Articles By Nathan Rush
A betting preview (against the spread) in the NFC and AFC Championship Games of the NFL Playoffs.
Lock of the Week
The great Colin Kaepernick takes his one-man band on the road to Atlanta this weekend, after passing for 263 yards, rushing for 181 yards and scoring four total TDs in San Fran during his playoff debut. The 49ers fell just short of a trip to the Super Bowl last season but they’ll be headed to New Orleans after winning this week.
49ers (-5) at Falcons
Matt Ryan is much better at home (34–6 career record, including playoffs) than he is on the road (23–19 record). But this season, he has struggled statistically at home, throwing 13 TDs and 11 INTs at the Georgia Dome compared to 21 TDs and five INTs on the road. The Niners defense will bring too much heat for Matty Ice to handle.
Baltimore was shown no respect last week in Denver, entering the Divisional Round game as a 10-point underdog before pulling off a 38–35 double-overtime victory. Ray Lewis’ retirement tour may not shock the world this week, but it won’t go down without a fight — especially in a rematch of last year’s painful AFC title game loss.
Ravens (+10) at Patriots
Joe Flacco is 7–4 in the playoffs, with his four losses coming at New England (23–20), at Pittsburgh (31–24), at Indianapolis (20–3) and at Pittsburgh (23–14). In other words, Flacco is 10–1 as a 10-point underdog.
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2013 NFL Draft was Jan. 15. The economic majors who can play ball decided to take the money and run. But not every name on the list is a can’t-miss blue-chip draft stock.
These are the 10 biggest boom or bust underclassmen in the 2013 NFL Draft:
1. Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU
Is Mingo a 6’5”, 240-pound “Freak” in the mold of Jevon Kearse or Jason Pierre-Paul? Odds are there’s a team with a top-10 pick willing to bank on that chance — especially after watching the lightning fast Mingo run and jump in neon Under Armour at the NFL Scouting Combine, where coaches and GMs will be drooling over the hybrid edge rusher like Les Miles over Bermuda grass on a Saturday afternoon. But Mingo was never able to turn that in-shorts potential into in-pads production at LSU, with just 4.5 sacks this year while playing alongside several former five-stars and future first-rounders.
2. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
The big-talking big man who said the SEC, and Georgia in particular, played “old man football” has all the warning signs of a bust. All-world recruit with an ego as big as his massive frame? Check. Apparent lack of respect for authority or discipline? Check. History of shoulder injuries on a man soon to be paid to battle in the trenches? Check. Fast-rising prospect at the most bust-laden position, D-tackle? Check. Off-field issues as a cherry on top of the boom-or-bust sundae? Check yeah.
3. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
There’s no doubt about the respect Lattimore has earned from his coaches, peers and fans during his time as arguably the nation’s top high school runner at Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., and collegiate back at South Carolina. The football community was emotionally crushed after watching Lattimore’s knee get physically smashed. And it was Lattimore’s second devastating knee injury in as many years. But Adrian Peterson just ran for 2,000 yards on a recently reconstructed knee, Willis McGahee bounced back from a brutal blow and Frank Gore is still a beast running on a pair of repaired legs.
4. Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
Classic case of a 6’6” quarterback with a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent head. It’s hard to blame the California kid who likes to chuck beer bottles at passing cars, though. After traveling cross-country to play for Lane Kiffin in Knoxville, his West Coast bro-coach bailed on him for USC. That left Bray holding the double-D-bag and playing for Derek Dooley. Well, not necessarily playing. Bray conveniently missed games against LSU (twice), Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Oregon during the first two years of his injury-riddled career. His last two years, he went 2–10 in the SEC, including losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky. But there’s no denying the arm; even Jeff George and Ryan Mallett are impressed by Bray.
5. Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech
Once Bray’s go-to guy at Tennessee, the 6’3” jump-baller posted a 1,000-yard, nine-TD season in the SEC as a sophomore. But Rogers’ prima donna routine became expendable when Justin Hunter returned from injury and Cordarrelle Patterson arrived from JUCO to give the Volunteers more than enough NFL talent at wideout. After failed drug tests and indefinite suspensions, Rogers went to play for Mack Brown’s brother Watson Brown at Tennessee Tech, where the Georgia native had an 800-yard, 10-TD campaign against lesser FCS competition.
6. Tyrann Mathieu, CB/PR, LSU
The “Honey Badger” went from a cult hero Heisman Trophy finalist playing in the BCS national title game to the national spokesman for Spice synthetic weed. After watching this season from the couch and occasionally the stands, Mathieu hopes teams overlook his 5’9”, 175-pound frame — as well as a stack of off-field red flags at least that big — and focus on his unique playmaking ability as a nickel corner and punt returner. There was an intangible quality to Mathieu’s game in his heyday, but the tangible reality is that “Honey Badger” don’t care, and it may have cost him a lucrative NFL career.
7. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
The 6’7”, 280-pound “Too Tall” is the cousin of Vernon Gholston, a former All-American at Ohio State who was selected No. 6 overall by the New York Jets in 2008. Vernon was an elephant man who wasn’t a freak so much as just ugly — as a player on the field and contract on the books. Unfortunately for William, he was nowhere near as productive as Vernon was in the Big Ten but he shares the last name “Gholston,” which is now synonymous with “bust” in certain draft circles.
8. Kwame Geathers, NT, Georgia
A big Dawg at 6’6”, 355-plus-pounds, Geathers is another namesake — as the brother of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Robert Geathers, brother of South Carolina’s Clifton Geathers, son of former NFL third-round pick Robert Geathers Sr., and nephew of 13-year NFL vet and two-time Super Bowl champion “Jumpy” Geathers. With that pedigree and so few nose guards to choose from for the ever-expanding list of teams running a 3-4 defense, Kwame Geathers will get over-drafted; hopefully not as bad as Kwame Brown was.
9. Greg Reid, CB/PR, Valdosta State
After getting kicked off of Florida State’s eventual Orange Bowl-winning squad, Reid suffered a season-ending knee injury before he could suit up for Valdosta State’s eventual Division II national title-winning team. If his run of bad decisions and bad luck comes to an end, Reid is the type of return man capable of breaking Deion Sanders’ FSU career record for punt return yards — which he was on pace to do before his quick-twitch exit from Tallahassee.
10. Brad Wing, P, LSU
Look out, you’ve got company, Chris Gardocki — who, by the by, was the last punter to declare early for the NFL Draft, back in 1991. The Bayou Bengal from Australia pinned himself into a coffin corner after being suspended for Honey-Badgering a drug test. So the 6’3”, 200-pounder entered the draft, where his Sebastian Janikowski attitude and success rate could make him a highly drafted, highly volatile special teams weapon. Don’t forget to watch out for the fake punt, either.
NFL Playoffs previews and predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship Games:
AFC Championship Game
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
How the Ravens can win:
None other than Ray Lewis himself has put the weight of the world on the right shoulder of quarterback Joe Flacco. “You’re the General, lead us to victory,” Lewis told Flacco. “Smokin’ Joe” will need to deliver another knockout blow on the road against the AFC’s reigning heavyweight champion Patriots.
Flacco will have plenty of help, however, as home-run threat Torrey Smith and physical target Anquan Boldin line up out wide, while multi-threat running back Ray Rice and rookie runner Bernard Pierce handle the workload on the ground behind a solid O-line.
Although the offense will need to keep up on the scoreboard, the Ravens’ defense will be charged with containing Tom Brady and Co. The usual suspects of Lewis, safety Ed Reed, tackle Haloti Ngata and edge rusher Terrell Suggs will need to bring the heat in New England. In the end, it may come down to rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who will need to avoid the fate of Billy Cundiff, the goat of last year’s 23–20 AFC title game defeat in Foxborough.
