Articles By Mark Ross

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The Cincinnati Bengals will try and snap a 23-year playoff victory drought when they host the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Wild Card game at 1:05 p.m. ET on CBS. The Bengals (11-5) won the AFC North and are in the playoffs for the third straight season for the first time in franchise history. The Chargers (9-7) earned the final wild card spot last week by beating Kansas City 27-24 in overtime at home. These two teams met in Week 13 in San Diego, a game the Bengals won 17-10.

This is the first playoff game Cincinnati has hosted since losing to the Jets in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game. The Bengals haven’t won in the postseason in more than two decades, going all the way back to a 41-14 victory over Houston in the 1990 AFC Wild Card game, which was played at old Riverfront Stadium.

San Diego is in the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season. The Chargers lost to the Jets 17-14 at home in the Divisional Round that season. This is just the second time these two teams have met in the playoffs. Cincinnati defeated San Diego 27-7 in the AFC Championship Game in 1982, as Ken Anderson out-dueled Dan Fouts in one of the coldest games in NFL history. The game-time temperature was minus-six degrees with a 24 mph wind making the wind chill a frigid minus-32.

3 Things to Watch

Week 13 Recap
Cincinnati made the trek west in Week 13 to take on a San Diego team that had just upset AFC West division rival Kansas City on the road. The Bengals brought the Chargers back to reality, however, beating the home team 17-10 in a game that was fairly even, statistically speaking. Only 20 yards separated the two teams (354 for CIN, 334 for SD), as both had the same number of first downs (19) and time of possession was basically split. The Chargers had the edge in passing production (243 to 190), but the Bengals out-rushed San Diego164 to 91 and had one fewer turnover (2 to 3). Andy Dalton hooked up with A.J. Green for a 21-yard touchdown in the third quarter that ended up being the deciding score. It put the Bengals up 14-7, as the teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter and Cincinnati ran out the clock to seal the key road victory. With the win, the Bengals moved to 8-4, maintaining a two-game lead in the AFC North. Cincinnati went 3-1 down the stretch, winning its division by three games and capturing the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs by virtue of a Week 14 home win over Indianapolis. San Diego meanwhile sat at 5-7 following the home loss, seemingly out of the postseason chase. The Chargers rebounded strong, however, winning their final four games, including one on the road against Denver. San Diego also needed some help and got it, as teams in front of them like Miami and Baltimore couldn’t take care of business, setting the stage for the Chargers’ dramatic overtime victory over the Chiefs in the regular-season finale, which rewarded them and first-year head coach Mike McCoy with the final wild card spot.

Welcome to “The Jungle”
Cincinnati calls Paul Brown Stadium home, but it’s more affectionately known as the “The Jungle.” Whatever you want to call it, the Bengals have been beastly there this season, posting a perfect 8-0 record. Among the victims this season were division winners Green Bay, Indianapolis and New England, as well as the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens and fellow AFC North foes Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Cincinnati outscored opponents 275-134 at home, or an average of 17.6 points per game. The defense, which finished the regular season third in the NFL in yards allowed (305.5 ypg) and tied for fifth in points allowed (19.1 ppg), was even stingier in “The Jungle.” In eight games at home, the Bengals’ D yielded just 289.4 yards and 16.8 points per contest. The offense also did its part, putting up an average of 364.9 yards per game, including five games with at least 390 yards. This is Cincinnati’s third straight playoff appearance, but their first at home in five seasons. Having lost in Houston each of the past two seasons by a combined score of 50-23, this is no doubt what Marvin Lewis’ team has been waiting for. San Diego on the other hand, was 4-4 on the road in the regular season, but three of those four were against playoff teams – Denver, Kansas City and Philadelphia. The Chargers have shown they can beat good teams on their turf, but the Bengals have no intention of letting them feel at home in “The Jungle.”

Quarterback Quality
Philip Rivers enjoyed quite the bounce-back season with first-year head coach Mike McCoy calling the shots. Rivers finished fifth in the NFL in passing with 4,478 yards and led the league with career-best 69.5 completion percentage. He tossed 32 touchdowns passes, his most since 2008, leading his Chargers back to the postseason and earning his fifth Pro Bowl invite in the process. Andy Dalton has taken his Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons as his numbers continue to rise. Dalton posted career bests in completions, yards, touchdown passes and passer rating this season. He was third behind only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees with 33 touchdowns and also was top 10 in yards and completions. Statistically similar this season, these two quarterbacks also share something else in common – a tendency to turn the ball over too much and a lack of success in the postseason. Last season, Rivers led the league with 22 turnovers (15 INTs, 7 fumbles), as the Chargers stumbled to 7-9 resulting in the dismissal of head coach Norv Turner. This season Rivers has just 13 giveaways with 11 picks and only two lost fumbles, but he hasn’t always been at his best come playoff time. In seven postseason games, Rivers is 3-4 with more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (8) and averaging just 260 yards passing per game. Cincinnati’s defense was second only to Kansas City in the AFC in takeaways with 31, and 21 of those have come at home. Unfortunately, the Bengals have been careless with the ball at times, as their 30 giveaways are four more than any other team in the playoffs (Denver, 26). Dalton has been the main culprit, throwing 20 interceptions and losing three fumbles. His 20 picks were the fifth-most of any quarterback in the league and he was particularly sloppy with the ball last week, tossing four interceptions against Baltimore. He also has four picks in two playoff games with no touchdowns. Those first two postseason contests were on the road in Houston, so Dalton should feel more comfortable at home. But he still has to make good decisions when he does drop back to throw, especially if the Bengals’ defense does its job by making Rivers uncomfortable in the pocket. Whichever quarterback takes better care of the football this afternoon can at least walk off of the field knowing they did their job.

San Diego Key Players: Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, RBs
The Chargers’ backfield is powered by the duo of Mathews and Woodhead. The leading rusher, Mathews (right) has posted 99 yards or more in each of his last four games, including a season-high 144 in the wild card-clinching, overtime win against Kansas City last week. Mathews has been dealing with an ankle injury, but it didn’t slow him down at all last week and shouldn’t be a factor entering this game. Mathews needs to be at his best considering Cincinnati finished fifth in the NFL in rushing defense at 96.5 yards per game. While Mathews has been the main ground gainer, Woodhead has had a major impact as a receiver in his first season with the Chargers. An all-purpose threat during his tenure in New England, Woodhead is second on the Chargers with 76 receptions, which have gone for 605 yards and six touchdowns. Mathews also is capable of catching the ball out of the backfield (26-189-1), while Woodhead has rushed for 429 yards and two scores. This versatility will be important against the Bengals’ defense, as yards and points have been hard to come against this unit, especially at home. Whether it’s Mathews or Woodhead or a combination of the two, the Chargers need some plays out of their backfield to help take pressure off of Philip Rivers and the passing game.

Cincinnati Key Players: Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RBs
The Bengals feature more of a speed-power combo in their backfield in the form of Bernard and Green-Ellis. The first running back taken in April’s draft (2nd round, 37th overall), Bernard has made a number of highlight-reel plays this season, using his speed and explosiveness to rack up the yards. He scored eight total touchdowns, as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per reception. Green-Ellis is the veteran and leads the way with 756 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns. His job is to get the tough yardage, especially on third down and near the goal-line, as his 48 first downs can attest. Together this duo has accumulated close to 2,000 yards of total offense and 15 total touchdowns. The Bengals have been more of a passing offense this season, but the running game still needs do its part. San Diego fared pretty well against the run (107.8 ypg) during the regular season, so any real estate Bernard and Green-Eillis can claim this afternoon should make Andy Dalton’s job that much easier.

Final Analysis

After decades of futility, Cincinnati has seemingly found its stride under Marvin Lewis. The Bengals won the AFC North and are in the playoffs for a third straight season for the first time in franchise history. All San Diego head coach Mike McCoy did in his first season was lead the Chargers back to the postseason for the first time since 2009. The Chargers won their last four games to get here, but have a tall task ahead of them as the Bengals went a perfect 8-0 at home.

Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game in 23 years, but its last two losses came on the road, in Houston. The Bengals’ hard work during the regular season has paid off, and I fully expect this team to be fired up and ready to go on their home turf, Paul Brown Stadium, aka “The Jungle.” Cincinnati’s defense was one of the best in the NFL during the regular season and I think it will be too much for Philip Rivers and company to overcome. Andy Dalton makes just enough plays through the air and minimizes his mistakes, as the Bengals snap their long playoff victory drought with a well-rounded effort.

Cincinnati 27, San Diego 17

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Post date: Sunday, January 5, 2014 - 09:00
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The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, two of the winningest franchises in NFL history, will go head-to-head in the playoffs for the second straight season when their NFC Wild Card game kicks off at 4:40 p.m. ET on FOX. The 49ers (12-4) tied with Carolina for the second-best record in the NFC, but are the road team this afternoon against the NFC North champion Packers (8-7-1). The Lambeau Field turf will indeed be frozen with temperatures expected to be below zero at the start of the game and to drop further as the night continues.

This represents the fourth meeting between these two teams in the last two seasons, with the 49ers winning the previous three. San Francisco and Green Bay have opened each of the past two seasons against each other and the 49ers also beat the Packers 45-31 in last year’s NFC Divisional Round out in San Francisco in a game that saw Colin Kaepernick rush for a quarterback-record 181 yards and two touchdowns.

4 Things to Watch

Rusty Rodgers?
If there was every any doubt regarding Rodgers’ importance to the Packers, then look no further than how the regular season played out. Entering its Week 9 Monday night matchup with Chicago, Green Bay was 5-2 and in its customary position atop the NFC North. However, a first-quarter sack of Rodgers by the Bears’ Shea McClellin changed everything, as the 2011 NFL MVP left the game with what was eventually diagnosed as a broken collarbone. Not surprisingly, the Packers fell to the Bears at home, 27-20, and then proceeded to go 2-4-1 without No. 12 under center. With Green Bay’s postseason hopes on the line, Rodgers returned last week for the finale in Chicago and after a shaky first half, bounced back strong and connected with Randall Cobb on a go-ahead, 48-yard touchdown pass to give the Packers a 33-28 lead with just 38 seconds remaining. The defense picked off Jay Cutler’s desperation heave into the end zone, securing Green Bay’s third straight division title and their fifth consecutive playoff appearance. Now the attention focuses to this matchup with San Francisco, which figures to be a much tougher test than Chicago, especially from a defensive standpoint. The 49ers finished the regular season fifth in the NFL in yards allowed (316.9 ypg) and third in points (17.0 ppg). Rodgers has had success in his career against the 49ers, averaging 319.5 yards passing and posting a 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in four regular-season games, but he’s just 2-2 in those contests and also lost to San Francisco in last year’s playoffs. What’s more, Rodgers has played one full game in the past two months and even his practice time has been limited during his recovery. The rust was pretty evident early on against Chicago, and even though he was able to get the job done, Rodgers knows the margin for error is even smaller in the playoffs, especially against a defense like the 49ers. The Packers wouldn’t even be in this position if not for their quarterback. The question is which one will show up this afternoon – the one that threw two interceptions in the first half last week or the one that carved up the Bears in the third and fourth quarters?

Kaepernick’s Track Record vs. Packers
It’s a very small sample size (two games), but Colin Kaepernick has certainly enjoyed playing Green Bay. He’s 2-0 against the Packers and has gotten the job done with both his arm and his legs. In last season’s Divisional Round win, Kaepernick set an NFL single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback when he gashed Green Bay for 181 on 16 carries (11.3 ypc) and two touchdowns. He also threw for 263 yards and two scores as the 49ers overwhelmed the Packers 45-31 on their way to Super Bowl XLVII. The two teams met again to open this season, and this time Kaepernick did the damage with his arm, throwing for a career-high 412 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-28 win. Aaron Rodgers threw for a combined 590 yards and five touchdowns of his own in these two games, but it’s clear that Green Bay’s defense has not figured out how to slow down, let alone stop, San Francisco’s dynamic dual-threat. On the whole, Kaepernick’s 2013 season has been very uneven, as the Week 1 performance against the Packers was far and away his best game. However, he has been playing more consistently lately, as his 10:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past six games, all wins, will attest. This also will be Kapernick’s first game against the Packers in Lambeau Field, as the previous two took place out in San Francisco. Ironically enough, Kaepernick was born in nearby Milwaukee, but he went to high school in California and starred at Nevada before getting drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft by the 49ers. How will this West Coast product fare in wintry Green Bay? It remains to be seen, but you know just seeing the Packers on the other side will bring a smile to his face.

Backfield Battle
It’s the classic young vs. old matchup in the backfield as Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy and San Francisco’s Frank Gore figure to be the primary ball carriers. Lacy has had quite the debut, as the second-round pick finished eighth in the league with 1,178 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Gore was right behind him with 1,128 yards, making it the third straight time and seventh in his career that he rushed for more than 1,000 in a season. Gore also found the end zone nine times and perhaps most importantly, he has played in five more postseason games than Lacy. Gore boasts a 5.2 yards per carry average in the playoffs and he could find some room this afternoon against a Packers defense that gave up 125 yards rushing per game (25th) in the regular season. Seven different running backs rushed for more than 100 yards against Green Bay, including two such efforts by Chicago’s Matt Forte. Lacy may have the younger legs with considerably less mileage on them, but he’s going up against a San Francisco rushing defense that surrendered just 95.9 yards on the ground per game and no back broke the century mark against this unit. Even with explosive playmakers like Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick at quarterback to win in the playoffs you have to be able to run the ball successfully. There are seven years and 8,789 career rushing yards separating Lacy and Gore. So which one will gain the upper hand on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field?

Ice Bowl II?
In 1967, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers met on Dec. 31, 1967 to play for the NFL Championship with the winner going to Super Bowl II. This game was played at Lambeau Field and would later be known simply as the Ice Bowl, as the game-time temperature was about minus-15 degrees with an average wind chill around minus-48. The Packers wound up winning, 21-17 on a late rushing touchdown by Hall of Famer Bart Starr, and the Ice Bowl is considered one of the greatest games ever played. Now while there’s no way to tell if today’s contest will even come close to matching up with the Ice Bowl, one way in which it will be similar is when it comes to the mercury, or lack of, in the thermometer. The temperature at kickoff (4:40 p.m. ET) is expected to be well below zero with one forecast projecting the wind chill to drop to as low as minus-51 degrees. In other words, this could be the coldest game ever played in NFL history, so one way or the other; the weather will be a factor. And while Green Bay is certainly more accustomed to playing in wintry conditions than San Francisco, it’s safe to say that few, if any, Packers ever played in sub-zero temperatures like the ones they are expecting. The team needed an extension to make this a sellout, which is all you need to know considering this is Lambeau Field and the Packers we are talking about. Those fans loyal enough to brave these conditions to cheer on their beloved home team should be rewarded, and not just with the 70,000 hand warmers and free coffee and hot chocolate the team has said it will provide. The players meanwhile don’t have an option, although they will have a front-row seat to what could end up being a historic game.

San Francisco Key Player: Vernon Davis, TE
Davis tied his career high with 13 touchdown catches this season, which also tied him for third in the NFL. The big athletic target can be a difference-maker for the 49ers on offense, as he caught a touchdown pass in all but four games of the 15 he played during the regular season. He and Colin Kaepernick clicked in the playoffs last season, connecting on 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in three games. In fact, Davis has been at his best in the postseason with a total of 22 receptions for 546 yards and five visits to the end zone in five games. That’s good for a ridiculous average of 24.8 yards per reception. The 49ers are obviously hoping for similar results in these playoffs, as a productive Davis only makes Kaepernick and the passing game as a whole that much more dangerous.

