Articles By Nathan Rush
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – North Carolina (1), Kansas (2)
The North Carolina Tar Heels (29–5, 14–2 ACC) were the preseason No. 1 team in the country in nearly every poll, including Athlon Sports’ preseason top 25. And although UNC is still stacked — with all-world sophomore wingman Harrison Barnes (17.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg), 7-foot senior center Tyler Zeller (16.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), shot-blocking junior forward John Henson (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.9 bpg) and pass-first point guard Kendall Marshall (7.5 ppg, 9.7 apg) — there are more questions circling the Tar Heels in March than there were in November, when Carolina opened the year with a win over Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. The Tar Heels’ toughness and end-game finishing ability are issues of concern in Chapel Hill. Coach Roy Williams has won two national titles (2005, 2009) at North Carolina and been to a combined seven Final Fours (at UNC and Kansas). The question is whether or not this year’s team can win it all in New Orleans — the city in which Dean Smith won his two national championships, in 1982 and 1993.
The Kansas Jayhawks (27–6, 16–2 Big 12) are led by a national player of the year candidate in 6’10” junior Thomas Robinson (17.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg) and a senior point guard in Tyshawn Taylor (17.3 ppg, 4.8 apg). But KU is far from a two-man team; junior combo guard Elijah Johnson (9.6 ppg, 3.8 apg), 7-foot junior Jeff Withey (9.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.3 bpg) and junior slasher Travis Releford (8.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) give coach Bill Self the type of veteran experience and leadership most powerhouse programs have not seen in decades. The Jayhawks have no bad losses on their resume — with all six defeats coming against NCAA Tournament teams (Kentucky, Duke, Davidson, Iowa State, Missouri, Baylor) — and will be a tough out once the ball is tipped on this year’s Tourney. Still, doubters will continue to point to Self’s back-to-back first round exits in 2005 and 2006, when Kansas was a No. 3 and No. 4 seed, respectively.
Player to Watch – Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan (4)
The heir to the UTEP two-step fortune, Hardaway Jr. (14.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) does not have the same killer crossover as his old man but he does have the same killer instinct in big games. The 6’6” sophomore from Miami has become the centerpiece of the Wolverines’ attack. Michigan had a 4–5 record in games the remarkably consistent Hardaway scored 10 or fewer points; the Maize-and-Blue’s other four losses were against Duke, Indiana and Ohio State twice — big time competition Hardaway averaged 16.5 points per game against.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Temple (5)
A veteran backcourt trio consisting of senior Philly native Ramone Moore (17.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg), junior combo guard Khalif Wyatt (17.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg) and senior Argentine point guard Juan Fernandez (11.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.9 apg) — all of whom are 6’4” matchup nightmares — lead an Owls club that has a high basketball IQ collectively. As a team, Temple shoots 47.2 percent from the field, 71.8 percent from the free throw line and 40.2 percent from 3-point range, all while averaging 23 assists-plus-steals compared to 13 turnovers per game.
Upset Pick – Belmont (14) over Georgetown (3)
Coach Rick Byrd has over 500 wins at Belmont, but has yet to notch his first victory in the NCAA Tournament — despite coming painfully close against Duke (71–70) in 2008. This could be the year that changes. Bruins are making their fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven seasons with a team that has six players who average between 8.5 and 14.1 points per game. Junior point guard Kerron Johnson (14.1 ppg, 5.2 apg) runs the show and will need to be a difference maker against Georgetown — the school that beat Belmont 80–55 in 2007.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Syracuse (1), Ohio State (2)
The Syracuse Orange (31–2, 17–1 Big East) are a No. 1 seed for the third time in program history. Coach Jim Boeheim has a deep and talented roster capable of locking down the opposition on defense, with the Orange’s signature stingy 2-3 zone. Brazilian big man Fab Melo (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.9 bpg) patrols the paint with authority, blocking and altering shots near the rim. Syracuse is a different team with a focused Melo on the floor, but the 7-footer has a tendency to lose his cool and will need to avoid foul trouble if he hopes to follow in the footsteps of the original Melo, Carmelo Anthony, who led SU to its only national title in 2003. Offensively, 6’7” senior Kris Joseph (13.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and sophomore guard Dion Waiters (12.6 ppg) reliably carry the bulk of the scoring load; junior Brandon Triche (9.3 ppg), 6’8” sophomore C.J. Fair (8.6 ppg, 5.5 apg) and senior point guard Scoop Jardine (8.3 ppg, 4.7 apg) are each capable of turning in big numbers on any given night.
The Ohio State Buckeyes (27–7, 13–5 Big Ten) lost a hard-fought Big Ten title game to Michigan State but enter the Big Dance with a team capable of making a run to New Orleans. The Buckeyes orbit around sophomore center Jared Sullinger (17.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), a physical force on both ends of the floor. “Big Sully” is playing his best ball when it matters most, averaging 24 points, nine boards and two blocked shots per game during the Big Ten Tourney. Sullinger is flanked by a pair of sweet-shooting, versatile forwards in sophomore Deshaun Thomas (15.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and senior William Buford (14.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg), while sophomore Aaron Craft (8.6 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.4 spg) competently mans the point. Coach Thad Matta has led OSU to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances; yet despite bringing some of the nation’s top talent to Columbus, Matta has only one Final Four berth — as national runners-up with Greg Oden in 2007 — since taking over in 2004.
Player to Watch – Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin (4)
The success of coach Bo Ryan’s deliberate tempo is predicated on his senior point guard’s ability to make plays with the shot clock winding down. Taylor (14.7 ppg, 4.0 apg, 3.7 rpg) is a tough-as-nails floor general who personifies the Badgers’ brand of ball. Wisconsin lacks the athleticism to run with the majority of the field of 68, but few teams have the caliber of coach on the floor that Taylor provides UW.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Vanderbilt (5)
Can a team that started the year ranked in the top 10 nationally and ended the season by beating Kentucky in the SEC title game even be considered a Sweet 16 sleeper? Vanderbilt has NBA-caliber, veteran talent on every level — with junior sharpshooter John Jenkins (20.0 ppg, 45.3 3PT%), senior lockdown defender Jeffery Taylor (16.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6’11” senior center Festus Ezeli (9.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg). But coach Kevin Stallings’ squad is also on a three-Tourney run of first-round losses and fresh off an emotional SEC Tournament title — VU’s first since 1951.
Upset Pick – West Virginia (10) over Gonzaga (7)
Say what you will about the man’s personality, but Bob Huggins is a proven NCAA Tournament tactician. “Huggy Bear” has only missed the Big Dance twice (2007 at Kansas State and 2006, when he was not coaching) and failed to advance to the second round just once (2009 at West Virginia) since Cincinnati joined Conference USA in 1995; Huggins is 13–1 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament during that time. Senior forward Kevin Jones (20.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg) and senior guard Truck Bryant (17.2 ppg) don’t want to end their careers as outliers in Huggins’ math madness of March.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Michigan State (1), Missouri (2)
The Michigan State Spartans (27–7, 13–5 Big Ten) locked up the fourth No. 1 seed by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament title game — after sharing the conference’s regular season crown with the Buckeyes. Coach Tom Izzo seems to be in the Iz-zone in March; MSU’s main man has led the Spartans to six Final Four appearances, and is aiming for his third trip in four years. Senior “dancing bear” point forward Draymond Green (16.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.6 apg) does it all for Sparty, presenting a 6’7”, 230-plus-pound matchup nightmare for opponents due to his rare combination of interior size and perimeter skills. Sophomore sensation Keith Appling (11.5 ppg, 3.9 apg) and senior Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood (8.3 ppg) provide steady backcourt play, while junior heavyweight Derrick Nix (7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and 6’10” sophomore Adreian Payne (6.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) bring the signature toughness of Izzo’s teams to the paint.
The Missouri Tigers (30–4, 14–4 Big 12) are the biggest surprise of the 2011-12 college basketball season. After going 23–11 (8–8 Big 12) and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Mike Anderson’s final year, the Tigers have been on a tear in Frank Haith’s first season on the job — and Mizzou’s final year in the Big 12, before jumping to the SEC next season. The Tigers’ three primary ball-handlers — senior Marcus Denmon (17.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), junior Michael Dixon (13.3 ppg) and sophomore Phil Pressey (10.0 ppg, 6.3 apg) — combined to shoot 85.2 percent (317-of-372) from the free-throw line this year. But Mizzou is undeniably undersized. Wingman Kim English is 6’6” but prefers to hang out downtown (14.9 ppg, 47.3 3PT%). That leaves the onus on 6’8”, 240-pound senior Ricardo Ratliffe (13.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and 6’9”, 270-pound senior Steve Moore to do the dirty work.
Player to Watch – Bradley Beal, Florida (7)
The Gators are a guard-heavy, 3-point shooting squad led by diminutive dynamos Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, who combined to shoot UF all the way to the Elite Eight last year. Florida really only has two big men, Patric Young and Erik Murphy. But coach Billy Donovan has Beal, a 6’3” freshman who can score (14.6 ppg), rebound (6.5 rpg) and pass (2.2 apg). If the Gators are able to survive a tough 7-10 draw against Virginia, they match up well against size-challenged Missouri — if Beal can maintain his recent SEC Tournament statline of 18 points, 7.5 boards and five assists per game.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Murray State (6)
The Racers are the Rodney Dangerfield of the bracket, getting no respect from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee despite posting a 30–1 record that included a 23–0 start to the season and wins over Memphis and Saint Mary’s. Underrated junior guard Isaiah Canaan (19.2 ppg) will have his chance on the hardcourt, however. Murray State should be given a home team’s welcome during the opening weekend in Louisville, which is an easy four-hour drive from Murray, Ky.
Upset Pick – Long Beach State (12) over New Mexico (5)
The 49ers started the year with a 4–5 record — following losses to NCAA Tournament competition from North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, San Diego State and Montana — but ended on a 21–3 run, locking up both the Big West regular season and postseason crowns. Steve Alford’s New Mexico club is everyone’s darling heading into the Dance, but the senior trio of point guard Casper Ware (17.4), wing Larry Anderson (14.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and big man T.J. Robinson (12.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg) will play the role of Cinderella when the clock strikes zero.
After Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III wowed scouts over the weekend, Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe stole the show at the NFL Scouting Combine when the defensive prospects took to the field-turf at Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday and Tuesday.
Poe weighed in at 6’4” and 346 pounds, as the fourth heaviest prospect since 2000 — just eight pounds lighter than the 354 pounds that Alabama’s Terrence Cody shamefully tipped the scales at in 2010. Unlike Cody, however, Poe was in tip-top shape, ready to run, jump and lift.
Before Daytona International Speedway caught fire on Monday night, there was a jet-fueled nose tackle torching the track in Indianapolis on Monday morning. Despite being just under 350 pounds, Poe ran a scorching 4.98 in the 40 yard dash. The time was nearly a full second faster than Cody’s 5.71 two years ago and a hair quicker than the 5.03 run by Ndamukong Suh, who worked out at 307 pounds and was drafted No. 2 overall that same year.
Along with a fast 40, Poe posted a 1.70 in his 10-yard split, showing the type of short-distance explosion more common to a hybrid end-linebacker edge rusher than for a zero-technique nose tackle. But Poe isn’t just a 350-pound track star; he also ripped off a Combine-best 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, an eye-popping 29.5-inch vertical leap and an 8’9” broad jump.
Several of Poe’s defensive tackle peers and first-round candidates looked good, but not nearly as good — including Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox (4.79 in the 40, 30 reps on bench press), Connecticut’s Kendall Reyes (36 reps on bench press, 34.5-inch vertical) and Clemson’s Brandon Thompson (35 reps on bench press, 31-inch vertical).
From head to toe, this year’s defensive end class was more impressive. South Carolina stud Melvin Ingram — who worked out with the D-linemen but will likely be a 3-4 outside backer at the next level — continued his ascension up draft boards. Ingram ran a 4.79 in the 40, 4.18 in the 20-yard shuttle, 6.83 in the 3-cone drill and posted a 34.5-inch vertical at 264 pounds, while also lifting 225 pounds 28 times on the bench press.
Ingram’s close friend, North Carolina’s Quinton Coples, won the weight in — at 6’6”, 284 pounds and 33 1/4” arm length, compared to Ingram’s 6’1”, 264 pounds and 31 1/2” arms. A classic 4-3 end, Coples also performed well in drills, running a 4.78 in the 40, lifting 25 reps of 225 and skying for a 31.5-inch vertical.
USC’s Nick Perry, another likely stand up guy in a 3-4 scheme, was a workout warrior — with a 4.64 in the 40, 35 reps of 225, a 38.5-inch vertical and 10’4” broad jump at 271 pounds. Those totals stack up favorably to 2006 No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams, who ran a 4.66, lifted 35 reps and had a 40.5-inch vertical at 295 pounds.
Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus is a 4-3 end who led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011, then had a respectable showing at the Combine — with a 4.68 in the 40, 27 reps on the bench and a 32-inch vertical. Clemson’s Andre Branch, likely a 3-4 outside backer, ran a 4.70, had a 32.5-inch vertical and an impressive 10’ broad jump.
