Articles By Braden Gall

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The Mouth That Roared
The guy will just not shut up, but maybe that’s part of the master plan. Rex Ryan spent the week leading up to Jets-Patriots sucking up all of the media oxygen, leaving his players free to focus on a gameplan that had the Patriots frustrated for the first time in what seems like years. The Jets’ 28–21 win in Foxboro was shocking to everyone but the Gang Green, who strutted into Gillette Stadium like they were the favorites, reflecting the brashness of their boss. It was a day chock full of shocking developments — Tom Brady threw his first interception since Week 6; the inconsistent Mark Sanchez became only the third player to throw three TD passes against Bill Belichick’s Patriots in a playoff game; the P-men left the field riding a two-game home playoff losing streak; the Jets became only the second team in history to beat Brady and Peyton Manning in consecutive weeks (both on the road). But if you listen to Ryan, it all unfolded according to plan. “Maybe everybody else never believed, but we believed,” Ryan said. “We’re moving on. Same old Jets, back to the AFC championship. The only difference is this time we plan on winning.”

Da Bears Dominate
Did anyone sincerely believe that a Seattle Seahawks team that went 2–6 on the road this season had the remotest of chances to beat the Bears at Solider Field amid Bear temperatures and lake effect snow? Okay, full disclosure — I did. After all, one of the Seahawks’ two road wins came at Chicago in Week 6. Plus, the Bears always seem to be a Jay Cutler pick-six away from collapsing. On Sunday, that didn’t happen, although it could have, as Seattle’s Jordan Babineaux dropped a sure interception at the goal line three plays prior to a touchdown that made it 14–0 and essentially ended any suspense as the Bears cruised 35–24. I’ve been a persistent Cutler-basher, and he was lucky not to throw a couple of picks, but credit where it’s due: In his first postseason start, Cutler became the second player in NFL postseason history to have two rushing and two passing touchdowns in the same game. Of course, those touchdowns did come against what was probably the worst playoff team in NFL history. But we can thank the inept Seahawks for meekly stepping aside and giving us a Bears-Packers showdown for all the NFC marbles. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Teaser:
Athlon's Rob Doster tells us what he learned from the Divisional Weekend in the NFL as we head into Championship Sunday.
Post date: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 02:00
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Fantasy
Path: /columns/mlb-fantasy/2011-fantasy-ranks-middle-relief
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While we still have over a month until voluntary report dates (Feb. 14th can’t get here quickly enough), it is never too early for fantasy owners to start digesting mock drafts, big boards and keeper options.

With that, Athlon Sports has perused the World Wide Web for the latest and greatest positional rankings and brought them together for a one-stop shop. Big media names like ESPN, CBS, Athlon Sports and Yahoo! were incorporated as well as a variety of smaller, yet no less insightful, sites like FantasyPhenoms.com, DeepLeagues.com, RotoChamp.com, HardballTimes.com and RotoProfessor.com.

Each site’s rankings — including Athlon’s own rankings, which will be released early in February — were compiled and averaged into one “consensus” ranking. (Age on Opening Day 2011)

The middle reliever rankings come with a few disclaimers. For starters, a great closer is still dramatically more valuable than any set-up man with similar ratios. It’s a simple numbers game. The save is rarer and more difficult statistic to find than the hold, so therefore, players with a chance to slide into the closers role and be just as successful in the ninth inning as the eighth get the nod over pure holds guys – even if they did set records last year.

1. Rafael Soriano, NYY (31)
With his recent contract signing (finally), Soriano jumps right to the top of this list - and not just for holds. Mo Rivera's innings have dropped six straight seasons, and undoubtedly, Soriano will get his fair share of save opps. In the meantime, the Yankees have the most talented set-up man in the league - as long as he stays healthy.

2010 Stats: 62.1 IP, 3 W, 45 SV, 57 K, 0 HLD, 1.73 ERA, 0.80 WHIP

2. Craig Kimbrel, ATL (22)
The stirkeouts are astounding. The walks are too. However, Kimbrel is the leader in the clubhouse for the Braves closer role and figures to get the majority of the chances. That being said, manager Fredi Gonzalez has announced that Jonny Venters will get lots of opportunities (based on lefty-righty matchups) as well in the ninth. If Kimbrel, the righty, can eliminate the walks, it is tough to see him not locking down the closers role eventually.

2010 Stats: 20.2 IP, 4 W, 1 SV, 40 K, 0.44 ERA, 1.21 WHIP

3. Aroldis Chapman, CIN (23)
This will be the first full season for the flame-throwing, cult legend lefty. And its hard not to be a believer of the young set-up man. It is also difficult seeing him stay in a that role for too long - whether that means a move to the ninth inning or the rotation. The difficulty with drafting Chapman is that his high profile arrival - and fastball - has made his draft day value sky-rocket. You will have to pay a pretty penny to land this Cuban defector.

2010 Stats: 13.1 IP, 2 W, 0 SV, 19 K, 4 HLD, 2.02 ERA, 1.05 WHIP

4. Chris Sale, CHW (22)
This youngster is an intersting case for a variety of reasons. First, there just aren't too many 6'6" 175-pound southpaws. Second, not too many players spend a total of 60 days in the minors. Sale pitched 4.0 innings in A+ and 6.1 in AAA before making his MLB debut on Aug. 6. In his first full season, the lanky lefty could take over the closers role or become one of the leagues top set-up men. An eventual move to the rotation is very possible, but this season Sale should offer plenty of fantasy bullpen help.

2010 Stats: 23.1 IP, 2 W, 4 SV, 32K, 2 HLD, 1.93 ERA, 1.07 WHIP

5. Drew Storen, WAS (23)
Storen is another young reliever who spent very little (less than a year) in the minors. Less than a year after being drafted, Storen made his debut in May of 2010 and stuck with the club for the entire season. After a promising rookie year, Storen enters year two in a battle for the closers job with basically everyone else on the roster. It should be his job to lose, and with his experience as the closer at Stanford, leads me to believe he will stick in that role.

2010 Stats: 55.1 IP, 4 W, 5 SV, 52 K, 10 HLD, 3.58 ERA, 1.27 WHIP

6. Matt Thornton, CHW (34)
Three-year averages for Thornton: 67 IP, 6-4, 5 SV, 82 K, 2.70 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. Those numbers will play in any format in any fantasy league. But in a holds league, he is a proven commodity who will get plenty of save chances as well. A 15 SV-15 HLD season isn't out of the question.

2010 Stats: 60.2 IP, 5 W, 8 SV, 81 K, 21 HLD, 2.67 ERA, 1.01 WHIP

7. Hong-Chih Kuo, LAD (29)
Over the last three year, few players have been as valuable out of the bullpen as Kuo. His numbers over that span: 170 IP, 10-5, 13 SV, 201 K, 47 HLD, 1.96 ERA, 0.95 WHIP. That is the stuff fantasy stars are made of. Most expect closer Jon Broxton to bounce back to form, but Kuo will still be second in line and will get some chances. The term 'lefty specialist' just doesn't do Kuo justice - he finished 2010 with a .095 BAA against lefties in 31.0 innings against his counterparts.

2010 Stats: 60.0 IP, 3 W, 12 SV, 73 K, 21 HLD, 1.20 ERA, 0.78 WHIP

8. Johnny Venters, ATL (26)
As it stands, Venters looks to be the closer for Atlanta - against lefties. It looks like he and Kimbrel will share ninth inning duties, with Kimbrel the favorite to take over the job fulltime at some point. Venters' 93 punchouts are the highest returning total by a member of Braves bullpen. He followed his stellar rookie year up with 5.1 scoreless postseason innings in which he struck out eight and walked none.        

2010 Stats: 83.0 IP, 4 W, 1 SV, 93 K, 24 HLD, 1.95 ERA, 1.20 WHIP

9. Luke Gregerson, SD (26)
In only his second full season in the majors, Gregerson set an MLB record with 40 holds last year. Other than a oddly out of place 3.22 ERA, the ratios are down right nasty: 10.2 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 5.4 H/9 and 4.94 K/BB. All of which points to an unlucky ERA and a potential sub-3.00 season in 2011. He is as solid a pure holds option as there is in the game, but could easily find himself closing games should the Padres deal Heath Bell during the summer.

2010 Stats: 78.1 IP, 4 W, 2 SV, 89 K, 40 HLD, 3.22 ERA, 0.83 WHIP

10. Daniel Bard, BOS (25)
Along with Gregerson, Bard is likely his league's top pure holds man heading into the spring. Both he and Gregerson have clearly defined set-up roles behind stud closers. Bard's team is likely to be leading after the fifth inning quite often this year and his numbers were stellar across the board. His awesome fastball and bulldog mentality should provide a small handful of save opps too. His BB/9 rate did dip from 4.0 to 3.6, but is still something to keep an eye on. 

2010 Stats: 74.2 IP, 1 W, 3 SV, 76 K, 32 HLD, 1.93 ERA, 1.00 WHIP

Teaser:
<p> Athlon scours the web to compile its first consensus fantasy MLB rankings for 2011. Today, we focus on Middle Relief.</p>
Post date: Sunday, January 16, 2011 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /nascar/2011-nascar-preview
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NASCAR fans are less than two months away from 40,000 horsepower rolling past the start-finish line at Daytona International Speedway, when the 53rd edition of the Daytona 500 will celebrate the start of the 2011 Sprint Cup season. But the ever-changing landscape of stock car racing means that there is plenty to keep tabs on during the short offseason before another year begins.

That is where Athlon Sports steps in and delivers a 12-second pit stop to get you refueled for the year to come.

The 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual hits newsstands on Jan. 18, in essence signaling fans to start their engines for another year of Sprint Cup action. Athlon's ninth annual NASCAR preview magazine prepares fans for the 36-race season like never before, giving race fans thorough driver-by-driver breakdowns, track previews for all 23 Sprint Cup locations, Chase for the Championship predictions and in-depth features covering issues unique to 2011.

Athlon Sports Racing editor Matt Taliaferro prepares fans with an all-encompassing 2011 Season Preview: Surveying the Landscape of the Sprint Cup Series, while also taking time to honor the best and worst of 2010 with his Athlon Awards and holds nothing back in the hard-hitting feature 13 Tough Questions. What's to blame for NASCAR's sagging TV ratings and attendance numbers? Are tweaks to the playoff Chase format needed? You'll get the politically incorrect answers to these and other pertinent issues in this yearly fan-favorite.

Still worried about the long-term growth of the sport we all love? Cashed Out: Four Stories, Four Differing Perspectives, will give the Sprint Cup circuit a thorough fiscal check-up, while uncovering the (sometimes ugly) financial realities alive in professional auto racing today.

And what about Junior? Fans of Driver 88 have been plenty worried about Dale Earnhardt Jr. since his migration to Hendrick Motorsports. The Curious Case of Dale Earnhardt Jr. analyzes the current state of his career. He is riding around in the best equipment and has loads of talent ... so why can't he finish higher than 21st in the points standings? Athlon Sports talks to him and those close to him — including new crew chief Steve Letarte — to get some answers.

Athlon also sat down with one of the fiery up-and-comers of the sport when Brad Keselowski answered all of our questions in an informative and revealing Q&A session. And for the true diehards, Athlon serves up a preview of the Nationwide and Truck series, as well. And speaking of the Nationwide circuit, what's the latest on marketing mogul (and professional racecar driver) Danica Patrick? Athlon looks beyond the spin to examine the progress of Patrick's stock car venture.

Needless to say, America's Premier Sports Publisher prepares NASCAR fans for the Feb. 20 green flag on the beach unlike any other media outlet in the nation. So before you reach up and pull those belts tight one more time, make sure you pick up your copy of Athlon Sports Racing.

Pre-order your copy today: Athlon Sports Online Store

And make sure to stay on top of the sport of NASCAR all season long with weekly podcasts, articles, opinions, blogs, track previews and race recaps from Athlon's expert racing staff.

-by Braden Gall

Teaser:
Post date: Sunday, January 16, 2011 - 02:00
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Fantasy
Path: /columns/mlb-fantasy/2011-fantasy-ranks-c
Body:

While we still have over a month until voluntary report dates (Feb. 14th can’t get here fast enough), it is never too early for fantasy owners to start digesting mock drafts, big boards and keeper options.

