Articles By Nathan Rush
From Nine to 900
The Blue Devils had an eventful weekend whose impact spanned the generations — as 18-year-old freshman sensation Kyrie Irving returned from a toe injury to play the ninth and 10th games of his Duke career, while Mike Krzyzewski earned his 900th all-time victory en route to his 20th Sweet 16 berth. Irving saw his first game action since Dec. 4, scoring 14 points in 20 minutes during an 87–45 blowout of Hampton and 11 points — none more important than his only field goal of the game, a running go-ahead jumper off the glass with 32 seconds left — in 21 minutes during a 73–71 nail-biter over Michigan. Along the way, Coach K joined his mentor and coach at Army, Bob Knight, as the only members of the 900-win club, reaching the milestone in a rematch of the 1992 national title game against the Wolverines, who suffered the same fate this year as they did with the Fab Five.
Wildcats coach Sean Miller compared Derrick Williams to Yankees closer Mariano Rivera following the second straight game-winning play made by the Pac-10 Player of the Year. After coming up with a game-clinching blocked shot in the final seconds of a 77–75 win over Memphis, Williams did it again — this time, making an acrobatic shot off the backboard while drawing a blocking foul from Texas’ Jordan Hamilton with 9.6 seconds remaining. The 6’8” sophomore sunk the go-ahead free throw to cap off an old-fashioned three-point play, giving the Cats a 70–69 lead they would not relinquish. Now the SoCal kid is headed to Anaheim, which is roughly 20 minutes from Williams’ native La Mirada.
On Saturday, Kemba Walker celebrated the Huskies’ 69–58 win over Big East rival Cincinnati. Then, on Sunday, the 6’1” junior from the Bronx enjoyed being named one of the four finalists for the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year Award — along with BYU senior Jimmer Fredette, Duke senior Nolan Smith and Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger. After leading UConn to five wins in five days en route to the Big East Tournament title, Walker has brought his A-game to the NCAA Tournament — with 18 points, a career-high 12 assists and eight rebounds in an 81–52 win over Bucknell, and 33 points, six rebounds and five assists in the Sweet 16 clincher against Cincy.
Sweet 16, Going on 17
“It’s been 17 years. Been 17 years since I’ve been part of a team that hasn’t gone home — if they’ve gone (to the NCAA Tournament) — after game one.” — San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who has a 22–9 all-time record in the NCAA Tournament, including three trips to the national title game and the 1989 championship, but had not won a game in the Big Dance prior to this weekend since advancing to the Elite Eight at Michigan in 1994.
Little Big Man
Florida’s fearless guard Erving Walker is listed at 5’8” but probably stands closer to 5’6” in sneakers. But, as the saying goes, it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. And no one showed more heart than Walker during UF’s 73–65 victory over UCLA. The Brooklyn native scored 10 of the Gators’ final 12 points — including a playground circus shot off the glass after bouncing off of 300-plus-pound Bruin bear Josh Smith, a deep 3-pointer from the other side of Tampa Bay at the St. Pete Times Forum with 1:14 to play and four free throws in the final 32 seconds of the well-deserved win.
Hoosiers, the Sequel
Last season, Butler’s Cinderella run through the Big Dance ended when Gordon Hayward’s last-second halfcourt heave fell to the ground as time expired on a 61–59 loss to Duke in the national title game. Jimmy Chitwood may have moved on to the NBA — where Hayward was the No. 9 overall pick of the Utah Jazz — but the Bulldogs are in the process of filming a sequel to their Hoosiers-inspired story. Matt Howard has shaved the popular mustache he sported in last year’s Tourney, but the senior big man has already made two game-winning shots — a put back as the clock struck zero in a 60–58 win over Old Dominion and the final free-throw of a 71–70 David vs. Goliath upset over No. 1 seed Pittsburgh.
Jimmer Fredette has scored 30 or more points in seven of his last nine games, including 32 points in a 74–66 win over Wofford in BYU’s opener and 34 points (on 7-of-12 shooting from 3-point range) during a lopsided 89–67 victory over Gonzaga. The Jimmer — one of four finalists for the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year Award — has also used the additional attention to create opportunities for his Cougar teammates, dishing out a combined 13 assists in his first two NCAA Tournament games. Against the Zags, however, passing the ball to anyone in BYU blue should have resulted in an assist; the Cougars shot 52.5 percent (31-of-59) from the field and 50 percent (14-of-28) from beyond the arc.
“If people think we’re boring, there are a lot of channels on TV they can watch. We’re just coming out trying to win games and playing hard and trying to play the right way.” — Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor, who led the Badgers to a surprisingly lopsided 72–58 win over Belmont in the opener and a 70–65 victory against Kansas State to advance to the Sweet 16.
“I just don’t understand when people always refer to ‘Wisconsin basketball.’ We score. We’ll push. … I’m sure there’s a manual out there that says if you don’t turn the ball over a lot, you get to the free-throw line, you make your free throws, and you work hard on defense, and you take good shots, if you want to call that ‘Wisconsin basketball,’ amen. That is us.” – Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan
The Jayhawks are not only the No. 1 seed in San Antonio, they are the last remaining single-digit seed still standing in the Southwest Region. Seeds 2-9 (Notre Dame, Purdue, Louisville, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Texas A&M, UNLV and Illinois, respectively) were all bounced from the bracket, leaving Kansas to face No. 12 seed Richmond in the Sweet 16 before, Rock Chalk prevailing, the winner of No. 10 Florida State and No. 11 VCU in the Elite Eight, with a trip to the Final Four in Houston on the line for Bill Self's squad.
Back to the FSU-ture
The Seminoles are headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1993, when Heisman Trophy and national title-winning quarterback Charlie Ward teamed with Sam Cassel and Bob Sura to give FSU a three-headed backcourt of future NBA guards. Fittingly, Florida State upset Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough and Southwest Region No. 2 seed Notre Dame, 71–57, to punch its ticket to San Antonio. The classic gridiron rivalry — the Fighting Irish were the only team to defeat the Seminoles during their title run in ’93 — took a turn on the hardwood, with Leonard Hamilton’s crew winning what many Nole b-ball fans may just call the new “Game of the Century.”
Shaka Smart’s Rams have wreaked “havoc” throughout this year's NCAA Tournament — just as the 33-year-old coach promised when he took over for Anthony Grant at Virginia Commonwealth in 2009. As a debatable at-large team, VCU fought its way past USC, 59–46, as one of the original “First Four” teams in the new-look field of 68. Then, the Rams battered No. 6 seed Georgetown, 74–56, before running laps around No. 3 seed Purdue, 94–76, to advance to the first Sweet 16 in school history. Led by fiery point guard Joey Rodriguez — who was a high school teammate of Florida forward and SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons — VCU will take on FSU in the first-ever matchup between No. 10 and 11 seeds.
“We just switch our men, and we have a bunch of players who can defend the perimeter. It makes it look like a man-to-man, and that’s why it’s so hard for teams to figure it out. When we see something on the court that the other team is doing, we know how to adjust. We like to make the other team think, ‘Is it a man? Or is it a zone?’” — Richmond guard Kevin Anderson, discussing the Spiders’ flexible matchup zone defense, which held Morehead State to 37.5 percent shooting (18-of-48) from the field and 14.3 percent (2-of-14) from 3-point range during a 65–48 win.
Apparently, $1 million and a weeklong trip for two to Jamaica will attract attention like nothing this side of a Maserati and a bikini model.
With their eye on the prize(s), NCAA Tournament pick ‘em game participants submitted over 100,000 brackets for Athlon Sports’ Bracket Breakdown contest.
Here’s a split-stat rundown of who picked who this year:
According to the numbers, it’s a three-team race to cut down the nets in Houston this year — with No. 1 seeds Ohio State, Kansas and Duke combining for 71.1 percent of the vote, while the field took 28.9 percent thanks to Pitt, UNC, Notre Dame, UConn and UK.
32.4 % - Ohio State (1)
21.8 % - Kansas (1)
16.9 % - Duke (1)
5.4 % - Pittsburgh (1)
4.1 % - North Carolina (2)
3.2 % - Notre Dame (2)
2.5 % - Connecticut (3)
2.4 % - Kentucky (4)
1.8 % - Florida (2)
1.3 % - Syracuse (3)
The Buckeyes bullied the East Region, while the always-popular Tar Heels received their fair share of the vote. The Orange and Big Blue split leftover piece of pie.
63.7 % - Ohio State (1)
16.5 % - North Carolina (2)
8.5 % - Syracuse (3)
8.2 % - Kentucky (4)
The only region where the No. 2 seed did not finish second in the voting. Did seeing current San Diego State and former Michigan coach Steve Fisher in the “Fab Five” documentary turn the tide? Or did only watching two Aztec games — most likely two losses to BYU — do the trick? No. It’s probably more pro-UConn than it is anti-SDSU. Watching Kemba Walker and Co. win five games in five days en route to the Big East Tournament title won over the crowd.