Green Bay Key Player: Randall Cobb, WR
Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the only welcome sight for the Packers’ offense in Week 17. Cobb, who had been on injured reserve since breaking his shin in Week 6 against Baltimore, also returned against Chicago and caught two passes, both of which went for touchdowns. The biggest was the 48-yarder that gave his team a 33-28 lead with 38 seconds left. The defense picked off the Bears’ desperation heave as time expired, giving Green Bay the NFC North crown and its fifth straight playoff berth. Jordy Nelson may be the Packers’ leading receiver this season, but Cobb’s explosiveness and big-play ability adds another element to this offense. Last season, he led the team in receptions (80) and yards (954) and also posted 1,256 return yards and another 132 on the ground, while scoring nine total touchdowns. He’s yet to really break out in a playoff game, but his mere presence in the lineup deepens a wide receiving corps that’s going up against the NFL’s seventh-ranked passing defense. Rodgers’ return came in just the nick of time for the Packers, but it was Cobb who was on the other end of the eventual game-winning touchdown pass. Can the two repeat this success this afternoon?

Final Analysis

These two teams are pretty familiar to each other, as this is the third time San Francisco and Green Bay will have played in a little more than a year. The 49ers have won the first two, but both games were on their home turf, not the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. The Packers also come into this game riding high, as Aaron Rodgers returned from his broken collarbone to lead his team to a third straight NFC North crown in exciting fashion last week against Chicago.

Colin Kaepernick has been a nightmare for the Packers’ defense to contain, as he ran wild against them in last season’s playoff win and carved them up with his arm back in Week 1. Green Bay’s defense has had its issues this season and will be without linebacker Clay Matthews, who is the unit’s heart and soul and one of the NFL’s top sack specialists.

And then there’s the weather. It’s going to be brutally cold at Lambeau, perhaps the coldest game in NFL history. With temperatures this frigid, the condition will be a factor for both teams, so don’t be surprised if the offenses struggle to put points on the board.

That’s why I think defense will be the deciding factor in this one and even though Rodgers certainly makes the Packers a threat, the 49ers’ defense is one of the best in the league, as this is basically the same unit that played in last year’s Super Bowl. San Francisco’s talent and experience on that side of the ball will win out, as Jim Harbaugh’s team tames both the elements and the Packers, setting up a potential Divisional Round showdown in Seattle next week.

San Francisco 23, Green Bay 20

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Post date: Sunday, January 5, 2014 - 09:00
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Defensive purists may not want to watch tonight when the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles go at it in the opening NFC Wild Card game at 8:10 p.m. ET on NBC. The Saints (11-5) and the Eagles (10-6) are among the top four offenses in the NFL and combined averaged more than 52 points per game during the regular season.

New Orleans is back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus, but the Saints were unable to hold off Carolina for the NFC South crown, meaning they will have to do something they have never done – win a road playoff game – if they want to return to the Super Bowl. Philadelphia meanwhile won the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s first season, putting the Eagles in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Now Kelly and quarterback Nick Foles will try and win their first career playoff game together by beating the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning duo of Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

4 Things to Watch

Offensive Fireworks
Philadelphia and New Orleans finished second and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in total offense. Both teams averaged about 400 yards per game and also were among the top 10 teams in scoring. Although their offensive approaches are slightly different, there are numerous similarities between these two teams. Both Nick Foles and Drew Brees completed better than 64 percent of their passes, ranked among the top six in passer rating and top 10 in touchdown passes. The veteran Brees finished behind only Peyton Manning in terms of passing yards (5,162) and touchdowns (39), while first-year starter Foles took over for an injured Michael Vick and wound up leading the league in passer rating (119.2) while posting an impressive 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Both signal-callers have legitimate No. 1 receivers that caught at least 82 passes and nine touchdowns, along with a host of other reliable options, including running backs. Neither defenses are terrible by any means, but with offensive masterminds Sean Payton and Chip Kelly calling the plays and the likes of Brees, Foles, LeSean McCoy, Jimmy Graham, DeSean Jackson and others executing them, don’t expect this postseason tilt to develop into a defensive struggle.

Philadelphia’s Backfield Edge
Offensive similarities aside, if there’s one position the Eagles have a significant edge at it’s running back. LeSean McCoy not only led the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards, but he set a new, single-season franchise record and finished with nearly 300 more than the next guy (Matt Forte) on the list. The man known as Shady averaged 5.1 yards per carry and added 52 receptions for 539 yards in his first season in Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. McCoy found the end zone a total of 11 times (nine rush, two receiving) and had 17 total plays from scrimmage that went for at least 20 yards. With McCoy leading the way, Philadelphia was tops in the league in rushing offense at 160.4 yards per game. On the flip side, New Orleans, which is known for being a passing team with Drew Brees under center, came in at 25th overall with just 92.1 yards rushing per game. The Saints as a team averaged 3.8 yards per carry and their leading rusher (Pierre Thomas, 549 yards) has already been ruled out for tonight’s game because of a back injury. McCoy had 598 yards rushing in his last five games alone and on the season the Eagles’ first-team All-Pro (Associated Press) has out-rushed the entire Saints team by 134 yards (1,607 to 1,473). To make matters worse for New Orleans, its defense finished 19th in the league against the run, giving up 112.2 yards rushing per game. McCoy has played a huge role in Philadelphia getting this far, so there’s no reason to not expect to see a lot of Shady tonight.

Saints’ Road Woes
For whatever reason, New Orleans is simply a different team away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The results speak for themselves. The Saints went 8-0 at home this season, averaging a robust 34.0 points per game. On the road, they were 3-5 and scored nearly half (17.8 ppg) as many points. New Orleans got off to a good start this season, winning in Tampa Bay and Chicago to open its road slate, but won just one more away game the rest of the way. In their last three (Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina), the Saints were outscored 78-36. And if that’s not enough, New Orleans is 0-5 all-time on the road in playoff games, including 0-3 with Sean Payton as head coach and Drew Brees as quarterback. The last loss came in the 2011 Divisional Round when San Francisco scored late in the fourth quarter to beat New Orleans 36-32. As the No. 6 seed in the NFC bracket, the Saints already have the deck stacked against them, needing three road victories to get to the Super Bowl. Add in that the Eagles have won four in a row at home and are 3-1 in their past four playoff games at Lincoln Financial Field and it’s clear the Saints have their work cut out for them if they want to get this road monkey off of their backs.

Eagles’ Improving D
On paper, New Orleans’ defense has fared considerably better than Philadelphia’s, and it’s not even close. The Saints finished the regular season fourth in yards allowed (305.7 ypg) while the Eagles were near the bottom (29th, 394.2 ypg). That said, Philadelphia’s D has shown signs of improvement recently, meaning this unit may be peaking at just the right time. Outside of a disastrous showing in Minnesota (455 YA, 48 PA), the Eagles gave up an average of 313 yards and 18.5 points per game in their past five games. Three of these games were at home and the Saints’ road woes were documented earlier. If these two trends continue tonight, then Chip Kelly may not need big numbers from his offense in order to win his first career playoff game as an NFL head coach.

New Orleans Key Player: Jimmy Graham, TE
Philadelphia has the big edge at running back in LeSean McCoy. The same can be said for the Saints when it comes to Graham. A near-unanimous first-team All-Pro as voted by the Associated Press, the tight end led the NFL with 16 touchdowns and finished among the top 15 in both receptions (86) and yards (1,215). A matchup nightmare, Graham posted six 100-yard games and caught at least one touchdown in all but five games despite being hampered by plantar fasciitis for much of the season. The Eagles did a good job against opposing tight ends this season, giving up just three touchdowns, but Graham is no ordinary tight end. He will no doubt draw plenty of defensive attention tonight, but even that may not be enough to slow down the 6-7, 256-pound athletic freak of nature. 

Philadelphia Key Player: Nick Foles, QB
Tonight’s game features a matchup of native Texans as Foles followed in Drew Brees’ footsteps when he played quarterback at Westlake High School in Austin. Ten years younger than Brees, Foles now has a chance to beat his Super Bowl-winning idol in his first playoff game. It has already been a dream season for Foles, who took over for an injured Michael Vick and would up going 8-2 as the starter for the NFC East champs. In 13 total games this season, Foles led the NFL with a 119.2 passer rating, as he threw 27 touchdowns, including a record-tying seven against Oakland, and just two interceptions. He also can make plays with his legs (221 yards rushing, 3 TDs), but the key for Foles tonight is to not try and match Brees throw-for-throw. Unlike Brees, Foles has the NFL’s leading rusher (LeSean McCoy) to lean on, but there will still be times when he will need to make something happen either inside or outside of the pocket. Foles grew up idolizing one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen, but tonight is this Texan’s opportunity to stand tall and make a name for himself.

Final Analysis

From an experience standpoint, New Orleans has a clear edge over Philadelphia, as Sean Payton and Drew Brees have posted a 5-3 record in the playoffs together, including a win in Super Bowl XLIV to end the 2009 season. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly and Nick Foles are both playing in their first career postseason game.

That said, the Eagles are the home team and have won four in a row at Lincoln Financial Field, They also boast one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses with Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and others taking full advantage of Kelly’s up-tempo system. Then there’s also the Saints’ lack of success on the road, not only this season but also in the playoffs. New Orleans went just 3-5 away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season and is 0-5 all-time in postseason road contests.

Brees and the Saints are capable of putting up some big offensive numbers of their own, especially with weapons like All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, but the Eagles have much more balance, highlighted by McCoy, the league’s leading rusher. In the end, the Eagles have too much offense for a more one-dimensional Saints attack to overcome, especially one that can’t seem to put it all together when they are the visitors.

Philadelphia 31, New Orleans 27

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Post date: Saturday, January 4, 2014 - 09:00
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The 2013 NFL playoffs will kick off Saturday with a Week 16 rematch when the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts square off in the AFC Wild Card game at 4:35 p.m. ET on NBC. Andy Reid’s Chiefs (11-5) should be at near full strength for the first time in more than a month while Chuck Pagano’s Colts (11-5) appear to be peaking at the right time.

After starting out the season 9-0, Kansas City lost five of their final seven games, including a 23-7 setback at home to Indianapolis just two weeks ago. The Chiefs also haven’t won a playoff game since the 1993 Divisional Round, as their seven-game postseason losing streak is tied with Detroit for the longest in NFL history. Included in this streak are three losses to the Colts, the most recent being a 23-8 home defeat in the 2006 Wild Card game.

Indianapolis won the AFC South with a perfect 6-0 divisional record and also defeated Denver and Seattle, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC respectively, as well as San Francisco during the regular season. After playing uneven to open the second half of their schedule, the Colts finished with a flourish, winning their final three games by a combined score of 78-20. Now Andrew Luck will look to keep the momentum going at home, put an end to Indianapolis’ own three-game postseason skid and earn his first career playoff victory in the process.

3 Things to Watch

Round One
Two weeks ago, Indianapolis, 9-5 at the time, entered its Week 16 game against Kansas City (11-3) as the underdog and in the midst of a six-game stretch in which the Colts traded losses and wins. Meanwhile, the Chiefs had seemingly righted the ship after dropping three in a row (two of those to Denver) at home, beating the Redskins and Raiders on the road by a combined score of 101-41. Back at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs jumped out to 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Charles, only to watch the visiting team take over from there. Indianapolis scored the final 23 points of the game, as Andrew Luck threw for 241 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers and Donald Brown scored two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) to supply most of the offense. On defense, the Colts gave up 155 yards rushing, including 106 to Charles, but limited Alex Smith to just 153 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced a total of four turnovers (three by Smith) to hold the Chiefs scoreless for the final 50 minutes of the game.

Indianapolis’ Momentum
The Colts opened this season strong, winning five of their first seven games, including home contests against Seattle and Denver and on the road against San Francisco. Coming out of their Week 8 bye, however, Indianapolis struggled to find any consistency or rhythm. A road wins against Houston was followed up by a 38-8 home shellacking administered by St. Louis, while a victory in Nashville over Tennessee preceded a 40-11 beatdown in Arizona. This win-then-lose pattern continued for two more weeks until the Colts handily defeated the defending AFC South champion Texans, 25-3, in Lucas Oil Stadium. That was the start of a three-game winning streak to end the regular season in which Indianapolis beat Houston, Kansas City and Jacksonville by an average of 19.3 points per game. Both sides of the ball have been clicking lately, as the offense has displayed balance and the defense has stiffened up. The offense has averaged 359 yards per game during this stretch, its best three-game run since early in the season, while the defense held teams to 292 yards per contest and forced a total of seven turnovers. Put it all together and Chuck Pagano’s team appears to be peaking at just the right time and now gets to face a Chiefs squad it just beat two weeks ago. What’s more, this game will be on the Colts’ home turf, on which they went 6-2 during the regular season, including wins over Denver and Seattle, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC playoffs, respectively. There’s little question that Indianapolis comes into this one with plenty of momentum on its side. The question now is can the Colts capitalize on it to produce a fourth straight win?

Kansas City’s Reinforcements
The Chiefs roared out to a 9-0 start, but limped home with a 2-5 finish due in large part to injuries. That’s the main reason why Andy Reid rested 20 of 22 starters in the regular-season finale in San Diego, a game that the Chiefs had a chance to win on a 41-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Succop at the end of regulation. It was not meant to be however, as Succop’s kick just missed to the right (and the referees missed a penalty on the Chargers that would have resulted in another shot from 36 yards away), giving the Chargers a second chance. San Diego made the most of the extra period, winning the game with a field goal in overtime and snatching the final playoff spot in the AFC from Pittsburgh in the process. While the Chiefs’ postseason berth had been secured two weeks prior, it didn’t take away the fact that Kansas City finished the regular season with two straight losses. The good news, however, is that the Chiefs should be back to near full strength for their rematch with the Colts, as linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, along with left tackle Branden Albert are all expected to play. Houston (dislocated elbow) and Hali (swelling in the knee) could be difference-makers for a defense that has struggled for the past two months. After allowing just 12.3 points per game in the first seven games, the Chiefs have given up 27.7 over their last seven contests. Houston, who has missed the past five games, and Hali have combined for 22 of the team’s 47 sacks. In the past five games, Kansas City has collected 10 sacks, but six of those came in one game (at Washington), and the defense had just one of Andrew Luck in the Week 16 home loss to Indianapolis. The pass rush has been one of the signatures of this Chiefs defense and it appears it will be closer to 100 percent for the most important game of the season to date. On offense, don’t underestimate the return of Albert either. He has missed the past four games and his presence is even more important now that fellow tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, injured his groin in practice on Tuesday, putting his status up in the air. The offense needs Albert to help open up space for Jamaal Charles on the ground and to give Alex Smith enough time in the pocket to make some plays. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe also has been cleared to return after missing last week’s game due to a concussion he sustained in the first meeting against the Colts. Which Kansas City team – the one that started 9-0 or the one that lost five of its final seven games – shows up in Indianapolis remains to be seen, but at least the starting lineup should look more like the former rather than the latter.

Kansas City Key Player: Jamaal Charles, RB
Besides leading the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards, Charles is the Chiefs’ leading receiver with 70 catches for 693 yards and he led the entire NFL in touchdowns with 19 (12 rush, 7 receiving). Put it all together and Charles is responsible for more than a third (36.6 percent) of Kansas City’s total offense (1,980 of 5,396 yards) and nearly half (46.3 percent) of the team’s offensive touchdowns. Simply put, Charles is the Chiefs’ offense and he needs to put up big numbers against the Colts to take the pressure off of quarterback Alex Smith and the passing game, as well as a defense that’s been reeling lately. In the first meeting against Indianapolis in Week 16, Charles staked Kansas City to a 7-0 lead and finished the game with 106 yards rushing and 38 yards receiving. The biggest problem was that he touched the ball just 18 times, which tied for his second-fewest of the season. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs managed just seven points and posted the third-fewest offensive yards (287) on the season in the home loss. The Colts finished 26th in the league in rushing defense, giving up 125.1 yards per game. Charles averaged 132 total yards per game, so there’s no reason to not expect him to get 20-plus touches this time around, especially if the Chiefs want to put themselves in a position to survive and advance.

