Articles By Nathan Rush
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.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Rodgers likely tied a bow on this year’s MVP award during a 35–21 victory over the Bears on Christmas night. The 184th meeting of the NFL’s oldest rivals was the only game in town on Sunday, and the Super Bowl XLV MVP made the most of his time with the spotlight to himself — completing 21-of-29 passes for 283 yards, a career-best five TDs and zero INTs in front of the 300th consecutive sellout at Lambeau Field. The victory locked up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and eliminated Chicago from postseason contention.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts
In what may have been his final game as a member of the Colts at Lucas Oil Field, Wayne had eight catches for 106 yards — only his third 100-yard game of a disappointing season — and the game-winning one-yard TD from Dan Orlovsky with 19 seconds remaining in a 19–16 upset win over the AFC South champion Texans on Thursday night. In the final year of his contract, the 11th-year veteran has snagged two of his four TD catches in Indy’s two straight wins following an 0–13 start this season.
Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots
While Wayne continues to wait for a new deal, Mayo inked a five-year, $50-million contract prior to playing arguably his best game of the season. The 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro middle linebacker had a season-high 13 tackles and a career-best two sacks as the Patriots rallied from a 17–0 halftime deficit to defeat the AFC East rival Dolphins, 27–24. New England has now won seven consecutive games and appears to be a contender once again coming down the stretch.
David Akers, K, 49ers
The 37-year-old veteran kicker hit four FGs — from 53, 29, 44 and 39 yards, respectively — including the go-ahead boot with 2:57 left in a 19–17 defensive win at Seattle. In the process, the 13th-year man, who signed as a free-agent from Philadelphia this offseason, set an NFL record with his 42nd made FG of the season. With one game remaining, Akers is 42-of-49 (85.7 percent) on FGs, with a long of 55 yards, and 30-of-30 on PATs, accounting for a career-best and league-leading 156 points — which is 18 points ahead of the second-best scorer, Saints kicker John Kasay (138).
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 16, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Texans (10-4) at Colts (1-13)
In Week 1, Houston handed Indianapolis its first of 13 consecutive losses, with a 34–7 blowout. But the Colts ride into this Thursday nighter fresh off their first victory, while the Texans had their seven-game win streak snapped.
Texans by 6
Broncos (8-6) at Bills (5-9)
Tim Tebow goes on the road again, where the frequent-flying Superman is a perfect 5–0 — with eight passing TDs and zero INTs.
Broncos by 4
Dolphins (5-9) at Patriots (11-3)
Miami lost to New England, 38–24, in Week 1; this may be déja vu all over again for the Fins.
Patriots by 10
Browns (4-10) at Ravens (10-4)
Baltimore must bounce back after a 34–14 loss at San Diego on Sunday night. A visit from the Browns — a rival the Ravens beat 24–10 in Week 13 — will cure what ails Ray Lewis.
Ravens by 9
Raiders (7-7) at Chiefs (6-8)
Kansas City interim coach Romeo Crennel is 1–0 after knocking off the Packers. But the likeable defensive guru needs to win out if he hopes to remain the head Chief at Arrowhead.
Chiefs by 1
Vikings (2-12) at Redskins (5-9)
Adrian Peterson is toughing it out for his fantasy team owners; but he might want to rest his left ankle for his real team owner Zygi Wilf.
Redskins by 4
Cardinals (7-7) at Bengals (8-6)
Two top rookies — Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson and Cincy wideout A.J. Green — go toe-to-toe in a matchup of future Pro Bowlers.
Bengals by 3
Rams (2-12) at Steelers (10-4)
St. Loser aims to match its season-opening, season-long six-game losing streak this week.
Steelers by 11
Buccaneers (4-10) at Panthers (5-9)
Three weeks ago, Cam Newton marched to Tampa Bay and handed the Bucs a 38–19 loss. Get ready for the rookie’s first season sweep.
Panthers by 9
Giants (7-7) at Jets (8-6)
The battle of the Big Apple is technically an “away” game for the Giants, even though it will be played in the same stadium Big Blue plays their home games in. This is a must-win for both of East Rutherford, New Jersey’s teams.
Giants by 2
Jaguars (4-10) at Titans (7-7)
Tennessee gave Indianapolis its first win of the season; the Titans need to avenge that defeat plus their 16–14 Week 1 loss at Jacksonville.
