Articles By Nathan Rush

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
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/yes-we-cam
Body:

Yes We CamAuburn quarterback Cam Newton

Auburn won the SEC West and clinched a spot in the SEC title game for the fourth time (1997, 2000, 2004, 2010) in school history with its 49–31 victory over Georgia in the south's oldest rivalry.

The Tigers were carried once again by embattled quarterback Cam Newton, who completed 12-of-15 passes for 148 yards, two TDs and one INT, while rushing 30 times for 151 yards and two trips to the end zone on the ground.

After crying "War Eagle" en route to Auburn's third 11–0 start (2004, 1993), the Tiger faithful must now survive an off week of questions surround the eligibility of Newton before a showdown with Alabama in the Iron Bowl. But as the sellout crowd of 87,451 proved on Saturday, Auburn is standing behind its smiling Heisman Trophy contender quarterback — who is the first player in SEC history and the eighth ever to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.

"Cameron Newton is one of the young men on our football team that has not only excelled as a tremendous athlete, he has done everything we have asked him to do since the day he stepped on campus at Auburn," said coach Gene Chizik.

"I'm wasting my time addressing allegations that completely, to be frank, blow my mind that they're even out there. … I'm standing up here on a very important week trying to defend something that, quite frankly, is garbage.

"Is there a wizard behind the curtain? I don't know. Is there one, is there two, are there 10? I don't know and I don't care. But what I do care about is coming to the defense of not only a great football player, but a great human being who comes from a great family."

Patriot Reign

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady improved to 6–1 all-time against the Steelers, winning his fourth in five trips to Heinz Field, 39–26, on Sunday night.

One week after an embarrassing loss to Cleveland, an emotional and noticeably more vocal Brady completed 30-of-43 passes for 350 yards, three scoring strikes and zero picks, while avoiding being sacked by the Steel Curtain defense.

New England now owns a league-leading 7–2 record and appear to be a serious Super Bowl contender after many predicted Bill Belichick's team would take a step back this season.

Boy, Oh Boy

The Cowboys turned the lights out on the Giants in New Jersey, with a 33–20 victory in interim coach Jason Garrett's debut on the sideline.

After being outscored 121–59 over Wade Phillips' final three games — losses to the Packers, Jaguars and Giants — the Boys bounced back with their second win of the season on Sunday. Although Dallas is still among the bottom of the barrel in the league standings, the NFC East victory over rival New York was a major move in the right direction for Garrett and the new regime.

"This was a little step. But it sure was timely," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "It is more timely, I think, than it is big. We needed this and our fans needed it."

Flipping Fuel

"Cousin Carl" Edwards back-flipped off the 99 car after ending a 70-race winless drought at the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix, while Chase leader Denny Hamlin fell short on fuel after leading a race-high 190 laps.

Hamlin finished a disappointing 12th and watched his lead over Jimmie Johnson shrink from 33 to just 15 points heading into Homestead for what will be the closest Chase for the Cup finale in the playoff format's history.

Teaser:
Auburn's Cam Newton, the Patriot reign and a big win for Big D's new coach.
Post date: Monday, November 15, 2010 - 10:02
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/taking-sides/super-bowl-saints
Body:

Can the Saints repeat as Super Bowl champs?

YES

Tell owner Tom Benson to break out his fleur-de-lis umbrella and fire up the New Orleans jazz band, because the Saints will be marching to Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium.

And the return to Big D for this season’s big game will be a homecoming of sorts for coach Sean Payton, who served as the Cowboys’ assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach from 2003-05, as well as quarterback Drew Brees, who led Austin’s Westlake HS to a 16–0 record and Texas 5A state title at the old Texas Stadium as a senior in 1996.

The stage is set for Payton and Brees to lead the Saints on another Super Bowl run. Following a Week 10 bye, New Orleans hosts inconsistent Seattle, travels to down-and-out Dallas, goes to “Who Dat?” little brother Cincinnati and hosts upstart St. Louis. Those are four very winnable games for a team that currently sits at 6–3 overall with a 3–1 mark in the NFC South. If all goes well, the final three weeks of the season — at Baltimore, at Atlanta and Tampa Bay — will determine whether the Saints enter the postseason with a first-round bye or a wild card berth.

Led by Payton and Brees — who are slowly evolving into the NFC’s version of Belichick and Brady — this year’s team has fought through injuries to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, along with All-Pro safety Darren Sharper. The second-half return of all three playmakers should bring back the Saints’ Super Bowl swagger.

Expect another Bourbon Street bash that becomes an extended Mardi Gras party — with Payton calling the shots (onside kick to open the second half, anyone?), Brees leading the troops and aggressive defensive coordinator Gregg Williams unleashing end Will Smith, tackle Sedrick Ellis, middle ’backer Jonathan Vilma and Sharper.

Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Nobody — again.

