects and take the top off of the Pittsburgh defense multiple times on Sunday. I like Hogan to approach the 150-yard mark with at least one touchdown — likely two.

 

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.

Teaser:
Outrageous Predictions for NFL Conference Championship Games
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 09:30
Path: /college-football/early-pac-12-football-predictions-2017
Body:

A transition year was expected in 2016 for the Pac-12, but the conference produced a playoff contender (Washington) and one of the nation’s hottest teams at the end of the season (USC). Additionally, the surprise emergence of Colorado in the South Division was one of the best storylines from 2016. As the Pac-12 turns the page to 2017, the Huskies and Trojans headline the list of contenders and the league’s best hope to make the CFB Playoff. Stanford, Oregon, Washington State and Utah are in the next group of contenders, but each team has its share of question marks to address this offseason. UCLA might be the biggest mystery for 2017. The Bruins aren’t hurting for talent and regain the services of quarterback Josh Rosen. However, UCLA finished 4-8 last year and has some significant question marks in Rosen’s supporting cast and in filling a few voids on defense.

 

It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2017:

 

North Division

 

1. Washington

The Huskies are the reigning Pac-12 champions and should have a good shot at a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff in 2017. Quarterback Jake Browning threw for 3,430 yards and 43 scores last season and returns to lead the way for Washington’s title hopes next fall. Browning could miss time during spring ball due to shoulder surgery but is expected to be at full strength by the opener. Running back Myles Gaskin and receiver Dante Pettis headline the skill talent returning to Seattle, but there’s no question the offense will miss big-play receiver John Ross. The offensive line should be a strength with the return of left tackle Trey Adams. Washington has led the Pac-12 in scoring defense in back-to-back years, but coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has a few holes to fill after the early departures of tackle Elijah Qualls, cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker to the NFL. However, the cupboard isn’t empty. Lineman Vita Vea is a rising star, linebacker Azeem Victor returns from injury, and safety Taylor Rapp will help ease the personnel losses in the secondary.

 

Related: A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2017

 

2. Stanford

The Cardinal might be the toughest team to rank in the North. After Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl, the quarterback spot is a mystery. Redshirt freshman K.J. Costello could stake a claim over Ryan Burns for the starting job this spring. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty of Bryce Love at running back. Love has big shoes to fill in replacing Christian McCaffrey, but he’s up to the task after recording 783 rushing yards in 2016. Guard Johnny Caspers is the lone starter gone from the trenches. The defense has been an annual strength under coach David Shaw and should be solid once again despite the loss of standout lineman Solomon Thomas. The secondary is the strength of Stanford’s defense for 2017.

 

3. Oregon

New coach Willie Taggart was one of the offseason’s best hires. The Ducks won’t be down for long under Taggart and a rebound back into the top 25 is a reasonable expectation next fall. Taggart inherits promising quarterback Justin Herbert (1,936 yards and 19 TDs), and running back Royce Freeman decided to return for his senior season. The Ducks have a few voids to fill in the receiving corps, but Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson is a good starting point. The line featured four freshmen starters last season and regains the services of talented tackle Tyrell Crosby (season-ending injury in 2016). After giving up 6.4 yards per play last year, there’s only one way for Oregon’s defense to go in 2017. And helping lead the way for improvement will be coordinator Jim Leavitt, who was hired by Taggart after turning around Colorado’s defense the last couple of seasons. Linebacker Troy Dye is a promising player for Leavitt to build around this spring.

 

Related: College Football's Top 15 Teams on the Rise for 2017

 

4. Washington State

The Cougars ended the 2016 season on a down note with three consecutive losses, including a surprising defeat in the Holiday Bowl against Minnesota. While the end to the year certainly didn’t go according to plan for coach Mike Leach, Washington State should be in the mix to be a top 25 team in 2017. Quarterback Luke Falk passed on the NFL for one more season in Pullman, and the offensive line returns standout guard Cody O’Connell and tackle Cole Madison. The Cougars also return three running backs who rushed for at least 475 yards in 2016. The biggest question mark on offense is at receiver. Gabe Marks (89 catches) and River Cracraft (53) will be missed. Can Tavares Martin (64), Robert Lewis (33) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (35) step up their performance to fill the void left behind by Marks and Cracraft? Safety Shalom Luani, tackle Robert Barber and nickelback Parker Henry are the biggest losses on defense, but this unit returns in good shape and should improve on the stat sheet next fall.