59.5 % - Duke (1)
17.6 % - Connecticut (3)
9.6 % - San Diego State (2)
8.3 % - Texas (4)
Although Ohio State received more national champion votes, Kansas chalked up the highest percentage of Final Four berths in our brackets. Rick Pitino’s U of L squad also jumped over Purdue in a 4-3 flip.
64.3 % - Kansas (1)
17.3 % - Notre Dame (2)
7.2 % - Louisville (4)
6.4 % - Purdue (3)
A one-two-three-four finish, with the second-seed Gators chomping nearly 20 percent of the numbers. Pitt is the top seed with the least confidence, barely getting half of the vote to advance from the region.
50.7 % - Pittsburgh (1)
18.9 % - Florida (2)
9.0 % - BYU (3)
6.2 % - Wisconsin (4)
Most Popular No. 1 Seed in Final Four
The Jayhawks and Buckeyes will either fast break to the Final Four or destroy brackets from coast-to-coast.
64.3 % - Kansas (1)
63.7 % - Ohio State (1)
59.5 % - Duke (1)
50.7 % - Pittsburgh (1)
Most Popular Double-Digit First-Round Upset
Despite a rough year from the Spartans, the people still have faith in Tom Izzo to lead MSU past UCLA in the first round — funny how making back-to-back Final Fours will inspire confidence. As expected, 7-10 games provided the most popular upset picks.
54.6 % - Michigan State (10) over UCLA (7)
48.2 % - Florida State (10) over Texas A&M (7)
46.9 % - Penn State (10) over Temple (7)
37.5 % - Missouri (11) over Cincinnati (6)
36.4 % - Gonzaga (11) over St. John's (6)
34.4 % - Marquette (11) over Xavier (6)
33.8 % - Georgia (10) over Washington (7)
31.5 % - Richmond (12) over Vanderbilt (5)
22.8 % - Utah State (12) over Kansas State (5)
19.5 % - Memphis (12) over Arizona (5)
Top Team — Ohio State (1)
The Buckeyes (32-2, 16–2 Big Ten) enter the Tourney as the top overall seed and Vegas’ pick to cut down the nets at the national title game in Houston on Monday, April 4. Coach Thad Matta’s club has a balanced attack anchored by freshman enforcer Jared Sullinger (17.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg). “Big Sully” is flanked by a pair of athletic wings in junior William Buford (14.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.0 apg) and fifth-year senior David Lighty (11.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.2 apg), as well as senior sharpshooter Jon “Threebler” Diebler (12.4 ppg, 49.7 percent from 3). The last time Matta had this type of talent, the Greg Oden-led Buckeyes were national runner-ups to Florida in 2007. This year, OSU expects Sullinger to win one more Tournament game than Oden was able to.
Shooting Star — Harrison Barnes, North Carolina (2)
The first freshman ever named to the AP’s preseason All-American team, Barnes staggered out of the gate as the Tar Heels stumbled to a 12–5 start. But since scoring 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting during an embarrassing 78–58 loss at Georgia Tech on Jan. 16, Barnes has become the type of leader and winner every recruiting guru, draft mocker and college b-ball beatnik predicted he would be. The 6’8”, 210-pounder from Ames, Iowa, led UNC to a 14–2 finish (with two losses to Duke) and set an ACC Tournament freshman record with 40 points — going 6-for-8 from 3-point range — in the semifinals against Clemson.
Sweet 16 Sleeper — Xavier (6)
The Musketeers are going from Cincinnati to Cleveland for the first two rounds, against No. 11-seed Marquette and, with a win, No. 3-seed Syracuse (barring a Larry Legend-style upset of the Orange by Indiana State). Six-foot-flat superhero Tu Holloway (20.2 ppg, 5.5 apg, 5.1 rpg) is capable of carrying the X-Men to the second weekend of the Dance if he heats up and gets the Ohio crowd on his side.
Basketball Blue Bloods — Kentucky (4) vs. Princeton (13)
The dribble drive and backdoor cut will be on display in this speed vs. patience matchup between the SEC Tournament champs and the Ivy League one-game playoff play-in victors. Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats feature a trio of five-star freshmen — Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — while Sydney Johnson’s Tigers are a veteran bunch led by senior big man Kareem Maddox (13.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg). This is the third time that Princeton has been a No. 13 seed; the last time was in 1996, when Johnson (then the captain of Pete Carril’s team) guided the Tigers to a 43–41 upset of reigning champ UCLA.
Top Team — Duke (1)
The defending national champion Blue Devils (30–4, 13–3 ACC) appeared to be in tip-top shape en route to a 75–58 whipping of rival North Carolina in the ACC Tournament title game. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of two active coaches who has won back-to-back national championships — doing so in 1991 and ’92 with a core of Laettner, Hurley and Hill. Coach K has four rings, eight title game appearances, 11 trips to the Final Four and 19 Sweet Sixteens in 26 prior NCAA Tournament berths. With seniors Nolan Smith (21.3 ppg, 5.1 apg, 4.6 rpg) and Kyle Singler (17.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) setting the tone, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins providing an outside threat, and the Plumlee brothers (Mason and Miles) and Ryan Kelly banging down low, Coach K could pass mentor Bob Knight (902 career wins) on the all-time wins list and win a ring for his thumb in the same postseason.
Dynamic Duo — Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Texas (4)
The Longhorns lean heavily on a pair of freshmen in Thompson (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.2 bpg) and Joseph (10.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.0 apg). Although each has only 34 games of collegiate experience under their belt, the inside-out duo has a Texas-sized winning resume. Thompson and Joseph play together on the Canadian Junior National Team and were teammates on a Findlay Prep (Nev.) team that won back-to-back ESPN RISE national titles and ended the 2010 season ranked No. 1 in the USA Today poll. Thompson and Joseph team with streak scorer Jordan Hamilton (18.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg) to make the Longhorns a longshot Final Four candidate.
Tournament Tested — Connecticut (3)
The Huskies have won every tournament they’ve entered this season — taking the Maui Invitational by winning three games in three days in November before winning five games in five days en route to a Big East Tournament crown on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. Now, Kemba Walker’s crew is aiming to win six games in 19 days. But in order to pull that off, two-time champion coach Jim Calhoun will need his star guard to fill up the stat sheet like he did in Maui (30.0 ppg on 53.8 percent shooting) and the Mecca (26.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.8 spg).
Emotional Reunion — Arizona (5) vs. Memphis (12)
Second-year Tigers coach Josh Pastner was a walk-on player on Arizona’s 1997 national title winning team before coaching under Lute Olson in Tucson from 2000-08. Now, the 33-year-old who replaced John Calipari at Memphis must face his alma mater in a difficult 5-12 matchup — a seeding that has historically been ripe for upsets. But taking down Zona will be a tough task, as second-year UA coach Sean Miller has a talent-laden roster led by bruiser Derrick Williams (19.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg).
Top Team — Kansas (1)
The Jayhawks (32–2, 14–2 Big 12) lost twice this season, but there wasn’t a team on the schedule that KU didn’t defeat this season — losing the rematch with in-state rival Kansas State (84–68) on Valentine’s Day after taking down the Cats (90–66) on Jan. 29, and falling to Texas (74–63) on Jan. 22 before more than making up for it in a Big 12 title game blowout victory (85–73) on Saturday. Coach Bill Self’s team is powered by the Morris twins — Marcus (17.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Markieff (13.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg) — in the paint and a slew of capable guards — namely Tyrel Reed, Tyshawn Taylor and Josh Selby — on the perimeter. Three years after Mario Chalmers’ miracle against Memphis in 2008, Kansas is in position to win its fourth NCAA title.
BMOC — Kenneth Faried, Morehead State (13)
The 6’8”, 225-pound terror owns the paint, regardless of who his competition is. A legit first-round NBA prospect, Faried (17.6 ppg, 14.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg) had 20 points and 18 rebounds at Florida and 15 points, 12 rebounds and five steals two nights later at Ohio State — two of the top eight teams (according to seeding) in this year’s Dance. Louisville will have its hands full with this one-man wrecking crew, who may be strong enough to take down an inconsistent Cards club.
Rolling Boil — Purdue (3)
The Boilermakers’ senior class of JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel came back to make a run at the Final Four. Unfortunately, Hummel (torn ACL) can only watch from the bench; but Johnson (20.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Moore (18.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.2 apg) still have a chance to cement their legacy as arguably the greatest class in Purdue history. The Boilers notched wins over NCAA squads Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan and Oakland, as well as bubble teams Alabama and Virginia Tech; coach Matt Painter’s club is dangerous.