Titans by 8
Chargers (7-7) at Lions (9-5)
The Bolts are surging in December once again, shocking the league with a three-game win streak after a six-game slide earlier this year.
Lions by 2
Eagles (6-8) at Cowboys (8-6)
Big D can win and get in (with a Giants loss). A Boys loss (and G-Men win) would result in a playoff play-in next week in the season finale.
Cowboys by 1
49ers (11-3) at Seahawks (7-7)
Before Niners boss Jim Harbaugh had his postgame handshake issues with the Lions’ Jim Schwartz, the former Stanford coach was asked “What’s your deal?” at midfield after upsetting then-USC coach Pete Carroll. These two bring a collegiate energy to an NFC West rivalry.
49ers by 5
Bears (7-7) at Packers (13-1)
The only Christmas Sunday game on the NFL schedule is the league’s oldest rivalry — but not necessarily this season’s best matchup. The 184th meeting of the Bears and Packers is a rematch of a Week 3 contest Green Bay won 27–17 against a Chicago club that had a healthy Jay Cutler. Following their first loss of the year, the Packers will be eager to Lambeau Leap as many times as possible on Xmas.
Packers by 11
Falcons (9-5) at Saints (11-3)
Atlanta coach Mike Smith was widely criticized by Monday morning, armchair quarterbacks after going for it, and subsequently failing to convert, on 4th-and-1 in overtime of a 26–23 loss to New Orleans in Week 10. Since then, the Falcons are 4–1; but the Saints are 4–0.
Saints by 7
Last week: 9-7 // Season: 151-73
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
No amount of Tebowing could stop Brady and the Patriots during a 41–23 statement road win over the Broncos. The three-time Super Bowl champ completed 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards, two TDs and zero INTs, while doing his best Tim Tebow impression on a goal line QB sneak TD run. Following Brady’s first rushing score of the season, the Pats’ emotional leader let out a little steam with a powerful spike and primal scream to celebrate the six points.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
Megatron was in top form, with nine catches for 214 yards (23.8 ypc) and two trips to the end zone during a 28–27 victory at Oakland. Johnson’s second TD grab of the day was a six-yard strike that capped a 98-yard drive to give the Lions — who trailed by 13 points in the fourth — the lead with 39 seconds remaining. After a nail-biting finish, in which Ndamukong Suh blocked a potential 65-yard game-winning FG, Detroit earned yet another comeback win.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
Just when it seemed as if the “Dream Team” had been put to sleep, Philly has stormed back into the playoff picture, with a mathematical shot at the NFC East title with two games left. McCoy had 18 carries for 102 yards and three TDs in a 45–19 rout of the Jets. In the process, “Shady” surpassed Hall of Fame running back Steve Van Buren for the Eagles’ single-season rushing and total TD records. McCoy now has 16 TDs on the ground and 19 total this year.
Reggie Bush, RB, Dolphins
The Fins feature back had 25 carries for a career-high 203 yards and a season-long 76-yard TD sprint to paydirt — after which Bush was penalized for excessive celebration for sliding into the snow in the back of the end zone — during a 30–23 win at Buffalo. The effort was Bush’s third straight 100-yard game; the sixth-year back out of USC left New Orleans as a free-agent to sign with Miami, where he has posted a career-high 973 yards and six TDs.
John Abraham, DE, Falcons
Atlanta’s top pass rusher was at his strip-sacking best during a 41–14 blowout of Jacksonville on Thursday night. Abraham recorded five tackles, a season-high 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles of Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who appeared to be in over his head playing against the terrorizing 6'4", 263-pound 12th-year veteran sack artist with four Pro Bowl selections already under his belt.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 15, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Jaguars (4-9) at Falcons (8-5)
The Dirty Birds have not been great closers, but they have won the games they were expected to win at home — with only defeats to the Packers and Saints (in overtime) in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome this season.
Falcons by 7
Cowboys (7-6) at Buccaneers (4-9)
The first Saturday night game of the season pits two teams licking their wounds. The Boys have lost back-to-back games on painful missed potential game-winning field goals — both of which came after timeouts that “iced” kicker Dan Bailey. The Bucs have simply lost seven straight games and are desperate to win.
Cowboys by 7
Bengals (7-6) at Rams (2-11)
St. Louis is the Gateway to the second-Worst team in the NFL (and No. 2 pick in the draft); Cincy is still eyeing a longshot playoff berth.