 

5. Oregon State

The Beavers improved their win total by two games from 2015 to 2016. Coach Gary Andersen enters his third year in Corvallis with a team capable of pushing for a bowl bid. The biggest question mark on offense revolves around the quarterback position. Can junior college recruit Jake Luton beat Marcus McMaryion, Darell Garretson or Conor Blount for the starting job? Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see running back Ryan Nall (951 yards) increase his workload in 2017. Top receiver Victor Bolden (46 catches), and three key linemen – Dustin Stanton, Gavin Andrews and Sean Harlow – have also expired their eligibility. After giving up 37 points per game in 2015, the Beavers cut that total to 30.5 in 2016. However, it’s clear more improvement is needed for this team to hit six wins. Cornerback Treston Decoud and linebacker Caleb Saulo are the biggest losses for coordinator Kevin Clune.

 

Related: College Football's Draft Deadline Winners and Losers for 2017

 

6. California

A coaching change in January came as a surprise, as Sonny Dykes was dismissed after four seasons in Berkeley. While the move came late in the coaching carousel offseason, California deserves high marks for its hire of Justin Wilcox as the program’s new leader. The Oregon native worked as an assistant under Jeff Tedford from 2003-05 and also has stops as a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12 at Washington and USC. Wilcox also assembled a standout staff for his offense, headlined by former Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin. The top priority for Baldwin this spring will be to break in a new quarterback after Davis Webb expired his eligibility. Leading rusher Khalfani Muhammad (827 yards) also departs, but Baldwin has talented options in the backfield with the return of Tre Watson and Vic Enwere. Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall headline the receiving corps and must take on a bigger role after Chad Hansen (92 catches) left early for the NFL. Wilcox’s background should immediately help a defense that surrendered 42.6 points per game in 2016.

 

South Division

 

1. USC

The emergence of quarterback Sam Darnold quickly transformed USC’s 2016 season and outlook for 2017. Darnold was inserted into the starting lineup after the 1-2 start and guided the Trojans to 9-1 record over the final 10 games. With a full offseason to work as the starter and develop under coach Clay Helton and coordinator Tee Martin, Darnold should be one of college football’s top quarterbacks and a frontrunner to win the Heisman next fall. Darnold’s supporting cast will feature a couple of new faces. Top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster left early for the NFL, and the offensive line loses three key starters – Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler and Damien Mama. Running back Ronald Jones (1,082 yards) is another emerging star. The defense entered the 2016 season with a handful of question marks but held opponents to 24.2 points a game. This unit doesn’t lose a ton for 2017. However, the losses were significant. Tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, linebacker Michael Hutchings, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and safety Leon McQuay leave big shoes to fill this spring.

 

Related: A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2017

 

2. Utah

For the first time under coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah has finished in the Associated Press top 25 for the three consecutive seasons. While the Utes have some key personnel losses to address, this team could be the top challenger to USC in the South Division. New coordinator Troy Taylor is one of the Pac-12’s top offseason assistant hires and should help quarterbacks Troy Williams and Tyler Huntley take a step forward in their development. Joe Williams will be missed at running back, but Zack Moss (4.5 ypc) showed promise in limited action. The Utes lose four starters up front, including standout left tackle Garett Bolles and guard Isaac Asiata. As usual in Salt Lake City, expect Utah’s defense to be among the best in the Pac-12. End Kylie Fitts returns from injury, while Lowell Lotulelei is back to anchor the interior. The emergence of safety Chase Hansen eases the loss of safety Marcus Williams to the NFL. Utah’s schedule features a tough crossover against Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Stanford. Additionally, the Utes hit the road to take on USC and rival BYU.

