Articles By Mark Ross
For the second straight year, the No. 1 seeds in both the AFC and NFC are set to face off for the Lombardi Trophy with the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks on tap for Super Bowl XLIX. As it relates to the topic of worst teams to play in the Super Bowl, it's pretty safe to say neither the Patriots nor Seahawks have much to worry about. However, while the 2014 Patriots may not enter the discussion, the 1985 team hailing from New England headlines Athlon Sports’ list of the worst teams to ever play on Super Sunday.
1. 1985 New England Patriots
Super Bowl result: Lost 46-10 to Chicago in Super Bowl XX
New England went 11-5 in the regular season to earn a Wild Card berth, getting hot at the right time. The Patriots won eight out of nine during one stretch and then rode its defense late in the season and in the playoffs. New England forced 16 turnovers in its three postseason victories, including six against Miami in the AFC Championship game. An opportunistic defense carried an inconsistent offense all season long, at least up until the Super Bowl.
Despite taking an early 3-0 lead, Chicago scored 44 straight points and thoroughly dominated New England in posting the biggest victory in Super Bowl history at the time. For the game, the Patriots managed 123 total yards on offense, including just seven yards rushing, turned the ball over six times and gave up seven sacks.
2. 1979 Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl result: Lost 31-19 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIV
Credit Los Angeles for taking full advantage of its schedule and division, as the Rams (9-7) won the NFC West even though they beat only two teams that finished with a winning record. The offense was marginal, as their quarterbacks combined for a 19:29 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the regular season, and the team finished with a -8 turnover differential.
In the postseason, Los Angeles downed Dallas 21-19 in the Divisional round thanks to a tipped pass that resulted in a 50-yard touchdown with 2:06 remaining. In the NFC Championship game against Tampa Bay, the Rams' offense managed just three field goals, but that was more than enough thanks to a stifling defensive effort that held the Buccaneers to zero points, just five completed passes and seven first downs.
The first team to make the Super Bowl having won just nine games in the regular season, Los Angeles hung with defending world champion Pittsburgh for the first three quarters of Super Bowl XIV. The NFC champion Rams held a three-point lead at halftime and went ahead by two in the third quarter, only to watch the Steelers score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 31-19 win. If not for three interceptions by Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw, this game may not have ended up as close as it did.
3. 2003 Carolina Panthers
Super Bowl result: Lost 32-29 to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII
This Carolina team mastered the art of winning the close one. Champions of the NFC South with an 11-5 record, the Panthers won just two games in the regular season by more than six points. Seven of the victories were by three points or fewer, as the team’s point differential was +21, or 1.3 per game. The Panthers out-rushed their opponents, but this was mainly due to the fact they had nearly 100 more rushing attempts. Still the ground game produced just nine rushing touchdowns (opponents had 10), while quarterback Jake Delhomme posted a 19:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The Panthers seemed to get all of the breaks in the postseason, starting with a 29-23 double overtime victory in St. Louis in the NFC Divisional round. Carolina squandered an 11-point fourth quarter lead to the Rams that included St. Louis head coach Mike Martz opting to hold the ball for a game-tying field goal even though the Rams were inside the 20 with less than a minute remaining and still had one time out. Both teams missed field goals in the first overtime session, as John Kasay made his 40-yard attempt only to find out it didn’t count due to a delay of game penalty on the Panthers. He then missed the subsequent 45-yard attempt. Delhomme took matters into his own hand at the start of the second overtime period, hitting Steve Smith for the game-winning 69-yard touchdown only 10 seconds into it. Carolina’s defense came up big on the road in the NFC title game against Philadelphia, injuring Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and picking off four passes in the 14-3 win.
Carolina’s reward for earning the franchise’s first NFC crown was a Super Bowl XXXVIII matchup with New England. The game was scoreless until 3:05 left in the second quarter, when the teams combined for 24 points, including a 50-yard Kasay field goal that cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-10 at the half. All the other scoring took place in the fourth quarter, including Delhomme’s game-tying touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left, but Kasay proceeded to kick the ball out of the bounds. Tom Brady got the ball on the 40-yard line and six plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning 41-yard field goal with just four ticks remaining. While the final score may have been close, New England dominated the box score, out-gaining Carolina by nearly 100 yards (481-387) and nearly doubling the Panthers in first downs (29 to 17).
4. 2008 Arizona Cardinals
Super Bowl result: Lost 27-23 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII
The greatest season in Arizona Cardinals franchise history is largely the product of great timing and having all of the breaks go your way, at least up until the game that counts the most. Arizona won the NFC West with a 9-7 record that included a spotless divisional mark (6-0) thanks to one of the top scoring offenses in the league at 26.7 points per game.
The flip side of this, however, is the fact that the rest of the Cardinals’ division went a combined 13-35, as they beat just two teams in the regular season that finished with a winning record and stumbled into the postseason losing four of their final six games. A suspect defense (team finished with +1 point differential in regular season), caught a break in the Wild Card round when it got to face Atlanta rookie quarterback Matt Ryan making his first career playoff start on the road. The Cardinals then got plenty of help from Carolina’s Jake Delhomme, who tossed five interceptions at home in their Divisional matchup. Arizona claimed its first conference championship with a 32-25 home victory over No. 6 seed Philadelphia, thanks to a late Kurt Warner touchdown pass and despite being out-gained by the Eagles (454 to 369).
In the Super Bowl, Arizona had its chance to completely cash in on all of its good fortune, fighting back from a 13-point, third-quarter deficit against Pittsburgh to take a 23-20 lead on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald with less than three minutes remaining. Alas, it was not meant to be, as Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes in the end zone with 42 seconds left for one of the more memorable plays in Super Bowl history, much to the chagrin of the Cardinals and their fans.
5. 1994 San Diego Chargers
Super Bowl result: Lost 49-26 to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX
San Diego won the AFC West with an 11-5 record, and its losses were by seven or fewer points except for one. That one game, you ask? It was a 38-15 loss to San Francisco in Week 15. Foreshadowing perhaps? This was not a powerful team by any stretch, as the Chargers’ point differential was +75, an average of less than five points per game, and the ground game averaged less than four yards per carry.
San Diego's defense carried the team throughout the season, and especially in the playoffs. The Chargers came back from a 21-6 halftime deficit to Miami in the AFC Divisional round, winning the game 22-21 on a touchdown pass with 35 seconds left followed by a missed 48-yard field goal by the Dolphins with one second on the clock. In the AFC Championship game, San Diego trailed Pittsburgh 13-3 at one point only to take a 17-13 lead with 5:13 remaining. The Chargers needed one final goal-line stand with just over a minute left to finish the job, despite being out-gained by a wide margin (415 to 226) and having the ball less than 23 minutes.
San Diego entered Super Bowl XXIX against San Francisco as the biggest underdog ever (18.5 points) and lived up to that billing. Steve Young threw four of his Super Bowl-record six touchdown passes in the first half, as the closest the Chargers ever were to the 49ers in this one was 14-7 late in the first quarter. The 49ers led 42-10 with less than five minutes left in the third quarter before the Chargers scored two meaningless touchdowns. This game still holds the records for most combined points (75) and total touchdowns (10) in Super Bowl history, with the majority of the damage (49 and 7) done by game MVP Young and his 49ers.
6. 1987 Denver Broncos
Super Bowl result: Lost 42-10 to Washington in Super Bowl XXII
Denver took full advantage of a strike-shortened season, not to mention three games played with replacement players, to win the AFC West with a 10-4-1 record. Quarterback John Elway led one of the more productive passing offenses in the league, but the Broncos' rushing offense (3.9 ypc) lagged behind. The Broncos needed another miracle (see No. 8 below) to get past Cleveland in the AFC title game, this time at home. And just like what took place the previous season with "The Drive," the Browns delivered once again, as a late fumble sealed the Broncos’ 38-33 win and return trip to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, Denver's third Super Bowl trip was anything but a charm. The Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Washington in the first quarter, only to watch the Redskins storm back with 35 points in the second quarter. Washington finished with a Super Bowl-record 602 total yards, including a record 280 yards rushing, in the rout. Denver was out-gained by its opponent in all three of its playoff games, so perhaps the end result against Washington wasn’t all that surprising after all.
7. 1996 New England Patriots
Super Bowl result: Lost 35-21 to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI
Before the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady reign began in New England, the head coach-star quarterback pairing was Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe. However, this Patriots team relied more on defense than offense, as it won the AFC East with an 11-5 record. Bledsoe did throw for more than 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns in the regular season, but the defense allowed over 4,000 through the air as well. The defense was much more stout against the run, giving up less than 94 yards rushing per game, but their own ground attack fared even worse (92 ypg).
New England got a major break in the playoffs when Jacksonville upset top-seeded Denver (13-3) at home in the Divisional round. The Patriots then dispatched of the upstart Jaguars 20-6 at home to earn the franchise’s second AFC championship. Even though the offense sputtered against Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI, the Patriots hung around until the Packers scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter. Bledsoe threw four interceptions and the Patriots finished with a grand total of 43 yards rushing, as the Packers sealed the deal with MVP Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the latter part of the third quarter.
8. 1986 Denver Broncos
Super Bowl result: Lost 39-20 to New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI
Denver got off to a 6-0 start to the season, but finished just 5-5. Still the Broncos’ 11-5 record was good enough to win the AFC West, thanks to a defense that led the conference in rushing yards allowed. The problem for the Broncos’ offense, however, was that it only generated 27 more yards on the ground than their defense gave up. After getting by New England 22-17 at home in the Divisional round, quarterback John Elway orchestrated “The Drive” late in the fourth quarter in Cleveland to get the Broncos to their second Super Bowl. Unfortunately, this one ended like the franchise’s first big game appearance (versus Dallas in Super Bowl XII in 1978), as the Broncos managed just 52 yards rushing and Elway got sacked four times (one went for a safety) in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
9. 1992 Buffalo Bills
Super Bowl result: Lost 52-17 to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII
This Buffalo team maintained the Bills’ run in the AFC, capturing the East division title with a 11-5 record, powered by the NFL’s top rushing offense and third-ranked scoring offense (23.8 ppg). The defense was average in terms of where it ranked in points allowed, but generally got the job done. A third straight trip to the Super Bowl almost didn’t happen, however, as Buffalo trailed Houston 35-3 early in the third quarter of its Wild Card game. Backup quarterback Frank Reich, filling in for an injured Jim Kelly, orchestrated what became known as “The Comeback” with the Bills pulling out a 41-38 victory in overtime.
Buffalo then easily defeated Pittsburgh and Miami by a combined score of 53-13 to reach their third straight Super Bowl, this time against Dallas. The Bills held a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, only to watch the Cowboys score the next 17 points and pile on 21 more in the fourth quarter. As talented and good as this Dallas team was, Buffalo could ill afford to give them many breaks, which they certainly did. The Bills turned it over a Super Bowl-record nine times, including five fumbles, which led to 35 of the 52 points the Cowboys scored.
10. 2000 New York Giants
Super Bowl result: Lost 34-7 to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV
After losing two games in a row in early November, New York’s record stood at 7-4. Undeterred, head coach Jim Fassel guaranteed that this team would not miss the playoffs. He made good on that promise as the Giants won their last five, albeit just one of those victories came against a team that finished with a winning record, to capture the NFC East title.
Similar to Baltimore, their eventual opponent in the Super Bowl, this Giants team was built around defense. The G-Men held opponents to 15.4 points per game and less than 1,200 yards rushing total (72.3 ypg) during the regular season. This was especially the case in the playoffs, as the Giants yielded a total of 10 points in wins over Philadelphia and Minnesota, including shutting out the Vikings in the NFC Championship game by holding them to 114 total yards and forcing five turnovers.
The problem for the Giants, however, was their offense and this was especially the case in Super Bowl XXXV against the Ravens. Baltimore’s defense, considered one of the best in the history of the game, kept the Giants’ offense scoreless, as their only points in the game came on a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Ron Dixon in the third quarter. For the game, the Giants’ offense mustered a total of 152 yards and quarterback Kerry Collins was responsible for four (all INTs) of the Giants’ five turnovers.
One way or the other, history will be made when the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks meet in Super Bowl XLIX this Sunday. Either Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will win their fourth Super Bowl rings, tying for the most among their respective positions, or the Seahawks will become just the eighth franchise in history to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
While Belichick and Brady are obviously critically important to their team’s potential success Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., Seattle has a pretty good head coach and quarterback in its own right, not to mention a very good defense. Here are five reasons why the Seahawks will claim their second straight Lombardi Trophy on Super Sunday:
Defense Wins Championships
It may be a cliché, but it’s one that has worked pretty well for Seattle these past two seasons. The NFL’s No. 1 defense in terms of yards and points allowed in 2013 and ’14, no one has forgotten what the Seahawks did to Peyton Manning and the Broncos in last year’s Super Bowl. The highest-scoring offense the game had ever seen, all Denver managed against Seattle’s defense was one touchdown that didn’t come until the final play of the third quarter.
After experiencing a few bumps in the road in the middle of the season, the Seahawks’ defense has found its groove. During the current eight game-winning streak, this unit has allowed 235 yards and less than 10 points per contest. It has been particularly dominant during this stretch in the fourth quarter, yielding just one touchdown and a total of 13 points. New England’s offense has put up 80 points in its two playoff wins, but it’s not like Seattle hasn’t been down this road before.
Marshawn Lynch finished the regular season fourth in rushing with 1,306 yards and tied for first (DeMarco Murray) with 13 touchdowns. New England’s collection of five running backs (Jonas Gray, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden) combined for 1,551 yards and 13 scores, albeit with nearly 100 more (376 to 280) carries. Lynch is leading the postseason with 216 yards on 39 attempts (5.5 ypc), including 157 in the NFC Championship Game win over Green Bay.
Every defense knows that slowing down Lynch is priority No. 1, but it’s easier said than done. The Patriots have fared pretty well against the run, giving up just seven rushing touchdowns in 18 games thus far, but they also have had some trouble against some of the league’s better backs. Knowshon Moreno (134 yards rushing), Matt Forté (114), Chris Ivory (107), and Knile Davis (107) all broke the century mark against the Patriots in the regular season with Davis’ teammate Jamaal Charles (92) and Eddie Lacy (98) both coming close. And in the Divisional Round win over Baltimore, Justin Forsett gashed Bill Belichick’s defense for 129 yards on 24 carries (5.4 ypc). In nine career playoff games, Lynch is averaging five yards per carry with eight touchdowns. This includes just 39 yards on the ground (on 15 carries) in last year’s Super Bowl win. You don’t think Lynch wants to “redeem” himself with a big game Sunday and, more importantly, that he won’t get the opportunity (i.e., touches) to try and do so?
Russell Wilson Rebound
If Seattle hadn’t come back and defeated Green Bay in overtime to win the NFC Championship Game, much of the blame would have been pinned on Wilson. His four interceptions against the Packers were the most the three-year starter had thrown in his career (55 starts, including playoffs), while the 44.3 passer rating was his second lowest in a game.
But despite the horrendous start, Wilson rebounded to lead his team to 15 fourth-quarter points, his rushing touchdown getting things started, and then throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse on the first possession of overtime. Statistically speaking, Wilson had never put together a game this bad before, and yet he still won.
Set to become the second-youngest quarterback to start two Super Bowls (eclipsing Tom Brady’s mark), I’m expecting better results from Wilson compared to two weeks ago. Possessing a 9:1 TD-to-INT ratio in the postseason prior to the Green Bay game and based on his showing in last year’s Super Bowl (18-of-25, 206 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 26 yards rushing), Wilson is the least of the Seahawks’ worries headed into their matchup against the Patriots.
As we saw last year, Seattle’s defense ended up being ideally suited to slow down Denver’s prolific, high-octane offense. Not only did the Seahawks have the physical secondary that could match up (and beat up) the Broncos’ pass-catchers, they had a pass rush that could disrupt Peyton Manning’s timing and force him to move him from his spot in the pocket. While the pass rush produced just one sack, Manning was picked off twice and also fumbled the ball when he was brought to the ground.
