Articles By Nathan Rush

All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/combine-convoy
Body:

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.


 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>The best D-line class in history burned rubber in Indy at the Combine.</span></span><br />  </p>
Post date: Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 22:22
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/february-madness
Body:

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.

 


 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Brackets are in the process of being busted at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.</span></span></p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 20:23
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/boom-boom-now
Body:

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.


 

Teaser:
<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: arial,helvetica,sans-serif;">"Boom Boom" Freddie Couples is in contention at the Northern Trust Open.</span></span></p>
Post date: Saturday, February 19, 2011 - 20:10
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/amateur-hour
Body:

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.”


 

Teaser:
<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: arial,helvetica,sans-serif;">The stars come out for the AT&amp;T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.</span></span></p>
Post date: Friday, February 11, 2011 - 20:13
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/lombardi-leap
Body:

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!”

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>The Vince Lombardi Trophy is headed back to Titletown.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, February 7, 2011 - 00:38
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/sweet-sixteen
Body:

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)."


 

Teaser:
<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: arial,helvetica,sans-serif;">The party doesn't stop on No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale.</span></span></p>
Post date: Saturday, February 5, 2011 - 23:08
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/prop-comedy
Body:

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.)

NATIONAL ANTHEM

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.

COIN TOSS

What will be the result of the Super Bowl XLV coin toss?

Heads (-105)
Tails (-105)


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.

TV COVERAGE

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)


HALFTIME

What will Fergie be wearing when she first appears on stage during the Super Bowl halftime show?

Skirt/Dress (EVEN)
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.

GATORADE BATH

What color will the Gatorade be that is dumped on the head coach of the winning Super Bowl team?

Yellow (3/2)
Clear/Water (2/1)
Orange (3/1)
Lime Green (5/1)
Red (15/2)
Blue (10/1)


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)
Field (16/1)
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.

 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Super Bowl XLV prop bet advice for both sharks and suckers.</span></span></p>
Post date: Friday, February 4, 2011 - 23:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/executive-decisions
Body:

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.

Steelers’ Certainty

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.

Packers’ Patience

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.

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Two clutch calls decided Super Bowl XLV prior to kickoff.</span></span></p>
Post date: Friday, February 4, 2011 - 02:00
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/san-diego-debut
Body:

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.”

 

Teaser:
<p> Tiger Woods makes his 2011 PGA debut at Torrey Pines</p>
Post date: Sunday, January 30, 2011 - 19:24
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/americas-game
Body:

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.

Teaser:
The Steelers and Packers bring their bandwagons to Super Bowl XLV.
Post date: Monday, January 24, 2011 - 01:10
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/monday-recap/rex-roars-jets-soar
Body:

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.

Teaser:
Rex Ryan and the Jets backed up their big talk with a big win over the Patriots.
Post date: Monday, January 17, 2011 - 13:04
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/fighter
Body:

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.

In his first game on the national stage, Kelly's team appeared to be undisciplined and unprepared - committing eight penalties for 70 lost yards, accounting for only 152 total yards and losing the time-of-possession battle by a staggering 42:32-to-17:28. 
 
Then, Blount added insult to injury - or maybe serious injury to embarrassing insult - when he boiled over after a game in which he failed to back up his tough talk between the lines. Eight carries for a loss of five yards sent Blount over the edge and his reckless reaction to Hout's postgame heckling nearly took Kelly down with him.
 
Many questioned whether Mike Bellotti's former offensive coordinator and right-hand man was capable of leading his own team. Some even called for Kelly's immediate dismissal. 
 
But the 47-year-old Ducks coach survived his inauspicious 0–1 start and has thrived in Eugene ever since - earning back-to-back Pac-10 titles as well as a pair of conference Coach of the Year awards while going 22–2 (with losses at Stanford and to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl last year).
 
Now, Kelly is one game away from claiming Oregon's first BCS National Championship. The Ducks are a perfect 12–0 with the nation's highest scoring offense (49.3 ppg), thanks in large part to Kelly's system. Although, the quick-talking New Englander - who coached at Columbia, Johns Hopkins and his alma mater New Hampshire before arriving in the Pacific Northwest in 2007 - is quick to deflect any credit.
 
"It's all players. If it was the system, then everybody would run it. There's so much blown into that stuff. 'Well it's the system they run.' I would say that every coach in the country is stupid for not running that system then. If it's a system that's going to get you to score 50 points a game, then you should all run it," said Kelly, during a press briefing the week before heading to Glendale, Ariz., to take on Auburn.
 
"This game is played by players and won by players. It's not surprising that the four guys that were Heisman Trophy finalists (Auburn's Cam Newton, Oregon's LaMichael James, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Boise State's Kellen Moore), their team records was 47–2. One team lost on a field goal (Boise State) and the other team lost to the other guy that was in it (Stanford's 52–31 loss at Oregon). 
 
"College football's always been about the players. And the teams with the best players, usually, are the teams competing for the championships."
 
Kelly not only has a loaded roster of Ducks ready to compete for the BCS crystal, he also has played a role in Blount's redemption story. After suspending Blount following the Boise State brawl, Kelly brought his 6'0", 245-pound power runner back into the fold for the Civil War with Oregon State and the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. 
 
Rather than abandoning a player whose selfish actions potentially put Kelly's job in jeopardy, the tough-love coach stayed with the 24-year-old he affectionately calls "L.G." And this season, Blount rushed for 1,007 yards and six TDs as an NFL rookie with the Buccaneers.
 
"I talk to L.G. a couple times a month," said Kelly. "He's doing great and I'm really proud of him. What he's doing doesn't really surprise me."
 