Solid Gold or Fool’s Gold? — Vanderbilt (5) vs. Richmond (12)
One of the trendiest upset picks in the first round of this year’s NCAA Tournament is Richmond over Vanderbilt, which at first glance appears to be a classic 5-12 trap matchup. But just because everyone else is scared of Spiders doesn’t mean they are capable of poisoning the Commodores — a team with a three-headed monster of sharpshooter John Jenkins (19.5 ppg), lockdown defender Jeffery Taylor (15.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and improving big man Festus Eveli (12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.6 bpg). However, coach Kevin Stallings has been boom or bust on the Dance floor, with two Sweet Sixteens and two one-and-dones in his four trips at VU.
Top Team — Pittsburgh (1)
The Panthers (27–5, 15–3 Big East) were TKO’d by Connecticut in the first round of the Big East Tournament, but that didn’t stop point guard Ashton Gibbs or center Gary McGhee from making national title predictions for this year’s team. Coach Jamie Dixon has made the NCAA Tournament in every season of his tenure at Pitt. But the former Naismith, USA Basketball and Big East Coach of the Year has never gotten over the hump, going 0-for-7 thus far in his quest to reach the Final Four — advancing to one Elite Eight in three trips to the Sweet Sixteen, while failing to make the second weekend four times. Will this be the year Dixon rips the monkey off his back? His players think so.
James Taft Fever — Jimmer Fredette, BYU (3)
James Taft “Jimmer” Fredette (28.5 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.5 rpg) has scored 20 or more points in 30-of-34 games this season, at least 30 points in 13 contests, topped 40 four times and put up a career-high 52 points against New Mexico in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals on Friday — breaking Danny Ainge’s career scoring record at BYU in the process. But without suspended center Brandon Davies (11.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), the 6’2” senior from New York will have carry even more of the load if the Cougars hope to live up to their lofty expectations — and keep “Jimmer-mania” going.
Iz-zone Defense — Michigan State (10)
The Spartans struggled all season, bouncing in and out of midseason NCAA Tournament projections before finishing with a 19–13 record (9–9 Big Ten) and the short end of a 7-10 NCAA first-round matchup with UCLA. Murphy’s Law has been in effect up until now, but the Iz-zone Defense may be the perfect counter now that the single-elimination cross-examination is here. Remember, point guard Kalin Lucas (17.2 ppg, 3.3 apg), point forward Draymond Green (12.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 4.0 apg) and uber-athlete Durrell Summers (11.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) were the nucleus of last year’s Final Four team and the national runner-up in 2009.
Unlucky Bucky — Wisconsin (4) vs. Belmont (13)
Before brackets were even announced on Selection Sunday, many were predicting that this year’s Belmont team would win its first-round matchup — regardless of opponent. Then, Rick Byrd’s disciplined, well-coached team of shooters (46.4 percent from the field, 73.7 percent from the free-throw line and 38.1 percent from 3-point range) were paired with Wisconsin, a similarly disciplined, well-coached squad (with shooting lines of 44.5, 82.4 and 37.1). Bo Ryan’s Badgers are chronic overachievers, but after losing 36–33 to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, they look awfully vulnerable to the Bruins — who nearly upset Duke in 2008.
This year’s D-line class is arguably the best in NFL Draft history, and the 300-pound trench-warriors could take up space like no group ever — with half of the first round potentially suffocated by D-linemen.
The heavyweights have weighed in, lifted, run, jumped and explained themselves at the podium and in individual team meetings. But whose draft stock is on the fast track now that Indy is over?
Da’Quan Bowers (6’3”, 280)
4-3 DE, Clemson
The Bronko Nagurski Award winner and ACC Defensive Player of the Year did not work out at the Combine due to arthroscopic knee surgery performed in January. But the big man did speak — and he spoke well. He’s been the top cat since high school and the South Carolina should slide right in to “replace” Julius Peppers on the edge in Charlotte.
“It’s definitely a goal. I don’t think anybody here doesn’t have a goal to be the No. 1 pick,” said Bowers, during his media session at the Combine in Indy.
Marcell Dareus (6’3”, 319)
3-4 DE, 4-3 DT or 3-4 NT, Alabama
There is not a more versatile lineman in the draft; Dareus played 5-technique end and some nose tackle in Nick Saban’s 3-4 scheme at Bama and clearly has the quick feet, strong hands and overall athleticism to play 3-technique tackle in a 4-3 defense.
The Defensive MVP of the Crimson Tide’s national title game victory over Texas — who TKO’d Colt McCoy and scored a defensive TD at the Rose Bowl that night — should be one of the first two of three names called by Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Nick Fairley (6’4”, 291)
4-3 DT, Auburn
Not as physically impressive in shorts during drills at the Combine as many would have liked. But, as they say, “the eye in the sky don’t lie” and the big man was 1b. to Cam Newton’s 1a. on the list of reasons Auburn won it all this season.
Work ethic is a concern but on-field decision-making and reckless dirty play are also potential red flags for a player who was once rumored to be in the mix at No. 1 overall but has since settled in as “only” a top 10 pick.
Robert Quinn (6’4”, 265)
4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB, North Carolina
Missed the entire 2010 season due to NCAA suspension for accepting illegal benefits. Quinn ripped off a 4.73 in the 40-yard dash while looking as cut and quick as any prospect in Indy. Already viewed as a top-10 talent, NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock thinks Quinn is “as good a natural pass rusher as I’ve ever seen.”
Marvin Austin (6’2”, 309)
4-3 DT, North Carolina
The tweeting tackle also fell into the UNC tar trap and was suspended for the entire 2010 season after taking trips — including a high profile visit to South Beach — that were paid for by an agent.
“I messed up a great situation,” said Austin, at the East-West Shrine Game. “It was my fault.”
Austin showed off his rare blend of power (38 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, the second-best effort on the bench this year), speed (4.8 in the 40-yard dash) and explosiveness (1.63 10-yard split in the 40) in Indy. The “Anchorman” was in tip-top shape at the Combine and could bull rush his way into the first round.
Ryan Kerrigan (6’4”, 267)
3-4 OLB or 4-3 DE, Purdue
A proven hand-down end who showed off enough fluidity in his backpedal, hips and lateral moves to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 — possibly making a Mike Vrabel-type position switch at the next level. Kerrigan also posted the second-best broad jump (10’2”) among D-linemen and looked faster than his 4.67 in the 40, thanks to his apparently Packer-approved long locks.
J.J. Watt (6’5”, 290)
3-4 DE, Wisconsin
Already seen as arguably the top 5-technique 3-4 end in the draft, the big Badger was a workout warrior at the Combine — with a 37” vertical leap (second best among D-linemen), a 10’ broad jump and 34 reps on the bench. That cha-ching sound will echo from Indy to Madison to whatever city Watt ultimately pays the high first-rounder.
Cameron Jordan (6’4”, 287)
3-4 DE or 4-3 DE, California
The son of six-time Pro Bowl tight end Steve Jordan ran out of the shadow of his father — if he hadn’t already long before arriving in Indy. With a big frame, long arms (35”) and huge hands (11 1/8”), Jordan has all the makings of a 3-4 end but showed enough speed (4.85 in the 40) to possibly play 4-3 end as well.
Stephen Paea (6’1”, 303)
4-3 DT or 3-4 NT, Oregon State
Paea broke the NFL Scouting Combine record on the bench press, with 49 reps of 225 pounds — breaking the previous record of 45. Unfortunately, lifting and interviewing were all Paea was up for following offseason knee surgery. Born in New Zealand and raised in Tonga before moving stateside at 16, Paea’s bench press prowess in the weight room translates to a powerful punch “in a phone booth” against opposing O-linemen.
Cameron Heyward (6’5”, 294)
3-4 DE, Ohio State
The son of Saints power back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward has some of his old man’s moves — albeit as a pass-rusher, not a running back. Heyward is a classic “high floor” guy whose “ceiling” is about where it’s going to be. That said, Heyward is a hard-working, blue-collar professional who should be able to slide right into a championship-caliber defensive line rotation and absorb a playbook quicker than the average rookie. Hard to imagine this Buckeye did anything other than wow coaches and executives during Combine interviews.
The World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play — the PGA Tour’s answer to NCAA March Madness — teed off Wednesday morning and die-hard golf fans from around the country have already seen their brackets busted thanks to a few unexpected upsets at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club’s Dove Mountain Course in Marana, Arizona.
In the Sam Snead Bracket, No. 16 seed Thomas Bjorn pulled a Peter O’Malley and sent No. 1 seed and three-time Match Play champ Tiger Woods packing after a 19-hole showdown.