 

3. UCLA

UCLA’s 2016 season was derailed after a shoulder injury to quarterback Josh Rosen in early October. After Rosen’s injury, the Bruins won just one game over its final seven contests and finished 4-8 overall. Getting Rosen back in the lineup is a huge boost for coach Jim Mora’s team, but there are other issues to address. Will this team develop a ground game after managing only 84.3 yards per game in 2016? The offensive line must replace second-team All-Pac-12 tackle Conor McDermott. Despite a lackluster offense, UCLA’s defense held its own last year. The Bruins limited opponents to 4.86 yards per play (No. 2 in the Pac-12) and allowed 27.5 points per game. Coordinator Tom Bradley has a few major voids to address this offseason. The line loses Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley, linebackers Deon Hollins and Jayon Brown and Marcus Rios, Fabian Moreau and Randall Goforth in the secondary. Just having Rosen under center should make UCLA a bowl team in 2017. However, the improvement in the other areas will determine if the Bruins return to the top 25.

 

Related: College Football's Top 25 Games for 2017

 

4. Colorado

All of the pieces for Mike MacIntyre’s rebuilding effort in Boulder fell into place in 2016. Colorado won 10 games – the same number this program won in MacIntyre’s first three years – and claimed the Pac-12 South title. A strong senior class was the backbone of the 10-win team, so the Buffaloes have some major voids to fill this offseason. The defense was hit the hardest by departures. Coordinator Jim Leavitt was hired by Oregon, and this unit must replace linebackers Kenneth Olugbode and Jimmie Gilbert, linemen Josh Tupou and Jordan Carrell and defensive backs Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon. For some perspective on how decimated this defense is, Colorado returns only four out of its top 11 tacklers from 2016. While the defense appears to be a rebuilding year, the offense is in good shape. New quarterback Steven Montez showed promise in a limited stint under center in 2016, running back Phillip Lindsay returns after rushing for 1,252 yards and 16 scores last year, and the team’s top three wide receivers are back. The Buffaloes catch Washington in crossover play but won’t have to face Oregon or Stanford.

 

5. Arizona State

After back-to-back 10-win campaigns from 2013-14, Arizona State has posted two consecutive losing seasons and missed out on a bowl in 2016. Is a quick fix in order for 2017? The Sun Devils return enough talent to rebound back to the postseason, led by an offense that has the firepower to be one of the best in the Pac-12. The backfield duo of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage is among the best in the nation, transfer Blake Barnett should provide stability at quarterback, and the receiving corps features rising star N’Keal Harry. The line is the biggest concern for Graham on offense after this unit surrendered 41 sacks in 2016. Former Baylor coordinator Phil Bennett takes over the play-calling duties for a defense that gave up 39.8 points per game last year and surrendered a whopping 357.4 passing yards a contest. This unit doesn’t lose a ton of personnel, so Bennett won’t be hurting for experienced players to utilize this spring. Arizona State caught a tough break in scheduling with Oregon, Stanford and Washington in crossover play, as well as road games against Utah and UCLA.

 

Related: College Football's Very Early Top 25 for 2017

 

6. Arizona

The Wildcats are coming off their first losing season under Rich Rodriguez and open 2017 offseason workouts with several question marks. The offense averaged only 24.8 points per game last year and was hit hard by injuries at the quarterback position. Three passers received significant snaps, including Brandon Dawkins (1,345 passing yards and 944 rushing yards). Dawkins is the likely frontrunner to take the first snap in 2017, but he will face competition from Khalil Tate. Dawkins needs to show more consistency as a passer after completing 53.6 percent of his throws in 2016. When healthy, Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor form an effective one-two punch at running back. Three of Arizona’s top four receivers are gone from last season, with Shun Brown (521 yards) the team’s most-established target returning in 2017. Despite an overhaul on the staff prior to the season, Arizona’s defense struggled once again in 2016. The Wildcats gave up 38.3 points a game and 6.1 yards per play. This unit did not have a player receive all-conference or honorable mention honors last season and must replace arguably its top two performers last year in linebackers Michael Barton and Paul Magloire.