And after watching Kelly get up off the mat and continue to fight following the negative impact of Blount's sucker punch to the UO program, no one should be surprised if the coach who pulls no punches of his own is able to lead Oregon to a BCS title on Jan 10.
Teaser:
Kelly has a loaded roster of Ducks ready to compete for the BCS crystal.
Post date: Saturday, January 8, 2011 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/tap/champ-newton
Body:

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.

Two years ago, Newton watched Tim Tebow's Superman effort - 231 passing yards, two TDs and two INTs, with 109 rushing yards - lead Florida to a 24–14 win over Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami. 
 
Although Newton was sitting out with an ankle injury (for which he was ultimately granted a medical redshirt) and in the process of transferring (due to legal issues and playing time concerns behind Tebow), he was most certainly a member of the Gators' 2008 national title team.
 
"Cam had a great experience at Florida," said Cam's father, Cecil, following the transfer. "We just feel Cam has all the tools to play at a major college level. He's going to start this new chapter of his life."
 
Newton turned his attention to junior college powerhouse Blinn (Texas) College, a team coached by Brad Franchione, the son of former TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione.
 
"They had a plan in place and when Tebow announced he was staying, (Newton) said he was coming here," Franchione told VYPE Magazine. "He wanted to get to a place where he could become a better passer. He felt he could run the ball in the SEC and he's proven that."
 
In his only season at Blinn, Newton led the Buccaneers to an 11–1 record, while passing for 2,833 yards, 22 TDs and five INTs, and scrambling for 655 rushing yards and 16 TDs. 
 
Newton capped his 2009 season with a 31–26 win over No. 1-ranked Fort Smith (Kan.) CC in the NJCAA National Championship Game. The dangerous dual-threat signal-caller passed for 111 yards and one INT, and rushed for 110 yards and one TD en route to Blinn's fourth NJCAA national title.
 
"He's just so gifted and we were blessed to have him in our program," said Franchione. "He has that ‘it' quality. When he enters a room, you know it."
 
The 6'6", 250-pound junior from College Park, Ga., has certainly made his presence known since arriving at Auburn - leading the Tigers to a perfect 13–0 record, an SEC title and a spot in the BCS National Championship Game against Oregon.
 
Newton has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,589 yards, 28 TDs and six INTs, while tucking the ball to run for 1,409 yards and 20 TDs on the ground, and hauling in two catches for 42 yards and another score through the air. 
 
Although Newton's obvious physical gifts stand out, his intangible qualities have been the difference this season. Newton has kept a Magic Johnson-like smile on his face despite constant, unparalleled media scrutiny and fan speculation surrounding his recruitment, his father and a potential play-for-pay scenario.
 
Through it all, Newton has held his head high and played with the type of seemingly-invincible swagger necessary to lead Auburn back from a 24–0 deficit against Alabama and pull off a 28–27 win on the road at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the Iron Bowl. 
 
"He's a great leader. He's got the ability, once he gets in the huddle, that all eyes are on him, and whatever he says, they're going to do. They really believe in him," said Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, during a BCS title game press conference.
 
"His leadership is definitely a big reason we're here."
 
The Tigers will rely on Newton's poise under pressure as well as the championship game experience he gained last year at Blinn. Granted, the lights will be brighter and the audience will be larger when Auburn takes on Oregon. But Newton has the same goal this year as he did last season - win a national championship. 
 
"(The NJCAA title game) was a great atmosphere to be in. That's something I will take to my grave, just being around something that we worked very hard for. And, you know, this season kind of resembles that," said Newton, who has a combined 24–1 record as a starter at Blinn and Auburn.
 
"Hard work pays off."
Teaser:
For the third straight year, Cam Newton's team is playing for a national title.
Post date: Saturday, January 8, 2011 - 08:50
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/heat-check
Body:

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.

Playoffs?!

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.
 

Teaser:
LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Heat scorch Kobe, Pau and Lakers on Christmas.
Post date: Sunday, December 26, 2010 - 21:45
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/goal-line-stand
Body:

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.

Contender Brewing?

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.
 

Teaser:
Mark Sanchez didn't throw away the game and the Jets' D stood strong at Pittsburgh.
Post date: Monday, December 20, 2010 - 13:42
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/super-bowl-favorites
Body:

Who Will Win Super Bowl XLV?

New England

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

Atlanta

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

Teaser:
Who will win Super Bowl XLV? The Patriots or the Falcons?
Post date: Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 13:43
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/monday-recap/heisman-hero
Body:

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.

Gator Raid

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).

Golden Opportunity

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.

Teaser:
Auburn's Cam Newton ran away with this year's Heisman Trophy in a landslide vote.
Post date: Monday, December 13, 2010 - 12:42
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/instant-impact
Body:

What rookie has made the biggest impact?

Sam Bradford

Heisman winners are notorious for flopping in the NFL, but somebody forgot to tell Sam Bradford. The rookie from Oklahoma, drafted to the pro football wasteland of St. Louis, is single-handedly rejuvenating a moribund franchise and waking echoes of the Greatest Show on Turf that took the NFL by storm a decade ago.

It’s not like he had time to grow into the job, either. Coach Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Paul Shurmur tossed Bradford into the deep end without a life jacket, making him the focus of their attack despite the presence of elite running back Stephen Jackson, whose first 100-yard game was in Week 5.

Bradford has responded like a seasoned veteran. Yes, there have been speed bumps — eight interceptions in his first five games — but he’s racking up yards and touchdowns at historic rates and could even threaten Peyton Manning’s rookie records for passing yards (3,739) and touchdowns (26). Bradford surveys the field with preternatural poise; six Rams receivers have caught at least 25 passes this season.