How the Patriots can win:
Brady has more playoff wins than any other quarterback in history — with a 17–6 postseason record, including an 11–2 mark at home. Coach Bill Belichick will put the ball in Brady’s hands and let him work the magic that has already earned the duo five trips to the Super Bowl and three Vince Lombardi Trophies during their time in New England.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is injured, but these Patriots are still loaded with playmakers like slot receiver Wes Welker and versatile tight end Aaron Hernandez. The power and speed backfield combo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen has become nearly unstoppable as the season has worn on.
Defensively, 320-plus-pounder Vince Wilfork continues to anchor the unit, while playmakers like linebacker Jerod Mayo, hybrid end Chandler Jones and cornerback Aqib Talib fly around the field.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Zoltan Mesko and a return game led by Welker and Devin McCourty round out a solid squad.
What will happen: New England by 5
Patriots march to Super Bowl XLVII; Ravens fly home for winter.
NFC Championship Game
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET, FOX
How the 49ers can win:
If dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s second career playoff start is anything like his first, then San Francisco should cruise to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Kaepernick posted 263 passing yards, 181 rushing yards and four total TDs against Green Bay in just his eighth career NFL start.
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s club is far from a one-man team. Veteran running back Frank Gore, wideout Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis have all had their own breakout playoff performances. And the Niners’ O-line is arguably the best in the business.
Defensively, San Francisco’s lineup reads like the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster, with All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, and end Justin Smith leading the charge.
Special teams was the Achilles’ heal of San Fran’s NFC title game effort last season and could be again this year, with kicker David Akers showing signs of physical and mental fatigue down the stretch.
How the Falcons can win:
Matt Ryan finally ripped the playoff monkey off his back, winning his first career postseason game in his fourth attempt. But he’s far from satisfied. It will be up to “Matty Ice” to keep his cool against an aggressive 49ers defense that will bring exotic blitz packages from their 3-4 scheme.
Ryan’s fleet of pass-catchers is easily the best remaining in the playoffs, as receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are joined by future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. In the backfield, Michael Turner has split more time with Jacquizz Rodgers of late, giving the Falcons a variety of offensive looks.
Atlanta’s defense will need to do to Gore what it did to Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (16 carries, 46 yards) while not allowing Kaepernick to do what Russell Wilson (385 pass yards, 60 rush yards, 3 TDs) was able to do both through the air and on the ground.
Kicker Matt Bryant already has one playoff game-winner, giving coach Mike Smith confidence in what should be a close contest.
What will happen: San Francisco by 3
49ers strike Super Bowl gold; Falcons’ wings clipped at home.
Last week: 3-1 // Season: 178-86
When placed directly in the spotlight of the NFL Playoffs, many players shrink amid the added scrutiny, while others shine brightest when given national attention.
Heading into San Francisco’s Divisional Round playoff showdown with Green Bay, no one was quite sure which type of player 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick would be.
The second-year dual-threat signal-caller out of Nevada was making just his eighth career start since replacing veteran Alex Smith — who led the Niners all the way to the NFC title game last year before being concussed in Week 10 this season and never reclaiming his starting job.
Clearly Kaepernick looked the part during the regular season — posting a 5–2 record while completing 62.4 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards, 10 TDs and three INTs for a 98.3 passer rating, while scrambling for 415 yards, on 6.6 yards per carry, and five TDs on the ground.
The playoffs, however, are a completely different animal. And Kaepernick was the youngest quarterback (25 years, 2 months, 9 nines) to start for San Francisco since Joe Montana (25 years, 6 months, 23 days).
Kaepernick looked his age early on, throwing an interception that was returned for a 52-yard TD by Packers cornerback Sam Shields, giving Green Bay an early 7–0 lead. But, as a young Joe Cool might have done, Kaepernick stayed calm and answered with an eight-play, 80-yard TD drive to tie the game at 7–7.
“He does a great job of responding. He has done that. Every time there’s been an interception that he’s thrown, or safety or turnover. He’s responded with a scoring drive. I think that’s rare. I think that’s a rare quality. And so far he’s shown that he’s got that ability to come back,” said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who was known as “Captain Comeback” during his playing days.
From that point on, Kaepernick was in total control of the 49ers offense and the Packers defense was helpless to stop San Fran’s new golden boy. Kaepernick completed 17-of-31 passes for 263 yards and two TDs, while running 16 times for 181 yards and two TDs en route to a 45–31 win. His 181 rushing yards broke both the NFL single-game and playoff game records for a quarterback, both of which were held by Michael Vick, as well as the 49ers’ team playoff record, held by Roger Craig.
And with running back Frank Gore adding 23 carries for 119 yards and one TD, the Niners’ play-action opened up the downfield passing game for wideout Michael Crabtree, who finished with nine catches for 119 yards and two TDs. The 49ers’ trio became the first in NFL history to post two 100-yard rushers and one 100-yard receiver in a playoff game. San Francisco also set team records for total yards (579) and rushing yards (323) in the process.
“Our offensive line played great today. They did a lot of things well up front. Our running backs ran well and our receivers made plays,” said Kaepernick, who joined Jay Cutler and Otto Graham as the only players in history to record two passing TDs and two rush TDs in a playoff game.
Kaepernick’s humility did little to shift the credit, however. There was no denying the impact of No. 7.
“He is a playmaker,” said 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. “He can run. He is athletic. He can throw. All the things you want in a quarterback, he has it.”
As for whether or not Kaepernick is a “running” quarterback, the former two-sport star who was drafted by MLB’s Chicago Cubs doesn’t bother worrying about labels.
“I don’t want to be categorized,” Kaepernick said after the game.
All Kaepernick seems to care about is being a big-time player — the type who rises to the occasion to make big plays in big games.
Athlon Sports' weekly rankings of NFL teams. The New England Patriots have taken over the top spot. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs remain locked into the No. 1 pick in this April's NFL Draft.
Here are our NFL Power Rankings following the NFL Playoffs' Divisional Round:
1. Patriots (13-4) Aim for sixth Super Bowl of Belichick-Brady era.
2. 49ers (12-4-1) Alex Smith who? Colin Kaepernick owns spotlight.
3. Falcons (14-3) Unintended onside kick ends thrilling win vs. Hawks.
4. Ravens (12-6) Return to site of last year’s AFC title game defeat.
5. Broncos (13-4) John Fox taking heat for taking knee to settle for OT.
6. Packers (12-6) Unable to double-check Colin Kaepernick in defeat.
7. Texans (13-5) Gary Kubiak, teammates “believe” in Matt Schaub.
8. Seahawks (12-6) Russell Wilson sets rookie QB playoff passing mark.
9. Redskins (10-7) NFLPA executive says FedEx Field a “safety issue.”
10. Bengals (10-7) Vontaze Burfict not fined for hit on Texans’ Graham.
11. Colts (11-6) Andrew Luck acts on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”
12. Vikings (10-7) Problems with Percy Harvin downplayed by GM.
13. Bears (10-6) Brandon Marshall an All-Pro in first year in Chicago.
14. Giants (9-7) Rookie David Wilson second-team All-Pro as KR.
15. Cowboys (8-8) Hire “Godfather of Tampa 2” Monte Kiffin as DC.
16. Steelers (8-8) Chris Rainey placed on waivers after being arrested.
17. Rams (7-8-1) Rob Ryan rumored to be near deal to be next DC.
18. Panthers (7-9) Cam Newton taking classes at Auburn in offseason.
19. Saints (7-9) New Orleans preps as host city of Super Bowl XLVII.
20. Dolphins (7-9) Promise to pay for half of redone Sun Life Stadium.
21. Chargers (7-9) Hire Broncos OC Mike McCoy as next head coach.
22. Buccaneers (7-9) Ronde Barber to take his time debating retirement.
23. Titans (6-10) Fire Alan Lowry, architect of “Music City Miracle.”
24. Bills (6-10) Hire Nathaniel Hackett as OC, Mike Pettine as DC.
25. Jets (6-10) Struggle to fill vacant GM position amid team turmoil.
26. Cardinals (5-11) Steve Keim named GM, turns attention to new coach.
27. Browns (5-11) Norv Turner to be OC under coach Rob Chudzinski.
28. Lions (4-12) Cliff Avril set for another offseason contract battle.
29. Eagles (4-12) Interview both Brian Billick and Ken Whisenhunt.
30. Raiders (4-12) Rolando McClain arrested, tells cops “F--- y’all.”
31. Jaguars (2-14) Not interested in Tim Tebow “even if he’s released.”
32. Chiefs (2-14) Will take “best player available” in draft, says GM.
A betting preview of every game (against the spread) in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs.