Indianapolis Key Player: Andrew Luck, QB
Luck has already done something that his predecessor, Peyton Manning, didn’t accomplish during his tenure in Indianapolis. Luck, the former Stanford star and No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, has led the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, posting 11-5 marks both years. Manning went 3-13 in his 1998 rookie campaign before turning that record completely around and winning the AFC East the following season. Now Luck will try and beat Manning to another milestone by winning his first career playoff game in just his second try. Manning lost his first three postseason contests before taking the Colts to the AFC Championship Game in 2003, where they lost to the Patriots. Luck’s second postseason game will come at home, and he knows better than anyone that he must improve on his first playoff effort to put his team in a position to win. In last season’s AFC Wild Card game in Baltimore, Luck completed just 28 of 54 passes for 288 yards with an interception and he also lost a fumble after a sack. The Ravens, who were the No. 4 seed, went on to win Super Bowl XLVII over San Francisco, a path the Colts would no doubt love to copy. The first step is beating the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks. However, as his predecessor will attest to, regular-season success doesn’t automatically carry over to the playoffs. Luck has already demonstrated he’s a quick study, increasing his completion percentage by more than six points (54.1 to 60.2) and cutting his interceptions in half (18 to 9) from his rookie season to this one. Now’s the time to find out if his maturation process carries over to the games that count the most.

Final Analysis

Indianapolis enters this rematch with Kansas City playing its best football of the season. The Colts are at home, where they have already beaten the Seahawks and Broncos, and also have a road win against the Chiefs under their belt. Kansas City struggled to close the season out, but injuries played a big hand in its 2-5 finish and Andy Reid basically treated the finale against San Diego as a bye week. The Chiefs should be close to full strength for this game, and the defense has already shown on multiple occasions that it’s capable of dominating the opposition.

As well as the Colts have played lately, I think one of the keys in this game will be the Chiefs’ re-energized pass rush. Kansas City had 47 sacks in the regular season, and Indianapolis has had its issues with teams that can pressure the pocket. Andrew Luck had little trouble with the Chiefs’ defense in the first game, but Kansas City wasn’t close to 100 percent on that side of the ball. This time, I am expecting Luck to be under more duress, and the Colts don’t have a running back like Jamaal Charles in their backfield to take the pressure off of their quarterback.

In the end, Kansas City returns to the formula that produced a 9-0 start – a heavy dose of Charles combined with a relentless pass rush and opportunistic defense – and make just enough plays in the second half to keep a scrappy Indianapolis team at bay. The Chiefs put an end to their seven-game losing streak in the playoffs while the Colts’ grows to four in a row, as Luck gets a second taste of the postseason disappointment that his predecessor experienced early in his career.

Kansas City 27, Indianapolis 23

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Arkansas State finds itself in familiar territory while Ball State will be looking to make program history in this year’s GoDaddy Bowl. The last bowl before the BCS National Championship Game, the Red Wolves are in Mobile, Ala., in January for the third straight season, while the Cardinals are aiming to cap off this season with their first-ever postseason victory.

Besides playing in its third consecutive GoDaddy Bowl, Arkansas State will be led once again by an interim head coach. Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 7-5 mark in the regular season and a third straight Sun Belt title (co-champions with Louisiana-Lafayette), accepted the head coaching job at Boise State, his alma mater, on Dec. 11. This is the similar path that Harsin’s predecessors, Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn), also took following the 2011 and ’12 seasons, respectively.

The school has hired former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson as the new head coach, but he won’t officially take over until after the bowl game. Defensive coordinator John Thompson is acting as interim head coach, the same role he fulfilled last season after Malzahn left for Auburn. Thompson led his team to a 17-13 win over Kent State in last year’s GoDaddy Bowl, the first postseason triumph for the Red Wolves in three tries.

Ball State (10-2) will have Pete Lembo calling the shots in Mobile, but it remains to be seen if that will be the case once the dust finally settles on the coaching carousel. The Cardinals have posted 19 wins over the past two seasons under Lembo and will try and cap off just the third 10-win season in program history with their first bowl victory. Ball State is 0-6 in bowl games as a FBS member, including last season’s 38-17 loss to UCF in the Saint Petersburg Bowl.

This also represents the first-ever meeting between these two schools.

Arkansas State vs. Ball State

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ball State -7.5

Arkansas State’s Key to Victory: Pound the football
Quarterback Adam Kennedy is fourth in the nation in completion percentage (69.3), but he’s averaging less than 200 yards passing per game. The key to the Red Wolves offense is the ground game, as they are averaging nearly as many yards on the ground (206.0 ypg) as through the air (208.2 ypg). Sophomore running back Michael Gordon is the leading rusher with 717 yards and he’s averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Gordon has scored 10 rushing touchdowns too, but he hasn’t been the only productive ground-gainer for Arkansas State. Two others, including Kennedy, have rushed for more than 500 yards this season, while Kennedy and fellow quarterback Fredi Knighten have combined for nine touchdowns on the ground. All told, the Red Wolves have 30 rushing touchdowns compared to just 13 passing. Arkansas State’s offensive strength has been Ball State’s defensive weakness. The Cardinals are 92nd in FBS in rushing defense, as they have given up 194.8 rushing yards per game. More than half (seven) of the teams Ball State has played this season has posted at least 200 yards rushing, including 363 by Army. In the Cardinals’ two losses, to bowl teams North Texas and Northern Illinois, they surrendered a total of 455 yards on the ground and 5.4 yards per carry. Ball State’s offense has been difficult to stop this season, but Arkansas State’s offense can help out its defense if the Red Wolves are able to run the ball successfully.

Ball State’s Key to Victory: Soar on offense
The Cardinals’ formula for winning 10 games this season has been pretty simple – pile up the yards and points. Ball State enters this game 19th in the nation in total offense with 486.3 yards per game. The Cardinals are just one of 11 teams in FBS averaging better than 40 points per game and the passing attack is ninth in the nation with 333.3 yards per game. Ball State posted at least 420 yards of total offense in all 12 of its games and was held to fewer than 31 points just three times. In those games, the Cardinals still managed 27 points, although they did go 1-2. While much of the damage has been done through the air, Ball State is capable of running the ball and this attack will be a tough test for Arkansas State’s defense. The Red Wolves are 80th in the nation in yards allowed (417.3 ypg), including 234.4 yards passing per game. Against teams that finished with a winning record (Auburn, Louisiana-Lafayette, Missouri, Western Kentucky),  that number jumps to 459.8 yards per game and 6.6 yards per play. For the season, Ball State is averaging 6.7 yards per play. As long as the Cardinals maintain the status quo on offense, it should be another productive night on the field and scoreboard at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

Key Player: Keith Wenning, QB, Ball State
The key to the Cardinals’ prolific offense is Wenning, who has rewritten the record books during his Ball State career. A senior, Wenning is the school’s all-time leader in virtually every passing category after setting career highs in yards (3,933) and touchdowns (34) this season. He has completed 65.2 percent of his passes and has thrown just six interceptions. Wenning is sixth in the nation with 327.8 yards passing per game and has hooked up with 13 different receivers this season. His main weapons are his wide receiver trio of Willie Snead, Jordan Williams and Jamill Smith, who have combined for 228 catches, 3,300 yards (14.5 ypr) and all but two of Wenning’s 34 touchdown passes. Contrast that to Arkansas State’s passing attack, which has totaled 2,498 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. A four-year starter already with 27 wins, a host of school records and other accolades under his belt, there’s just one thing left for Wenning to do to cap off his impressive Ball State career – lead the Cardinals to their first-ever bowl victory.

Final Analysis

Arkansas State has gone 27-11 over the last three seasons, all of which resulted in a trip to Mobile to play in the GoDaddy Bowl. Ball State has posted 19 wins in the past two seasons, but is still looking for that first postseason victory. Arkansas State is no longer an unknown commodity, as its past three head coaches have left after just one season to take over at Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze), Auburn (Gus Malzahn) and Boise State (Bryan Harsin), respectively. Pete Lembo may not be at Ball State by the time the 2014 season kicks off, but he and the Cardinals have unfinished business to attend to before closing the book on their ’13 campaign. As much success as Arkansas State has enjoyed recently, I think this Red Wolves team will have their hands full, especially on defense, against a potent Ball State offense. The Cardinals have a senior quarterback in Keith Wenning under center, and boast plenty of weapons at receiver and in the backfield. No team has really been able to slow down Ball State’s offense this season and I expect that trend to continue against Arkansas State. The Cardinals just have too much firepower for the Red Wolves to contend with, as Wenning and the rest of the senior class cap off their collegiate careers with a historic win.

Prediction: Ball State 38, Arkansas State 27

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What happens when one of the nation’s stingiest defenses goes head-to-head with one of the most explosive offenses? We will find out when Virginia Tech and UCLA face off on the gridiron for the first time ever in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

Virginia Tech extended its bowl streak to 21 seasons after finishing 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the ACC’s Coastal Division. With Florida’s postseason streak coming to an end at 22, the Hokies now have the nation’s second-longest active bowl streak, behind only fellow ACC member Florida State (32).

Now in his 27th season at his alma mater, head coach Frank Beamer has won at least eight games in 19 of the past 21 seasons. The Hokies are just 9-11 in bowl games under Beamer, but were victorious in last season’s Russell Athletic Bowl, defeating Rutgers 13-10 in overtime.

UCLA is playing in its third straight bowl, as the Bruins have gone two-for-two in Jim Mora’s brief tenure. The Bruins went 9-3 and finished second to Arizona State in the Pac-12’s South Division with a 6-3 record.

The Bruins are 14-17-1 all-time in bowls, and have lost their last two postseason appearances. Last season, UCLA fell to Baylor 49-26 in the Holiday Bowl.

Both teams have played in the Sun Bowl before, with Virginia Tech losing its only appearance way back in 1947 and UCLA going 2-1 in its previous three (1991, 2000 and ’05) trips. El Paso also holds special significance for Virginia Tech, as the Sun Bowl loss to Cincinnati more than 60 years ago was the Hokies’ first-ever postseason appearance.

Virginia Tech vs. UCLA

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: UCLA -7

Three Things to Watch

No. 23 vs. No. 8
These are the respective national rankings of UCLA’s scoring offense and Virginia Tech’s scoring defense. The Bruins are averaging 36.5 points per game while the Hokies are giving up 17.4 points per contest. As the saying goes, “something has to give,” and considering Tech’s own offensive issues (see below), it’s critical that the defense limit the damage done by the UCLA offense. The key there is stopping Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley. The sophomore may not have enjoyed the same statistical success that he did last year, but he is still a force to be reckoned with. Hundley is similar to his Virginia Tech counterpart Logan Thomas, in that both are dual threats who can make plays with their arm and legs. Hundley leads the Bruins in rushing with 587 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, and also has thrown for 2,845 yards with 22 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. The Hokies are third in FBS in passing defense and eighth against the run, but haven’t faced a quarterback quite like Hundley this season, unless you count practice reps against Thomas. One of the strengths of the Tech defense is its defensive line, which is a veteran group that goes pretty deep, as evidenced by the 37 sacks (tied for ninth) the Hokies have amassed. This an area in which UCLA has struggled, due in large part to an inexperienced offensive line that features three true freshmen starters. If the Hokies can get consistent pressure on Hundley and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, the Bruins will be hard-pressed to reach their season averages on offense.

Can the Hokies Find Their Offense?
Virginia Tech is 96th out of 125 teams in FBS in scoring offense. Of the 70 teams playing in a bowl game, no team has scored fewer touchdowns than the Hokies’ 34. Running the ball, which has been a staple of Tech offenses in years past, has been an ongoing struggle for the past two seasons. This fall the Hokies are averaging 117.8 yards per game on the ground and a measly 3.1 yards per carry. That puts them 111th in the nation in rushing offense. To make matters worse, running back Trey Edmunds, the team’s leading rusher with 675 yards and 10 touchdowns, broke his leg in the regular-season finale against Virginia. With Edmunds out, the leading rusher on the team is quarterback Logan Thomas, who has a total of 295 yards on 159 carries (1.1 ypc). Thomas is capable of making big plays with his legs, but it’s his arm that has been the issue this season. After bursting onto the scene with a scintillating sophomore campaign in 2011 during which he threw for 3,013 yards and accounted for 30 total touchdowns (19 pass, 11 rush), Thomas has seen his numbers decline in each of the past two seasons. The senior is completing 57.3 percent of his passes, but has seen his passing yardage drop to 2,861 (238.4 ypg) and has nearly as many total touchdowns (20) as turnovers (16). Virginia Tech’s defense is among the best in the nation, but unless the offense can put some drives together and score some points, it won’t matter how well the Hokies’ unit fares against Brett Hundley and the Bruins’ offense.

Two-Way Bruins
Even with dynamic dual-threat Brett Hundley under center, UCLA head coach Jim Mora hasn’t stopped looking for impact offensive players, going so far as to employing several of his guys on both sides of the ball. Six Bruin defenders have seen time on offense, as linebackers and defensive linemen have not only caught a pass or carried the ball, several of them have scored.  Those who have done double duty this fall are defensive linemen Kenny Clark (FB), Keenan Graham (FB), Cassius Marsh (TE) and Eddie Vanderdoes (FB), along with linebackers Myles Jack (RB) and Jordan Zumwalt (FB/TE). Marsh, Vanderdoes and Zumwalt have combined to catch three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown (caught by Marsh), while Jack and Vanderdoes have each carried the ball at least once. In fact, Jack has done much more than merely moonlight as a running back. He is fourth on the team with 269 yards rushing and second only to Hundley with seven touchdowns on the ground. A true freshman, Jack didn’t even get a carry until injuries thrust him into backfield duty against Arizona on Nov. 9. Six carries and 120 yards later, he forced the coaching staff to stay with the experiment. He has scored on the ground in four straight games, including four rushing touchdowns against Washington, a new UCLA true freshman record. How effective has Jack been in his new role? Consider that his 269 yards would place him third on Virginia Tech in rushing, and he’s done this in just four games on offense. As versatile as they come, Jack also has posted 70 tackles, 10 pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked kick at his “true” position, which is linebacker. An Athlon Sports first-team All-American and All-Freshman all-purpose player, Jack figures to be all over the field against Virginia Tech, as the Hokies will have to account for him on both defense and offense.

Key Player: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Myles Jack may be stealing some of the spotlight due to his two-way exploits, but there’s no question that Barr is the star of the Bruins’ defense. A senior, Barr has seen his NFL Draft stock rocket up the charts this season, which is quite impressive since this is just his second year as a defensive player. A 6-4. 248-pound athletic freak, Barr has already been named the recipient of the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which is named in honor of NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott and is awarded to the collegiate defensive player having the biggest influence on his team. His statistics speak for themselves, as he has recorded 62 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. He is ranked in the top five in the nation in tackles for a loss, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, has received numerous first-team All-American accolades, and was a finalist for the Bednarik, Butkus and Lombardi Awards. Barr is considered a virtual lock as a first-round pick come draft day in May, and this is last opportunity to make a lasting impression on NFL scouts and front office personnel in a game. Virginia Tech’s defense may have the better statistics as a unit, but UCLA has Barr, and this Bruin is capable of causing plenty of damage all by himself.

Final Analysis

Winning seasons and bowl games have become par for the course at Virginia Tech during Frank Beamer’s 27 years as head coach of his alma mater. However, the Hokies saw their lengthy 10-win season streak come to an end two seasons ago and have struggled to find consistent production on offense. The defense is among the best in the nation, which is why this team was able to win eight games. UCLA has won nine games in each of Jim Mora’s first two seasons at the helm, as the Bruins have NFL-caliber talent on both sides of the ball and have seen several freshmen emerge as consistent contributors this fall. Virginia Tech’s defense boasts several pro prospects of its own, and will do all it can to keep the Hokies within striking distance. In the end, however, Tech just doesn’t have enough offense to keep up with the Bruins and UCLA pulls away late to finish the season with 10 victories.

Prediction: UCLA 27, Virginia Tech 17

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Sun Bowl Preview and Prediction: Virginia Tech vs. UCLA
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While Middle Tennessee and Navy will play each other for the first time ever in Fort Worth, Texas, this year’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl will have a distinct Tennessee flavor.