Among linebackers, Boston College tackling machine Luke Kuechly stood out — running a 4.58 in the 40, a 4.12 in the 20-yard shuttle, lifting 27 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, posting a 38-inch vertical leap and a 10’3” broad jump. NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock — a B.C. alum — gave the 6’3”, 242-pound backer the Matt Ryan treatment and it was well deserved.
The Alabama slammer duo of Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw did not go through a complete workout. But Hightower impressed with a 4.68 in the 40 at 6’2” and 265 pounds, and Upshaw weighed in at an imposing 6’2” and 272 pounds. Expect the entire NFL scouting community to be in attendance at Alabama’s Pro Day on March 7. After all, this year’s Crimson Tide draft class just won Nick Saban two BCS national titles in three seasons.
Arizona State head case Vontaze Burfict entered Indy with question marks swirling around and did little to answer them on the field. Burfict seemed unprepared for Combine combat, running a sluggish 5.09 in the 40 — slower than Poe despite the Sun Devil being nearly 100 pounds lighter.
On Tuesday, the defensive backs held their track meet, with Central Florida’s Josh Robinson winning the foot race by posting a Combine-best 4.33 in the 40-yard dash — to go along with a stellar 38.5-inch vertical and 11’1” broad jump. LSU gunner Ron Brooks ran 4.37 and South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore posted a 4.40 in shorts.
The top two cornerbacks were clearly LSU’s Jim Thorpe award-winner Morris Claiborne and North Alabama’s talented but troubled Florida transfer Janoris Jenkins — both of whom received plenty of attention from Prime Time, or Neon Deion as it were. Dressed in the same highlighter-yellow Under Armor shirt as prospects, Sanders was quick to chime in with advice for a group of twentysomethings that aren’t old enough to have seen Prime in his prime.
“Open those hands up,” Sanders shouted at Claiborne, who ran a 4.50 with fists balled up.
Claiborne measured in at 5’11”, 188 pounds, with long 33 1/4” arms. Like Patrick Peterson — his LSU teammate who went No. 5 overall last year — Claiborne excelled in position drills, catching the ball at its highest point and showing the turn-and-go balance and agility of the excellent return man he is.
A compact yet fluid 5’10” and 193 pounds, Jenkins has an airport full of baggage off the field but looked the part of an All-Pro on the field turf. After starting his career under Urban Meyer at Florida, Jenkins — who ran a 4.46 in the 40 and posted a 10’1” broad jump — was kicked off the team by new coach Will Muschamp before transferring to North Alabama to play for Terry Bowden.
“I’m going to talk to him,” reassured Sanders.
“You should,” said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, “because he is tal-en-ted.”
Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick is still a first-round lock, but was nowhere near as impressive as Claiborne and Jenkins in football-related drills. But Kirkpatrick has a rare size-speed combo — running a 4.51 in the 40 (and posting a 35-inch vertical and 10’ broad jump) at 6’2” and 186 pounds. Plus, the Saban product has held his own against the SEC’s best during his days in Tuscaloosa.
Another member of the Crimson Tide secondary was noticeably absent, as consensus top safety Mark Barron sat out the Combine while rehabbing from hernia surgery; and Barron is also likely to miss Alabama’s Pro Day. Due to a phenomenal career at Bama, Barron will likely be the first safety off the board even without working out. But that didn’t stop Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith from doing all he could to close the gap between the Nos. 1 and 2 safeties. Smith ran a 4.57 in the 40, had a 34-inch vertical and a 10’2” broad jump after measuring in at 6’2” and 213 pounds with 32 5/8” arms.
In the end, however, all anyone wanted to see was NFL Network’s face of the franchise Rich Eisen run the 40-yard dash in full suit and tie. This year, Eisen wore colorfully customized Under Armor cleats, rather than dress shoes, and ran a personal-best 6.03 in the 40 — coming closer and closer to the 4.27 his broadcast partner Deion famously ran en route to his limo waiting outside in 1989.
by Nathan Rush
Andrew Luck is still the No. 1 prospect in the draft, but Robert Griffin III and Matt Kalil made their case at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 25-26.
Last year's No. 1 pick, the Carolina Panthers' record-breaking Pro Bowl "icon and entertainer" Cam Newton dominated commercial breaks while Luck, Griffin, Kalil and Co. torched the turf running the 40-yard dash, lifting 225 pounds on the bench press, jumping (vertical and broad), and doing various position drills in what some have dubbed the “Underwear Olympics.”
RGIII is so fast, "He would get pulled over in a school zone," according to the NFL Network crew led by Rich Eisen and Mike Mayock. A decorated track star at Baylor, Griffin topped out at 25 MPH — running a 4.41 in the 40. RGIII also reassured teams by measuring in at a solid 6’2 3/8”. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner posted an explosive 39-inch vertical leap and 10-foot broad jump.
Griffin was also caught on tape politicking, talking with Cleveland Browns quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple. With pick Nos. 4 and 22, Cleveland is the team with the best chances of landing RGIII.
Luck’s workout was not as impressive as Griffin’s off-the-charts effort — which included quarterback-best numbers in the 40 and vertical leap. But Luck did stack up well compared to Newton’s performance at last year’s combine. Luck weighed in at 6’4” and 234 pounds, ran a 4.67 in the 40-yard dash, posted a 36-inch vertical leap and a better-than-Griffin 10’4” broad jump; Newton was 6’5” and 248, running a 4.59 in the 40, with a 35-inch vertical leap and 10’6” broad jump in 2011. Unlike Newton, however, neither Luck nor Griffin chose to throw at the Combine.
Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill was unable to work out, due to a broken right foot suffered in January. In his absence, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins showed off his complete arsenal, with solid footwork, excellent accuracy and enough athleticism (4.93 in the 40). Meanwhile, LSU’s Jordan Jefferson proved he can “rip it,” as Mayock says, with a cannon for a right arm and impressive numbers in the drills — running a 4.65 in the 40, posting a 36.5-inch vertical leap and lifting 225 pounds 14 times on the bench press.
As good as Griffin and Luck were on Sunday, however, it was Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill who made the most money. The 6’4”, 215-pounder tied for the fastest 40 time of the weekend with a 4.36 — a time also recorded by Miami’s Travis Benjamin and Stanford’s Chris Owusu. Hill also had a 39.5-inch vertical leap and had sure hands — including one highlight reel diving catch during position drills.
The consensus top-rated wideout, Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon, did not run the 40-yard dash but did display strong, sure hands and the elite body control expected of a top-10 prospect. Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd ran a 4.47 in the 40 but had trouble catching the ball across in the middle (with no defense on the field); Floyd also has lingering injury and character concerns. In a head-scratching move, South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery chose not to run — after already measuring in shorter (6’2 7/8”) and nearly 20 pounds lighter than advertised.
Among running backs, Alabama’s Trent Richardson has established himself as clearly the top ball-carrier. Unfortunately, minor left knee surgery prevented the Bama bowling ball from working out at the Combine.
As a result, Miami’s Lamar Miller (4.40 in the 40) and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson (4.49 in the 40, RB-best 41-inch vertical, RB-best 11-foot broad jump) maintained their status as the next-best backs, while San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman (4.45 in the 40, 37-inch vertical), Oregon’s LaMichael James (4.45 in the 40, 10’3” broad jump), Texas A&M’s Cyrus Gray (4.47 in the 40, 21 reps on bench press) and Ohio State’s Dan “Boom” Herron (35-inch vertical, 22 reps on bench press) improved their stock with impressive workouts.
On Saturday, two of the top tight ends did not run the 40-yard dash. Stanford’s Coby Fleener sat out with an ankle injury after posting 27 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Georgia’s Orson Charles was a controversial healthy scratch in the 40 and both the vertical and broad jumps, but did rip off a position-best 35 reps on the bench press, looked great running routes and had a strong showing running the gauntlet. Clemson’s Dwayne Allen ran a 4.89 in the 40 and had 27 reps on the bench press.
This year’s offensive line class is one of the more impressive in recent memory, with USC’s Matt Kalil — the younger brother of Pro Bowl Panthers center Ryan Kalil — looking like the West Coast version of Joe Thomas or Jake Long. The younger Kalil weighed in at 6’6 1/2” and 306 pounds before running a smooth-as-silk 4.99 in the 40 and slamming out 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press despite having 34 1/2” long arms. The franchise left tackle has cemented himself as the best non-QB prospect in 2012.
After Kalil, tackle prospects such as Iowa’s Riley Reiff, Stanford’s Jonathan Martin and Ohio State’s Mike Adams did nothing to hurt their stock, although they did not have Kalil-like standout performances in shorts.
Stanford guard David DeCastro showed his phonebooth strength with 34 reps on the bench press, as did Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler (32 reps) and Georgia guard-tackle Cordy Glenn (31 reps). But no one could touch Michigan man David Molk, whose 41 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press were the most among all offensive players. The Rimington Trophy winning center was disappointed, however, that he was unable to reach his goal of 50 reps.
Iowa guard Adam Gettis had the best overall day among O-linemen, with a 5.00 in the 40, a 31.5-inch vertical and 9’4” broad jump. And Midwestern State fast riser Amini Silatolu continued to help himself in the draft process, with 28 reps on the bench press, a 31.5-inch vertical and an 8’11” broad jump.
by Nathan Rush
Athlon Sports sat down with Kenny Smith, who covers the NBA on TNT — along with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Ernie Johnson and Co. as a member of the Emmy award-winning Inside the NBA — as well as the NCAA Tournament on CBS. “The Jet” was a first-team All-American point guard under Dean Smith at North Carolina and a two-time NBA Finals champion with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995.
With this weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities — where Smith’s daughter, Kayla Brianna, will perform — and the March Madness of the NCAA Tournament around the corner, we get Smith’s take on weverything that’s happening in the world of basketball.
Athlon Sports: Kenny, how are you?
Kenny Smith: I can’t complain, any better I’d be kissing myself all over.
First off, tell me a little about the Coke Zero School Shoutout?
Oh man, this is great. It is giving college basketball fans a chance to enjoy more madness, where you show your school spirit for the NCAA Tournament by starting with texting to win. Up until March 10, you text “0” plus your team’s name to “2653” and you can have a chance to win free access to March Madness Live, which now you have to pay for, you can view games on your iPhone or your Android phone. Then you can go to EnjoyMoreMadness.com and you can have a chance to win tickets to the Final Four. A lot of prizes, a lot of giveaways, go to EnjoyMoreMadness.com, enter to win.
Sounds fun. The Final Four is in New Orleans this year, which happens to be the same place Dean Smith won both his titles. What do you think about these Tar Heels? Think they’re going to New Orleans?
I really do. Every year I think we’re going to win, but this year I think more. We have great guard play, we have great inside play and we have a great coach. Those are the three things that you need. So that puts us in the mix, man. That puts us really in the mix to win it all.
Do you think Harrison Barnes can take it up to the next level and carry a team to the title?
I think Harrison is right on track. He defends well, he rebounds well, he handles the ball and he takes big shots. He does all the things that you need a great player to do, so I’m excited to see what happens.
What do you think about Tyler Zeller’s NBA prospects?
I think Zeller has a great opportunity. He catches the ball well, he can shoot with either hand, he has great jump hooks, he runs the floor, and he can defend and block shots. How well he’s able to do it and of what magnitude is going to tell what kind of player he’s going to be in the NBA. But he’s an NBA prospect and player, for sure.
Kendall Marshall is the latest in a long line of great North Carolina point guards — you’re familiar with that. Where do you think he stands right now among some of the great Carolina point guards?
It’s tough to rank players. Everyone has their own era and what they’re doing. I think for this team, last year when he took the helm he showed the value of what Kendall Marshall brings to a team. Is that more valuable than what Kenny Smith brought to it? Or Jimmy Black? Or anyone else who played the point? Who knows? But he showed his value last year on what he was able to do and how we turned our season around in less than, what, five games.
Who else besides North Carolina would be your Final Four picks?
It’s tough to pick the Final Four, only because you don’t know where everyone is going to be seeded. … But Kentucky’s been the most consistent basketball team throughout the year. And everyone else has been good at times or great at times, but not as consistent. Even teams like Murray State have played great basketball at times, but they haven’t been consistent, losing games against teams they should beat. I think we have to play out this week or two to know where everyone’s seeded.
Speaking of consistency, this year’s Duke team is about as inconsistent as any Coach K team has been in recent years. What do you think the limit is for Duke this year?
They have a lot of talent but they’re young at certain spots. And I think that’s why you see the inconsistencies at times. But look at Florida State. Florida State beat both Duke and North Carolina. But you’re not going to say that they’re a better basketball team than either one of those schools. What Coach K is able to do — which I hate to say, hate to give him credit — and what we’re able to do at North Carolina, they’ve proven that they can win five games in a row, six big games in a row. That’s what you need for the NCAA Tournament. Not always that you’ve lost six games in the regular season. But can you win big game after big game?
Speak on Austin Rivers’ game-winner against North Carolina. That was a brutal blow. What were your thoughts?
I thought we had won the game. I was leaving the room because I had to go film NBA TV. Greg Anthony comes in and said, what did he say, he kind of said it like, ‘A shot at the buzzer!’ But leading me to think that North Carolina had won. So I’m thinking on the air that North Carolina wins and they were like, ‘No. No dude.’ Yeah, it broke my heart.
That was a heartbreaker. On the other end of the spectrum, how great has Jeremy Lin and Linsanity been?