– Nathan Rush

NO

Ever since John Elway sailed into the sunset following his second straight Super Bowl win, we’ve had more Brett Favre “retirements” than repeat champions. In the last decade, only the 2005 New England Patriots have managed to pull a back-to-back. It’s more likely for a team to miss the playoffs the year after a Super Bowl win than it is to repeat. Throw in the fact that the Saints haven’t really played all that well this season, and the answer is simple: Enjoy the Vince Lombardi Trophy while you can, Saints fans — it ain’t going to be in your possession much longer.

The Saints have been able to camouflage their deficiencies for much of the season. But they’ve also revealed some clear weaknesses, starting with, of all places, the quarterback position. No player is more important to his team’s success than Drew Brees, and Brees has been a mere shadow of his 2009 self. In tossing 12 picks through nine games, Brees has already exceeded last year’s total. In the Saints’ three losses this year, Brees has thrown an alarming nine interceptions after throwing 11 all of last season. Now comes word that Brees may be battling a fracture and a torn meniscus in his knee, a possibly crippling blow to a team that lives and dies with its quarterback.

The Saints are still piling up yardage, but they’re not converting their opportunities. After leading the NFL in scoring in 2009, averaging 31.9 points per game, the Saints are scoring at a pedestrian 22.3 clip. Their rushing attack (93.7 ypg) is one of the NFL’s worst, and unless Brees starts clicking — an unknown given his output thus far and his questionable health — this offense is out of options.

Last season, the Saints rode homefield advantage in the playoffs all the way to the Super Bowl. This time around, with a closing trio of games against Baltimore, Atlanta and Tampa Bay, the Saints will struggle merely to make the postseason.

Who dat say the Saints won’t repeat? Me, dat’s who.

– Rob Doster

Teaser:
With an inconsistent 6–3 record entering their bye week, can the New Orleans Saints repeat as Super Bowl champions?
Post date: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - 21:28
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/more-les
Body:

More with LesLSU coach Les Miles

It shouldn’t be a surprise when a one-loss team beats another one-loss team in a conference rivalry game. But Saturday afternoon's Alabama at LSU showdown was no ordinary matchup.

Perception is reality and, entering this SEC West brawl, reigning BCS champ Alabama was seen as a national title contender, while underdog host LSU was viewed by many as a fluke — thanks to “lucky” Les Miles’ good fortune in several close calls this season. So, even though there were other upsets around the country, none had the same impact as this Death Valley thriller.

As he’s done all season, the Mad Hatter rolled the dice — most notably with a fourth-and-1 reverse call that resulted in a momentum-shifting 23-yard run by DeAngelo Peterson to set up a one-yard go-ahead TD by Stevan Ridley.

In between a fiery pregame speech and a postgame romp with the fans in the stands, LSU’s emotional leader, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, recorded an INT and a fumble recovery after a strip sack by unblockable tackle Drake Nevis.

"We get great leadership from our guys," said Miles. "Kelvin Sheppard is a great leader, as well as Drake Nevis. It's just the way it's supposed to be. It's certainly a great experience, and I'm very thankful to have had it. I promise you I will cherish it for a lifetime."

The Bayou Bengals and Miles not only knocked off the Crimson Tide and former LSU coach Nick Saban, they earned some long overdue respect during their 24–21 “upset.”

"College football was celebrated today," said Miles. "That was two quality football teams slugging, start to finish, hard-nosed, clean, violent, competitive football, and how wonderful was it?

"I have to say this: Tiger Stadium was never any better than it was today, never any better."

Mission Statement

TCU made a strong statement during a 47–7 domination at Utah. The Horned Frogs have now outscored their Mountain West Conference foes 236–23 in six league games this season, allowing just three touchdowns during that stretch.

In front of a stunned Salt Lake City crowd, TCU quarterback Andy Dalton completed 21-of-26 passes for 355 yards, three scoring strikes and zero picks in a game that "showed we can play with anybody," according to the senior. Receiver Josh Boyce was the primary benefactor, taking his three catches for 126 yards (42.0 ypc) and two trips to the end zone. Boyce scored the game's first two touchdowns, covering 26 and 93 yards, respectively. And the team from Fort Worth, Texas, never looked back.

From the start, the Utes were no match for the aggressive Horned Frogs defense, falling behind 40–0 until a fourth-quarter score put them on the board. Utah turned the ball over four times, posted just 199 yards of total offense and lost the time of possession battle 39:06-to-20:54.

"We had no answers," said Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn, following a highly-anticipated and embarrassing home loss.

Texas Two Step

And then there were two. Races, that it. Following a wild ride at the AAA Texas 500 — where Denny Hamlin took the checkers along with a 33-point lead over four-time reigning champ Jimmie Johnson — there are only two more stops in the Chase for the Cup.

Next week, NASCAR rolls into Phoenix before finishing out the season at Homestead-Miami in what could be the first Chase that goes down to the final race — and maybe even the final lap — of the season.
 