Bengals by 6
Dolphins (4-9) at Bills (5-8)
Miami crushed Buffalo, 35–8, in Week 11. That was the Bills’ third straight loss in a streak that has since grown to six consecutive defeats.
Bills by 1
Titans (7-6) at Colts (0-13)
Rookie Jake Locker could make his first start of the season, following a left calf injury to old man Matt Hasselbeck. But Tennessee is just hoping to avoid handing Indy its first win of the year. The Titans still have an outside shot at a Wild Card berth, but must win their last three.
Titans by 13
Redskins (4-9) at Giants (7-6)
Comeback king of New York, Eli Manning, will be looking to avenge a 28–14 Week 1 loss at Washington when the G-Men host the Skins.
Giants by 7
Saints (10-3) at Vikings (2-11)
Drew Brees loves playing indoors. N’Awlins is 3–2 in the elements this season and 7–1 under a roof in a temperature-controlled dome.
Saints by 10
Packers (13-0) at Chiefs (5-8)
Expect to hear plenty of great quotes from Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram prior to this rematch of Super Bowl I, which the Packers won 35–10 on Jan. 15, 1967 in Los Angeles.
Packers by 16
Panthers (4-9) at Texans (10-3)
Cam Newton hits Houston looking to win his third straight road game, after taking victories in Indy and Tampa Bay in Weeks 12 and 13.
Texans by 2
Seahawks (6-7) at Bears (7-6)
Chicago has gone 0–3 since Jay Cutler’s thumb injury; the Hawks are 4–1 the past five weeks.
Bears by 2
Lions (8-5) at Raiders (7-6)
Ndamukong Suh returns just in time to show the Black Hole what a real scary, dirty player looks and acts like on and off the field.
Raiders by 1
Jets (8-5) at Eagles (5-8)
This meeting would have been a quote-board bonanza earlier this season. As it stands, Philly’s only role is that of Jets spoiler.
Eagles by 2
Browns (4-9) at Cardinals (6-7)
Phoenix is rising, having won five of its last six games following a 1–6 start to the season.
Cardinals by 5
Patriots (10-3) at Broncos (8-5)
Tom Brady and Tim Tebow are carrying a combined 10–0 record, with 18 TDs and two INTs over the past five weeks. This week, however, either Tom or Tim Terrific will suffer a loss.
Patriots by 4
Ravens (10-3) at Chargers (6-7)
San Diego needs to win out and have Denver and Oakland fall apart in order to contend for the AFC West title. Meanwhile, Baltimore is jockeying for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Both teams badly need this win.
Ravens by 1
Steelers (10-3) at 49ers (10-3)
Both of Pittsburgh’s top two offensive players — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey — have been diagnosed with high-ankle sprains and are questionable heading into this Monday night matchup with the fifth-ranked overall defense (305.1 ypg) and No. 1 rush defense (70.5 ypg). The Niners could use a win, however, having lost two of their last three after a 9–1 start to the season.
Steelers by 1
Last week: 11-5 // Season: 144-64
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
The 6'5", 278-pound second-year end out of South Florida has drawn comparisons to the original “Freak,” Jevon Kearse; and JPP showed just what an unbelievable athlete he is during New York’s 37–34 win over Dallas on Sunday night at Jerry’s House. Pierre-Paul’s wingspan seemingly stretched from sideline-to-sideline, as the one-man Big Blue Wrecking Crew recorded eight tackles, two sacks — including one safety — one forced fumble and a blocked kick on the potential game-tying field goal. After notching 4.5 sacks as a rookie, JPP has 12.5 through 13 games during what is likely the first of many Pro Bowl seasons for the 22-year-old.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Another incredible physical specimen in his second season, the “Gronk” had six catches for a career-high 160 yards and two record-breaking TD grabs during a 34–27 win at Washington. In the process, the 6'6", 265-pounder out of Arizona set the all-time single-season record for TD catches by a tight end. Gronkowski’s 14th and 15th TDs — an 11-yard strike and 37-yard highlight run — moved Tom Brady’s go-to guy past Antonio Gates (2004) and Vernon Davis (2009), who each hauled in 13 TDs.
Terrell Suggs, LB, Ravens
The Colts’ return to Baltimore — where they played from 1953-83 — was not quite the homecoming the horseshoes were hoping for. The Ravens sent the league’s lone remaining winless team back to Indianapolis in impressive fashion during the 24–10 contest. Suggs led the way with three sacks and three forced fumbles, as the Ravens defense forced six Colts punts, while holding Indy to just three points through three quarters. Over the past three weeks, Suggs has recorded seven sacks and four forced fumbles, giving him 13.0 sacks and six forced fumbles this season.