There’s no reason why this same defensive game plan won’t be as effective against New England. Brady’s not the most mobile of quarterbacks either and teams that can generate consistent pressure (like Miami, Kansas City, Baltimore) have given the Patriots’ offensive line some trouble. All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski could be considered the difference-maker, but Seattle seems well suited to match up against him, with guys like All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner and hard-hitting safety Kam Chancellor lurking.
On the other side of the ball, I’ve already touched on the challenge that Marshawn Lynch (see above) poses for a sometimes-shaky New England rushing defense and, outside of the NFC title game, the Seahawks generally do a good job protecting the football. The Patriots used five turnovers to help fuel their wins over the Ravens and Colts, while the Seahawks had committed just five in the seven games leading up to the NFC Championship Game.
I’m not saying Bill Belichick and his coaching staff don’t have another trick or two up their sleeves that they will throw at Seattle this Sunday, but when it comes to how the Seahawks appear to match up against the Patriots’’ strengths, I like their chances.
Team of Destiny
To even be in a position to win back-to-back Super Bowls, Seattle had to overcome several obstacles along the way, including a sluggish start to its season and both history and adversity in the playoffs. As is always the case with the team that wins the Super Bowl, no sooner is the Lombardi Trophy in tow then the talk shifts to doing it again. And after sitting at just 3-3 in the middle of October, there was plenty of doubt when it came to the Seahawks’ repeat chances.
But then Pete Carroll’s team went back to the drawing board, got healthy and proceeded to roll off nine wins in its last 10 games to finish the regular season at 12-4, champions of the NFC West and the No. 1 seed for a second straight campaign. A seemingly easy 31-17 win over Carolina in the Divisional Round was anything but, as Seattle became the first defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game the following season since New England nine years ago.
Then despite five turnovers and staring at a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit at home against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks not only weathered a wild final four minutes that produced a tie score, they also made the plays necessary to finish their memorable comeback on the first possession of overtime.
Now all that stands in Seattle’s way of becoming just the eighth franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls is New England, the last team to accomplish this feat (2003, ’04 seasons). History aside, the ties between these two teams goes beyond Super Sunday. Carroll was the Patriots’ head coach from 1997-99. He went 27-21 those three seasons, including 1-2 in the playoffs, before he was fired and replaced by none other than Bill Belichick.
This is not the first “revenge” game in Super Bowl history for a head coach (actually it’s the fourth), but with the Seahawks’ repeat hopes at stake, there’s no question how sweet a victory Sunday would be for Carroll. And given how this season has played out for Seattle, I don’t think New England will be able to keep these Seahawks from accomplishing what the Patriots did more than a decade ago.
The 49th edition of the NFL’s annual showcase game, also known as the Super Bowl, will take place this Sunday. From its humble start 48 years ago, the Super Bowl has grown into the most-watched event of the year.
With all of the hype, anticipation and subsequent analysis related to aspects like commercials, the halftime show or alternative programming choices, it’s not hard to lose sight of the game itself. After all the whole reason for having a Super Bowl in the first place is to determine the annual champion of the most popular, and lucrative, sport in America.
Along those lines, here are the most amazing, interesting, intriguing and/or bizarre statistics culled from 48 years of Super Bowl history:
111,500,000: Average audience of Super Bowl XLVIII
FOX’s broadcast of Super Bowl XLVIII last February was the most-watched television program in U.S. history, according to the NFL. Even though Seattle beat Denver by 35 points, the average audience of 111.5 million people surpassed the previous mark of 111.3 set during Super Bowl XLVI (New England vs. New York Giants) three years ago. Three of the last four Super Bowls have set average viewership records. You’re up NBC.
$4.5 million: Average cost of a 30-second commercial for Super Bowl XLIX
Considering the viewership records the Super Bowl has set in recent years, it should come as no surprise that the cost of air time has gone up as well. NBC’s going rate for a 30-second spot during its upcoming Super Bowl XLIX broadcast was between $4.4 and $4.5 million, up from FOX’s $4 million price tag the previous year. Consider that for Super Bowl I, which was played in 1967, a 30-second spot cost just $42,000. Then again, more than 110 million people weren’t watching when Green Bay beat Kansas City 48 years ago either.
3,734,938: Combined attendance for all 48 Super Bowls
Despite the threat of some wintry precipitation, a sellout crowd of 82,529 packed MetLife Stadium last February for the first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl. That continued the Super Bowl’s sellout streak (all but Super Bowl I) and also pushed the all-time attendance mark past 3.7 million. Weather should not be an issue one way or the other come Sunday. For one, the game is out in Glendale, Ariz., which usually sees temperatures in the high 60s this time of year. Secondly, University of Phoenix Stadium, which hosted 71,101 seven years ago for Super Bowl XLII, has a roof that can be closed if necessary.
6,329: Media credentials issued for Super Bowl XLVIII
As expected, media participation for last year’s Super Bowl was at an all-time high with New York City, the media capital of the world, serving as the backdrop and host city for many of the events surrounding the game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The previous record was 5,156 for Super Bowl XLVI, which took place in Indianapolis in 2012. While it’s unlikely this year’s game in Glendale will draw more media than last year’s, it should still comfortably exceed the 338 credentials that were issued for Super Bowl I.
6: Most Super Bowl starts by a quarterback and appearances by a head coach
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will forever be entwined, so it’s fitting that each lead the way at their respective positions in Super Bowl appearances. Brady’s sixth start breaks a tie with John Elway for the most in history, while Belichick will tie Don Shula with his sixth appearance this Sunday. A win over Seattle also would put Brady and Belichick in select company. Brady would tie Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most wins by a starting quarterback (four), while Belichick would tie Chuck Noll for the most by a head coach.
24-24: Coin toss winners' record in the Super Bowl
For the second year in a row, the Super Bowl winner won the coin toss, but deferred. Following Baltimore’s lead the year before, Seattle won the toss, but elected to give the ball to Denver, the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, to start the game. The Seahawks’ strategy paid off, as the Broncos’ first snap resulted in a safety, setting the tone for what ended up being a 43-8 rout. Seattle is just the fifth team in Super Bowl history to defer, and all of these instances have taken place in the last six years. The Seahawks joined the Ravens and Packers (Super Bowl XLV in 2011) as the only teams to defer and go on to win the Lombardi Trophy.
12 seconds: Quickest score in Super Bowl history
Last year, an errant shotgun snap from Denver center Manny Ramirez to Peyton Manning resulted in a safety for Seattle after Knowshon Moreno covered up the ball and was “tackled” in the end zone. Just 12 seconds into Super Bowl XLVIII, the safety not only gave the Seahawks a 2-0 lead, it also marked the fastest score in the game’s history, surpassing Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return, which took 14 seconds, to open Super Bowl XLI. Coincidentally, Manning played in that Super Bowl too, as his Colts overcame the 7-0 deficit to beat Hester’s Bears 29-17.
59 minutes, 48 seconds: How long Seattle led Super Bowl XLVIII
Thanks to the quickest score in Super Bowl history (see above), the Seahawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the Broncos just 12 seconds into the game. A field goal following the free kick staked Seattle to the first-ever 5-0 lead in Super Bowl history and that was all that the Seahawks would need. A 22-0 halftime lead ballooned to 36-0 before Denver finally got on the scoreboard on the final play of the third quarter. By the time Seattle put the finishing touches on the 43-8 rout they had led Super Bowl XLVIII for all but the first 12 seconds, when the game was tied 0-0.
9: Defensive players who have been named Super Bowl MVPs
A 69-yard interception returned for a touchdown and a fumble recovery were enough to earn Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith MVP honors in last year’s Super Bowl. Relatively unknown entering the game, Smith wrote his name into the record books as the ninth defensive player to be named MVP of the biggest game of the year. Not surprisingly, quarterbacks lead the way with 26 of the 49 (Super Bowl XII had co-MVPs) awards, followed by running backs (seven) and wide receivers (six). Smith’s recognition last year broke a three-way tie between linebackers, defensive ends and safeties (2 each) for the most Super Bowl MVPs given to a defender. And while a return specialist (Desmond Howard, Super Bowl XXXI) has been named MVP, the same can’t be said for a tight end, offensive lineman or kicker. You reading this Rob Gronkowski?
36-3: Record of the team with fewer turnovers in the Super Bowl
Just like the score, Seattle dominated Denver in the turnover department, picking Peyton Manning off twice and recovering two fumbles (one by Manning), in the 43-8 rout last year. The Seahawks returned one of the picks for a touchdown and turned two other Bronco miscues into scores as well, which is yet another reason why they tied the record for the third-largest margin of victory in Super Bowl history.
9: Bills’ Super Bowl record for turnovers
While Seattle dominated Denver in the turnover department (4-0) last year, it still pales in comparison to what Dallas did to Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVII. The Cowboys crushed the Bills 52-17, as the AFC champs coughed up the ball a record nine times. Strangely enough, Dallas also claims the No. 2 spot for takeaways with eight against Denver in its Super Bowl XII win and forced Baltimore into seven miscues in a losing effort in Super Bowl V. How did the Cowboys lose to the Colts after forcing seven turnovers?
414: Kurt Warner's record for passing yards
The former grocery bagger threw for a Super Bowl-record 414 yards in St. Louis’ win over Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV. This included his 73-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce with just over two minutes remaining. Warner also owns the No. 2 passing performance (377 yards for Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII loss to Pittsburgh) and the No. 3 performance (365 yards for St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI loss to New England).
204: Timmy Smith's Super Bowl rushing record
Denver began Super Bowl XXII by taking a 10-0 lead into the second quarter over Washington. But then Doug Williams and Timmy Smith happened. The record 35-point second quarter put the game all but out of reach by halftime. The game was special for a variety of reasons. First, Williams was the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, while Smith became the only player to top 200 yards rushing. He finished with 204 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries as the Redskins set the Super Bowl record for total offense (602 yards). Ironically, Smith ended his NFL career with just 602 yards rushing (21 games).
22.6: Lowest QB rating for a Super Bowl winner
Ben Roethlisberger completed 9-of-21 passes for 123 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XL win over Seattle. It is the worst performance by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But Big Ben can take some solace in this: at 23 years and 340 days old, he’s the youngest quarterback to ever win the big game.
13: Demaryius Thomas’ Super Bowl receptions record
It’s little consolation, but Thomas’ 13 catches in last year’s loss to Seattle set a new receptions record. Thomas’ output, which totaled 118 yards and a touchdown, topped the previous mark of 11, which was shared by four players: Cincinnati’s Dan Ross (Super Bowl XVI), San Francisco's Jerry Rice (XXIII), New England’s Deion Branch (XXXIX) and the Patriots' Wes Welker (XLII). At the time, the record meant more to Rice and Branch than Ross and Welker, as not only did their teams win, but each also took home MVP honors following their 11-catch efforts.
10: Largest comeback in Super Bowl history
Powered by the aforementioned quarterback-running back duo of Doug Williams and Timmy Smith, Washington turned a 10-0 deficit in Super Bowl XXII into a 42-10 rout. It’s the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, a mark that was tied in Super Bowl XLIV. In that game, New Orleans fell behind Indianapolis 10-0 before coming back to win 31-17. The Saints’ comeback also is memorable in that it featured the first onside kick ever attempted before the fourth quarter in a Super Bowl.
7: Fewest rushing yards by a team in a Super Bowl
Seattle held Denver to just 27 yards rushing in its runaway victory last year, yet another example of how dominant the Seahawks’ defense was. As impressive as that statistic is, however, it still doesn’t compare to what Chicago’s defense did in Super Bowl XX. Regarded as one of the best defenses in NFL history, the Bears’ Monsters of the Midway were unstoppable during the 1985 season and the Super Bowl was no different. Led by Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary and the enormous, yet versatile William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Chicago held New England to a record-low seven yards rushing in the 46-10 rout. The Patriots' 123 total yards of offense that game is the second-lowest total in Super Bowl history as well.
3: Fewest points scored in a Super Bowl
The 1971 Miami Dolphins are the only team to ever play in a Super Bowl and not reach the end zone. Miami's 24-3 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl VI still stands as the fewest points scored by a team in the history of the game. The 1974 Minnesota Vikings are the only other team to score fewer than seven points on Super Sunday. In the Vikings' defense, they did reach the end zone — albeit via a defensive touchdown when Terry Brown recovered a Steelers’ fumble in the end zone. But Fred Cox missed the extra point, as the Vikings also set the Super Bowl record for fewest yards of total offense with 119.
1: People to win the Super Bowl as a head coach and player
Tom Flores won two Super Bowls as the head coach of the Raiders and was technically on the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs roster. However, he did not see any time on the field in Kansas City's win against Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Bears, Eagles and Cowboys, caught two passes for 28 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl VI. He then led the Bears to a win in Super Bowl XX in 1986 to become the only Super Bowl-winning coach who also earned a ring as a player.
0: Super Bowls without at least one field goal attempt
Four times has a Super Bowl featured one combined field goal attempt, but never has a Super Bowl lacked for at least one field goal try. Super Bowl VII, XXIV, XXXIX and XLII each featured just one three-point attempt.
Season-opening foes will reconvene Sunday afternoon with much more on the line when the Green Bay Packers face the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game on FOX. All that stands between the Seahawks (13-4) becoming the first team in 10 seasons to make it to back-to-back Super Bowls are the Packers (13-4), the team they beat 36-16 more than four months ago.
Green Bay is looking for its first Super Bowl berth since winning the Lombardi Trophy four seasons ago and enters having won 12 of its last 14 games. All eyes will be on the health of Aaron Rodgers, the likely MVP who is dealing with a torn calf muscle.
Seattle has won seven games in a row and 10 of its last 11, and also is riding an eight-game home playoff winning streak at CenturyLink Field. The “12th Man” will no doubt be in full force, as the Seahawks hope to get one step closer to become the first repeat Super Bowl champion since New England (2003-04 seasons).
Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawkss
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 18 at 3:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Seattle -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Aaron Rodgers’ Left Calf
May as well get the obvious one out of the way, no? Rodgers’ torn calf muscle is going to take some time to heal completely, so he will continue to be limited by it. However, as we saw last week against Dallas, a “limited” Rodgers is still an extremely dangerous one, as he torched the Cowboys for 316 yards and three touchdowns. Rodgers’ mobility was clearly compromised, as he lost a fumble on a sack and was pretty much relegated to staying in the pocket. However, Dallas only brought Rodgers down twice and was unable to generate any sort of consistent pressure. With plenty of time to scan the field for an open receiver, Rodgers spent most of the second half throwing frozen ropes against a helpless Dallas secondary. A repeat performance figures to be much tougher against Seattle’s defense, which limited Rodgers to just 23-of-33 passing for 189 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. The Seahawks also picked him off once and sacked him three times. The Packers’ offensive line made great strides in pass protection as the season went on, but this unit will have its work cut out for it against the Seahawks’ relentless pass rush. Seattle won’t take anything, even a less-than-100-percent Rodgers, for granted, so it will be interesting to see how the likely MVP fares against the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense (on the road no less) on one good leg.