He’s a great story; encompasses what we’ve all felt in our time. We’ve all thought that our talent was misevaluated. There it is. That’s Jeremy Lin. And at the same time, the fact that he’s Asian-American, so his ethnicity might not have gotten him where he needed to be. Oh, I can relate to that. He didn’t go to a powerhouse school. Oh, a lot of people can relate to that. He was in the D-League and got cut. Oh, people can relate to being cut from their job. So he encompasses a lot of underdog stories of a lot of Americans. And that’s what makes it fun.
People are making a big deal about Carmelo Anthony’s return. How do you think these new-look Knicks will play out in the next weeks and months?
First of all, let’s remember that Jeremy (Lin) is a point guard. And a point guard’s job is to make sure that great players and great scorers will be able to score. That’s your first job. Your second job is scoring and all those other things. I think that he will be able to do that and it will lessen the burden for Carmelo.
With a healthy Carmelo, the addition of J.R. Smith, the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Tyson Chandler, Amare Stoudemire — do you think these Knicks can contend in the East?
It puts them in the top five teams (in the East) now, where before they were in the next five. They were 5-through-10, whereas this could put them 1-through-5, leaning more towards four or five.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem to have clicked. Will the Heat dominate in the playoffs? Or will it be a struggle as it was last year?
The playoffs are a different animal. You’re not crushing through the Chicago Bulls. I think that those two teams have clearly shown that they’re the best in the East and we just have to wait and see how it develops.
As of today, who do you think plays in the NBA Finals?
Miami, Oklahoma City.
Now that Shaquille O’Neal is in the studio, do you ever give Shaq a hard time about your Rockets sweeping his Magic in the NBA Finals?
You don’t give him as hard a time; he’s got four championships now. But at the time, when it was happening, he had none. When I used to see him in the summers, I used to give him a hard time then. But now, he’s got two more championships than I ever dreamed of thinking about. So I can’t go at him anymore like I used to.
Going back to your days with the Rockets, where do you put Hakeem Olajuwon all-time?
Dream is in the top five centers of all time. And then once you get in the top five, it’s like picking oranges and apples. It’s just a personal preference.
Robert Horry’s Hall of Fame debate is a unique one, since he has more championships (7) than any player in history who was not a teammate of Bill Russell. Do you think Robert Horry has a substantial case to make the Hall of Fame?
I believe so. I don’t think that you can be on that many championship teams by accident, and be a key contributor. He was a key contributor on every team. He wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let me find the right team this year.’ He was a key contributor on teams that at times weren’t the favorite.
The 1983-84 North Carolina team, with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, yourself. If that team had fielded an NBA roster, how do you think that team would have fared?
That’s an NBA championship lineup, I believe. That’s the same type of talent that Michael had around him — if not better at certain positions — than he had with the Bulls.
What are your thoughts on Michael Jordan as an owner?
When he was in Washington as a general manager, part owner, I think there were a lot of players — we think about Kwame Brown — but I think there were a lot of players, Gilbert Arenas, bringing (Antawn) Jamison in and those guys. He was part of that. And they were actually a good team, and then he left. And then now, he hasn’t really come around and gotten the break that he needed in Charlotte.
It’s about longevity as an owner. I remember Danny Ainge, when people were ready to get rid of him in Boston and then all the sudden he makes a trade for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and then they become the “Big Three” and become this great franchise again. It’s just being around long enough to make the right deal.
After the lockout — and Charles Barkley has touched on this — it seems like the NBA has too many teams. With Commissioner David Stern controlling the Hornets and the Bobcats struggling to put something together, do you think the NBA should consider contracting one team, maybe two teams? At least the Hornets, if they can’t find an owner?
No. There’s always been terrible teams (laughing) and there’s always been great teams. I remember the Clippers used to be terrible, they’ve been in the league a long time, and now they’re a good team. Everyone can’t be a CEO. Someone has to be getting the mail. And then you work your way up. That’s how business is, that’s how sports are.
Speaking of the Clippers, do you think with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin that they team can contend for a title this year and in the future?
Yeah. They have all the pieces now, they just don’t have experience, but they have all the pieces.
Can the Clippers make an Oklahoma City-style run this year? The Thunder were young last year.
They were young but they’d been together at least one year. But the Clippers have all of the pieces you need. They have guys who can make big plays. They have great players. The only thing is that they’re small in the backcourt, that’s the only thing that could hinder them — especially since Chauncey (Billups) went down. They were small before, but when he goes down they’re even smaller.
What about the other L.A. team? What are the Lakers up to right now?
We have to wait and see if there’s going to be any trades. But when you have Kobe Bryant and those two giants, with (Pau) Gasol and (Andrew) Bynum, that’s going to put you in contention without even hesitation.
Do you think Dwight Howard is eventually an L.A. Laker? Whether it’s this year or as a free agent?
That’s a tough call. The only one who knows that question is Dwight. And I would guarantee that even he doesn’t know that right now, because there are multiple suitors and multiple situations that are appealing to him. And if the Orlando Magic make one great trade, the best situation would be to stay home — if they make one great acquisition before the trade deadline.
It’s All-Star Weekend and I have to thank you, as the Commissioner of the NBA Rising Stars draft, for adding Jeremy Lin. Was that a unilateral decision by Kenny Smith?
That’s what I wanted to see, so I made it happen.
Did you talk to Commissioner Stern? How did that work?
I put in a request and the request was met.
Who do you think had the edge in the Rising Stars draft, Charles Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal?
On paper, Shaq’s team is probably more appealing. But I don’t think Blake Griffin is going to play a lot of minutes. That’s why I would lean to Charles’ team.
How do you think Charles Barkley would fare as an NBA general manager?
Charles knows the game. You can’t hide it and be on television 12 years. You can say outlandish things but you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. Charles would make great decisions as a general manager. The only problem is, his tongue would get him in trouble, telling people how he feels throughout the year. He’d get fined a lot.
All right. EnjoyMoreMadness.com is the website for the Coke Zero School Shout Out?
Thanks, Kenny. Good luck to your Tar Heels.
Brady Quinn will need Tim Tebow’s forgiveness now that Yahoo! Sports’ NFL columnist Michael Silver has finished his controversial article, “The Year of Magical Stinking: An Oral History of Tebow Time” for GQ magazine.
In the piece, Silver assembles a Tebowmania timeline of quotations from Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway, Broncos coach John Fox, Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, Cleveland Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, Buffalo Bills linebacker Nick Barnett, Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, former Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley, ESPN analyst and Super Bowl winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, and NFL Network analyst and Super Bowl winning quarterback Kurt Warner — who gets the final word, calling Tebow “a biblical story” whose moral is “that regardless of our limitations, we can still accomplish great things.”
But it is Quinn who steals the show and sets a bitter, jealous tone with four quick quotes in three separate sections of the story.
Quinn, along with Dilfer and Fox, set the stage with comments on the atmosphere surrounding the months, weeks and days leading up to Tebow’s first NFL start at Miami in Week 7.
Quinn: “Early in the season, there was a game when Kyle (Orton) got hurt and the coaches were calling for me to go in, but Kyle got up and finished the game out. So I was the second-string guy. Then, a few weeks later, they decided to put Tim in. I felt like the fans had a lot to do with that. Just ‘cause they were chanting his name. There was a big calling for him. No, I didn’t have any billboards. That would have been nice.”
From there, the story is divided into weeks, with reaction from around the league.
Weeks 9 and 10: The Streak Begins
Quinn: “The entire game, the defensive line is chasing the quarterback around, and that wears down the pass rush. Meanwhile, the defensive backs are chasing receivers, but you only throw eight passes, so they start to feel lazy. It only takes that one play, that one big pass, for a touchdown.”
This is where Quinn — who has been a polarizing figure since his golden boy days at Notre Dame under coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis — gets himself in trouble, questioning Tebow’s humility and prayer technique (Tebow’s “Tebowing” ability, as it were).
Week 14: Broncos 13, Bears 10
Quinn: “We’ve had a lot of, I guess, luck, to put it simply.”
Quinn: “If you look at it as a whole, there’s a lot of things that just don’t seem very humble to me. When I get that opportunity, I’ll continue to lead not necessarily by trying to get in front of the camera and praying but by praying with my teammates, you know?”
Obviously, Tebow is the most popular headline maker in the world of sports this side of Jeremy Lin. Tebowmania is Linsane. Questioning Tebow’s religion is like making a racially charged Lin joke. Don’t do it.
He was a little late, but Quinn took to Twitter with a defensive five-tweet explanation of his comments:
The comments attributed to me in a recent magazine article are in NO WAY reflective of my opinion of Tim and the Broncos. Tim deserves a
lot of credit for our success and I’m happy for him and what he accomplished. Most importantly, he is a great teammate. That interview was
conducted three months ago, and the resulting story was a completely inaccurate portrayal of my comments. I have addressed my disappointment
with the writer and have reached out to Tim to clear this up. I apologize to anyone who feels I was trying to take anything away from our
Team’s or Tim’s success this season
Granted, Silver comes across as a snake, or at least snake oil salesman, pushing controversy as a product and riding the Tebow wave of momentum to maximize magazine sales and SEO online.
The intro is over-the-top — “Not even Jesus can save his passing game, and yet Tim Tebow somehow dominated the league last season…” And the AP photo by Julie Jacobson wraps a halo around Tebow, who is kneeling and presumably praying (by himself, as Quinn may or may not point out).
But Quinn’s quotes prove that he is not and will never be what Tebow is — masterfully and effortlessly, by the way. To this point, Tebow has not been “tricked” or “trapped” into a regrettable quote, and he did more interviews (and was more accommodating to fans and media, alike) than anyone in sports this year. Quinn fumbled and bumbled through his only meaningful conversation on record last year.
There are many job requirements of an NFL quarterback. Tebow excels in areas Quinn does not comprehend. Tebow will forgive Quinn, who will blame others for his own ignorance regarding one of a quarterback’s most important tasks — talking.
by Nathan Rush
Yesterday everyone was asking, “When will Mariano Rivera arrive?” Today the question has become, “When will Mariano Rivera leave?”
Apparently, the iconic Panamanian closer whose entrance music is Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” has been working on his exit strategy.
After showing up to Spring Training in Tampa, Fla., one day after all other New York Yankees pitchers and catchers, Rivera hinted that the 2012 season could be his last. The seemingly ageless 42-year-old is aiming to avoid a rocking chair tour, however, and isn’t ready to let the rest of the world in on his retirement plans — at least no time soon.
“I know now,” said Rivera. “I just don’t want to tell you. I know now. I will let you guys know when I think I should tell you.”
Rivera broke into the big leagues as a 25-year-old starting pitcher in 1995 before transitioning to the bullpen as the setup man for All-Star closer John Wetteland on the 1996 World Series champions — a team that had current manager Joe Girardi at catcher and 22-year-old Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter at shortstop.
In 1997, Rivera became the Yankees’ closer, a job he has held onto with a cutter grip for 15 seasons, redefining what it means to be a ninth-inning man. In the process, Rivera set the all-time saves record — which stands at 603 and counting. But just how many more 27th final game-winning outs does MLB’s last remaining No. 42 have left in his right arm?
Fresh off another unbelievably productive season — Rivera had a 1.91 ERA, 0.897 WHIP, 44 saves and 60 strikeouts in 61.1 innings in 2011 — there are no signs of slippage. But Super Mariano is in the final season of a two-year, $30 million deal and, even if his staggeringly consistent results remain at the usual All-Star level in 2012, Rivera can’t pitch forever — nor does he want to.
“I have my church, my family,” said Rivera. “I’ve been blessed in amazing ways. I’ve had a great career, but at the same time, there’s other things to do.”
The regal Rivera has already established himself as a first ballot Hall of Famer — compiling a 75–57 record, 603 saves, a 2.21 ERA, 0.998 WHIP and 1,111 strikeouts in 1,211.1 innings over 1,042 regular season games. The Sandman is a 12-time All-Star who has received MVP votes nine years and Cy Young votes in six seasons.
But Rivera’s legacy in pinstripes will be defined by his seemingly effortless dominance when the lights were brightest, in clutch situations in the playoffs.
Arguably the most important member of the “Core Four” — along with Jeter, retired catcher Jorge Posada, and retired lefty starter and Game 2 specialist Andy Pettitte — Mo has an 8–1 record, 42 saves, 0.70 ERA, 0.759 WHIP and 110 strikeouts in 141.0 innings in 32 playoff series over 16 seasons. He’s played in seven World Series, winning five world championships (2009, 2000, 1999, 1998 and 1996) and the World Series MVP in 1999.
Nothing lasts forever. It’s closing time for Rivera, whose megawatt, million-dollar smile in the bullpen is contrasted by his intimidating, laser-focus death glare on the mound. The best closer there is or ever was wants to slam the door on his brilliant career before Father Time has a chance to catch up with his cut fastball and take it the other way.
“It is important for me to leave the game on top if God allows me to do that,” said Rivera. “I won’t be dragging my arm to pitch. I’m not going to start pitching with my left arm. I want to be able to compete.”
by Nathan Rush
NBA All-Star Weekend is taking it back to the playground this year, with Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley picking sides for the Rising Stars Challenge — formerly the Rookies vs. Sophomores Game (2000-11) and the Rookie Game (1994-98) — on Thursday, Feb. 16, on NBA TV. The actual game will be played on Friday, Feb. 24, in Orlando.