Lock of the Week
These two teams played in prime time six Sundays ago in Week 14 of the regular season, with New England beating Houston, 42–14. Expect another blowout this weekend.
Patriots (-10) vs. Texans
Tom Brady has a 16–6 career playoff record — one win shy of taking sole possession of first place (Joe Montana has a 16–7 postseason mark) on the all-time playoff wins list. At home, Brady carries a 10–2 playoff record at home, winning six of those contests by double-digits.
Straight Up Upset
The West Coast bias ended last week, when Seattle flew to D.C. to knock out RG3. The Dirty Birds are up next for the soaring Hawks, who are in Beast Mode at the moment.
Seahawks (+3) at Falcons
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown just 11 TDs and nine INTs at home this year. Matty Ice has been ice cold in the playoffs, failing to throw for over 200 yards, while tossing a combined three TDs and four INTs, while losing two fumbles and taking 10 sacks en route to an 0–3 record.
This may be Ray Lewis’ last game — a fitting end with a matchup against all-time great and generational peer Peyton Manning. But don’t expect it to be a double-digit blowout.
Ravens (+10) at Broncos
Manning is 2–0 against Baltimore in the playoffs, with both wins coming as a member of the Colts. But he has struggled against the ball-hawking Ravens, throwing three picks to center field safety Ed Reed. With a healthy defense containing Manning, it will be up to Joe Flacco to survive Von Miller and the Mile High D.
Steer clear of this matchup unless you’re a degenerate or don’t feel right unless you’re wearing a Cheesehead or gold body paint — and have to have hometown playoff action.
49ers (-3) vs. Packers
San Francisco took down Green Bay, 30–22, at Lambeau Field in the Week 1 season opener. Alex Smith has since been replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who will be making his first career playoff start. Double-checking the other side, Aaron Rodgers has a 4–2 mark in the playoffs and is tough to bet against.
None other than the great Dr. James Andrews has decided that Robert Griffin III will require total reconstructive surgery to repair the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and LCL (lateral collateral ligament) in his right knee. The roughly two-hour surgery took place on Wednesday, Jan. 9, and rehab for the Washington Redskins quarterback is expected to take anywhere between six-to-eight months.
But judging by a few recent miracles of modern science and other improbable returns, RG3 may be ready in plenty of time for the 2013 NFL season opener. These are the NFL’s top 10 comeback kings from this season — covering everything from physical injuries to damaged reputations to video game superstition and preconceived notions.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
Injury Report: Neck injury requiring two vertebrae to be fused over the course of at least four separate surgical procedures
Initial Prognosis: Missed entire 2011 season with potentially career-ending injury
Actual Results: A five-year, $96 million contract with the Broncos, followed by a 13–3 record, No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs and possible fifth league MVP award
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Injury Report: Torn ACL, MCL in Week 16 of 2011
Initial Prognosis: Expected to miss start of 2012
Actual Results: Played all 16 games, becoming the seventh running back in history to rush for 2,000 yards, falling just short of Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season record
3. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
Injury Report: Torn right triceps in Week 6 of 2012
Initial Prognosis: Expected to miss remainder of 2012, possibly force retirement
Actual Results: Made triumphant return in a Wild Card playoff victory over the Colts, giving the fans in Baltimore one last dance after announcing his pending retirement
4. Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
Injury Report: Cursed after being placed on cover of Madden 13
Initial Prognosis: Would certainly follow in the footsteps of cursed former coverboys Vince Young, Brett Favre, Michael Vick and Peyton Hillis
Actual Results: Became the first receiver in NFL history to record 2,000 yards receiving, breaking Jerry Rice’s single-season record in the process
5. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
Injury Report: Allegedly stands just over 5’10” tall
Initial Prognosis: Too small to see over O-line, clearly not an NFL starting QB
Actual Results: Drafted No. 75 overall before leading Seattle to playoffs, defeating RG3 head-to-head and becoming fifth rookie quarterback in history to win a postseason game
6. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
Injury Report: Hamstrung by pockets full of money
Initial Prognosis: Loss of breakaway speed more confusing than CJ2K Twitter slang
Actual Results: Had longest TD run of his career (94 yards), became eighth running back in history to begin his career with five straight 1,000-yard seasons
7. Jonathan Vilma, LB, Saints
Injury Report: Taken out by Roger Goodell, as Gregg Williams’ “Kill the head” motto was adopted by the Commissioner
Initial Prognosis: Out indefinitely as ringleader of Saints’ Bounty Scandal
Actual Results: Returned to lineup in Week 7, backed by former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, currently suing the Commissioner Goodell in a defamation lawsuit
8. Terrell Suggs, LB, Ravens
Injury Report: Torn Achilles tendon playing basketball in April 2012
Initial Prognosis: Pickup basketball career potentially over
Actual Results: Missed first six weeks of NFL season, returned to action in Week 7, started nine games including playoffs, hopes to play basketball again this summer
9. Janoris Jenkins, CB, Rams
Injury Report: Kicked off team at Florida, arrested three times, failed multiple drug tests, had four children by three different women
Initial Prognosis: Irreparable damage to reputation and draft stock
Actual Results: Became Jeff Fisher’s Pacman 2.0, drafted in the second round, shined with four INTs and four defensive TDs during a breakout rookie campaign
10. Randy Moss, WR, 49ers
Injury Report: “Straight cashed out, homey” in 2010
Initial Prognosis: League-wide black-listing after quitting on three teams in single season
Actual Results: Playing for the third-best team of his career with a chance to win his first Super Bowl and provide several more “Straight cash, homey,” reference opportunities
NFL Playoffs previews and predictions for the Divisional Round:
Ravens (11-6) at Broncos (13-3)
Saturday, CBS, 4:30 p.m. ET
Peyton Manning makes his return to the playoffs in what could be Ray Lewis’ final NFL game, as arguably the best offensive and defensive players of the last decade go head-to-head one last time. As a member of the Colts, Manning had a 2–0 postseason record against the Ravens — with a 20–3 win following the 2009 season in his last trip to the playoffs and a 15–6 victory after the 2006 season en route to winning his only Super Bowl title. Although he has won both of his matchups with Baltimore, Manning has not necessarily been the reason for victory — throwing for a combined 416 yards, two TDs and three INTs. All three of Manning’s picks against the Ravens have been thrown to center field safety Ed Reed, who has eight INTs in 12 career playoff games, one shy of the all-time record.