Bjorn and O’Malley (2002) are the only two golfers to knock out Tiger in the first round of the WGC event he won in 2003, 2004 and 2008.
“I had the momentum going into the 19th hole and I blew it,” said Woods, who shanked his drive into the desert and needed four shots to get on the green before missing his first putt and conceding the match to Bjorn.
Woods’ meltdown was easily the biggest upset of the day, but Tiger wasn’t the only big name to fall to a Cinderella story in the first round of the tournament.
In the Bobby Jones Bracket, No. 2 seed Steve Stricker lost 2-and-1 to 17-year-old No. 15 seed Matteo Manassero; in the Ben Hogan Bracket, No. 3 seed Ian Poulter fell to No. 14 seed Stewart Cink in 19 holes; and in the Gary Player Bracket, No. 3 seed Jim Furyk fell to No. 14 seed Ryan Palmer, who won 2-up.
There was some chalk in play, however, as Ben Hogan Bracket No. 1 seed Phil Mickelson (6-and-5 over Brendan Jones), Gary Player No. 2 seed Rory McIlroy (4-and-2 over Jonathan Byrd) and Bobby Jones No. 3 seed Luke Donald (6-and-5 over Charley Hoffman) all cruised to easy first-round victories.
“I love playing here in Tucson, it’s a special place for my heart,” said Mickelson, an Arizona State grad who spent part of his childhood in Scottsdale and played his first PGA Tour event in Tucson.
“The key for me winning this match was driving it. I drove the ball well and kept it in play and didn’t give any holes away. My opponent is a heck of a player, but he hit two or three into the desert and ended up giving me a few holes, which ultimately was the difference. …
“I’m very pleased with how I’m striking the ball and chipping and putting and so forth.”
The WGC-Accenture Match Play will be televised on Golf Channel on Thursday and Friday, before NBC takes over the weekend coverage.
Boom Boom, Now Cue the Black Eyed Peas’ PGA remix of “Boom Boom, Now” — Fred Couples is tied for second — at 9-under 204 through 54 holes, one shot behind leader Aaron Baddeley — heading into the final round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.
The 51-year-old has a history of making the SoCal crowd scream, having won the tournament formerly known as the Nissan Los Angeles Open in 1990 and ’92, while carding second-place finishes in ’93, ’94 and ’96.
“This week I’m playing because it’s my favorite course,” Couples said, during a post-round press conference. “I’ve played this tournament, this is my 30th year, so I kind of feel like I can get the ball around (Riviera).”
Making his 29th appearance at the L.A. event, Couples is in contention for his 16th career PGA Tour title. The last time Freddie was in the hunt in the big leagues was last year’s Masters, when his quest for a second green jacket (1992) resulted in a solo sixth-place finish (and $270K).
But the PGA part-timer was a terror as a rookie on the Champions Tour last season — posting four wins, four runner-ups, one third and 13 top-10 finishes in 17 events. Couples has proven he can still close out a tournament; and the roar of the crowd is no stranger to a longtime Sunday fan favorite.
With $6.5 million total purse and $1.17 million winner’s share on the line in Pacific Palisades, Calif., expect “Boom Boom” to give the crowd their money’s worth in the final round of the Northern Trust Open.
Most stops on the PGA Tour are relatively buttoned-down. Other than a few notable exceptions — say, the coed keg party that is No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale — there is a routine etiquette expected, if not required, at each stop on the PGA Tour schedule.
But when Bill Murray is high-fiving fans and galloping down the fairway riding on his driver like it’s a horse, the golf clap loses out to roars of laughter from the gallery. The Caddyshack star is just one of the big names who will lighten the mood at this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Although Murray’s good buddy the Dalai Lama — big hitter, the Lama — won’t be teeing it up at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Monterey Peninsula CC or Spyglass Hill GC, there will be plenty of other athletes, actors and musicians on the course, which is nice.
Along with Cinderella stories like Carl Spackler, the Pro-Am will feature other fringe players from the world of golf, including U.S. Open hopeful and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Tin Cup star Kevin Costner, along with duffers like Bill Belichick, Drew Brees, Kelly Slater, Oscar de la Hoya, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, Maur Povich and Ray Romano.
The idea for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was Bing Crosby’s brainchild back in 1937, when Sam Snead won at Rancho Santa Fe, near Del Mar in the San Diego area.
When “Slammin’ Sammy” was presented with a $500 winner’s check in front of a small gathering of Crosby’s friends, the legendary golfer famously told the host, “If you don’t mind, Mr. Crosby, I’d rather have cash.”
This year, Dustin Johnson aims to become first to win player to win three straight AT&Ts at Pebble Beach. Last year, the big-hitter held on for a one-shot win — despite a 2-over-74 final round — over David Duval and J.B. Holmes.
Johnson became the first back-to-back winner since Mark O’Meara in 1990, joining Hall of Famers Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Cary Middlecoff as the only repeat winners in Pebble Beach history. No one has ever won three straight.
Unfortunately, the last time the 26-year-old Johnson played at Pebble, he collapsed to shoot an 82 on Sunday at the U.S. Open — the worst final-round score posted by a 54-hole leader in almost 100 years.
But this is a new year, and Johnson is looking forward to returning to a course he has been dominant on.
“I’m always going to love this golf course, no matter what. I’m just ready to get back out and play,” said Johnson. “Get a little redemption for the last round of the Open.”
Aaron Rodgers is driving away from Cowboys Stadium in the Super Bowl MVP’s Chevy Camaro convertible, but the entire Green Bay defense deserves permanent joyride privileges following a hard-fought 31–25 win over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.
“Gotta give credit to our defense,” said Rodgers, after being presented with the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the MVP’s keys by none other than four-time Super Bowl champion Steelers quarterback-turned-FOX pregame personality Terry Bradshaw.
“This is a great group of men that we put together here. Lot of character; been through a lot together. It’s just great to be able to share it with them.”
The Packers’ aggressive 3-4 defense forced three turnovers that were converted into 21 points — including a 37-yard pick-six from safety Nick Collins, who dove across the goal line to give Green Bay a 14–0 first-quarter lead it refused to relinquish to a relentless Pittsburgh club that never could get over the hump.
Along with Collins’ highlight reel INT for a TD, linebacker Clay Matthews forced a fumble from Rashard Mendenhall which was recovered by linebacker Desmond Bishop, and cornerback Jarrett Bush hauled in a second INT of Ben Roethlisberger — as Bush's namesake, former President of the United States and Governor of Texas George W. Bush, watched on in a star-studded luxury suite that also included Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and “Boom!” John Madden.
In a total team effort, the defense set ‘em up and Rodgers knocked ‘em down. A-Rodg completed 24-of-39 passes for 304 yards, three TDs and zero INTs for a 111.5 passer rating — all while A-Rod was being fed popcorn by Cameron Diaz as part of a near-record Super Bowl crowd of 103,219 at the “Palace in Dallas.”
Once and for all, Rodgers and Ted Thompson — the GM who hand-picked the California kid with the No. 24 selection in the 2005 draft — have stepped out from the shadow cast by Brett Favre.
This postseason, Rodgers completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 1,094 yards, nine TDs and two INTs for a 109.8 passer rating, while scrambling for another two scores and leading the Packers to the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl victory (I, II, XXXI and XLV).
Following road wins at Philadelphia (21–16), at Atlanta (48–21), at Chicago (21–14) and against Pittsburgh (31–25) at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, there is no denying that Thompson’s decision to go with Rodgers over Favre was the right one back in 2008.
“I’m just so very, very proud of these guys on this team. They stood up when everybody thought they were down. They never quit trying. They never quit believing,” said Thompson, during the trophy presentation. “This is a tough business. But I’m very, very proud of this team.”
Several Packer leaders were not only knocked down, but knocked out of Super Bowl XLV. Versatile cornerback Charles Woodson and veteran receiver Donald Driver both limped to the locker room — with Woodson returning to the field wearing street clothes and a sling, and Driver hobbling back in a walking boot.
But Green Bay fought through, just as it has since Week 16 of the regular season, when each game became a must-win. Six straight wins later, the Packers are going back to Titletown as the world champs.
“Coach Lombardi’s Trophy,” declared Packers coach Mike McCarthy, “is finally going back home!”
Of all the legendary holes on the PGA Tour schedule — the island green, No. 17, at TPC Sawgrass and the final hole of Amen Corner, No. 13 Azalea, at Augusta National are the first that come to my mind — there is absolutely (or is it Absolut-ly?) nothing like No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale, where drinks mix, coeds mingle and the crowd is rowdier than anywhere else on Tour.