Wins are what matter most, and that’s where Bradford is making his biggest impact. He already has more wins as a starter than fellow former No. 1 overall draft picks Manning, Troy Aikman and John Elway each had in their debut seasons. Suddenly, a team that went 6–42 from 2007-09 is a legitimate factor in the NFC West race and is flirting with its first winning season since 2003 and its first playoff trip since 2004.

Bradford’s defining moment thus far came in his first road win and first 300-yard passing performance, at Denver’s Invesco Field. In a 36–33 victory, Bradford was 22-of-37 for 308 yards, three TDs and no interceptions, becoming the first rookie since the merger to post a 300-yard, three-TD game in a road win. Big wins, big stats and helping a coach (Denver’s Josh McDaniels) get fired? Yep, I think I’d call that impact.

– Rob Doster

Ndamukong Suh

The Lions’ terrorizing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is not just the best rookie in the NFL this season, he is the most dominant, versatile, athletic and feared interior defensive lineman in the entire league right now.

Weighing in at 6'4", 307 pounds, the No. 2 overall pick out of Nebraska entered the pro ranks as one of the most decorated college players in history — as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and the recipient of the AP College Player of the Year, Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Lombardi Award, Nagurski Award and Bednarik Award.

Since arriving in the Motor City, the 23-year-old Suh has brought the aggression and tenacity that coach Jim Schwartz had the luxury of when he coached former All-Pro Albert Haynesworth — before the $100 million deal and petty Mike Shanahan 3-4 feud — as the Titans defensive coordinator. And if Suh keeps playing like he has early on, his next deal will dwarf Haynesworth’s contract.

Unlike Haynesworth in his prime, Suh has the ability to play anywhere along the line. In a 4-3 scheme, he is a dynamic pocket-collapsing, pass-rushing 3-technique tackle who can stunt out to end and be equally disruptive. Suh also has the classic 3-4 end body type and power. And, taking a step out on one of Suh’s tree trunk limbs, I think the big man could probably hold his own at the nose tackle, if asked — although that would be his least efficient role, so hopefully he never plays for Shanahan.

As a rookie, Suh has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Lions, with eight sacks in 12 games, along with one INT for 20 yards and one fumble recovery taken 17 yards to the end zone — as Redskins receiver Santana Moss comically tried to tackle Suh, who laughed as he spun and swatted the diminutive Moss away like a rhino to a fly.

If you don’t think Suh is the top rookie, don’t tell him. Rumor has it, Jake Delhomme said as much before being thrown down by the “next Reggie White” this preseason.

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
Sam Bradford or Ndamukong Suh? Who's made the bigger impact?
Post date: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 - 19:39
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /columns/national-notebook/history-professor
Body:

by Ken Davis

History is kind to those who achieve greatness. And in the world of sports, history is best served when the record-breakers have respect for those who came before them.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is climbing toward college basketball’s coaching stratosphere. Saturday’s 82–70 victory over Butler gave Coach K 876 victories and tied him with Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp for third all-time among NCAA Division I coaches.

There was a time when Rupp’s record seemed unattainable, sort of like Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played in Major League Baseball. But Cal Ripken came along to become the new Ironman. North Carolina’s Dean Smith eventually rose up to pass Rupp. Not long after that, Bob Knight moved ahead of Smith.

Krzyzewski still has a little distance to go before rising to the top. But it certainly makes sense to pause and reflect on what it will mean to pass Rupp and Krzyzewski is good at that type of thing. That’s because Coach K always has had an appreciation for basketball history.

"I’m going to win more I think than Coach Rupp, God bless him, who won’t win any more," Krzyzewski told reporters in East Rutherford, N.J., after Saturday’s rematch of last season’s national championship game. "He won a lot of them and he won them in his way and they didn’t play as many games then. Each era has outstanding achievements by individuals, whether they be players or coaches and in this era I’ve been fortunate to have some.

"It’s tough to compare. I much rather would have tied him in April than today because I’m going to keep coaching and we should win more games. You get too caught up with what your own team is doing to focus on that kind of stuff."

Let us take the opportunity to do that comparison for Krzyzewski. When Smith passed Rupp it was March 1997 and North Carolina defeated Colorado 73–56 in the NCAA Tournament. Past players and assistant coaches congregated in Winston-Salem, N.C., to help Smith celebrate — even though he tried to downplay the moment.

"This has never been a goal of mine," Smith said.

Consider the remarkable lineage college basketball has created. Smith and Rupp both played basketball at Kansas, under Phog Allen. Allen came to be known as "The Father of Basketball Coaching" and he learned the game from basketball’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith — who was his coach at Kansas.

Now the names ahead of Krzyzewski are Smith (879 victories) and Knight (902). Knight was Krzyzewski’s coach at Army. Smith and Coach K were opponents in the Atlantic Coast Conference, separated by just a few miles along Tobacco Road. Their remarkable ability to recruit and coach created college basketball’s most heated rivalry — Duke and North Carolina.

If not for Smith, Krzyzewski might have ended up coaching at Iowa State. Knight, who has been friends with Smith since they were young coaches, called the North Carolina coach and asked his opinion when Coach K was at West Point and had the opportunity to move on to Duke or Iowa State. Knight thought Ames was the place to go.

Smith said no. He told Knight that Duke would be easy to recruit to. "I really think he can get better players at Duke than he can at Iowa State."

Think how that one conversation changed the face of college basketball. Reflect on that as Krzyzewski moves past Rupp and heads on to pass his rival and then his mentor.