Teaser:
Early Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2017
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2017 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/washington-state-coach-mike-leach-blasts-sec-offenses-cougars
Body:

Mike Leach is not going to be on the good side of the SEC anytime soon.

 

The Washington State coach mentioned the SEC in an interview with The Clarion-Ledger. Leach over the years has taken flack for the way he runs his offense and its results, so he didn't hesitate to talk about the others' methods.

 

"This is a great time to be in the SEC," Leach said. "Everybody's got the same offense: run right, run left, play action. And they tease themselves and say we threw it four more times a game this year that we did last year."

 

The SEC talk didn't end there. 

 

"First, it becomes it won't work," Leach continued. "Second, they basically say oh it's a system, suggesting that people who don't do it that way, who just run it up the middle, stick all your a**es together so one hand grenade can kill everybody, that's the right way to do it. Since they do it the right way, they're ok with the fact they lost."

 

Leach and the Cougars had a streaky season, so it may not be the best time to speak on the offense of others. 

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, January 19, 2017 - 15:01
Path: /nfl/afc-championship-preview-and-predictions-pittsburgh-steelers-vs-new-england-patriots-2017
Body:

You wanted the best, now you’re getting the best. The AFC’s premier franchises are saddling up for what is to be one of the most anticipated conference championship games of the current era. The Patriots and the Steelers, two of the NFL’s and America’s most beloved and successful sports franchises, duking it out for the right to go to the Super Bowl is a big, beautiful slice of Americana.

 

Since the turn of the century, the NFL’s two most successful teams have been the Patriots and Steelers. Together these two have combined to win six of the last 16 Super Bowls, with a combined 16 AFC title game appearances. If history isn’t the best selling point, perhaps star power is. Sunday’s game features two of best quarterbacks of this era in Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, the best running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell, and one of the most exciting players in all of football in Antonio Brown. If you’re an X’s and O’s junkie, two of the NFL’s longest tenured and most respected head coaches, Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin, will match wits with another shot at the Lombardi Trophy on the line.

 

This game has it all.

 

AFC Championship Game: Pittsburgh at New England

 

Kickoff: Sunday Jan. 22 at 6:40 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS

Spread: New England -4.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Numbers Can Be Deceiving

For this matchup, throw out the book on stats, both new school and old, standards and analytics — the eye test is all we need.

 

The Patriots’ 15.6 points per game allowed looks outstanding on paper, a true testament to “The Patriots’ Way,” placing team accomplishment over individual glory, highlighted ever more so by the trade of star linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns earlier this season. But that 15.6 is a deceitful stat. While still impressive, the Patriots’ defense has faced a very limited number of top-tier quarterbacks all season long. Actually, it’s hard to say that they’ve faced any top-tier quarterbacks.

 

As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss has pointed out, Russell Wilson is likely the best signal-caller (with Carson Palmer and Joe Flacco likely sharing second place) that New England’s defense has confronted in 2016 — a game in which Wilson had his best performance of the season (25-for-37, 348 yds., 3 TD, 9.41 ypa) in a 31-24 Seattle win. The rest of the names on the list of quarterbacks is less than stellar, featuring the likes of Ryan Tannehill, Jared Goff, Trevor Siemian, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, Landry Jones, Colin Kaepernick, and Andy Dalton. Not exactly a modern day Murderer’s Row of signal-callers.

 

Forget about the Oct. 23 matchup between these two teams, a 27-17 win for the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger was held out of the game after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus; leaving the aforementioned Jones to attempt 47 passes, playing from behind in a losing effort.

 

Last week, the Steelers’ couldn’t fully capitalize on Le’Veon Bell’s 170 rushing yards, as the offense failed to score a touchdown against the Chiefs. After a week to readjust and refocus, with Big Ben relatively healthy and Bell running the ball as efficiently as ever, Sunday night’s matchup could be the most taxing of the season for the Patriots’ top-ranked scoring defense.