The 162-yard, par-3 amphitheatre packs a 20,000-plus crowd into a stadium setting more reminiscent of a Florida-Georgia college football "cocktail party" than a golf-clapping PGA event. A crisp 8- or 9-iron on the green is rewarded by a high-fiving, rowdy uproar. A chunker off line will be booed, heckled and harassed by young and old Phoenicians alike. But that is all part of the Mojito-fueled mystique of the sweet 16.
On Saturday, Arizona State alum and two-time Phoenix Open champ Phil Mickelson went through the routine roller coaster from the crowd — drawing "We want Phil!" chants before his tee shot landed in the fat of the green, causing "Safe-ty! Safe-ty!" heckles from the crowd.
But that only set the stage for "Phil the Thrill" to delight the masses, which he did — getting arguably the loudest cheers of the day after draining a 30-foot birdie putt.
"It was great. It’s Saturday of the Phoenix Open. It’s always fun. There’s a lot of people out here. I don’t think there’s a shot I wanted to make more — other than a major championship — than that putt on 16. I wanted to make that so bad," said Mickelson.
"Sixteen is great, it is really great. The players love it, and the fans are so much fun. It’s the hole that I want to hit my best shot of the day on. It’s the hold that I want to make a two badly. And today I hit just an okay iron shot to about 35 feet. But that putt went in. And it was an awesome feeling. It’s so much fun to see the crowd erupt there."
Lefty sits at 10-under through 36 holes, just four shots behind leader Tommy Gainey. Despite oddly cold conditions that have forced frost delays, the crowd has still congregated at TPC Scottsdale on Sunday Bowl weekend. Saturday’s attendance was an estimated 131,627 — up roughly 10,000 fans from last season.
Although the crowd for Super Sunday is usually not as large as the Saturday swell, there will be plenty of fans pregaming at the Phoenix Open before heading home to catch the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium. Everyone has an opinion on the big game, including Mickelson — who is a well-known gambler on and off the course.
"It’s going to be a great game. I like both teams. They’re both great teams," explained Mickelson, who provided insightful Super Bowl pregame commentary following his round on Saturday.
"But I think Green Bay is going to win. I think they’re going to dominate. Aaron Rodgers is playing so good and Pittsburgh has always struggled against a spread offense. And I also think that Green Bay’s defensive line is going to own them (without injured Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey)."
Sharks and suckers alike will be throwing cash around on Super Bowl prop bets — banking on Christina Aguilera’s National Anthem, the opening coin toss, the Black Eyed Peas’ halftime show, the Gatorade shower, the MVP and everything in between.
Here’s a quick look at the best Super Bowl party prop bets, along with advice on where the smart money should play. For consistency’s sake, all odds and lines are courtesy of Bodog.com.
(For the average Joe who doesn’t speak in Vegas tongues — when the odds are -150, you must wager $150 to win $100; when the odds are +150, you win $150 on a bet of $100. Just FYI.)
How long will it take Christina Aguilera to sing the National Anthem?
Over 1:54 (-160)
Under 1:54 (+120)
Christina is a platinum blonde songbird known for her love of the vocal scales, while alter-ego Xtina is known for her penchant for leather chaps. Aguilera's most recent renditions of Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” came in at 1:52 and 1:54 prior to Games 6 and 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers.
The overwhelming bet will be the Over; but upon video replay review of her Game 7 performance in Hollywood on June 17, 2010, it may not be possible for her to top 1:54 without remixing the song — which Whitney Houston did with her 1:55 effort (which featured an 11-second “Brave” finale) before Super Bowl XXV.
How long will Christina Aguilera hold the note “Brave” at the end of the National Anthem?
Over 6 seconds (–140)
Under 6 seconds (EVEN)
Once again, unless Xtina goes Whitney on us — which is an outside possibility for a recently 30-year-old mother on the heels of a divorce who is looking to prove that she’s still got it on a global stage — holding “Brave” for longer than 6 seconds is a stretch. Her Game 7 Celtics-Lakers “Brave” finale was 5 seconds.
There are also a few sucker bets — on whether Aguilera will wear a cowboy hat (+300) or have a hair color other than completely blonde (+175). The only betting option is “Yes.” Even if she comes out dressed as a brunette cowgirl, these are toilet bowl bets.
What will be the result of the Super Bowl XLV coin toss?
Heads and Tails are tied at 22–22 all-time. So, the “visiting” Steelers can’t use the split stats to decide which side of the coin to call. Either bet is just as savvy and/or ridiculous. But history has shown that “tails never fails” — unless you are the old man at the gas station in No Country For Old Men, he was right to call “heads.”
Team to win the opening coin toss?
Pittsburgh Steelers (-105)
Green Bay Packers (-105)
The NFC has won twice as many coin tosses as the AFC, with a 30–14 edge all-time. The NFC is also on a 13-year streak of winning the Super Bowl coin toss.
However, teams that have “won” the toss carry a 21–23 record in the Super Bowl. Case in point, the Steelers have won six Super Bowls but only one coin toss (1–6 all-time). On the other side, the Packers are 3–1 in Super Bowls and 2–2 in coin tosses.
The pregame focus will be on former Packers quarterback Brett Favre and Cowboys owner (and the $1.1 billion “Palace at Dallas” party host) Jerry Jones. But after kickoff, neither Favre nor Jones should be much of a topic of conversation for FOX’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.
Unless this game is a blowout, there will be no reason for Buck and Aikman to drop F-Bombs or keep up with the Joneses. The Under is the play on both fronts.
How many times will FOX mention “Brett Favre” on TV during the game? (From kickoff until final whistle, live commentary only, must say “Brett Favre” exactly)
Over 2.5 (-150)
Under 2.5 (+110)
How many times will FOX show Jerry Jones on TV during the game? (From kickoff until final whistle, live pictures only)
Over 2.5 (-135)
Under 2.5 (-105)
What will Fergie be wearing when she first appears on stage during the Super Bowl halftime show?
Pants (Below Knees) (EVEN)
Shorts (Above Knees) (+350)
Thong/G-String/Bikini Bottom (+1000)
The 35-year-old Dutchess has still got it, no doubt — her new Dr. Pepper Cherry commercial proves that. But after the “Breast Super Bowl Ever” with Janet Jackson, don’t expect the NFL to allow a spring break Super Bowl halftime show with any thong, th-thong, thong, thong action.
There’s a chance for a skirt, dress or shorts. But expect Fergie to go with the tight pants, skimpy top look that Miss Jackson (Super Bowl XXXVIII), Gwen Stefani (XXXVII) and Britney Spears (XXXV) rocked in three separate Super Bowl shows.
Regardless, Fergie will be the first woman on stage at halftime since Janet’s “wardrobe malfunction” — snapping the Social Security streak of Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Who.
Much like Xtina’s sucker bets, Fergie Ferg has a dud, on whether she will be dressed as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader at any point during the halftime show. The only betting option is “Yes” (+500). But if you’re throwing away money, thong (+1000) is a better bet.
What color will the Gatorade be that is dumped on the head coach of the winning Super Bowl team?
Lime Green (5/1)
In the Steelers’ previous two Super Bowl wins, Mike Tomlin was doused in yellow Gatorade and Bill Cowher was soaked in ice water.
Over the past 10 Super Bowls, four coaches have been lucky enough to get water, two had yellow, one had purple, one had orange and Bill Belichick avoided the tradition twice — before getting a melted ice bath to cool off after Janet decided to heat up his third Super Bowl win in four years.
If Tomlin wins again, it has to be water — the ultimate sign of respect, since H2O isn’t sticky, is stainless and relatively painless. However, if Mike McCarthy wins his first Super Bowl, Cheesehead-yellow Gatorade is in order for the leader of the No. 6 seed road warriors.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Odds to win Super Bowl XLV MVP.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB (3/2)
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, PIT (7/2)
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, PIT (15/2)
Greg Jennings, WR, GB (12/1)
Troy Polamalu, S, PIT (15/1)
James Starks, RB, GB (15/1)
Mike Wallace, WR, PIT (16/1)
Clay Matthews, LB, GB (18/1)
Charles Woodson, CB, GB (18/1)
15 other players (25/1 to 60/1)
With 44-of-45 Super Bowl MVPs (Dallas’ Randy White and Harvey Martin were co-MVPs of Super Bowl XII) coming from the winning team (Dallas’ Chuck Howley refused the award after losing Super Bowl V), this prop bet is dependent on picking the Super Bowl champs.
Quarterbacks have won 23-of-45 all-time, defensive players have been honored eight times, running backs have seven, receivers hauled in six and one kick returner took MVP to the house on Super Sunday.