The Big Aristotle and Sir Charles will have their choice of 18 rookies and sophomores (nine apiece). Unfortunately, barring injury, there will be no Linsanity in the Rising Stars Challenge. New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin had not taken over Google and Twitter prior to the Feb. 8 deadline for all 30 teams to submit their ballot.
MarShon Brooks, G-F, Nets
Kyrie Irving, PG, Cavaliers
Brandon Knight, PG, Pistons
Kawhi Leonard, G-F, Spurs
Markieff Morris, PF, Suns
Ricky Rubio, PG, Timberwolves
Tristan Thompson, F, Cavaliers
Kemba Walker, PG, Bobcats
Derrick Williams, F, Timberwolves
DeMarcus Cousins, C, Kings
Landry Fields, G, Knicks
Paul George, G-F, Pacers
Blake Griffin, PF, Clippers
Gordon Hayward, G-F, Jazz
Greg Monroe, C, Pistons
Tiago Splitter, C, Spurs
Evan Turner, G-F, 76ers
John Wall, PG, Wizards
NBA Rising Stars Challenge Rookie-Sophomore Mock Draft
Rather than Team Shaq and Team Chuck, Athlon Sports’ editors Mitch Light and Nathan Rush decided to do a mock draft. Here are the results of our draft along with a breakdown of Team Light and Team Rush:
1. Blake Griffin, PF, Clippers
Mitch Light: This was like winning the Lottery in 1985, when the Knicks grabbed Patrick Ewing. Griffin was the clear-cut No. 1 pick.
2. John Wall, PG, Wizards
Nathan Rush: The No. 1 overall pick in 2010, Wall was the MVP of the rookie-sophomore game last year, with a record 22 assists in victory.
3. Ricky Rubio, PG, Timberwolves
Light: Who better to throw alley-oops to Blake Griffin than Rubio, who is the best young passing point guard in the NBA.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, C, Kings
Rush: Wall’s college teammate at Kentucky had 33 points and 14 rebounds in this game last season, and the volatile big man is primed for a repeat.
5. Greg Monroe, C, Pistons
Light: The second-year product from Georgetown will be a nice complement to Blake Griffin on my front line.
6. Paul George, G-F, Pacers
Rush: An electric open floor dunker who can run with Wall and a 3-point bomber to balance out DMC in the post.
7. MarShon Brooks, G-F, Nets
Light: I needed a scorer on the perimeter, and the Nets’ first-round pick out of Providence has proven that he can put the ball in the basket — when healthy.
8. Kemba Walker, PG, Bobcats
Rush: A slight reach, maybe. But Walker will bring a spark off the bench and can score or create from either guard spot.
9. Evan Turner, G-F, 76ers
Light: I needed a jack-of-all-trades to round out my starting five. Hopefully, Turner can be that guy.
10. Gordon Hayward, G-F, Jazz
Rush: Versatile and unselfish, Jimmy Chitwood has the high basketball IQ and passing skills to thrive in this All-Star environment.
11. Kyrie Irving, PG, Cavaliers
Light: The No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft is scoring at a higher clip than expected (18.0 ppg) and will provide this club with some offensive punch off the bench.
12. Tristan Thompson, PF, Cavaliers
Rush: Someone has to guard Blake Griffin and the Canadian rookie thrives on defense and dirty work — even on All-Star Weekend.
13. Derrick Williams, F, Timberwolves
Light: This hard-working rookie could get the starting assignment for this team if I wanted to go big up front and pair him with Griffin and Monroe.
14. Kawhi Leonard, G-F, Spurs
Rush: Another above the rim athlete to run with Wall and catch alley-oops on fast breaks.
15. Landry Fields, SG, Knicks
Light: Jeremy Lin wasn’t available, so I went with the next smartest New York Knick.
16. Tiago Splitter, C, Spurs
Rush: Brazilian big man is an underrated passer and a solid backup for foul-prone Cousins.
17. Brandon Knight, PG, Pistons
Light: Not bad for a third-string point guard.
18. Markieff Morris, PF, Suns
Rush: Last man standing adds depth in the post.
C – Greg Monroe, Pistons
PF – Blake Griffin, Clippers
SF – Evan Turner, 76ers
SG – MarShon Brooks, Nets
PG – Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves
SF – Derrick Williams, Timberwolves
SG – Landry Fields, Knicks
PG – Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
PG – Brandon Knight, Pistons
C – DeMarcus Cousins, Kings
PF – Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers
SF – Paul George, Pacers
SG – Gordon Hayward, Jazz
PG – John Wall, Wizards
C – Tiago Splitter, Spurs
PF – Markieff Morris, Suns
SF – Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
PG – Kemba Walker, Bobcats
The Marlins appear to be starting from scratch in 2012. But the reality is that the 15-year-old team with two World Series titles has a flashy new, eye-catching paintjob but will be powered by the same engine once again this year.
Owner Jeffrey Loria’s club has a new name (officially changing from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins), new state-of-the-art $515 million ballpark, new South Beach style colors, new art deco logo, new eccentric manager in Ozzie Guillen and a wave of new All-Star players led by shortstop Jose Reyes and closer Heath Bell.
But, more than anything, Miami hopes what was old is new again, that Hanley Ramirez will return to his status as an MVP candidate and fantasy baseball statistical stud.
Granted, Han-Ram is central to the new age Miami movement. The 6’3”, 230-pound 28-year-old is pulling a Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez, taking his talents to third base after playing his entire career at shortstop. Ramirez was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2006, a three-time All-Star from 2008-10, and the NL batting champ (.342) and MVP runner-up in 2009 while manning short.
In a year of transition, Miami needs the face of the Fish franchise to seamlessly slide over to a new position, while also bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2011 season that resulted in career-low production at the plate.
Last season, Ramirez struggled to hit .243 with a .712 OPS, 10 HRs, 45 RBIs, 20 stolen bases and 55 runs in 92 games, battling through a nagging left shoulder injury that sent him to the disabled list after Aug. 2 and required season-ending surgery on Sept. 15.
Prior to 2011, Han-Ram was one of the most dynamic players in the game during the five-season stretch from 2006-10:
Single-season highs (2006-10)
Single-season lows (2006-10)
Five-season averages (2006-10)
The Marlins have added a table setter in Ramirez’s speedy shortstop replacement Reyes; and emerging 22-year-old right fielder Mike Stanton — a 6’5” action hero with off the charts power on the 20-80 scouting scale — provides more than enough protection in the cleanup spot behind Ramirez, who bats third. The pieces are in place for Han-Ram to reestablish himself as one of the premier players in the big leagues.
“Hanley Ramirez can be one of the best players in the National League,” said Guillen, who arrives in the NL after managing the AL’s Chicago White Sox from 2004-11. “That’s a lot to say, because there are a lot of good players here.
“But he has to want to be.”
Obviously, Ramirez’s attitude is key. Ramirez is no longer the only good player on a bad team, he is now surrounded by a talented roster on a franchise willing to put its money where its mouth is in order to contend. Fair or not, Ramirez has earned a reputation as an uber-talented prima donna who isn’t above sulking when things don’t go his way — or jogging to a booted ball if he feels the outcome of a game has already been decided.
“You can be the best player in the game, but when you’re losing, it’s not fun coming to the ballpark. That happened to Hanley a lot,” explained Guillen. “I hope this year, when he is driving to the new park, with his new teammates and a new attitude, he just gets out of the car and has a big smile on his face.”
The obvious cause for concern is Ramirez’s bruised ego following a forced position change from shortstop — arguably the most glamorous position in sports other than quarterback — to the hot corner of third base, a position he has never played. But Ramirez isn’t the first All-Star who has changed positions during his prime.
“A lot of good players move,” said Guillen. “Bad players, they get released or traded, or they play in Mexico. Good players, they move to another position.
“Look at the players being moved. Good players. Michael Young. Miguel Cabrera. A-Rod. Robin Yount. Cal Ripken. You’re not talking about Pedro Perez. You’re talking about good ones. That is for a reason.”
All eyes will be on Ramirez when the Marlins’ position players report for spring training on Feb. 26. Guillen cautioned, nearly pleading, that media and fans alike should “let him be” while Ramirez adjusts to his new position and continues to work his way back to 100 percent physically.
And although Ramirez has not made any public comments during the offseason, he has gone on the offensive with a new Powerade commercial that has been running (en Espanol) in Latin America.
“To all those who sent messages criticizing me, I want to apologize for not having replied yet. I was busy with this bat and this marker, writing your names. The response is on its way. Sincerely, Hanley Ramirez,” he says via voiceover, while writing names on the wood bat he uses while training.
Ramirez’s talent has always been there — since he was signed by the Boston Red Sox out of the Dominican Republic in 2000 and traded to the Marlins for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell in 2005. And by all accounts, health is no longer an issue. The supporting cast is clearly in place. If Ramirez is as motivated as a player on the diamond as he is as a pitchman over the airwaves, look out.
“Powerade, they may know something that we don’t know,” said Guillen. “You invest money in people you think are going to be good.”
When it comes time for your fantasy baseball draft, follow Powerade’s lead — invest money in Hanley Ramirez, who will bounce back in a big way in 2012.
by Nathan Rush
By winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Phil Mickelson earned his 40th career PGA Tour victory and proved he still has the mojo to win another major championship — having already won three times at The Masters (2004, ’06, ’10) and once at the PGA Championship (2005).
Final round playing partner Tiger Woods was helplessly unable to stay stride-for-stride with Lefty on Sunday; wife Amy watched beaming beautifully just behind the rope greenside at No. 18; and even tournament host Clint Eastwood lightened his mood in the booth with CBS’s Jim Nantz one week after making news with his shadowy somber Chrysler “It’s halftime, America” Super Bowl commercial.
The rest of the golf world sat back and marveled as Phil the Thrill dismantled Pebble Beach and Tiger disintegrated, uncharacteristically yipping his way through the round, turning short par putts into bogeys while displaying the type of body language only Jay Cutler could appreciate.
Although Woods wore enough of his signature Sunday red — with a Nike polo under a black vest — to indicate he believed himself to be a contender in California, Sunday’s version of Tiger in no way resembled the cutthroat 14-time major champion fans were hoping to see go toe-to-toe with Mickelson.
But no one told Phil that the Michael Jordan of golf faded away after Tiger limped to the 2008 U.S. Open (and may have been crushed completely when Woods’ gated-community life ran off the road Thanksgiving weekend 2009).
Mickelson played as if he were up against a roaring No. 1-ranked twentysomething wunderkind with Steve Williams bullying on the bag — not the player he was actually facing, a currently middling doppelganger wearing a TW hat and old man golf shoes with average Joe LaCava caddying.
“I just feel very inspired when I play with (Tiger),” said Mickelson, after shooting 8-under 64 on Sunday to overcome a six-shot deficit against 54-hole leader Charlie Wi.
“I love playing with (Tiger), and he brings out some of my best golf. I hope that he continues to play better and better. And I hope that he and I have a chance to play together more in the final rounds.”
While Mickelson basked in the afterglow of victory following the only bogey-free round Pebble Beach saw all day, Tiger could only stew in his second straight Sunday slide from contention, after a similar — albeit lower profile — slip at Abu Dhabi on the European Tour last week.
“I putted awful,” said Woods, who missed five putts from within five feet, with 31 total putts en route to posting a disappointing 3-over 75 final round.
“Anything I tried to do wasn’t working. Consequently, I made a ton of mistakes on the green.”
With Tiger headed back to the driving range (or better yet, the practice green) to tweak his game, Phil offered insight from his unique perspective. Yet, Mickelson’s vantage point is the same sightline as those fans bellied up to the bar or reclining on the couch.
As much or more than anyone, Phil is hopefully optimistic — bordering on wishfully thinking — that Tiger is in the process of turning the proverbial corner.
“I know the score wasn’t what (Tiger) wanted and I know he didn’t putt the way he wanted to,” said Mickelson.
“But you could tell that he’s really close.”
by Nathan Rush
Like it or not, Eli’s “Manning face” will be immortalized in bronze when his bust is unveiled at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. And it will only take five years after he retires — Manning is not only a Hall of Famer, he’s a first-ballot lock.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft — a class that also included Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers — Manning has quickly established himself as one of the most durable signal-callers and one of the most dependable passers under fourth-quarter and playoff pressure. That combination has made Manning one of the most productive quarterbacks the game has ever seen.
Manning has played 119 consecutive regular season games, the longest active streak in the post-Peyton and really-retired-Favre era. Manning has thrown for 27,579 yards, which is good for 51st all-time — with 14 of the names ahead of him already in the Hall and a few more (Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Tom Brady) waiting their turn. Manning’s 185 career TD passes rank 42nd all-time — with 17 ahead in the Hall and the aforementioned usual suspects already writing their speeches for Canton.
But Manning doesn’t need to compile stats; he’s already punched his ticket with his fourth-quarter and playoff heroics. Manning has an 8–3 record in the playoffs, with two Super Bowl MVP awards and a pair of Vince Lombardi Trophies. In Super Bowl XLII, Manning led a 12-play, 83-yard game-winning drive; in Super Bowl XLVI, Manning led a nine-play, 88-yard game-winning drive.