Teaser:
LSU upended Alabama, while TCU and Denny Hamlin made championship statements in the BCS and Chase for the Cup, respectively.
Post date: Sunday, November 7, 2010 - 21:22
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/question-week/moving-moss
Body:

Were the Vikings right to cut Randy Moss?

YES

Let’s see: In a space of a few weeks in Minnesota, Randy Moss alienated fans, teammates and coaches; launched into some bizarre postgame performance art after the loss to the Patriots, conducting a five-minute monologue in which he extolled his former team and coach while expressing disappointment with his current boss; and, as a final straw, insulted the caterer at a postgame event, apparently viewing the food provided by a popular Minneapolis eatery and shouting, ‘What the (expletive) is this? I wouldn’t feed this (expletive expletive) to my (expletive) dog!’ According to the caterer, Gus Tinucci, “If (Brett) Favre would have had a ball, he would have beaned him right in the head.”

Having failed at the most basic NFL tasks of team-building and positive community relations, Moss could have at least provided a jolt of positive energy on the field.

But what did the Vikings get in return for this seemingly unending series of headaches? In his ballyhooed return to Minnesota, Moss caught only 13 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns in four games. That stat line reads like a single-game effort during Moss’ spectacular prime in his first Vikings go-round.

He may be one of the two or three greatest receivers in history, but Randy Moss was a disaster during his short second tenure in the Twin Cities. To be even more blunt, Moss was a cancer that had to be excised before it spread and destroyed what was left of the Vikings’ fragile franchise.

This team, which had Super Bowl hopes heading into the season, is hanging by a thread. Coach Brad Childress and Favre are sniping at one another through the media, and Favre is dealing with a sex scandal back in New York. Washing its hands of the Moss disaster? A no-brainer for this troubled franchise.

– Rob Doster

NO

If Brad Childress really wanted to do what was “in the best interests of the Minnesota Vikings, both in the short and long term,” then the incompetent coach would be stepping down from his post and leaving the Twin Cities, rather than waiving Randy Moss, in what appears to be a weak attempt to place blame on someone other than himself.

The reality is the Vikings need Moss now more than ever. Minnesota’s receiving corps has Sidney Rice (hip) learning to walk before he can run, Percy Harvin (ankle) limping around in between migraines and Bernard Berrian (head) having mentally checked out due to lack of involvement in the offense this year.

Without Moss, the burden of moving the chains falls almost entirely on the shoulders of running back Adrian Peterson and the fractured foot of 41-year-old Brett Favre. Regardless of whether Moss made big plays or not, the 6'4", 210-pound ultimate deep threat drew attention and opened up the field for A.P., Harvin and, ultimately, Favre.

By all accounts, Moss is healthy. And upon arriving back in Minnesota — where he enjoyed five Pro Bowl years over his first seven seasons in the NFL from 1998-2004 — Moss was happy, looking forward to his reunion with the purple people in the stands and a chance to finally play with Favre. Something happened between then and now. Childress either never earned, or immediately lost, the respect of Moss, who made Favre-ian criticisms of the coach’s lack of interest in how to stop a Patriots offense that Moss thrived in to the tune of 3,904 yards and 50 TDs over 52 games in New England.

Also, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf reportedly was “not happy” about Moss being waived after the team traded a 2011 third-rounder for him one month prior.

In the “best interests of the Minnesota Vikings, both in the short and long term,” Childress limited his playcalling options, put more pressure on injured players, annoyed his owner, wasted a high draft pick and divided his locker room. Brilliant move, Brad.

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
Vikings coach Brad Childress made the bold move to waive Randy Moss. Was it the right course of action to take?
Post date: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 11:25
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/gigantic-win
Body:

Gigantic Win

Former Rangers owner and ex-President George W. Bush may have thrown out the first pitch — with father and fellow ex-President George H.W. Bush standing nearby and Hall of Fame pitcher and current Rangers owner Nolan Ryan behind the plate — but it was 21-year-old Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner who wielded power during a 4–0 San Francisco victory in Texas.

The Giants took a commanding 3–1 World Series lead over the Rangers following a brilliant effort from Bumgarner and bearded-man Brian Wilson. The young rookie allowed three hits, walked two and stuck out six batters over eight innings, while the trendsetting Beach Boy namesake slammed the door with a scoreless two-strikeout ninth inning.

Halloween’s favorite team, San Francisco scared claw and antlers crazed Texas with a superb pitching effort from Bumgarner, who had better command of his stuff than any starter has during this year’s World Series.

“He was as good as I’ve seen him,” said San Fran catcher Buster Posey, who helped the Giants’ cause with solo home run. “He was in and out, really. The first couple of innings he might have yanked a couple of fastballs, but after that he was unreal.”

Now the stage is set for a Game 5 showdown between aces Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee at the Ballpark in Arlington on Monday night.