2. Eddie Lacy vs. Marshawn Lynch
While the head-to-head battle between a pair of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson will no doubt be fascinating to watch and one of the keys to this game, it’s not the only offensive positional pairing to keep an eye on. Both teams like to run the ball, especially Seattle, and each has a punishing ball carrier in Lacy and Lynch. Seventh and fourth, respectively, in rushing this season, Lacy and Lynch also share one other thing in common – each is hard to bring down. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Lynch and Lacy are first and second in yards after contact over the past two seasons. In the first meeting between their teams, Lynch had the upper hand, finishing with 110 yards rushing and two scores. Lacy meanwhile was limited to 34 yards on 12 carries and had to leave the game early in the fourth quarter due to an apparent concussion. Lacy was back on the field the next week and after hitting a lull in the middle of the season, he appears to have hit his stride. Lacy has averaged 99 yards rushing per game over his last seven contests, including 101 in the Divisional Round win against Dallas. Lynch managed just 59 yards on 14 carries against Carolina, but to be fair the Panthers’ rush defense is much stingier than the Cowboys’ and the Seahawks were pretty much in control of their Divisional Round affair from the start. For this contest, there’s little argument that Lacy has the tougher challenge as it relates to the defenses, but Green Bay still needs production from him given Rodgers’ limited mobility. On the other side, Seattle fans have seen Lynch’s “Beast Mode” in the playoffs before (vs. Saints in 2010 and ’13 seasons) and would no doubt love an excuse to pelt CenturyLink Field with even more Skittles showers Sunday afternoon.
3. Packers’ Pass-Catchers vs. Legion of Boom
As much attention as Aaron Rodgers’ calf is getting, another popular storyline has been the matchup between Green Bay’s wide receivers and Seattle’s secondary. Headlined by three All-Pros, the back end of the Seahawks’ defense is the best in the NFL, while the Packers have one of the more feared one-two punches at wide receiver in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. In the season opener, it’s fair to say the Legion of Boom won the battle, as Rodgers threw for 189 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Nelson and Cobb combined for 15 catches that went for 141 yards and the lone score (Cobb). After the game much was made of the fact that Rodgers didn’t throw a single pass in the direction of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, basically using just one side of the field. Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy have already come out and said that won’t happen this time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Sherman will be busier than usual either. Instead, look for the Packers to move Nelson and Cobb around to get the matchups they want, while rookie Davante Adams will more than likely see most of his snaps lined up on Sherman’s side of the field. Adams came up big last week with a team-high 117 yards and a touchdown against Dallas, but the Cowboys have zero Pro Bowlers in their secondary while the Seahawks have three All-Pros. Thanks to Adams’ emergence as well as the effectiveness of tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers, it’s fair to say Rodgers has more targets at his disposal now than he did in the season opener. However, Seattle’s defense is whole and healthy and still features the best secondary in the league. Even if Rodgers’ calf and the offensive line hold up long enough to give him time to throw, will the results be any different than they were four months ago?
For just the second time ever, a conference championship game pits the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense vs. the top scoring defense (1980 NFC, DAL vs. PHI). There’s no mystery which team fits each bill nor is there any surrounding the overarching storyline headed into this contest. Aaron Rodgers fared pretty well last week with a torn calf muscle, but Dallas’ defense and Seattle’s are two entirely different units. It sounds rather simplistic, but in the classic offense vs. defense matchup, I tend to side with the latter. Especially when that defense is playing at home, is on a pretty good roll and is one win away from getting back to the Super Bowl. And oh yeah, the last postseason game in any round that featured the No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense was none other than the most recent Super Bowl. And we all remember how that game turned out.
Prediction: Seattle 27, Green Bay 19
For the third time in the last four seasons, the path to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium, as the Indianapolis Colts take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday night on CBS. After knocking off Peyton Manning and Denver, Andrew Luck and the Colts (13-5) are looking for their second straight road upset, while Tom Brady and the Patriots (13-4) are aiming to get back to the Super Bowl after coming up just short the past two seasons.
Coming off of his first career road playoff victory (against the man he replaced in Indianapolis no less), Luck will need to beat another future Hall of Fame quarterback to secure his first Super Bowl berth. Luck is 0-3 in his career against the Patriots, including a 42-20 home loss back in November.
With a win, Brady would earn the right to play in a record-tying sixth Super Bowl, giving him and Bill Belichick a shot at their fourth ring. However, the last time they were in this position, playing in the AFC title game at home; they were unable to get the job done, losing 28-13 to Baltimore two seasons ago.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 18 at 6:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: New England -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Andrew Luck Solve His Patriot Problem?
Luck has already accomplished much in his first three seasons. Although not a Super Bowl winner like 2012 draft classmate Russell Wilson, Luck is a three-time Pro Bowler who has experienced postseason success with the Colts quicker than his predecessor, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Luck is 3-2 in the playoffs in his first three seasons. Manning didn’t get his first playoff victory until his sixth season and it took three more after that before he played in his first Super Bowl. For Luck to get to the Super Bowl it will require his first career victory over New England. Luck is 0-3 against the Patriots, including a 43-22 loss in last season’s Divisional Round. While he’s averaged 322.7 yards passing per game against the Patriots, he’s completed less than 54 percent of his attempts with more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six). Luck is not the first elite quarterback to struggle against Bill Belichick’s team (see Manning), but if he wants to continue to eclipse the man he replaced under center and get Indianapolis back to the Super Bowl, he will need to elevate his play against the team that has ruled the AFC since 2001.
2. Tom Brady’s Conference Championship Game Curse?
The all-time leader in NFL playoff history in yards (6,791) and touchdowns (46), Brady’s postseason resume speaks for itself. He’s 19-8 overall, 13-3 at home and has won three Super Bowls in five appearances. For all of Brady’s success, however, he has not been at his best in the AFC Championship Game. Since the 2006 season, Brady is just 2-3 in these contests, including losses in each of the past two seasons. Beyond the record, however, is the fact that Brady’s numbers haven’t been that impressive. In these five games, he’s thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (five) and his completion percentage of 60.5 is three points below his career rate. Last Saturday, Brady set a personal-best in the postseason with 367 yards passing in the Divisional Round win over Baltimore while the three touchdown passes tied for his second most (shares the record of six with two others). Brady’s status as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play is secure, regardless of what happens in this game. However, if he wants to get another shot at tying Joe Montana’s four Super Bowl rings, Brady needs to put together a better performance than he has in recent conference championship games. After all, there’s a reason the Patriots have played in the last three AFC title games but only made it to one Super Bowl.
3. Will Either Team Gain Much Ground?
New England’s 42-20 win In Indianapolis in November featured a season-high 246 yards rushing. Jonas Gray led the ground assault with 201 yards and franchise-record four touchdowns on 37 carries. The Colts managed a meager 19 yards on 16 carries, as they were forced to play catch up most of the game. Since then, plenty has changed in each team’s backfield. The Patriots brought back LeGarrette Blount after he was released by Pittsburgh, and he has taken over as the No. 1 rusher, while Gray has all but disappeared. Indianapolis also has overhauled its running back rotation, as Dan Herron (Cincinnati’s sixth-round pick in 2012) and undrafted rookie Zurlon Tipton have replaced an ineffective Trent Richardson and injured Ahmad Bradshaw, who broke his ankle against New England. While Blount has been solid (4.7 ypc, 3 TDs) in his second stint with the Patriots, the offense has relied less on the run, rushing for a season-low 14 yards in last week’s win over Baltimore. The Colts on the other hand, have made more of a concerted effort to get the ball into Herron’s and Tipton’s hands, as the team has averaged more than 100 yards rushing in each of its playoff victories. So what should we expect Sunday night? The Ravens’ Justin Forsett gashed New England for 129 yards on the ground on 24 carries (5.4 ypc) last week, while Indianapolis held Denver to just 88 yards rushing. Has the edge in the running game swung the Colts’ direction or will the Patriots try to reassert themselves on the ground once again?
Instead of Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady XVII, we get Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady IV. While the magnitude of the latter pales in comparison to the former, the stakes for the latest head-to-head meeting between arguably the game’s top young quarterback and one of the best to ever play the position couldn’t be higher. Just like his predecessor, the obstacle that stands between Luck taking the next step in his stardom is none other than the combination of Bill Belichick and Brady. As impressive as the Colts’ postseason run has been thus far, the path to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium, which is still Belichick and Brady’s domain. Luck gives it his all, but in the end the Patriots have too much on both sides of the ball. New England exorcises some recent playoff demons by finishing the job it had set out to do the past two seasons.
Prediction: New England 30, Indianapolis 20
The NFL’s best road team will face the best home team when the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers get together Sunday afternoon in the NFC Divisional Round on FOX. NFC East champion Dallas was the only team in the league to 8-0 on the road during the regular season, while NFC North champion Green Bay was the only team to go undefeated at home. Jason Garrett’s Cowboys needed a second-half comeback last week at home against Detroit in the Wild Card game to set up this matchup between the No. 2 and 3 seeds.
This will be the first postseason meeting at Lambeau Field between these two storied franchises since the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl.” One of the most memorable games in pro football history, Bart Starr rallied his Packers to a 21-17 victory over the Cowboys in a game that was played in minus-13 degrees weather (minus-46 wind chill). Green Bay then went on to defeat AFL champion Oakland 33-14 in Super Bowl II.
It won’t be near that cold Sunday afternoon, as Dallas looks to extend its postseason winning streak over Green Bay to five. The last time these teams played each other in the playoffs was the NFC Championship Game in Dallas back on Jan. 14, 1996. The Cowboys won 38-27 and then beat Pittsburgh 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX to claim their fifth world championship. That’s also the last time Dallas played in the Super Bowl.
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 11 at 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Green Bay -5.5
Dallas’ Key to Victory: Play Keep Away
It’s no secret that one of the keys to the Cowboys’ success this season has been the running game. Dallas finished second in the NFL in the regular season in rushing offense, thanks in large part to the efforts of DeMarco Murray. The No. 1 rusher by nearly 500 yards, Murray tapered off some in the second half, but still racked up 1,845 yards on the ground and a league-best (tied with Marshawn Lynch) 13 rushing touchdowns. Murray also led the league in carries (392) by a wide margin, as the Cowboys were content to wear down opposing defenses by running the football. This run-heavy approach paid off in another way, as Dallas led the league in time of possession (32:51). Controlling the clock not only helps the offense in that it’s usually an indicator that a team is able to move the ball, it also assists a defense by limiting the number of possessions they are on the field. This is especially important for the Cowboys considering their defense is ranked the worst (19th) in total yards allowed among the remaining playoff teams, and even lower (26th) against the pass. Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a tear in his calf muscle, but it remains to seen how it will impact an offense that averaged a league-high 39.8 points per game while going 8-0 at home. Rodgers has been near perfect (25 TDs, 0 INTs, 133.2 passer rating) at Lambeau, so hobbled or not, Dallas’ defense will have its work cut out for it Sunday afternoon. One way to make this task a little easier would be for the Cowboys’ offense to chew up as much clock as possible. After all, the best defense when it comes to slowing down Rodgers and company is to keep them off of the field.
Green Bay’s Key to Victory: Allow Rodgers to R-E-L-A-X
Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a tear in his calf muscle, so it will be interesting to see how it impacts him Sunday afternoon. Everyone knows that the Packers will only go as far in the playoffs as Rodgers can carry them, but that doesn’t mean he has to do all of the work. If anything, Rodgers’ mobility figures to be limited somewhat, so Dallas will certainly look for ways to get to him in the pocket, even if that means blitzing more than it usually does. To counter this approach, Green Bay’s offensive game plan could focus on short throws and intermediate routes, which would get the ball into the hands of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams as quickly as possible to see if they can’t do some damage in the YAC (yards after catch) department. Another way to take some of the burden off of Rodgers is to let Eddie Lacy and James Starks have their share of touches. Since the Week 9 bye, the ground game has averaged 142 yards per contest. The Cowboys have been more susceptible to the pass (26th in NFL) than the run (8th) this season, but that doesn’t mean the Packers shouldn’t try and give Dallas a taste of its own medicine. If anything, Lacy and Starks figure to be much fresher and healthier than Rodgers, so perhaps it’s time for them to do the heavy lifting. After all, the Packers will definitely need their MVP candidate quarterback at his best next weekend should they get by the Cowboys.
Is this “Ice Bowl II”? Well, it won’t be nearly as cold at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon as it was more than 47 years ago, but this postseason matchup between Dallas and Green Bay is historic for another reason. It’s the first time in NFL playoff history that a team that went 8-0 at home hosts one that was 8-0 on the road. The Packers have been unstoppable at home, averaging nearly 40 points per game, while the Cowboys put up 34.4 points per game on the road. Something has to give and Packer Nation certainly hopes it’s not Aaron Rodgers’ calf muscle. The leading MVP contender may not be at 100 percent, but I still think Green Bay will be able to score enough points on a suspect Dallas defense to win and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Dallas 23
Two of the AFC’s most successful franchises since 2000 are set to meet in the playoffs once again, as the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots square off in a Divisional Round matchup Saturday afternoon on NBC. The Ravens are looking to build off of the momentum stemming from last week’s 30-17 Wild Card win in Pittsburgh, while the AFC East champion Patriots hope home-field advantage will result in a return to the Super Bowl.
This represents the fourth postseason meeting between New England and Baltimore in the last six years, as these teams have developed their own playoff rivalry. The Patriots lead all teams with an 18-8 postseason record since 2000, while Baltimore is second at 15-7. During this span, these two franchises have combined to win five Super Bowls in seven appearances (Patriots 3-2, Ravens 2--0).
The Ravens are no strangers to playing in Foxboro, Mass., in January, as all their playoff games against the Patriots have taken place in Gillette Stadium. Baltimore is 2-1 against one of the NFL’s winningest home teams, including a 28-13 victory in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago. The only other team to beat New England at home in the postseason since 2000 is the Jets, who beat the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the 2010 playoffs.
While Tom Brady has been under center for every one of those 18 playoff wins (most all-time), Joe Flacco has put together his own impressive postseason resume. Flacco is 10-4 in his career, which ties him for ninth all-time, and has a higher winning percentage (.714) than Brady (.692).
What’s more, 11 of Flacco’s 14 career playoff games have come on the road. The Ravens have won seven of the 11, giving Flacco the most road playoff victories all-time, including their last three in a row. Baltimore’s last road playoff loss was three years ago, a 23-20 AFC title game setback to, you guessed it, New England.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 10 at 4:35 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: New England -7
Baltimore’s Key to Victory: Dominate Up Front
Having faced Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the postseason three times in the past five seasons, the Ravens already know what they need to do to beat the AFC’s top seed. One of the keys to beating New England is to get to Brady and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. As Baltimore showed last week in the Wild Card win over Pittsburgh, its defensive line is one of the most disruptive and effective units in the NFL. The Ravens sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, picked him off twice and held the Steelers to just 68 yards rushing on 3.6 yards per carry. Yes, Pittsburgh was without leading rusher Le’Veon Bell, but Baltimore held him to an identical 3.6 yards per carry (79 yds. on 22 att.) in the two regular season matchups. Two years ago, the Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game, as Brady completed 29 of 54 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown. Baltimore didn’t sack him, but it did pick Brady off twice, gave up just 3.9 yards per carry on the ground, and limited New England to a touchdown and two field goals. The Ravens will look for similar results, as they hope their pass rush (49 sacks, tied for 2nd during regular season) can be productive against a Patriots offensive line that has had protection issues from time to time. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore also needs to establish its own running game, especially after averaging a meager 2.1 yards per carry last week against Pittsburgh. New England’s defense has given up some sizeable chunks on the ground this season and the outcome didn’t go the Patriots’ way in most of those instances. The Ravens would like nothing more than for this trend to continue Saturday afternoon, especially if it results in another victory against the most successful head coach-quarterback duo in NFL history.