Navy is playing in its 10th bowl in 11 years thanks to a record-setting season by sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds. A true dual-threat who now holds the single-season mark for rushing touchdowns (29) by a quarterback, Reynolds is from Antioch, Tenn., which is less than 30 miles from MTSU’s campus in Murfreesboro.

The Midshipmen (8-4) won eight games for the second season in a row and 10th in 11 overall on the strength of the nation’s second-ranked rushing attack. The signature triple option, which was first introduced by former head coach Paul Johnson (currently at Georgia Tech) and has been continued by Ken Niumatalolo, has churned out an average of 322 yards rushing per game.

Navy has gone 3-6 during its current bowl streak and has lost its last two postseason games. This also represents the Midshipmen’s fifth bowl game played in the state of Texas and first since the 2009 Texas Bowl in Houston against Missouri. That also was the last bowl game the Midshipmen won, as they beat the Tigers 35-13 in Reliant Stadium.

Middle Tennessee (8-4) is playing in its first bowl game in three seasons after the Blue Raiders posted their second straight eight-win regular season. Despite beating Georgia Tech in 2012 and finishing with eight victories, MTSU was left out of the bowl picture in its final season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. Now in Conference USA, head coach Rick Stockstill’s team made the most of their new surroundings. The Blue Raiders tied with East Carolina for second place in the East Division with a 6-2 conference mark.

The Blue Raiders have won five games in a row and a victory over Navy would give them their second-most wins (9) in a season since the program moved to the FBS ranks (formerly known as Division 1-A) in 1999. MTSU last played in a bowl game in 2010, when it lost to Miami (Ohio) 35-21 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

MTSU vs. Navy

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 11:45 a.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Navy -6.5

MTSU’s Key to Victory: Lean on past experience
Last season, the Blue Raiders’ signature victory came when they beat Georgia Tech 49-28 in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets are coached by Paul Johnson who was at Navy from 2002-07 and introduced the triple option offense to the Midshipmen. That offense is still in place under Ken Niumatalolo, so MTSU does have some experience in defending it. The key to stopping the triple option is limiting the damage done on the ground; something the Blue Raiders did pretty well in that road upset victory last September. Georgia Tech finished with 238 yards rushing but needed 53 carries (4.5 ypc) to get to that total. MTSU used Tech’s own medicine against it, rushing for 264 yards on 44 carries (6.0 ypc) behind a monster game (217 yards, 5 TDs) from Benny Cunningham, who now plays for St. Louis in the NFL. The Blue Raiders will certainly need to muster plenty of offense from quarterback Logan Kilgore (above, right) and its multi-headed ground game, but any hope of victory begins and ends with slowing down the second-ranked rushing attack in the nation. The Midshipmen average 322 yards rushing per game and as a team average 5.5 yards per carry. They have been held under their average just four times and one of those came against a ranked Duke team. MTSU has held up pretty well against the run in its five games versus bowl teams (BYU, East Carolina, Marshall, North Carolina, North Texas), allowing just 218 yards on the ground per contest, but Navy’s triple option is unique. Fortunately the Blue Raiders have played against something very similar not too long ago and maybe that recent experience will pay dividends against the Midshipmen.

Navy’s Key to Victory: Hold onto the ball
It is no secret that the Midshipmen’s game plan is to try and beat you by running the ball early and often. After all, Navy led the nation with 708 rushing attempts or an average of 59 per game. Contrast that to just 139 total pass attempts in 12 games, which is less than 12 per contest. Put it all together and 84 percent of Navy’s total offensive plays were runs. And while the 322 yards rushing per game is certainly impressive, good for second in the nation, what’s even more impressive is the fact that the Midshipmen have lost a total of four fumbles this season. Combine that with four interceptions and Navy’s eight total turnovers are the fewest among the 125 teams in FBS. The Midshipmen forced 20 takeaways on defense and special teams giving them a plus-12 turnover margin, tying them for 10th in the nation. Ball security is obviously critical to any productive offense, but especially a run-centric one like Navy’s. It’s also important in this game because MTSU is right behind Navy when it comes to turnover margin. The Blue Raiders were a little more careless with the football, committing 20 turnovers (13 INTs, 7 fumbles), but they produced 31 takeaways, including 16 fumbles. The fumble recoveries tie them for the third-most in the nation, and the 31 total takeaways tie them for fifth. The overall plus-11 turnover margin puts them one behind the Midshipmen and is just another reason why Navy’s ball carriers will want to make sure they have a good grip on the pigskin.

Key Player: Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
A two-time All-State selection when he was at Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tenn., Reynolds didn’t stay close to home and go to nearby MTSU. Instead he enrolled at the Naval Academy where he became just the third freshman in program history to start at quarterback. After rushing for 649 yards and throwing for 898 in his first season, Reynolds has taken his game to historic levels this season. A 1,200-yard rusher and 1,000-yard passer, Reynolds has accounted for 37 total touchdowns, including a NCAA-record 29 rushing scores. He has seven games with at least three rushing touchdowns and set another NCAA mark with seven scores on the ground in a three-overtime win at San Jose State in late November. Even though he’s attempted just 121 passes, Reynolds has posted a respectable 8:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. MTSU has done a decent job against the run this season, allowing 185.8 yards rushing per game, but the Blue Raiders know full well that Navy’s triple option represents a unique challenge. Is MTSU up to the task or will Reynolds cap off a historic season with a big game against his hometown team?

Final Analysis

Navy may appear one-dimensional, but the Midshipmen do that one thing – run the ball – very well. MTSU has balance on offense and made a healthy living off of turnovers, but the Blue Raiders are 1-4 against teams that finished with a winning record. Navy’s defense didn’t exactly shut opponents down and it will be tested by MTSU’s offense, but I think the Midshipmen’s ability to control the clock with its triple option attack will be the key to this one. Tennessee native Keenan Reynolds, the Midshipmen’s record-setting quarterback, also has the added incentive of facing his hometown Blue Raiders. Besides, in the Armed Forces Bowl isn’t it obvious which team you should pick?

Prediction: Navy 35, MTSU 31

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For the second year in a row, Cincinnati will try and defeat an ACC team with a distinct home-field advantage in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. This year the Bearcats’ opponent is North Carolina, as the Tar Heels return to the postseason following a one-year ban handed down by the NCAA.

Cincinnati finished 9-3 in its first season under head coach Tommy Tuberville, finishing third (6-2) in the American Athletic Conference’s (AAC) inaugural season. The Bearcats are aiming for their third straight 10-win season and sixth overall since 2007.

The Bearcats are making their second straight Belk Bowl appearance, defeating Duke 48-34 last season. Cincinnati is playing in its third straight bowl and 11th since 2000 and is looking to run its postseason winning streak to three games in a row.

North Carolina (6-6, 4-4 in the ACC) is back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus, but only because Larry Fedora’s team rattled off five straight wins. The Tar Heels started off the season 1-5 before making a switch at quarterback and righting the ship to finish at .500. The Heels won five of their last six games with the only loss being a two-point defeat to ACC Coastal champion Duke to close out the regular season.

The Tar Heels are playing in their fifth bowl in the past six seasons, with the only miss a result of last season’s NCAA-mandated postseason ban. North Carolina has gone 1-3 during this span with its only win coming against Tennessee in the 2010 Music City Bowl.

North Carolina is 2-0 all-time against Cincinnati. The last time these teams played was on Sept. 14, 1991 in Chapel Hill, N.C., a game the Tar Heels won easily 51-16.

Cincinnati vs. North Carolina

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -3

Three Things to Watch

“Replacement” Quarterbacks
Cincinnati and North Carolina both had to make quarterback changes during the season because of injury and both offenses took off after the switch was made. The Bearcats lost starting quarterback Munchie Legaux in the second game, opening the door for senior Brendon Kay to step in. Kay went 8-2 as the starter, throwing for 3,121 yards and 22 touchdowns, helping the Bearcats reel off six straight wins at one point. Kay has dealt with some injuries of his own, but still managed to become just the fourth quarterback in program history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He also has played on this stage before, throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns in Cincinnati’s victory over Duke in last season’s Belk Bowl. North Carolina entered the season with senior Bryn Renner under center. A three-year starter, Renner was poised to completely rewrite the Tar Heel record books coming off of a 2012 campaign in which he threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns. Renner and the offense struggled out of the gates, leading to more snaps for sophomore Marquise Williams. A true dual-threat, Williams took over as the starter after Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against NC State on Nov. 2. With Williams at the helm, Fedora’s up-tempo offense took on new life, as the more athletic and mobile quarterback made plays with both his arm (1,527-14-6) and legs (team-high 490 yards rushing, 6 TDs) and was a big reason the Tar Heels won five games in a row. In the six games in which Williams saw the majority of the time at quarterback, North Carolina averaged 451.5 yards and 38 points per game. With both firmly entrenched as the leader of their respective offenses, it will be interesting to see which quarterback makes the most noise on the field in Bank of America Stadium.

The Battle in the Trenches
Both offenses average more than 430 yards per game, but lean more on the pass than the run. Cincinnati averages around 170 yards rushing per game, while North Carolina gains a little more than 146 on the ground per contest. Neither team has a workhorse in its backfield. The Bearcats have three running backs with at least 90 carries and 400 yards rushing, but 14 different players have had at least one rushing attempt and seven have scored a touchdown on the ground. The Tar Heels’ leading rusher is quarterback Marquise Williams, but four running backs have posted at least 53 carries and one rushing touchdown. Both teams use the committee approach in their respective backfields, meaning it will fall to the defenses to stop more than one ball carrier. From a defensive standpoint, Cincinnati enters this game ninth in the nation in total defense (313.2 ypg) and fifth against the run. The Bearcats have allowed less than 100 yards rushing per game, while the Tar Heels have been considerably more generous at 183.6. However, North Carolina’s defense has improved as the season has progressed, and the Tar Heels’ up-tempo, spread-oriented offense typically presents a different kind of challenge for opposing defenses. So while both offenses are perfectly capable of slinging the ball all over the field, whichever team gains the most (or gives up the least depending on how you look at it) on the ground will more than likely finish the season on a winning note.

Putting the “Special” in Special Teams
If North Carolina has a clear edge in any aspect of this matchup against Cincinnati, it’s on special teams. The Tar Heels are No. 1 in FBS in punt returns thanks to the explosiveness and play-making ability of freshman Ryan Switzer. A first-team All-ACC punt returner, Switzer also was named Athlon Sports' first-team All-American punt returner and All-Freshman return specialist after leading the country with four punt returns for touchdowns. Switzer is averaging 20 yards per punt return and also has made an impact as a wide receiver, ranking third on the team in receptions (29), receiving yards (319) and touchdown catches (3). Besides their work on punt returns, the Tar Heels are averaging more than 23 yards per kickoff return and running back T.J. Logan has a 99-yard return for a score. Cincinnati needs to be very wary of Switzer when it has to punt since it has struggled in this department. The Bearcats are 113th among 125 FBS teams in punt return defense (12.9 ypr), although they have yet to give up a touchdown on a return. Earlier this season Switzer became just the second NCAA player in history to return a punt for a score in three straight games. That streak may have come to an end, but Switzer would no doubt like to add to his touchdown total in this game. The question is will Cincinnati even give the dynamic freshman a chance to return a punt. And if not, how effective will the Bearcats’ punter be in kicking away from him? Field position always matters, but especially in a game like this with two productive offenses going head-to-head.

Key Player: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
A 6-4, 245-pound junior, Ebron is a tight end who plays more like a wide receiver. He leads the team in receptions (55) and receiving yards (895) and he is averaging 16.3 yards per catch. He’s caught three touchdowns and has already been named first-team All-ACC, first-team All-America by ESPN.com and second team by both the Associated Press and Athlon Sports. A finalist for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end, Ebron has already announced he will forego his senior season and enter the 2104 NFL Draft. He is believed by many to be the top tight end prospect available and could end up being selected in the first round. Ebron gives North Carolina’s passing attack something that most teams don’t have – an athletic, large target that can make big plays regardless of where he lines up – and he will pose a challenge for Cincinnati’s linebackers and secondary. Ebron’s mere presence on the field also helps open up things on the outside for wide receiver Quinshad Davis (47-724-10) and others. The Bearcats rank among the nation’s best when it comes to stopping the run, so it will be critical for quarterback Marquise Williams and the Tar Heels to make some plays through the air. So don’t be surprised if Ebron gets a lot of targets in his final game in a North Carolina uniform.

Final Analysis

Cincinnati needs one more victory for its sixth 10-win season in the last seven. The Bearcats have one of the nation’s most explosive offenses supported by one of the stingiest defenses, and had their six-game winning streak snapped in overtime by a ranked Louisville team. North Carolina needed a five-game winning streak just to become bowl eligible and is giving up more than 400 yards per game. However, this is not the same Tar Heels team that started the season 1-5, as both the offense, behind the emergence of sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams, and the defense have made strides. While the Bearcats may have the edge on paper, I think the Tar Heels will feed off of the built-in home-field advantage of playing in Charlotte, N.C., and put together one of their best all-around performances. North Carolina has a lot of talent returning next season and the Tar Heels give a glimpse of what 2014 could hold by finishing off ’13 with a hard-fought, close victory over a solid Bearcats team.

Prediction: North Carolina 34, Cincinnati 31

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Belk Bowl Preview and Prediction: Cincinnati vs. North Carolina
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Washington will try and cap off the program’s most successful season since 2000 with a win over BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park in San Francisco. And if the Cougars weren’t enough of a challenge, the Huskies will play this game with an interim head coach on the sideline.

After leading Washington to eight wins and a third-place finish (5-4) in the Pac-12’s North Division, head coach Steve Sarkisian left Seattle to take over at USC. The Huskies hired Boise State’s Chris Petersen as Sarkisian’s replacement, but former quarterback and now position coach Marques Tuiasosopo will lead the team in the bowl game against BYU, which also happens to be Sarkisian’s alma mater.

The Huskies are in their fourth straight bowl game, but have dropped their last two postseason contests. Two years ago Washington was overwhelmed in the Alamo Bowl by Baylor and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, as the Bears beat the Huskies 67-56 in the highest-scoring regulation bowl game in college football history. Last season, Washington fell to Boise State 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

A win over BYU would be Washington’s ninth of the season and the most by the Huskies since Rick Neuheisel’s 2000 team went 11-1, with its only loss being to Purdue in the Rose Bowl.

BYU has enjoyed considerably more success over the past 14 years, as the Cougars have won at least seven games in each of their past eight campaigns. In fact, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has yet to post a losing record in his nine seasons in Provo, Utah, and has led his team to a bowl game every year.

In their third year as a FBS Independent, BYU went 8-4, including a five-game winning streak that included victories over Utah State, Georgia Tech and Boise State. The Cougars’ schedule this season also featured games against five other bowl teams – Houston, MTSU, Notre Dame, Texas and Wisconsin – and they went 6-2 in those contests.

Under Mendenhall, BYU is 6-2 in bowl games and have won its last four. Last season the Cougars defeated San Diego State 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl, which was played in San Diego.

Washington and BYU have split their eight all-time meetings, but the Cougars have won the last three. The last one took place in 2010 in Provo, a 23-17 BYU victory.

BYU vs. Washington

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -3

Three Things to Watch

Washington’s Coaching Transition
Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward made a terrific hire in luring Chris Petersen away from Boise State after Steve Sarkisian departed for USC. The problem is it truly won’t be Petersen’s team until after the bowl game, as Marques Tuiasosopo will serve as the interim head coach against BYU. A former star quarterback for Washington, Tuiasosopo served as the quarterbacks coach for Sarkisian, but he has added quite a bit more to his plate. The good news for the Tuiasosopo and the Huskies is that both coordinators – Eric Kiesau on offense and Justin Wilcox on defense – stayed, at least for the bowl game. What changes Petersen makes to the coaching staff after this game remains to be seen, but the coaches, as well as the players who will be back next season, know they are being evaluated by the new head coach. With so much uncertainty in the locker room and the attention already being shifted to 2014, how will this Huskies team and its skeleton coaching staff close out the ’13 campaign?