With that, Athlon Sports has perused the World Wide Web for the latest and greatest positional rankings and brought them together for a one-stop shop. Big media names like ESPN, CBS, Athlon Sports and Yahoo! were incorporated as well as a variety of smaller, yet no less insightful, sites like FantasyPhenoms.com, DeepLeagues.com, RotoChamp.com, HardballTimes.com and RotoProfessor.com.

Each site’s rankings — including Athlon’s own rankings, which will be released early in February — were compiled and averaged into one “consensus” ranking. (Age on Opening Day 2011)
Catcher

1. Joe Mauer, MIN (27)
Despite declining from his off-the-charts AL MVP season of 2009 (.365/1.031 with 28 HRs, 96 RBIs, 94 runs scored), Mauer still put up numbers that you just don’t see with other catchers. The only issue you can find with the three-time batting champion is that his home runs dropped off at Target Field, where he only hit one long ball all year. However, Mauer will probably lead your fantasy team in average and be top three in runs scored — unheard of by a catcher. His .373/.974 line after the All-Star break bodes well for another stellar season from Super Joe.

2010 stats: 88 R, 9 HR, 75 RBI, 1 SB, .327/.871

2. Buster Posey, SF (24)
So, what were you doing at age 23? Mr. Posey was calling games for the World Series-winning pitching staff and taking home the National League Rookie of the Year. He has hit over .300 at every level and has a nice combination of power and plate discipline. Posey plays in a pitcher-friendly park, but he had 43 extra-base hits in 406 at-bats in 2010. The 2008 Golden Spikes winner at Florida State rocketed through the minors and looks to be a future superstar. Posey projects as a fantasy stud for years to come.

2010 stats: 58 R, 18 HR, 67 RBI, 0 SB, .305/.862

3. Victor Martinez, DET (32)
A year and a half after being traded to Boston, V-Mart will once again hit in a new yard this season as he heads to Detroit. Despite a .225 average and four home runs in 47 career games at Comerica Park, the Tigers had no issue giving the productive hitter a big free agent deal. Martinez has hit over .300 in five of the last six seasons, with the exception being 2008 when he only played 73 games due to several injuries. As he transitions to DH and bats beside fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera, hitting 20+ homers with a .300 average and an .850 OPS should be no problem for Martinez.

2010 stats: 64 R, 20 HR, 79 RBI, 1 SB, .302/.844

4. Brian McCann, ATL (27)
No catcher in the game is a more consistent producer than McCann. He’s been named to the National League All-Star team for five straight seasons, and his numbers during that time have always stayed solid. The Atlanta backstop’s five-year average from 2006-10 (.290/.856, 21 HRs, 89 RBIs, 61 runs scored) should assure fantasy owners that you can count on him each season. With Dan Uggla adding a much-needed power threat in the Braves’ lineup, look for McCann to have another productive season.

2010 stats: 63 R, 21 HR, 77 RBI, 5 SB, .269/.828

5. Carlos Santana, CLE (24)
He did not disappoint in his much-anticipated debut. After being called up in June, Santana was on a stout pace in his first 35 games (.292/1.009 with 6 HRs and 19 RBIs) before struggling in his final 11 contests. His season was ended prematurely by knee surgery in August after a collision at home plate with the Red Sox's Ryan Kalish. He should be plenty healthy for 2011, where he should continue to be an on-base machine (.401). Not many players are slotted in the three spot in the batting order like Santana was in his MLB debut.

2010 stats: 23 R, 6 HR, 22 RBI, 3 SB, .260/.868

6. Geovany Soto, CHC (28)
He rebounded fairly well last season after a disappointing 2009 campaign. His concentration on offseason conditioning paid off as Soto increased his numbers despite having fewer at-bats than the previous season. His totals would have been even better if not for missing some games late in the season before arthroscopic right shoulder surgery in September. Soto’s most encouraging stat was his excellent on-base percentage (.393), and he also crushed left-handed pitching (.367/1.072) in 2010. All signs point to him being healthy for spring training.

2010 stats: 47 R, 17 HR, 53 RBI, 0 SB, .280/.890

7. Kurt Suzuki, OAK (27)
His combined average for 2008-09 was .276, but the A’s backstop saw his numbers fall across the board in 2010. Even though he plays in a tough park for hitters, Suzuki hit 43 points better in Oakland than on the road. He should be heading into his prime, but a disturbing August (.185/.492 with zero homers) led to a major decline after the All-Star break. The durable Hawaiian (averaged 142 games played over the last three seasons) can help your totals in roto leagues, but there is cause for concern with his dreadful 2010 OPS and with batting in an uninspiring lineup.

2010 stats: 55 R, 13 HR, 71 RBI, 3 SB, .242/.669

8. Matt Wieters, BAL (24)
The much-ballyhooed prospect went through a sophomore slump in 2010. Expectations were high after Wieters hit .288/.753 as a rookie in 2009, but he struggled to find his stroke for almost all of last year. One problem was that the switch-hitter only had a .210 average and two home runs against left-handed pitching. His minor-league track record (.343/1.014 and 32 home runs in 578 at-bats) provides hope, but much improvement will be expected from Wieters in his third season with the Orioles.

2010 stats: 37 R, 11 HR, 55 RBI, 0 SB, .249/.695

9. Jorge Posada, NYY (39)
He will be transitioning more and more to the DH role with Russell Martin coming to the Big Apple. Posada had fairly big drop-off in average last year (.285 in 2009), which meant a decline in runs, doubles, homers and RBIs. One major issue, besides age, is that he is very dependent on playing in Yankee Stadium (.288/.922 at home versus .205/.694 on the road). Even with the decrease in production, Posada is still a good source of power at the catching position.

2010 stats: 49 R, 18 HR, 57 RBI, 3 SB, .248/.811

10. Miguel Montero, ARI (27)
There was a ton of optimism in the desert after his breakout 2009 campaign (.294/.832 with 16 HRs). Montero started last season with three straight two-hit games before being injured on the basepaths in his fourth game. He would miss two months following surgery on the torn meniscus in his right knee. Montero came back strong in June, but then faded down the stretch (.231 in second half). With an offseason to get fully healthy, he should be a good late value.

2010 stats: 36 R, 9 HR, 43 RBI, 0 SB, .266/.770

Teaser:
Athlon scours the web to compile its first consensus fantasy MLB rankings for 2011. Today, we look at the backstops.
Post date: Saturday, January 15, 2011 - 12:46
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/divisional-predictions
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Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall discuss the matchups for Divisional Weekend in the NFL:

Follow us on twitter: @AthlonBraden / @AthlonSteven / @AthlonRush

1. Baltimore at Pittsburgh (4:30 PM EST, Sat.)

Steven Lassan: This matchup is easily one of the best divisional rivalries in the NFL and with each of the last four games decided by three points, I’m expecting another contest that goes down to the wire. The Ravens have some momentum after last week’s win in Kansas City, but are only 3-9 in Pittsburgh in their last 12 games. The Steelers are difficult to beat following a bye week in the playoffs, going 5-0 since 1994. Anything can happen with these two teams evenly matched, but I’ll take the Steelers to win by a touchdown.

Nathan Rush: Baltimore has already won on the road at Pittsburgh this season, with a 17–14 victory in Week 4. But Charlie Batch — not Big Ben Roethlisberger — was the Steelers quarterback that week. Blitz-burgh lived up to its name with a 13–10 win over the Ravens in Week 13, as Troy Polamalu blindsided Joe Flacco to force a late fourth-quarter fumble and even up the score, literally. The Ravens and Steelers are tied at 1–1 apiece with a 27–27 season tally entering this Divisional Round rubber match. This game has been hyped as “World War 3” by Terrell Suggs, while Big Ben has flat out said he “hates playing the Ravens.” This AFC North Division showdown should be the hardest-hitting game of the playoffs. I’ll go with Baltimore in a tight fight.

Braden Gall: The road team has won both of these games this year and I am taking the road team in this one too. Certainly, Big Ben will be a tougher test than Charlie Batch was back in Week 4; however, if not for a late miracle by one of the game's best Troy Polamalu, the Ravens would have swept the season series. These are two battle tested, Hall of Fame defenses, so points will be at a premium. Playing on the road does not phase a Ravens team that has won seven of its last ten road playoff games. Two of those three losses, however, came against the Steelers. Give me Baltimore in a flip of the coin.

2. Green Bay at Atlanta (8:00 PM EST, Sat.)

Steven: The Packers are on a roll after last week’s win in Philadelphia and get a shot at revenge against the Falcons. Green Bay fell to Atlanta earlier this season, and winning in the Georgia Dome has been difficult for opposing teams. The Falcons have lost only one game this year at home, a 17-14 game against New Orleans. Even if you have no rooting interest in this game, it’s a must-see matchup due to the quarterback battle between Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, two players entering the prime of their careers and likely Super Bowl winners down the road. If the Packers can get the same kind of production out of James Starks as they did last week, I like Green Bay to win and advance to the NFC Championship.

Nathan: Green Bay escaped Philadelphia with a 21–16 Wild Card win, thanks in large part to a pair of missed field goals (from 34 and 41 yards) by Pro Bowl kicker David Akers. The Packers may need a little more good fortune in order to pull off an upset over the Falcons. Matt Ryan is 20–2 all-time at the Georgia Dome and 2–0 against Green Bay — with a 20–17 win in Week 12 and a 27–24 victory at Lambeau Field as a rookie. I’ll take “Matty Ice” and the split stats to advance to the NFC title game.

Braden: Aaron Rodgers collected his first career playoff win last week in Philadelphia. Matt Ryan is trying to do the same this weekend in Atlanta. The fans would be the biggest winners if this game even sligthly resembled the 20-17 instant classic back in Week 12. Ryan and Rodgers went back and forth, with Ryan holding the ball last — and driving his team for the game-winning field goal with less than a minute left to play. Michael Turner and the Falcon running game is the difference as Ryan will improve to 21-2 in his Georgia Dome career.

Teaser:
Athlon's editors debate the Divisional round of the NFL Playoffs.
Post date: Friday, January 14, 2011 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/sunday-takeaway/seattle-surprise
Body:

Saints go marching home

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Saints were the defending champs, after all. Matt Hasselbeck was supposedly dead and buried. Pete Carroll’s rah-rah shtick was proving to be a failure in the NFL for a second time. The Seahawks, the first losing division champ in history, were 10-point home dogs. One 41–36 shocker later, and the Seahawks are dreaming of hosting the NFC Championship game. It’s bizarro world in the NFL, courtesy of one unforgettable Wild Card Saturday, or to be more specific, one unforgettable run. As the guys over at Deadspin observed — move over, Marcus Allen, with your ho-hum 74-yard TD run in the Super Bowl. There’s a new postseason run for the time capsule. Marshawn Lynch’s game-clinching, tackle-shedding scamper, which included possibly the greatest stiff-arm in NFL history, put the cherry on the Seahawks’ sundae and propelled them into a winnable game at Chicago’s Soldier Field, where they’ve already won once this season. “It didn’t matter what I said to them, or what was said outside, and all of the story lines and all that, they just did not buy it,” an elated Carroll said. “Where that came from? If I knew that, we’d have something special here. It came out of an attitude and it came out of a faith in one another.” Coach, you may just have something special already.

Jets cleared for takeoff

A tense back-and-forth battle capped one of the best NFL Saturdays of all time. And it was a Peyton Manning mistake, of all things, that gave the Jets enough wiggle room to escape from Indy with a 17–16 Wild Card win. With the Jets leading 14–13, the Colts forced a punt with 2:45 left. Manning time. As expected, the Colts legend briskly and confidently guided his offense to the Jets’ side of the field, where he faced a 3rd-and-6 from the Jets 32 with 1:02 to go. Knowing that he had the greatest postseason kicker in history warming up, Manning forced a throw to Blair White — a former free agent reject who got eight targets on the day to Reggie Wayne’s one — and, not unexpectedly, White couldn’t pluck the less-than-perfect throw off the turf. Adam Vinatieri did his part, converting the 50-yard kick for a 16–14 lead, but the Jets had their window, and enough time to charge through it. Antonio Cromartie made one of the biggest plays of a big-play weekend, returning the kickoff to the Jets 46, and Mark Sanchez was in position to redeem a largely forgettable day. He didn’t have to do much — just guide the Jets into Nick Folk’s range, which he did, with an assist from Colts coach Jim Caldwell, who cluelessly burned his team’s last timeout. An 18-yard pass to Braylon Edwards set up Folk’s 32-yard game-winner on the final play. Afterwards, Jets coach Rex Ryan enjoyed a belated Thanksgiving after beating Manning, his nemesis. “I'm just thankful for the men I coach,” he gushed. “Thankful for the two backs we got, that pounded it in there. Thankful for that coaching staff. Thankful for Nick Folk, and I’m thankful that I finally got to beat Peyton Manning.” Next question: Is this the signal that Manning is entering his twilight years? He’s got a disgruntled All-Pro wideout and a coach who can’t manage the clock; another title is looking less and less likely.