Matt Prater, K, Broncos
Say whatever you want about Tim Tebow or the Denver defense, but the latest Broncos miracle was a result of the golden right foot of Prater — who bombed a career-long and game-tying 59-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in regulation before splitting the uprights on a 51-yard field goal in overtime to seal a 13–10 win over the Bears. After entering their Week 6 bye with a 1–4 record, the Broncos have won seven of their last eight, including six straight, and are currently sitting alone in first place of the AFC West division standings.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 14, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Browns (4-8) at Steelers (9-3)
Cleveland’s Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis limp into Blitz-burgh on short rest for this Thursday night AFC North showdown. These two teams are headed in opposite directions. The Browns are 1–5 over their last six games; the Steelers are 7–1 over their last eight contests.
Steelers by 13
Patriots (9-3) at Redskins (4-8)
The last time these two teams played, New England “ran up the score” for a 52–7 win over Washington in 2007. And judging by the way the Patriots and Redskins are playing, this year’s results might not be much better.
Patriots by 11
Chiefs (5-7) at Jets (7-5)
It’s now or never for Rex Ryan’s crew. If the Jets don’t fire up their engines, they won’t be flying into the postseason this year.
Jets by 6
Texans (9-3) at Bengals (7-5)
Houston is riding a six-game winning streak, while Cincinnati has lost three of its last four. But don’t let the trends fool you, the Bengals can pounce on the banged-up Texans.
Bengals by 2
Colts (0-12) at Ravens (9-3)
The Colts ran from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984. This year’s horseshoe homecoming will make Maryland natives thankful they have a Super Bowl contender to cheer for rather than a winless roster sans Peyton Manning.
Ravens by 15
Falcons (7-5) at Panthers (4-8)
Atlanta won 31–17 over Carolina in Week 6. But the Panthers have won two straight and look to spoil the Dirty Birds’ Wild Card hopes.
Falcons by 2
Buccaneers (4-8) at Jaguars (3-9)
It’s been a down year for Florida football — both in the NFL and at the collegiate level. This game will only remind fans of that sad fact.
Buccaneers by 1
Saints (9-3) at Titans (7-5)
Drew Brees has been in MVP form over the past three weeks — completing 68.4 percent of his passes for 1,027 yards and nine TDs in wins over the Lions, Giants and Falcons.
Saints by 6
Eagles (4-8) at Dolphins (4-8)
The Dream Team take their collective talents to South Beach, where Michael Vick will take his starting job back from Vince Young, who went 1–2 as his substitute.
Dolphins by 2
Vikings (2-10) at Lions (7-5)
Detroit held on for a 26–23 win at Minnesota in Week 3. Having lost three of their last four, the Lions need to regroup down the stretch.
Lions by 6
49ers (10-2) at Cardinals (5-7)
San Fran crushed Arizona, 23–7, in Week 11. Expect a similar outcome this week.
49ers by 6
Bears (7-5) at Broncos (7-5)
The Brett Favre to Chicago rumors have been shot down. But wouldn’t that have been great? Favre vs. Tim Tebow in a matchup that might have caused the internet to shut down.
Broncos by 4
Raiders (7-5) at Packers (12-0)
This rematch of Super Bowl II pits two classic franchises against each other in a game with playoff implications. Oakland is alive in the AFC West race, while Green Bay is still undefeated.
Packers by 11
Bills (5-7) at Chargers (5-7)
Two teams in the middle of a downward spiral collide when Buffalo — losers of five straight — hits San Diego — losers of six of last seven.
Chargers by 2
Giants (6-6) at Cowboys (7-5)
This Sunday night NFC East fight is the first of two matchups between the G-Men and Boys over the last four weeks of the season. And with the division up in the air — and coaches Tom Coughlin and Jason Garrett on the hot seat — both teams are in must-win mode.
Cowboys by 1
Rams (2-10) at Seahawks (5-7)
This Monday night party is a rematch from Week 11, when Seattle won 24–7 at St. Louis. Strangely, that is the only game over the past five weeks that Marshawn Lynch has been held under 100 yards rushing. “Beast Mode” has 591 yards and five TDs, and the Hawks have a 3–2 record during that stretch.