The third time will be a charm for Ben Roethlisberger if the Steelers win. Big Ben is on the Terry Bradshaw MVP plan, having watched receivers Hines Ward (XL) and Santonio Holmes (XLIII) take home the award. In his day, Bradshaw took a backseat to running back Franco Harris (IX) and contortionist Lynn Swann (X) before earning back-to-back in Super Bowls XIII and XIV.
If the Packers raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy, only odds-on favorite Aaron Rodgers should be considered an MVP candidate. A-Rod is nearly in Peyton Manning no-brainer territory. Although Peyton needed nine seasons to rip the Super Bowl monkey off his back, Rodgers’ six seasons to date have arguably been more trying — after aging in dog years behind Favre for three seasons.
Put it this way, unless one of the Packers pulls a Desmond Howard (XXXI) and makes it impossible to vote for anyone else, Rodgers will make like Bart Starr (I and II), who earned a political MVP victory in Super Bowl I over the late, great wild child Max McGee — who had seven catches for 138 yards and two TDs, including the first points in Super Bowl history.
Every day, in every office around the country, difficult decisions are made. Choices that impact the fate of a franchise rest on the shoulders of certain individuals.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare wrote, way back in 1597. Sounds about right, heading into Super Bowl XLV at the $1.1 billion ‘Palace in Dallas’ some 400 years later.
Arguably the most publicized and criticized figures are those who control an NFL front office — an owner or GM who decides the hiring or firing of a coach or quarterback. That is the nature of the beast, after all.
In hindsight, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers went “all in” when Mike Tomlin surprisingly succeeded Bill Cowher, and Aaron Rodgers was essentially forced into forcing out the “retiring” Brett Favre — in 2007 and ’08, respectively.
Tomlin was by no means a popular hire, when Dan Rooney and the Steeler family — or is it the Steelers and the Rooney family? — decided to hire the 34-year-old Vikings defensive coordinator in 2007.
In fact, the most “popular” question following the announcement of Tomlin was “Who?” And rightly so. Having served as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive backs coach from 2001-05 under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden before just one season as the Vikings defensive coordinator to Brad Childress, the jury was still out on the man who Omar Epps wishes he was as cool as.
But Tomlin beat out longtime Steelers assistants Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt (whose Cardinals lost to Tomlin’s Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII), as well as former Chargers-turner-Bears D-coordinator and recently-named Panthers coach Ron Rivera, in a hotly contested race to replace Cowher.
Following four-time Super Bowl champion coach Chuck Noll (1969-91) and Super Bowl XL winner Cowher (1992-2006), Tomlin put on his shades and stepped into the Steelers’ spotlight as just the third coach in nearly 40 years.
Since then, Tomlin has made the Rooneys look brilliant, becoming the youngest Super Bowl winning coach in history. He’s now one game away from being the youngest to take two titles — in stride, for those keeping score.
Tomlin has one Super Bowl win (XLIII), a 43–21 regular season record and 4–1 mark in the playoffs — starting 0–1, missing the playoffs once and surviving until Super Sunday twice in his first four seasons.
By comparison, Cowher’s best four-year stretch was one Super Bowl loss (XXX), a 44–20 regular season record and 5–4 postseason mark from 1994-97. The “Jaw” won it all in year 14-of-15, following the 2005 season in Super Bowl XL.
Noll’s tip-top four-year form — granted, not as a “first-term” coach like Tomlin — was two Super Bowl wins (IX and X), a 43–12–1 record (during 14-game regular seasons) and 7–2 playoff run from 1972-75, before two more Super Bowl wins (XIII and XIV), a 45–15 regular season record and 7–2 playoff mark from 1976-79.
Decisiveness was paramount in Rooney's hiring of Tomlin. The coach, in turn, has rewarded his boss with success that lives up to the family franchise's standard.
Titletown was not quite in Cairo-mode three years ago, but no one was quite sure how to take Brett Favre’s first “real” retirement — especially when it was quickly followed by an un-retirement trade to the Jets.
Green Bay GM Ted Thompson was vilified by many — both local and national — for pulling the trigger on the California kid set to enter his fourth NFL season, rather than riding it out with the 16-year starter with two Super Bowl appearances and one Reggie White-sized ring (won with Ron Wolf pulling the strings, not Thompson).
At the time, Rodgers had played in exactly seven games, throwing for 329 yards, one TD and one INT, while taking nine sacks for 70 lost yards and three lost fumbles. Granted, it’s not fair to recall Favre’s individual accomplishments; but No. 4 had swaggered his way to a then-record three MVP awards (1995-97) and was fresh off of an overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
But, for Thompson, Rodgers’ time was “now” — way back then. Favre was 38 years old and debating retirement (again). Rodgers was 25 years old and champing at the bit to get under center and begin his run as a franchise quarterback.
After all, Rodgers had been patient. The Cal product and Chico, Calif., native had watched Utah’s Alex Smith go first overall to A-Rodg’s hometown 49ers in the 2005 NFL Draft. Then, Rodgers sat restlessly in the draft-day green room, until Thompson put him out of his misery — or dragged him into an even worse Favre fire, depending on your vantage point — at No. 24 overall.
Since then, Rodgers has thrown for 12,394 yards, 86 TDs and 31 INTs through the air, with 879 yards and 13 TDs on the ground. And while it’s not technically a head-to-head competition, Favre has aired it out for only 10,183 yards, 66 TDs and 48 INTs (plus 58 rush yards and one TD) over those three seasons (albeit two fewer games).
Rodgers has been nearly flawless while leading Green Bay to wins at Philadelphia (21–16), at Atlanta (48–21) and at Chicago (21–14) — completing 71.0 percent of his passes for 790 yards, six TDs and two INTs for a 109.2 passer rating and two rushing TDs.
A win over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV would prove that both Rodgers’ and Thompson’s patience was a championship virtue.
The PGA Tour schedule may have officially teed off in Hawaii several weeks ago. But it doesn’t take a farmer to know that televised golf without Tiger Woods isn’t exactly a cash crop.
So, this week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines has become the de facto start of the 2011 season. Tiger returns to the site of his epic 91-hole U.S. Open playoff victory over Rocco Mediate, who “coincidentally” will be paired with Woods — along with Anthony Kim — on Thursday and Friday.
“Playing with Rocco won’t be like playing with Ben Hogan,” Tiger joked, during his Wednesday press conference. “There might be a few words said. …
“Rocco and I obviously have a little history here. But I’ve known him since my rookie year and he’s been great to me. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
There have been 10 major championships played since Tiger limped to that one-legged U.S. Open win in 2008, tying the longest major-less drought of Woods’ career. This week will also mark the first time Woods has played the San Diego-area course in two years — missing the 2009 stop while rehabbing his surgically repaired knee and opting to skip last year’s event (and instead make his season debut at The Masters) following his infamous wrecked car and marriage.
After spending 281 straight weeks as the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer — and 623 total weeks during a stellar career that also includes 14 major titles — Woods lost his grip on the top spot to England’s Lee Westwood on Halloween last year. Ranked No. 3 worldwide, behind Westwood and Germany’s reigning PGA Champion Martin Kaymer, Woods has plenty to prove at Torrey Pines this week.
The good news is that Tiger has tamed Torrey Pines during his career — winning eight career titles, including five straight, while carding just one round over par. In his last 12 events at Torrey, Tiger has seven wins and no finish worse than 10th.
“I’m very excited about returning,” said the 35-year-old Woods. “My swing is getting better and I feel much more at ease. But I haven’t done it under the gun yet, so we’ll see what happens.”
After 256 NFL regular season games and 10 playoff contests, Super Sunday is nearly here. It’s time to break out the Terrible Towels and Cheeseheads, because the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers are set to square off in Super Bowl XLV at the “Palace in Dallas” — Cowboys Stadium in Arlington — on Feb. 6.
Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will call what is arguably the most American Super Bowl ever, during a FOX broadcast that will open with Christina Aguilera singing the National Anthem, break with the Black Eyed Peas performing at halftime and end with the world champions hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The question is, will Blitz-burgh earn its record seventh Super Bowl title — after winning IX, X, XIII and XIV under Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw; XL with Bill Cowher and Ben Roethlisberger; and XLIII with current coach Mike Tomlin and clutch quarterback Big Ben? Or will Title Town celebrate its fourth win — after taking I and II with the silver symbol’s namesake, Lombardi, and Bart Starr; and XXXI under Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre?
The Steelers advance to the Super Bowl after clinching the AFC North crown with a 12–4 record, earning a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed in the AFC, beating the division-rival Baltimore Ravens (31–24) in the Divisional Round and the New York Jets (24–19) in the AFC Championship Game.