Ravens set the table for Heinz Field bloodletting

Admit it — it’s the matchup you all want, a steel cage death match between two bullies who’ll bludgeon each other into a bloody pulp. Ravens-Steelers is all set, thanks to a workmanlike 30–7 Ravens win over a suddenly inept and lifeless Chiefs team that was powerless to protect its precious Arrowhead Stadium turf. KC mustered only 25 second-half yards and turned the ball over five times, as Ray Lewis and Co. turned up the heat to a white-hot boil. “To come out and play the way we’ve played in the third quarter all year and the last two weeks, just giving up seven points to opponents, that's championship-caliber football,” Lewis crowed afterwards. Ed Reed, whose fugitive brother went missing over the weekend, got the game ball. “My family kept me focused,” Reed said. “My older brother called me and told me, `Do what you do. You handle your business, we’ll take care of everything over here.”

Pack Shocks Vick

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King points out this morning that before yesterday, James Starks’ most recent 100-yard game came on Nov. 28, 2008, against Kent State. That was before shoulder surgery erased Starks’ senior season and made him the least likely 100-yard postseason rusher in NFL history. The Buffalo product — the Buffalo Bulls of the MAC, not the Bills of the AFC East — was the unexpected hero of Green Bay’s 21–16 win in Philly, as Mike Vick’s season of redemption ended in disappointment. Starks ran for 123 yards and Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdown passes in earning his first postseason win as a starter. The goat of the weekend? Not Vick, although he did throw a game-ending interception in the end zone to end the Eagles’ final threat. No, the culprit was kicker David Akers, who missed field goals of 41 and 34 yards in Philly’s swirling winds. “We can all count, and those points would have helped,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said.

-By Rob Doster

Teaser:
Athlon Rob Doster's tells us what he learned from Wild Card Weekend. Maybe the Seahawks aren't as bad as we thought!
Post date: Monday, January 10, 2011 - 16:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/heisman-watch/early-2011-heisman-ballot
Body:

Tonight was the first BCS Championship game-winning field goal. Congrats to Auburn, by the way, for the great game So, it seems perfectly natural to take a look at 2011 Heisman ballot, right?

What have you done for me lately Gene Chizik?

The NFL still looms very large for some of athletes, so assuming that most of the biggest names leave for greener pastures, here is what my very early ballot would look like for the 2011 Heisman.

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
How much did the pending CBA negotiations play into Luck's decision? He was already the best football player not receiving a paycheck, but can he prove his worth without offensive savant Jim Harbaugh calling the plays? Stanford will most likely start No. 2 in the Pac-10 — that means mark your calendars for Palo Alto on Nov. 12, 2011.

2. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Adrian Peterson is to the NFL what Lattimore is to college football. He is simply the most physically gifted runner of the ball in the country. Very rarely does a talent come along like this, so sit back and enjoy it Gamecock fans — and hope Stephen Garcia doesn't mess it up.

3. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College
The words are "College Football's Most Outstanding Player." There aren't any better than this Eagle linebacker. The soon-to-be three-year starter has 329 total tackles in 25 games, leading the nation's No. 1 rushing defense this fall. BC was second in the ACC against the run last season and 14th nationally. (And as you will notice, I think more defensive players deserve mention on these lists.)

4.. Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State
He will likely finish as the NCAA's all-time winningest quarterback (Colt McCoy - 45) and should finished with possibly the most efficient TD:INT ratio in history (99:19 currently). He has lost one conference game in three years, so will Georgia, Tulsa, Nevada, and Fresno State be enough to impress voters? There are still plenty of open dates on that schedule. Somebody step-up.

5. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
It would have been fun to see James at full strength against Auburn. There are few humans on the planet who can get to full speed as fast as James. His numbers are huge, and he will, once again, be the focus of the nation's top offense. However, the development of quarterback Darron Thomas will actually hurt James' Heisman candidacy.

6. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
A very easy case can be made that Griffin is the single most valuable player in all of college football. No one person means more to his team than the engaged, fourth-year junior to-be. His athletic ability and skill set are nearly unparalleled. Other than his 2-8 career mark in Big 12 South play, he is a Waco hero — but luckily (I think?), there is no more Big 12 South.

7. Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon
Wildly underrated passer — second to Luck in Pac-10 and 18th nationally in passer efficiency — who got very little help from his offensive line and running game in the title game. With such a plethora of weapons to hand the ball to, Thomas should explode and surpass even his gaudy 2,881 yards and 30 TDs (against only 9 INTs) of this season. He also rushed for 492 yards and five scores as well. Did I mention it was his first year as the starter?

8. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
Its nearly impossible to argue with the numbers: Sooner starting quarterbacks have averaged 3,946 yards and 37.5 TDs per season over the last four, with two of those being Jones himself. New names, same Sooner attack.

9. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
No player has ever had a 1,500-1,500 season in college football history. Shoelace went into the 2,500-1,700 club. Seriously, Dave Brandon? Okay, maybe 0-6 against Michigan State and those guys down south doesn't fly. Can Robinson excel in a new system? And most importantly, what does field turf taste like?

10. Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State
How will losing his elite play-makers and stud play-caller hurt his numbers? A win over OU sure wouldn't hurt the ageless veteran.

Next On The List:

Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State
Even though he is the most gifted QB in the nation, a Heisman would be an upset considering he will miss the first five games of 2011 due to a suspension.

Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
Explosive back could post huge numbers as focal point of the offense — if he can stay healthy.

Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Depth will still be an issue with the Men of Troy, but he is Andrew Luck-NFL talented — if that makes any sense.

Montee Ball or James White, RB, Wisconsin
They might both actually get enough carries to be near this list at season's end. Seriously.

Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma
Being a "Three-Time All-American" is a good thing, right?

Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Nick Saban never really got the ground game going this fall like in '09. Expect a return to normalcy in '11.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
If the Dawgs make it to Atlanta next fall, it will be because of his play.

Montel Harris, RB, Boston College
If he can stay healthy — and hold off hard charging Andre Williams — he should post big numbers.

Super Sleepers:

Jake Heaps, QB, BYU
Really started to come on at the end of his first season: 252 yds/game, 13 TD, 2 INT and a 4-1 record.

Davin Meggett, RB, Maryland
Randy Edsall + NFL pedigree = Lots of yards.

Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama
A full season of a fully healthy Hightower would be nice. And scary.

Jared Crick, DL, Nebraska
Welcome to the Big Ten: Wisconsin and Ohio State to start, then Michigan State two weeks later.

Robert Woods, WR, USC
Do-everything player was national high schooler of the year as a senior and proved it as a freshman last fall.

Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas
True freshman will be first elite — as in nation's No. 1. — tailback recruit since Ricky? A mini version of A.D.

Justin Houston, LB, Georgia
Dynamic athlete who plays all over the field — second year in the 3-4 will help everyone around him too.

Travis Lewis, LB, Oklahoma
Returning to Norman for his final season after what has already been a championship career.

Michael Dyer, RB, Alabama
It was the physical, down-hill running of Dyer that won the National Title, not Cam Newton's arm.

Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
The next great — 6'6" 238 — athlete to take snaps for Frank Beamer. The "757" has been good to him.

Janoris Jenkins, CB, Florida
His decision to return to Gainesville makes him arguably the best cover man in the nation.

Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech
Mr. Hosley would have something to say about what I just wrote about Mr. Jenkins above.

-by Braden Gall

Teaser:
Athlon's Braden Gall looks at the best players in college football for 2011.
Post date: Monday, January 10, 2011 - 11:15
All taxonomy terms: Big 12, College Football
Path: /columns/national-notebook/11-predictions-big-12
Body:

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are currently America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are “The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011” in the Big 12.

Another conference, another set of cataclysmic changes. Nebraska “moved the needle” for the Big Ten in a big way. The Huskers moved the needle for the Big 12 as well — in the wrong direction. Despite both Colorado and Nebraska fitting better, personality wise, in their new conferences, the impact of the losses will have a profound effect on the Big 12.

No title game and no divisions certainly hurts the Big 12 coffers, but it does not necessarily hurt the remaining powers. The path to an undefeated season, BCS bowl and potential national title berth are now easier. And by definition, the round robin system of conference play is the single truest way to crown a champion. So there is a bright side to all this conference realignment. Well, for Texas and Oklahoma at least.

Until the Big 12 expands, Oklahoma and Texas should be the teams to beat nearly every season. While Texas will have to improve dramatically to challenge in 2011 (which isn’t out of the question), the Sooners will not. In fact, with the right names returning, Oklahoma will once again be the preseason favorite in ‘11. Big names like Jones, Broyles, Good and Lewis can leave early and will obviously be Bob Stoops biggest recruits these next few months. That being said, a loaded 2010 freshman class contributed in a big way this fall and should be expected to take big steps in their development. Sophomores-to-be like Roy Finch, Kenny Stills, Gabe Lynn and Tony Jefferson will be household names soon enough.

Texas A&M would have had a huge void to fill when quarterback Jerrod Johnson departs. However, with Ryan Tannehill taking over in admirable fashion midway through this season, the Aggie attack looks to return intact. The young offensive line and tailback tandem of Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray will be arguably the league’s best running game. If Mike Sherman can convince Jeff Fuller to stick around another year and find a suitable replacement for Von Miller (easier said that done), the Aggies could continue their late season surge into 2011.

The next pack of teams is a conglomerate of question marks with big time upside. Quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Weeden and Robert Griffin will give Missouri, Oklahoma State and Baylor a chance to compete at a high level — if they all return.

The Bears and Cowboys have to replace elite running backs in Kendall Hunter and Jay Finley, but return solid offensive lines and excellent pass catchers. Missouri is in a similar situation minus losing the elite tailback. Their offensive line will return for the most part and the pass catchers should be great. Missouri will have the best defense of the three as well and gets the slight edge because of it.

The success or failure, however, of all three programs hinges almost entirely on the return of the quarterback.

Teaser:
Athlon takes a way too early look at the new Big 12 in 2011.
Post date: Monday, January 10, 2011 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, SEC
Path: /columns/national-notebook/11-predictions-sec
Body:

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are currently America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are “The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011” in the SEC.

One could argue that the Alabama Crimson Tide posted the most impressive bowl performance of any team in the nation. Even with potential losses that few teams could survive, Nick Saban should have his squad back at the top of the SEC in 2011.

Some oddsmakers already have the Tide as the favorite to win the 2011 National Championship. With names like Ingram, Hightower, Barron, Dareus and two different Joneses yet to decide on their NFL future, it’s tough to call them the top team in the nation just yet — especially since most of those names will likely move on to Sunday.

That being said, Alabama does not rebuild, they reload. And they will have plenty of talented options stepping into those voids. Stellar recruiting classes afford Saban the ability to plug in prep All-Americans like A.J. McCarron, Tyler Love, Trent Richardson, Tana Patrick and Jarrick Williams at key positions of loss. If McCarron lives up to his recruiting hype, Bama will once again be in Atlanta battling for an SEC title.

Who they will play is an entirely different issue. In 2010, the SEC East was arguably the worst it has been since its creation in 1992. Subsequently, South Carolina broke its drought this fall, but the Gamecocks will face improved teams at almost every stop along the path of its East title defense. Reworking the front seven will be the biggest issue for the Cocks, but Steve Spurrier has lots of shiny toys to play with on offense. South Carolina returns the best offensive skill players in the league.

Tennessee and Florida have a lot of young talent and both should be improved at the most important position (quarterback). Tyler Bray, with his powerful right arm, proved that he is the future for the Vols — and a bright one at that (especially in the home orange!). The Vols offensive line was incredibly young and it showed this season, but those growing pains could turn them into road graders next season. The Gators will need to replace plenty in the secondary and along the offensive line but have their own prep All-Americans waiting in the wings. The Gators could have the most talented two-deep in the league.