The Giants will attempt to clinch their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco in 1958, and the franchise’s first since Willie Mays went all over-the-shoulder in 1954. Meanwhile, the Rangers will desperately try to fight off elimination and move one step closer to becoming the first team to win it all after falling in a 3–1 hole since the Royals in 1985.

Numero Uno

The revolving door at No. 1 continues. The latest in the Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Auburn lineage, the Oregon Ducks have flown to the top of the BCS standings following an impressive 53–32 win in USC’s self-proclaimed bowl game at the L.A. Coliseum.

Along with being No. 1 in both the human and computer polls, UO now boasts the top-ranked total offense (572.9 ypg), scoring offense (54.9 ppg) and turnover margin (plus-1.63) as a team, while Heisman hopeful running back LaMichael James leads the nation in total yards (189.6 ypg), rushing yards (172.9 ypg) and individual scoring (12.9 ppg).

Tiger Tamed

While Oregon was busy taking over the top spot in all polls known to man, Tiger Woods fell from No. 1 for the first time since 2005. After 281 consecutive weeks at No. 1, Tiger has been tamed — by his own bad play and personal turmoil.

“I’m not ranked No. 1 in the world,” Tiger admitted while at a tournament in Japan. “In order to do that you have to win and I didn’t win this year.”

England’s Lee Westwood reached the pinnacle of the sport to become the first European since Nick Faldo was on top in 1994. Westwood joins Vijay Singh as the only players to overtake Woods since he originally took the throne at No. 1 way back in 1997.

Westwood’s stay may be brief, however, as he, Phil Mickelson, Martin Kaymer and Woods all have a shot to earn the No. 1 ranking with a strong showing at this week’s HSBC Champions tournament in Yokohama.

Favre Falls

Down but not out, 41-year-old Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was knocked out following a chin-splitting hit from Patriots defensive tackle Myron Pryor during a 28–18 loss at New England.

Bloodied on the ground, helped off the field and carted to the locker room for stitches, the fate of Favre appeared to be in doubt. But as he’s done countless times, the graybeard gunslinger plans to fight through the injury and is confident he will be able to start next week when the Cardinals visit Minnesota.

“Nobody knows my body like me,” said Favre, who has started 292 consecutive games. “There were plenty of times I should’ve been knocked out and wasn’t. I should be ready to play next week.”
 

Teaser:
The Giants pitched their way to a 3–1 World Series lead over the Rangers, while the Ducks took over No. 1, Tiger lost top billing and Favre fell hard.
Post date: Monday, November 1, 2010 - 09:53
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/question-week/schedule-conflict
Body:

Should the NFL expand to an 18-game regular season?

YES

I’ll start my answer with a question of my own: Is there anything more boring and worthless than preseason NFL football? Fans are charged regular prices to watch a couple series with the starters as they play a dull, close-to-the-vest brand of football before turning things over to an assortment of no-names, hangers-on, career backups and wannabes. I’m all for anything that would cut this four-game charade in half — and that’s the primary beauty of the proposed 18-game regular season, which would simply replace two worthless preseason games with two meaningful regular-season contests.

Bottom line: This proposal is good for everybody. It expands the league’s economic opportunities in a difficult business climate, which is good for players and owners alike. It gives fans a better bang for their hard-earned buck, and it ends the ridiculous rip-off that is the four-game preseason.

As for the injury argument, well, I have an answer for that, too: Increase the size of the active roster and practice squads to give coaches more flexibility and depth.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered this succinct explanation when the proposal first started gaining momentum: “What it represents to us is a way to grow the game and grow the opportunities, not only for our fans and our business partners, but for the players as our partners,” he said. “We have to continually look at ways to improve what we’re doing. It’s been very clear to us from not only our fans but also from our players that the quality of the preseason and the desire to participate in the preseason is not at the level it should be.”

Let’s put it this way: Can any proposal that gives us more of what we want — NFL games that count — be wrong? I don’t think so.

– Rob Doster

NO

If Commissioner Roger Goodell was truly concerned with player safety, he would be the most outspoken opponent of an 18-game schedule. But the reality is that the shoot-first, ask-questions-later leader isn’t concerned with protecting the integrity of the game or the men who built the billion-dollar mint we call the NFL.

As always, the bottom line is the bottom line. Or, as it is said in election years, “It’s the economy, stupid.” So, Goodell leads the NFL blindly into dangerous territory — willing to sacrifice not only the long-term physical and mental health of “his” players but also the sport itself — all while preaching safety and honoring history in interviews.

The move from 16 to 18 games is not a wise investment in the quality of the product the NFL sells. It is the exact opposite; it is an uninformed money grab by Goodell and the league’s 32 owners. Yet, due to the additional television revenue, ticket sales and concession inflation, the move is a “fait accompli” — an irreversible accomplishment — according to Colts president Bill Polian.

“I think that the owners, and principally the commissioner, have decided that it’s the way to go,” said Polian, on his radio show. “The debate, such as it was, is over.”