And Manning doesn’t just produce in crunch time on Super Sunday; Eli threw an NFL record 15 fourth-quarter TDs in 2011. When it matters most, Manning is at his best. And his best ranks among the best of all time.
Manning may not be the smoothest New Yorker living in Manhattan, but it doesn’t take Joe Namath to guarantee Eli’s place among history’s elite.
– Nathan Rush
God bless you, Pro-Football-Reference.com. You make the case against Eli Manning’s Hall of Fame candidacy better than I ever could. On each individual player’s page, the good folks at PFR provide similarity scores, listing those players whose careers are most similar to the player in question. Here are the players to whom Eli Manning is most analogous: David Garrard, Jake Delhomme, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Chad Pennington, Stan Humphries, Tony Romo, Aaron Brooks, Daryle Lamonica and Doug Williams. Not exactly Unitas, Montana and Marino, is it?
Statistically, Manning doesn’t even compare very favorably to his peers, much less the all-time greats. His career passer rating of 82.1 ranks 21st among active quarterbacks. His career completion percentage is 58.4 in an era when anything below 60 is unacceptable. His record as a starting quarterback is a rather pedestrian 69–50 in the regular season, a winning percentage of .579 that ranks below Delhomme’s .583.
I can anticipate the protests: Eli’s won two Super Bowls. Well, so has Jim Plunkett, and no one’s clamoring for a Plunkett bust in Canton.
Manning’s eight career postseason wins have been compressed into two bursts. In six of Eli's eight seasons in the league, his teams either failed to make the playoffs (2004, 2009, 2010) or were one and done when they did (2005, 2006, 2008). And let’s not forget the considerable contributions of his teammates to his success; in his two Super Bowl campaigns, his receivers saw to it that his frequent prayers were answered.
As with all New York athletes, Manning’s highs are inflated, and his lows are magnified. Coming off a Super Bowl win, it’s natural for fans and media to blow his career accomplishments far out of proportion. Once the dust settles, the perception of Eli will nestle in where it should: as a very good quarterback. But there is no Hall of Very Good.
– Rob Doster
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee will meet in Indianapolis on Feb. 4, the day before Super Bowl XLVI, to debate and vote on the 2012 Hall of Fame class — which will be the 50th class honored in Canton, Ohio. This year’s field has been narrowed down to 15 modern-era finalists and two senior nominees.
In order to be elected, a finalist must receive 80 percent of the vote from the 44-member panel. According to Hall of Fame rules, “no more than five modern-era nominees may be elected in a given year and a class of six or seven can only be achieved if one or both senior nominees are elected.”
This year’s 15 modern-era finalists are:
- Jerome Bettis, RB, Rams (1993-95), Steelers (1996-2005)
- Tim Brown, WR, Raiders (1988-2003), Buccaneers (2004)
- Cris Carter, WR, Eagles (1987-89), Vikings (1990-2001), Dolphins (2002)
- Dermontti Dawson, C, Steelers (1988-2000)
- Edward DeBartolo Jr., Owner, 49ers (1977-2000)
- Chris Doleman, DE, Vikings (1985-93, ’99); Falcons (1994-95), 49ers (1996-98)
- Kevin Greene, OLB, Rams (1985-92), Steelers (1993-95), Panthers (1996, ’98-99), 49ers (1997)
- Charles Haley, DE, 49ers (1986-91, ’99), Cowboys (1992-96)
- Cortez Kennedy, DT, Seahawks (1990-2000)
- Curtis Martin, RB, Patriots (1995-97), Jets (1998-2005)
- Bill Parcells, Coach, Giants (1983-90), Patriots (1993-96), Jets (1997-99), Cowboys (2003-06)
- Andre Reed, WR, Bills (1985-99), Redskins (2000)
- Willie Roaf, T, Saints (1993-2001), Chiefs (2002-05)
- Will Shields, G, Chiefs (1993-2006)
- Aeneas Williams, CB, Cardinals (1991-2000), Rams (2001-04)
Of the 15 modern-era finalists, only Parcells and Shields are new additions to the ballot, on which a player may not appear until he is five years removed from his playing career.
The two senior nominees are Jack Butler, CB, Steelers (1951-59) and Dick Stanfel, G, Lions (1952-55), Redskins (1956-58).
But the question is, how many future Hall of Famers are the New England Patriots and New York Giants bringing to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis?
The following is a tiered rundown of where the best of the best teams in football stand in proximity to Canton:
Tier 1 – Tickets to Canton punched
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
A win in Super Bowl XLVI would tie Brady with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most titles ever, with four; he’s already tied with John Elway for most big game appearances, with five. Brady has thrown for 39,979 yards and 300 TDs in essentially 10 seasons — technically 12, but he played just one game apiece in 2000 and ’08. The three-time Super Bowl champ, two-time Super Bowl MVP and two-time league MVP also posted the greatest single season in ’07, tossing 50 TDs en route to the only 16–0 regular season in history. The only debate with Brady is how long will the locks be on his bronze bust in Canton?
Bill Belichick, Coach, Patriots
Since winning two Super Bowls as Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator with the Giants, Belichick has gone on to win three more rings (in four years, from 2001-04) as coach of the Patriots. The hoodied genius has nine AFC East titles in 12 years, five Super Bowl appearances, a 175–97 regular season record and 17–6 mark in the postseason. At this point, no one even remembers Belichick’s 36–44 run with the Browns from 1991-95 or his surreal one-day stint as the “coach” of the Jets in 2000. At this point, Belichick has surpassed even Parcells on the list of all-time great coaches.
Tier 2 – Win again and you’re in
Eli Manning, QB, Giants
A second Super Bowl win in five years would make Manning the 11th quarterback in history with multiple rings. Of the previous 10, only Jim Plunkett and Ben Roethlisberger are not in the Hall of Fame — and Big Ben, a 2004 draft classmate of Eli’s, isn’t eligible yet. Manning has thrown for 27,579 yards and 185 TDs in eight years, playing in all 16 games in each of the last seven seasons.
Tom Coughlin, Coach, Giants
Once a grumpy old man on the verge of being run out of town, Coughlin has aged like a fine wine in New York and is on the verge of joining Parcells as a two-time Super Bowl champ. Prior to his days with the Giants, Coughlin was the first coach in Jaguars history. Overall, Coughlin has nine playoff trips in 16 seasons, a 142–114 regular season record and 11–7 mark in the playoffs.
Tier 3 – On the bubble for a bust
Vince Wilfork, DT, Patriots
The 325-plus-pounder is the anchor of the Patriots defense, with the versatility to dominate as a zero-technique nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, a three-technique tackle in a 4-3 or anywhere in between. Numbers don’t tell the whole story of the impact Wilfork has on a game, collapsing the pocket and drawing double- and triple-teams. With one Super Bowl win (as a rookie) and one loss on Super Sunday, Wilfork is hoping the third time’s a charm.
Tier 4 – Fast start, but miles to go
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
The Gronk had the greatest single season a tight end has ever produced — with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 TDs (and one rush TD) in 2011. Through two seasons, the 6’6”, 265-pound superfreak has 27 receiving scores; Tony Gonzalez has a tight end record 95 TDs over 15 seasons.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
Another physical marvel, JPP has Gronk-like size (6’6”, 278), speed and agility. But his upside may be even greater. Pierre-Paul is just scratching the surface, becoming a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate in just his second season (16.5 sacks, 86 tackles).
Tier 5 – Hall of very good
Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
Michael Strahan’s former partner in crime has notched 69 sacks and 30 forced fumbles in eight years.
Chad Ochocinco, WR, Patriots
A six-time Pro Bowler, the wideout formerly known as Chad Johnson has 11,059 yards and 67 TDs.
Wes Welker, WR, Patriots
Brady’s go-to slot receiver on underneath routes has 7,226 yards and 32 TDs but no Super Bowl rings.
Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
A beast when healthy, Tuck has 45.5 sacks, 18 forced fumbles and a 41-yard pick six in seven seasons.
The greatest battles in sports often produce the greatest rematches. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. All are classic rivalries with multiple spellbinding chapters.
And now, the New England Patriots and New York Giants — the last two teams left standing, as champions of the AFC and NFC, respectively — look to join those historic ranks.
The Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 23–20, in a game that ended with Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yard chip shot field goal that would have sent the contest into overtime.
“It’s a kick I’ve kicked a thousand times in my career,” Cundiff said, in disbelief with watery eyes following the game. “You know that Ray Lewis has poured his heart out, and you don’t know how many years he has left. To let him down is pretty tough.”
On the other side, the Giants eaked out a 20–17 overtime win on the road and in the rain against the San Francisco 49ers, following a fumbled punt by Kyle Williams, who was subbing for an injured Ted Ginn Jr. Williams’ second turnover of the game put the Giants in field goal range, allowing Lawrence Tynes the opportunity to hit the second sudden-death, game-winning, NFC title-clinching field goal of his career.
“You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it away in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude,” said Williams, who sat dazed with cameras and microphones surrounding his usually vacant locker space after the game.
As a result of the costly mistakes made by Cundiff and Williams, Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will be a rematch of Super Bowl XLII at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona, where the Giants upset the previously unbeaten Patriots, 17–14, in one of the most exciting Super Bowls of all time.
Although there are many new faces, both head coaches (New England’s Bill Belichick and New York’s Tom Coughlin) and high-profile quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Eli Manning) are back for another showdown on Super Sunday.
Brady and Manning are only the third pair of quarterbacks to play each other in multiple Super Bowls. Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw beat Dallas’ Roger Staubach in Super Bowls X and XIII, while Dallas’ Troy Aikman bested Buffalo’s Jim Kelly in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII.
Obviously, Brady will look to buck that trend by becoming the first losing QB to win his Super Bowl rematch. Manning, however, will aim to recreate the magic he had on the Giants’ epic 12-play, 83-yard game-winning drive that featured three clutch third-down conversions — including the miraculous 32-yard “helmet catch” by David Tyree on 3rd-and-5 — and was capped by a 13-yard scoring strike to a wide open Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining.
“You can’t write a better script,” said Manning, after winning his first Super Bowl in dramatic fashion. “There were so many big plays on that drive.”
This will also be a rematch of the Week 9 matchup between the Pats and G-Men. The Giants also won that meeting, 24–20, with Manning hitting tight end Jake Ballard for a one-yard touchdown with 15 seconds remaining — in a play reminiscent of Manning’s Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass to Burress as well as the incredible Tyree grab four plays earlier on the final drive.
“I’d rather be down by three with a minute-thirty than up by four with a minute-thirty with Tom Brady, with their offense on the field,” Manning echoed, with an eerily similar reaction after the Week 9 victory. “You like those situations where you have an opportunity to go win the game.”
New England has won 10 straight games since losing to New York, a team riding a five-game win streak of its own.
“We’ve had five straight single-elimination games,” said Coughlin. “Somehow, some way, we’ve found a way to scratch our way to a win.”
During that five-game winning streak, Manning has been arguably the best quarterback in football — passing for 1,494 yards, 12 TDs and two INTs in wins over the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers and 49ers. Meanwhile, the Big Blue Wrecking Crew defense has been running on all cylinders, allowing an average of 13.4 points per game, notching 20 sacks and forcing 11 turnovers along the way.
In Super Bowl XLII, Brady was dogged by the Giants’ defensive line, taking five sacks and losing a fumble. In this year’s postseason, Brady has posted day and night performances, with 363 yards and a record six TDs in a blowout of the Broncos before tossing two INTs and failing to throw a TD for the first time in 36 games in a nailbiter against the Ravens.
“I sucked pretty bad,” Brady said after the AFC Championship Game. “I’m gonna go out and try to do a better job in (the Super Bowl).”
The three-time Super Bowl champ and two-time Super Bowl MVP even went so far as to make a promise to Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
“He said to me, ‘I promise you I’m going to play a lot better,’” said Kraft, whose wife Myra passed away this season and whose team has worn tribute patches with her initials, “MHK,” since her death.
“He’s still pretty good in my book. I’ll take him over any quarterback. I’ve been watching the NFL for a long time, and there’s no quarterback I’d rather have.”
History backs up Kraft’s opinion. Brady tied Joe Montana’s all-time playoff wins record, with 16. Just by going to the big game again Brady has tied John Elway for most Super Bowl appearances by a starting quarterback, with five. A victory over the Giants would give Brady the all-time playoff wins mark outright and tie him with Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most Super Bowl wins all-time by a starting quarterback, with four.
“It’s incredible,” said Brady. “You pinch yourself to get this opportunity. It’s really a privilege.”
by Nathan Rush
Super Bowl XLVI
Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind.
New England Patriots vs. New York Giants
Sunday, Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m. EST on NBC
New England Patriots
Tom Brady opened this postseason with his finest playoff performance ever — throwing for 363 yards and a record six TDs in a 45–10 blowout of the Broncos. But the three-time Super Bowl champ followed that up with one of his worst outings ever — with 239 yards, zero TDs and two INTs for a 57.5 rating in a 23–20 nailbiter over the Ravens in the AFC title game. Brady was mediocre in the Patriots’ loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, passing for 266 yards, one TD and zero INTs. He did, however, take five costly sacks.
Record-breaking touchdown machine tight end Rob Gronkowski is coming off an ugly ankle injury and will need to be full strength come Super Sunday. Tight end Aaron Hernandez has been used more as a change-of-pace running back during the playoffs and slot receiver Wes Welker is Brady’s security blanket across the middle.