The coaching changes, however, are a different issue. Will Muschamp needs to prove he can be a great CEO and not just a quality defensive coordinator. Charlie Weis has less to prove as an offensive mind, and doesn’t have to worry about those same CEO duties any longer. He should be better than his Notre Dame stint indicated.

That leaves the Georgia Bulldogs, and emerging star quarterback Aaron Murray, coming off their first losing season in Athens in 14 years. The Drew Brees-esque player clearly has the “it” factor and could be the league’s best quarterback in 2011 (assuming Ryan Mallett and Cam Newton go pro). He has a wide array of weapons to choose from, even if A.J. Green goes pro. Mark Richt will need to replace some talent along the line, but there are plenty of options for coordinator Mike Bobo — who will need to succeed in 2011 to keep his job.

On defense, the Bulldogs should be improved in the second year of Todd Grantham’s new 3-4 scheme. Keeping Justin Houston in a college uniform could be the difference for a defense that returns much of the starting line-up. Depth along the defensive line will be an issue, but the newer, younger players should fit the system better.

Heading back out West, it's rebuilding mode for most. LSU, Auburn and Arkansas will each lose arguably their best, and most important, players on the roster. Newton, Nick Fairley and Lee Ziemba are far and away the most imperative cogs to the Auburn Tiger attack. Those names are only the beginning, though, as Auburn could be looking at nearly 15 new starters.

Teaser:
Athlon takes a way too early look at the SEC in 2011.
Post date: Monday, January 10, 2011 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/green-envy
Body:

Packers 21 Eagles 16

This one was not a shocker, especially the way Philadelphia limped to the finish. Michael Vick was the story of the NFL through November, but more turnovers and sacks started to pile up late in the year. After Vick was hampered by a quad injury in a 24-14 loss to Minnesota, the Eagles’ offense just not recovered. The embattled signal caller made a nice comeback attempt late against Green Bay, but the final interception on a deep ball to rookie Riley Cooper will haunt him. Now comes an interesting offseason for the Eagles, as Andy Reid and company must decide how much to invest in Vick.

You have to feel for Pro Bowl kicker David Akers of the Eagles. He has been a stellar performer for a decade, and it was very surprising to see him miss field goals of 41 and 34 yards. Simply put: just a bad day for a bad day.

The Packers look like a squad that can go into Atlanta and win. We all know how well Aaron Rodgers can throw, but getting balance (123 rush yards for rookie James Starks) on offense like Green Bay did on Sunday will make them a very tough out in the playoffs. The Falcons play very well at home, but my feeling a day after the Pack win in Philly is to expect an NFC North rematch in the conference championship game.

Seahawks 41 Saints 36

Really New Orleans? The defense that wreaked havoc by causing turnovers during last season’s Super Bowl run looked clueless in Seattle on Saturday. The Seahawks’ 28th-ranked offense totaled over 400 yards and 41 points on their way to a surprising win over the defending champions. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had only three games this season with more than one touchdown pass, but he tossed three in the first half of this one. He ended up with four on the day, with easy scoring throws to John Carlson and Brandon Stokley through a confused Saints defense.

I hate to take anything away from the incredible effort by Marshawn Lynch on his 67-yard touchdown run, but the Saints were just pathetic on that play. It was a fitting end to a bad day on defense. New Orleans had played solid ball in the second half of the season, and Sean Payton’s crew has to be bitterly disappointed with their performance at Qwest Field.

As for the Seahawks, you have to give offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates credit for a solid gameplan. He obviously benefited from Hasselbeck returning to the lineup, and the Seattle schemes had the Saints guessing all day. Unfortunately, the Bears will bring a much more formidable defense to Sunday’s matchup in Chicago.

Teaser:
Athlon's Patrick Snow recaps the wild Wildcard Weekend in the NFL.
Post date: Monday, January 10, 2011 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: Big Ten, College Football
Path: /columns/national-notebook/11-predictions-big-ten
Body:

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are "The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011" in the Big Ten.

There certainly is no shortage of storylines for the Big Ten conference heading into 2011. Three one-loss teams claimed championship honors in 2010. Rich Rodriguez has a tenuous grip on his ever-warming coaching seat at Michigan. Terrelle Pryor and some of his teammates will miss roughly half of the ’11 season due to suspension. Rose Bowl participant Wisconsin has to replace a majority of its starting lineup. And Jerry Kill takes over as the head coach at Minnesota.

Have I mentioned that the third-winningest program in NCAA history is joining the league, forcing a divisional split and Big Ten title game for the first time in the league’s 115-year history?

TP2’s eligibility might be the most impactful, on-the-field issue of the off-season, but there is no doubt that Nebraska’s first season in the league — and all that that entails — will steal most of the preseason headlines.

For starters, Nebraska will get its first shot at the Legends’ (for now) division title at the same time as everyone else. Michigan State and Michigan appear to be the biggest competition to the Big Red. Sparty is coming off a one-loss Big Ten campaign that earned it a conference championship but has to replace its heart and soul on defense as Greg Jones and Chris Rucker depart. A deep stable of talented running backs, a seasoned veteran at quarterback and some talented receivers could make Michigan State the team to beat.

Michigan’s quarterback Denard Robinson will enter his second season as the starter for the Maize and Blue. He is arguably the most exciting player in the game but has to stay healthy. There is talent around him on offense, but until something (anything!) is done to the dramatically improve the Wolverine defense, RichRod won’t be hoisting any Big Ten championship trophies anytime soon.

Minnesota is in total rebuilding mode and Northwestern is always a bit better than the roster indicates. Iowa is the wildcard. They are always a well-coached squad with solid talent. However, Kirk Ferentz has to replace his veteran starting quarterback, the Hawkeye’s all-time leading receiver, three-fourths of a stellar defensive line and plenty of talent in the back seven of his defense. The Hawks will be in major rebuilding mode next fall, but always seem to play good football every Saturday.

Nebraska will have to address major losses on the defensive side of the ball. That leaves Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and company to improve the offense enough to cover for the defense early in 2011. With added toughness and maturity, Martinez could push Robinson and Pryor for “most exciting quarterback in the Big Ten” next fall. He could also lead his team to the first annual Big Ten title game in the Huskers’ first Big Ten season.

Jim Delany didn’t do Bo Pelini any favors as his first Big Ten schedule is murderous: at Wisconsin, at Penn State and Ohio State at home are the cross over games. Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern at home divisional games while trips to Michigan and Minnesota are the two road trips within the division.

Teaser:
Athlon takes a way too early look at the Big Ten in 2011.
Post date: Monday, January 10, 2011 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Pac 10
Path: /columns/national-notebook/11-predictions-pac-12
Body:

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are currently America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are “The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011” in the Pac-12.

Much like the Big Ten, the Pac-10 will go through monumental offseason changes — starting with its name. The Pac-12 will be the new name of college football’s premier West Coast conference. It may take some time to get used to calling it the Pac-12, but unlike the Big Ten, it shouldn’t take anytime to learn the divisions.

The conference will be broken along geographic lines into North and South divisions with rivalries completely sustained. That is the good news for the league. The bad? National title contender Oregon should once again be the favorite to top the league. Quarterback Darron Thomas and Heisman finalist LaMichael James return to what should once again be an explosive offense. Fixing some holes in the receiving corps and along the offensive line will be key, but Oregon is in reloading, not rebuilding mode.

The front seven of the Ducks’ defense will take the biggest hit. Replacing Casey Matthews, Kenny Rowe and Brandon Bair will be tough. Depth in the secondary should help as a lot of talented names return with plenty of experience.

Much of Stanford’s 2011 season will be decided at some point in the next few months. Quarterback Andrew Luck and head coach Jim Harbaugh could both be back in Palo Alto next fall, resulting in a serious threat to Oregon’s conference supremacy. However, it’s also possible that both will be gone next year, and with a revamped offensive line, the Cardinal could struggle to keep up with the Ducks.

Oregon State will get a second year with strong-armed quarterback Ryan Katz. A solid offensive line and great running game should help produce one of the league’s top offenses. Replacing stud noseguard Stephen Paea will be incredibly difficult. Washington has been recruiting extremely well and should have plenty of young talent, but whether they can develop quickly enough to contend in 2011 is a large mystery.

In short, the North Division could look a lot like 2010 again. Chip Kelly and his Oregon Ducks have the inside track on a third straight conference championship.

Teaser:
Athlon takes a way too early look at the Pac-12 conference in 2011.
Post date: Sunday, January 9, 2011 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: Big East, College Football
Path: /columns/national-notebook/11-predictions-big-east
Body:

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are currently America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are “The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011” in the Big East.

If quarterback turnover is the theme in the ACC this spring, then coaching changes might be the theme of the Big East. In a league that appears to be in a constant state of transition, coaching manuevers once again have dominated headlines so far this off-season.

Doug Marrone, Skip Holtz and Charlie Strong have proven, in short order, that they were solid hires for Syracuse, South Florida and Louisville respectively. West Virginia, Pitt and UConn have totally unique and utterly different issues all together. The conference champion Huskies have lost head coach Randy Edsall to the Maryland Terrapins. Much like Jim Leavitt at South Florida, Edsall defined UConn football. He ushered the Huskies into the FBS era in Storrs and reached an unprecedented level of success, taking Connecticut to its first BCS bowl game in school history this season.

Needless to say, this could be the most important hire in UConn football history. Replacing Jordan Todman and the entire linebacking corps will make it a tough job keeping the Huskies at a BCS bowl level next fall.

While UConn has zero head coaches, Pitt and West Virginia have five — or should I say had. The Panthers will have had three head coaches over a period of weeks after newly hired Mike Haywood got released due to some domestic issues that arose shortly after the ink was dry. They, too, are on the coaching prowl once again. Filling major gaps along the defensive line will be key for whomever is leading the Pitt program this off-season.

Maybe UConn and Pitt should call WVU AD Oliver Luck and see if he could loan them one of his? Bill Stewart (28-12) is entering his final season as the headman at West Virginia after the Mountaineers hired Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgersen as the “Head Coach In Waiting.” Both will coach the 2011 Mounties with the spread-it-all-over-the-field-and-score-bunches-of-points Holgersen taking over the program in 2012. The offense could be the leagues best with Holgersen and quarterback Geno Smith calling the plays — even with losing Noel Devine. Gaps all over the defense will be the biggest issue for WVU and keeping some early NFL entries at home (Keith Tandy, Robert Sands) would help immensely.

Cincinnati’s first season sans Brian Kelly proved that the Mad Scientist really was that important. The 4-8 (2-5) record was the worst since a 4-7 mark in 2005 under Mark Dantonio. After back-to-back Big East titles, the Bearcats have fallen right back to periphery of college football. Much of 2011 success will hinge on Zach Collaros’ arm and legs. His return gives Cincy arguably the best signal caller in the conference next fall.

That leaves Rutgers as the only school in the conference not to have changed head coaches in the last two years (and/or next year). And Greg Schiano’s last place 1-6 finish has Rutgers’ fans antsy as they head into 2011. The Knights will return much of their offense — which could be a good or bad thing — and need to replace half of the defense.

The Bulls and Mountaineers look to be the class of this conference next season with a number of competitors nipping at their heels. UConn takes a clear step back without master architect and leader Edsall. Pitt always has talent and could always surprise but the Panthers have to put the right leader in place quickly in order to compete for a conference crown next fall. Cincy, Louisville and Rutgers simply do not have enough talent, it would appear on paper, to push for a title in '11.

Teaser:
Athlon takes a way too early look at the Big East in 2011.
Post date: Sunday, January 9, 2011 - 07:18
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football
Path: /columns/national-notebook/early-2011-predictions
Body:

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. Athlon is also America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and has been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are "The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011" in the ACC.

The ACC’s middle class — namely Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech — have had some great seasons in league play since realignment. But in all reality, it has been Virginia Tech’s conference since entering the league in 2004. Frank Beamer’s bunch has won four of the seven ACC titles since joining – including three of the last four.

However, if the Hokies expect to return to the ACC title game in 2011, they will have to answer one huge question: Who will replace Tyrod Taylor at quarterback? His name is Logan Thomas. The 6’6” 240-pound sophomore-to-be was an elite recruit coming out Lynchburg, Va. In 2009. (He was the No. 56 ranked player nationally in the 2009 Athlon Consensus 100 to be exact.) Thomas was thought of more as a tight end or receiver when being recruited, however. This gives Beamer tremendous athletic/play-making ability at the quarterback position, but also means there will be plenty of room to develop as a passer. On defense, everyone knows that Bud Foster will have his side of the ball ready to play every Saturday in Blacksburg.