New England’s Key to Victory: Attack Baltimore Secondary
Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offensive line figures to have their hands full against the Ravens’ front seven. Not only is the defensive line whole again with nose tackle Haloti Ngata back from a four-game suspension, but the linebacker corps is equally solid with veterans Terrell Suggs and Daryl Smith flanking standout rookie C.J. Mosley with either Courtney Upshaw or pass-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil rounding out the quartet. New England may be hard-pressed to get its ground game going, but if the pass protection holds up, there should be opportunities for plays down field. As good as the front end of Baltimore’s defense has played, there are plenty of questions when it comes to the back end. A combination of injuries and ineffectiveness have produced a revolving door when it comes to the Ravens’ secondary with free safety Darian Stewart the only defensive back to make more than 11 starts during the regular season. The result is a Baltimore pass defense that is ranked the worst among the remaining playoff teams in terms of passer rating (90.6) and completion percentage (64.2) allowed during the regular season. The Ravens yielded 22 touchdown passes compared to 11 interceptions prior to picking Ben Roethlisberger off twice (vs. 1 TD pass) in last week’s Wild Card win. That does not necessarily bode well against Brady, who posted an impressive 33:9 TD-to-INT ratio during the regular season. Brady’s top three targets have been tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, three options he didn’t have the last time he faced Baltimore in the playoffs. When the Ravens beat the Patriots at home in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago, Gronk (arm) and Edelman (foot) were both out with injuries, while LaFell was a Carolina Panther. Edelman (concussion) and LaFell (toe) are dealing with some injury issues entering this game, but this trio is fully expected to be out there and need to make their presence felt to help Brady exact some payback on one of the few teams that have given him any trouble in the postseason.
It may not have the sizzle of Ravens vs. Steelers or Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, but don’t underestimate the budding rivalry between these two teams. The last two times Baltimore and New England met in the playoffs it decided which team would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. That’s not the case this time around, but it doesn’t change the fact that John Harbaugh and the Ravens would like nothing more than to keep Bill Belichick and Tom Brady from reaching their goal, while the Patriots are looking for some payback against the last team to beat them at home in the postseason. Joe Flacco doesn’t have the same number of playoff wins or rings as Brady, but he’s proven himself just as capable on this stage, especially on the road. New England may have more offensive firepower, but Baltimore has more than enough on defense, as well as the experience and veteran leadership that’s needed to beat a No. 1 seed at home. Flacco’s numbers won’t overwhelm, but he makes the plays he needs to and the Ravens’ defense does the rest. Belichick and Brady are left to ponder “what if” yet again following another painful home playoff loss to Harbaugh and Flacco.
Prediction: Baltimore 27, New England 24
Two of the NFL’s hottest teams look to get one step closer to the Super Bowl when the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks meet in the NFC Divisional Round on Saturday night on FOX. The Panthers have won five in a row, including last week’s Wild Card victory at home over Arizona, while the Seahawks have rattled off six wins in a row.
Carolina repeated as NFC South champions despite a 7-8-1 regular season record, which included a 13-9 home loss to Seattle back in Week 8. The Seahawks are hoping home-field advantage will help them in their quest to become the first repeat Super Bowl champions in a decade.
These were the top two defenses in 2013 and both units enter this game playing their best football of the season. Points may be hard to come by, as the last three meetings between Carolina and Seattle featured a grand total of 69 or 23 per game. The Seahawks won all three games by an average of just 4.3 points per contest.
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 10 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Seattle -11
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Don’t Accept Last Week’s Results
All the Panthers did last week was set an NFL record by holding the Cardinals to just 78 total yards in their 27-16 Wild Card win at home. As impressive as a defensive performance as that was, Carolina was far from perfect as a team. Cam Newton completed just 18 of 32 passes with two touchdowns and an interception, the Panthers turned the ball over a total of three times, were just 5-for-15 on third down conversions, and committed eight penalties for 80 yards. There were plenty of good things to take away from the game besides the stellar defense – namely 188 yards rushing and dominating time of possession (37:06) – but Carolina cannot expect a similar team performance to get the job done Saturday night. Not against the defending Super Bowl champions who are at home and playing their best football of the season. Survive and advance is the name of the game in the playoffs, and the Panthers will need to bring their A game if they want to do just that.
Seattle’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
The Seahawks are rolling, winners of six in a row, and one of the big reasons why is the resurgence of the Legion of Boom. Seattle’s defense has really put the clamps down, holding opponents to just 39 points (6.5 ppg) during this winning streak. Pete Carroll’s team has surrendered just three touchdowns and not a single point in the fourth quarter over their last six games. The Seahawks also have limited opponents to just 66 yards rushing per game, which is the key when it comes to Carolina’s offense. The Panthers have a run-first mentality and a quarterback in Cam Newton who is just as dangerous making plays with his legs than his arm. During their five-game winning streak, the Panthers have averaged nearly 200 yards rushing per game with Jonathan Stewart (524 yds., 5.1 ypc) and Newton (6.3 ypc, 3 TDs) doing the bulk of the damage. If Seattle can stifle Carolina’s ground game, it will force Newton to try and make more plays from the pocket. And even though Newton has playmakers in tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Seahawks counter with the league’s top secondary, headlined by a trio of All-Pros in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas (first team) and Kam Chancellor (second team). Simply put, if the Panthers can’t gain any ground, this offense may be hard-pressed to get much of anything done Saturday night at CenturyLink Field.
Carolina’s defense grabbed all the headlines and set an NFL record last week, but no unit is playing better than Seattle’s right now. The defending Super Bowl champions are rounding into form at just the right time and will be playing at home backed by the support of “The 12th Man,” the loudest fan base in the league. The Panthers earned the right to be in the playoffs with a strong late-season push and validated their entry with last week’s impressive Wild Card win over the Cardinals, but the best the NFC West has to offer simply has too much talent for Ron Rivera’s team to overcome. Pete Carroll and company get a step closer to a repeat Super Bowl berth with a championship-caliber performance at home.
Prediction: Seattle 24, Carolina 10
A regular season rematch is on tap when the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts face off in the second AFC Wild Card game on CBS. The Bengals (10-5-1) and Colts (11-5) have already played each other this season in Lucas Oil Stadium, a game that took place back in Week 7 that Cincinnati would rather forget.
Indianapolis held the visitors to just 135 total yards, as the Colts dominated the Bengals 27-0, handing Cincinnati its first shutout in five years. Unfortunately for the Bengals, one of the storylines from that game will remain the same. All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green didn’t face the Colts then because of a toe injury and he won’t this afternoon either, as he’s been ruled out because of a concussion.
Cincinnati will have to try and win its first playoff game in more than two decades without its leading receiver. The Bengals are in the playoffs for a fourth straight season, a franchise record, but haven’t won in the postseason since defeating the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) in the Wild Card round back on Jan. 6, 1991.
Cincinnati is 0-7 since that victory, including road losses to Houston in both 2011 and ’12 and at home to San Diego last season. The Bengals have been outscored 77-33 in their last there Wild Card game appearances.
Indianapolis meanwhile is coming off of back-to-back AFC South championships, as the head coach-quarterback tandem of Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck are in the playoffs for the third time in as many seasons. Luck is 1-2 the postseason so far, with the lone victory coming in last season’s Wild Card round at home. In that game, the Colts turned a 38-10 third-quarter deficit into the second-biggest comeback in playoff history with a thrilling 45-44 victory.
With Baltimore's Wild Card win in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, Cincinnati and Indianapolis already knows whichever team wins will be heading to Denver to take on the Broncos in the Divisional Round next weekend.
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Indianapolis -4
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Don’t Leave Dalton Hanging
Andy Dalton’s lack of postseason success has been well documented. Despite leading the Bengals to a 40-23-1 record in the regular season and a franchise-record four straight playoff appearances, Dalton hasn’t been able to get the postseason monkey off of his back. An 0-3 record with an anemic passer rating of 56.2 and an alarming one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions certainly doesn’t help Dalton’s case, but it’s probably unfair to expect him to carry the team on his back in the first place. That’s especially the case this afternoon since Dalton won’t have A.J. Green, his All-Pro wide receiver, on the field. While fellow wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate will need to step up in Green’s absence, what Dalton really needs is for the running game to take charge. Following Cincinnati’s 27-0 dismantling by Indianapolis back in Week 7, head coach Marvin Lewis shook up his backfield, moving rookie Jeremy Hill ahead of Giovani Bernard on the depth chart. To be fair, Bernard’s ineffectiveness was somewhat due to the variety of injuries he was dealing with, but the switch also was just what the Bengals’ offense needed. In 10 games as the main back, Hill has rushed for 954 yards and six touchdowns. The second-round pick out of LSU is averaging more than five yards per carry and he’s had five 100-yard performances, including two games in which he went over 150 on the ground. Not surprisingly, Cincinnati went 7-3 down the stretch with Hill carrying the load, and he should be able to find some room to run this afternoon against a Colts defense that’s giving up 113.4 yards rushing per game on the season and has yielded 130.3 over its last four contests. The Bengals’ defense has picked up its play recently too, but points will be needed to beat Andrew Luck and company on their own turf. Cincinnati’s recent playoff failures have largely been blamed on Dalton, so perhaps it’s time for someone else to step up and give their embattled quarterback a helping hand?
Indianapolis’ Key to Victory: Don’t Make Luck Do It All
Andrew Luck has one more playoff victory than his counterpart, Andy Dalton, but there’s no question which quarterback is under more pressure this afternoon. Luck and Dalton are similar in that each has led their team to the playoffs every season since entering the NFL, but outside of that these two signal-callers are not often mentioned in the same breath. For starters, Luck finished the regular season third in passing yards with 4,761, while Dalton was 16th (3,398). Luck tossed 21 more touchdown passes (40 to 19) and one fewer interception (16 to 17), while placing seventh in passer rating (96.5). Dalton checked in at No. 25 (83.5) in that category. However, it also should be pointed out that Luck was third in attempts (616), averaging more than 38 per game while Dalton averaged 30 attempts per contest. The point of this comparison is to show that the Colts rely much more on Luck’s arm than the Bengals do Dalton’s, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For one, all those passes also open Luck up for some additional hits. Even though their sack numbers (Luck 27, Dalton 21) may be similar, there’s little dispute that Luck has taken more of a beating over the season. Cincinnati’s defense is the worst in the league in getting to the quarterback (just 20 sacks), but one way to help Luck in the pocket would to be run the ball effectively, which would then keep the Bengals on their heels. Indianapolis isn’t known for running the ball, but Daniel Herron and Trent Richardson have each had their moments. More to the point, teams have had success running on Cincinnati this season, although the Bengals have really clamped down lately – just 55.7 yards rushing per game allowed over their last three. Luck is certainly capable of leading the Colts to victory pretty much single-handedly, but that’s not always the best strategy to rely on in the playoffs, especially if you want to keep your franchise quarterback healthy for what hopefully will end up being an extended stay.
Andy Dalton may be 0-3 in the playoffs, but his head coach, Marvin Lewis is 0-5. So Cincinnati’s postseason issues extend beyond the quarterback. That said, Dalton’s hopes of getting rid of his 0-for record are not helped by A.J. Green’s absence (concussion). The Bengals have played well down the stretch, but Indianapolis is really comfortable at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the end, Andrew Luck and company simply have too much firepower, especially against a Cincinnati offense missing its All-Pro wide receiver.
Prediction: Indianapolis 27, Cincinnati 20
The 2014 NFL playoffs will kick off in Charlotte Saturday afternoon when the Arizona Cardinals take on the Carolina Panthers on ESPN. The Cardinals (11-5) have four more wins than the Panthers (7-8-1), but are a near-touchdown underdog on the road against the NFC South champions.
Arizona got off to a terrific start, winning nine of its first 10 games despite losing several key defenders before the season even started. Unfortunately, the injuries continued to pile up for the Cardinals, with the casualties including their No. 1 and 2 quarterbacks and top running back, as Bruce Arians’ team stumbled to a 2-4 finish.
Even though Carolina is just the second team in NFL history to make the postseason with a losing record (Seattle, 2010 as NFC West champions), the Panthers have won four games in a row and are one of the hottest teams in the league. The first to win back-to-back NFC South division titles, Carolina is hosting a playoff game for the second straight season. Last season, Ron Rivera’s second-seeded Panthers fell 23-10 to the 49ers in the Divisional Round.
Carolina is 0-3 in the postseason since losing in Seattle in the 2005 NFC Championship Conference Game. The Panthers are 2-2 at home in the playoffs, including a 33-10 loss to the Cardinals in the Divisional Round on Jan. 10, 2009. That was the year Arizona would go on to play in Super Bowl XLIII, losing a heartbreaker to Pittsburgh 27-23.
The Cardinals are back in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Arians, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLIII, will be making his postseason debut as a head coach.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 4:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Carolina -6.5
Arizona’s Key to Victory: Don’t Leave it Up to Lindley
Ryan Lindley, the Cardinals’ third-string quarterback, will be making just his seventh career start, but this obviously is no ordinary game. Lindley is in this position because Carson Palmer tore his ACL in Week 10 and backup Drew Stanton is dealing with a knee injury of his own. This past Sunday, Lindley finally threw his first touchdown pass, after an NFL-record 229 attempts, yet Arizona wound up losing 20-17 to San Francisco. For the season, Lindley is completing less than half of his attempts (48.4) with twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two), and is averaging 187.3 yards passing per game. He also, briefly, was benched in favor of rookie Logan Thomas prior to last week’s game, but Bruce Arians decided to stick with Lindley for that game and this one. To add to the challenge facing Lindley, the Cardinals are without top running back Andre Ellington, but they still will have to figure out a way to generate some sort of rushing attack to take pressure off of their unproven quarterback. That is especially the case considering how well Carolina’s defense has been playing lately. During their four-game winning streak, the Panthers have limited opposing quarterbacks to a 64.6 passer rating and have yielded just 43 points. Arizona’s defense by and large has carried this team for much of the season, and it will need to come up with yet another solid performance. Forcing some turnovers would certainly help the Cardinals’ cause, but what is critical is their 29th-ranked passing defense must not give up many big plays to a Carolina offense that’s known more for running the ball. Arizona is a good team, as it’s no small feat to win 11 games, especially in the division where the defending Super Bowl champion resides. And it will take another well-rounded team effort against the Panthers if the Cardinals want to keep their dream of playing in the Super Bowl at home alive. A breakthrough game from Lindley is certainly possible, but it’s probably in Arizona’s best interests to not put pin all of their postseason hopes on their young, untested, third-string quarterback.
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Getting the Ball to No. 88
It’s fair to say that the Panthers already have the advantage on defense going up against third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley. However, Carolina will still need to score points to beat Arizona, and this is not a team that exactly lights up the scoreboard. The Panthers enter this game 19th in the NFL in scoring offense (21.2 ppg) while the Cardinals are fifth in scoring defense (18.7 ppg). Carolina’s calling card has been running the ball, and it has been quite effective doing so recently behind the resurgence of running back Jonathan Stewart and a rejuvenated Cam Newton. However, the key to the Panthers’ offensive game plan Saturday afternoon may be tight end Greg Olsen. The leading receiver on the team despite the presence of first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, Olsen is Newton’s most trusted target and should be able to take advantage of what has been a weakness for Arizona’s defense. The Cardinals have allowed a NFL-high 1,085 yards receiving (on 85 rec.) to tight ends this season, along with eight touchdowns. Two weeks ago, Arizona gave up 139 yards and two scores to Seattle’s Luke Wilson. No disrespect to Wilson, but Olsen, who recorded his first 1,000-yard campaign this season, is a little more experienced and established at the TE position. It’s just a matter of Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula recognizing this and making No. 88 a priority in the game plan.
It’s been a great run for Arizona, especially considering all of the injuries the Cardinals have had to deal with throughout the season. However, I think it’s too much to expect Ryan Lindley, who has a grand total of six starts under his belt, to break through under these circumstances. Scoff all you want about Carolina’s losing record, but the Panthers won their division and are one of the NFL’s hottest teams right now. The defense is playing more like it did last season and Cam Newton seems to have gotten a second wind thanks to the contributions of Jonathan Stewart. Arizona will hang around, but I think the odds are stacked too much against the Cardinals this time. The team that everyone says doesn’t belong in the playoffs sends the Super Bowl host home three victories shy of making their dream a reality.
Prediction: Carolina 20, Arizona 13
The GoDaddy Bowl will feature some familiar faces when Arkansas State and Toledo face off in Mobile, Ala. The final postseason contest before the first national champion of the Playoff era is crowned, the Red Wolves (7-5) are playing in their fourth straight GoDaddy Bowl (formerly GMAC Bowl) while the Rockets (8-4) are making their second appearance.