Krzyzewski has accomplished so much. Do not let that diminish the history-making moment that is ahead. It should truly be special. There are many more victories ahead for the Duke coach. Recruiting players such as Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving guarantee that.

"Irving brings a whole other dimension to their guard play," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I loved their guys last year but I think he is the consummate true point guard that Mike needs in that program. When Singler goes to [power forward] they’re a tough matchup."

Duke has demonstrated early in this season that it has the best team in college basketball. The Blue Devils, in large part because of freshman Irving, are better than they were last season — when they proved the best team doesn’t always win the national title.

Krzyzewski has a very good chance to repeat again. That is an amazing accomplishment in this era of parity, but just about everything Coach K does these days belongs to history. So we better pay attention.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

UConn’s Kemba Walker is still playing well enough to grab this award for a third consecutive week. But, in the interest of fairness, we are going spread the wealth a bit and turn to another Big East player. Georgetown senior guard Chris Wright knows when to score, when to quarterback and when to lead the Hoyas. He did a little of everything last week, scoring 21 points against Missouri and matching that total in a win over Utah State as the Hoyas improved to 8–0. Georgetown coach John Thompson III asked Wright to play 45 minutes in the 111–102 overtime victory over Missouri in Kansas City, Mo. In addition to his 21 points, Wright had 10 assists and only three turnovers. He was 9-for-9 from the free throw line, had one rebound and one steal. Against a very talented Utah State team Wright was 6-for-9 from the field, 8-for-10 from the line, had three rebounds, one assist and four steals. Among the shots he made was a highlight reel, over-the-shoulder layup.

FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK

If we didn’t have a freshman award, Duke’s Kyrie Irving would likely grab Player of the Week honors. The 6'2" guard from Elizabeth, N.J., was simply brilliant in wins over Michigan State and Butler — two solid opponents. Mike Krzyzewski keeps winning because he keeps digging out top recruits such as Irving. He is averaging 17.4 points, 5.1 assists, 3.8 rebounds and shooting 45.2 percent from three-point range through his first eight games. After watching his 36 minutes against Michigan State it’s hard to even consider him a rookie any more. The Spartans couldn’t stop him (31 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals, 8-12 FG, 13-16 FT, 2-3 on 3PT). Then he went home to the Meadowlands and scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half against Butler. He finished with two rebounds, two assists, one steal, 6-10 FG, 6-6 FT and 3-6 on 3PT). You don’t want to bet against him when Irving turns it on.

GAMES OF THE WEEK

Monday, Dec. 6

Alcorn State at Kansas State
Alcorn State has averaged 57.5 points on the way to a 0–6 record. K-State is 7–1, averaging 75.6 points. Looks like a rough trip to Bramlage for the Braves.

Tuesday, Dec. 7

Memphis vs. Kansas
These two have grown accustomed to facing one another in recent years. This time it’s at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. Both are 7–0. Memphis should be hungry for some revenge.

Michigan State vs. Syracuse
The second half of the Jimmy V Classic should be an interesting test of wills. The Spartans, who have lost to UConn and Duke, could use a win against a top 10 team like Syracuse. The Orange will be looking to improve its field goal percentage.

Wednesday, Dec. 8

Vanderbilt at Missouri
The Commodores, led by guard John Jenkins, already have a big win against North Carolina this season. Missouri lost to Georgetown last week (in the best game of the year so far) and then hung on to beat Oregon.

Notre Dame vs. Kentucky
John Calipari’s young Wildcats have already lost twice. Going up against Notre Dame (8–0) will be another challenge for Kentucky — even in Louisville.

Thursday, Dec. 9

Butler at Xavier
Butler is 4–3. Xavier is 5–2. Forget the records. These two teams will get after each other and play hard.

Saturday, Dec. 11

UNLV at Louisville
Lon Kruger’s team has started turning some heads. Louisville is 6–0 with a game against San Francisco before taking on the Runnin’ Rebels.

Wisconsin at Marquette
It’s Big Ten vs. Big East, but this one is all about Wisconsin bragging rights, one of those games you can’t afford to miss if you love rivalry battles.

Tennessee vs. Pittsburgh
This is a highlight of the SEC/Big East Invitational. Two undefeated teams. Tennessee has been off since Nov. 30. Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker lead Pitt.

Indiana at Kentucky
Remember when this was a big deal? Not so much these days.

Sunday, Dec. 12

Villanova at LaSalle
Philly in December and that means Villanova has two Big Five games in a week. The Wildcats are at Penn on Dec. 8.

THEY SAID IT:

"They make you guard them for 20, 25 seconds. You bounce off a lot of screens by some big, physical bodies. Their shot selection is very good, and you have to try to grind every possession. That wears on teams. They never make it easy." – Rider coach Tommy Dempsey, commenting on the Pitt Panthers, after an 87–68 loss to Jamie Dixon’s team.

"It's not one of those games where we can be content that, 'OK, we beat Kentucky.’ That doesn't make your season. That helps make your season." – North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller after scoring a career-high 27 points to lead the way as the Tar Heels defeated Kentucky 75–73.

"I was pleased in some regards. Like last year, I see a little light at the end of the tunnel, and you can embrace the little things." – Butler coach Brad Stevens after an 82–70 loss to Duke in a rematch of last season’s national championship game.

"Those guys fought hard to chip away, and just being in this situation, it was stressing me out the way this game was coming out. I was just glad to get out of here with a win." – Missouri’s Marcus Denmon after the Tigers let a 20-point lead slip away but held on for an 83–80 win at Oregon.