BYU’s Run Defense vs. Washington’s Ground Game
The third-ranked defense in the country last season, BYU took a few steps backwards this fall. The Cougars are still a respectable 52nd in total defense, but have seen their yards allowed per game rise from 266.1 per game in 2012 to 383.8. Against the run, BYU was No. 2 in FBS last season, giving up just 86.9 yards per game on the ground. This season the Cougars have surrendered 157.4 (56th) per contest and have given up more than that in four of their past five games. BYU will need to tighten up its run defense if it wants to slow down Washington’s potent ground game led by running back Bishop Sankey. The junior enters this game third in the nation in rushing yards per game with 147.9 and is averaging nearly six yards (5.8) per carry. Sankey has been held under 100 yards rushing just three times this season and also has gone over 200 on three different occasions. As a team, Washington is averaging 243.1 yards rushing per game and has scored 33 touchdowns on the ground. BYU’s defense is giving up fewer than four yards (3.8) per carry and has surrendered just nine rushing touchdowns, but this unit has a tough task ahead of it in trying to slow down Sankey and company.

Can the Huskies Force the Cougars to Throw?
As productive as Washington’s running game has been, BYU has posted even better numbers on the ground. The Cougars are 10th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 274.7 yards per game. Both quarterback Taysom Hill (above, right) and running back Jamaal Williams have rushed for more than 1,200 yards and they will draw plenty of attention from Washington’s defense. The Huskies enter this game giving up about 160 yards rushing per game, but have held four of their past five opponents to 131 yards or fewer. In Washington’s four losses opponents have rushed for an average of 245 yards per game. If the Huskies can make things tough on the Cougars’ running game, it will fall to Hill to make plays through the air. Hill has thrown for 2,645 yards this season, but he’s completed just 54.1 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman is a legitimate playmaker, but he has just 45 catches for 727 yards and five touchdowns after posting 100 receptions for 1,248 yards and 11 scores last season. BYU is clearly comfortable running the ball, but is the offense too one-dimensional? Can Washington’s defense force Hill to rely on his arm instead of his legs? The Huskies are hoping they get a chance to find out.

Key Player: Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU
A 6-3, 245-pound linebacker, Van Noy is the senior leader of the Cougars’ defense. His numbers have not been as impressive this season as last season, but he’s still a difference-maker who is capable of changing the direction of a game on any given play. Last season, Van Noy had 13 sacks, along with 22 tackles for a loss, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks. This season, he has four sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He also is no stranger to saving his best for last, as he was named defensive MVP following BYU’s 23-6 win over San Diego State in last season’s Poinsettia Bowl. Van Noy owned the fourth quarter against the Aztecs, scoring two touchdowns, one on a fumble return and the other on a 17-yard interception return, to bring his Cougars from behind for the win. He also had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks and blocked a punt. Many thought that Van Noy might forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft following that performance but he returned to school and now has the opportunity to post one more impressive postseason stat line to finish out his BYU career.

Final Analysis

Washington is a team in transition with its coaching staff so it would be understandable if the Huskies didn’t bring their “A” game to San Francisco. On top of that, BYU’s offensive strength – running the ball – has been a point of weakness at times for Washington’s defense. That said, I believe the Huskies have been energized by the hiring of Boise State’s Chris Petersen and will look at this game as an opportunity to impress their new head coach. I’m also not convinced that the Cougars will be able to throw the ball consistently against Washington’s defense, which makes their offense a little too one-dimensional. In the end, the Huskies’ running game, led by Bishop Sankey, and the aerial attack orchestrated by senior quarterback Keith Price, will be just enough to outlast the Cougars as Washington ushers in the Petersen era in Seattle with a win to close out 2013.

Prediction: Washington 31, BYU 30

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Fight Hunger Bowl Preview and Prediction: BYU vs. Washington
Post date: Thursday, December 26, 2013 - 07:15
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East Carolina will try and cap off one of the most successful seasons in program history with a victory over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.

East Carolina went 9-3 this season, including road victories over in-state brethren North Carolina and North Carolina State. Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates posted a 6-2 mark in Conference USA, finishing second in the East Division to Marshall. McNeill has his Pirates in a bowl game for the third time in his four seasons at the helm.

East Carolina has lost its last four bowl games, including a 43-34 defeat to Louisiana-Lafayette in last season’s New Orleans Bowl. A win over Ohio would be just the second 10-win season in school history, topped only by Bill Lewis’ 1991 team that finished 11-1.

This represents Ohio’s fifth straight bowl appearance, as the Bobcats have become one of the most successful programs in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) under the direction of Frank Solich.

Ohio started this season strong, beating bowl teams Marshall and North Texas to jump out to a 6-2 record by end the of October. The Bobcats struggled down the stretch, however, losing three conference games in a row by a combined score of 123-16. They rebounded with a convincing win over UMass in the regular-season finale to finish at 7-5 and 4-4 in the MAC’s East Division.

After picking up the program’s first-ever bowl win two seasons ago, the Bobcats made it two in a row last year with a 45-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl. A victory over East Carolina would give Ohio five straight seasons of at least eight wins.

These two schools have played twice before with East Carolina winning both games. The last meeting was in 1998 when the Pirates beat the Bobcats 21-14 in Athens, Ohio.

East Carolina vs. Ohio

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: East Carolina -13.5

East Carolina’s Key to Victory: Stick to the script
The Pirates enter this game 30th in the nation in total offense (459.8 ypg) and 10th in both passing (331.5 ypg) and scoring (40.4 ppg) offense. It’s pretty easy to win nine games when you score at least 31 points in eight of them. Quarterback Shane Carden is the key to this offense, as he’s seventh in nation with 322.2 passing yards per game for 32 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Carden leads FBS with his 71 percent completion rate, which is impressive considering he’s attempted 504 passes, which ties him for the fifth in the nation. Carden also has 10 rushing touchdowns, so he’s capable of making plays with his legs too. The Pirates run enough (128.3 rushing ypg) to make it harder for opponents to focus on stopping the passing game, and have produced nearly as many touchdowns on the ground (27) as through the air (33). Ohio has had its issues on defense, allowing nearly 27 points per game on the season. The Bobcats really struggled in November, surrendering 427 yards and 36.5 points per game over their last four. As long as the Pirates stick with what has worked so well for them, this offense should be able to move the ball and put plenty of points on the scoreboard

Ohio’s Key to Victory: Remember 2012
Last season, the Bobcats won their first seven games and found themselves well positioned for a possible BCS bowl bid entering the final weekend of October. Ranked 24th in the BCS standings and 23rd in the Associated Press poll, Ohio lost a heart-breaker to in-state rival Miami (Ohio) when it passed on a potential, chip-shot, game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter before running out of time, and would finish the regular season with three straight defeats. Very few gave Ohio a shot against Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl, as the Bobcats entered the contest as more than a touchdown underdog to the Warhawks. Someone apparently forgot to tell Ohio it was supposed to lose, however, as the Bobcats jumped out a 24-7 halftime lead and used a balanced offensive attack and stifling defense to post a convincing 45-14 victory. Ohio finds itself in a similar situation this season having dropped three of its last four to end the regular season and entering its bowl game an underdog of nearly two touchdowns to East Carolina. This is a veteran Bobcats team with many of the key players from last season’s improbable win over Louisiana-Monroe now seniors. Proving the naysayers wrong is nothing new to this team, it’s just a matter of remembering what worked so well a year ago.

Key Player: Tyler Tettleton, QB, Ohio
The son of MLB All-Star catcher Mickey Tettleton, Tyler (above, right) is a three-year starter who will be wrapping up his record-setting Ohio career against East Carolina. The holder of numerous school records, Tettleton has thrown for more than 8,900 yards and rushed for nearly 900 in his four seasons under center, although he played sparingly as a freshman. The dual threat has accounted for 72 total touchdowns, including one touchdown reception. He has thrown for more than 2,600 yards in each of the past three seasons and has completed better than 63 percent of his passes during that span. He struggled at the end of this season, averaging just 148.5 yards passing per game and throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions (3 apiece) in his last four contests. However, Tettleton has risen to the occasion more than once, as he has led his team to back-to-back bowl wins. Two years ago, Tettleton scored the game-winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left to propel Ohio over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl for the Bobcats’ first-ever bowl victory. Last season, Tettleton helped his underdog Bobcats handily defeat Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl by throwing for 331 yards and two touchdowns. Tettleton has put up his share of big numbers in big games and he will need to do so again against East Carolina if he wants to finish his collegiate career on a winning note.

Final Analysis

Ohio is a well-coached, veteran team that has overcome the odds to win a bowl game before. This stage and the underdog status is nothing new to this team, which is led by a group of seniors who are playing in their fourth straight bowl game. However, East Carolina brings to St. Petersburg, Fla., one of the nation’s most productive offenses. The Pirates have had no trouble scoring this season and have road victories over big brothers North Carolina and North Carolina State to prove it. Ohio has wins over two bowl teams (Marshall and North Texas), but also lost to three others (Bowling Green, Buffalo and Louisville) by a combined score of 128-10. The Bobcats put up a fight, but in the end the Pirates’ offense is simply too much for them to overcome.

Prediction: East Carolina 41, Ohio 28

Teaser:
Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl Preview and Prediction: East Carolina vs. Ohio
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 14:00
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NFC division leaders share the spotlight tonight when the Chicago Bears take on the Philadelphia Eagles at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Both the Bears and Eagles enter this game at 8-6 and atop the NFC North and East, respectively, and one of them can punch their playoff ticket with a win and a little help.

If Philadelphia wins and Dallas loses to Washington, the Eagles will win the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL head coach. If Chicago wins and Green Bay and Detroit both lose, then the Bears will win the NFC North in Marc Trestman’s first season as an NFL head coach. And the similarities don’t end there either, as both the Bears and the Eagles are among the NFL’s top offenses and the worst defenses. Put it all together and it should result in an entertaining game with plenty at stake.

3 Things to Watch

Offensive Similarities
Both the Bears and the Eagles are among the top seven offensive teams in the NFL, as each have productive running games and explosive passing attacks. The Eagles lead the league in rushing (152.9 ypg) and Philadelphia is the only team averaging five yards per carry. The Bears are averaging 4.6 yards per carry and have rushed for at least 135 yards in each of their last three games. Running backs LeSean McCoy and Matt Forté are first and third, respectively, in the NFL in rushing with at least 1,200 yards and both are dangerous receivers out of the backfield. Both teams have used multiple starting quarterbacks this season, but that hasn’t slowed down their passing games. Chicago has had both Jay Cutler and Josh McCown under center, and the Bears are fifth in the league in passing at 275.8 yards per game. They also are sixth in terms of completion percentage at 65.1 percent. Because of the success of their running game, the Eagles haven’t had to throw as many passes, yet they are still 10th in passing offense (261.1 ypg). Both offenses have done a good job of protecting the ball, as they have combined for 57 touchdown passes and just 20 interceptions. In fact, Nick Foles, who took over the starting job for the Eagles after Michael Vick got hurt, has posted an impressive 23:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 11 games, eight of those starts. Put it all together and you have two teams that are averaging a collective 55 points per game. Combine that with their defensive issues (see below) and you have the makings of a high-scoring affair at Lincoln Financial Field tonight.

Defensive Differences
As well as the offenses have produced for these two teams, the defenses have had their struggles. Both rank near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed, with Chicago coming in at 27th (380.4 ypg) and Philadelphia 30th (402.4 ypg). The difference has been in how opposing teams have attacked each defense. The Bears are dead last in the league in stopping the run, as they are giving up 152.4 yards per game on the ground. Prior to holding the Browns to just 98 yards rushing last week, the Bears had been coughing up 204.1 per game over their last seven contests. Chicago also was able to snap its streak of allowing a 100-yard rusher in six straight games, which tied an NFL record. The Bears’ inability to stop the run does not bode well for tonight’s matchup with the league’s No. 1 rushing offense. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ problems on defense revolve around the pass. Philadelphia is second to last in passing defense (291.6 ypg), as Dallas (297.4 ypg) is the only team giving up more yards through the air per game. The defense actually had been playing better recently, but that was until the Eagles gave up 382 yards passing to Minnesota’s Matt Cassel last week. While the Bears have surrendered fewer passing yards per game (228.0) than the Eagles, both defenses have yielded around the same number of touchdown passes (22 for Chicago, 21 for Philadelphia) and are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete better than 60 percent of those passes. Philadelphia has done a better job of minimizing the damage, giving up three points fewer per game (24.9 to 27.9) than Chicago, but both defenses look to have their hands full tonight trying to slow down two of most productive and explosive offenses in the NFL.

Who’s Feeling the Pressure?
Chicago and Philadelphia are each among the top five offenses in the NFL in touchdown passes and in the bottom half of the rankings in interceptions thrown. One of the easiest ways to disrupt a productive passing game is with pressure. Unfortunately, that has not come easy for either defense this season. The Eagles are tied for 23rd in the league in sacks with 32 and the Bears are dead last with just 26. Chicago has done a better job when it comes to protecting the quarterback, especially compared to last season. After giving up 44 sacks in 2012, the Bears addressed the offensive line in both free agency and the draft and the results are clearly visible. Through 14 games, Jay Cutler and Josh McCown have been sacked a total of 24 times, only Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford (16 each) have gone down fewer times. The Eagles have been a little more generous in the sack department, as Nick Foles (21), Michael Vick (15) and Matt Barkley (3) have been brought to the turf a total of 39 times, which is tied for the tenth-most. If Chicago’s defense were able to take advantage of this apparent weakness tonight that could help take the pressure off of a secondary that’s without All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman and let the unit focus its efforts more on stopping the run. The Bears could get a boost in that department with the potential return of All-Pro linebacker Lance Briggs, who has missed the past seven games with a shoulder injury. Whether it’s Chicago or Philadelphia, if neither defense can find a way to make the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket, it could end up being a long and frustrating night at the office.

Chicago Key Player: Jay Cutler, QB
In the final year of his contract, Cutler has been limited to nine games this season due to a groin and ankle injury. He’s posted the best numbers of his Bears tenure in first-year head coach Marc Trestman’s offense, including a career-high 63.9 completion rate, but he’s still prone to turnovers (16 TDs, 13 TOs) and also has been largely out-performed by backup Josh McCown. A 10-year veteran, McCown got his first start since 2011 when Cutler went down with a groin injury in Week 7. McCown started the next week against Green Bay and then took over again after Cutler hurt his ankle in Week 10 against Detroit. In five starts and seven games total, McCown has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 1,809 yards (258.4 per game) and 13 touchdowns with just one interception. Cutler is averaging 241.4 yards per game with a 16:10 TD:INT ratio in his nine games. McCown was doing so well that there were reports of locker room discord when Trestman made the decision last week to start Cutler against the Browns. After starting out slowly, including two first-half interceptions one of which was returned for a touchdown, Cutler picked things up. He finished the game 22-of-31 with 265 yards passing, three touchdowns and those two picks, as the Bears won 38-31 on the road to put them in first place in the NFC North. Cutler’s strong second half silenced some, but certainly not all, of the critics. Tonight he gets a shot at the 31st-ranked passing defense in the NFL and an opportunity to put his team one step closer to a division title. Trestman said all along that Cutler was his starting quarterback, now’s the time for the player to show everyone why.

Philadelphia Key Players: Secondary
Chicago’s offense is fifth in the NFL in passing thanks to the production of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett, as well as running back Matt Forté. These are the Bears’ leading receivers, who have combined for 295 catches, 3,631 yards and 24 touchdowns. Besides being productive, they also are big targets. All four are at least six feet tall, with Jeffery (6-3), Marshall (6-4) and Bennett (6-6) looking like they belong on a basketball court and not the gridiron. This trio has used its size to its advantage this season and it also could be a problem tonight for the Eagles’ secondary. None of the defensive backs on Philadelphia’s roster are taller than 6-1 and of the 10 total cornerbacks and safeties, only four are at least 6-0. Philadelphia has struggled in pass defense to begin with, ranking second to last in the league in that category, and it could be another tough night against these lanky, rangy and athletic Bear receivers. Despite the clear height disparity, the Eagles’ defensive backfield needs to find a way to stand tall tonight.