Pittsburgh jumped out to a 24–0 first-half lead over New York, as big-talking Jets coach Rex Ryan stood speechless on the sideline. But Gang Green fought back, scoring 19 unanswered points before the clock struck zero on what was a statement season for the J-E-T-S. Now, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and the Steel Curtain stop-unit will fittingly head to Big D for one last fight.
"We overcame a lot more obstacles this year than we have in the past," said Polamalu, who was injured during the Steelers' Week 15 loss to the Jets but was a difference-maker in the rematch victory.
"But we still got one more to go."
On the other side of the coin, the Packers have been in must-win mode since Week 16 of the regular season, Lambeau Leap-ing into the playoffs as a 10–6 Wild Card berth, following home wins over the New York Giants (45–17) and Chicago Bears (10–3). Green Bay has since become the NFC’s first No. 6 seed to make the Super Bowl, after road warrior wins against the Philadelphia Eagles (21–16) in the Wild Card Round, the Atlanta Falcons (48–21) in the Divisional Round and the NFC North-rival Chicago Bears (21–14) in the NFC title game.
The 182nd meeting between the Packers and Bears was a black-and-blue brawl that saw Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers with a bloody mouth and Chicago's Jay Cutler get knocked out of the game with an injured knee after bleeding through his shirt early in the game. The Packers had a 14–0 lead at the half, but needed one last stand late to hold off a charging Bears squad led by third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie.
"We felt we had them on the ropes there for a while. We just couldn't get the game to a three-score game. I think that says a lot about them as a football team. But it also says a lot about us as a team. Defense, special teams, people making plays down the stretch," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who lost his only other NFC title game appearance three seasons ago to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.
"It was the typical Green Bay-Chicago game, with everything on the line."
The Steelers and Packers will have two weeks to rest, rehab, prep and rep for Super Bowl XLV — which will feature two of the most historic franchises in all of sports in what should be one of the highest-rated games of all-time.
Hyperbole beware; the bandwagons may not be big enough for this year's big game.
The guy will just not shut up, but maybe that’s part of the master plan. Rex Ryan spent the week leading up to Jets-Patriots sucking up all of the media oxygen, leaving his players free to focus on a gameplan that had the Patriots frustrated for the first time in what seems like years.
The Jets’ 28–21 win in Foxboro was shocking to everyone but the Gang Green, who strutted into Gillette Stadium like they were the favorites, reflecting the brashness of their boss.
It was a day chock full of shocking developments — Tom Brady threw his first interception since Week 6; the inconsistent Mark Sanchez became only the third player to throw three TD passes against Bill Belichick’s Patriots in a playoff game; the P-men left the field riding a two-game home playoff losing streak; the Jets became only the second team in history to beat Brady and Peyton Manning in consecutive weeks (both on the road).
But if you listen to Ryan, it all unfolded according to plan.
“Maybe everybody else never believed, but we believed,” Ryan said. “We’re moving on. Same old Jets, back to the AFC championship. The only difference is this time we plan on winning.”
Da Bears Dominate
Did anyone sincerely believe that a Seattle Seahawks team that went 2–6 on the road this season had the remotest of chances to beat the Bears at Solider Field amid Bear temperatures and lake effect snow? Okay, full disclosure — I did. After all, one of the Seahawks’ two road wins came at Chicago in Week 6. Plus, the Bears always seem to be a Jay Cutler pick-six away from collapsing.
On Sunday, that didn’t happen, although it could have, as Seattle’s Jordan Babineaux dropped a sure interception at the goal line three plays prior to a touchdown that made it 14–0 and essentially ended any suspense as the Bears cruised 35–24.
I’ve been a persistent Cutler-basher, and he was lucky not to throw a couple of picks, but credit where it’s due: In his first postseason start, Cutler became the second player in NFL postseason history to have two rushing and two passing touchdowns in the same game. Of course, those touchdowns did come against what was probably the worst playoff team in NFL history. But we can thank the inept Seahawks for meekly stepping aside and giving us a Bears-Packers showdown for all the NFC marbles. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Big Ben Has Ravens Eating Crow
The Ravens felt pretty good about themselves at halftime of their AFC Divisional encounter with the Steelers at Heinz Field. Turnovers led to a 21–7 lead for the bullying birds, who had silenced the towel-wavers and were doing plenty of chirping of their own. They should have remembered who they were playing, and where. The Steelers’ second-half comeback and ultimate 31–24 triumph was no surprise given Pittsburgh’s playoff dominance over this team, this division and this conference. Here’s a sample:
• The Steelers are now 12–1 at home in the divisional round since 1970.
• Pittsburgh is 3–0 in the postseason against the Ravens, holding them to averages of 16 points and 158 yards in those three games.
• Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 9–2 as a postseason starter and possesses the second-best winning percentage (.818) among quarterbacks with at least 10 postseason starts, behind only Bart Starr.
“He may not be Brady or all those other guys, but when I see him in the huddle I know we've got a chance to win,” said Hines Ward, who scored a touchdown. “He's a proven winner. And history shows he's a proven winner against Baltimore.”
That win was in doubt until Big Ben found rookie receiver Antonio Brown streaking down the right sidelines, hitting him for a 58-yard gain to set up the winning touchdown, a two-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall. The Steeler defense then closed out the win to set up an AFC Championship matchup with the Jets in Heinz Field.
“What better way to put the Ravens out of the tournament,” Ward said after a defensive effort that held the Ravens to 126 total yards, 28 in the second half. “They keep asking for us and we keep putting them out of the tournament. They’re going to be ticked about this for a long time.”
Matty Iced out of the Postseason
Much has been made of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s home success, and his proficiency indoors. This game could have been held in Ryan’s rec room and it would have been just as embarrassing.
The Packers marched into Atlanta like Sherman, torching the Falcons 48–21 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the lopsided score. Ryan performed miserably in falling to 0–2 in the playoffs with six turnovers and a safety in those two losses. His counterpart, Aaron Rodgers, was unstoppable, completing 31-of-36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns and posting the second-best postseason completion percentage in a 300-yard passing game in NFL history.
“This probably was my best performance — the stage we were on, the importance of this game,” Rodgers said. “It was a good night.” If he can replicate it next week in Chicago, it will be even better for Packer Nation.
When LeGarrette Blount threw the "punch heard 'round the world" following Chip Kelly's debut as Oregon's head coach, Boise State's Byron Hout wasn't the only one who hit the deck. Kelly's reputation also took a serious shot after the 19–8 loss on the season-opening Thursday night kickoff.
For the third straight year, Cam Newton's team is playing for a national title. And while this time around is a little different, Auburn's Heisman Trophy winner hopes the end result is exactly the same.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came out scorching during their Heat check in L.A. on Christmas Day. Miami pulled off a 96–80 statement win against the Lakers, filling a highlight reel with dunks, threes and suffocating team defense.
James became just the fourth player in history to notch a triple-double on Christmas Day, joining Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek and Billy Cunningham. LBJ's 31st career triple-double including 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting (including 5-of-6 from 3 and 6-of-6 from the free throw line), 11 rebounds and 10 assists to go along with four steals and only one turnover.
Playing on a sore knee, D-Wade added 18 points, six assists, five boards, one steal and one blocked shot, while often playing phenomenal one-on-one defense against Kobe Bryant, who played the role of facilitator on XMas, with 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting and seven assists in a losing effort.
The big surprise of the Big Three was Bosh, who dominated early on and finished with 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting and 13 rebounds in what could arguably be his first taste of the national spotlight. Bosh clearly outplayed his Laker counterpart Pau Gasol, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds.
But the Larry O'Brien Trophy is not awarded in December. Both the Heat and Lakers still have plenty of work to do if there is to be the overhyped Heat vs. Three-peat Finals showdown many desire. But this Christmas, the Lakers had coal in their stocking and the Heat used it to start a fire that basketball fans will be talking about for quite a while.
The Chiefs, Jets, Ravens and Eagles joined the Patriots, Falcons, Steelers and Bears by punching their ticket to the playoffs in Week 16. Eight of the 12 postseason spots have been filled, with only the AFC South champ, NFC West champ, two NFC Wild Card berths and one remaining AFC Wild Card berth remaining.
Tuesday Night Football
The Sunday night showdown between Vikings and Eagles has been pushed back to Tuesday night following a Philadelphia snowstorm that had league officials more concerned over the 70,000-plus fans exiting Lincoln Financial Field around midnight than the actual game itself.
Now, the Vikings will deal with their second rescheduled game of the season — following a Week 15 contest with the Giants that was moved from Sunday to Monday and from Minnesota to Detroit — while the Eagles must worry about taking care of business against the Vikings on Dec. 28 before bouncing back to play the Cowboys on Jan. 2 in the Week 17 regular season finale.