Broncos by 9
Texans (12-5) at Patriots (12-4)
Sunday, CBS, 4:30 p.m. ET
Three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady is one victory away from the all-time playoff wins record, currently held by Brady’s boyhood hero Joe Montana (16–7 playoff record; 14–5 with 49ers, 2–2 with Chiefs). This will be the second meeting in the last six weeks between Houston and New England. In Week 14, the Patriots marched to a 42–14 statement victory over the Texans, who carried a then-AFC-best 11–1 record. Including that loss, Houston quarterback Matt Schaub has thrown one TD and four INTs while posting a 2–3 record over the last five weeks. Brady was better than that, but not quite at his best down the stretch, throwing four of his eight total INTs in Weeks 15 and 16. Brady does, however, enter with the confidence of a 10–2 playoff record at home, while Schaub is making his first-ever playoff start on the road.
Patriots by 10
Packers (12-5) at 49ers (11-4-1)
Saturday, FOX, 8 p.m. ET
In the season-opener back in Week 1, the Niners traveled to Lambeau Field to defeat the Packers, 30–22. San Francisco took an early 10–0 lead and carried a 23–7 lead into the fourth quarter before Green Bay rallied to within one score and two-point conversion away from a tie in the fourth quarter. In that game, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith threw two TDs in a near flawless effort. Since then, however, Smith has been replaced with second-year dual-threat Colin Kaepernick, who went 5–2 as a starter, including a 3–0 mark at home. While Kaepernick is making his first playoff start, Packers signal-caller Aaron Rodgers carries a 4–2 postseason record and a championship belt celebration following a victory in Super Bowl XLV.
49ers by 1
Seahawks (12-5) at Falcons (13-3)
Sunday, FOX, 1 p.m. ET
Much has been made of Matt Ryan’s 0–3 record in the playoffs, and rightly so. In three postseason defeats — at New York (24–2), vs. Green Bay (48–21) and at Arizona (30–24), respectively — Ryan has never thrown for even 200 yards in a single game. Meanwhile, he has thrown a combined three TDs and four INTs, while losing two fumbles and taking 10 sacks. In fairness, his losses have come against Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner, three passers who have a combined four Super Bowl wins. This time around, Ryan will square off against rookie Russell Wilson, who is 4–5 on the road, 1–2 in domes and 2–2 in the Eastern Time Zone this season — but does have a playoff win already.
Falcons by 1
Last week: 3-1 // Season: 175-85
Athlon Sports' weekly rankings of NFL teams. The Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons head into the playoffs as the No. 1 seeds in the AFC and NFC, respectively. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs have locked up the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.
Here are our NFL Power Rankings following the NFL Playoffs' Wild Card Weekend:
1. Broncos (13-3) Peyton Manning 2–0 vs. Ravens in postseason.
2. Falcons (13-3) Haven’t won playoff game since Mike Vick was QB.
3. Patriots (12-4) Tom Brady puts 16–6 postseason record on the line.
4. 49ers (11-4-1) Colin Kaepernick to make first career playoff start.
5. Packers (12-5) Chico’s own Aaron Rodgers going back to California.
6. Texans (13-4) Arian Foster Twitter avatar now critical column pic.
7. Ravens (11-6) Ray Lewis victorious in final Baltimore home game.
8. Seahawks (12-5) Russell Wilson fifth rookie QB to earn playoff victory.
9. Redskins (10-7) Shanahan, Andrews dispute handling of RG3 injury.
10. Bengals (10-7) Marvin Lewis’ career postseason record falls to 0–4.
11. Colts (11-6) Bruce Arians hospitalized, misses loss at Baltimore.
12. Vikings (10-7) Joe Webb replaces Christian Ponder, struggles in loss.
13. Bears (10-6) Getting crazy eyes for interviewing Mike Singletary.
14. Giants (9-7) Jason Pierre-Paul to seek help from Michael Strahan.
15. Cowboys (8-8) Tony Romo taunted by NHL’s Dallas Stars on Twitter.
16. Steelers (8-8) OC Todd Haley debating interview for Cardinals’ job.
17. Rams (7-8-1) Williams boys, Gregg and Blake, let go in St. Louis.
18. Panthers (7-9) X-rays on Cam Newton’s ribs, left ankle negative.
19. Saints (7-9) Sean Payton reportedly signs richest deal in NFL.
20. Dolphins (7-9) Owner Stephen Ross backs Philbin-Tannehill duo.
21. Chargers (7-9) To settle on GM before making next coaching hire.
22. Buccaneers (7-9) Josh Freeman contract not extended by Tampa Bay.
23. Titans (6-10) Chris Johnson guaranteed $9 million bonus Feb. 9.
24. Bills (6-10) Hire Doug Marrone as franchise’s 16th head coach.
25. Jets (6-10) Rex Ryan has tattoo of wife in Mark Sanchez jersey.
26. Cardinals (5-11) Darnell Dockett types tweet nothings during BCS title.
27. Browns (5-11) Chip Kelly backs off NFL, headed back to Oregon.
28. Lions (4-12) Calvin Johnson career year defies “Madden Curse.”
29. Eagles (4-12) Set to interview Bengals’ Jay Gruden. Is Jon next?
30. Raiders (4-12) Dennis Allen to coach North team in Senior Bowl.
31. Jaguars (2-14) Mike Mularkey status uncertain until new GM hired.
32. Chiefs (2-14) Andy Reid to coach, make personnel moves in K.C.
High-stepping, sliding, throwing his fists back and pointing his chest to the sky to let out one final battle cry, Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis made his triumphant return from injury as well as his last appearance as a player in front of the home crowd at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore during a Wild Card Weekend showdown with the Indianapolis Colts.
And he did so in style, with his signature dance during pregame introductions and on the field in the final seconds of a 24–9 victory, prior to taking a victory lap to say goodbye to the fans who have supported the Super Bowl MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year during his 17 seasons, all with the Ravens.
“I knew how it started, but I never knew how it was going to end here in Baltimore,” said Lewis. “For it to go the way it went today, I wouldn’t change anything.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell was in attendance to hug the future Hall of Famer prior to kickoff, in Lewis’ first action since suffering a torn triceps on Oct. 14 in Week 6. The 37-year-old didn’t miss a beat, with 13 total tackles and a near-interception of Indianapolis rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
“He played well. He was physical at the point of attack. He did a good job in the pass game,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “Really nothing negative. He played a good, solid game.”
Chants of, “Thank you, Ray!” rained down from the purple-clad crowd with the game decided late in the fourth quarter, as the fans in Baltimore said a collective goodbye to their franchise’s greatest player.
“It was one of those great moments. I felt so proud of our fans. So pleased that we all have something that we will be able to talk to our kids and our grandkids about,” said Harbaugh.
“A Baltimore football moment that is going to just live on. That’s kind of why you do this — it’s kind of why you’re a fan, to be a part of moments like this.”
Now the Ravens hit the road to take on the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs. The game is a rematch of a Week 15 contest won, 34–17, by Denver.
And in order to take down the stampeding Broncos — who have won 11 straight since staggering to a 2–3 start — the Ravens defense will have to outplay Peyton Manning, the four-time MVP quarterback and current MVP candidate who Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard recently compared to a “MacBook” computer.
“He’s not a computer, that’s for sure. He may have a computer for a brain, but he’s a man. We’re going to try to confuse him, and we’re going to need to try to put pressure on him,” said Harbaugh. “It’s a great analogy.”
In what could be his final game in the NFL, Lewis will lead the Ravens against arguably the greatest passer of his (or any) generation. Manning vs. Lewis, winner takes all, loser goes home — for good, in Lewis’ case.
“It’s just one of those chess matches,” said Lewis. “He knows me very well. I know them very well.”