While Arkansas State has been no stranger to ending its season in Mobile, what has changed is the fact that it will have the head coach it started with. Blake Anderson led the Red Wolves to a 7-5 overall record and 5-3 mark in the Sun Belt in his first season after replacing Bryan Harsin, who left after the 2013 regular season to become the head coach at his alma mater, Boise State. Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn) also departed for bigger programs prior to the GoDaddy Bowl in 2011 and ’12, respectively.
Arkansas State is looking for a third straight win in the GoDaddy Bowl against a Mid-American Conference opponent. The Rockets have defeated Kent State and Ball State in Mobile the past two seasons.
Toledo tied Northern Illinois with a 7-1 record atop the MAC’s West Division, but didn’t earn a spot in the championship game because of a loss to the Huskies. After going 7-5 last season but not getting invited to a bowl game, Matt Campbell has the Rockets back in the postseason for the fourth time since 2010.
Campbell is coaching in his third bowl game, as he led Toledo to a victory over Air Force in the 2011 Military Bowl after Tim Beckman departed for Illinois. The next season, the Rockets lost 41-15 to Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Toledo played in the GMAC/GoDaddy Bowl back in 2005, beating UTEP 45-13.
This is the third meeting between these two schools with Toledo winning both times at home. Toledo outscored Arkansas State 92-28 in those two games, which were played in 1990 and ’92.
Toledo vs. Arkansas State
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Toledo -4
Toledo’s Key to Victory: Make Drives Count
Arkansas State has beaten two of Toledo’s MAC conference mates in each of the past two GoDaddy Bowls even though each outgained the Red Wolves. In 2012, Kent State had 350 yards of total offense compared to 285 for Arkansas State, while Ball State outpaced the Red Wolves 363 to 331 last season. Despite this statistical advantage, Arkansas State won both games by a combined seven points, as both the Golden Flashes (13 points) and Cardinals (20) struggled to finish off drives. The Rockets enter this game 18th in the nation in total offense (486.3 ypg) and 31st in scoring offense (34.4 ppg), but it’s the latter that’s going to be critical. In the Red Wolves’ seven wins they have given up an average of 17.3 points per game. In their five losses that number soars to 42.4. If Toledo can put together anything close to an average game offensively, it should be in good position to win. The Rockets just need to remember it’s points and not yards that matter most, something that two other MAC teams are painfully familiar with when it comes to facing Arkansas State.
Arkansas State’s Key to Victory: Play Keep Away
The Red Wolves saved their best of the regular season for last when they pounded New Mexico State 68-35 at home. Arkansas State set a Sun Belt record with 764 yards of offense, including 469 on the ground. Three different Red Wolves ran for over 100 yards, led by quarterback Fredi Knighten’s 153. Running the ball won’t be easy against Toledo, who enters this game ranked 18th in the nation in rushing defense (120.5 ypg), but it’s still something Arkansas State must try to do. For one, the Red Wolves are not a prolific passing team at less than 250 yards per game and only 20 scores through the air. But secondly, and perhaps most important, an effective running game will chew up some time on the clock while also keeping the Rockets’ offense off of the field. Statistically speaking, there’s not much separation between these offenses, but Arkansas State has been more generous than Toledo on the other side of the ball. In their last six games alone, the Red Wolves have yielded 35.0 points and 269.2 rushing yards per contest. That’s not a good sign considering the Rockets’ Kareem Hunt is third in the nation (151.1 ypg) in rushing. The real estate may be hard to come by, but Arkansas State needs to make a concerted effort to run the ball or run the risk of Toledo doing the same thing.
The GoDaddy Bowl has become the Arkansas State invitational recently and the Red Wolves have not been gracious hosts to their MAC counterparts. Toledo, however, has the offensive firepower, led by sophomore running back Kareem Hunt, to match Arkansas State and appears to have a slight edge on defense. The Red Wolves’ adopted home-field advantage may help them keep it close, but the Rockets’ have too much fuel and will eventually pull away and exact a little MAC payback in Mobile.
Prediction: Toledo 38, Arkansas State 27
Teams in similar positions will cross paths when Houston and Pittsburgh meet up in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. Both the Cougars (7-5) and Panthers (6-6) are wrapping up their seasons with interim head coaches, as Houston’s Tony Levine was fired on Dec. 8 and Pittsburgh’s Paul Chryst left two weeks ago for Wisconsin, his alma mater.
Instead, defensive coordinator David Gibbs will lead the Cougars, while Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will be calling the shots on the other sideline. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has already been hired as Pitt’s next head coach, while Houston has tabbed Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
Even though Levine went 21-17 in three seasons and led Houston to back-to-back bowl games, it wasn’t enough to keep his job. The Cougars have one of the stingier defenses in the nation, but consecutive 5-3 showings in the American Athletic Conference apparently didn’t impress the powers that be.
It’s up to Gibbs to try and match last’s season eight wins with a victory over Pittsburgh. Houston is making its 22nd bowl appearance overall and fourth in the Armed Forces Bowl (formerly the Fort Worth Bowl). The Cougars are 1-2 in this game, which is played at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, about four hours away from Houston. They last appeared in this bowl game in 2009, when they lost 47-20 to Air Force. The Cougars also lost their most recent postseason game – 41-24 to Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl a year ago.
Chryst departed Pittsburgh after going 19-19 in three seasons, including a 7-9 conference record in the Panthers’ first two seasons in the ACC. Pittsburgh is playing in its seventh straight bowl game. The Panthers have gone 3-3 during this span, including last season’s 30-27 victory over Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
These two schools have only played each other twice previously, with the last meeting occurring nearly two decades ago. Each has won on the other’s home field – Houston in 1996 and Pittsburgh in ’97.
Houston vs. Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -3
Houston’s Key to Victory: Force the Issue
More known for producing prolific quarterbacks like 1989 Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, David Klingler, Case Keenum and others, this Cougars team has gotten the job done on defense. Houston enters this game ranked 19th in total defense (334.6 ypg) and tied for 10th in scoring defense (19.5 ppg). It figures to be tested on the ground by ACC Player of the Year James Conner and the nation’s 15th-ranked rushing attack, but the Cougars have fared well in that department (136.3 ypg allowed, 32nd) too. The key for Houston’s defense could be forcing Pittsburgh to make mistakes. The Cougars are tied for seventh in takeaways with 30, including 19 interceptions. If Conner has any weakness, it’s a tendency to lose his grip on the football, so you can bet that Houston defenders will be looking to exploit that when they get their hands on him. The Cougars have turned three of these takeaways into touchdowns, but sometimes the change in possession is effective in that it gives the ball back to the offense. The Panthers’ defense has given up its share of yards and points, so mistakes forced and then capitalized on by Houston could go a long ways towards making interim head coach David Gibbs’ debut a successful one.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Conner-Boyd Combo
The Panthers have one of the nation’s most dangerous duos in running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd, both sophomores. Conner was named the ACC’s Player of the Year after rushing for 1,675 yards (fifth nationally) and a school-record 24 touchdowns (tied for third). Boyd went over 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight season (1,149, second in ACC), and chipped in eight touchdowns. Together this duo has been responsible for 57 percent of Pittsburgh’s total offense (2,957 of 5,211 yards) and two-thirds of its total touchdowns (32 of 48). They are clearly the two biggest weapons on the Panthers’ roster and will be hard to stop even with all of the attention they will draw from Houston’s stout defense. Fortunately for Pittsburgh fans, the interim head coach is offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. If there’s anyone who knows how important it is to get the ball to Conner and Boyd, it’s him.
Both Houston and Pittsburgh are facing similar circumstances with interim head coaches calling the shots. It just so happens that the two fill-ins have plenty of familiarity with their team’s strongest side of the ball. So in this classic matchup of Houston’s defense vs. Pittsburgh’s offense, which team has the advantage? The Panthers boast two of the nation’s best young playmakers in ACC Player of the Year James Conner and electric wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Even if the Cougars can slow down Conner, which is easier said than done, I think the combination of him and Boyd will be tough for Houston’s offense to overcome. Look for Pittsburgh to end the Paul Chryst era and usher in Pat Narduzzi on a winning note.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Houston 23
The AFC playoff picture will come into complete focus when the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight on NBC. The final game of the 2014 regular season pits the Bengals (10-4-1) against the Steelers (10-5) with the AFC North division title hanging in the balance.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two of the NFL’s hottest teams since late October, each going 7-2 during that span. The Steelers beat the Bengals 42-21 in Cincinnati three weeks ago, as Pittsburgh exploded for 25 points in the fourth quarter.
Both teams have already secured playoff berths, but seeding is still up in the air. The Bengals clinched their postseason spot on Monday night with an impressive 37-28 win over Denver. With a win or a tie tonight, Cincinnati would claim the AFC North and host a playoff game. The No. 2 seed and a first-round bye are also still in play, but the Bengals need the Broncos to lose to Oakland for that to be a possibility.
The Steelers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and are looking to win their first division title since ’10. Pittsburgh knows it’s playing on Wild Card weekend regardless, but a win would mean at least one more game at Heinz Field.
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
|Cincinnati 2014 Schedule|
|11/6||vs CLE||L 3 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||@ NO||W 27 - 10||Recap|
|11/23||@ HOU||W 22 - 13||Recap|
|11/30||@ TB||W 14 - 13||Recap|
|12/7||vs PIT||L 21 - 42||Recap|
|12/14||@ CLE||W 30 - 0||Recap|
|12/22||vs DEN||W 37 - 28||Recap|
|12/28||@ PIT||L 17 - 27||Recap|
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Take the Air out of the Ball
The Bengals have won five of their past six games. One constant during this stretch has been the running game, specifically rookie Jeremy Hill. With Giovani Bernard battling injuries, Hill has taken over as the main rusher and he has produced. The second-round pick has three games of 140 yards or more on the ground, including a total of 295 in the past two contests – wins over Cleveland and Denver. On the season, Hill is second among running backs at 5.2 yards per carry and he has nine rushing touchdowns. Last week, he gashed the Broncos’ second-ranked rushing defense for 147 yards on 22 carries, the big blow being an 85-yard touchdown gallop in the first quarter that tied the game following a pick-six by Denver’s Aqib Talib. Andy Dalton’s struggles in big games (0-3 in playoff starts) are well documented, which is why it’s critical that Hill makes some noise on the ground. In the first game against Pittsburgh, Hill ran for just 46 yards, but he did that on only eight carries (5.8 ypc), so it was more a lack of opportunity rather than production. The Steelers are sixth in rushing defense (99.3 ypg), but they have allowed at least 140 yards rushing five times. Hill has four such performances by himself, and a fifth tonight could help produce an AFC North championship for the visitors.
|Pittsburgh 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ NYJ||L 13 - 20||Recap|
|11/17||@ TEN||W 27 - 24||Recap|
|11/30||vs NO||L 32 - 35||Recap|
|12/7||@ CIN||W 42 - 21||Recap|
|12/14||@ ATL||W 27 - 20||Recap|
|12/21||vs KC||W 20 - 12||Recap|
|12/28||vs CIN||W 27 - 17||Recap|
|1/3||vs BAL||L 17 - 30||Recap|
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Go Big or Go Home
Historically the Steelers may be known more as a defensive team (think Steel Curtain), but the 2014 edition leans heavily towards the other side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s defense has done a solid job against the run (ranked sixth), but it’s 20th in total yards allowed and 19th in points. On the other hand, the offense is second in the NFL in total yards and passing yards and seventh in points per game. The Steelers are led by its Pro Bowl QB-RB-WR trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger and Bell are second in passing and rushing yards, respectively, while Brown leads the league in both receptions and receiving yards. Bell also is second in yards from scrimmage and he and Brown have combined for 23 touchdowns. These three definitely had an impact in the first game against Cincinnati three weeks ago. Roethlisberger threw for 350 yards with three touchdowns (and no INTs), Bell had 235 total yards (185 rushing) and three scores, and Brown chipped in 117 yards on nine catches. Pittsburgh’s quick-strike ability was on full display, as the Steelers turned a 21-17 fourth-quarter deficit into a 42-21 rout. The biggest plays from the 25-point outburst were a 53-yard touchdown run by Bell and a 94-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t known for being patient or for grinding out drives, and it has several big-play weapons. With a playoff berth already secure and the benefit of playing at home tonight, why change the game plan now?
Both teams are already in the playoffs, but don’t expect either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh to just mail this one in. Not with a division title, a home playoff game, and (for the Bengals) potentially more on the line. The Steelers, however, are the ones who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2011, so they may be a little extra fired up, especially at home. Motivation aside, Pittsburgh has a three-headed monster on offense that has gotten the job done all season, while Cincinnati is relying on a quarterback whose track record in big games isn’t that impressive, a rookie running back and a banged-up wide receiver. Advantage Steelers, who complete their comeback by reclaiming supremacy in the AFC North with a sweep of the Bengals.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Cincinnati 23
It’s winner takes the NFC South this afternoon in the Georgia Dome when the Atlanta Falcons host the Carolina Panthers on CBS. A win for the Panthers (6-8-1) will cap a four-game winning streak to give Ron Rivera’s team an improbable second straight division title On the other side, Mike Smith’s Falcons can punch their ticket to the playoffs by sweeping the reigning division champs.
Atlanta upended Carolina 19-17 back in Week 11 on a 44-yard Matt Bryant field goal with a little more than two minutes to play. At the time, both teams seemed well out of the playoff picture with the Falcons sitting at 4-6 and the Panthers at 3-7-1. However, no team in the NFC South was able to distinguish itself this season, leading to a four-pack of teams with losing records. Regardless of their win-loss record not only will Carolina or Atlanta get into the postseason, whichever team wins also will host a Wild Card game next weekend.
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Kickoff: 4:25p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Atlanta -4
|Carolina 2014 Schedule|
|11/10||@ PHI||L 21 - 45||Recap|
|11/16||vs ATL||L 17 - 19||Recap|
|11/30||@ MIN||L 13 - 31||Recap|
|12/7||@ NO||W 41 - 10||Recap|
|12/14||vs TB||W 19 - 17||Recap|
|12/21||vs CLE||W 17 - 13||Recap|
|12/28||@ ATL||W 34 - 3||Recap|
|1/3||vs ARI||W 27 - 16||Recap|
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Don’t Let Julio Jones Beat You
The Panthers won the NFC South last season, finishing with the conference’s second-best record at 12-4. Carolina’s strength was its defense, which ranked behind only eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle in the NFL in both total and scoring defense. This season, the defense has not enjoyed the same success, which is one of the reasons behind Carolina’s decline in the win column. The Panthers are a respectable 10th in total defense, but 22nd in scoring, giving up 24.7 points per game. They have tightened things up during their three-game winning streak, surrendering a total of 40 points in victories over the Saints, Buccaneers and Browns. Atlanta has averaged 29 points per game over its past four and one of the keys has been wide receiver Julio Jones. The league leader in receiving yards per game (109.6), Jones has been near uncoverable recently, posting 555 yards receiving in his last three outings. Included in this stretch was a franchise-record 259 yards against Green Bay and then 107 in last week’s big win in New Orleans, even though he was questionable entering the game because of an oblique injury. Jones isn’t the only target Matt Ryan has to throw to (Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Levine Toilolo), but he is the key when it comes to stopping the Falcons’ offense. Outside of the Green Bay game, Jones has averaged just 75 yards receiving per game in the seven losses he’s been a part of (missed the Pittsburgh game because of injury). Carolina’s defense appears to be peaking at the right time, but it needs to put together one more strong effort on the road to seal the deal. Focusing its efforts on keeping Jones in check is not only a good first step in that direction, it also could be the difference back-to-back division titles or a tough finish to a disappointing season.