The man in the middle is 325-plus-pound nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who has easily been the most disruptive player in this year’s playoffs. Wilfork commands constant double-teams, which he has been able to fight through for 2.5 sacks and several key tackles for a loss in wins over the Broncos and Ravens.
With Wilfork pushing the pocket and attracting attention, young linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are free to make plays. Spikes has proven to be a difference-maker during the playoffs — with 15 tackles, one sack and one INT returned 19 yards.
The New England secondary is a patchwork unit pieced together with smoke, mirrors and position changes — such as cornerback Devin McCourty moving to safety and wide receiver Julian Edelman playing nickel corner. Pass coverage is the elephant in the room.
Although Adam Vinatieri no longer kicks for the Pats, Stephen Gostkowski has proven to be a reliable weapon. But he doesn’t have the Super Bowl-winning kicks on his resume that Vinatieri does. Punter Zoltan Mesko is a booming left-footer who can change a game by flipping the field.
Bill Belichick is viewed by most as the best coach in the game and arguably the greatest of all time. Belichick has won five Super Bowls — three as a head coach and two under Bill Parcells.
New York Giants
Eli Manning has been the best quarterback in football over the past five weeks — all of which have been elimination games for the Giants. The Super Bowl XLII MVP has passed for 1,494 yards, 12 TDs and two INTs in victories over the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers and 49ers. Manning’s top targets have been Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, two wideouts with the size to win a jump ball battle — as Nicks famously did at the end of the first half at Green Bay — and the speed to win a footrace down the sideline.
A sturdy O-line is anchored by center David Baas, left tackle David Diehl and coach Tom Coughlin’s son-in-law, guard Chris Snee. That group paves the way for a running game featuring a one-two punch of 264-pound power back Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, who have combined to rush for 327 yards in three playoff wins.
The Big Blue stop-unit starts up front with arguably the deepest and most talented defensive line in the game. Veteran Osi Umenyiora, freak athlete Jason Pierre-Paul, versatile Justin Tuck and hybrid end-linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka headline a pass rush that specializes in collapsing pockets and sacking quarterbacks.
The secondary is led by outspoken safety Antrel Rolle, who played in Super Bowl XLIII three years ago as a member of the Cardinals. Rolle, safety Kenny Phillips and cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Corey Webster will have their hands full with the Patriots’ pass-catchers.
During the playoffs, coordinator Perry Fewell’s crew has allowed just 13 points per game — with nine sacks, four turnovers forced and a safety. Big Blue will be looking for a repeat of Super Bowl XLII, when they held the Patriots to just 14 points.
The third side of the ball was the difference against the 49ers. Jacquian Williams’ forced fumble put the Giants in position for Lawrence Tynes to kick the second NFC title-winning FG of his career. Tynes has proven to be a cool customer with the game on the line. Ross and Cruz are capable return men.
Coughlin is a proven, Super Bowl-winning coach. The 65-year-old has mellowed with age, relying more on a solid staff led by playcaller Kevin Gilbride and rising star Fewell.
Giants by 1
Brady and Manning won’t be the only stars in Indy. Kelly Clarkson will sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton will perform a duet of “America the Beautiful,” and Lenny Kravitz and The Fray will rock out the pregame festivities.
At halftime, Madonna will be joined by special guests Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. in a highly anticipated mini-concert. And, as always, the commercials — which reportedly cost $3.5 million for a 30-second spot — will be just as talked about as the game itself.
Super Bowl betting — and prop bets, in particular — attract sharks and suckers alike who can’t afford a $3.5-million, 30-second commercial spot on NBC’s telecast or a $2,500 nosebleed seat at Lucas Oil Stadium, but do have a some lunch money to wager on Super Sunday.
Here’s a quick look this year’s popular Super Bowl bets, along with advice on where the smart money should play. For consistency’s sake, all odds and lines are courtesy of Bovada.lv — the online gambling website formerly known as Bodog.com.
(For the average Joe who doesn’t speak in Vegas tongues, when the odds are -150, you must wager $150 in order to win $100; when the odds are +150, your $100 bet nets $150. Just FYI.)
How long will it take Kelly Clarkson to sing the National Anthem?
Over 1:34 (-120)
Under 1:34 (-120)
Last year’s over-under on Christina Aguilera’s now infamous “Star-Mangled Banner” was 1:54. This year, Kelly Clarkson will do justice to the Francis Scott Key classic, show off her American Idol-winning voice, hit all the notes, remember every last lyric and take longer than 1:34 to do so.
Heads or tails?
Heads has a 23–22 all-time edge. Tails will even the score this time around. After all, “tails never fails” — unless you are the old man at the gas station in No Country For Old Men; he was lucky to have called “heads.”
Which team will win coin toss?
The NFC has won 14 consecutive coin tosses and carries a 31–14 all-time advantage. Look for the G-Men to keep the streak alive — especially if Peyton Manning tosses the coin for a few free hand-tossed Papa John’s pizzas.
Will Madonna wear an NFL jersey or shirt at any point during the Super Bowl halftime show?
Madonna is the first female Super Bowl halftime act since Janet Jackson’s nipple slip “wardrobe malfunction” midway through the Patriots’ Super Bowl XXXVIII win. And while she may have a British accent and guns bigger than Wes Welker, there’s no way she wears any of Roger Goodell’s gear during her Cirque du Soleil show.
Will Madonna be wearing fishnet stockings at any point during the Super Bowl halftime show?
It’s the Super Bowl, the 53-year-old Material Girl will do something new, right? Maybe wear a torpedo bra or a wedding dress? That’s fresh.
Total touchdowns scored in game
Over 6.5 (Even)
Under 6.5 (-130)
Before last year’s Packers-Steelers 31–25 seven-TD shootout, there had not been as many trips to the end zone since the Patriots-Panthers epic fourth-quarter flurry of Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Giants and Patriots combined to score four TDs in Super Bowl XLII and five in Week 9 this season.
Total field goals made in game
Over 3.5 (+135)
Under 3.5 (-165)
Although Adam Vinatieri is the greatest clutch kicker in NFL playoff history, the Patriots have kicked a grand total of four field goals in their four Super Bowl trips under Bill Belichick.
In 19 games this year, Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes has made zero or one field goal 11 times, two field goals seven times and three field goals exactly once — at Green Bay in the Divisional Round.
Will the team that scores last win the game?
I believe (hope?) it will be that kind of Super Bowl.
Will the game go to overtime?
There has never been an overtime game in Super Bowl history. Ofer-45. Go ahead and bet $1,200 to make a sweet $100 profit that there will be no free football. Seriously, don’t do that. Put all your money on the coin toss.
Will the game be decided by exactly three points?
It is true that all four Super Bowls started by Tom Brady have been decided by a three-point margin — a 20–17 win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, 32–29 win over the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, 24–21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX and 17–14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. But don’t bank on a fifth straight field goal difference.
What color will the Gatorade (or liquid) be that is dumped on the head coach of the winning Super Bowl team?
The Giants dumped clear/water on coach Tom Coughlin after beating the Cowboys in a playoff play-in in Week 17 and following Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots did not dump anything on Bill Belichick — don’t want to ruin the hoody — after Super Bowls XXXVI or XXXVIII, but hit him with a little clear/water after XXXIX.
Who will be named Super Bowl MVP?
Tom Brady (7/5)
Eli Manning (9/4)
Victor Cruz (8/1)
Hakeem Nicks (12/1)
Rob Gronkowski (12/1)
Wes Welker (12/1)
Aaron Hernandez (16/1)
Ahmad Bradshaw (20/1)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (25/1)
Jason Pierre-Paul (25/1)
15 Other Players (35/1 to 100/1)
Since Tom Brady won the MVP as the then-youngest Super Bowl-winning quarterback, six of 10 MVPs have been QBs. The other four were comprised of three receivers and Ray Lewis.
New York Giants (+3) (+115)
New England Patriots (-3) (-135)
The Giants pass rush will give Tom Brady trouble, especially if Rob Gronkowski is limping around like he was on Tuesday’s Media Day. The Patriots’ secondary will finally fall apart, with Eli Manning finding Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham downfield enough times to win a second Super Bowl in five years.
Over 54 points (-105)
Under 54 points (-115)
The Big Blue Wrecking Crew defense holds strong and Elite Eli makes a few plays when it matters, as the Giants pull out another close victory over the Patriots — just like Super Bowl XLII (31 combined points) and Week 9 this year (44).
by Nathan Rush
When the New York Giants and New England Patriots kick off Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the game won’t be just a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, it will be a renewal of the greatest sports town rivalry and culture clash in the country — New York vs. Boston. Which city has the edge heading into Super Sunday? The following is a tale of the tape:
Sultan of Swat vs. The Bambino
The 1919 sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees is a good place to start. After winning three World Series in four years (1914-16, ’18), Red Sox owner Harry Frazee — a New Yorker — sold Ruth to the rival Yankees for $100,000. Then, as the disputed legend has it, Frazee invested the money in a Broadway production of “No, No, Nanette.” The Sultan of Swat hit 659 of his 714 career home runs in pinstripes and the Yankees won 26 World Series titles before Boston finally crushed the “Curse of the Bambino.”
Edge: New York
Miraculous title run:
Super Bowl XLII vs. 2004 ALCS
Eli Manning and the Giants ended Tom Brady and the Patriots’ quest for an undefeated, incomparable 19–0 season in dramatic fashion — winning 17–14 on a last-minute drive that included a “Helmet Catch” by David Tyree. But New York’s underdog story pales in comparison to Boston’s comeback in the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Red Sox trailed the Yankees 0–3 heading into Game 4 of the ALCS before winning eight straight games — four elimination contests against the Evil Empire in the ALCS and a sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series — to win their first World Series championship in 86 years.
Bill Parcells vs. Bill Belichick
The Big Tuna had Belichick as his defensive coordinator on the Giants’ championship squads that won Super Bowls XXI and XXV — the latter title team also had current Big Blue coach Tom Coughlin as receivers coach. But after Belichick hit the road, Parcells never won it all again — although he did lose Super Bowl XXXI as coach of the Patriots. Belichick belly-flopped as the mistake by the lake in Cleveland, but bounced back in New England, winning three (maybe four) Super Bowls in five trips to the big game. Wearing a gray cutoff hoody, as opposed to a Tuna-tight blue sweater, Belichick has become the modern standard.
Derek Jeter vs. Tom Brady
Two of the most envied men in the world, Jeter and Brady have been labeled “overrated pretty boys” by many. But the duo has been laughing all the way to the bank with a hand full of championship rings and a supermodel starlet on their arm. The king of New York since 1996, Jeter has five World Series titles and has been linked to every girl in Manhattan — Minka Kelly, Mariah Carey, Jessica Alba, etc. Meanwhile, Touchdown Tom is making his record-tying fifth Super Bowl appearance, is married to Brazilian bombshell Gisele Bundchen and has a baby by stateside sweetheart Bridget Moynahan.
Edge: New York
Eli Manning vs. Larry Bird
Peyton’s little brother and the NBA’s great white hope both possessed off-the-charts talent but were underrated for various reasons. Elite Eli’s confused “Manning face” expression and Larry Legend’s blonde mullet-mustache combo were part of the problem. Bird won three titles, three MVPs and three 3-point crowns; Manning is working on winning his second Super Bowl in five seasons and, at 31, still has plenty of time to build a resume that rivals his brother’s.
Big Apple vs. Beantown
The term “Big Apple” was 1920’s horse racing slang that went mainstream thanks primarily to local scribe John J. Fitz Gerald. “Beantown” was slathered with molasses and baked beans back in colonial times of yesteryear.
Edge: New York
Manhattan vs. New England
Cream-based or tomato-based? Potatoes or no? Old school or new wave?
Goodfellas vs. The Departed
The 1990 East Brooklyn, Italian mafia tale of Henry Hill draws down against the 2006 South Boston, Irish mob story of Frank Costello. Both films are Martin Scorsese classics based on true stories. But do they amuse you? Like a clown? I heard things.
Edge: New York
Mike Tyson vs. Rocky Marciano
Born in Brooklyn, Iron Mike was a 5’10” pit bull, the youngest champ in history (20 years, 4 months, 22 days) and the most feared man on the planet before he became a Phil Collins’ karaoke singer on the silver screen. Four decades earlier, the Rock from Brockton (Mass.) was a 5’11” sledgehammer who went 49–0 with 43 KOs, including a win over Joe Louis in 1951.
Edge: Split decision
It looks like Super Bowl XLVI is a winner-take-all showdown for bragging rights in the New York vs. Boston debate — unless Tyson and Rocky somehow find a way to fight in their heavyweight championship primes.
A quick preview of both the AFC and NFC Championship Games, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Ravens (13-4) at Patriots (14-3)
Sunday, Jan. 22, 3:00 pm ET, CBS
Many thought Mr. Gisele Bundchen had gone Hollywood. After all, Tom Brady hasn’t won a Super Bowl ring since after the 2004 season. But Touchdown Tom has never looked better — or more focused — than he did during his record-breaking performance in a 45–10 blowout of the Broncos. Brady completed 76.5 percent of his passes for 363 yards, six TDs and one INT.