NOTES:

– Virginia Tech has lost three consecutive games — including Sunday’s ACC opener against Virginia — and stands 4–4. Coach Seth Greenberg put together a tough schedule in an effort to avoid another snub from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. But the Hokies have losses to Kansas State, UNLV, Purdue and Virginia. Senior guard Malcolm Delaney, the guy who makes Tech click, was held to nine points on 2-for-18 shooting against Purdue (58–55 loss). But Delaney says UNLV is the best team Tech has faced so far. "They’re relentless on defense," Delaney said. "They threw a new defender at me like every three minutes. They have a deep bench where they can just throw people at you. It’s hard to matchup with a team that basically plays four guards. They shoot the ball well, defend well, and their coaches do a good job with scouting reports and having their guys ready." – It will be interesting to see how Central Florida builds on that 57–54 victory over Florida. The Knights are averaging 80 points a game and rank fourth in the nation in field goal percentage. Leading the way is Marcus Jordan, a sophomore guard from Chicago averaging 16.4 points. Yes, he is Michael’s son (just in case you hadn’t heard). Thanks to a talented football team, Central Florida could be attractive to the Big East as the conference continues to eye expansion.

– Kemba Walker’s scoring average has dropped from 30 points per game to 29.1. But that doesn’t mean he is in a slump. UConn’s point guard put together his first career triple double last Friday with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 94–61 victory over Maryland-Baltimore County. He also became the 45th UConn player to score 1,000 career points. Walker needed 77 games to reach that milestone.

– Team on the rise: Tony Bennett’s Virginia team won road games at No. 15 Minnesota and Virginia Tech last week. The Cavaliers improved to 5–3 and are sitting on top of the ACC standings with the win over Tech. Mike Scott came up big with 21 points, 13 rebounds, two assists and one block at Blacksburg.

– Team in trouble: Oklahoma dropped to 3–5 overall with an 83–60 loss at Arizona on Sunday. The Sooners have lost five straight, including a 68–64 setback to Chaminade at the Maui Invitational. The average margin of defeat in this stretch has been 13.4 points. Next up: Gardner-Webb on Thursday. – Milestone watch: Jamie Dixon is approaching his 200th career victory as Pittsburgh coach. Saturday’s 87–68 win over Rider was No. 197. Consider this: The Panthers are 9–0 for the eighth time in nine seasons and 81–1 against non-Big East opponents at the Petersen Events Center.

– The recent decision by Texas San Antonio to join the Western Athletic Conference may ultimately hurt the city of San Antonio’s effort to land Final Fours in 2017 and 2018, according to a report. Athletic director Lynn Hickey, a strong voice in men’s basketball, will resign her Southland Conference assigned position on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. Hickey had recently been appointed chair of the Game Operations/Site Selection subcommittee. But her resignation is required by the Southland Conference withdrawal policy. "It’s certainly unfortunate," Jenny Carnes, executive director of the San Antonio Local Organizing Committee, told the San Antonio News-Express. "It helps just having her in the loop and giving us the timelines for things."

Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher (http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).

Teaser:
Coach K is well-versed in the basketball history he is in the process of making.
Post date: Monday, December 6, 2010 - 13:35
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/bcs-bound
Body:

Auburn (13–0) made a statement against South Carolina in the SEC title game, while Oregon (12–0) outlasted Oregon State in the Civil War finale to set up the undefeated No. 1 vs. No. 2 BCS National Championship Game we've all been hoping for.

Heisman Trophy favorite Cam Newton accounted for six touchdowns — passing for 335 yards, four scores and no picks while rushing for another 73 yards and two trips to the end zone — as the Tigers devoured the Gamecocks, 56–17, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Across the country, the Ducks soared past their in-state rival Beavers in Corvallis . UO's own Heisman contender, running back LaMichael James, led the way 134 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

Now, Auburn's Gene Chizik and Oregon's Chip Kelly have until Jan. 10, 2011, to plan their attack and scout their opponent's potent offense. The team that cries "War Eagle" enters averaging 42.7 points per game against only 24.5 points allowed, while Nike's neon-clad club is averaging 49.3 points against just 18.4.

Regardless of the outcome, this year's BCS national title game has all the ingredients for a classic — with two Heisman candidates leading teams that carry a combined 25–0 record while averaging nearly 100 points per game.

What's He Werth?

Well, if he's a 31-year-old one-time All-Star who plays right field, he might be worth $126 million over seven years. That is the deal Phillies' double-machine Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals over the weekend.

But the happiest man in the country had to be free agent outfielder Carl Crawford. The 28-year-old four-time All-Star was already viewed as the top everyday player on the market. And following Werth's outrageous contract, he now has the leverage to command an even better deal — maybe somewhere in the ballpark of Mark Teixeira's eight-year, $180 million of two years ago.

The Yankees, Red Sox and Angels can't be too happy after hearing what Werth was "worth" to the Nats. But at least they can look forward to negotiating with uber-agent and notorious nice guy Scott Boras at this week's winter meetings.

Tough as Steel

Big Ben Roethlisberger fought through a broken nose suffered on the first drive of the game to lead the Steelers to a 13–10 win on the road against the Ravens in an AFC North division Sunday night fight that lived up to its pregame billing.

"Someone just came through and a hand got through my facemask," said Roethlisberger, who also played the game with a broken bone in his foot. "The next thing you know, I feel blood running down my face."

But the biggest play of the game came on a safety blitz from Pittsburgh playmaker Troy Polamalu, whose strip sack of Baltimore's Joe Flacco was recovered by LaMarr Woodley to regain possession and set up the go-ahead touchdown pass to Isaac Redman with 2:51 left in regulation.

The Steelers now own sole possession of first place in the AFC North. And coach Mike Tomlin's team appears to be in top form heading into the stretch run after proving once again that they are as tough as any team in the NFL.
 