Atlanta’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
The Falcons are known more for being an offensive team, and the statistics certainly back that up, but it doesn’t mean their defense can’t have an impact. Atlanta is ranked last in the NFL in both total and passing defense, but this unit has done a good job creating turnovers. The Falcons are fourth in the league in takeaways with 28, 19 of these coming in their six wins. To put it another way, Atlanta is plus-12 in turnover margin in wins and minus-four in losses. The Falcons used four takeaways, including a fumble returned for a touchdown at the end of the game, to beat the Saints last week. They also created three miscues in a big home win over the Cardinals in Week 13. Carolina is dead even in turnover margin on the season, but Cam Newton threw two interceptions in the Week 11 home loss to Atlanta. If the Falcons can continue to force the other team to make mistakes, it doesn’t matter how many yards the defense gives up. If the turnovers don’t come, however, then it will be up to the offense to not only do its part, but also pick up the slack on the other side of the ball too.
While much has been made of the mediocre NFC South this season, the reality is that whichever team wins this afternoon not only gets into the playoffs, it also will host a Wild Card game next weekend. Carolina is the reigning division champion and appears to be peaking at the right time. Atlanta has a potent offense, but toes a rather thin line on defense. The Panthers have enough difference-makers on both sides of the ball to overcome the Falcons’ home-field advantage and the great Julio Jones. Carolina comes into the Georgia Dome and caps its late-season surge by claiming its second straight division crown.
Prediction: Carolina 27, Atlanta 23
The NFC North is just one of the things that will be decided when the Detroit Lions take on the Green Bay Packers this afternoon on FOX. The Lions and Packers both enter this showdown at 11-4 with playoff berths already secure. However, a win would give Detroit its first division title and first home playoff game since 1993. A Green Bay victory would move the Packers’ home record to 8-0 and deliver a fourth consecutive NFC North crown.
Detroit has won four in a row and has defeated Green Bay the last two meetings. The most recent occurred in Week 3 when the Lions’ defense completely shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense in a 19-7 victory. That loss put Green Bay at 1-2 and led to Rodgers’ now-famous “R-E-L-A-X” comment. Since that point, the Packers have gone 10-2 with their only two losses coming to the Saints and Bills, both on the road. Detroit has gone 9-3 during this same span with a home loss to Buffalo and setbacks on the road to a pair of playoff teams in Arizona and New England.
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Green Bay -7.5
|Detroit 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs MIA||W 20 - 16||Recap|
|11/16||@ ARI||L 6 - 14||Recap|
|11/23||@ NE||L 9 - 34||Recap|
|11/27||vs CHI||W 34 - 17||Recap|
|12/7||vs TB||W 34 - 17||Recap|
|12/14||vs MIN||W 16 - 14||Recap|
|12/21||@ CHI||W 20 - 14||Recap|
|12/28||@ GB||L 20 - 30||Recap|
Detroit’s Key to Victory: Rattle Rodgers
The Lions’ second-ranked defense was in fine form back in Week 3, holding Aaron Rodgers to just 162 yards passing in a 19-7 victory at home. Rodgers was sacked just twice and didn’t throw an interception, but Detroit consistently sent four pass-rushers, which was enough to throw off Rodgers’ timing (16 of 27, including five underthrows) and disrupt Green Bay’s offensive rhythm. The Packers ran just 51 offensive plays, the fewest in a Rodgers start since the final game of the 2011 season while the 162 yards passing were the fifth-lowest of his career (102 starts). The Lions showed it’s possible to beat Rodgers without a bunch of sacks or turnovers, but they also did this on their own turf. Rodgers has been near-perfect at Lambeau Field this season, so Detroit’s defense will definitely have its work cut out for it. However, it already has the blueprint for success against arguable the leading contender for MVP honors and it may get a break with Rodgers nursing a minor calf injury. The Lions’ defense has been really hard to run on, but the difference between winning and losing this afternoon will come down to how well this unit fares against No. 12.
|Green Bay 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs CHI||W 55 - 14||Recap|
|11/16||vs PHI||W 53 - 20||Recap|
|11/23||@ MIN||W 24 - 21||Recap|
|11/30||vs NE||W 26 - 21||Recap|
|12/8||vs ATL||W 43 - 37||Recap|
|12/14||@ BUF||L 13 - 21||Recap|
|12/21||@ TB||W 20 - 3||Recap|
|12/28||vs DET||W 30 - 20||Recap|
Green Bay’s Key to Victory: Lean on Lambeau
The Packers are 7-0 at home this season, averaging an impressive 41.1 points per game at Lambeau Field. They have scored 53 or more points twice and have defeated opponents by nearly three touchdowns (20.7) per home contest. A big reason for Green Bay’s home success has been the play of Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 23 touchdown passes and not a single interception at home. He has completed more than 66 percent of his attempts for an average of 301.1 yards per game and a mind-boggling 132.6 passer rating. As a team, the Packers are plus-10 in turnover margin at Lambeau and even though the defense has given up some yards and points on occasion, Mike McCarthy’s team has rarely been challenged in front of the home crowd. Detroit got the better of Green Bay the first time around, but that was in the Motor City. This afternoon’s game is on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field where the Packers have beaten the Lions the past 22 times. With a fourth straight NFC North title and a first-round bye on the line, Green Bay certainly doesn’t want to see this streak come to an end this afternoon.
Detroit has a championship-caliber defense, but Green Bay has a MVP quarterback and hasn’t lost to the Lions at Lambeau Field in 22 games. Both teams are in the playoffs and have the necessary pieces to make deep runs, but Aaron Rodgers will make sure his team starts their postseason at home.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Detroit 23
Have you ever wondered which athlete or sports figure is tailor-made for the Christmas season? Well, we’ve made our list and checked it twice, although we’re still working on the naughty or nice part.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
Dionte Christmas (former NBA guard, now plays overseas)
Rakeem Christmas (F, Syracuse basketball)
Matt Holliday (OF, St. Louis Cardinals)
Doug Jolley (former NFL tight end 2002-06)
Nerlens Noel (C, Philadelphia 76ers)
Plenty of sports figures have color-coordinated names for the season…
A.J. Green (WR, Cincinnati Bengals)
Shawn Green (former MLB OF/1B 1993-2007)
"Mean Joe" Greene (NFL Hall of Famer)
Red Auerbach (legendary NBA coach)
Red Grange (NFL Hall of Famer)
Michael Redd (former NBA guard 2000-12)
Who’s ready to deck the halls?
Todd Berry (Louisiana-Monroe football head coach)
Jamey Carroll (former MLB infielder, 2002-13)
Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks head coach)
Jon Garland (former MLB pitcher 2000-11)
Royal Ivey (former NBA guard, 2004-13)
Holly Rowe (ESPN reporter)
Mike Tannenbaum (former New York Jets general manager)
Walking in a winter wonderland…
David Frost (PGA Champions Tour)
Scott Frost (Oregon offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach)
Frostee Rucker (DE, Arizona Cardinals)
Ron Slay (Tennessee basketball 1999-2003, now plays overseas)
Garth Snow (former NHL goalie 1993-2006, current New York Islanders general manager)
J.T. Snow (former MLB first baseman 1992-2006, '08)
Jay Cutler may hail from Santa Claus, Ind., but all these guys are missing is a white beard and a red suit…
Zac Claus (Nevada basketball assistant coach)
Casey Clausen (Tennessee quarterback 2000-03)
Jimmy Clausen (QB, Chicago Bears)
Ed Kringle (played on the PGA Tour in the 1950s)
Sure they can play football, but can they fly?
Dwight Dasher (Middle Tennessee quarterback 2007-10)
Kyle Rudolph (TE, Minnesota Vikings)
Casting call for the nativity scene…
David DeJesus (OF, Tampa Bay Rays)
Curtis Joseph (former NHL goalie 1988-2009)
Angel Pagan (OF, San Francisco Giants)
Russell Shepard (WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Mark Weisman (RB, Iowa football)
Now we feast…
Mia Hamm (women's soccer legend)
Felix Pie (former MLB OF, 2007-11, '13)
Antrel Rolle (DB, New York Giants)
And who better to wrap up our list...
Metta World Peace (former NBA forward, 1999-2014, now playing in China)
On paper, the battle lines are clearly drawn when it comes to this season's Military Bowl matchup between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., will serve as the backdrop for a game featuring the classic contrast in styles – the Bearcats’ potent offense vs. the Hokies’ stingy defense.
Cincinnati (9-3) claimed its third conference title in four seasons, tying Memphis and UCF for the top spot in the American Athletic Conference at 7-1. Tommy Tuberville has led the Bearcats to back-to-back nine-win seasons, as this season’s team weathered an early three-game losing streak and has since reeled off seven straight victories.
This will be Cincinnati’s sixth straight bowl appearance. The Bearcats have gone 2-3 thus far, including a 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl. This also makes it three straight seasons Cincinnati has faced an ACC team in its bowl game. The Bearcats played an ACC foe in each of the past two Belk Bowls – beating Duke in 2012 and losing to North Carolina last season.
Virginia Tech (6-6) meanwhile needed every win it could muster just to keep the nation’s second-longest bowl streak (22 seasons) alive. A perennial contender in the ACC under Frank Beamer, the Hokies picked up one of the biggest non-conference wins of the season when they upset Ohio State 35-21 in the Horseshoe in early September.
Unfortunately that high was followed by many lows, starting with a home loss to East Carolina, as Virginia Tech’s offense struggled to produce consistent points. A three-game losing streak in mid-October ended any thoughts of winning another Coastal Division title, but the cruelest blow of all came in late November in a 6-3 double overtime loss at Wake Forest.
Still, give credit to Beamer’s team for continuing its dominance over in-state rival Virginia, as the Hokies’ 24-20 home win not only secured the Commonwealth Cup for an 11th straight season, it also got them bowl eligible.
The Hokies are just 9-12 in bowl games under Beamer, including last season’s Sun Bowl loss to UCLA.
Including the 2009 Orange Bowl, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech have played each other 10 times. The series is split 5-5 with the Bearcats claiming the most recent victory – 27-24 over the Hokies in September 2012 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Cincinnati -3
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Gunner-ing it on Offense
The Bearcats enter this game 26th in the nation in scoring at 35.4 points per game. Most of this damage has come through the air via the right arm of quarterback Gunner Kiel. An elite prospect that started his career at Notre Dame (after committing to Indiana and then LSU), Kiel has blossomed as a sophomore signal-caller. He’s tied for ninth nationally with 30 touchdown passes and has thrown for more than 3,000 yards. He’s done a good job of spreading the wealth, as six different Bearcats have caught 20 or more passes and eight have hauled in a touchdown. This approach could pay off against Virginia Tech’s defense, which has fared well against the pass. The Hokies are 14th in the nation in passing defense, holding opponents to a 47.6 percent completion rate (third). They haven’t picked off a bunch of passes (10 INTs) though and have been somewhat susceptible to the big play. Virginia Tech has allowed 17 passing plays of 30 or more yards and nine of 40-plus. Still, Cincinnati needs Kiel to continue to have success throwing the ball because the Bearcats’ running game has been inconsistent. Also, as good as the Hokies’ defense has been (20.4 ppg, 17th), the offense is averaging less than 24 points per game. The more success Kiel has throwing against the Hokies, the better for a Cincinnati defense that has had plenty of issues of its own.
Virginia Tech’s Key to Victory: Get Offensive
The only reason the Hokies are playing in their 22nd straight bowl game is because their defense was good enough to win six games. Actually, this defense was good enough to win even more games; it’s just that the offense had trouble scoring points. Even though Virginia Tech held opponents to just 20.4 points per game, the Hokies only outscored teams by 35 points, or less than three per game. Injuries took their toll on the running game, a facet that was a strength during Tech’s best seasons, and Texas Tech transfer quarterback Michael Brewer has struggled because of a combination of turnovers (14 INTs), a lack of proven playmakers on the outside and inconsistent pass protection (31 sacks allowed). If Virginia Tech’s defense does its part, which it has all season, then it stands to reason the offense won’t need to score that many points to put the Hokies in a position to win. Hopefully Brewer and the rest of the offense are using the time off and extra practices to iron out the kinks and find some sort of rhythm and cohesion. It’s not like the offense is expected to carry this team in the first place and it sure would be disheartening to see another stellar defensive performance from coordinator Bud Foster’s unit wasted on a stage like this.
Strictly from an offense vs. defense standpoint, Cincinnati’s O doesn’t seem to quite match up against Virginia Tech’s D. However, a big reason why the Hokies are 6-6 is because their offense has offered minimal support. How else can you explain how the same team that beat Ohio State on the road manages just one field goal in a double overtime loss to Wake Forest? Virginia Tech is certainly no stranger to this stage, playing in its 22nd straight bowl game, but postseason success (9-12) has been tough to come by for Frank Beamer’s team. The Hokies’ D is nasty, but their offense is atrocious and I think Tommy Tuberville’s Bearcats have just enough balance to beat a one-dimensional team.
Prediction: Cincinnati 23, Virginia Tech 17
A pair of surprising postseason participants will get the post-Christmas bowl action going when Illinois and Louisiana Tech meet up in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. After each program won just four games in 2013, neither the Fighting Illini nor the Bulldogs were picked by many to earn a bowl invite this fall. Now they have an opportunity to cap off successful seasons with a win in the historic Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
For Illinois (6-6) head coach Tim Beckman, the bowl game will hopefully serve as a springboard for even better things in 2015. After going 6-18 with just one Big Ten win (1-15) in his first two seasons in Champaign, Beckman entered this fall squarely on the hot seat.
The Illini struggled to open up conference play, losing their first three, but rebounded to post three victories in their final five Big Ten games. More importantly, a 47-43 win in Northwestern on Nov. 29 gave Illinois that critical sixth victory.
As a result, Beckman has Illinois in a bowl game for the first time since it beat UCLA 20-14 in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
That’s also the last season Louisiana Tech (8-5) was in a bowl game, losing 31-24 to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Bulldogs actually went 9-3 in 2012 under Sonny Dykes, but wound up not playing in a bowl after initially declining an invitation from the Independence Bowl before being left out of the mix altogether.
Dykes left to become California’s new head coach just two days after the bowl fiasco. Skip Holtz replaced Dykes and Louisiana Tech stumbled to a 4-8 record last season. Holtz has turned things around this season, winning eight games and Conference USA’s West Division.
The Bulldogs came up short against Marshall in the C-USA Conference Championship Game, but still have a shot at nine wins. That’s something that’s been accomplished by this program just twice over the past 30 seasons.
This will be the second time these two schools have met. Louisiana Tech beat Illinois 52-24 in Champaign back on Sept. 22, 2012. It was the fourth game in Beckman’s tenure with the Fighting Illini.
Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisiana Tech -6
Illinois’ Key to Victory: Get Wes Lunt Going
Big things were expected of Oklahoma transfer Wes Lunt entering his first season as the Fighting Illini’s starting quarterback. The sophomore got off to a great start, leading Illinois to a 3-1 record in non-conference play before injuries derailed his season. Lunt has played in just three of the past eight games due to a leg injury, and the Illini’s offense has suffered. For the season, Lunt has 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, compared to backup Reilly O’Toole’s nine scoring strikes and seven picks. All six of Illinois’ most productive offensive games (yardage-wise) have been in ones Lunt has started, with an average of 444 total yards per game. Also, in the six games Lunt finished (replaced by O’Toole in the Jan. 22 win over Penn State), he averaged 313.8 passing yards per game. Considering the Illini are ranked near the bottom nationally in rushing offense (117.1 ypg, 3.7 ypc), they need to get the most out of their passing game. Lunt hasn’t played since Nov. 22, so hopefully the month off will be all the time he needs to get back to full strength and get his game back to where it was in September.