Seahawks by 5
Last week: 11-5 // Season: 133-59
Tim Tebow for MVP? The Tebow hype machine has really taken it to the next level. Maybe Tim Terrific can be TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year? And hasn’t Superman done enough to garner Nobel Peace Prize consideration? Really? Give the man a full season before anointing him as the greatest in the game.
If making a mockery of the MVP is the goal, at least give Peyton Manning his record-extending fifth MVP award. After all, has any player proved his value more than Manning this year? The Indianapolis Colts went from perennial Super Bowl contender to league laughingstock following Manning’s pain in the neck.
This season’s MVP discussion consists of two names — “Aaron” and “Rodgers.” Over the first three quarters of the season, the Green Bay Packers quarterback has blown out the competition; A-Rodg doesn’t even need to play the fourth quarter of the year to walk away with his first of what could be many MVP awards.
Outside of the Super Bowl XLV MVP, New Orleans Saints record-breaker Drew Brees — who became the first quarterback in history to pass for over 4,000 yards over the first 12 games of the season and is on pace to throw for over 5,300 yards, which would shatter Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season record of 5,084 passing yards — is the only other viable MVP option. Brees has the numbers, leads one of the NFL’s best teams and plays the right position to take home the hardware.
A quarterback has earned MVP honors in eight of the last 10 seasons, with Manning (four awards), Tom Brady (two), Steve McNair, Rich Gannon and Kurt Warner taking the top individual prize. Dynamic running backs Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson each won after breaking the single-season rushing TD record.
After guiding the Denver Broncos on an unbelievable run this year, Tebow certainly deserves the worldwide praise he’s receiving — but not the NFL’s MVP award.
– Nathan Rush
Let’s see — Tim Tebow took over a 1–4 team that was in disarray and headed nowhere and led it into playoff contention. If that isn’t the definition of a Valuable Player, I don’t know what is. Whether you can add the designation “Most” is an open question, especially given the exploits of the guy up in Green Bay, but Tebow certainly belongs in the discussion.
Some would argue that the Denver defense is the team’s true collective MVP. I would counter that Tebow is a key component of Denver’s defense, even if he’s merely Tebow-ing on the sidelines while the defense does its work. Football is a game of possessions; if you don’t have the ball, you can’t score. Tebow and the Broncos are playing a remarkably effective game of keep-away. By shortening the game with the NFL’s leading rushing attack and protecting the football, Tebow and the Denver offense are playing the most effective brand of defense imaginable.
Perhaps most important, Tebow, the true believer, creates belief among his teammates. The defense, knowing its margin for error is slim, plays a little harder. The offensive line holds its blocks a little longer. And in the game’s waning minutes, the team knows its leader will make just enough plays to win.
“Just having that guy around, it makes us better men,” said linebacker Von Miller. “I think he plays for us, and he makes us want to play for him.”
Bottom line: Whether John Elway likes it or not, the current Denver formula is a winner. Will it last for the long haul? That’s debatable, but the current results are not. Tebow is the story of the NFL at the moment. He’s also an MVP candidate.
– Rob Doster
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks
“Beast Mode” was powered by Skittles on Thursday night, as Lynch totaled 22 carries for a season-high 148 yards and two TDs during a 31–14 win over the Eagles. In between Lynch’s two scoring romps — a 15-yarder where he disappeared in a crowd before exploding into the end zone, and a 40-yard sprint across the field, down the sideline and over the goal line — the Cal product was busy eating colorful chewy candy, “tasting the rainbow” and basking in the cheers of Seattle’s 12th Man.
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
The original Browns — who became the Ravens after moving to Baltimore in 1996 — returned to Cleveland to take on the expansion Browns — whose proud franchise returned to the NFL after a three-year absence in 1999. Rice had the type of day even Jim Brown would be proud of, with a season-high 29 carries for a career-high 204 yards and one TD during a 24–10 victory at the Dawg Pound.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos
Superman continues to soar, improving his record as a starter to 6–1 this season with a 35–32 come-from-behind win at Minnesota. Tebow completed 10-of-15 passes for a season-high 202 yards, two scoring strikes and zero picks for a career-high 149.3 passer rating. Demaryius Thomas, Tebow’s draft classmate and go-to receiver, hauled in four catches for 144 yards and both TDs in the thrilling victory.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick showed off his entire athletic arsenal during a 38–19 road win at Tampa Bay. The 6'5", 248-pound Newton completed 12-of-21 passes for 204 yards, one TD and zero INTs through the air; caught the first pass of his young career for 27 yards; and had 14 rushes for 54 yards and three TDs on the ground. The triple-threat rookie now has 13 rushing scores this season, breaking Steve Grogan’s 1976 record (12) for rushing TDs by a quarterback.