It’s unrealistic to expect players to stay healthy for 18 games plus the playoffs. Or worse, it’s an unconscionable concession to consider the inevitable, watered-down, replacement-player on-field exhibition just part of the cost of doing business.

“Sixteen games are enough,” explained Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a 35-year-old, 15th-year veteran, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl XXXV MVP. “We’re not automobiles. We’re not machines. We’re humans. … How many people would be truly healthy after 18 games? Are you going to get real football?”

Who cares? Right, Roger? Just put NFL helmets on UFL players and play preseason lineups in regular season games. What’s the difference?

– Nathan Rush

Teaser:
With the NFL cracking down on "violent hits," talk of expanding the regular season from 16 to 18 games has become even more debatable than it already was.
Post date: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 - 19:23
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/monday-recap/weekend-wrapup
Body:

Pitching Ain’t EasyGiants ace Tim Lincecum

The World Series lineup is finally set. The National League champion San Francisco Giants will face off against the American League champion Texas Rangers, with the first pitch of Game 1 on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

Pitching is at premium, with the G-Men proving that their starting rotation of four aces — Cy guy Game 1 starter Tim Lincecum, no-hitter-throwing lefty Jonathan Sanchez, batters-box brother-slaying Matt Cain and 21-year-old phenom rookie Madison Bumgarner — are more valuable than even the Yankees $200 million payroll. That is, if winning results matter more than TV, merchandise and concession revenues.

Not known for pitching in a hitters’ park, Nolan Ryan’s Rangers were led this far by playoff prodigy Cliff Lee, who is a perfect 7–0 with a 1.26 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 67 Ks in 64.1 IP over eight career postseason starts. Lee and Lincecum will go toe-to-toe on the rubber in Game 1 for the best playoff pitching duel since… well, Lee vs. Pettitte or Lincecum vs. Halladay a few days ago.

The year of the pitcher has become the playoffs of the pitcher. In an era of steroids favoring home run heavy hitters, the pendulum has swung back. But not everyone is able to keep up with the fastball of change, even after a full season of preparation.

“Everybody’s saying the Phillies didn’t hit. But they didn’t hit because we pitched this well. That’s why we really won the series,” said frustrated Giants GM Brian Sabean, during a champagne-soaked Game 6 postgame celebration win over the Phillies.

Once the Barry Bonds face of inflated hitting statistics, the San Fran franchise now embodies all that is pitching at its finest. Although the Giants ranked ninth in scoring and first in grounded-into-double-plays, the squad is playing for just its third World Series title — after losing in 1989 and 2002 — since moving to the Bay Area in 1958.

“They are a very solid team,” said embattled Rangers manager Ron Washington. “They can certainly pitch. And when you get to this point, pitching is the most important thing. … The two best teams are playing. That’s the way it should be.”

War Eagle

Auburn is the well-deserved No. 1 team in the second edition of the BCS rankings following a 24–17 win over LSU. After the demise of top-ranked Alabama, Oklahoma and BCS one-and-done Oklahoma in three consecutive weeks, there was really only one team — with all due respect to Oregon and Boise State — that should be atop the meaningless midseason rankings.

Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Cam Newton continues to steal headlines and break records, with a career-high 217 yards and two trips to the end zone against the SEC’s top-ranked Bayou Bengal defense. The Florida transfer broke the conference’s single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback while also completing 10-of-16 passes for 86 yards in victory.

More than a one-man show, the Tigers also have a disruptive defense led by 300-pound junior tackle Nick Fairley, who was nearly unblockable during a 2.5-sack effort against the then-other undefeated Tigers from Baton Rouge.

At this rate, the Iron Bowl at Alabama will be not only a de factor SEC West title game but possibly a play-in to the BCS National Championship Game — that is, unless anyone from the SEC East (South Carolina? Florida? Georgia?) can put up a fight.

Brett Favre Bowl III

The 41-year-old graybeard gunslinger couldn’t win any of the coin toss calls in what could be his final business trip to Green Bay, as Brett Favre and Minnesota lost a controversial division showdown, 28–24, at Lambeau Field.

Favre completed just 16-of-29 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown and three costly interceptions — including a third-quarter pick-six to linebacker Desmond Bishop — in a bittersweet loss in Title Town.

Unlike last season, when tempers ran hot, the Green Bay crowd seemed more appreciative — if not protective — of the three-time MVP and Super Bowl XXXI winner who limped off the field with a bum leg and is currently under NFL investigation for sexual harassment of former Jets employee Jenn Sterger.

If this was indeed Favre’s last stand in Green Bay, it ended dramatically. Booth review overturned a potential game-winning scoring strike to Percy Harvin in the back of the end zone with 48 seconds remaining. Then, Favre slipped, regained his footing and sailed one last-ditch effort out of the back of the zone on fourth-and-15 from the 20.

As with most highly anticipated televised events, Favre’s career at Lambeau Field “ended” not with a bang but a whimper, with the Packers improving to 4–3 and the Vikings falling to 2–4.
 