Thomas won’t be the only highly touted signal caller to step into the spotlight. In fact, the theme of the 2011 off-season could be the changing of the guard at quarterback. Florida State, Clemson, NC State, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia will all be replacing veteran leaders at the game’s most important position. The good news, however, is that most of these teams will be inserting a player with loads of unrealized talent.

Florida State will say goodbye to Christian Ponder and say hello to E.J. Manuel. Fans have had many small glimpses of the Virginia native’s ability as he has filled in admirably for the oft-injured Ponder (see Virginia Tech game this season). But this is Manuel’s team now and he needs to live up to his recruiting hype (No. 3 QB in the nation in 2008). The defense showed plenty of improvement last season and returns a lot of playmakers. FSU’s return trip to the ACC title game will hinge largely on Manuel’s play. Replacing some big names along the offensive line will be key as well.

The exact same story is being told at Clemson, NC State (assuming Russell Wilson returns to the diamond permanently) and North Carolina as well. Tajh Boyd, Mike Glennon and Bryn Renner were all highly rated as incoming freshmen, and now, each faces the task of leading an ACC contender for the first time. Each has large shoes to fill and each has shown flashes of tremendous ability in spot duty. Boyd will have the most to work with as youthful names like DeAndre Hopkins, Bryce McNeal, Jaron Brown and Dwayne Allen have gained needed experience in 2010. Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper will once again lead a stellar ground attack for the Tigers.

The much less touted (a two-star athlete from Alabama) Tevin Washington faces a slightly different task at Georgia Tech. Yes, he is replacing an incredibly successful veteran incumbent. But Washington plays a much easier system to learn and will have five straight starts under his belt when next summer arrives. The junior-to-be rushed for 334 yards on 19 carries per game over the final four regular season games of 2010.

Teaser:
Athlon's editors take a way too early look at the ACC.
Post date: Sunday, January 9, 2011 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/national-notebook/jerrys-new-toy
Body:

By Charean Williams

Jason Garrett is moving down the hallway, into a new office at Valley Ranch once occupied by Tom Landry and later Jimmy Johnson. It’s something Garrett has prepared for his whole life.

After seven seasons as Troy Aikman’s backup, four seasons as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator and a half a season as the team’s interim head coach, Garrett has a new title in Dallas. He was named the team’s eighth head coach Thursday.

It is a job Garrett set himself up for in 2008 when he turned down head coaching opportunities with the Falcons and the Ravens.

“I said the first day he took over it was like he had been planning for this his whole life, and he really has,” linebacker Keith Brooking said. “He’s been in football for a long time, so I think our record, what we did the last eight games of our season considering what the first half was like, says a lot about Jason Garrett and his ability to lead a football team.”

The Cowboys began the season with Super Bowl hopes, and 9-1 odds to become the first team in Super Bowl history to play the game in their own stadium. But the Cowboys were outscored 161-232 in losing seven of their first eight games.

The Cowboys fired Wade Phillips on Nov. 8 after a 45-7 loss to the Packers.

Under Garrett, the Cowboys outscored their final eight opponents 233-204. The three games they lost in the second half were by a total of seven points. They did it with their backup quarterbacks, Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee, after losing Tony Romo to a fractured left clavicle in an Oct. 25 game against the Giants.
“I’ve never seen somebody jump on an opportunity like he did,” McGee said. “From the first moment, he came in there in that team meeting and he made everybody a believer. There was never a doubt. He never flinched. You talk about a guy making the most of an opportunity, he certainly did that. He stepped up to the challenge. He had a plan. I think everybody in this organization really respects that out of him.

”The players responded to Garrett’s quest to restore accountability and discipline to the team.

He had the players practice in pads most Wednesdays; he changed up the tempo at practice; he instituted an enhanced dress code for road games; he installed digital clocks in the locker room to stress punctuality; and he led them in pep talks.

“I think he’s been great here,” Romo said. “It’s easy to look at wins and losses, but it’s bigger than that. It’s about coming in and putting your stamp on the team and getting things done a certain way. There were things he wanted to see done, and he’s done a really good job with that.”

Kolb’s future

The Eagles will have yet another quarterback decision to make after this season. After the 2009 season, they traded Donovan McNabb to the Redskins to make room for Kevin Kolb.

But Kolb didn’t even make it through the season opener against the Packers.

Kolb’s concussion got Michael Vick on the field, and he won the job. McNabb passed for 3,018 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions, while running for another 676 yards and nine touchdowns.

Vick is a free agent after the season, and there is little doubt the Eagles do whatever it takes to keep him. But what do they do with Kolb?

“The way I deal with it is I just feel like God has a plan for me,” Kolb said. “There’s a reason I got hurt that day, and there’s a reason that Mike is playing his butt off. That’s the other thing: Mike is playing great. It’s not like the guy came in to replace me was somebody who’s not playing very well every week. He’s done a great job leading our team in the right direction. I have a lot of confidence in my future.”

Kolb, 26, was a second-round draft pick in 2007 and spent his first three seasons on the bench backing up McNabb as the heir apparent. He now is behind Vick with an uncertain future, having made only seven starts in his career.

Kolb has a year left on the contract extension he signed in the off-season. He will have trade value, but he might have more value to the Eagles as Vick’s backup.
For now, the Eagles are glad they have him.

“He’s a class act,” Eagles coach Andy Reid. “He’s very competitive now. He wants to obviously be the guy. But at the same time, he and Michael have a great relationship, and he’s very supportive of Michael.
“…There is a huge future for Kevin. There’s a big upside there.”

Fourth and short

The Falcons are 33-15 under Mike Smith with two postseason berths, including this season’s.

Atlanta went 7-1 at home this season. In team history, only the 1998 team, which went 8-0 at home, was better.

The Ravens have played only road playoff games in the John Harbaugh era. In the previous two seasons, they won three road playoff games. Baltimore reached the AFC Championship Game in 2008 and beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium last year.

Ravens safety Ed Reed spent the first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list, but he still led the league in interceptions with eight.

Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin had only five catches for 26 yards the past three games. He’s been held to 50 yards or less in eight of the past nine games.

Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who has two years left on his contract, could be shopped in the off-season. 

In their last eight games, the Bears called more running plays than pass plays.

Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has not had a sack in three consecutive games.

Bears returner Devin Hester averaged 17.1 yards per punt return this season, the highest in NFL history for a returner with at least 30 attempts.

Kicker Phil Dawson, the last remaining member of the Browns’ 1999 expansion team, likely has played his last season in Cleveland. The Browns have shown no interest in re-signing Dawson, who likely will seek a chance to play on a contender.

The Cowboys were the only NFL team with two 1,000-yard receivers as tight end Jason Witten and receiver Miles Austin both topped the 1,000-yard mark. It marked the first time Dallas had multiple receivers with 1,000 yards receiving in consecutive seasons.

The Broncos missed outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who led the league in sacks with a franchise-record 17 in 2009. Without Dumervil, who went on injured reserve after injuring his chest in August, the Broncos had a league-worst 23 sacks.

Peyton Manning has not been in the MVP conversation in weeks. Yet, his stats this season are similar to last season when he won his record fourth MVP award. He has passed for more yards this season (4,700 to 4,500 last season) with the same number of touchdowns (33) and only one more interception (17). What cost him – and his team – was the three-game stretch when he threw 11 picks.

Manning has owned Rex Ryan-coached defenses, with a 5-1 record. His only loss came late last season when Manning and several other starters were pulled in the second half of a game that had no playoff implications for the Colts.

Jamaal Charles had one of the oldest records in the NFL record book before a 1-yard loss on his final carry of the regular season erased it. He finished with 1,467 yards on 230 carries, an average of 6.3782608 yards per carry. Hall of Famer Jim Brown had 1,863 yards on 291 carries in 1963, a 6.40206 per carry average.

Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams might have played their final season in Miami. Williams, 33, is a free agent and was critical of coach Tony Sparano in a radio interview this week. Brown, who came up 16 shorts shot of the 750 rushing yards he needed for a $500,000 contract bonus, also is a free agent. Brown recently turned 29.

Bill Belichick is the first head coach in NFL history to win at least 14 regular-season games four times. Only four other coaches -- San Francisco’s George Seifert (3), Washington’s Joe Gibbs (2), Chicago’s Mike Ditka (2) and Miami’s Don Shula (2) -- have more than one 14-win season.

Raiders receiver Jacoby Ford had three touchdowns receiving, three touchdowns on kickoff returns and two touchdowns rushing, tying him with fourth among NFL rookies with seven touchdowns.

Despite having Michael Vick as their quarterback for most of the season, the Eagles still allowed 50 sacks. Only Chicago was worse, with the Bears allowing 56. It is the most the Eagles have allowed in the Andy Reid era.

Vick has had a tough time reading the blitz, with a 55 completion percentage when defenses have sent extra rushers. He has been sacked 19 times on blitzes.

The Steelers intercepted 21 passes, their highest total since they had 23 in 1996. They had only 12 last season. Safety Troy Polamalu, a candidate for NFL defensive player of the year honors, led them with seven interceptions.

Steelers receiver Hines Ward had five touchdown catches, his fewest since he had four in 2004.

Seattle has given up 31 passing touchdowns, tied for third-worst in the league.

Seahawks receiver Mike Williams signed a contract extension after leading Seattle in receiving with 65 catches for 751 yards and two touchdowns. Williams, a former first-round pick of the Lions, had only 44 catches in his career before this season.

Teaser:
Athlon contributor Charean Williams touches on Jason Garrett and Kevin Kolb in her weekly look around the NFL.
Post date: Friday, January 7, 2011 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/wild-card-weekend
Body:

Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall discuss the matchups for Wildcard Weekend in the NFL:

Follow us on twitter: @AthlonBraden / @AthlonSteven / @AthlonRush

1. New Orleans at Seattle

Steven Lassan: Winning in Seattle is never easy, but I can't see the Saints losing this one. Despite the loss of Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, Drew Brees will find a way to win this game. The Seahawks simply won't have enough offense, regardless of who starts under center - Matt Hasselbeck or Charlie Whitehurst. Give the Seahawks credit for winning last week against St. Louis, but the defending champs aren't going out in Round 1.

Braden: The defending champions of the universe against the worst playoff team in NFL history? Hmm. Drew Brees, please!

Nathan: The Saints have an 8–2 record against teams that ended the season with a losing record, including a 34–19 win over the Seahawks in Week 11. But coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees need to act as if Seattle is a Super Bowl contender. An intensity lapse is the most likely stumbling block for New Orleans in this Wild Card matchup. But I expect the Saints to march to the first win of their title defense by handing the Hawks their 10th loss of the season.

2. Green Bay at Philadelphia

Steven: Tempted to pick the upset here, but going to take the Eagles. If Michael Vick and the Eagles offense struggle with blitz pickups like they did against Minnesota, then Green Bay will get the victory. However, giving Vick a week to get healthy should be just enough for the Eagles to move on to Round 2. Out of the first round games, I think this is the one that will be the most entertaining.

Braden: It is very difficult to beat a team twice in a season — especially on the road both times. Vick's quad injury is a concern, but in the second half of that game in Week 1, he was nearly unstoppable. Expect Dom Capers to design some seriously complex defensive schemes, using Charles Woodson near the line of scrimmage and as a spy on Vick. The difference is the Packers' inability to convert on third/fourth and short (or along the goalline). Even without Stewart Bradley, the Eagles should be able to get off the field on third down.

Nathan: Throwing for 423 yards and four TDs was not enough for Aaron Rodgers to win his first playoff game, as he fumbled away a 51–45 overtime loss at Arizona last year. And this week, A-Rod will have to avoid throwing the game away to Philly corner Asante Samuel —whose playoff production (6 INTs for 227 yards and 4 TDs) speaks for itself — while the Packers defense focuses on stopping Mike Vick, DeSean Jackson and Co. After sitting out Week 17, Vick should be close to 100 percent for this heavyweight fight. And a healthy Vick has been nearly unstoppable this season. I’m taking the Eagles.