Teaser:
Undefeated Auburn and Oregon are headed to Glendale for the BCS national title game.
Post date: Monday, December 6, 2010 - 10:32
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/losers-playoffs
Body:

Does a 7-9 division winner deserve a playoff berth?

Yes

There is no reason to get fired up like Peter Carroll or panic like Mike Singletary just because a team with a losing record could end up as the champion of the NFC Worst, er, West division and earn a trip to the postseason.

The doomsday scenario has a sub-.500 Seahawks, Rams, 49ers or Cardinals club skating into the playoffs, while one or more winning teams — the Falcons, Eagles, Giants, Bears, Packers, Saints or Bucs — are left on the outside looking in once division champ automatic berths and Wild Card tickets are punched after Week 17.

But guess what? It’s never happened. Since the NFL expanded its regular season to 16 games in 1978, there has never been a team with a losing record in the playoffs.

There have, however, been nine 8–8 teams make it into the tournament. Those teams carry a 3–9 playoff record overall, with all three wins coming after the 2002 realignment resulted in eight divisions with four teams apiece.

Three of the last four 8–8 playoff teams — winners of supposedly “inferior” divisions — went on to win a playoff game against a “superior” team with a winning regular season record. In 2008, the 8–8 Chargers controversially made the playoffs ahead of the 11–5 Patriots and 9–7 Jets then proved their worth by upsetting the 12–4 Colts.

Lately, the split stats favor the .500 division champ against an overrated Wild Card. And is there really that much difference between a 7–9 team and one that is 8–8?

Each of the four teams in every division play 14 common opponents, with six division games and eight teams from two other divisions. It is the most logical, fair structure. Be they strong or weak, in America’s game all divisions are created equal. Like it or not, division champs certainly deserve to make the playoffs — regardless of their record.

– Nathan Rush

No

This season, we’re facing a very real, very unsettling possibility: Watching a sub-.500 Rams or Seahawks team host a playoff game, while a 10–6 or 11–5 team — say, the Packers — is sitting at home.

Such a possibility has existed for some time, but now that it’s on the cusp of becoming a reality, the time has come for the NFL to address it. The postseason tournament for the biggest sport in the world becomes a joke when a losing team takes a spot that rightfully belongs to a team with a significantly better record.

I understand the argument that we should reward division winners with a playoff berth. But we’re about to enter unprecedented territory. Never before in a full NFL season has a team with a losing record made the playoffs (the Browns and Lions snuck in at 4–5 after the strike-shortened 1982 season). In fact, since 1988, only six 8–8 teams have found their way into the playoffs. Conversely, since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only two 11–5 teams — the 1985 Broncos and the 2008 Patriots — have missed the postseason. Neither of those teams was deprived a spot by a loser, although the 8–8 Chargers did find their way into the 2008 playoffs as AFC West champs.

But here is what parity has wrought in 2010. The NFC West and AFC South are historically bad divisions. Winning a title in a division of misfits and losers is sort of like being crowned Miss Trailer Trash — it’s an accomplishment and all, but it ain’t going to get you into the Miss America Pageant, nor should it.

It’s time for some common sense — no team that fails to win even half of its games deserves a right to play for a championship. It’s simply unconscionable for a losing team to deprive a winner of a spot in the tournament. Now is the time to preserve the integrity of the NFL playoffs and make a .500 record the minimum standard for inclusion in the postseason.

– Rob Doster

Teaser:
Does a 7-9 division winner deserve to make the playoffs?
Post date: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 - 23:22
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/iron-will
Body:

Iron Will

The Auburn Tigers are 12–0, ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings and are headed to the SEC title game after pulling off the biggest comeback in school history.

Auburn rallied from a 24–0 deficit to take down reigning national champion Alabama on the road in front of 101,821 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, winning 28–27 in one of the greatest games in an Iron Bowl series that dates back to 1893.

"That was a game that will certainly go down in history. It's hard to come back when you're down 24–0," said Auburn coach Gene Chizik, during his postgame press conference following the come-from-behind win.

"It was a great win for Auburn football and it was a great win for Auburn University. I couldn't be more proud of that locker room in there. It is full of a lot of love, I'll tell you that. They deserve this win tonight because they fought for it. And again, I just feel proud to be a part of it."

As has been the case all season, Heisman Trophy frontrunner Cam Newton carried the Tigers, completing 13-of-20 passes for 216 yards, three TDs and zero INTs, while rushing for 39 yards and another TD.

After going into the locker room at halftime down 24–7, Auburn outscored Alabama 21–3 in the second half. More important, the Tigers were able to stop the rolling Crimson Tide momentum and quiet the rowdy crowd — especially following two successful fourth-down conversions.

"We came here to win the game. We did not come here to tie," said Chizik. "I have as much faith in our guys on a fourth-and-four or fourth-and-two or fourth-and-inches as anybody on the planet. When you feel that way, you're going to come on the road in a tough place to win and you're going to come here to win the game. That's what we did."

Now, the Tigers will go to the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to face SEC East champ South Carolina and Newton will head to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, where he will undoubtedly answer about $180,000 worth of questions regarding the rumors that have continued to swirl around the man with the big smile who seems unfazed while leading an undefeated team from the eye of a tremendous media storm.

Boise Blues

The biggest little upset in the country went down on Friday night when Nevada took down Boise State, 34–31 in overtime, in Reno.

The Wolf Pack fought back from a 17-point deficit and pulled off the unlikely come-from-behind victory, thanks in large part to Broncos kicker Kyle Broztman, who missed field goals of 26 yards (with two seconds left in regulation) and 29 yards (in overtime).