Much has changed since the Raven’s defeat four weeks ago. Baltimore was without Lewis, Pollard and guard Marshal Yanda in that contest, while linebacker Terrell Suggs was playing his first game back from injury and Jim Caldwell was in his first game as the team’s play-caller after replacing Cam Cameron as the team’s offensive coordinator. Baltimore is back full strength headed to Denver for revenge. That’s all they can ask.
“We saw them earlier in the year, but now we get them again with all of our guys back,” said Lewis. “We are really looking forward to it.”
A betting preview of each of every game (against the spread) on Wild Card Weekend in the NFL Playoffs.
Lock of the Week
Win or lose, this is Ray Lewis' last dance in front of the home crowd in Baltimore, expect the city's new team to soar past its former franchise.
Ravens (-6.5) vs. Colts
For all the flak Joe Flacco has taken over the years, he has a 5–4 record in the playoffs with at least one postseason win in each of his four years in the NFL. Andrew Luck is trying to join Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Sanchez and Shaun King as only the fifth rookie quarterback to ever win a playoff game.
Straight Up Upset
A rookie starting quarterback is guaranteed a win in this game, as league posterboy Robert Griffin III takes on everyone's underdog Russell Wilson.
Redskins (+3) vs. Seahawks
Seattle was an impressive 8–0 at home this season, but carried a 3–5 mark on the road. Historically, the Seahawks have lost eight consecutive postseason games on the road and have not won a road playoff game since Dec. 31, 1983. Only nine players on the current 53-man roster were even alive then.
These NFC North division rivals are playing for the second consecutive week and for the third time in the past six weeks. These teams are familiar foes.
Vikings (+9) at Packers
In Week 17, Minnesota knocked off Green Bay, 37–34; in Week 13, the Packers beat the Vikings, 23–14. Over the past three seasons, Minnesota has a 4–2 record vs. Green Bay against a similar spread. Plus, Adrian Peterson has run wild for 409 yards and three total TDs against the Packers this season.
Stay away completely, unless you are a hometown homer or a degenerate who has to have action on every game in the playoffs no matter what.
Texans (-5) vs. Bengals
Sure, this is a rematch of last year's AFC Wild Card, which Houston won 31–10 over Cincinnati. But the Texans have lost three of its last four contests and quarterback Matt Schaub — who has thrown one TD and three INTs during the 1–3 stretch run — will be making the first playoff start of his career.
With the 2012 NFL regular season in the books, it’s time to hand out awards to the league’s top talent. This year, there are more players deserving recognition than there are trophies to hand out. However, these are the select few Athlon Sports believes to be award-worthy:
Most Valuable Player
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
After missing the entire 2011 season following four neck surgeries, Manning returned to his four-time MVP form in 2012. In his 15th year in the league, but first as a member of the Broncos, the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer had the second-best statistical season of his storied career — passing for 4,659 yards (42 yards shy of his single-season best), 37 TDs (second-most of his career) and only 11 INTs (third-fewest of his career) for a 105.8 passer rating (second-highest of his career).
Offensive Player of the Year
Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Against all odds, Peterson stormed back from a brutal knee injury suffered on Christmas Eve last season. Peterson became the seventh player in history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season — with 348 carries for 2,097 yards, on a league-leading 6.0 yards per carry, and 12 TDs, while also hauling in 40 catches for 217 yards and one TD through the air.
Defensive Player of the Year
J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
With respect to Denver’s Von Miller and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, Houston’s second-year behemoth out of Wisconsin was the most dominant all-around defender in the NFL this year. Commanding constant double-teams, Watt tallied 81 total tackles, including 69 solo stops, with 20.5 sacks, a record 16 pass deflections and four forced fumbles.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins
RG3 headlines a crowded category that also includes Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Redskins running back Alfred Morris and Buccaneers running back Doug Martin. But the Heisman Trophy winner deserves to take home the hardware — with 3,200 passing yards, 20 TDs and five INTs for a 102.4 passer rating, along with 815 rushing yards and seven TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks
Seattle’s second-round pick (No. 47 overall) was a relatively obscure middle linebacker out of Utah State who has developed into one of the leaders of the ball-Hawks from the Pacific Northwest. A playmaking threat from sideline-to-sideline, Wagner has notched 140 total tackles, three INTs and two sacks while starting 15 games for the Seahawks.
Co-Comeback Players of the Year
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Manning and Peterson both had seemingly super-human MVP-worthy comeback campaigns. In fact, they might be the best two injury bounce-backs in NFL history. Break out the scalpel and cut this award in half.
Coach of the Year
Bruce Arians, Colts
The former Steelers playcaller was charged with taking over the top spot in Indy on an interim basis after the leukemia diagnosis of first-year coach Chuck Pagano. Arians responded with a 9–3 record and playoff berth.
Executive of the Year
John Elway, Broncos
The Broncos’ boss man lassoed Peyton Manning in the offseason — one year after drafting Defensive Player of the Year candidate Von Miller. This one’s for John.
NFL Playoffs previews and predictions for Wild Card Weekend:
Byes: Broncos, Patriots
Bengals (10-6) at Texans (12-4)
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt had a coming out party in last year’s 31–10 Wild Card win over Cincinnati. Then a rookie, Watt had one sack, one INT returned 29 yards for a TD and one of his now famous J.J. swats to bat a ball down at the line of scrimmage. Watt followed that effort with a 12-tackle, 2.5-sack performance against in a Divisional Round defeat at Baltimore. But after 3.5 sacks and a pick-six in his first two playoff games, it’s safe to say that Watt likes the bright lights of the postseason.
Offensively, the Texans’ two-headed monster of running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson have been nearly impossible to stop this season. Foster has 1,641 total yards and 17 total TDs, while Johnson recently joined Marvin Harrison as the only players in history with four seasons with at least 100 catches and 1,500 yards.
The Bengals’ second-year pitch-and-catch duo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green is also a tough tandem. Green has been particularly difficult to cover this season, with at least 100 yards or one TD in 12 games.
Texans by 6
Colts (11-5) at Ravens (10-6)
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
The Colts return to Baltimore, where the team played from 1953-83 before packing up the Mayflower moving trucks and heading for Indy in 1984. Football returned to Baltimore in 1996, when the Browns moved from Cleveland and became the Ravens.
This will be the third playoff meeting between the Colts and Ravens since 2007. The Colts won both games, with a 20–3 win in Indianapolis in 2010 and a 15–6 victory at Baltimore in 2007. The last time these two squared off, Colts coach Chuck Pagano was the Ravens defensive coordinator, while Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was the coach in Indianapolis.
This will be the first postseason start for Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and possibly the last game for Ravens veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who has announced his intentions to retire following this season’s playoffs. Luck will need to keep his eyes on Baltimore ball-hawk Ed Reed, who has eight INTs for 162 return yards and one TD in 11 career playoff games.
Colts by 1
Byes: Falcons, 49ers
Vikings (10-6) at Packers (11-5)
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
This AFC North division rivalry is between two familiar opponents who squared off in Week 17 — with Minnesota taking a 37–34 victory over Green Bay on a 29-yard game-winning FG by rookie Blair Walsh as time expired. In Week 13, the Packers defended Lambeau Field with a 23–14 win over the Vikings.
The season series was split, but there was one common thread in both contests. Adrian Peterson rushed for 210 yards and one TD outdoors in Green Bay and then had 199 rush yards and two total TDs in the dome at Minnesota. Peterson giving the Packers defense fits “All Day” isn’t a new trend, either. Last year, A.D. rushed for 175 yards and one TD in a loss; in 2010, he had 171 total yards and one TD in defeat.
But Green Bay will reluctantly allow Peterson to keep posting eye-popping numbers if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can continue a trend of his own. The discount double-checker is 5–1 against the Vikings over the last three seasons. More impressive, Rodgers has not lost back-to-back games since December 2010.