Teaser:
Brett Favre Bowl III, World Series pitching and a "War Eagle" BCS battle cry.
Post date: Monday, October 25, 2010 - 01:35
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /columns/weekend-wrap/weekend-wrap
Body:

Jenn StergerFalling Stars

The Vikings and Cowboys went head-to-head in a battle of 1–3 teams desperate to make a move. Not of the alleged Brett Favre on Jenn Sterger kind, but of the avoiding the garbage can after only five games variety.

Garbage can, huh? So that’s what you think I think of you?

In the end, Randy Moss’ homecoming in Minnesota was a celebration, following a tough 24–21 victory. Now Dallas is left claiming that coach Wade Phillips will not be fired midseason, after a 1–4 start to a season that had America’s Team hopeful of becoming the first home team to play for a title when Super Bowl XLV kicks off at the $1.1 billion Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011.

The Boys didn’t play like the stars on their helmets against the Vikes. The team coached by a son of a Bum — former NFL coach Bum Phillips, that is — committed 11 penalties for 91 lost yards, not counting several that were declined after big plays by the purple people in pigtails.

But even in victory, Favre will still have to answer Sterger questions. The 41-year-old graybeard is reportedly meeting with league officials on Tuesday. Or at least leaving awkward voice mails after practice.

P.S. - This photo of Jenn Sterger is one from her state of Florida rent-a-fan days. Brent Musberger remembers her as a FSU cowgirl; Athlon Sports photographed her in South Florida cowgirl gear not so long ago.

Number None?

This week marks the first time in recent memory that there is no clear cut No. 1 team in college football — with the possible exception of the week after LSU’s Les Miles was “crowned” champion with the only two-loss title team in the history of the BS, er, BCS computer formula system.

Oklahoma is booming in the BCS rankings, Oregon has soared atop the AP poll and Boise State is certainly blue after being the victim of what could be viewed as a weeklong Freudian slip on the part of speculative media outlets who thought the Smurfs would be the BMOC of the first BCS poll.

But most casual fans and serious fanatics still think Alabama and Ohio State are the football factories that build the best product for a legit Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game. Or, more accurately, that Bama and the Buckeyes have the most NFL talent and the most consistent coaches — even if the Nick-tator and the Sweater Vest aren’t nearly as fun to watch as the Mad Hatter.

Luckily, at this point in the year there can be a placeholder as the top team. There can be a good old-fashioned debate over who’s who. The polls don’t matter until the bowls. If there is a five-team debate after conference championship week, then we’ll have a problem — or maybe the start of a playoff solution?

Alphabet Soup

B, C and S aren’t the only three letters being thrown around. The ALCS and NLCS are even more relevant. After all, this is October, isn’t it?

In the designated slugger league, the Yankees and Rangers are tied at one game apiece. But there is panic in pinstripes, with wild man A.J. Burnett being seriously talked about as the Bronx Bombers’ Game 4 starter.

Not only did Burnett plunk two batters in a recent simulated game (sounds like he was trying to simulate reality, huh?), but he carried a 10–15 record, 5.26 ERA and 1.51 WHIP in 33 starts this season, with a combined 1–7 mark, 6.62 ERA in his last 12 starts.

Why worry about Game 4 already? Because the Rangers have lefty ace Cliff Lee — and his 6–0 record, 1.44 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 54 strikeouts in 56.1 innings over seven career postseason starts for two different teams — in Game 3. But he will be pitching against the all-time winningest playoff pitcher, fellow lefty Andy Pettitte (19–9 in 41 starts).

Meanwhile, in the swinging pitchers’ side of the bracket, the Phillies and Giants are also tied up at 1–1 after midseason acquisition Roy Oswalt struck out nine batters and allowed just one run in eight innings on Sunday night.

Heading back to AT&T Park in San Francisco, the Game 3 pitchers dual between Matt Cain and Cole Hamels should be a good one.

 

Teaser:
The Vikings beat the Cowboys to avoid throwing away their season. Garbage can, huh? Meanwhile, no one knows who's No. 1 in college football and the MLB Playoffs are all tied up.
Post date: Monday, October 18, 2010 - 01:34
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/over-top
Body:

Oklahoma's DeMarco MurrayAfter listening to panicked college football fans and analysts complain that Boise State would be the No. 1 team in the first BCS poll, the real winner turned out to be Oklahoma — coincidentally, the team that put the BCS-busting Smurf Turfers on the map in a wild, flee-flicker, Statue-of-Liberty, marriage-proposal-filled Fiesta Bowl a few years back.

“Big Game” Bob Stoops’ club jumped over the competition thanks in large part to a strength of schedule that includes wins over Florida State, Texas, Air Force, Cincinnati, Utah State and Iowa State.

As the BCS dominoes fell, top-ranked Ohio State lost, the Red River rival Longhorns upset Nebraska and the Sooners landed on top of the football world, at least for this week.