The Jets defense stood strong in the franchise's first ever win on the road at Pittsburgh, taking a 22–17 victory in what could be a playoff preview.
New York veteran pass rusher Jason Taylor sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone for a safety before New York's Rex-ecutioner stop unit forced two incomplete passes from Big Ben to end the game. Rex Ryan's usually aggressive defense did allow Big Ben to move the chains by rushing only three for most of the final drive. But the bend-don't-break philosophy ultimately paid off.
After combining to throw for zero TDs and four INTs in back-to-back embarrassing losses at New England (45–3) and against Miami (10–6), embattled Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez played well enough — completing 19-of-29 passes for 170 yards through the air, a rushing TD and zero turnovers — to pull off arguably the biggest statement win of his young career.
Although the Jets are 6–1 on the road this season, Sanchez's California background and lack of NFL success in cold weather had raised questions about the capability of the second-year signal-caller out of USC. But the Sanch-ise made plays when the opportunities presented themselves and didn't throw the game away in a playoff atmosphere, in the snow, in Pittsburgh this week.
Maybe these Jets are contenders after all.
Most observers thought the Milwaukee Brewers would be in the trade market this hot stove season — as sellers, not buyers. But instead of shopping first baseman Prince Fielder, the Brew crew has acquired 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke from the Royals.
Milwaukee several of its top young players — including shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and right-handed pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress — in order to acquire Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt from Kansas City.
Greinke has a career line of 60–67 with a 3.82 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 931 strikeouts in 1108.0 innings. In 2009, however, he was nearly untouchable — with a 16–8 record (despite little to no run support from the Royals), 2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 242 strikeouts in 229.1 innings.
Puerto Rico Pitino
Rick Pitino has taken three teams (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) to the Final Four, cutting down the nets with the Wildcats in 1996. Now, the 58-year-old — who has also coached the NBA's Knicks and Celtics — will lead the Puerto Rico national team in their attempt to secure a bid to the 2012 Olympics in London.
Pitino will use the unique opportunity to help not only the Puerto Rico national team but also his Louisville Cardinals. Next summer, the two squads will practice against one another before heading down to the Bahamas for a tournament. From there, Puerto Rico will compete in the 2011 FIBA Tournament of the Americas, where they must finish in the top two in order to secure a berth in the 2012 Olympics.
Puerto Rico qualified for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, upsetting the USA en route to a sixth-place finish in the tournament. But Puerto Rico was unable to qualify for the games in 2008.
Who Will Win Super Bowl XLV?
I don’t envy my colleague this week. Making the case for anyone other than the Patriots to win the Super Bowl is a fool’s errand. The P-men are riding a colossal wave, and that wave will crest in Dallas in early February.
Let’s sample some of their recent work. In a two-week period, the Patriots outscored the Jets and Bears, considered to be two of the best teams in football, by a combined 81–10. They silenced Rex Ryan’s confident crew, sending the Jets into a tailspin from which they might not recover. Even more impressive was the way New England marched into Chicago’s vaunted Bear Weather, into snow showers whipped into a blinding froth by the gale force winds off Lake Michigan, in front of a hostile crowd, against a Bears team that had won five straight, and utterly humiliated the home team in every phase — running, passing and returning the ball at will.
The Patriots’ greatness starts at the top; they have the two most important jobs covered better than any team in football. Coach Bill Belichick is absolutely on top of his game right now, and his schooling of Rex Ryan and Lovie Smith gives him an impressive assortment of scalps for his belt this season, including John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin. Does Atlanta’s Mike Smith, who has yet to win a playoff game in his brief career, have any hope against a coach who is 15–5 in the postseason?
Then there’s Tom Brady, who might be playing the best football of his Hall of Fame career. Has a quarterback ever played at a higher level? Entering the Pats’ Week 15 encounter with Green Bay, Brady was on an eight-game roll that included 19 TD passes and no interceptions.
The best coach and the best quarterback in the NFL? That’s good enough for me.
– Rob Doster
Get ready to do the “Dirty Bird” dance, Dan Reeves and Jamal Anderson, because this year’s Atlanta Falcons are about to take it one step farther than the 1998 squad did en route to becoming the first and only Super Bowl participant in franchise history. While that team lost Super Bowl XXXIII to the Denver Broncos, 34–19, in John Elway’s final game, this year’s Falcons will not be denied — if, and only if, they are able to clinch homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.
If Matt Ryan’s crew can lock up the NFC’s No. 1 seed and play at the Georgia Dome, they will be suiting up for Super Bowl XLV in “Jerry’s House” at Cowboys Stadium. And once you are playing in the big game on Super Sunday, anything can happen — as the helmet-catching Giants and onside-kicking Saints showed while pulling off improbable underdog upset wins over the 18–0 Patriots and heavily favored Colts, respectively.
The AFC is loaded with title contenders at every turn — with the Patriots, Steelers, Ravens and Jets leading the way. Meanwhile, the NFC is far more “winnable” — with the inconsistent Giants, Bears and Saints, the injury-riddled Packers and the Eagles’ one-man band. Regardless of talent or track record, if the Falcons have the homefield edge, they are the team with the best chance to play in Super Bowl XLV.
“Matty Ice” loves the warmth of the dome. Heading into Seattle in Week 15, Ryan had a 31–12 career record as a starter, with a 19–1 mark at home and 22–4 record indoors — compared to a 9–8 career record with the wind blowing outdoors. He’s been even better over the past two years, with a 12–0 home record and 14–2 mark indoors.
No team in the NFL wants to see the cool, calm and collected third-year signal-caller in a climate controlled environment. Tom Brady can have his snow. Guess what? The $1.1 billion “Palace in Dallas” has a roof as well as central air and heat. No expense was spared — which will prove priceless to the Falcons when they win Super Bowl XLV.
– Nathan Rush
Auburn quarterback Cam Newton won this year's Heisman Trophy in a landslide vote, receiving 729 of 886 possible first-place votes and 2,263 total points to beat Stanford runner-up Andrew Luck (1,079 points), Oregon's LaMichael James (916) and Boise State's Kellen Moore (635).
Newton joins Pat Sullivan (1971) and Bo Jackson (1985) as the third Heisman Trophy winner in Auburn history following a roller coaster ride season on The Plains. Newton led the Tigers to a 13–0 record, SEC title and spot in the BCS National Championship Game.
The one-man offense completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,589 yards, 28 TDs and six INTs, while also rushing for 1,409 yards and 20 TDs amid constant media scrutiny concerning pay-for-play allegations.
In the end, however, Newton was clearly the finest player in the country and was acknowledged as such by Heisman voters.
"Thank you to the Auburn family," said Newton, during an emotional acceptance speech on Saturday night. "Thank you for all the support that you have given me during these trying times. I also want to give a special thanks to my teammates. Without those guys I wouldn't be here right now getting the recognition."
The 6'6", 250-pound junior transferred to Auburn after leading Blinn College to the NJCAA National Championship in 2009 and spending two seasons with the Florida Gators from 2007-08.
If Newton leads Auburn to a victory over Oregon on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., in the BCS title game, he will have won three straight national championships — as a redshirt at Florida in 2008, the star at Blinn College last year and the Heisman-winning leader at Auburn this season.
After Urban Meyer retired for the second straight offseason — this time for real — Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had to fill one of the most coveted coaching posts in the country.
Foley didn't wait long to tap the heir to the Mack Brown throne, Texas coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp. The Longhorns defensive coordinator is a fiery 39-year-old who should breathe life back into a Gator team that went 7–5 this season.
"We wanted a candidate who was high energy and had been on the big stage," Foley said in an official statement. "We wanted a candidate who was respected by his players and his peers, and we wanted someone who had a passion for the University of Florida. Coach Muschamp is all of those things and more."
Muschamp grew up in Gainesville before playing safety at Georgia and serving as defensive coordinator at LSU (2001-04), Auburn (2006-07) and Texas (2008-10).
Down the road in Coral Gables, the University of Miami also made a splash by hiring a young, energetic head coach in 41-year-old Al Golden, who took lowly Temple from a 1–11 team in his first season in 2006 to an 8–4 squad set to play in its second straight bowl game this season.
"Al Golden did not just win games at Temple University, but he built a football program and he did it the right way," Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw told The Associated Press. "He engineered one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Division I history."
Golden will have much more to work with at Miami. Although the once-proud program is coming off a disappointing 7–5 season — and ending a mediocre 28–22 run under four seasons with outgoing coach Randy Shannon — there is plenty of talent on the Hurricanes current roster as well as in the backyard of The U.
At Miami, Golden will not have to go far to recruit the best players in the nation. And if he can maximize that type of five-star talent like he did with the one-stars at Temple, the Canes will be back in the national title hunt sooner than expected.