Packers by 5
Seahawks (11-5) at Redskins (10-6)
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX
The battle of rookie starting quarterbacks pits everyone’s favorite television spokesman and nicknamed hyperbole machine Robert Griffin III — known as RG3 to the hip fans who made his No. 10 jersey the all-time single-season record holder in sales — against the ultimate underdog Russell Wilson, a two-sport star who played for two schools (NC State, Wisconsin) before landing in Seattle.
Although their draft positions may be different (RG3 went No. 2, Wilson went No. 75 overall), both signal-callers have relied on similar dual-threat athleticism and mistake-free maturity to succeed. And as a result, both the Skins and Hawks are playing their best ball when it matters most. Washington has won seven consecutive games since its Week 10 bye, while Seattle has won five straight and seven of its last eight.
But history is not on the side of the Seahawks, who have lost eight straight playoff road games dating back to Dec. 31, 1983. Only nine Hawks on the current 53-man roster were even alive then.
Seahawks by 2
Last week: 12–4 // Season: 172-84
Athlon Sports' weekly rankings of NFL teams. The Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos head into the playoffs as the No. 1 seeds in the NFC and AFC, respectively. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs have locked up the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.
Here are our NFL Power Rankings following Week 17 of the season:
1. Falcons (13-3) John Abraham injures ankle in meaningless defeat.
2. Broncos (13-3) Eleventh straight win clinches No. 1 seed in playoffs.
3. Patriots (12-4) Rob Gronkowski scores in return from forearm injury.
4. 49ers (11-4-1) Clinch first-round bye with win plus Packers’ loss.
5. Texans (12-4) J.J. Watt falls two sacks shy of single-season record.
6. Packers (11-5) Lose at Minnesota, set to host rematch at Lambeau.
7. Seahawks (11-5) Russell Wilson ties rookie TD pass record (26) in win.
8. Redskins (10-6) RG3 plays through pain, leads Skins to playoffs.
9. Ravens (10-6) Ray Lewis returns for “last ride” before retirement.
10. Colts (11-5) Chuck Pagano victorious in first game back in Indy.
11. Bengals (10-6) Hope playoff rematch in Houston has happy ending.
12. Vikings (10-6) Adrian Peterson makes history, playoffs in victory.
13. Bears (10-6) Lovie Smith fired, Mike Ditka calls the move “stupid.”
14. Giants (9-7) Too little, too late for reigning Super Bowl champs.
15. Cowboys (8-8) Tony Romo throws season-ending INT vs. Redskins.
16. Steelers (8-8) Mike Tomlin avoids first losing season with victory.
17. Rams (7-8-1) One win away from first winning season since 2003.
18. Panthers (7-9) Win four straight, five of last six, to finish season.
19. Saints (7-9) Drew Brees first ever with three 5,000-yard years.
20. Dolphins (7-9) Fourth straight losing season ends in shutout loss.
21. Chargers (7-9) Pull the plug on coach Norv Turner, GM A.J. Smith.
22. Buccaneers (7-9) Muscle Hamster finishes with 1,454 yards, 11 TDs.
23. Titans (6-10) First ever with two players to score two return TDs.
24. Bills (6-10) Fire Chan Gailey; establishing analytics department.
25. Jets (6-10) Rex Ryan leaves town with job intact — for now.
26. Cardinals (5-11) Ken Whisenhunt fired after losing 11 of last 12 games.
27. Browns (5-11) Ready to hire sixth coach since 1999 return to NFL.
28. Lions (4-12) Calvin Johnson falls 36 yards short of 2K campaign.
29. Eagles (4-12) Andy Reid fired after 130–93–1 record in 14 seasons.
30. Raiders (4-12) Dennis Allen fires OC Greg Knapp after down year.
31. Jaguars (2-14) Is it Tim Tebow time now that season is finally over?
32. Chiefs (2-14) Fire Romeo Crennel, status of Scott Pioli uncertain.
It’s always fresh in the Outback is a steakhouse slogan that doubles for the bloomin’ bowl game. The SEC vs. Big Ten matchup has been one of the best non-BCS bowls in recent years. Since 2000, three games have gone to overtime — including last year’s triple-overtime classic between Michigan State and Georgia — and eight have been contests decided by one-score margins.
In this year’s game, Michigan will be wearing alternate uniforms — the eighth jersey color scheme combination since Brady Hoke took over college football’s winningest program last season. Luckily for traditionalists who “Hail to the Victors,” the Wolverines will still be wearing their classic winged helmets.
Outback Bowl — South Carolina (10–2) vs. Michigan (8–4)
Date and Time: Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Tampa, Fla.
When the South Carolina Gamecocks have the ball:
Ol’ ball coach Steve Spurrier has been pitching-and-catching less at South Carolina than he did during his Fun n’ Gun days at Florida. That was easier before star junior tailback Marcus Lattimore suffered a devastating knee injury against Tennessee on Oct. 27.
Without Lattimore, South Carolina has turned to playmakers like receivers Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington — who have a combined to haul in 27 catches for 367 yards and five TDs in the three games since Lattimore went down.
A less serious injury, to dual-threat starting quarterback Connor Shaw’s left foot, forced the Gamecocks to take to the air with backup Dylan Thompson, who attempted 41 passes and threw three TDs during a 27–17 win over rival Clemson. Although Shaw is expected to start, Spurrier will return to his Gator-armed days of keeping a short leash on his passers by implementing a two-quarterback gameplan that also features Thompson.
Michigan will be playing without several defenders, having senior cornerback J.T. Floyd and senior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne, along with Big Ten punter of the year Will Hagerup, all to suspension. The U-M’s No. 57-ranked rush defense (156.0 ypg) will be tested, but defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s No. 16 scoring defense (18.3 ppg) has been bending without breaking all season, allowing over 21 points just four times.
When the Michigan Wolverines have the ball:
By far the best individual matchup of the entire bowl season will take place between a pair of AP first-team All-Americans in the trenches. Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan (6’8”, 310) and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (6’6”, 255) will have NFL scouts packing Raymond James Stadium for a peek at two elite first-round prospects. Clowney led the nation with 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss as a sophomore and is hoping to enter 2013 as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I believe a defensive player can win the Heisman next year. … That’s my next thing, New York,” said Clowney, who could kick start his campaign with a big game against Lewan.
Michigan will be without running back Fitz Toussaint due to a broken leg, but the dynamic quarterback duo of Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson should be able to pick up the slack. Gardner took over the starting quarterback job after an arm injury suffered by Robinson. In just four games, Gardner has thrown for 1,005 yards, eight TDs and four INTs, while scrambling for 77 yards and another seven TDs on the ground and posting a 3–1 record.
But since this is the last game in Maize-and-Blue for “Shoelace” as well as a Florida homecoming for the Deerfield Beach native, don’t be surprised if Michigan opens up the playbook for the school’s all-time leader in total yards (10,669) and total TDs (91). Robinson has thrown for 1,319 yards, rushed for 1,166 yards and accounted for 16 total TDs. Used exclusively as a runner in the last two games, Denard X posted 23 carries for 220 yards, on 9.6 yards per carry, and one TD.
South Carolina lost only twice this season, in a 23–21 tight fight in Death Valley at LSU and a 44–11 blowout in The Swamp at Florida the following week. Meanwhile, Michigan lost twice as many games, but against elite competition — Alabama (41–14), at Notre Dame (13–6), at Nebraska (23–9) and at Ohio State (26–21). Together, the Gamecocks and Wolverines lost to six teams with a combined 67–7 record.