The season’s first Bowl Championship Series poll — which is comprised of seven computer polls and two human polls (Harris and USA Today) — had new AP No. 1 Oregon as the second-best team in the country, with Boise State, Auburn and TCU rounding out the top five:

1. Oklahoma
2. Oregon
3. Boise State
4. Auburn
5. TCU
6. LSU
7. Michigan State
8. Alabama
9. Utah
10. Ohio State
11. Missouri
12. Stanford
13. Wisconsin
14. Oklahoma State
15. Iowa
16. Nebraska
17. Florida State
18. Arizona
19. Texas
20. West Virginia
21. South Carolina
22. Kansas State
23. Arkansas
24. Mississippi State
25. Virginia Tech
 

Teaser:
Post date: Sunday, October 17, 2010 - 22:56
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/et-tu-brutus
Body:

Wisconsin's John ClayFor the second straight week, the No. 1 team in the country was upset on the road — with top-ranked Ohio State stumbling 31–18 at Wisconsin after preseason favorite Alabama lost 35–21 at South Carolina last week.

The Maurice Clarett-style one and done OSU run as the No. 1 team in the nation was ill-fated, lasting just seven days before the Badgers knocked the Buckeyes from their perch. A rowdy crowd of 81,194 at Camp Randall Stadium witnessed the first Wisconsin win over a No. 1-ranked Ohio State team since 1942.

“It was quite a battle here at Camp Randall and tip your cap to the Badgers. They did things you need to do to win a tough ball game,” said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who falls to 29–9 in Big Ten road games and 100–22 overall in his 10th season in Columbus.

“I was proud of the way our kids fought back. It was 21–3 there and I think a lesser bunch in an environment like this would have folded their tent.”

In a heavyweight Big Ten showdown in prime time, Bucky Badger jumped out to a 21–0 lead early in the second quarter on the strength of a 97-yard opening kickoff touchdown by David Gilreath and a pair of touchdown runs by bruising back John Clay, who finished with 21 carries for 104 yards.

The dazed Scarlet-and-Gray of Brutus Buckeye battled back to pull the score within 21–18 in the fourth quarter. But it was not enough, as UW closed the game on a 10–0 run to effectively KO The OSU.

“It felt great finishing this game,” said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. “We’ve been in four-quarter games this year, whether by choice or not. We’ve been in them, and I didn’t really think Ohio State had been.”

Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Terrelle Pryor struggled to complete 14-of-28 passes for 156 yards and one interception, while rushing 18 times for 56 yards. TP2 was particularly ineffective in the fourth quarter — taking two costly sacks for a loss of 18 yards, scrambling three times for seven yards and completing 3-of-9 passes for 45 yards and one interception in the final 15 minutes.

In the end, Wisconsin was able to line up in the victory formation before thousands of Badger fans stormed the field to celebrate their first win over a No. 1-ranked team since 1981.
 

Teaser:
Post date: Sunday, October 17, 2010 - 22:11
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/question-week/front-runners
Body:

Are the Steelers the Super Bowl Favorites?

YES

The other 31 teams in the NFL need to call an audible, because Dick LeBeau has an all-out blitz coming off the edges and up the middle. Hair-raising safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback-slamming linebacker James Harrison and the rest of the Steel Curtain defense are headed straight for the Vince Lombardi Trophy and will not be denied.

Unless someone can step up to stop Blitz-burgh’s championship assault, the Rooney family will be celebrating their seventh Super Bowl victory — and their third in the last six years — in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium.

All the attention is focused on the return of two-time ringmaster Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended for the first four games of the season. But the real story is the dominance of LeBeau’s 3-4 defense, which was able to carry the team to a 3–1 record with the combination of veteran Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon subbing for Big Ben. The LeBeau-coordinated defense has established itself as the best in the business by leading the league in the two most important categories — points allowed (12.5 ppg) and rushing yards allowed (62.2 ypg) — with its trademark violent swagger.

But coach Mike Tomlin’s team has all three phases of the game covered. An offense that has been powered by running back Rashard Mendenhall (411 yards, four TDs) will evolve into a more dangerous, balanced attack now that Big Ben is back at the helm — with Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller providing proven downfield targets. On special teams, kicker Jeff Reed and punter Daniel Sepulveda are two of the best, while returners Antwaan Randle El and Antonio Brown are a threat to go the distance.

The Steel Curtain is stronger than ever, Big Ben is back in the huddle and Pittsburgh is on a mission. Buckle up your chin strap, NFL. The Steelers are coming.

– Nathan Rush

NO

The Steelers navigated their QB-free opening stretch about as well as could be expected, finishing the first quarter of the season with an impressive 3–1 mark that included road wins at Tampa and Tennessee — all with an offense ranked 31st in passing yards per game. Now that Ben Roethlisberger is back in the fold, conventional wisdom has anointed the Steelers the Super Bowl favorites.