As a result, Boise State's BCS-busting days are over, the Rose Bowl paycheck is out the window and Kellen Moore's Heisman chances have all but hit zero. And, fair or not, many will question what coach Chris Petersen's record would be if he had to guide the Broncos through an SEC or Big Ten schedule — a subject Ohio State president Gordon Gee brought into the spotlight just last week.

U Fired

The Randy Shannon era is over in Coral Gables following a 23–20 overtime loss at home to in-state "rival" South Florida.

Shannon posted a disappointing 28–22 record (16–16 ACC) over four seasons as the head coach. But, all things considered, the 44-year-old is one of the more distinguished figures in Hurricanes football history — as a Miami native who played linebacker for Jimmy Johnson's 1987 national title team and served as defensive coordinator for Larry Coker's 2001 national title team before taking over the top spot on the sideline.

A nationwide coaching search is underway, with Super Bowl-winning ESPN analyst Jon Gruden leading a candidate list that almost certainly includes usual suspects like Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Rutgers' Greg Schiano, as well as outside-the-box candidates like Houston's Kevin Sumlin and Georgia's Mark Richt, or coordinators such as Auburn's Gus Malzhan and Texas' Will Muschamp.

Teaser:
Auburn rallies from a 24–0 deficit to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
Post date: Sunday, November 28, 2010 - 23:04
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/manning-vs-brady
Body:

Who’s Better: Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?

Peyton Manning

If I were going to enter a laboratory to design the perfect NFL quarterback, I’d use Peyton Manning as the blueprint. In fact, I wouldn’t bother with the lab version — I’d stick with the real thing.

You want physical gifts and durability? Like Manning himself said in that old Sprint commercial: “That guy’s pretty good — if you like 6-5, 230-pound quarterbacks with a laser rocket arm…” That laser rocket arm provides equal measures of touch, accuracy and velocity. He manages to avoid pass-rushers with a quick release and deft footwork — he is the active leader among NFL quarterbacks in lowest sack percentage (3.15 percent heading into this season). As a result, Manning has never missed a start in his 13 seasons in the league.

You want intangibles and leadership? Manning is the closest thing to a player-coach in NFL history. As you watch Colts head coach Jim Caldwell stand passively on the sidelines, is there any doubt in your mind who the true coach of this team is? 

Watching Manning direct traffic at the line of scrimmage is like watching a maestro conduct the New York Philharmonic. His control over the team extends to the sidelines and the practice field as well. He does everything for this team but wash the socks and jocks.

You want mind-boggling stats? Manning is building the greatest statistical resume in history and will retire with most of the meaningful passing records. And for much of his career, he’s done it without the support of an elite ground game or defense.

You want postseason honors? Manning has earned three MVP awards and five first-team All-Pro designations and has made 10 Pro Bowl trips.

Most important, do you want wins? Manning has guided the Colts to an unprecedented run of excellence — seven straight seasons with 12 or more wins.

Bottom line: By any conceivable metric, Manning’s the man.

– Rob Doster

Tom Brady

The 199th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft is clearly better than the first overall pick of 1998. And the reason is intangible. Tom Brady’s blue collar rags-to-riches journey has added a killer instinct that Peyton Manning’s blue blood NFL royalty upbringing did not allow for him to develop. It’s not the destination, but the journey that makes these passers.

Brady’s backup role to son-of-a Super Bowl winner Brian Griese and ill-conceived timeshare plan with two-sport “superstar” Drew Henson only added fuel to the fire for the Michigan man. Meanwhile, Manning’s heir to the throne status included signing with Tennessee rather than Ole Miss — to side step Archie’s 18 mph legacy in Oxford — and being “snubbed” by the Heisman voters in favor of Brady’s UM teammate Charles Woodson. As fate would have it, Brady’s hard road to the top is his best asset, and Manning’s tremendous advantages have spoiled him in subtle ways.

When times are tough, Tom Terrific has an aura of calm confidence, convincing his team the impossible is within reach — which has been true for a man who personifies the American dream. On the other side, Peyton often makes a “Manning face” because his teammates don’t live up to his own amazing talent and lofty expectations. As is the case in all walks of life, it’s not so much what they do as how they do it.

Brady also leads Manning in nearly every category of worth. Brady posted a league-leading 76.6 winning percentage (105–32) after defeating Manning head-to-head in Week 11. He also carries a 14–4 mark in the playoffs and trails only Joe Montana (4) and Terry Bradshaw (4) with three Super Bowl wins.

Granted, Manning may have more individual awards and better career statistics, but Brady stacks up well with one MVP, two Super Bowl MVPs and the greatest statistical season in history — throwing for 4,806 yards, 50 TDs and eight INTs for a 117.2 rating during a 16–0 year in 2007.

Both are among the best ever. But, when “it” really matters, Brady is the best.

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
Who's Better: Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?
Post date: Thursday, November 25, 2010 - 16:43
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/gimme-five
Body:

Gimme Five

Jimmie Johnson is still the king of the road following his unprecedented fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship.

"Unbelievable!" Johnson shouted over the radio to his crew after clinching the title by 39 points over runner-up Denny Hamlin. "You guys are the best! I cannot believe we did this! Unbelievable!"

Johnson's second place finish to Carl Edwards in the Ford 400 at Miami-Homestead was more than enough to get the job done, especially with Hamlin struggling to finish 14th. The champagne flowed after the race, as Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and Co. celebrated the most exciting finish in the history of the Chase for the Cup.

This was a great day not only for Johnson but also for NASCAR. After being widely criticized for its ever-changing Chase "playoff" formula, the three-man shootout between Johnson, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick gave the Chase the credibility it had been lacking — at least for one year.