These are two of the more competitive, battle-tested teams in the country. Expect another close call in this year’s Outback Bowl, with the Clowney and the Gamecocks defense doing just enough to tangle Shoelace and the Wolverines offense.
Prediction: South Carolina 27, Michigan 24
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A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2013
Capital One Bowl Preview and Prediction: Georgia vs. Nebraska
Orange Bowl Preview and Prediction: Florida State vs. Northern Illinois
Rose Bowl Preview and Prediction: Wisconsin vs. Stanford
This year, countless Internet memes went viral. But the world of sports saw some of the best. Here is a rundown of the top 10 best Internet memes in sports in 2012.
1. McKayla Is Not Impressed
Arguably the No. 1 meme of 2012, regardless of genre. "McKayla Is Not Impressed" was the gold medal meme of the London Olympics, after McKayla Maroney was disappointed with her silver medal in the individual vault — after already taking home gold with Team USA's "Fierce Five."
2. Smokin’ Jay Cutler
Chicago Bears gunslinger Jay Cutler's bad body language and disgusted looks of frustration have been great for the internet. Look out, Marlboro Man and Joe Camel, "Smokin' Jay Cutler" has become the new face of big tobacco.
3. Eli Manning Looking At Things
New York Giants two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Eli Manning is known for his laid back attitude. No matter how big the stage or how bright the lights, Peyton's little bro keeps his cool. "Eli Manning Looking At Things" shows just how slow his pulse can be sometimes.
4. Mo Farah Running Away From Things
The gold medalist in the 5,000- and 10,000-meters at the London Olympics, the Somali-born British track star is a veteran of distancing himself from the pack. So, "Mo Farah Running Away From Things" was a natural fit, just ask Pamela Anderson and the cast of Baywatch.
5. Manny Pacquiao KO’d
Pacman lost to Mexico's Juan Manuel Marquez by sixth-round KO in early December, costing the Filipino prize fighter the fifth loss of his amazing career. It also prompted internet shadow boxers to speed-bag a few memes of Manny hitting the mat.
6. Good Job, Good Effort
After a Miami Heat loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, nine-year-old superfan Jack Meyer took it upon himself to cheer up LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Co. by rapid-firing "Good job, good effort!" as the team went to the locker room. Miami rallied from the 3-2 deficit to beat Boston and ultimately win the NBA championship, but by then the "Good job, good effort" kid was already internet famous.
7. Queen Elizabeth at Olympic Opening Ceremonies
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, was in the stands at the London Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Of course she was. And, of course, people quickly started taking screen shots and mocking her royal highness. God meme the queen.
8. Derrick Rose's ACL Injury
When Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose heard his ACL pop in the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers, the entire city of Chicago, along with Bulls fans from coast-to-coast felt like Simba did when his father Mufasa died in Disney's The Lion King.
9. Fat Derek Jeter
One of the prices paid by Derek Jeter is constantly having his picture taken — whether he has his arm around the waist of a supermodel, actress or pop star, or is carrying a few extra pounds around his waist while strolling in a walking boot poolside in South Beach a month after ankle surgery.
10. Anthony Davis’ Unibrow
It doesn't take much web surfing to find out that Kentucky phenom Anthony Davis was named National Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Final Four MOP, leading John Calipari to his first-ever national championship before being the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft — and he also has a unibrow.
Preseason No. 1 USC started the year chasing the school’s 12th national championship, to take care of what senior quarterback Matt Barkley called “unfinished business.” But following a two-year postseason ban, the Trojans are not playing for the BCS crystal in Miami — which, ironically, is the city where the man whose transgressions the Men of Troy paid for, Reggie Bush, is currently paid to play football.
Instead, USC is off to the West Texas border town of El Paso to face Georgia Tech, a program with a losing record in 2012 and in the midst of a seven-bowl losing streak. But with so much NFL talent on the field and a chip on their shoulder — not to mention a 0–2 record of their own in the Sun Bowl — the Trojans still have plenty to play for.
USC should want to go out with a bang not a whimper, to show the sarcastic skeptics exactly why the Trojans were once considered the top team in the land.
Sun Bowl — USC (7–5) vs. Georgia Tech (6–7)
Date and Time: Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: El Paso, Texas
When the USC Trojans have the ball:
Barkley began the season as the Heisman Trophy favorite and projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. After throwing for a career-worst 15 INTs, Barkley suffered a sprained AC joint in his right throwing arm in a loss against UCLA and was forced to sit out his final home game at the L.A. Coliseum against No. 1 Notre Dame. And USC’s all-time leading passer was not cleared to play in the Sun Bowl, which means Max Wittek will get his second start. Wittek completed 14 of 23 throws for 186 yards and one touchdown against Notre Dame in the regular season finale.
Although Wittek is short on experience, he will have the nation’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Unanimous All-American and Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee has 112 catches for 1,680 yards and 14 TDs this season, while Robert Woods added another 73 catches for 813 yards and 11 TDs.
Georgia Tech arrives with the nation’s No. 77 scoring defense (29.9 ppg), No. 67 passing defense and No. 47 run defense, having allowed 3,110 yards and 22 pass TDs along with 1,921 yards and 27 rush TDs in 13 games.
When the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have the ball:
For all the success Paul Johnson has had with his triple-option offense during the season, the Yellow Jackets have struggled in bowl games when teams have weeks — as opposed to days — to prepare for the unique attack. Johnson’s Jackets are 0–4 in bowls since he took over in 2008, including a 30–27 loss to Utah in last year’s Sun Bowl.
Quarterback Tevin Washington is the engine that powers the Ramblin’ Wreck — with 1,173 yards and seven TDs through the air, and 638 yards and 19 TDs on the ground. Running back Orwin Smith was Tech’s leading rusher and second-leading receiver, but was forced to sit out of the season’s final two games with an ankle injury.
USC’s star-studded secondary, led by safety T.J. McDonald and corner Nickell Robey, will be neutralized somewhat against GT’s ground-and-pound offense. But the Trojans’ strong linebacker corps, including big play Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and No. 55 Lamar Dawson will be prominently on display in Monte Kiffin’s last game calling the defense.
Barkley, McDonald and a loaded senior class won’t go out in the style they envisioned, but they will go out waving the “V” for victory. Expect the Trojans to ride off into the sunset following a decisive Sun Bowl win.
Prediction: USC 42, Georgia Tech 24
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The third annual bowl game at Yankee Stadium may technically be a matchup between the Big 12’s West Virginia Mountaineers and the Big East’s Syracuse Orange. But the reality is that this is a grudge match between former Big East rivals who first played in 1945 and have played every year since 1955.
Since 1993, the winner of the rivalry has been awarded the Floyd “Ben” Schwartzwalder Trophy — a hulking 55-pound award that was sculpted by Syracuse player Jim Ridlon and named after the former West Virginia player and Syracuse head coach. This time around, the George M. Steinbrenner Trophy — named after the late, great seven-time World Series champion New York Yankees owner — will also be on the line.
The Orange lead the all-time series, 32–27, including victories over the Mountaineers in each of their past two meetings following an eight-game win streak by WVU over SU from 2002-09. Last season, Syracuse dominated West Virginia, 49–23, scoring more points in the series than it had since 1960. Two years ago, the Orange went on the road for a 19–14 win in Morgantown.
Pinstripe Bowl — West Virginia (7–5) vs. Syracuse (7–5)
Date and Time: Dec. 29 at 3:15 p.m. ET
Location: Bronx, N.Y.