 

2. Return of the Curtain?

During Pittsburgh’s current nine-game winning streak, the defense is giving fans reason to cull their memories of the famed Steel Curtain defense from the 1970s. The modern Pittsburgh defense may not have a “Mean” Joe Greene or L.C. Greenwood type player that can wreak havoc on his own, but this Steelers D has the ability to create mayhem as a unit. Since the streak began, the defense has recorded 31 sacks and knocked down opposing quarterbacks twice as much.

 

Pittsburgh’s defensive resurgence is not good news for a Patriots offensive line that struggled to protect Tom Brady last week against Houston, allowing him to be sacked twice and hit nearly 10 times. Brady also threw two interceptions, equaling his total for the entire regular season, thanks in large part to the pressure coming from the Texans’ explosive defensive front. With the Steelers’ ability to mix blitz packages with athletic linebackers Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier, paired with the ageless James Harrison and budding Stephon Tuitt, look for Pittsburgh to try and emulate the pressure that Brady felt last weekend against Houston.

 

3. Appreciate the GOAT

One could legitimately argue that Bill Belichick is the captain of the Patriots’ decade-long juggernaut and be absolutely correct in that stance. But make no mistake it’s Brady that makes New England’s era of dominance what it is. For much of Brady’s career he’s done more with less offensive talent around him than perhaps any other quarterback of his era.

 

Think of it this way: Brady won three Super Bowls in four seasons with only two fellow offensive Pro Bowlers (Troy Brown in 2001, Corey Dillon in ’03) in that span, all while throwing to the likes of David Patten, Kevin Faulk and David Givens as his primary targets— not exactly the Reggie Waynes, Marvin Harrisons, and Edgerrin James of their era.

 

When Brady was actually surrounded by better talent, like an aged Randy Moss and diminutive Wes Welker in 2007, he threw for 50 touchdowns, more than 4,800 yards, and led the league in 12 different passing categories. As well all know, Brady was a David Tyree circus catch away from being only the second quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to 19-0 undefeated season.

 

Now at age 39, Brady, hasn’t allowed Father Time, a controversial four-game suspension, and the loss of the most dominant pass catcher he’s ever had (Rob Gronkowski) to slow him down. In 12 games this season, Brady threw for more than 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns, while having his second most efficient season of his 17-year career in terms of completion percentage (67.4) and QBR (83.1).

 

Many opposing NFL fans have grown tired of the Brady narrative, but I attest he deserves all of the accolades he’s received throughout the years —12 Pro Bowl appearances (eight straight after the age of 32), two MVPs, two All-Pro honors, countless endorsements, and several NFL records — and much more. We may never again see a quarterback, the “it” position in America’s most popular game, be so dominant for as long as Brady has been. Making it to six straight conference championship games, sitting just a win shy of a seventh Super Bowl appearance, is nothing to scoff at, but something to appreciate if you’re a sports fan.

 

So whether you’re rooting for the Patriots, or hoping they lose by 100 points, I say, soak in the greatness and uncommonness of Tom Brady while he’s still around. They don't make ‘em like him very often, and a win on Sunday likely cements his legacy as the greatest to ever play his position.

 

Final Analysis

 

This game very well could feature a lot of points, especially given the two quarterbacks involved. With offense likely to dictate the outcome, the winner will be the team that limits the damage done by its opponent’s best weapon. For the Patriots, that means stopping Le’Veon Bell, not just running the ball, but from coming with big plays as a receiver out of the backfield as well. For the Steelers, they've got to pressure Tom Brady into errant throws and turnovers, as well as do a better job against the run than they did in the first meeting when LeGarrette Blount gashed them for 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns. These tasks are easier said than done, but perhaps just a little bit more difficult for Pittsburgh considering New England is a sterling 16-3 at home in the playoffs over the last 15 seasons.