Teaser:
Athlon's editor makes predictions for Wildcard Weekend in the NFL.
Post date: Thursday, January 6, 2011 - 11:15
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/preview-vault
Body:

Athlon Sports' Braden Gall had an opportunity to sit down with former Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington and former Auburn signal caller Jason Campbell to preview the 2010 BCS Championship game.

You can listen to the entire interview here: Section 120: Joey Harrington and Jason Campbell.

These two quarterbacks were both BCS bowl winners, conference champions and first round NFL selections. Each quarterbacked one of the best teams in their respecitve school's history.

Harrington was a Heisman Finalist and conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2001 when he led the 11-1 Pac-10 champion Ducks to a 38-16 Fiesta Bowl win over then-No. 3 Colorado.

Campbell's 2004 undefeated season is well documented. The SEC Offensive Player of the Year, and title game MVP, led the Auburn Tigers to a 13-0 record and a 16-13 Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Campbell wasted no time in starting the good-natured trash talk:

"You can play a pre-mini national championship game of Auburn going down the field and scoring over and over again. And not get a chance to see the Duck do too many push-ups."

Harrington responded:

"...there is no trash talking because we had a great discussion and I convinced Jason that Oregon is going to win. So Jason actually thinks Oregon is going to win so there is nothing trash talk about."

When Harrington was asked about the long layoff between the title game and the end of the regular season:

"I loved it. I thought it was great. You go through a 12-game season...and you're pretty beat up. And you have entire month to think about this one game. I love the bowl preperation giving everyone a chance to be mentally and physically fresh."

To Campbell, can you gameplan for Cam Newton?

"I don't think you can," responded the Auburn quarterback.

And of course, a true Tiger never misses a chance to take a shot at Alabama:

"I just thought it was great the way they came back against Alabama. To come back against a Nick Saban team in Tuscaloosa just shows a lot of resiliency of that team and what type of leader Cam is."

Despite his allegiance to Auburn, Campbell recognizes just how tough Monday night will be:

"I am looking forward to the game. It's going to be exciting. You look at Oregon, they are a well-coached team and they are a fast offense"

And his key to the game:

"Which defense can stay in tip-top shape, because it's hard to simulate the other team's speed as an offense in practice. And special teams. When you watch the bowl games, a lot of games have been won and lost on special teams."

Harrington speaks to the speed of the Oregon offense:

"Obviously, they have got alot of talent at the skill positions and when you add to that how fast they play — they were getting plays off every 13 to 15 seconds. And that is not something that takes it toll in the first and second quarters, but so oftern during the season by the end of the third quarter you'd see the opposing linemen with their hands on their hips, bent over trying to get some air. Plays that start at 2, 3 and 4-yard gains become 5, 6, and 7-yard gains in the third quarter and by the fourth quarter those are the big explosive plays that win a football game."

I couldn't miss the chance to ask Campbell about his 2004 team. Did he think that his unbeaten team could beat this unbeaten Auburn squad? (In fact, he called for a playoff!)

"That's a funny question, beacuse you know I am going to be a little biased. In '04, our defense was highly ranked just as well as our offense. We were pretty evenly matched on both sides of the ball. Both of us wished we had that opportunity to play for the national title but because of the way the system is, both of us were denied."

For predictions, however, you have to listen to the interview...

Teaser:
Joey Harrington and Jason Campbell preview the BCS National Championship game.
Post date: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - 11:12
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/sunday-takeaway/lucky-no-7
Body:

Seven Is Enough

When was the last time that NFL Nation was riveted by a game between two teams with losing records? That’s what it’s come to in the NFC Worst. Last night’s unique win-and-you’re-in showdown between Seattle and St. Louis was the NFL’s version of a Tuesday play-in for the NCAA Tournament — the right to be a sacrificial lamb once the real show starts. But this is a little different. After its 16–6 win, Seattle now gets to host a first-round playoff game against the defending Super Bowl champion Saints despite its 7–9 record that includes a robust 3–7 stretch run. That’s right — for the first time in the modern era in a non-strike-shortened season, there will be a losing team participating in the postseason tournament, and that team gets to host the champs to boot. Not that they’re apologizing, mind you. “There is no apologies for making it into the playoffs. The easiest way to make it to the playoffs is to win your division, period, point-blank,” said safety Lawyer Milloy. “We did that.” The Rams could have spared the NFL the embarrassment by taking care of its business, winning the division at 8–8 and entering the playoffs on the back of likely offensive rookie of the year Sam Bradford. But Bradford got no help from his receivers as the Rams were held to their lowest point total of the season. “The fact our defense played, in my opinion, pretty great, the fact that we let the team down, that we couldn’t get anything going, that’s what really hurts,” Bradford says. What really hurts the NFL is a 7–9 team hosting a playoff game. Look for the league to examine the issue of playoff re-seeding to prevent a repeat.

Coaching Carousel

And so it begins. Eric Mangini is out after a 5–11 season in Cleveland. Tom Cable’s probably out in Oakland, as is Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. John Fox is gone in Carolina. Jeff Fisher may or may not be back in Nashville. On the flip side, Leslie Frazier’s six-game audition in Minnesota was good enough to get him the job on a permanent basis. Ditto, apparently, for Jason Garrett in Dallas. Tom Coughlin hangs on in New York. Superstar free agents Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden are doubtless fielding offers through their agents. For fans of such intrigue, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. By this time next week, look for some more pieces to be in place, and for another axe or two to have fallen.

Bye-bye, Brett

This time, I think he means it. Brett Favre says he’s retiring, and his 41-year-old body is going to hold him to it this time. “I know it’s time, and that's OK. It is,” Favre said after the Vikings’ season-ending 20–13 loss to Detroit. "Again, I hold no regrets, and I can't think of too many players offhand that can walk away and say that. Individually and from a team standpoint, it was way more than I ever dreamed of.” Then, as if he were anticipating doubts from the assembled scribes, he added, “It’s time. I’m OK with it. In my opinion, it’s never easy for any player. People, they’ll say ‘wait and see,’ but that’s OK.” Say what you will about the attention-craving, photo-texting, jeans-hawking gunslinger, but the NFL landscape will be a poorer place without him.

Brady, Aim, Fire

The Patriots are the clear favorites to win the Super Bowl thanks to their slam-dunk MVP quarterback, who’s built a staggering statistical resume this season. Tom Brady extended his streaks to 11 games and 335 passes without an interception. He finished the season with 36 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He now has 28 consecutive regular-season wins at home. Yesterday’s 38–7 rout of the Dolphins marked his ninth straight game with at least two TD passes and no interceptions, another NFL record. During their eight-game winning streak to close the regular season, Brady’s Pats have averaged 37.4 points per game. Any questions?

Foster Wraps Rushing Title

Arian Foster has traveled the unlikely road from unloved, unwanted and undrafted free agent running back to NFL rushing champ. After a 180-yard performance against Jacksonville, Foster finished the season with 1,616 yards rushing, the best showing ever for an undrafted player. He also had 604 yards receiving to become the sixth player in league history with 1,500 yards rushing and 600 yards receiving in the same year. “In this lifetime, sometimes things don’t go your way and you can take two roads,” Foster said of his unorthodox journey to superstardom. “You can fold and quit or you can follow your heart and do what you know how to do. And that’s what I did.”

Teaser:
Athlon's Rob Doster tells us what he learned about Week 17 in the NFL.
Post date: Monday, January 3, 2011 - 11:09
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/wild-wild-nfc-west
Body:

Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions for Week 17 in the NFL:

Follow us on twitter: @AthlonBraden / @AthlonSteven / @AthlonRush

1. Who will win the NFC West and does it matter?

Nathan Rush: The NFL needs the Rams to win the NFC West. That way, there would be an 8–8 team with the No. 1 overall pick (and likely Offensive Rookie of the Year) Sam Bradford at quarterback to work with in the Wild Card matchup. The Seahawks would be the first team in history to make the postseason with a losing record, and they have no marketable star to speak of. The stats tell two stories. The good news: St. Louis defeated Seattle, 20–3, in Week 4. Also, backup Charlie Whitehurst (0–1 record, TD, 3 INTs, 54.7 rating over five-year career) is starting in place of an injured Matt Hasselbeck for the Hawks. The bad news: the Rams are 2–5 on the road this year, while four of the Seahawks’ six wins have come in front of the 12th Man at Qwest Field. This game certainly matters and should be better than expected.

Steven Lassan: Although neither the Rams nor Seahawks will win in the first round, a spot in the playoffs and the NFC West title is on the line, so this game definitely matters. Winning in Seattle won’t be easy for the Rams, but I think they will find a way to get the victory. The Seahawks have an unsettled quarterback situation and have lost five of their last six games, with the only win coming against Carolina. The Rams are 3-2 over their last five games and the losses were to playoff teams – New Orleans and Kansas City. Quarterback Sam Bradford is having an outstanding season, and he’ll only add to it with a win on Sunday night.

Braden Gall: Just because the 2010 NFC West is the single worst division in NFL history has no bearing on how exicted I am to watch two sub-500 teams battle for a playoff spot. Qwest Field will be absolutely electric late Sunday night and the game holds more meaning than any in Week 17. As a fan it's tough to pick between the Sam Bradford rookie quarterback storyline and the Pete Carroll with a back-up QB in his first year back in the NFL storyline. The home field advantage should give the Hawks the edge despite Charlie Whitehurst getting the start. Will either team be able to win said postseason game? Uh, no.

2. Who is more likely to lose this weekend: Green Bay or Indianapolis?

Nathan: Green Bay is more likely to lose to Chicago. People can say that the Bears don’t have anything to play for, but that’s just not true. This is a chance for Jay Cutler and Co. to eliminate their rivals from the playoffs and do it at Lambeau Field. Chicago knows how dangerous Green Bay is and should not take this opportunity for granted. If the Bears roll over and hibernate, allowing the Packers to walk into the playoffs, it will come back to haunt Lovie Smith’s team.

Steven: I think both teams will win this weekend, but Green Bay is more likely to lose. I doubt the Colts will have much trouble with the Titans. Despite it being a divisional matchup, the Titans have packed it in for the offseason. The Packers and Bears are in must-win situations, with Green Bay needing a win to clinch a playoff spot. Chicago still has an opportunity to gain the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC, so I don’t expect the Bears to rest any starters. With a lot on the line for Chicago, the Packers will be in for a tough battle.

Braden: The Packers are more likely to lose. Both teams can still make the playoffs with losses. That being said, the Bears are a much better team than Tennessee. The Bears are locked into a first-round bye but have an outside chance at home-field should Atlanta lose to Carolina (highly unlikely). The two factors to make sure not to discount are Titans players fighting for their professional careers and Bears players keeping hated rival Green Bay on the couch this winter. That being said, I think both teams win and both make the playoffs — and no one wants to face Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning in the playoffs.

Teaser:
Athlon editors tackle the five biggest questions for Week 17 of the NFL.
Post date: Thursday, December 30, 2010 - 13:39
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/sunday-takeaway/mr-clutch
Body:

KC Masterpiece

And I don’t mean Kerry Collins. I include the Chiefs in this space not just to use that brilliant headline above, but also to celebrate a team that nobody should want to play right now. Kansas City displayed its full arsenal of weapons in a 34–14 win over the lifeless Titans. Quarterback Matt Cassel was brilliant, completing 24-of-34 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns. Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones were effective on the ground, combining for 128 yards rushing. Charles, who is averaging 6.39 yards per carry, is threatening to supplant Mercury Morris (1973) and Jim Brown (1963), both of whom averaged 6.4 ypc in those seasons, as the most effective per-rush back since 1960. Dwayne Bowe recaptured much of his down-the-field magic from earlier this season, catching six passes for 153 yards and a decisive 75-yard touchdown. Defensive back Eric Berry turned in a marvelous pick-six just before halftime, eluding Titans players like Devin Hester or DeSean Jackson in showing a remarkable nose for the goal line. Meanwhile, Cincinnati was beating San Diego to give the Chiefs the AFC West crown a year after KC went 4–12. “Everybody that's worked really hard and had to go through some difficult days, this is a day to enjoy and feel good about ourselves,” said coach Todd Haley.