Unlike years past, when the Miami-Homestead stop was essentially a coronation, Johnson actually had to fight to the finish to win it all this season. And that made the victory taste even sweeter, for Johnson's team, the NASCAR governing body and race fans watching at home.

"It's not that the other Chases weren't competitive," explained Johnson. "We were stronger I think in the previous two Chases, at least. Maybe all four. But this one, I'm just so proud."

Man For All Seasons

Little Danny Woodhead stole the show from big names like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning during the Patriots' 31–28 win over the Colts.

The 5'8", 195-pound jack of all trades from Division II Chadron State — who was cut by the Jets before landing with Pats — had seven carries for 69 yards and a highlight reel 36-yard touchdown, while hauling in four catches for 21 yards.

Granted, Brady completed 19-of-25 passes for 186 yards, two scoring strikes and no interceptions. And the "Law Firm" BenJarvus Green-Ellis added 21 carries for 96 yards and one trip to the end zone. But the Indy defense had no answer for Woodhead, who lines up everywhere on the field and has a knack for making big plays when they matter most.

"I do everything to make the play, whether I'm a runner, a receiver or on a kickoff," said Woodhead. "I'm not too worried what everybody thinks about my size, weight or height. My worry is about doing my job, whatever that might be."

M.I.A. Heat

After losing sharpshooter Mike Miller to a thumb injury prior to the start of the season, the Miami Heat may be forced to play without Udonis Haslem. The veteran power forward suffered a torn ligament in his left foot and will likely miss over a month.

With an 8–5 start already putting a chink in the Heat armor, the last thing LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh need is to lose their reliable enforcer, who is a sturdy defender, strong rebounder and clutch mid-range shot-maker from the baseline.

At some point before the playoffs, the Heat will need to have their full arsenal playing well together. Otherwise, there probably won't be any championship parades in South Beach in 2011.


 

Teaser:
Jimmie Johnson wins unprecedented fifth straight Cup championship.
Post date: Monday, November 22, 2010 - 10:22
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/new-sheriff
Body:

Should Jason Garrett be the Cowboys' coach in 2011?

YES

There is no doubt that Jason Garrett has earned the privilege — or burden, depending on how you look at it — of being the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.

The son of a coach, Garrett played quarterback at Princeton, where he was the Ivy League Player of the Year in 1988. Then, he played pro ball from 1989-2004, highlighted by his 1993-99 stint in Dallas — where he backed up Troy Aikman and won Super Bowls XXVIII and XXX.

After playing under the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Jon Gruden, Garrett immediately graduated to the coaching ranks. Following two seasons with the Dolphins as Nick Saban’s quarterbacks coach (2005-06), Garrett came back to the Cowboys as Wade Phillip’s offensive coordinator (2007) and assistant head coach (2008-10) before ultimately taking over after Week 9 this season.

Now Garrett is in the crosshairs as the interim coach of “America’s Team” — which is closer to the No. 1 overall pick than their preseason goal of hosting Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium. Garrett is charged with changing the undisciplined culture of a team that got off to a 1–7 start under Phillips. But no matter how many wins Garrett is able to coax from the new-look Boys, the 44-year-old should return next season.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones makes the final decision. And Jones’ track record — namely his firing of Tom Landry and Johnson — indicates he is power hungry above all else. Why would Bill Cowher, Gruden or any other proven winner want to deal with that? And why would Jones want his authority questioned?

For better or worse, Garrett is the guy in Dallas. He has a strong football resume, a history with the franchise and will not threaten Jones’ status as the Cowboys’ sheriff.

– Nathan Rush

NO

By all means, to save the Dallas Cowboys, let’s turn to the guy who helped ruin the franchise to begin with. While we’re at it, why don’t we enlist Don King to clean up boxing? Or make Barry Bonds the MLB anti-doping czar?

Jason Garrett is part of the problem in Dallas. Let’s look at the statistical evidence for such an assertion. Garrett was handed the keys to the Cowboy offense in 2007. That season, to his credit, he took what had been the NFL’s fifth-best offense (360.5 ypg in 2006) and made it the NFL’s third-best offense (365.7 ypg). Again, to his credit, Garrett parlayed those extra five yards per game into a $3 million contract for 2008, making him the highest-paid assistant coach in the NFL.

How did he reward the faith that Jerry Jones placed in him, not to mention the money that Jones transferred into his bank account? By overseeing the NFL’s 13th-best offense in 2008 (344.5 ypg).

Garrett continued his sleight of hand by maneuvering past the decline into head-coaching interest from such franchises as the Ravens, Falcons, Rams, Lions and Broncos. Instead, though, Garrett had his sights set on the Cowboys job and remained in Big D.

Another year at the helm of the Cowboys offense did result in the league’s second-best offense (399.4 ypg), but Garrett’s charges had an alarming inability to turn those yards into points; the Cowboys ranked 14th in the NFL in 2009 with 22.6 points per game, down from 28.4 in Garrett’s first year as coordinator.

And that brings us to 2010. Garrett’s offense has produced an alarming number of turnovers and red zone failures, again failing time and again to turn yards into all-important points. Clearly, the Cowboys reached their offense zenith in Garrett’s first year and have been vainly struggling to recapture that formula since.

Wade Phillips wasn’t the answer in Dallas. Neither is his right-hand man.
 
– Rob Doster

Teaser:
Jason Garrett has paid his dues en route to being the Cowboys interim coach. But will the former backup quarterback be the head coach in Big D in 2011?
Post date: Thursday, November 18, 2010 - 10:32

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