 

Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions

Editor/Contributor Winner Score
Rob Doster 27-20
Bryan Fischer 27-21
John Gworek 23-20
Steven Lassan 27-24
Jake Rose 28-24
Mark Ross 24-23

 

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

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AFC Championship Game Preview and Predictions: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots
Post date: Thursday, January 19, 2017 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, NFC, NFL
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The Georgia Dome is set to host its final football game ever on Sunday. And what a way to go out, as the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers square off against the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. Two of the NFL’s premier passing games will be on full display, led by league MVP candidates Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.

 

The Packers enter Sunday’s matchup riding a huge wave of momentum after shocking the No. 1 seed Cowboys 34-31 in the divisional round for their eighth win in a row. Green Bay’s offense has been hitting on all cylinders during this streak averaging 32 points and 387 yards per game. Mike McCarthy’s team hopes to continue this magical run in its second trip to Atlanta this season. The Packers lost to the Falcons 33-32 back in Week 8 on a late touchdown by the home team. A potential trip to Super Bowl LI will be at the forefront of the Packers’ minds on Sunday. However, the opportunity to avenge a tough loss won’t be far behind.

 

Speaking of high-powered offenses, no one put up more points during the regular season than Atlanta’s 33.8 per game. Last week, the Falcons scored 36 in its divisional round win over Seattle to stretch their winning streak to a season-best five games. Dan Quinn’s team now must face the red-hot Packers for the second time this season. At stake is the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance, which would provide a happy ending to the team’s storied history in the Georgia Dome.

 

NFC Championship Game: Green Bay at Atlanta

 

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 22 at 3:05 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Atlanta -4.5

 

Three Things to Watch

 

1. Green Bay Passing Game vs. Atlanta Pass Defense

It’s almost comical looking back at all of the early-season criticism aimed at Aaron Rodgers. Some even went so far as to say that this was the beginning of the end for the Packers and their 33-year-old quarterback. No one is laughing louder at that sentiment now than Rodgers. During the Packers eight-game winning streak, Rodgers has completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,385 yards with an unbelievable 21:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

 

Rodgers must now turn his attention to a much-improved Falcons defense, albeit one he carved up in the one-point loss in Atlanta in Week 8. He completed 74 percent of his passes in that contest for 246 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But Rodgers also had a healthy Jordy Nelson for that matchup. Nelson led the way with 94 yards and a score in that game, but his status for this game is in doubt because of the broken ribs he sustained in the wild card win over the Giants. The good news is that even if Green Bay’s leading receiver can’t go, Rodgers still has Randall Cobb, Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery at his disposal, three guys that didn’t play in the first meeting against the Falcons. More potential bad news is that Davante Adams is dealing with an ankle injury that could limit his availability or sideline him completely as well.

 

Just like the first matchup, this one lines up quite favorably for Rodgers. In fairness, all matchups line up favorably for him at this point. Atlanta ranked a woeful 28th in the NFL against the pass during the regular season, surrendering 266.7 yards per game through the air. However, a young Atlanta secondary has shown vast improvement since Rodgers put up big numbers against it. During the Falcons’ five-game winning streak, Atlanta has allowed just 221 passing yards per game, which would have been good enough for a top-10 ranking over the course of a full season. The Falcons also have as many interceptions as touchdown passes allowed (7 each) during this stretch. That trend will need to hold for this defense to have a shot at limiting a red-hot Rodgers on Sunday.

 

While it’s easier said than done, the key for the Atlanta defense will be to contain Rodgers inside the pocket, essentially eliminating his ability to extend plays. In last week’s win in Dallas, Rodgers posted a QB rating of 82.7 on pass plays from inside the pocket. On pass plays from outside the pocket, he posted a quarterback rating of 146.8. He also made what would ultimately prove to be the game-winning play from outside of the pocket.

 

2. Atlanta Passing Game vs. Green Bay Pass Defense
Much like Rodgers earlier in the season, Matt Ryan has received plenty of criticism for Atlanta’s shortcomings in recent years. Last season, his 24 turnovers made a huge role in the Falcons missing the playoffs. But no one can point the finger at him this season after posting career highs in completion percentage (69.9), passing yards (4,944), touchdown passes (38) and QB rating (117.1). Perhaps more importantly, Ryan has thrown a career-low seven interceptions during his All-Pro campaign that has him among the leading MVP contenders as well. He has been especially hot over the last five games, completing 73 percent of his passes for 1,469 yards, 14 touchdowns and no interceptions while posting a sparking 131.8 passer rating.