Last Straw

More than two years ago, Mike Singletary announced his arrival in San Francisco by boldly asserting, “I want winners.” Now, the Niners want a new coach. San Francisco has finally had enough of Singletary’s antics, which would have been fine had they been accompanied by the requisite number of wins. The Niners entered the season as the favorites to win a there-for-the-taking NFC West, but yesterday’s 25–17 loss to the Rams dropped them to 5–10, giving Singletary an 18–22 record in two-plus seasons. As you would expect, Singletary was gracious in his exit statement, but another head coaching job seems like a longshot for the volatile former Bear, whose sideline blowup with quarterback Troy Smith was the last in a string of embarrassments. “One of the greatest experiences of my life was having the opportunity to coach the San Francisco 49ers,” Singletary said. "What made it so special were the players. They were some of the most outstanding men I have ever been around in my life. The coaches were truly professionals. I wish the 49ers nothing but the best. I am thankful to the York family for having given me the opportunity to be a head coach in the NFL. I am indebted to them for that. I am also thankful for the Faithful fans, I am just sorry I couldn’t give them more.”

Next?

Two more coaches, in the process of disappointing their owners and fans one more time, seem destined to join Iron Mike on the scrap heap. It’s a wonder they’ve lasted this long. Jack Del Rio’s Jacksonville Jaguars, who two weeks ago seemed poised to win a division title, are now clinging to life and are a Colts win over the dead-in-the-water Titans away from sitting at home yet again. Del Rio bravely faced the media and blamed the loss on quarterback David Garrard in what could be the last desperate act of his disappointing tenure. Meanwhile, in Houston, Gary Kubiak seems to have run out of chances. This season, rather than following their usual blueprint of starting slowly and rallying late to fall just short of the playoffs, the Texans have taken a different tack: They started 4–2 but have lost eight of nine. Houston scribe John McClain tweeted that he would be “shocked” if Kubiak survived. So would I. A third AFC South coach, Jeff Fisher, saw his team drop another steamer on the Kansas City turf, the Titans’ seventh loss in eight games. Owner Bud Adams wanted another Super Bowl run late in his life; instead, he got an implosion. It’s ironic that the only coaching survivor in the division could be clueless Jim Caldwell.

They’re No. 1

Has any team ever played better than New England during their seven-game winning streak? Here are the P-men’s point totals during their epic run: 39, 31, 45, 45, 36, 31, 34. Tom Brady has reached new heights of efficiency; in yesterday’s 34–3 win over Buffalo, during which the Patriots clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, Brady set an NFL record for consecutive passes without an interception, extending the streak to 319 tosses. Asked about the record, Brady shrugged, “I guess I’m glad I’m not throwing interceptions.” I guess the Patriots are darn near unbeatable right now.

Mr. Clutch

With apologies to Jay Cutler and the Bear, who clinched the NFC North with a 38–34 win over the Jets, the day’s most clutch performance came from fellow north signal-caller Aaron Rodgers, who kept the Pack on track for a playoff berth while dealing the Giants a possible death blow in a 45–17 rout at Lambeau Field. Rodgers bounced back from a concussion to set the Giants’ heads spinning, throwing for a career-high 404 yards and four touchdowns. “Those guys were ready to play,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “They were sick and tired of hearing about how tough the Giants were all week.”

Teaser:
Athlon editor Rob Doster tells us what he learned about Week 16 in the NFL.
Post date: Monday, December 27, 2010 - 12:31
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/defensive-player-year
Body:

Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions for Week 16 in the NFL:

Follow us on twitter: @AthlonBraden / @AthlonSteven / @AthlonRush

1. What is your favorite Brett Favre moment?



Steven Lassan: Say what you want about Favre’s penchant for drama, but he’s going to be missed on the field next season. There are several moments or games that come to mind, but I’ll mention three of them – the Monday night game after his father passed away, the Super Bowl win over New England and the Monday night touchdown toss to Greg Jennings to beat Denver in 2007. It’s impossible to pick a favorite out of that group, but it’s hard to beat winning a Super Bowl.

Braden Gall: Wow, how can you ask a Packer fan to narrow it down to one? Monday night against the Raiders after his father died? Throwing touchdown No. 421 to Greg Jennings in the Metrodome of all places. Countless showdowns with the games best of all-time: Elway, Manning, Aikman, Brady etc. How about Week 3 of the 1992 season where he entered the game trailing the Bengals and proceeded to lead the Packers on a unbelievable comeback — and then didn't miss a start until 321 games later? But for any Packer fan, watching him run around the Superdome turf pumping the helmet into the air after checking to 59 Razor and throwing a 54-yard TD bomb to Andre Rison to start Super Bowl XXXI is the single most indelible image.

Nathan Rush: I’d like to think there is at least one more Brett Favre moment yet to come. I want Favre to retire again after the season, then show up Week 1 of 2011 ready to play. But if this is the end of the road, I’ll go with a recent memory as my favorite. Last season, Favre threw a 32-yard game-winning TD pass to Greg Lewis with two seconds left to beat the 49ers. The catch was incredible, but it was the type of throw that only Favre could make. And to see him do it as a 40-year-old MVP candidate made the play even more impressive. Still, Favre’s career has been one long highlight; talking about No. 4 as if he’s gone makes me miss him already.

2. Which interim coach has performed the best and which is most likely to retain his job?



Steven: I think Leslie Frazier at Minnesota and Jason Garrett of Dallas both stand a good chance to retain the full-time spot next year, but Garrett has done a better job this season. The Cowboys looked lifeless after a loss to Green Bay, and despite losing Tony Romo, have managed to crawl back to respectable football. Since Garrett got the job, the Cowboys are 4-2, with both losses coming by three points. With Arizona up next, the Cowboys should finish the year with six wins and some momentum going into 2011. Denver interim coach Eric Studesville assumed the head coach role at a difficult time, and he’s highly unlikely to return in 2011.

Braden: Jason Garrett seems to have lit a fire under his very talented but malaised group of Cowboys. The new CBA discussions have created interesting situations for owners and new head coaches. With so much uncertainty swirling around the future, it will be tough for franchises to justify spending the major dollars for a coach (Bill Cowher for example). The interims then get a clear inside track on the job. Garrett and Leslie Frazier could very easily retain their current positions.

Nathan: Jason Garrett has gone 4–2 since taking over the Cowboys in Week 10. I think he’s a lock to be back in Dallas next season, and deservedly so. Wade Phillips went 1–7 with one of the more talented rosters in the league; Garrett has shown the ability to at least put a respectable product on the $1.1 billion field at Jerry’s House.

3. Who will be the starting quarterback for the Redskins next fall?



Steven: If the Redskins think Rex Grossman or John Beck is a better quarterback than Donovan McNabb, they are crazy. I’m going to guess the starting quarterback for the Redskins will be someone who isn’t on the roster right now. Maybe it’s a rookie, someone acquired via trade (Kevin Kolb?) or a veteran like Marc Bulger to bridge the gap, but the Redskins can’t go into next year with Grossman or Beck as the answer to the quarterback issues. If the Redskins can’t get Bulger or someone similar (Kerry Collins?), I wouldn’t be shocked if Grossman stays the starter, but that’s a recipe for another mediocre season.

Braden: Isn't it funny that Dan Snyder and Mike Shannahan would probably kill for someone like, I don't know, Jason Campbell right now? There is clearly a personality conflict in D.C. because Rex Grossman isn't a better quarterback than Donovan McNabb, so my guess is McNabb will be cut. So it will most likely be a new face. That could be via trade/free agency with a name like Kevin Kolb (the irony). It could also be through the draft with guys like Ryan Mallett or Jake Locker. The Arkansas signal-caller should be still on the board in the 6-10 range of the draft and is clearly the No. 2 option behind Stanford's Andrew Luck. 

Nathan: Ryan Mallett? Maybe Jake Locker? Do I hear a Cam Newton? What’s that about Terrelle Pryor being suspended the first five games of Ohio State’s 2011 season? Go ahead and add him to the list of potential rookie starters in Washington. The five-win Skins are one of 12 teams who can count their victories on one hand, so they should be in position to take whoever Mike Shanahan wants as his franchise quarterback. The question is, where will Donovan McNabb be in 2011?

Teaser:
Athlon's editors debate five burning questions in Week 16 of the NFL slate.
Post date: Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 14:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/sunday-takeaway/giant-blunder
Body:

Kicking Themselves

That’s what the Giants are doing today, after losing in the most heatbreaking, head-scratching fashion in recent NFL history. Rookie Matt Dodge (as in, get the heck outta…) inexplicably punted the ball to the most dangerous return man in the game, DeSean Jackson, who took the ball 65 yards for a touchdown to put the finishing touches on the season’s most epic, most indescribable comeback. In the last 7:18 of the game, the Eagles erased a 31–10 Giants lead thanks to the following: a 65-yard Michael Vick-to-Brent Celek touchdown pass; a recovered onside kick; a four-yard Vick TD run; a 13-yard Vick-to-Jeremy Maclin touchdown; and, most improbably, a line drive punt to Action Jackson on the game’s final play. Sixty-five yards later, hearts were broken throughout New Meadowlands Stadium, and this morning, Joe Pisarcik has company in the history of G-men goats. How stupid and unprecedented was Dodge’s decision to punt to Jackson? It was the first time in NFL history that a game ended on a winning punt return for a touchdown. “That's about as empty a feeling as you get to have in this business,” said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who took responsibility for Dodge’s mistake — after making it clear that he told Dodge to punt it out of bounds. Adding insult to injury for Coughlin: Bill Cowher listed New York as one of his preferred destinations. Stay tuned.

Who Needs an Appendix?

Only 11 days after an emergency appendectomy, Matt Cassel proved just how useless that piece of tissue is, leading the Chiefs to a key win without it. Cassel produced pedestrian numbers — 15-of-29 for 184 yards, a touchdown and an interception — in the Chiefs’ 27–13 win over the Rams, but his presence provided a jolt of energy for an offense that was utterly putrid last week. “For a guy to come back after having an organ removed from his body, playing the next week, yeah it's definitely extraordinary,” said running back Thomas Jones, who rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown, joining Jamaal Charles (126 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown) in keying a Chiefs rushing attack that produced 210 yards. KC is in position to win the AFC West, and more importantly for the rest of the AFC, deny the red-hot Chargers a spot in the playoffs.

Timm-ah!

There was a lot to like about Tim Tebow’s debut as a starting NFL quarterback. Tebow displayed improved, NFL-quality passing mechanics, and he proved he could produce on the ground against an NFL defense. He also staked his team to a 14–7 first-quarter lead and a 17–14 second-quarter advantage, before the Raiders realized that it was the Broncos they were playing and won going away, 39–23. “You’re playing against the biggest, strongest, fastest, but at the end of the day it’s still playing football and so it wasn't extremely different,” Tebow said. Here are Tebow‘s numbers: 8-of-16 for 138 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions; 8 carries, 78 yards and a 40-yard touchdown on a called draw to Correll Buckhalter that Tebow mistook for a QB draw. All in all, a solid debut. “He did what we expected of him,” said Brandon Lloyd, who caught Tebow’s TD pass after the ball slid through the hands of an Oakland defender. "He kept his poise, he kept his composure, even when it was tough out there. He didn't have any of those situations where he called the wrong play. I was impressed.” Somewhere, Josh McDaniels was celebrating his protégé’s success, even if he wasn’t there to enjoy it.

Brown-out

The Colts picked a good day to discover their running game — in a 34–24 win over a Jags team that was looking to clinch the AFC South. After weeks of forcing Peyton Manning to go it alone, Indianapolis finally produced some ground support, as Donald Brown ran for 129 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown, showing unexpected between-the-tackles power. Brown vastly outshone his Jags counterpart Maurice Jones-Drew, thanks to a line that out-physicaled its opponent. The defense did its part, too, as the Colts won the war in the trenches. “(The Colts) heard all week how they couldn’t stop our run game and they did a pretty good job,” Jags coach Jack Del Rio said. “They’ve had issues stopping the run against us and against others. They got it done; you’ve got to give them credit.” Suddenly, order is restored in the AFC South, as the Colts control their own destiny in a division they’ve dominated for a decade.

Mike Shanahan Isn’t Stupid

It just seems that way sometimes. Rex Grossman went out and rewarded his coach’s faith in him, throwing for 322 yards and four touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough, as the Cowboys beat their old rivals the Redskins 33–30. Shanahan’s controversial benching of Donovan McNabb was the headline coming in, but Grossman made it a non-issue by producing yards and touchdowns for a formerly dreadful offense, and he might have produced a win had Santana Moss not dropped a sure touchdown. “I thought he demonstrated a lot of poise and played well,” Shanahan said of Grossman. “He performed like a veteran should perform.” Meanwhile, Jason Garrett moves to 4–2 as the Cowboys’ interim coach, and his offense has produced the following point totals: 33, 35, 27, 38, 27 and 33. Get this man a defense, and Jerry Jones might have something.