Final Analysis

Chicago and Philadelphia both enter tonight’s game leading their respective divisions, but still in must-win mode. The Bears lezad the Packers by less than a game in the NFC North, but need to win out because of Green Bay’s earlier tie and the fact that Chicago would lose the division tiebreaker with Detroit should they end up tied. The Eagles are in a similar situation, leading the Cowboys by one game, but trailing Dallas in divisional play.

Ironically enough, both teams finish up with divisional games against their closest pursuer, which makes a win tonight even more meaningful and possibly season-defining. The Bears are just 3-4 on the road this season, but are coming off of a big 38-31 win in Cleveland last week that saw the return of starting quarterback Jay Cutler. The Eagles had their five-game winning streak snapped by Minnesota, a disappointing stumble for a team that seemed to have grabbed full control of the NFC East.

Marc Trestman and Chip Kelly are both rookie NFL head coaches, who could make huge statements by leading their team not only to the playoffs, but a division title in their first seasons. Both are offensive-minded, which shows in the production of their respective systems. The defenses have had their issues, however, so don’t be surprised if this game features plenty of offensive fireworks.

Kelly has used three different starting quarterbacks with Nick Foles emerging as the best of the bunch. But again, offense hasn’t been the problem for Philadelphia and while I think the Eagles will fare just fine against Chicago’s defense, the same can be said for the Bears offense against Kelly’s defense. In the end, I think Chicago’s size at wide receiver and tight end will be too much for Philadelphia’s secondary to handle and the Bears leave The City of Brotherly Love victorious following an exciting, back-and-forth affair.

Chicago 31, Philadelphia 27

Teaser:
Chicago Bears vs. Philadelphia Eagles Preview and Prediction
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 09:00
Path: /nfl/new-orleans-saints-vs-carolina-panthers-preview-and-prediction
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NFC South supremacy and playoff positioning are both squarely on the line today when the New Orleans Saints pay a visit to the Carolina Panthers at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. The Saints (10-4) can secure both the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs with their second win over the Panthers (10-4) in three weeks.

The Saints are coming off of a discouraging 27-16 loss to the Rams on the road, which only brought more attention to Sean Payton’s team’s struggles away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Meanwhile Ron Rivera’s Panthers rebounded from their loss two weeks ago in New Orleans by beating the Jets 30-20 at home, running their record at Bank of America Stadium to 6-1 this season.

3 Things to Watch

Two Weeks Ago…
The Week 14 Sunday primetime showdown between Carolina and New Orleans didn’t exactly materialize, as the Saints took control in the second quarter and never looked back, winning 31-13. Tied atop the NFC South entering this game at 9-3, the Saints did what they usually do – play really well at home – and the Panthers weren’t able to put up a lot of offense or stop Drew Brees and the passing game. Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the sixth-ranked passing defense at the time, as the Saints scored touchdowns on four of five trips into the red zone. The Panthers converted on just one of two possessions inside the Saints’ 20-yard line, as Cam Newton threw for just 160 yards on 22 completions (4.7 ypc) and was sacked five times. Carolina led 6-0 after the first quarter, but New Orleans scored 31 unanswered points, including three touchdowns in the second quarter alone. The Panthers outgained the Saints 128-69 on the ground and won the time of possession battle, but the duo of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, who combined for 15 catches, 183 yards and all four touchdowns, were too much to overcome. New Orleans finished the night 7-0 at home and fully in the driver’s seat in the division.

Can the Saints Rebound Again?
New Orleans finds itself in familiar territory as all four losses have come on the road. The Saints are 7-0 at home, but just 3-4 on the road and have been beaten soundly in their last two games away from the friendly (and loud) confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Sean Payton’s team got off to a strong start on the road, winning their first two away dates in Tampa Bay (Week 2) and Chicago (Week 4). However, the Saints have won just one since, a 17-13 victory over lowly Atlanta in Week 12. The four road losses have been to the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks and last week to the Rams, with the last two being blowouts. Seattle and St. Louis beat New Orleans by a combined score of 61-23, as the Saints averaged 310 yards of offense in those two games, or nearly 90 fewer than they have been gaining on the season. The common factor in both of these games is defense, as the Seahawks held the Saints to 188 total yards of offense, the fewest in the Sean Payton era, and the Rams battered and bruised Brees to the tune of four sacks and three turnovers (2 INTs, fumble). Carolina’s defense is just as capable of doing what Seattle and St. Louis did, especially at home, as the Panthers are second in the NFL in both total (296.3 ypg) and scoring (14.9 ppg) defense. Entering this week, every time New Orleans has lost, it has gotten off the mat and won its next game. That was the case two weeks ago when the Saints returned from their Monday night beating in Seattle to defeat the Panthers. The difference here is that the previous three games following losses were played at home. This one is on the road, where the Saints have clearly had their issues, especially against teams that have solid defenses and can put pressure on the quarterback. So if the Saints want to continue their rebound trend today, seal up the division crown and guarantee themselves at least one home playoff game in the process, they will need to reverse another trend and prove that they are more than just a dome team.

Role Reversal
Two weeks ago, Carolina got a taste of some New Orleans home cooking, as the Saints dominated the Panthers on both sides of the ball, winning 31-13. This is nothing new for New Orleans, who has won 15 games in a row in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with Sean Payton (suspended for the 2012 season) on the sideline. Today, however, Carolina is the home team, and just like the Saints, the Panthers have been at their best at Bank of America Stadium. They are 6-1 at home, with their only loss being to Seattle, 12-7, in the season-opener. The NFL’s No. 2 defense, the Panthers are allowing less than 12 points and 290 yards per game at home. They also have a plus-eight turnover differential at home compared to plus-three on the road. The team’s offensive numbers are better at home too, with one of the most glaring statistics coming in the pass protection department. Cam Newton has been sacked 28 times on the road, the most of any quarterback. He’s gone down just 10 times in seven home games. Carolina also has seen an increase in the production of its ground game recently, which could be a big factor against New Orleans. The Panthers are averaging 139.5 yards rushing per game over their last four, which includes 131 against the Jets, the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense at the time. On the other side, the Saints have struggled against the run on the road, giving up an average of 136.4 yards per contest. Two weeks ago, New Orleans capitalized fully on its home-field advantage. Carolina would love to return the favor today by adding to the Saints’ road woes.

New Orleans Key Players: Offensive Line
The Saints will have a new starting left tackle today as rookie Terron Armstead will replace Charles Brown. Brown was benched prior to the end of last week’s loss in St. Louis after committing a penalty that nullified a touchdown and partly due to the Rams sacking Drew Brees four times. Armstead and the rest of the offensive line will have its work cut out for it today, as Carolina’s defense is second in the NFL in sacks with 45. The Panthers got to Brees just twice in their first meeting two weeks ago; a big reason why he threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns and the Saints won 31-13. However, New Orleans is not the same team on the road as they are at home, and likewise Brees’ numbers also take a hit in games not played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. If the Saints want to have any success against the NFL’s No. 2 defense today, the offensive line must not only protect Brees, it also needs to find a way to help jumpstart a running game that’s averaging 58 yards rushing per game over the last three contests. With the playoffs approaching, Sean Payton knows his team has to start playing better on the road. Fixing an offensive line that has shown some cracks in recent weeks is as good a place to start as any.

Carolina Key Players: Secondary
The Panthers are fifth in the NFL in passing defense (211.4 ypg) and have more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (14) allowed. Opponents have completed better than 66 percent of their passes, but the Panthers have been able to limit the damage. Not surprisingly, the defense’s worst performance against the pass this season came on the road against New Orleans. Two weeks ago, Drew Brees completed 30-of-42 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns. The Saints finished with just 69 yards rushing, but still managed to post 373 total yards of offense against the NFL’s No. 2 defense. New Orleans hasn’t been anywhere near as productive on the road as it has been at home. The Saints average 32.9 points per game at home compared to just 18.4 on the road. A win today and Carolina replaces New Orleans as the frontrunner for not only the NFC South title, but also the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. For that to happen, however, the secondary will have to play much better this time against Brees and company.

Final Analysis

The NFC South title, No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye are pretty much all on the line today. New Orleans can clinch all three with a win, while Carolina can put itself in the driver’s seat by holding serve at home. The Saints have not played nearly as well on the road as they have at home, an attribute the Panthers would no doubt love to continue to exploit.

Drew Brees carved up the Panthers two weeks ago, but the Saints have done some reshuffling along their offensive line and have gotten next-to-nothing from their running game in recent weeks. On the other side, Cam Newton has been at his best at home and the Panthers’ defense wants to redeem itself for what happened in the first meeting.

In the end, New Orleans puts up a good fight, but can’t muster enough offense against a stingy Carolina defense. The Panthers flip the script on the Saints and take control of the division, No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs in process, setting things up for an intriguing finish next week.

Carolina 23, New Orleans 20

Teaser:
New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers Preview and Prediction
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Football, injury updates, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/week-16-injury-updates-joe-flacco-tony-gonzalez-carson-palmer-jordan-cameron
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Several quarterbacks and tight ends are either dealing with injuries or have already been ruled out for Week 16. Athlon Sports has the latest information on the names you need to know.

Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
Flacco sustained a slight knee injury in the Monday night win over Detroit, as he took a hit from a helmet to his left knee. He was limited in practice and is officially listed as Questionable, but barring a setback he will be out there for this critical game against the Patriots. Flacco will wear a knee brace, but he has yet to miss a game in his six-year career. His numbers haven’t been what people were hoping or expecting for, but the Patriots’ defense hasn’t exactly been shutting opposing offenses down either. It’s really going to come down to if you trust Flacco enough to start him or have a better option you are more comfortable employing.

Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers (Mon.)
Gonzalez is listed as Questionable yet again, but he’s also caught a touchdown pass in three straight games, so I fully expect him to play. Since this is a rather important week, however, just be sure you are confident he will play before deciding to stick with them. Otherwise you may not be in the holiday spirit come Monday night should something happen that causes Gonzalez to be inactive.

Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
First it was an elbow, now it’s his ankle. But the end result is the same. Palmer is listed as Questionable and will be a game-time decision, yet he is still expected to start. What is different this week, however, is the matchup against the NFL’s No. 1 defense on the road. Palmer is not the most mobile quarterback in the first place and the fact that he may be playing on a gimpy ankle against the Seahawks in their building? No thank you. Or did you forget what the Seahawks did to Drew Brees and the Saints a few weeks ago or the Giants on the road just last week.

Garrett Graham, TE, Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos
Graham missed last week’s game because of a hamstring injury and he didn’t practice at all this week. He’s listed as Questionable, but even that appears to be optimistic. Chances are the final call on Graham’s availability will be made around game time, so at least the 1 p.m. ET kickoff helps there. If Graham can’t go Ryan Griffin would get the start. He’s definitely of the deep sleeper variety, but he did catch six passes for 62 yards last week.

QBs and TEs Already Ruled Out:

Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns – Cameron has already been ruled Out for today’s game because of a concussion. Be sure to take him out of your starting lineup and look elsewhere for a TE.

John Carlson, TE, Minnesota Vikings Carlson has been placed on injured reserve due to lingering concussion symptoms. He joins teammate Kyle Rudolph (foot) as Viking tight ends who saw their season come to an early end.

Case Keenum, QB, Houston Texans – Keenum has already been ruled Out due to a thumb injury. Matt Schaub will take over at quarterback. As poorly as Schaub has performed this season, don’t forget he is a two-time Pro Bowler who’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season three times. I’m not saying I would rely on Schaub to win me a fantasy championship, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t fare well enough against Denver’s 31st-ranked passing defense to maintain Andre Johnson’s WR1 status.

EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills – Even though he finished last week’s game, Manuel sustained some sort of injury to his left knee. That’s good news since it means it’s not the same knee he hurt earlier in the season, which caused him to miss four games. However, that’s now three knee injuries the rookie has sustained in his first season, including one in the preseason, which is why the team has already ruled him Out for today’s game. Thad Lewis, who started three of the games Manuel missed, will get the call. With so much on the line today, you really aren’t going to take your chances with Lewis are you?

Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Detroit Lions – Pettigrew injured his ankle last week and has already been ruled Out. This will mean increased opportunities for Joseph Fauria, who has certainly made the most out of the ones has gotten so far. Fauria has just 12 catches on the season, but seven of those have gone for touchdowns. He’s clearly a viable red zone target for Matthew Stafford, but that also makes Fauria the perfect boom-or-bust candidate.

Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins – Reed is Out for a fifth straight game because of a lingering concussion. There is no reason to not think the rookie’s season is over.

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers – The long wait continues in Green Bay as Rodgers was ruled Out on Friday. For whatever reason, he just hasn’t been cleared to return to action, and it’s now looking like the Packers’ playoff hopes are in the hands of Matt Flynn. He answered the bell last week against Dallas (299 yards, 4 TD passes in the second half), but Pittsburgh’s defense should be a little tougher challenge and the elements also could be a factor. Flynn has gotten results, but he still carries plenty of risk from a fantasy perspective.

Teaser:
Week 16 Injury Updates: Joe Flacco, Tony Gonzalez, Carson Palmer, Jordan Cameron
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Football, injury updates, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/injury-updates-week-16-wes-welker-andre-johnson-vincent-jackson-tavon-austin
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Denver will be missing one of its key weapons for its Week 16 meeting with Houston, but the Texans should have their main horse in their lineup. Here is the latest information on some other injured wide receivers to get you ready for championship week.

Wes Welker, WR, Denver Broncos at Houston Texans
Welker missed last week’s loss to San Diego because of a concussion and he will miss at least two more games. The Broncos have already ruled Welker Out for today’s game in Houston and the regular-season finale, with the hope he will be ready to return for the playoffs. The Texans are second in the NFL in passing defense, but have still given up 25 touchdown passes. With Welker out, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both should see plenty of targets, along with tight end Julius Thomas. All three are must-starts regardless of matchup.

Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos
Johnson is dealing with a wrist injury that limited his practice participation. However, he’s listed as Probable and should be just fine for today’s game. One thing that will be slightly different is the return of Matt Schaub under center due to an injury to Case Keenum. Schaub has had his issues this season, but he and Johnson also have been productive during their time together. Denver’s defense is 28th in the league against the pass and it’s not like you’re sitting Johnson in the first place.

Vincent Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams
Good news for Jackson and his owners. He practiced fully on both Thursday and Friday and is listed as Probable. It appears that he has just about put his hamstring issue in the rear-view mirror and he’s locked in as a WR1.

Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneeers
Austin’s ankle is still an issue, as he was absent from practice both Thursday and Friday. He’s listed as Questionable on the injury report, but I have a hard time believing the Rams would risk putting their first-round pick out there. It looks like Austin’s rookie season, from both a fantasy perspective and for the Rams, has come to an end.

Not Playing Today…

Stevie Johnson, WR, Buffalo Bills – Johnson will miss today’s game following the recent passing of his mother. Robert Woods will assume Johnson’s No. 1 role against the Dolphins, but Miami has been solid against the pass and Thad Lewis, not EJ Manuel, is starting at quarterback. Be sure to temper your expectations for Woods.

Cecil Shorts, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars – Shorts was placed on injured reserve last week and underwent surgery to repair his groin. With Shorts sidelined, there’s not much to like regarding the Jaguars’ passing game.

Teaser:
Injury Updates Week 16: Wes Welker, Andre Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Tavon Austin
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Football, injury updates, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/week-16-injury-updates-victor-cruz-calvin-johnson-larry-fitzgerald-steve-smith
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One Giant wide receiver has already been sidelined for the rest of the season. Are there any other key wideouts in danger of not playing in Week 16?

Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants at Detroit Lions
Cruz suffered a concussion and a knee injury last week. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on Thursday and is Out for the rest of the season. Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle will serve as the Giants’ starting wide receivers. This presents a big opportunity for Randle to prove he can be a reliable starter, especially with Nicks a free agent after the season. Fantasy-wise, Nicks has been a disappointment, while Randle has been productive with his targets (37 rec., 6 TDs). Even with a somewhat appealing matchup in Detroit, I would consider both nothing more than a WR3 this week.

Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions vs. New York Giants
Johnson’s knee injury is nothing new, but what is new is that it severely limited his ability to practice this week. While he has logged minimal practice time and been good to go for much of this season, the fact that he is listed as Questionable on the injury report is more than enough reason to pay a little more attention. There have been no reports out of Detroit indicating Johnson won’t play, but it would be advisable to follow up on his status later this morning, especially given the later (4:05 p.m. ET) kickoff time.

Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
Fitzgerald suffered a concussion when he was part of the Cardinals’ “hands team” on an onside kick in last week’s game. He practiced on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday, but was still going through the league-mandated concussion protocols as of late Friday. He is considered Questionable, and has been as durable as they come, having played in 98 straight games going back to Week 13 in 2007. However, between his health, the fact his quarterback is a game-time decision himself and the matchup with the NFL’s No. 1 defense on their home turf, I’m just not sure Fitzgerald can offer that much assistance this week.

Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints
Smith dislocated his middle finger in practice this week, but he’s Probable and there’s no way he’s missing this huge NFC South game against the Saints. The problem with Smith is that he just hasn’t been putting up the numbers we are accustomed to, as his season-high in yards is 69 and he has one touchdown catch in his last eight games. Smith’s days as a WR1 are long gone, as he’s no more than a WR3/flex at this point.

Teaser:
Week 16 Injury Updates: Victor Cruz, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Smith
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Football, injury updates, NFL, Fantasy, News
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If your fantasy team is still alive, Week 16 is what you have been working towards all season. With no margin for error when it comes to setting your lineup here are some running back injuries you need to know about.

Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
Rice sat out Wednesday’s session and was a limited participant on both Thursday and Friday. He’s officially listed as Questionable with a thigh injury, but he’s been nursing several injuries during the season and there doesn’t appear to be any real concern regarding his availability for this afternoon. There is quite a bit at stake in this game, but Rice has struggled with his production all season. The Patriots have been susceptible to the run, but Rice is on pace for less than 700 yards rushing. I’m not saying don’t start Rice, but at this point you should be well aware of the potential for disappointing results.

Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
For the second straight week, Lacy’s practice participation was limited to a brief appearance on Friday, but he is still listed as Probable to face the Steelers. Then again he did rush for 141 yards against Dallas last week despite practicing very little, so perhaps this was the team’s plan all along. Either way, Lacy needs to be in your lineup as the weather forecast could result in a more run-centric offense for the Packers.

Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers
Just when it looked like McFadden’s season was over, he was back at practice this week and is considered Probable to return against the Chargers this afternoon. If anything, McFadden’s presence could impact Rashad Jennings’ productivity, even though Jennings will remain the starting running back. I wouldn’t hesitate to use Jennings, but it would probably be wise to downgrade him slightly with McFadden now added to a backfield mix that already included Marcel Reece.

In Case You Missed It…

Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans – Tate was placed on injured reserve this week after breaking another rib (his fifth) in last week’s loss to Indianapolis. Dennis Johnson and Deji Karim will handle the carries, and even against Denver’s suspect defense neither inspires a lot of confidence, especially with so much on the line.

Teaser:
Injury Updates Week 16: Ray Rice, Eddie Lacy, Darren McFadden
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Football, injury updates, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/week-16-injury-updates-adrian-peterson-maurice-jones-drew-fred-jackson-lamar-miller
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It’s Week 16, which means championship week for most fantasy leagues. Will the reigning NFL MVP be available to help your team try and win a title? Here’s the latest update on Adrian Peterson and some other key running backs.

Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, RBs, Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals
Neither Peterson nor Gerhart suited up last week, leaving Matt Asiata left to carry the load. Asiata did just that, rushing for 51 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries in the win over Philadelphia. Peterson practiced some on Wednesday and Thursday, but was still getting treatment for his sprained foot. He’s listed as Questionable, but Peterson pronounced himself “ready to roll.” Peterson is as tough as they come, but there’s nothing wrong with making sure he’s in the lineup before starting him, especially this week. Meanwhile, Gerhart is Probable after missing last week because of a hamstring injury. His value is tied soley to Peterson’s availability and workload, if he plays. As for Asiata, it looks like he’s a one-week wonder, as he’s Questionable with an ankle injury and pretty much an afterthought as long as Peterson and Gerhart are active.

Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans
Jones-Drew missed last week’s game because of his hamstring injury and he only logged a limited practice on Friday. He is listed as Questionable and could end up being a game-time decision. Watch his status very carefully, especially since backup Jordan Todman rushed for 109 yards against Buffalo. If MJD does play, I would consider throwing him out there given the matchup with a Titans defense that’s giving up the second-most fantasy points to RBs.

Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins
Jackson was limited in practice earlier this week because of a rib injury, but he was a full go on Friday and is considered Probable. Jackson and C.J. Spiller have been splitting the carries for the most part, but both could see more touches than usual today considering the Bills will be without quarterback EJ Manuel (knee injury) and wide receiver Stevie Johnson (personal). The Dolphins are giving up the tenth-most fantasy points to running backs, so Jackson and Spiller are both probably in the RB2 conversation this week. Spiller is the more explosive runner, but Jackson leads the team in carries, has seven rushing touchdowns (to Spiller’s two) and has been more active in the passing game. From a rankings standpoint, Jackson is ahead of Spiller, but not by a lot.

Daniel Thomas, RB, Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
After making a near-miraculous return from an injured ankle ligament, Thomas apparently re-injured the same ankle last week. He practiced on a limited basis on Friday and is listed as Questionable for today’s game in Buffalo. Last week against the Patriots, Lamar Miller got 15 carries, while Thomas had five. Should Thomas play, I would expect a similar workload split, which makes Miller the more appealing option. If Thomas is out, Miller’s outlook gets even better based on the assumed increase he would see in carries.

Already Ruled Out

Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers – Stewart will miss a second straight game because of the torn MCL in his right knee that he sustained a few weeks ago. DeAngelo Williams should see the majority of the touches today against New Orleans, and he's coming off one of his best games of the season (168 total yards, TD) against the Jets. The Saints have really struggled against the run, so this week Williams could finally break out.

Teaser:
Week 16 Injury Updates: Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Jackson, Lamar Miller
Post date: Sunday, December 22, 2013 - 06:30
Path: /college-football/famous-idaho-potato-bowl-preview-and-prediction-buffalo-vs-san-diego-state
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Schools that are separated by 2,600 miles on opposite coasts will meet for the first time ever on the gridiron when Buffalo and San Diego State face off in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho.

Buffalo went 8-4 and finished second (6-2) in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). In his fourth season with the school, head coach Jeff Quinn led the Bulls to just their second bowl appearance in program history and only their third winning season in the last 20 years. Buffalo lost to Connecticut 38-20 in the International Bowl following the 2008 season in its only other postseason appearance.

On the other side, San Diego State is making its fourth straight bowl appearance. Under the direction of head coach Rocky Long, the Aztecs won seven games in the regular season (7-5) and finished second (6-2) in the West Division of the Mountain West Conference (MWC). San Diego State has lost its last two bowl games, the most recent a 23-6 defeat to BYU in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl.

For what it’s worth, the Bulls and the Aztecs did have one common opponent during the regular season. Both teams played Ohio State on the road and the games took place on back-to-back Saturdays. Buffalo opened its season with a 40-20 loss at The Horseshoe on Aug. 31, with the Aztecs coming in right behind them and likewise tasting defeat, 42-7, at the hands of the Buckeyes.

San Diego State also may a slight home-field edge in this game, which is being played at Boise State’s Bronco Stadium. As a member of the MWC, the Aztecs have played the Broncos in each of the past three seasons. This season’s contest was in San Diego State, but the Aztecs played in Boise in 2012, and won 21-19. Will their success on the well-known blue-colored artificial surface known as “Smurf Turf” carry over against the Bulls?

Buffalo vs. San Diego State

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Buffalo -3.5

Buffalo’s Key to Victory: Establish the run
The Bulls enters this game 67th in the nation in rushing at 171.9 yards per game. While that may not seem like a lot at first, a closer look at the numbers shows how important the ground game is to this offense. In eight wins, the offense averages 223.5 yards rushing per game. In four losses, that number plummets to just 68.6. The Bulls are powered by senior running back Branden Oliver, a two-time, first-team All-MAC selection who has rushed for nearly 4,000 yards in his career. Prior to his last game, Oliver had recorded seven straight 100-yard rushing performances, including two over 200 yards. He is averaging five yards per carry and has 1,421 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in just 11 games. San Diego State has been very good against the run this season, coming in tied for 22nd in the nation in rushing defense (132.9 ypg). If Oliver can get going early, it should only help open up a Buffalo passing game led by sophomore quarterback Joe Licata that produced nearly 2,800 yards and 22 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.

San Diego State’s Key to Victory: Balance on offense
The Aztecs are 58th in the nation in total offense at 422 yards per game. For the season, the offense has skewed more to the pass (262.3), with more than 62 percent of their yards coming through the air. However, the recipe for much of the Aztecs’ success this season has come when both aspects of their offense is working. In San Diego State’s seven wins, the offense is averaging 255.1 yards passing per game compared to 272.1 in losses. That’s a difference of less than 20 yards. When it comes to running the ball, however, the gap is considerably bigger – try 199.9 yards rushing per game in wins versus 103.6 in losses. That’s a difference of nearly 100 yards. Junior running back Adam Muema (above, right) has gone over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons and is averaging 19 carries a game. He needs to lead the Aztecs’ own charge on the ground against a Buffalo defense that gave up less than 160 yards rushing per game. Similar to Buffalo’s offensive game plan, Muema’s success on the ground will help open up things for quarterback Quinn Kaehler without putting too much of the burden on the junior who struggled some (239-1-2) in his last game, a 45-19 blowout loss at UNLV.

Key Player: Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
The 6-3, 248-pound senior is the heart and soul of the Bulls defense and one of the best defenders in all of college football. He’s a three-time, first-team All-MAC honoree and was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year this season. Mack established a new NCAA record for career forced fumbles with 16 and he is tied for the all-time mark with 75 tackles for a loss. He has led the team in tackles three straight years, registering 94 of them so far, along with 19 tackles for a loss, a team-high 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions. He is a big reason why the Bulls were tied for 11th in the nation in sacks (36) and is definitely someone the Aztecs will need to account for on every single play. Mack is expected to be a first-round pick in May’s NFL Draft and no doubt he would love to end his collegiate career on a high note with a big game on national TV.

Final Analysis

There’s no denying the level of competition is considerably stiffer in the MWC compared to the MAC, but that doesn’t mean you should sell this Buffalo team short. With Branden Oliver running the ball and Khalil Mack anchoring the defense, the Bulls have some NFL-caliber talent on their roster. San Diego State can put up some offense of its own, but the Aztecs have had their problems on defense and seem to lack instant impact-type of players. With Oliver and Mack playing their final collegiate games, I think their teammates will rally together and help these two standouts cap off a memorable season with the program’s first-ever bowl victory.

Prediction: Buffalo 31, San Diego State 27

Teaser:
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Preview and Prediction: Buffalo vs. San Diego State
Post date: Friday, December 20, 2013 - 12:10
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/40-best-christmas-related-names-sports
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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 (SG, Phoenix Suns)
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 (MLB IF, free agent)
Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks head coach)
Jon Garland (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 (NHL goalie 1993-2006, current New York Islanders general manager)
J.T. Snow (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 (former NFL quarterback 2010-12)
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 (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 (MLB OF, free agent)
Antrel Rolle (DB, New York Giants)

And who better to wrap up our list...
Metta World Peace (F, New York Knicks)

Teaser:
The 40 Best Christmas-Related Names in Sports
Post date: Friday, December 20, 2013 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy football rankings, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2013-positional-rankings-week-16
Body:

It’s Week 16, which means, for most fantasy leagues, it’s championship week! If you are one of the last teams standing, congratulations. However, your work is not completely done, not if you want to take home the title, trophy, bragging rights and whatever other spoils of victory that may come with finishing in first place.

If you are still vying for a championship, I am guessing there’s a pretty good chance that you have Jamaal Charles on your team. After all, when your running back catches four touchdown passes and scores you 55.5 fantasy points (Athlon scoring), your chances of winning have to be pretty good.

However, that’s not to say it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you lose. A colleague of mine had Jamaal Charles (as well as Kirk Cousins, Julian Edelman and Ryan Mathews) on his team and yet he still lost. His opponent had Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns, but it was Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker who destroyed his championship dreams.

In fact, between Tucker’s SIX field goals on Monday night, including the game-winner from 61 yards away, and Matthew Stafford’s last-second interception (his third of the game, which also meant a third INT for the Baltimore DST), my guess is that quite a few people went from enjoying the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat. If it’s any consolation for the former group, the latter will have to endure that roller coaster one more time, with even more on the line.

2013 NFL Week 16 Fantasy Football Positional Rankings

Quarterbacks
Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Defense/Special Teams

Kickers

Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:

OFFENSIVE SCORING
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points

DEFENSIVE SCORING
0 points allowed = 12 points
1-6 points allowed = 10 points
7-13 points allowed = 8 pts
14-20 points allowed = 6 points
21-27 points allowed = 2 pts
28+ points allowed = 0 points
Safeties = 2 points
Fumbles recovered = 2 points
Interceptions = 2 points
Sacks = 1 point
Defensive/Special Teams TDs = 6 points

KICKER SCORING
PATs = 1 point
39 yards and under = 3 points
40-49 yards = 4 points
50-59 yards = 5 points
60+ yards = 6 points

Teaser:
Fantasy Football 2013 Positional Rankings: Week 16
Post date: Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy football rankings, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2013-quarterback-rankings-week-16
Body:

Peyton Manning is on the verge of reaching some significant milestones, so no one should be surprised to see him leading off Athlon Sports' fantasy football Week 16 quarterback rankings. But while Manning no doubt carried many a fantasy team to the championship game, he's not the only quarterback who could end up helping an owner bring home the title this week.

As far as Manning goes, he needs just 189 yards passing to reach 5,000 in a season for the first time in his career. He's also three touchdown passes shy of tying Tom Brady's single-season record of 50. Unless the Broncos decide to rest Manning next week there's a pretty good chance that record will be his before Week 17 is complete. Manning does have to face Houston's second-ranked passing defense this week, but this is a Texans team that has lost 12 games in a row and has allowed 25 touchdown passes compared to six interceptions. There was no debate when it came to the No. 1 quarterback this week.

That doesn't mean that Manning's the only quarterback whose outlook we don't like though. The Sunday night Chicago vs. Philadelphia game not only is a critical matchup as it pits the NFC North and East division leaders against each other, it features two of the NFL's more generous defenses. Nick Foles and Jay Cutler both have the weapons and the ability to post big numbers in any given week, and this head-to-head matchup has all the makings of a high-scoring affair.

Foles has been more consistent (21.4 or more fantasy points in six straight games), but that's because Cutler has missed time because of a groin and ankle injury. He returned last week against Cleveland and after a shaky start that saw him toss two interceptions, Cutler finished with 265 yards passing and three touchdowns. There's certainly some risk in starting a "rusty" Cutler with so much at stake, but you also can't ignore the prospect of him throwing to the likes of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte against an Eagles defense that gave up 382 yards passing to Minnesota's Matt Cassel last week.