Louisiana Tech’s Key to Victory: Apply Heavy Dose of Kenneth Dixon
Dixon, a junior, leads the Bulldogs with 1,236 rushing yards while his 21 rushing touchdowns have him tied for fifth among FBS players. Over three seasons, Dixon has averaged 5.7 yards per carry with 59 total touchdowns (52 rushing). Louisiana Tech has a fairly productive passing attack (252.6 ypg, 29 TDs, 3 INTs), but the weak spot on Illinois’ defense this season has been stopping the run. The Fighting Illini are 123rd out of 128 FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing nearly 250 yards on the ground per game. Opponents are averaging 5.1 yards per carry and have scored 28 rushing touchdowns. Five teams (all from the Big Ten) have run for at least 296 yards against Illinois, including 458 by Nebraska. Dixon may not be as feared as the Cornhuskers’ Ameer Abdullah (208 yards, 3 TDs vs. Illinois) or Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon (175, 4), but he’s gotten the job done for the Bulldogs for three seasons. Louisiana Tech would be wise to give the ball to Dixon and see what he can do against one of the nation’s worst rushing defenses.
Tim Beckman got Illinois back to a bowl game, but barely. The Fighting Illini needed to win their last two games just to get bowl eligible. This team still has its share of holes, especially when it comes to defending the run. Louisiana Tech won eight games in the regular season, but also lost to FCS member Northwestern State and in overtime to Old Dominion. The Bulldogs came up short versus Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game, but they more than held their own against a team that has lost just once. Louisiana Tech’s defense has shown remarkable improvement under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, and Skip Holtz’ team can do some damage on offense as well. Beckman may finally have Illinois going in the right direction, but I don’t think his Fighting Illini will be able to hang with a deeper, more balanced Bulldogs squad.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 34, Illinois 24
Teams that were in drastically different positions a year ago will wrap up their seasons on the same field when NC State takes on UCF in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl. Less than a year removed from its Fiesta Bowl triumph, the Knights are looking for their fourth straight postseason win while the Wolf Pack are back in a bowl game a season after going winless in ACC play.
It’s been quite the run for UCF (9-3) under head coach George O’Leary. A win over NC State would give the Knights their fourth 10-win season over the past five. Although it didn’t come with another prime bowl invite, UCF did defend its American Athletic Conference title, finishing 7-1 and claiming a share of the crown along with Memphis and Cincinnati.
The Knights are still reveling in last season’s 52-42 win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and have won their past three postseason games overall. This also will be their third appearance in the St. Petersburg Bowl. UCF lost to Rutgers in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl and beat Ball State in the ‘12 edition.
On the other side, Dave Doeren has NC State (7-5) back in a bowl game after more than doubling his win total from his 3-9 debut season in Raleigh. The Wolfpack went 0-8 in the ACC last season and got off to another tough start this fall with four straight losses. But they turned things around late, winning three of their last four including a 35-7 thumping of rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
NC State’s last postseason appearance came in 2012 when the Wolfpack lost to Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl. That game was played in the Commodores’ hometown of Nashville, Tenn., while this game in St. Petersburg, Fla., is just down the road from Orlando, UCF’s home.
This will be the third matchup between these two programs, with each winning on the other’s home field. The most recent meeting took place early in the 2010 season when NC State beat UCF 28-21 in Orlando.
NC State vs. UCF
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UCF -2
NC State’s Key to Victory: Establish the Run
In his first season with the Wolfpack, Florida transfer quarterback Jacoby Brissett has put together a solid season. He has 22 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, but this offense has been most successful when the emphasis has been on running the football. Brissett is second on the team with 498 yards rushing, one of four players with at least 282. Shadrach Thornton leads the way with 811 yards (5.5 ypc) and nine touchdowns, 271 of those coming in back-to-back wins against Wake Forest and North Carolina. In NC State’s three ACC wins the Wolfpack had more than twice as many rushing yards (871) than passing (335). In their five conference losses, the split was 606 rushing vs. 1,004 passing. Dave Doeren runs a spread offense, but this NC State offense has been at its best employing the old-school approach of simply trying to cram the football down your opponent’s throat. Whether it will work against UCF’s stout rushing defense (5th in FBS) remains to be seen, but given the results, you certainly can’t fault the Wolfpack for at least trying.
UCF’s Key to Victory: Play to Your Strength
Blake Bortles isn’t the only player missing from last season’s Fiesta Bowl championship team, but he and 1,100-yard rusher Storm Johnson are arguably the two biggest losses on offense. Yet, the Knights successfully defended their conference title and are on the verge of another 10-win season. A pretty good defensive team last season, George O’Leary’s unit has taken things to a whole different level this fall. UCF finished 2013 29th in the nation in total defense. This season the Knights enter this game ranked third, behind only Clemson and Penn State. They have been difficult to run on (97.4 ypg, 5th) and have allowed just three teams (Missouri, UConn and East Carolina) to score 30 or more points. UCF has forced 27 turnovers (18 INTs) and features one of the nation’s top defenders in senior linebacker Terrance Plummer. Sophomore Justin Holman has done a respectable job replacing Bortles at quarterback and the Knights have experienced playmakers at wide receiver, but this team has been able to build on the success of last season behind a stout defense. UCF’s strength (stopping the run) seems to play into NC State’s (running the ball), so as long as the offense puts some drives together and takes care of the ball (28 giveaways), the Knights shouldn’t need many points to pick up their 10th win of the season. Of course that’s what happens when you are giving up fewer than 18 per game.
Former UCF quarterback Blake Bortles is just up the road toiling for the Jacksonville Jaguars, while his Knights continue to take care of business. George O’Leary has put together a program with staying power, even if it’s in a non-Power 5 conference. This Knights team is built around defense, which should prove to be a tough test for NC State’s run-heavy approach. It’s not the Fiesta Bowl in primetime, but UCF’s postseason success continues as the Knights shut down the Wolfpack in their de facto home game at Tropicana Field.
Prediction: UCF 23, NC State 17
Points should not be in short supply when Rutgers and North Carolina square off in the inaugural Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Essentially a retooled version of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl with Power 5 conference tie-ins, Ford Field will feature a pair of defenses that combined are giving up more than 900 yards and nearly 70 points per game.
Making the move from the American Athletic Conference to the much more competitive Big Ten, many expected Rutgers to finish at the bottom of its division and well out of postseason consideration. Instead Kyle Flood made it three bowl invites in three seasons, as the Scarlet Knights (7-5) knocked off Michigan and Maryland on their way to a fourth-place finish (3-5) in the Big Ten’s East Division.
Next up for Flood is to get his first bowl victory. Rutgers lost to Virginia Tech 13-10 in overtime in the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl and 29-19 to Notre Dame in last season’s Pinstripe Bowl. Those two losses ended a streak of five straight bowl wins under former head coach Greg Schiano.
Expectations for North Carolina (6-6) entering the fall were considerably higher, but another slow start doomed the Tar Heels’ ACC Coastal Division title hopes. A four-game losing streak forced Larry Fedora’s team to put together another strong second half just to get bowl eligible.
Fedora is 21-16 in three seasons in Chapel Hill, which isn’t that bad considering what he has had deal with off of the field. A bowl game ban in 2012, which was the final product of the Butch Davis era, is the only thing keeping Fedora from a third straight postseason appearance as Carolina’s head coach.
Instead, Fedora will look to improve his bowl record with the Tar Heels to 2-0. North Carolina beat Cincinnati 39-17 in last season’s Belk Bowl to conclude a 6-1 run to finish out the 2013 campaign.
This represents the seventh meeting between these two schools. Rutgers and North Carolina have split the previous six mtachups, the last being a 24-22 Tar Heels victory in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2011. That was Schiano’s final season with the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers vs. North Carolina
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -3
Rutgers’ Key to Victory: Take Advantage of Bad North Carolina D
The Scarlet Knights are not an offensive powerhouse by any means. They rank 84th in the nation and seventh in the Big Ten in total offense (378.8 ypg) and 89th and ninth in scoring offense (25.6 ppg). Rutgers has scored 38 or more points four times, but it also was held to a total of 54 points in its five Big Ten losses. However, the Scarlet Knights’ offensive inefficiency does not compare to North Carolina’s defensive struggles. The Tar Heels are 118th in total defense (495.7 ypg), 119th in scoring defense (38.9 ppg), 117th in rushing defense (232.2 ypg), and 108th in passing defense (263.5 ypg). There’s no way to sugarcoat it, this defense has been horrendous. Five different teams have scored 43 or more points on North Carolina, including 70 by East Carolina. As bad as the Heels’ defense has been, it’s still up to Rutgers to take advantage of this seemingly favorable matchup. This means that quarterback Gary Nova needs to avoid the turnovers that have plagued his career and give junior wide receiver Leonte Carroo (1,043 yds. 10 TDs), a chance to operate against a secondary that has already allowed 28 passing plays of 30 yards or more. The Knights also may be able to get their young running backs going on the ground too. Whatever the game plan, Rutgers needs to figure out a way to generate some points or run the risk of being the only offense to not enjoy success against one of the nation’s worst defenses.
North Carolina’s Key to Victory: Put Together a Complete Game
Given the Tar Heels’ preseason expectations, it’s perfectly fine to label this season a disappointment. Defense has been a major problem for Larry Fedora’s team all season, but so has consistency. North Carolina has looked pretty bad, as it did in a 70-41 loss at East Carolina followed up by a 50-35 thrashing at Clemson, but it’s also had its moments. The Tar Heels hung with Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., before falling 50-43, beat ACC Coastal Division champ Georgia Tech and thumped Duke 45-20 in Durham. And of course they followed up that huge win by laying an absolute egg against NC State (35-7 home loss) to close out their slate. As poorly as the defense has performed, this offense (34.3 ppg, 3rd in the ACC and 35th nationally) is capable of scoring enough points to win shootouts (see Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, even Notre Dame). If junior quarterback Marquise Williams can continue his solid play (300.6 ypg of total offense, 19th in FBS), the Tar Heels should be able to do some things against Rutgers’ defense, which hasn’t exactly shut opponents down. However, the defense will need to rise to the occasion as well, and a contribution on special teams, a strength last season, certainly wouldn’t hurt. Coincidentally, the circumstances surrounding this game are similar to those of last season. Last November, Carolina lost its regular-season finale to finish 6-6 and everyone was wondering which team would show up for the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati. Well, the Tar Heels put together one of their best all-around efforts, with offense, defense and special teams all making sizeable contributions in their convincing 39-17 victory over the Bearcats. Will there be a repeat performance against the Scarlet Knights?
Rutgers has the better record, but the Scarlet Knights’ signature win this season was a come-from-behind victory at Maryland to close out the regular season. Otherwise, Kyle Flood’s team has defeated just one other bowl team (Navy) while getting thumped by the Big Ten’s better teams. For all of its defensive woes, North Carolina still won six games, including victories over ACC Coastal Division champion Georgia Tech and Duke. The Tar Heels beat four bowl teams (Pittsburgh, San Diego State) and nearly took down Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. North Carolina’s defense has had trouble stopping anyone this fall, but I am not convinced that Rutgers has enough offensive firepower to take full advantage of this matchup. On the other hand, I do think Larry Fedora’s offense will be effective against the Scarlet Knights’ defense with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams being the difference-maker in the end. There should be no lack of offensive fireworks at Ford Field as the Tar Heels have just enough firepower to outlast the Scarlet Knights in a back-and-forth, highly entertaining affair in the Motor City.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, Rutgers 30
The inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl will reunite Central Michigan and Western Kentucky as postseason foes, but don’t expect either team to complain. From a destination standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than Nassau in the Bahamas, even if the game takes place on Christmas Eve.
Two seasons ago, the Chippewas and Hilltoppers met in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit to finish out the 2012 season. Central Michigan used a fourth quarter touchdown to beat Western Kentucky 24-21, as both teams finished 7-6. The rematch could feature even more points, as the two teams are combining to average nearly 70 per game.
Most of that damage has been done by the Hilltoppers (7-5), who are sixth in the nation in scoring (44.0 ppg) in their first season under former Louisville quarterback Jeff Brohm. Western Kentucky is coming off of a 67-point effort in its overtime win at Marshall, which put an end to the Thundering Herd’s dreams of going undefeated, and has scored 45 or more points five other times. The Hilltoppers finished in a three-way tie in Conference USA’s East Division with a 4-4 record.
This is just Western Kentucky’s second bowl appearance despite the fact they went 8-4 under current Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino last season.
Central Michigan (7-5) also is back in the postseason for the first time since beating the Hilltoppers two seasons ago in Detroit. The Chippewas went 6-6 last season, but were not selected to fill one of the Mid-American Conference’s bowl slots. With a win in the Bahamas, Dan Enos’ team would finish with the most victories in a season since CMU went 12-2 in 2009 under Butch Jones, who is now the head coach at Tennessee.
Unlike Western Kentucky, Central Michigan has gotten it done with defense this season. The Chippewas are 16th in the nation in total (331.2 ypg) and 32nd in scoring (23.2 ppg) defense.
The 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is the only other time these two schools have met on the gridiron.
Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Western Kentucky -4
Central Michigan’s Key to Victory: Get Off to Fast Start
The Chippewas have outscored opponents 101-36 in the first quarter. Not surprisingly they are 6-2 in games in which they have led after the first 15 minutes. From then on, Central Michigan has been outscored 242-201 over the final three periods. Fortunately, the Chippewas have done a good job maintaining leads, going 5-0 when up at halftime. More of a defensive-oriented team, they have not been successful when having to playing catch up, posting a 1-4 mark when trailing at the half. Fast starts are important, but especially against a high-scoring team like Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are averaging 44 points per game, with much of that damage coming in the first half. WKU has outscored opponents 310-213 in the first half, which means on average it has an eight-point lead (26-18) at halftime. The Hilltoppers haven’t been that great at protecting leads (4-3 when up at halftime), but they possess considerably more offensive firepower than the Chippewas. Even if Central Michigan’s defense is successful in slowing down WKU’s high-powered attack, it’s critical that the Chippewas take the fight to the Hilltoppers and get out to an early lead because this is not the type of team they want to have to mount a comeback against.
Western Kentucky’s Key to Victory: Brandon Doughty’s Arm
A senior, Doughty leads the nation with 4,344 yards passing and 44 touchdowns. He’s completed 67.5 percent of his passes (ninth in FBS), thrown just 10 interceptions in 510 attempts (third) and his 163.6 passer rating is fifth nationally. Doughty is a big reason why the Hilltoppers are sixth both in total (525.3 ypg) and scoring (44.0 ppg) offense and third in passing (365.0 ypg). Western Kentucky obviously is a team that leans on its passing offense, and when Doughty has been on, he’s been near perfect. In the Hilltoppers’ seven wins, Doughty’s touchdown-to-interception ratio is a sparkling 32:3, compared to 12:7 in the five losses. Central Michigan enters this game with one of the nation’s top defenses, statistically speaking. The Chippewas are allowing just over 23 points per game and have limited passing attacks to 211.4 yards per game while intercepting 14 passes (versus 19 TD passes allowed). As well as this defense has played, it has yet to face a passing offense as prolific as Western Kentucky’s. And Doughty is just one part of the problem; as seven different Hilltoppers have caught at least 23 passes and nine have two or more touchdown receptions. Only one team (Louisiana Tech) has really been able to shut down Doughty (134-1-4 in 59-10 loss) this season, which does not bode well for Central Michigan’s defense.
Two teams with opposite strengths. Central Michigan has gotten the job with defense, while Western Kentucky has lit up the scoreboard this fall. Dan Enos’ team is back in a bowl game and beat Purdue earlier this season, but the Boilermakers went just 3-9 and other than a road win over eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois, the Chippewas haven’t defeated an FCS team with a winning record. The Hilltoppers have wins over three bowl teams, including MAC member Bowling Green and previously undefeated Marshall. Central Michigan’s defense has been solid, but it has yet to face an offense like Western Kentucky’s. Brandon Doughty shows why he’s one of the nation’s most dangerous passers, as the Hilltoppers overwhelm the Chippewas to exact a little revenge from two years ago and earn the program’s first-ever bowl victory in the process.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 37, Central Michigan 27
Week 16 of the NFL season concludes with a battle of AFC division leaders as the Denver Broncos are set to take on the Cincinnati Bengals on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Broncos (11-3) have already clinched their fourth straight AFC West title and could secure a first-round bye with a victory tonight. The Bengals (9-4-1) are trying to hold off the Steelers (10-5) for the AFC North crown, but more importantly a win would guarantee a fourth straight playoff berth.