Teaser:
Editor Rob Doster offers up some insight from Week 15 of the NFL slate.
Post date: Monday, December 20, 2010 - 12:14
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/super-sunday
Body:

Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions for Week 15 in the NFL:

Follow us on twitter: @AthlonBraden / @AthlonSteven / @AthlonRush

1. After snowgate, will the Vikings finally get a new stadium or will they have to move?

Steven Lassan: I think this situation will end up being good for the Vikings. The Metrodome is outdated and it’s time for a new venue. After all, the Twins just got a new stadium and the University of Minnesota has a nice outdoor stadium that was opened in 2009. If Minnesota wants to keep the Vikings in town, a new venue is a must and the roof collapsing should raise more awareness for this situation.

Braden Gall: Images of frosty white breath billowing out of Fran Tarkenton at old Metropolitan Stadium is the way the Vikings should be remembered. Sure, the Vikings have made a few trips to the NFC Championship game but the early, outdoor years were the best to be a Purple People Eater. The Metrodome is a dump, and if the Twins can play outdoors, then so can the Nordically inclined Vikings. If you build it, they will come — otherwise, Zygi Wilf will be sipping a nice Cabernet a few hours south of Napa Valley soon enough.

Nathan Rush: First off, the Vikings have no business playing indoors. Minnesota’s roof caving in is a sign to move back outside. The Vikings should have the same winter weather edge as the Patriots at Gillette Stadium or the Packers at Lambeau Field — if not the Bears at Soldier Field, where they own snow games, right? From 1961-81, Minnesota played at Metropolitan Stadium. During that time, the purple people made four Super Bowl appearances (IV, VIII, IX, XI). Since moving inside to the Metrodome, the Vikes have zero NFC titles on their resume. Coincidence? Probably. Fitting? Certainly. I vote for a new outdoor facility in the Twin City area. Hopefully they can get it done now that the roof has caved in on the Metrodome.

2. Has Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi been treated fairly?

Steven: I don’t believe Alosi was acting solo when it came to the players lining up as a wall on the Jets’ sideline. There’s more to the story on that, which is why Alosi was suspended indefinitely, instead of fired. Alosi was wrong to trip Nolan Carroll, but a fine and a suspension should be sufficient for his actions.

Braden: What Alosi did, in the heat of the moment, has no place in sports. It is unacceptable and needs to be punished. The $25,000 fine did just that. What I do not like is the Jets suspending him because he told injured players to line up on the sideline. The Jets can do whatever they want, within the confines of the rules, on their own sideline. Standing in a organized line falls into the totally legal catergory. Alosi apologized and seemed very sincere in his words. He "wasn't thinking" and has paid a big price, but let's move on.

Nathan: I have to defer to arguably the greatest special teamer and gunner of the modern era, Buffalo’s hustling icon Steve Tasker, a seven-time Pro Bowler and 1993 Pro Bowl MVP as a special teamer. “So what?” Tasker told ESPNNewYork.com, regarding the Sal Alosi scandal. “No question, you’re not supposed to trip someone, but I think this is an overreaction. … If they are coached to do that, so what? Call a penalty on them. If a gunner is going to use the sideline as a weapon, like I did, why wouldn’t you want to form a road block?” The wall-building, knee-knocking, tripping outrage caused by Jets strength coach Sal Alosi’s actions against Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll has gone overboard, in my opinion. It was a bush league move by Alosi. So what?

3. Is Jacksonville's Gene Smith the Executive of the Year in the NFL?

Steven: Why not? A lot of people were ready to write off the Jaguars after a 3-4 start, but this team is back in the playoff mix with a real chance to win the AFC South. The Jaguars haven’t made many big splashes through free agency, choosing to build through the draft, and this is where Smith has shined. The Jaguars are building a solid defensive front, with rookie Tyson Alualu and second-year tackle Terrance Knighton. In addition to Alualu and Knighton, the offensive line is set for the next 10 years with Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton protecting the edges. Cornerback Derek Cox, tight end Zach Miller, running back Rashad Jennings and receiver Mike Thomas are all solid pieces that Smith drafted in 2009. Although the Jaguars won’t win the Super Bowl this year, Smith has built an impressive core to contend in the AFC South.

Braden: This question would have been laughable when Roger Goodell announced that the Jaguars had selected Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall selection in the draft last spring. But Smith is the one laughing now. His team is in first place with a division title in sight this weekend in Indy. He has built this team his way — front the inside out. He has addressed the lines of scrimmage with conviction (see Alualu) and has filled in the holes with quality bits and pieces like Mike Thomas and Derek Cox. A little luck never hurts either (see Thomas being in the right place at the right time). The Chiefs' Scott Pioli and Falcons' Thomas Dimitroff are his primary competitiors, but Smith gets my vote right now.

Nathan: It’s boring, but the Patriots’ brain trust of coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and senior football advisor Floyd Reese have done the best job this season. In chronological order, New England made All-Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork happy with a contract extension in March, “reached” to draft Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty ahead of bigger names (Boise State’s Kyle Wilson, for example) at No. 27 overall in April, signed versatile Jets reject Danny Woodhead in September, traded disgruntled receiver Randy Moss for a 2011 third-rounder from the Vikings in October and re-acquired Super Bowl XXXIX MVP wideout (and Tom Brady’s boy) Deion Branch for a 2011 fourth-rounder to the Seahawks in October. The Pats have done it all — retained their own talent, scouted well at the draft, made treasure out of another man’s trash, traded away a cancer and traded for an old reliable — in what was supposed to be a “rebuilding” year in Foxborough.

Teaser:
Athlon's editors debate the 5 Burning Questions for Week 15 of the NFL schedule.
Post date: Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 12:13
All taxonomy terms: MLB
Path: /mlb/philadelphia-pressure
Body:

What does Phillies GM Ruben Amaro think about when he lays his head down at night?

He might be consoled by the fact that he has the best team in baseball based largely on his leadership. Since he took over in November of 2008, Amaro acquired Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt for basically J.A. Happ.

Yes, Happ is a nice looking starting pitcher. Prospects Michael Taylor and Kyle Drabek have some major potential too, but getting Phillipe Aumont cancels out the talented, adolescent Drabek. The Indians' Carlos Carrasco also showed some promise at the end of 2009.

But you are starting to get the point.

Amaro, along with a large Brinks truck, has assembled one of the most talented and decorated rotations in history for what basically amounts to one middle of the rotation arm and five prospects (nine total prospects swapped for three prospects and Ben Francisco).

Yet, the talented trio will make roughly $70 million this year. Writing those kind of checks will keep anyone awake at night.

Money isn't the only reaason the pressure will be heavy in the City of Brotherly Love. Amaro's group has to win now because the window will not be open too much longer.

Make no mistake, the Phils are the team to beat in 2011. Maybe 2012 and 2013 too. But it will get tougher every year. Jimmy Rollins, Oswalt, Ryan Madsen and Brad Lidge are free agents after next season. Shane Victorino can walk after 2012. Halladay and Chase Utley can go after 2013.

The depth and talent is remarkable, but not young. One could argue that the top ten most important Phillies on the roster — Utley (32), Rollins (32), Lee (32), Halladay (33), Oswalt (33), Lidge (34*), Victorino (30), Madsen (30), Ryan Howard (31) and Placido Polanco (35) — are all over the age of 30. Additionally, World Series Champion manager Charlie Manuel is 76.

That puts the pressure squarely on the Phillies in 2011. There is no fathomable reason, with all due respect to the defending champions out west, that Philadelphia won't play into November next fall.

Amaro has brought the pieces together brilliantly, and now, he needs to see them perform up to their potential. Because if they do, the Philadelphia native will sleep well for decades in the arms of his hometown.

If they do not, well, the words tase, vomit and Santa Claus come to mind.

* - Lidge, born Dec., 23, 1976, will be 34 on Opening Day 2011.

Players Acquired in the three trades:
Roy Halladay, SP

Cliff Lee, SP
Roy Oswalt, SP

Ben Francisco, OF
Phillipe Aumont, SP

Tyson Gillies, OF
J.C. Ramirez, P
Cash (can't forget the cash from Toronto)

Players Traded Away:
J.A. Happ, SP

Kyle Drabek, SP
Michael Taylor, OF

Jason Knapp, P
Carlos Carrasco, P
Jason Donald, MI
Lou Marson, C

Travis d'Arnaud, C
Anthony Gose, OF
Jonathan Villar, SS/IF

-by Braden Gall

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - 10:31
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/sunday-takeaway/sundays-showstopper
Body:

A Very Brady Christmas

The Patriots are heading into the heart of the Christmas season on a colossal roll. Over their last two games, the P-men have outscored the Jets and Bears by a combined 81–10. They haven’t committed a turnover since Nov. 7. You read that right. The Patriots have played five consecutive games without a turnover. Most impressive of all was the way that New England marched into Chicago, into snow showers whipped into a blinding froth by the gale force winds off Lake Michigan, in front of a hostile crowd, against a Bears team that had won five straight, and utterly humiliated the home team in every phase — running, passing and returning the ball at will. Tom Brady may be playing the best football of his Hall of Fame career; in his last eight games, Brady has thrown 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions to make an eloquent case for another MVP award. I’m not quite ready to hand Bill Belichick the Vince Lombardi Trophy just yet, but the gap between the Patriots and the rest of the NFL is starting to resemble the Grand Canyon.

NFL: Nauseating Football Lately

The greatness of the Patriots aside, don’t expect the NFL to load much 2010 game film into a time capsule as a showcase for future generations to enjoy. Not even the voice of John Facenda could salvage some of the bad football we’ve seen this season. Enjoy this holiday sampler: In Detroit, the Lions and Packers played a 7–3 game that featured five turnovers. Over in Buffalo, the ball appeared to have been dipped in grease, as Cleveland put it on the ground five times, losing two, in a comical 13–6 loss to the Bills. In the New Meadowlands, the quarterbacks combined to go 22-of-62, and the best hit was applied by Jets assistant Sal Alosi. Washington botched its tying extra point attempt with nine seconds to go in a 17–16 loss to Tampa Bay. Cincy’s Carson Palmer threw two horrendous pick-sixes in a 23–7 loss to Pittsburgh. Must I go on?

Throwback Game

At least the Jags and Raiders put on an entertaining display, even if it didn’t include much defense. The two AFC up-and-comers played a throwback AFL-style shootout, replete with big plays, poor pass coverage and bad tackling. The Jags put up 31 second-half points, and they needed them, as they allowed 476 yards to the Raiders in winning for the first time in franchise history when allowing 30 or more points. The game was a showcase for emerging Raider Darren McFadden, who rushed for 123 yards and two scores and caught three passes for 86 yards and another score. The Jags are a win at Indy away from essentially clinching the AFC South; it would be their first division title since 1999.

Matt Cassel for MVP?

The Chiefs’ quarterback proved his worth to the team by missing yesterday’s game with the Chargers. In Cassel’s absence, the Chiefs “offense” was beyond putrid, amassing 67 total yards and mounting no drive of longer than 30 yards. Without an air threat from backup Brodie Croyle, the normally powerful Chiefs running game couldn’t get untracked. It’s time to give Cassel his due as the key to the surprising Chiefs’ 8–5 record. He’s thrown only four interceptions this season, none in his last four games, a span during which he’s tossed 11 TD passes.

Don’t Discount the Champs

The Saints have been an afterthought for much of the season, but they’re not going to go quietly. New Orleans has won six in a row and sits at 10–3 after yesterday’s 31–13 win over the NFC West-leading Rams. The key to any hopes of repeating, though, could be the final drive for homefield advantage. The Saints have difficult games upcoming against the Ravens, Falcons and Bucs as they attempt to overtake Atlanta in the race for homefield. This isn’t a vintage Saints team — Drew Brees has thrown at least one interception in nine straight games and has already tied his career-high with 18 this season — but they’re showing the character of a champion.

Teaser:
Athlon's Rob Doster tells us what he learned from Week 14 in the NFL.
Post date: Monday, December 13, 2010 - 14:51

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