For those who have an appetite for risk-taking, what about rolling the dice with Kirk Cousins? In his first game replacing Robert Griffin III, Cousins threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns against Atlanta. This week Cousins gets a reeling Dallas defense that has given up the most fantasy points to quarterbacks. Cousins did turn the ball over three times (2 INTs, fumble) and will be making just his second career NFL start. However, unless you already have Manning, Foles, Cutler or a better option on your roster, you could certainly do worse than taking a chance on the Redskins' backup quarterback.

2013 NFL Week 16 Fantasy Football Rankings — Quarterbacks

RkPlayerTeamOPP
1Peyton ManningDENat HOU
2Nick FolesPHIvs. CHI
3Drew BreesNOat CAR
4Cam NewtonCARvs. NO
5Matthew StaffordDETvs. NYG
6Philip RiversSDvs. OAK
7Russell WilsonSEAvs. ARI
8Jay CutlerCHIat PHI
9Colin KaepernickSFvs. ATL (Mon.)
10Tony RomoDALat WAS
11Andy DaltonCINvs. MIN
12Tom BradyNEat BAL
13Ben RoethlisbergerPITat GB
14Kirk CousinsWASvs. DAL
15Alex SmithKCvs. IND
16Andrew LuckINDat KC
17Ryan FitzpatrickTENat JAC
18Joe FlaccoBALvs. NE
19Ryan TannehillMIAat BUF
20Jason CampbellCLEat NYJ
21Matt RyanATLat SF (Mon.)
22Matt FlynnGBvs. PIT
23Matt CasselMINat CIN
24Carson PalmerARIat SEA
25Eli ManningNYGat DET

Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:

OFFENSIVE SCORING
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points

Additional Week 16 Positional Rankings

Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Defense/Special Teams

Kickers

Teaser:
Fantasy Football 2013 Quarterback Rankings: Week 16
Post date: Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy football rankings, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2013-running-back-rankings-week-16
Body:

Even though he had just 20 yards rushing, is there any question who sits atop Athlon Sports' fantasy football Week 16 running back rankings? Jamaal Charles probably single-handedly won many a fantasy game last week after scoring five total touchdowns, four of those coming through the air, and producing a grand total of 55.5 fantasy points (Athlon scoring).

Besides not only posting one of the biggest fantasy performances ever, Charles became just the fifth player in the past 50 seasons in NFL history to produce more than 200 yards from scrimmage and score five touchdowns. His 195 yards receiving also were the most by a running back since 1999. While it's pretty much unfathomable to think that Charles can top what he did last week, that doesn't mean he can't potentially help carry a team to a fantasy championship by putting up decent numbers against Indianapolis and the 27th-ranked rushing defense.

Those who aren't as fortunate to have Charles on their roster could still enjoy plenty of success, thanks to matchups such as Chicago vs. Philadelphia and Dallas vs. Washington, which set up nicely for the likes of LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray and Alfred Morris. Murray in particular has been hot lately, leading all running backs with 429 yards rushing over the past four weeks. He also has averaged more than 19 fantasy points per game during this stretch and gets a Redskins defense that is giving up the third-most fantasy points to opposing running backs. Fret not Morris owners, because it's the the Cowboys who are allowing the most, especially after getting run over by Eddie Lacy (141 yards rushing, TD) and Forte (175 total yards, TD) the last two games.

Another thing to keep an eye on this week is injuries. Adrian Peterson (sprained foot/groin) and Maurice Jones-Drew (hamstring) both did not play last week because of their ailments. Peterson is expected back against Cincinnati and we have him ranked in the top five. MJD's outlook is much cloudier, which is he is not ranked, but his backup Jordan Todman (24th) is. Why is that you ask? Because Tennessee is yielding the second-most fantasy points to running backs.

The other big piece of injury new is that Houston's Ben Tate has been placed on injured reserve after breaking his fifth rib in last week's loss to Indianapolis. Dennis Johnson and Deji Karim will share the load out of the backfield, but unlike Todman, we are not too encouraged by either backup's potential this week against Denver.

2013 NFL Week 16 Fantasy Football Rankings — Running Back
 

RkPlayerTeamOPP
1Jamaal CharlesKCvs. IND
2LeSean McCoyPHIvs. CHI
3Matt ForteCHIat PHI
4Eddie LacyGBvs. PIT
5Adrian PetersonMINat CIN
6Marshawn LynchSEAvs. ARI
7DeMarco MurrayDALat WAS
8Knowshon MorenoDENat HOU
9Alfred MorrisWASvs. DAL
10Reggie BushDETvs. NYG
11Le'Veon BellPITat GB
12Frank GoreSFvs. ATL (Mon.)
13Zac StacySTLvs. TB
14Ryan MathewsSDvs. OAK
15Chris JohnsonTENat JAC
16Rashad JenningsOAKat SD
17Giovani BernardCINvs. MIN
18C.J. SpillerBUFvs. MIA
19Shane VereenNEat BAL
20Bobby RaineyTBat STL
21Andre BrownNYGat DET
22Ray RiceBALvs. NE
23Fred JacksonBUFvs. MIA
24Jordan TodmanJACvs. TEN
25DeAngelo WilliamsCARvs. NO
26Chris IvoryNYJvs. CLE
27Danny WoodheadSDvs. OAK
28Steven JacksonATLat SF (Mon.)
29Lamar MillerMIAat BUF
30BenJarvus Green-EllisCINvs. MIN
31Rashard MendenhallARIat SEA
32Pierre ThomasNOat CAR
33Andre EllingtonARIat SEA
34Darren SprolesNOat CAR
35Chris OgbonnayaCLEat NYJ
36Montee BallDENat HOU
37Joique BellDETvs. NYG
38Dennis JohnsonHOUvs. DEN
39Daniel ThomasMIAat BUF
40Stevan RidleyNEat BAL

Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:

OFFENSIVE SCORING
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points

Additional Week 16 Positional Rankings

Quarterbacks
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Defense/Special Teams

Kickers

Teaser:
Fantasy Football 2013 Running Back Rankings: Week 16
Post date: Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy football rankings, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2013-wide-receiver-rankings-week-16
Body:

Calvin Johnson hasn't scored a touchdown or gone over 100 yards in two straight games, but he's still No. 1 on Athlon Sports' fantasy football Week 16 wide receiver rankings. For one, Johnson still leads his peers in fantasy points, despite the best efforts of Josh Gordon, Antonio Brown, Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas and others, but also because he's home this week against a pretty beat-down Giants defense. Megatron is one of the few players who can make a lot of noise even if he catches a few passes.

As for the rest of this week's field, Gordon, Marshall, Brown and Thomas are all must-start options, along with A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, DeSean Jackson and Marshall's teammate, Alshon Jeffery. In particular, we really like the Chicago vs. Philadelphia matchup, as the Eagles are giving up the most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers. The Vikings aren't too far behind, which bodes well for Green and we wouldn't be at all surprised if the Dallas-Washington pairing is a high-scoring affair. That's good news for Bryant owners as well as Pierre Garcon, who caught seven passes for 129 yards and a touchdown with Kirk Cousins as his quarterback last week.

That's not to say that Denver won't be up to its usual tricks against Houston, so by no means are you sitting either Thomas or Eric Decker. And likewise, Andre Johnson should add to his league-leading receptions total (99) against the 28th-ranked passing defense in the league. What remains to be seen for that game, however, is will Wes Welker return after missing last week because of a concussion? Larry Fitzgerald and Victor Cruz are also going through the required concussion tests and are questionable for Sunday. Although Fitzgerald's road matchup in Seattle and the Giants' offensive struggles may be enough reason alone to leave both on the bench this week.

As far as some less-heralded options go, what about New England's Julian Edelman? He's picked up the slack and then some since Rob Gronkowski tore his ACL and MCL, racking up 39 receptions over his last four games, including 13 for 139 yards and a touchdown against Miami. It's pretty clear that he has become Tom Brady's favorite target, as Edelman has quietly put together a top-15 fantasy season. And then there's San Diego rookie Keenan Allen. He caught just two passes in last week's surprise win in Denver, but both of them went for touchdowns. He's emerged as not only Philip Rivers' No. 1 target, Allen is a leading contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He has seven touchdown grabs on the season and needs just 69 yards receiving against Oakland to reach 1,000. All Allen did in his first game against the Raiders was haul in six passes for 115 yards and a score.

2013 NFL Week 16 Fantasy Football Rankings — Wide Receivers
 

RkPlayerTeamOPP
1Calvin JohnsonDETvs. NYG
2Josh GordonCLEat NYJ
3A.J. GreenCINvs. MIN
4Brandon MarshallCHIat PHI
5Alshon JefferyCHIat PHI
6Dez BryantDALat WAS
7Demaryius ThomasDENat HOU
8Antonio BrownPITat GB
9DeSean JacksonPHIvs. CHI
10Andre JohnsonHOUvs. DEN
11Pierre GarconWASvs. DAL
12Vincent JacksonTBat STL
13Keenan AllenSDvs. OAK
14Jordy NelsonGBvs. PIT
15Eric DeckerDENat HOU
16Julian EdelmanNEat BAL
17Torrey SmithBALvs. NE
18Mike WallaceMIAat BUF
19Marques ColstonNOat CAR
20Michael CrabtreeSFvs. ATL (Mon.)
21Anquan BoldinSFvs. ATL (Mon.)
22Kendall WrightTENat JAC
23Dwayne BoweKCvs. IND
24Larry FitzgeraldARIat SEA
25Wes WelkerDENat HOU
26Roddy WhiteATLat SF (Mon.)
27Danny AmendolaNEat BAL
28T.Y. HiltonINDat KC
29James JonesGBvs. PIT
30Greg JenningsMINat CIN
31Brian HartlineMIAat BUF
32Riley CooperPHIvs. CHI
33Steve SmithCARvs. NO
34Doug BaldwinSEAvs. ARI
35Rod StreaterOAKat SD
36Golden TateSEAvs. ARI
37Cordarrelle PattersonMINat CIN
38Harry DouglasATLat SF (Mon.)
39Hakeem NicksNYGat DET
40Rueben RandleNYGat DET
41Jarrett BoykinGBvs. PIT
42Stevie JohnsonBUFvs. MIA
43Michael FloydARIat SEA
44Emmanuel SandersPITat GB
45Robert WoodsBUFvs. MIA
46Denarius MooreOAKat SD
47Marlon BrownBALvs. NE
48Andre HolmesOAKat SD
49DeAndre HopkinsHOUvs. DEN
50Ace SandersJACvs. TEN

Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:

OFFENSIVE SCORING
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points

Additional Week 16 Positional Rankings

Quarterbacks
Running Backs
Tight Ends
Defense/Special Teams

Kickers

Teaser:
Fantasy Football 2013 Wide Receiver Rankings: Week 16
Post date: Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy football rankings, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2013-tight-end-rankings-week-16
Body:

It was a rough day at the office last week for Jimmy Graham, but he's firmly entrenched in the top spot on Athlon Sports' fantasy football Week 16 tight end rankings. Graham still leads all tight ends in fantasy points by nearly 60, leads the NFL in touchdown receptions (12), and is facing a Carolina defense against which he recorded two scores just two weeks ago. Graham brought you this far, you may as well let him finish the job.

As impressive a season as Graham has had, Vernon Davis is putting up some nice numbers of his own. His 12 touchdown catches are second only to Graham and he's on pace to record nearly 60 catches and more than 900 yards even though he missed a game earlier because of injury. San Francisco hosts Atlanta on Monday night and the Falcons have allowed the eighth-most fantasy points to tight ends.

Even though the 49ers' defense has been tough, that doesn't mean that Tony Gonzalez won't have success against it. The future Hall of Famer has recorded a touchdown catch in three straight games and has once again produced a top-five fantasy season. Cleveland's Jordan Cameron is currently third behind Graham and Davis in fantasy points, but he sustained a concussion last week and will have to pass the required tests before he's cleared to play against the Jets. The matchup is definitely appealing (Jets allowing seventh-most fantasy points to TEs), but you need to make sure that Cameron is playing before leaving him in your lineup. Especially in a week with so much at stake.

If Cameron can't go, some potential replacement options for him could include Delanie Walker, Dennis Pitta, Tyler Eifert, Timothy Wright or even Zach Miller or Andrew Quarless. In Miller's case the Cardinals have surrendered 92 catches and 15 touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season, while Quarless has caught exactly six passes for 66 yards and a score in each of the past two games.

2013 NFL Week 16 Fantasy Football Rankings — Tight Ends

RkPlayerTeamOPP
1Jimmy GrahamNOat CAR
2Vernon DavisSFvs. ATL (Mon.)
3Julius ThomasDENat HOU
4Jason WittenDALat WAS
5Greg OlsenCARvs. NO
6Tony GonzalezATLat SF (Mon.)
7Jordan CameronCLEat NYJ
8Delanie WalkerTENat JAC
9Charles ClayMIAat BUF
10Antonio GatesSDvs. OAK
11Martellus BennettCHIat PHI
12Dennis PittaBALvs. NE
13Tyler EifertCINvs. MIN
14Coby FleenerINDat KC
15Heath MillerPITat GB
16Timothy WrightTBat STL
17Zach MillerSEAvs. ARI
18Garrett GrahamHOUvs. DEN
19Jared CookSTLvs. TB
20Andrew QuarlessGBvs. PIT

Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:

OFFENSIVE SCORING
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points

Additional Week 16 Positional Rankings

Quarterbacks
Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Defense/Special Teams

Kickers

Teaser:
Fantasy Football 2013 Tight End Rankings: Week 16
Post date: Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy football rankings, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2013-defspecial-teams-rankings-week-16
Body:

After flexing its muscles on the road last week, Seattle increased its grip on the No. 1 spot on Athlon Sports' fantasy football Week 16 defense/special teams rankings. The Seahawks picked off Eli Manning five times and recorded four sacks in the dominating 23-0 win over the Giants at MetLife Stadium, the site of Super Bowl XLVIII in February.

This week the Seahawks are back home, where they are virtually unbeatable, facing an Arizona team against which they collected seven sacks and two picks (22 PA) in their first meeting back in Week 7. The Cardinals' DST meanwhile has been fantasy's most productive DST over the past four weeks, scoring 58 points (Athlon scoring) thanks to 13 sacks and three defensive touchdowns.

Another repeat matchup has New Orleans visiting Carolina with the NFC South division title potentially on the line. The Saints had their way with the Panthers' defense two weeks ago, winning 31-13 behind 313 yards passing and four touchdowns from Drew Brees, but Carolina hasn't lost at home since the season-opener against the aforementioned Seahawks. New Orleans also has struggled on the road this season, losing 27-16 in St. Louis last week and 34-7 in Seattle three games ago. The Saints' defense has been solid in its own right, so don't be surprised if there aren't a bunch of points scored in this game.

2013 NFL Week 16 Fantasy Football Rankings — Defense/Special Teams

RkTeamOPP
1Seattle Seahawksvs. ARI
2San Francisco 49ersvs. ATL (Mon.)
3Kansas City Chiefsvs. IND
4Cincinnati Bengalsvs. MIN
5St. Louis Ramsvs. TB
6Carolina Panthersvs. NO
7Detroit Lionsvs. NYG
8Cleveland Brownsat NYJ
9Denver Broncosat HOU
10Arizona Cardinalsat SEA
11Tampa Bay Buccaneersat STL
12Buffalo Billsvs. MIA
13Miami Dolphinsat BUF
14San Diego Chargersvs. OAK
15Pittsburgh Steelersat GB
16New Orleans Saintsat CAR

Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:

DEFENSIVE SCORING
0 points allowed = 12 points
1-6 points allowed = 10 points
7-13 points allowed = 8 pts
14-20 points allowed = 6 points
21-27 points allowed = 2 pts
28+ points allowed = 0 points
Safeties = 2 points
Fumbles recovered = 2 points
Interceptions = 2 points
Sacks = 1 point
Defensive/Special Teams TDs = 6 points

Additional Week 16 Positional Rankings

Quarterbacks
Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends

Kickers

Teaser:
Fantasy Football 2013 Defense/Special Teams Rankings: Week 16
Post date: Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 06:30

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