 

Ryan will look to continue this momentum in his second game against the Packers. The first time around, he torched Green Bay’s defense to the tune of 288 yards and three touchdowns while completing 80 percent of his attempts. With the Packers’ still dealing with injuries in their secondary, there’s not a lot of reason to expect things to go any differently this time around. The only real issue could be the health of No. 1 target Julio Jones, who re-aggravated a toe injury in last week’s win over Seattle. There’s no reason to expect Jones to not play, but how much and how effective he will be remains to be seen. But Ryan has plenty of capable weapons at his disposal, and he has proven that he can have success without Jones on the field. In fact, he wasn’t even much of a factor in the Week 8 victory over Green Bay, accounting for just 29 yards on three receptions.

 

And the bottom line when it comes to this matchup is that the Packers finished second to last in the league against the pass in the regular season, surrendering 269.2 yards per game. Things haven’t gotten any better in the playoffs either as Green Bay has allowed an average of 293 passing yards per game in its two victories. The Packers did finish second in the league with 17 interceptions and sixth in sacks with 40. Production in these two categories will be critical if Green Bay’s defense wants to fare better in Sunday’s rematch against Ryan and company.

 

3. Battle in the Trenches
Stellar offensive line play can be attributed as one of the biggest reasons for the overwhelming success achieved by both of these offenses. Continuity has been the biggest factor in the Falcons’ success up front. Led by All-Pro center Alex Mack and right tackle Ryan Schraeder, Atlanta is the only team that started the same five offensive linemen for all 16 regular season games. This group has been instrumental in keeping a clean pocket for Ryan, as well as providing ample running room for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. While the line should be able to hold its own once again on Sunday, the front five will have their hands full trying to keep the likes of Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews out of the backfield and keeping Ryan’s jersey clean.

 

A Green Bay offensive line led by All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Bryan Bulaga have had a huge impact on Rodgers’ success down the stretch. Despite the myriad of injuries in the Packers’ backfield throughout the season, the offense has had some success running the ball. Ty Montgomery, a converted wide receiver, is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and the line should receive a lot of credit for this.

 

One of the most intriguing matchups in Sunday’s game will feature Bulaga against All-Pro pass rush specialist Vic Beasley Jr., who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Bulaga grades out as one of the top linemen in pass protection according to Pro Football Focus. While Beasley did manage to sack Rodgers in the Week 8 meeting, Bulaga was not the responsible party on that play.

 

Green Bay’s offensive line will catch a bit of a break in this matchup. The Falcons will be without their second-best pass rusher, Adrian Clayborn, who tore his biceps last week. Dwight Freeney will fill in, but he’s well past his glory days as an elite pass rusher. In addition, Freeney will likely line up opposite Bakhtiari, who graded out as the best offensive tackle in the league this season.

 

Final Analysis

 

The compelling storyline for this NFC Championship showdown is unquestionably Aaron Rodgers vs. Matt Ryan in a battle between MVP front-runners. While both teams have solid rushing attacks, this game will likely not be decided by the ball carriers. You are just as likely to see Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Ty Montgomery make an impact as a receiver as when they get the hand off. Defense also is not at the forefront of this matchup. However, it could easily be the underlying factor that decides the outcome.

 

The Rodgers-Ryan air show will garner most of the headlines on Monday after what should be a very high-scoring affair. But the defense that comes up with that one big play will most likely make the difference when all is said and done. In a game that features two very evenly matched teams, this contest will likely come down to the final possession, just as it did back on Oct. 30.

 

Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions

Editor/Contributor Winner Score
Rob Doster 35-31
Bryan Fischer 38-31
John Gworek 37-35
Steven Lassan 34-31
Rob McVey 35-31
Mark Ross 34-31

 

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

 
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