Denver has won four in a row behind a rejuvenated running game and Peyton Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati. The Bengals have won four out of five (all on the road), but haven’t fared too well in primetime this season. Cincinnati got blasted by New England 43-17 on Sunday night in Week 5 and was embarrassed 24-3 by Cleveland at home on Thursday night in Week 10.
Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Denver -3.5
|Denver 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ OAK||W 41 - 17||Recap|
|11/16||@ STL||L 7 - 22||Recap|
|11/23||vs MIA||W 39 - 36||Recap|
|11/30||@ KC||W 29 - 16||Recap|
|12/7||vs BUF||W 24 - 17||Recap|
|12/14||@ SD||W 22 - 10||Recap|
|12/22||@ CIN||L 28 - 37||Recap|
|12/28||vs OAK||W 47 - 14||Recap|
Denver’s Key to Victory: Don’t Forget About Peyton
The Broncos have won four in a row and they have done it in a somewhat unusual way. Instead of riding Peyton Manning’s right arm, Denver has been content with punishing teams on the ground. The Broncos have 659 yards rushing and nearly as many rushing touchdowns (five) as passing (seven) over the past four games. C.J. Anderson has been a revelation, but the grind may be getting to him as he’s averaged 2.9 yards per carry over the last two games. Meanwhile, Manning has seen his attempts and completions drop in each of the past five games. Whether it’s injury-related (has been dealing with a thigh issue) or there’s more to the reports of diminished arm strength with the weather turning colder, Denver has relied less on its future Hall of Fame signal-caller lately. However, tonight may be a perfect opportunity to change things up, considering Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati with a 20:5 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 106.8. The Bengals are 11th in the NFL in passing defense, but they will have their hands full against Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of Denver’s pass-catchers. The running game has worked recently, but the Broncos have enjoyed a fair amount of success through the air too. Perhaps tonight they should take a page out of their old playbook?
|Cincinnati 2014 Schedule|
|11/6||vs CLE||L 3 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||@ NO||W 27 - 10||Recap|
|11/23||@ HOU||W 22 - 13||Recap|
|11/30||@ TB||W 14 - 13||Recap|
|12/7||vs PIT||L 21 - 42||Recap|
|12/14||@ CLE||W 30 - 0||Recap|
|12/22||vs DEN||W 37 - 28||Recap|
|12/28||@ PIT||L 17 - 27||Recap|
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Is Andy Dalton Ready for Primetime?
The Bengals have leaned on Jeremy Hill recently, and the second-round pick out of LSU has responded. In the last five games alone, Hill has rushed for 473 yards on 91 carries with three touchdowns. For the season, he’s averaging five yards per carry and has shown that he can handle a heavy workload (18.2 carries per game during this span). However, Denver’s defense has really clamped down on the run this season. The Broncos are second only to the Lions in rushing defense, giving up 71.6 yards per game. Only one rusher (Tre Mason) has gone over 100 yards on the ground against them and they have allowed just 67 yards per game over the last four contests. With Hill’s seemingly tough matchup, Cincinnati will need Andy Dalton to make more plays through the air to try and loosen up Denver’s defense. Unfortunately, Dalton has not played his best when he’s been in the national spotlight. His playoff struggles (0-3, 1 TD, 6 INTs) have been well documented, but he’s also just 2-6 in his career in primetime (Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights) games. When the stadium lights are on, Dalton’s production goes down – 53.6 percent completion rate, 199.1 yards passing per game and as many interceptions (8) as total touchdowns (7 pass, 1 rush). The Bengals are on doorstep of their fourth consecutive playoff berth, a first for this franchise, but for this team to have any success in January, Dalton needs to play better when the stakes are highest. What better practice than tonight against one of AFC’s top teams?
Denver has already punched its playoff ticket and now is just playing for a bye and home-field advantage. Cincinnati can get in with a win tonight, which would certainly take some pressure off prior to Sunday’s division-deciding finale in Pittsburgh. The Bengals have won four of their last five because of their defense and a bruising running game, but they had all sorts of issues against the Steelers, an offensive team in the mold of the Broncos, and are matched up against one of the NFL’s stingiest rushing defenses tonight. Peyton Manning has been rather ordinary lately, but he’s still a future Hall of Famer while Andy Dalton has not held up well in primetime settings. Denver sticks to its recent script (running the ball, playing tough defense) with a few deviations courtesy of No. 18, as the Broncos wrap up a first-round bye, setting the stage for a massive Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh showdown Sunday in the Steel City.
Prediction: Denver 27, Cincinnati 20
Forget the records, whichever team wins the NFC South is going to the playoffs, which makes today’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints on FOX the most important of their respective seasons.
The Saints (6-8) are in the driver’s seat and can clinch the division title with a win at home and a loss by the Panthers. The Falcons (5-9) trail the Saints by a game, but a win would give them the season sweep and a 5-0 record in divisional play. Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on this one.
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: New Orleans -6.5
New Orleans moved back into first place in the mediocre NFC South with a 31-15 victory on Monday night against a reeling Chicago team. Drew Brees (375-3-0) had little trouble carving up an overmatched Bears secondary, and the Saints sealed Jay Cutler’s fate with three interceptions.
Now the hope is that the Saints that can put together a similar performance at home against the Falcons, a thought that seemed ludicrous not too long ago. Usually near unbeatable in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans is looking to snap a four-game losing streak there.
Since beating Green Bay 44-23 in Week 8, the Saints have lost at home to the 49ers (in overtime), Bengals, Ravens and Panthers. Carolina drubbed New Orleans 41-10 two weeks ago, as the Panthers put up 497 yards of total offense.
Atlanta’s offense can be perceived as being even more potent than Carolina’s, but New Orleans could catch a break if Julio Jones is unable to play because of a hip injury. Jones is Matt Ryan’s favorite and most dangerous target, and his absence would be a huge blow.
The Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime way back in Week 1, a game that featured 1,040 yards of total offense. Ryan and Brees combined for 788 yards passing, four touchdowns and one interception (Brees) and Jones led all players with seven catches for 116 yards.
If Jones can’t go, Roddy White and Harry Douglas will need to pick up the slack against a New Orleans pass defense that’s had trouble with teams who like to air it out (Green Bay, Pittsburgh). For the Saints, Monday night was a welcome sight in that All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham got back in the act with five catches for 87 yards. He had totaled just three grabs for 25 yards in the prior two games combined. Graham led the team with eight receptions (82 yards) in the first meeting against Atlanta, and it’s a safe bet he will be targeted often as he looks to take advantage of the NFL’s worst pass defense.
With these two pass-heavy offenses, the ground game often takes a back seat. Both defenses have been susceptible to the run, but neither offense appears to have much appetite for taking the air out of the football. The Falcons’ running game may be under a little more pressure to produce, however, especially if Jones is unable to play.
New Orleans is in first place, but Atlanta also is in control of its playoff destiny. The NFC South is only getting one team into the playoffs and it could be the team that wins today.
The Saints were the popular pick to make it to the playoffs entering this season, and their path sets up nicely with the final two games at home. It hasn’t been easy, especially at home, but New Orleans shows Atlanta why the Superdome is still one of the best home-field advantages in the league and gets a step closer to another division title in the process.
Prediction: New Orleans 31, Atlanta 24
A pair of 10-4 teams at two different points on the playoff path will intersect when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Dallas Cowboys later today on CBS. The Colts have already clinched their second straight AFC South title, while the Cowboys can win the NFC East with a win at home.
Dallas took over control of the division with a 38-27 win in Philadelphia last week, and now just needs one more victory to end its postseason drought following the Eagles' shocking loss to the Redskins on Saturday. The Eagles control all of the tiebreakers, but the Cowboys would need to lose today and next week to Washington to give Philadelphia any hope. And even then the Eagles would still need to beat the Giants on the road next Sunday to force the tiebreaker.
The Cowboys may be without DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher, who is trying to play just days after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his left hand. With Murray leading the way, Dallas has used its running game to not only move the ball, but also control the clock, and the Cowboys may be forced to rely on backups Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar if Murray can’t play.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Dallas Cowboys
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Dallas -3
|Indianapolis 2014 Schedule|
|11/16||vs NE||L 20 - 42||Recap|
|11/23||vs JAC||W 23 - 3||Recap|
|11/30||vs WAS||W 49 - 27||Recap|
|12/7||@ CLE||W 25 - 24||Recap|
|12/14||vs HOU||W 17 - 10||Recap|
|12/21||@ DAL||L 7 - 42||Recap|
|12/28||@ TEN||W 27 - 10||Recap|
|1/4||vs CIN||W 26 - 10||Recap|
Indianapolis’ Key to Victory: Pass with Purpose
No team has attempted more passes than the Colts, which is why Andrew Luck leads the league in both yards (4,492) and touchdowns (38). The secret to Indianapolis’ success is pretty straightforward – a lot of Luck. With 10 wins, no one can really argue with the Colts’ approach, although it does have some downsides. For one, teams that lean heavily towards the pass can be easier to defend, although Indianapolis’ offensive statistics portray a different tale. However, throwing the ball a lot does open up the possibility for more mistakes. Case in point, over the past four games Luck has thrown four picks and lost four fumbles, accounting for more than half of the team’s 13 turnovers during this span. Despite posting a minus-six turnover margin during this stretch, the Colts went 4-0 because they scored nearly 29 points per game. For all of Dallas’ success this season, the defense is giving up nearly 250 yards passing per game and has allowed 20 touchdown passes. Luck and the Colts will be able to take their deep shots against the Cowboys’ defense, they just need to be careful to not take too many chances through the air. Dallas’ offense could be shorthanded both in the backfield and up front, and the last thing Indianapolis would want to do is give Tony Romo and company extra possessions. The Colts have been able to overcome their mistakes recently, but with the playoffs looming now is the perfect time to focus on ball security and cleaning up other things. With Indianapolis’ playoff ticket already punched, the focus these next two weeks should be on laying the groundwork so the Colts can be successful come January.
|Dallas 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ JAC||W 31 - 17||Recap|
|11/23||@ NYG||W 31 - 28||Recap|
|11/27||vs PHI||L 10 - 33||Recap|
|12/4||@ CHI||W 41 - 28||Recap|
|12/14||@ PHI||W 38 - 27||Recap|
|12/21||vs IND||W 42 - 7||Recap|
|12/28||@ WAS||W 44 - 17||Recap|
|1/4||vs DET||W 24 - 20||Recap|
Dallas’ Key to Victory: Take a Page out of Indianapolis’ Playbook
The Cowboys have made a living this season out of running the ball. Behind DeMarco Murray, they have the third-most productive ground game (146.6 ypg) and have used that to control the clock. Dallas is second only to Pittsburgh in time of possession (32:50). However, the Cowboys could be without the NFL’s leading rusher this afternoon (trying to play through a broken hand) and their offensive line is pretty banged up too. If Murray can’t go or is limited, the burden falls on Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar to pick up the slack, and this may be too much to ask of them, especially if the line isn’t at 100 percent. So instead of focusing on running the ball, perhaps Dallas should let Tony Romo do his best Andrew Luck impression and air it out a little more. For one, Indianapolis is 19th in the league in passing defense (240.6 ypg) with 21 touchdown passes allowed and just 12 interceptions. Secondly, the Colts’ best cover guy, cornerback Vontae Davis, is dealing with a groin injury, which has caused him to miss a game and could impact his effectiveness this afternoon. A limited Davis is a good sign for Dez Bryant and the other Cowboy wide receivers. Lastly, it’s not like Romo has been a bad passer this season. He’s second in the league in passer rating (110.4) and is tied for seventh in TD passes with 28, even though he’s 22nd in attempts. Romo has thrown just eight interceptions all season and a total of two over his last six games. Dallas hasn’t needed Romo to throw the ball a lot, but health concerns and matchup are just two reasons to at least consider changing things up against Indianapolis.
All of the attention entering this one has been on the health of DeMarco Murray’s left hand, and rightfully so. However, even if Dallas has to go without the NFL’s leading rusher, I think the Cowboys have enough depth in their backfield to weather Murray’s absence. In fact, I think Dallas’ best course of action should Murray not play is to open up the playbook and have Tony Romo throw it more than usual. Andrew Luck may be the league’s most prolific passer, but Romo has weapons of his own to use, namely Dez Bryant, and could be facing an Indianapolis secondary that’s not at full strength. The Colts don’t really need to win this game, whereas this victory would mean everything to the Cowboys. Behind an impressive aerial attack, Dallas ends its four-season playoff with a big win at home.
Prediction: Dallas 31, Indianapolis 27
The most important injury everyone’s keeping an eye on for Week 16 is DeMarco Murray’s hand. Will the Cowboys have their leading rusher this afternoon? And what’s been bothering Peyton Manning?
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Mon.)
Questionable – Thigh
Manning was limited in practice this week by a thigh injury and is listed as Questionable. However, barring something unforeseen happening between today and Monday night, Manning will be out there against the Bengals. The only games Manning has ever missed in his career is when he sat out the 2011 season after undergoing spinal fusion surgery. Manning’s numbers have been pretty ordinary lately (average of 12.1 fantasy points over last three games), but some of that is due to the effectiveness of C.J. Anderson running the ball. He also has been dealing with this thigh injury for a few weeks and last week he was battling some sickness. As long as Manning plays, he’s a must-start QB1.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys vs. Indianapolis Colts
Questionable – Hand
Will he or won’t he? That’s what everyone wants to know regarding the NFL’s leading rusher. Murray had surgery earlier this week to have screws and a protective plate inserted to protect his broken left hand. He practiced on a limited basis both Thursday and Friday, and is officially considered Questionable. He will be a game-time decision and apparently the final decision will be made by Murray himself. Several people, including owner Jerry Jones, have stated they believe Murray will play. There are still concerns regarding Murray’s effectiveness with an injured left hand, not to mention the concern that his workload may be reduced. With a guy as important as Murray, it’s worth waiting as long as possible before setting your lineup. With this being a later afternoon kickoff (4:25 p.m. ET) that means making sure you have a viable backup plan in place, but for now I would lean towards keeping Murray in the lineup. For what it’s worth, I prefer Joseph Randle over Lance Dunbar in terms of fantasy potential, especially if Murray doesn’t play. Randle would likely take over the rushing duties, while Dunbar could see enough targets to merit flex consideration in deep PPR leagues.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
Probable – Back
Same routine for Lynch, who’s being rested earlier in the week to save some wear and tear on his body. He’s listed as Probable and will be plenty busy tonight against the Cardinals. It should be pointed out that Arizona held Lynch to just 39 yards rushing the first time these two teams played, but Lynch is a must-start RB1 regardless of matchup.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills at Oakland Raiders
Probable – Shoulder
Spiller has missed the past seven games because of a broken collarbone, but he was activated from injured reserve earlier this week and is expected to play today. Spiller wasn’t that productive before the injury, so it’s very risky to expect much from him in his first game back after a long absence. Chances are the Bills will ease Spiller back into action, meaning Fred Jackson will continue to see the lion’s share of touches. There’s no reason to rush Spiller back into your lineup or even to run out and pick him up if he’s on your waiver wire.
Already Ruled Out:
Rashad Jennings, RB, New York Giants – Jennings’ injury-plagued debut season with the Giants continues, as a nagging ankle injury will keep him from playing today. He’s rushed for eight yards in the last two games combined, so it’s possible he won’t be seen on the field again this season. In Jennings’ absence, rookie Andre Williams will get another start. Williams has thrived in this role before, but the Rams are a tough defense. Williams can be employed since he’s likely to see 20 touches, but he’s probably nothing more than a flex option because of the matchup.