This is Brady’s team. Athletic tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are dangerous weapons, slot receiver Wes Welker is a first-down maker and the running back by committee is effective. But the Patriots begin and end with Brady, who carries a 15–5 career record in the playoffs with a 3–1 mark on Super Sunday.
Brady has struggled against the Ravens recently, however, posting season-low passer ratings against Baltimore in each of the last two seasons — throwing one TD and two INTs for a 69.5 rating in a 23–20 Week 6 win last year, while tossing two TDs and three INTs for a 49.1 rating in a 33–14 defeat in the Divisional Round of the playoffs following the 2009 season.
On the other side, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco may have been joking when he said, “If we win, I’ll have nothing to do with why we won,” but there is some truth to that statement. The Fu Manchu mustache-wearing signal-caller rarely gets credit for wins but almost exclusively takes blame for Baltimore losses. In the Ravens’ 13 wins, Flacco has thrown 17 TDs and six INTs; in their four losses, he has five TDs and six INTs. Obviously, Flacco must play well in New England.
But the real focus will be on Baltimore’s defense, which is led by future Hall of Famers in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, as well as current All-Pros in edge-rusher Terrell Suggs and run-stuffer Haloti Ngata. If coach John Harbaugh’s strongest side of the ball is unable to slow down New England’s potent passing attack and, namely, Brady, then the Ravens have no chance to beat the Patriots.
Running back Ray Rice is the X-factor. If the defense can force FGs and turnovers, the offense must be able to control the clock with Rice.
New England coach Bill Belichick has been putting band-aids on his defense’s secondary all season, mixing and matching personnel based on the situation. The Pats’ pass rush doesn’t have to necessarily sack Flacco, but pocket-collapsing nose tackle Vince Wilfork and Co. cannot give him time to find home run hitter Torrey Smith or physical veteran Anquan Boldin downfield.
Patriots by 7
Giants (11-7) at 49ers (14-3)
Sunday, Jan. 22, 6:30 pm ET, FOX
New York’s playoff formula has mirrored the one that the G-Men used en route to winning Super Bowl XLII just four seasons ago. The potent combination of Eli Manning on offense and a devastating Big Blue Wrecking Crew front four on defense has been the secret to success and will continue to be.
Manning has completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 607 yards, six TDs and only one INT in wins over the Falcons and Packers. His go-to guy during that stretch has been Hakeem Nicks, who has hauled in 13 catches for 280 yards (21.5 ypc) and four TDs — including a momentum-shifting jump ball as time expired on the first half in the upset at Lambeau Field. Manning-to-Nicks (or breakout wideout Victor Cruz) will need to continue their tear in San Francisco.
The No. 1 overall pick the year after Manning, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is coming off a statement performance in a win over the Saints. Even so, Smith must avoid doing too much and continue to protect the ball.
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s club made it this far with a blue-collar approach — bludgeoning opponents with running back Frank Gore on offense and suffocating teams with a hard-hitting defense led by All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis and end Justin Smith. San Fran’s stop-unit ranked No. 1 against the run (77.2 ypg), No. 2 in scoring defense (14.3 ppg) and No. 4 in total defense (308.2 ypg) during the regular season. Until giving up 32 points to the Saints in the Divisional Round, the Niners had not allowed more than 27 points this season; only four teams hit the 20-point mark against the 49ers, who are 14–3 overall and 8–1 at home under Harbaugh.
A low-scoring game favors San Francisco. But big plays — like the ones tight end Vernon Davis provided vs. New Orleans — must come from somewhere in order to keep up with the explosive Giants.
Since Week 16, New York is 4–0 with an offense averaging 30.3 points and a defense that is allowing just 12.5 points in must-win games over the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers. If terrorizing pass-rushers Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck are able to pressure Smith into making costly mistakes, Big Blue could make a big splash in the Bay.
The 49ers beat the Giants, 27–20, in Week 10. That game went down to the final seconds, as Manning’s fourth-down pass from the 10-yard-line was batted down by Smith. The rematch could be just as close.
Giants by 1
Last week: 2-2 // Season: 179-85
A quick preview of all four games of the NFL Divisional Round, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Saints (14-3) at 49ers (13-3)
Saturday, Jan. 14, 4:30 pm ET, FOX
A classic offense vs. defense, strength vs. strength playoff matchup pits New Orleans’ top-ranked total offense (467.1 ypg) and passing attack (334.2 ypg) against San Francisco’s No. 4 overall defense (308.2 ypg) and No. 1 run defense (77.2 ypg). The Niners were middle-of-the-pack statistically against the pass, ranking 16th overall (230.9 ypg). In fairness, the NFC West champs played with the lead in most games and obviously stuffed the run in nearly every contest, which forced opponents to move the ball through the air, which was not always a good move — San Fran ranked No. 2 in INTs (23) and No. 8 in passing TDs allowed (20) during the regular season. No matter how good coach Jim Harbaugh’s stingy stop-unit plays, Saints quarterback Drew Brees is likely to put points on the board. All eyes will be on 49ers signal-caller Alex Smith, who is making his first career playoff start after throwing for 17 TDs and five INTs this season. Brees, meanwhile, has passed for 49 TDs in 17 games (including last week’s Wild Card shootout win vs. Detroit) — nearly three times as many scoring strikes as Smith, who is unfazed by Brees’ numbers and Super Bowl pedigree. “I really don’t care,” said Smith. “I’m looking to outscore him.”
Saints by 4
Broncos (9-8) at Patriots (13-3)
Saturday, Jan. 14, 8:00 pm ET, CBS
After taking down two-time Super Bowl champ Ben Roethlisberger in the Wild Card Round, Broncos’ shotgun savior Tim Tebow will take on three-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady in the Divisional Playoffs. It wasn’t pretty the last time Denver faced New England, as the Patriots stomped out a 41–23 victory at Mile High in Week 15. Tebow threw for 194 yards and rushed for 93 yards and two TDs in that contest; Brady passed for 320 yards and two scoring strikes, as well as one rushing TD, in a winning effort. The Broncos’ defeat snapped a six-game winning streak and started a three-game season-ending slide. The Patriots’ win was the sixth of eight straight, a streak that is still alive heading into this weekend. Although New England posted a 13–3 record this year, Bill Belichick’s team was 0–2 against teams (Steelers, Giants) that finished the season with a winning record. But remember, Brady has a 14–5 career postseason mark and three rings; Tebow is 1–0 in the playoffs after last week’s overtime victory over the Steelers. But Tebow threw for 316 yards and two TDs against Pittsburgh’s No. 1-ranked pass defense; the Pats ranked No. 31 overall (293.9 ypg) this year.
Patriots by 10
Texans (11-6) at Ravens (12-4)
Sunday, Jan. 15, 1:00 pm ET, CBS
The Super Bowl window of opportunity is closing for Baltimore’s future first-ballot Hall of Famers — 36-year-old middle linebacker Ray Lewis and 33-year-old safety Ed Reed. It’s not quite now or never, but it probably is now or next season for the Ravens leaders. And if they are able to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy this year, expect Lewis and Reed to ride off into the sunset. But the key to the Ravens’ success in the postseason is quarterback Joe Flacco, who will have his hands full against an aggressive Houston defense coordinated by Wade Phillips. In Baltimore’s four losses this season, Flacco threw five of his 20 TDs but six of his 12 INTs, leading an offense that managed only 12.75 points per game in those defeats compared to the 27.25 points per game the Ravens averaged in their 12 victories. On the other side, fifth-round rookie and third-string quarterback T.J. Yates will have to put together the type of mistake-free outing he did in last week’s win over the Bengals. In the end, however, both teams would be happier having their QBs hand the ball off to their Pro Bowl runners — Baltimore’s Ray Rice and Houston’s Arian Foster.
Ravens by 5
Giants (10-7) at Packers (15-1)
Sunday, Jan. 15, 4:30 pm ET, FOX
The 2011 Giants are reminiscent of the 2007 G-Men who made a Wild Card run through the playoffs, knocking off Brett Favre in his snowy overtime finale at Lambeau Field in the NFC title game before beating the 18–0 Patriots in a Super Bowl XLII upset. New York’s defense — led by pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora — has terrorized opposing quarterbacks, much like the Michael Strahan-led group did several seasons ago. But these Giants won’t be playing against a graybeard in the twilight of his career like Favre was; they will be facing an MVP-caliber Aaron Rodgers — who receiver Greg Jennings thinks is the best Green Bay QB he’s played alongside. “Honestly, right now I definitely have to go with Aaron. His body of work at such a young age, his attention to detail, his discipline. I think it’s really second to none, it’s unparalleled,” Jennings told ESPN New York 1050. “You haven’t really found a QB that has done it the way he has done it.” Rodgers passed for 369 yards, four TDs and one INT in a 38–35 win at New York in Week 13. The Giants, however, have a 4–1 record since that defeat.
Packers by 5
Last week: 3-1 // Season: 177-83
Ironically, it took a Thomas to quiet the Tebow doubters.
The Denver Broncos pulled off a miraculous 29–23 overtime victory over the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, thanks to a record-breaking 80-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas. The sudden-death TD is the longest scoring play in NFL playoff overtime history. The play — which consisted of an 18-yard pass from Tebow over the middle of the field to Thomas, who ran 62 yards to paydirt — took 11 seconds to cap the shortest overtime in NFL playoff history.
“It was amazing,” said Thomas. “I knew walking up to the line, I saw the safety come down. I was like, ‘This is going to be a big play.’ The middle of the field was wide open. All I had to do was beat the corner. Once I beat him there was nothing but green grass. Once I beat him I knew I was going to score.”
After catching an accurate pass from Tebow, the 6’3”, 235-pound Thomas threw a powerful stiff-arm to the facemask of Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, freeing himself for a fair footrace to the end zone. There was no catching Thomas after he broke away from Taylor. From there, the surreal scene took on a fevered pitch — on the Broncos’ sideline, in the stands at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, at sports bars around the country and on social media around the globe. The energy was palpable following the incredible, adrenaline-inducing play.
“When I saw him scoring, first of all, I just thought, ‘Thank you, Lord,’” Tebow said after the game. “Then, I was running pretty fast, chasing him — like I can catch up to D.T.! Then I just jumped into the stands, first time I’ve done that. That was fun. Then got on a knee and thanked the Lord again and tried to celebrate with my teammates and the fans.”
In the moments following the epic Tebow-to-Thomas touchdown, a new Twitter sports record was set — with 9,420 tweets per second devoted to Denver’s upset win, the unbelievable play in particular and @TimTebow in general. Television ratings were also off the charts. The final game of Wild Card Weekend drew the largest TV audience of any opening-round NFL playoff game since 1988, with a 25.9 overnight Nielson rating and a 43 share nationally. Roughly 42 million fans tuned in to see Tebow’s best game as a professional.
Tebow completed 10-of-21 passes for 316 yards, two TDs and zero INTs for a 125.6 passer rating, while rushing 10 times for 50 yards and one TD, leading the Broncos to their first playoff win since Jan. 14, 2006 — which, coincidentally, came against the Patriots in Tom Brady’s first-ever postseason loss. After beating Pittsburgh, Denver will face New England in the Divisional Round this week.
Tebow also joined elite company by “pulling the trigger” on downfield passes — advice he received from Broncos executive vice president of football operations and two-time Super Bowl champion John Elway. Tebow joined Joe Montana as the only quarterback in NFL playoff history to post 300 yards passing, two TDs and zero INTs, as well as 50 rushing yards and one TD. He also became the first quarterback with four passes of 30 or more yards in the same quarter since Warren Moon in 1990 and the first to do so in a playoff game since 1960.
The Broncos rushed for 131 yards against the Steelers’ No. 1 defense; but it was Tebow who stole the show.
“He showed he’s a quarterback in the NFL, case closed,” said Denver running back Willis McGahee. “They said he couldn’t throw. They said we wouldn’t be able to run the ball on (Pittsburgh). We did that. I wonder what they’re going to say next week.”
by Nathan Rush
A quick preview of all four games on NFL Wild Card Weekend, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Bengals (9-7) at Texans (10-6)
Saturday, Jan. 7, 4:30 pm ET, NBC
Two rookie quarterbacks go head-to-head in an unlikely playoff matchup. Cincinnati second-round pick Andy Dalton took over for disgruntled longtime starter Carson Palmer, while Houston fifth-rounder T.J. Yates rose from third-string to starter following season-ending injuries suffered by starter Matt Schaub (Lisfranc) and backup Matt Leinart (collarbone). Both young signal-callers have the luxury of elite talent at wide receiver and running back. Bengals rookie A.J. Green is one of the rising stars at any position, while Texans perennial Pro Bowler Andre Johnson is arguably the best in the business, when healthy. In the backfield, Cincy’s Cedric Benson rushed for 1,067 yards — his third straight 1,000-yard season — and six TDs; Houston’s Arian Foster posted 1,224 yards and 10 TDs in only 13 games this season. Defensively, Texans first-year coordinator Wade Phillips may have been the best free-agent pickup of the offseason. Houston’s hybrid 3-4 scheme ranks No. 2 in total defense (285.7 ypg), No. 3 against the pass (189.7 ypg) and No. 4 against the run (96.0 ypg).