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
After having their game against the Lions flexed to the prime time Sunday night slot — in place of the previously scheduled Colts at Patriots — the Saints flexed their muscle on national TV. Brees became the first quarterback in history to top 4,000 yards passing over the first 12 games of the season, reaching the milestone after completing 26-of-36 passes for 342 yards, three TDs and zero INTs in a 31–17 win.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 13, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Eagles (4-7) at Seahawks (4-7)
When the schedule was released, no one would have predicted that Philadelphia and Seattle would enter this Thursday night bird fight with identical records. With a short week of rest, Michael Vick (ribs) may be forced to sit out, giving Vince Young his third straight start.
Eagles by 3
Jets (6-5) at Redskins (4-7)
New York aims to win in back-to-back weeks for the first time since Weeks 6-7.
Jets by 5
Chiefs (4-7) at Bears (7-4)
These two teams made the playoffs last year and had hopes of returning to the postseason until losing their quarterbacks — Matt Cassel (hand) and Jay Cutler (thumb) — to injury.
Bears by 5
Titans (6-5) at Bills (5-6)
The last time these two teams met, Tennessee owner Bud Adams celebrated a 41–17 win by shooting the bird to rival Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson and any Bills fan in sight while dancing in his owner’s box. Now 88 years old, Adams has presumably matured since then and may or may not flip off the 93-year-old Wilson again.
Titans by 3
Raiders (7-4) at Dolphins (3-8)
Both squads are 3–1 over their last four games. But Oakland still has a playoff berth in reach.
Dolphins by 1
Bengals (7-4) at Steelers (8-3)
Cincinnati faces Pittsburgh for the second time in four games, after losing 24–17 in Week 10. In that game, the Steel Curtain forced Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton into rookie mistakes, including two fourth-quarter INTs.
Steelers by 6
Falcons (7-4) at Texans (8-3)
Houston has a problem — at quarterback. After losing Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart to season-ending injuries, the Texans have become desperate, turning to third-stringer T.J. Yates and working out washed-up has-beens like Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia.
Falcons by 4
Broncos (6-5) at Vikings (2-9)
Tim Tebow attempts to improve his record as a starter to 6–1 this season. However, this will be his first career NFL start inside a dome.
Broncos by 4
Panthers (3-8) at Buccaneers (4-7)
This is the first of many division games between giant young quarterbacks — Newton (6'5", 248) and Josh Freeman (6'6", 248).
Buccaneers by 2
Colts (0-11) at Patriots (8-3)
What would have been a Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady heavyweight fight on Sunday night has become a game so bad that it had to be flexed off of NBC’s schedule and Las Vegas is favoring the Patriots by 20 or more points.
Patriots by 23
Ravens (8-3) at Browns (4-7)
The relocated Jim Browns head back home to face the expansion Courtney Browns in the game Art Modell made possible when he moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1996.
Ravens by 6
Packers (11-0) at Giants (6-5)
Big Blue is on a three-game slide, while the Cheesehead Nation hasn’t experienced a loss since Dec. 19, 2010.
Packers by 7
Cowboys (7-4) at Cardinals (4-7)
Emmitt Smith rushed for 17,162 yards for the Boys and 1,193 yards for the Cards. Hopefully the results of this game won’t be so lopsided.
Cowboys by 5
Rams (2-9) at 49ers (9-2)
St. Louis’ 32nd-ranked rush defense (159 ypg) and San Fran’s No. 1 rush defense (75.5 ypg) meet in a game between the worst and first of the NFC West division.
49ers by 14
Lions (7-4) at Saints (8-3)
Both teams must avoid a hangover, albeit for decidedly different reasons. Detroit embarrassed itself on Thanksgiving; New Orleans was unstoppable on Monday night.
Saints by 7
Chargers (4-7) at Jaguars (3-8)
Jacksonville just fired its head coach and is in the process of selling its franchise. Somehow, San Diego seems to be an even worse trainwreck. The Bolts are riding a six-game losing streak after entering their bye with a 4–1 mark.
Chargers by 1
Last week: 14–2 // Season: 122–54