Well, there’s nothing conventional about my wisdom, and I’m here to say that the Steelers will not reach the Super Bowl, much less win it. Big Ben is far more caretaker than difference-maker, and this team’s deficiencies, which have been masked thus far by some inept play from their counterparts on the other sidelines, will be exposed over the long grind of the season. As great as the Steeler defense is, the offense simply has to score more points, and that’s far from automatic, even with its starting quarterback in place. Last season, when the team needed Big Ben to shoulder the load, he responded like a fantasy champion but a real-world also-ran. The defending Super Bowl champs limped to 9–7 and missed the playoffs, scoring only 23 points per game even while Roethlisberger was piling up 4,328 passing yards and 26 TDs.

This season, in Roethlisberger’s absence, Rashard Mendenhall has picked up the slack, with 411 yards rushing through four games. But Mendenhall has never been asked to carry the entire rushing load for an entire season, and it’s unlikely that he can survive the pounding intact. AFC North games like the 17–14 war against the Ravens — in which Mendenhall rushed 25 times for only 79 yards as the Ravens picked up a key division win in Pittsburgh — will take a significant physical toll.

Yes, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a genius, and yes, that Steel Curtain defense will keep this team in most games. But in terms of meeting Super Bowl goals, that’s not good enough, and neither are Big Ben and the Steelers offense.

– Rob Doster

 

Teaser:
The Pittsburgh Steelers are aiming for their third Super Bowl win in six seasons. But are they the favorites to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium?
Post date: Monday, October 11, 2010 - 19:18
All taxonomy terms: College Football, College Basketball, NFL, NBA
Path: /blogs/rush-report
Body:
Teaser:
Post date: Friday, October 1, 2010 - 17:35
All taxonomy terms: NBA
Path: /nba/draft-lottery
Body:

Power Ball

Wizards fans are John Wall-dancing in D.C. today after winning the NBA Draft Lottery and the chance to draft Kentucky’s all-world freshman point guard.

Irene Pollin — the widow of Abe, who was the longest-tenured owner in the NBA at the time of his death at the age of 85 on Nov. 24, 2009 — brought her husband’s 1978 Washington Bullets championship ring as a lucky charm to Secaucus, N.J., before the jaw-dropping results were announced in the traditional slow envelope-opening ceremony by David Stern’s right-hand man, Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver.

“This is very, very special. I have been in this my entire adult life, and to be here, representing my husband, this is very special to me tonight,” said Irene Pollin, who appeared to be in disbelief in the moments before and after the news was announced.

“I think it’s the culmination of my husband’s dream because he wanted another ring and maybe this will get us another ring.”

Presumably, Wall will join Capitals center Alex Ovechkin and Nationals ace-in-waiting Stephen Strasburg as No. 1 picks lobbying to become the Commander in Chief of the D.C. sports scene. But longtime Wizards-Bullets fans just hope Wall has a better fate than the team’s last No. 1 overall pick, Kwame Brown, a 6’11” high school prospect selected by former Wizards executive and current Bobcats owner Michael Jordan.

In Wall’s only season at Kentucky, the 6’4”, 195-pound Raleigh, N.C., native averaged 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 46.1 percent from the field and 75.4 percent from the free throw line. John Calipari’s latest blue chip hopes to follow in the footsteps of former No. 1 overall pick Derrick Rose and reigning Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans.

“My goal is to be the No. 1 pick,” Wall told ESPN shortly after watching the network’s broadcast of the Lottery results with friends and family in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I’ll just keep working hard and see what team picks me June 24. … I’m just going to go in and try to make the organization better.”

And after the death of their longtime owner and a bizarre locker room gun incident by disgraced face of the franchise Gilbert Arenas, there is nothing the Wizards could use more than an exciting, athletic, playmaking point guard like Wall, who led UK to a 34–3 record and an Elite Eight berth this year.

Now that the ping pong balls have settled and the envelopes have been opened, the first-round draft order is set:

Ping Pong Results

1. Wizards
2. 76ers
3. Nets

Rest of Lottery

4. T-Wolves
5. Kings
6. Warriors
7. Pistons
8. Clippers
9. Jazz (via Suns, Knicks)
10. Pacers
11. Hornets
12. Grizzlies
13. Raptors
14. Rockets

Remainder of First-Round

15. Bucks (via Bulls)
16. T-Wolves (via Nuggets, Bobcats)
17. Bulls (via Bucks)
18. Heat
19. Celtics
20. Spurs
21. Thunder
22. Trail Blazers
23. T-Wolves (via 76ers, Jazz)
24. Hawks
25. Grizzlies (via Nuggets)
26. Thunder (via Suns)
27. Nets (via Mavericks)
28. Grizzlies (via Lakers)
29. Magic
30. Wizards (via Cavaliers)

The 2010 NBA Draft will be held at Madison Square Garden on June 24 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 - 11:42

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