Texans by 2
Lions (10-6) at Saints (13-3)
Saturday, Jan. 7, 8:00 pm ET, NBC
The Saints march into the postseason on an eight-game winning streak, thanks to a record-setting offense led by Super Bowl XLIV MVP quarterback Drew Brees. This season, New Orleans set single-season records for offensive yards (7,474), passing yards (5,347) and first downs (416), while Brees broke Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record (5,476) and his own 2009 completion percentage mark (71.2). The onus will be on the Lions’ 22nd-ranked pass defense — which allowed Packers passers Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn to throw for a combined 787 yards, eight TDs and one INT in two division losses this season. Much-maligned defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will need to terrorize a New Orleans O-line whose sum is greater than its parts. Detroit’s tag-team duo of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson will need to bring their A-game against an aggressive Saints defense that ranked 30th against the pass (259.8 ypg). After making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Lions want to hang around the tourney long enough to earn their first postseason win since 1991.
Saints by 9
Falcons (10-6) at Giants (9-7)
Sunday, Jan. 8, 1:00 pm ET, CBS
The Big Blue Wrecking Crew defense destroyed Dallas’ dreams of a postseason berth and now turn their attention to Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan, who has been excellent in the friendly confines of his home Georgia Dome — or any other indoor facility, for that matter — but has struggled to a 2–3 record outdoors in the elements this season. Ryan is 0–2 in the playoffs, still searching for that elusive first win after losing to the eventual champion Packers last year and to the eventual NFC champion Cardinals as a rookie. “Matty Ice” will have a tough time against a New York pass rush featuring Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Ryan’s old college buddy Mathias Kiwanuka. Since starting his career 0–2 in the postseason, Giants signal-caller Eli Manning has gone 4–1, with an incredible run to win Super Bowl XLII following the 2007 season. The G-Men are on a roll similar to that this year.
Giants by 4
Steelers (12-4) at Broncos (8-8)
Sunday, Jan. 8, 4:30 pm ET, FOX
The walking wounded from Pittsburgh limp into Denver with a battle-tested but injured roster. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger brings a 10–3 career playoff record and two Super Bowl wins; but Big Ben is also dragging around a swollen left ankle. Since injuring his foot in Week 14 against the Browns, Roethlisberger has thrown zero TDs and three INTs, while taking five sacks and losing one fumble in two games. The Steelers won’t be able to lean on their run game, either, as tailback Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale at Cleveland. It will be up to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s stop-unit — which will be without safety Ryan Clark, who will sit out due to a sickle-cell illness whose risks increase at higher altitudes — to stop Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who has a 7–4 record as a starter since taking over in Week 7. Tebow, however, is only 2–3 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Denver’s D has been underrated this season, but crucial to the Tebow-fueled fourth-quarter comebacks that have become the team’s signature style. During the Broncos’ six-game winning streak, the team allowed just 17 points per game, including four games of 13 or fewer points.
Steelers by 8
When the once-proud Indianapolis Colts staggered to an 0–13 start this season, many assumed heads would roll this offseason.
Most casual observers pointed to head coach Jim Caldwell, who had been Tony Dungy’s hand-picked successor when the man who led with Quiet Strength retired following the 2008 campaign.
But for those with ears to the street, a growing rumbling for longtime Vice Chairman Bill Polian and his son, Vice President and General Manager Chris Polian, to be shown the door could be heard loud and clear.
Even a 2–1 finish to the season and a final 2–14 mark could not save the Polians, who were fired by owner and CEO Jim Irsay following a Week 17 loss to Jacksonville — a defeat that clinched the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
“It was a very tough decision for me,” said Irsay. “I had a chance to express to them, and Bill in particular how hard it was and the appreciation the franchise has for all that has been done. Obviously, he and I go back 30 years. So this is difficult. This is the tough part of this business.”
Undeniably one of the greatest architects in the history of the NFL, Bill Polian was named the league’s Executive of the Year six times (1988, ’91, ’95, ’96, ’99 and 2009). Most notably, Polian built the Buffalo Bills’ roster — drafting defensive end Bruce Smith and acquiring USFL quarterback Jim Kelly — that went to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93. From there, he whipped the expansion Carolina Panthers into shape, as the team made the NFC title game in only its second season of existence.
Polian arrived in Indianapolis in 1998 and his first draft choice was a young gun out of Tennessee named Peyton Manning, who went No. 1 overall ahead of Washington State’s Ryan Leaf, who went No. 2.
In 14 seasons, the Polian-designed Colts made the playoffs 11 times and went to the Super Bowl twice — hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy following Super Bowl XLIV just five seasons ago.
“I would like to thank Jim Irsay and the Irsay family for all they have done for me over the past 14 years,” Bill Polian said in a statement released after the news broke Tuesday.
“I’m grateful for all the support the fans have shown us in good times and bad. Indianapolis has been a wonderful place to live and work. Most of all I would like to thank the players, coaches and staff who have played the pivotal role in this magnificent journey. I will miss them all.”
Bill’s son, Chris, also joined the Colts in 1998 as the Director of Pro Scouting before rising through the ranks to become the team’s Vice President and General Manager, posts he served — with decidedly mixed review — over the past four seasons.
With the No. 1 pick in the draft — which most speculate will be used on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck — Irsay has decided to make a clean break with a new regime in the front office, which came as painful news to the player most associated with Bill Polian.
“I was surprised, shocked, disappointed,” Manning told the Indianapolis Star. “I don’t want to speak for Bill, but I did meet with him and he is (shocked) as well. It’s a sad day and it’s the worst part about this business. I’m sorry that it went down this way. I always thought Bill and I might retire around the same time. You kind of hoped for that fairytale ending, after winning a Super Bowl.”
After watching helplessly from the sideline in the wake of multiple neck surgeries, Manning was once again powerless as the only personnel man he’s ever known was let go.
Now, the question is: Will Manning be the next big name to exit Indy?
Matt Flynn, QB, Packers
Step aside Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Bart Starr, there’s a new record-breaking quarterback in Titletown. A pending free agent, Flynn completed 31-of-44 passes for a team-record 480 yards, a club-record six TDs and one INT in what was likely his last regular season game with the Packers, a 45–41 shootout victory over the NFC North rival Lions. “It’s very humbling,” said Flynn, following his breakout performance at Lambeau Field. “Just think of all the great quarterbacks that have come through here.”
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Needing a win to secure the AFC North crown, as well as the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs — as opposed to the No. 5 seed and a Wild Card matchup with a loss — Baltimore rode Rice to a 24–16 win at Cincinnati. The 5'8", 212-pounder showed off both power and speed, with 24 carries for 191 yards (8.0 ypc) and two TDs — a 70-yard sprint to start the scoreboard festivities and a 51-yard fourth-quarter scamper to seal the victory.
Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
The G-Men were on Cruz control during their 31–14 must-win over the Cowboys, in a playoff play-in game for the NFC East division title. The second-year Minuteman out of UMass capped off the most unlikely of years with a six-catch, 178-yard effort highlighted by a 74-yard TD. After entering the season with zero career receptions, Cruz has 82 grabs for 1,536 yards (18.7 ypc) and nine TDs this season, becoming Eli Manning’s go-to receiver along the way.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints
Someone has to catch all those Drew Brees bombs; and during a 45–17 win over Carolina, it was Graham, who hauled in eight receptions for 97 yards and one TD, and partner in crime Marques Colston, who had seven catches for 145 yards and two TDs. The 6'6", 260-pound Graham, who played basketball at Miami (Fla.), finished the season with 99 catches for a team tight end record 1,310 yards and 11 TDs.
Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
Minnesota’s hardest hustler didn’t slow down in a meaningless 17–13 loss to Chicago in the season finale. Allen posted a season-high 3.5 sacks — his sixth multi-sack game of the year — giving him 22 sacks this season, 0.5-sack shy of the NFL single-season record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. In eight seasons, Allen has recorded 105 sacks and 26 forced fumbles, earning four trips to the Pro Bowl.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 17, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Jets (8-7) at Dolphins (5-10)
After all that boasting from Rex Ryan, the Jets must beat the Fins, plus hope for losses from the Bengals and Titans, as well as the Raiders or Broncos, just to punch their ticket to the postseason as a Wild Card berth.
Jets by 1
Bills (6-9) at Patriots (12-3)
Tom Brady is being overshadowed by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees; but don’t forget about the Pats QB when the weather gets cold.
Patriots by 11
Titans (8-7) at Texans (10-5)
Houston has a problem following back-to-back losses to the Panthers and Colts. Tennessee is hoping for a miraculous postseason berth; the Titans must win, the Bengals must lose and the other dominoes must fall just right.
Titans by 2
Colts (2-13) at Jaguars (4-11)
Easy there, Indy. Slow down. Fool one team, shame on the NFL; fool two teams, shame on you; fool three teams and blow your chance to draft Peyton Manning’s heir apparent, Stanford signal-caller Andrew Luck, at No. 1 overall.
Jaguars by 2
Redskins (5-10) at Eagles (7-8)
An 8–8 season is not what Andy Reid had in mind, but a 4–0 “fourth quarter” of the season may just save the big man’s job.
Eagles by 8
Bears (7-8) at Vikings (3-12)
It’s a race to the bottom in the NFC North — which is the black-and-blue division again, after high-profile, season-ending injuries to Adrian Peterson, Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.
Bears by 2
Panthers (6-9) at Saints (12-3)
Cam Newton’s rookie season is not over and neither is Drew Brees’ record-breaking year. These two should put on an aerial show.
Saints by 7
49ers (12-3) at Rams (2-13)
St. Loser is still in contention for the No. 1 pick. San Fran will clinch a first-round bye with a win or a loss by New Orleans.
49ers by 9
Lions (10-5) at Packers (14-1)
Green Bay better rest its starters, because odds are Ndamukong Suh and Detroit’s dirty defense are angry following their Turkey Day meltdown.
Packers by 5
Ravens (11-4) at Bengals (9-6)
A Baltimore win earns Ray Lewis and Co. the AFC North title, while also securing a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. Meanwhile, Cincy controls its own destiny and is in must-win mode. But the Bengals could still make the playoffs with a loss — if both the Jets plus either the Broncos or Raiders lose.
Bengals by 1
Steelers (11-4) at Browns (4-11)
The health of the battle-tested Steelers — Big Ben in particular — heading into the playoffs is more important than a win at Cleveland.
Steelers by 6
Chiefs (6-9) at Broncos (8-7)
The Broncos will stampede into the playoffs with a win over Denver’s opening day starter and Kansas City’s current leader Kyle Orton. Otherwise, Tim Tebow will need the Al Davis-inspired Raiders to lose.
Broncos by 3
Seahawks (7-8) at Cardinals (7-8)
A birdfight between two also-rans building momentum for next season. What else is on?
Cardinals by 1
Chargers (7-8) at Raiders (8-7)
Al Davis’ spirit looms large over the Black Hole as coach Hue Jackson predicts the Raiders will “find a way” to make the playoffs in honor of their owner, who passed away earlier this year. A win plus a Denver loss or tie; or a win plus a loss by both the Bengals and Titans; or a win plus a Bengals loss and Jets win will do the trick. Either way, Oakland must win.
Raiders by 2
Buccaneers (4-11) at Falcons (9-6)
The Young Bucs look to lose their 10th straight; the Dirty Birds will help them do just that.
Falcons by 12
Cowboys (8-7) at Giants (8-7)
This Sunday night fight is a winner-take-all playoff play-in for the NFC East title belt. After injuring his throwing hand in a throwaway loss to the Eagles, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo must avoid a hard-hitting Big Blue Wrecking Crew pass rush led by sack artists Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Giants by 4
Last week: 11-5 // Season: 162-78
‘Tis the season for year-end awards in the NFL. This year, there are more players deserving of recognition than trophies to hand out. These are the select few Athlon Sports believes to be award-worthy:
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
There’s no need for a “Discount Double-Check” on this one; Rodgers has posted historically efficient and prolific stats — completing 68.3 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,643 yards, a career-best 45 TDs and a career-low six INTs for a 122.5 passer rating, which if maintained, would break Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 121.1 in 2004. The Super Bowl XLV MVP has also led the Packers to a 14–1 record.
Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
The leader of the Big Easy band has been putting on a show this year. With one more gig on the regular season schedule, Brees has already broken Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record — throwing for 5,087 yards, 41 TDs and 13 INTs.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
In just his second season, JPP has become one of the most-feared pass-rushers and playmakers in the NFL. The 6'5", 278-pound athletic freak has 81 tackles, 15.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one safety and one block of a potential game-winning field goal.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
The Heisman Trophy-winning BCS national champion out of Auburn has taken the NFL by storm since going No. 1 overall in the draft — passing for 3,893 yards, 20 TDs and 16 INTs, and rushing for 674 yards and 14 TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
Denver edge-rusher Von Miller also deserves consideration. But Peterson takes the prize after posting 60 tackles, two INTs, one sack and an NFL record-tying four punt return TDs — including a walk-off game-winner.
Comeback Player of the Year
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
The oft-injured signal-caller threw for 4,518 yards, 36 TDs and 14 INTs, while leading the Lions to their first playoff berth since 1999 — starting 15 games, compared to the 13 starts he totaled over his first two seasons.
Coach of the Year
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Postgame handshake controversy and Thanksgiving loss to older bro, John, aside, Harbaugh’s first year with the 49ers has been solid gold. San Francisco is 12–3 this year — its first winning season since 2002.