When the West Virginia Mountaineers have the ball:
The short right field porch at Yankee Stadium won’t come into play at this year’s Pinstripe Bowl, but there could be plenty of home runs hit judging by the Mountaineers’ recent history. This season, WVU’s scoring offense ranked No. 7 nationally, averaging 41.6 points per game. And that doesn’t include last year’s bowl, when West Virginia crushed Clemson, 70–33, in a game that broke nine Orange Bowl records.
It’s easy to forget, but WVU quarterback Geno Smith was the clear Heisman Trophy frontrunner following a 5–0 start to the season in which he threw 24 TDs and zero INTs. A five-game slide followed, abruptly ending Smith’s award-worthy campaign. But the senior from Miami still finished the season with 4,004 yards, 40 TDs and six INTs — with the help of prolific receivers Stedman Bailey (106 catches for 1,501 yards, 23 TDs) and Tavon Austin (110 catches for 1,259 yards, 12 TDs).
For all his success, however, Smith has struggled in his two starts against Syracuse, completing a combined 44-of-78 passes for 516 yards, three TDs and five INTs while going 0–2 against the Orange. Smith will also be without center Joe Madsen for the Pinstripe Bowl, as the senior was ruled academically ineligible.
“With Syracuse, we have some unfinished business,” said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen. “Their scheme got us a little bit. We’ll see how much improvement we made on specific looks. They’re very much a dial-up-a-defense kind of team, so you don’t know what you’re going to get.
“Seventeen of the first 18 blitzes last year were different, so we have to identify that and get in the right play. (Geno Smith) has matured a bunch. And from a scheme standpoint, he is going to be able to see that and make some pretty good checks — I feel comfortable about that.”
When the Syracuse Orange have the ball:
Doug Marrone was Drew Brees’ offensive coordinator with the New Orleans Saints before taking over at Syracuse. While Orange senior signal-caller Ryan Nassib may not be a Super Bowl MVP, he could be a Pinstripe Bowl MVP soon enough. After passing for 3,619 yards, 24 TDs and nine INTs, Nassib will be leaned on to match scoring strikes with WVU’s Smith — who is ranked by many as the top quarterback prospect in April’s 2013 NFL Draft.
“The Pinstripe Bowl is going to be a great game with two high powered offenses going head-to-head,” said Nassib. “It is going to be a lot of fun for me and the other seniors. This is like our Super Bowl.”
West Virginia’s defense allowed 38.1 points per game, ranking No. 114, or seventh-worst, in the country. The Mountaineers allowed 45 or more points in six games and could struggle to slow down Nassib’s favorite receivers Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales, as well as the Orange’s backfield duo of Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley.
Syracuse has a 6–1 record at Yankee Stadium, including a 3–0 win over Pittsburgh in the first college football game played at the old ballpark in 1923. But given a month to gameplan, the coach-QB duo of Holgorsen and Smith could call their shot — maybe not quite like last year’s Ruthian 70-point Orange Bowl effort — at the home of the Bronx Bombers.
Prediction: West Virginia 45, Syracuse 38
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NFL Week 17 previews and predictions for every game on the schedule, broken down into tiers in regards to what they’re playing for (in order of likelihood) on the last Sunday of the regular season:
Texans (12-3) at Colts (10-5)
Houston can wrap up a first-round bye with a win or a tie; or a New England loss or tie; or a Denver loss. The Texans will earn home-field advantage with a win; or a tie and a Broncos loss or tie; or a Patriots loss or tie as well as a loss by the Broncos. Houston has lost two of its last three games. But the Texans’ lone win during that stretch was a 29–17 victory over the Colts. Indianapolis has already clinched a playoff berth, becoming just the second team in history to win 10 games after losing 14 or more in the previous season.
Texans by 3
Chiefs (2-13) at Broncos (12-3)
Denver will clinch a first-round bye with a win or tie; or a New England loss or tie. The Broncos can claim home-field advantage with a win coupled with a Texans loss or tie; or a tie along with a loss by Houston. The Broncos are 6–1 at Mile High this season, giving Peyton Manning and Co. plenty of motivation to hand the Chiefs their 12th loss in 13 weeks. Denver beat Kansas City 17–9 in Week 12.
Broncos by 15
Packers (11-4) at Vikings (9-6)
There is plenty on the line for both Green Bay and Minnesota in this black-and-blue NFC North division rivalry game. The Packers earn a first-round bye with a win; or a tie and a loss or tie by the 49ers; or a San Francisco loss and a Seattle loss or tie. The Vikings punch their ticket to the playoffs with a win; or a tie and a loss or tie by the Bears; or the trifecta of a Cowboys loss or tie, Giants loss or tie and Bears loss. Green Bay beat Minnesota, 23–14, in Week 13.
Packers by 1
Dolphins (7-8) at Patriots (11-4)
New England clinches a first-round bye with a win coupled with a loss by either Denver or Houston. The Patriots can claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win, and a loss by both the Broncos and Texans. The Pats have made the Super Bowl in five of the six playoffs that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have entered as a No. 1 or 2 seed.
Patriots by 13
Cardinals (5-10) at 49ers (10-4-1)
San Francisco will be NFC West champions with a win or tie. The Niners can earn a first-round bye with a win or tie and a Packers loss or tie. San Fran beat Arizona, 24–3, in Week 8.
49ers by 14
Rams (7-7-1) at Seahawks (10-5)
Seattle will be NFC West champions with a win coupled with a loss by San Francisco. The Hawks can clinch home-field advantage — where they are an undefeated 7–0 — with a win and a loss by both the 49ers and Packers.
Seahawks by 9
Cowboys (8-7) at Redskins (9-6)
The flex-schedule Sunday night prime time game features a classic rivalry as well as a do-or-die playoff play-in showdown between two teams that control their own destiny.
Redskins by 1
Bears (9-6) at Lions (4-11)
After losing five of its last seven contests, Chicago must win and hope for a Minnesota loss or tie in order to sneak into the playoffs.
Bears by 2
Eagles (4-11) at Giants (8-7)
The defending Super Bowl champs need the dominoes to fall — with a win and losses by the Cowboys, Bears and Vikings.
Giants by 5
Buccaneers (6-9) at Falcons (13-2)
Atlanta has wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC Playoffs as well as the NFC South crown.
Falcons by 9
Ravens (10-5) at Bengals (9-6)
Baltimore is the AFC North champ, while the Bengals have already clinched a playoff berth.
Bengals by 3
Panthers (6-9) at Saints (7-8)
Believe New Orleans wants revenge for its 35–27 loss at Carolina in Week 2.
Saints by 6
Browns (5-10) at Steelers (7-8)
Big Ben hopes to do what Charlie Batch didn’t during a 20–14 loss at Cleveland in Week 12.
Steelers by 9
Jets (6-9) at Bills (5-10)
New York soared to a 48–28 win over Buffalo in Week 1. That sure seems like a long time ago.
Bills by 3
Raiders (4-11) at Chargers (6-9)
The supposed final game of the Norv Turner era is a rematch of a 22–14 Bolts win in Week 1.
Chargers by 8
Jaguars (2-13) at Titans (5-10)
Tennessee handed Jacksonville its only home win of the year with a 24–19 loss in Week 12.
Titans by 4
Last week: 10–6 // Season: 160–80
Athlon Sports' weekly rankings of NFL teams. The Atlanta Falcons have flown back into the top spot after locking up home-field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs remain the on the bottom of the totem pole.
Here are our NFL Power Rankings following Week 16 of the season:
1. Falcons (13-2) Earn home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs.
2. Seahawks (10-5) Russell Wilson throws four TDs to defeat 49ers.
3. 49ers (10-4-1) Letdown loss at Seattle after win at New England.
4. Patriots (11-4) Rally from 10–0 deficit for comeback win at Jags.
5. Packers (11-4) Score 50 or more points for first time since 2005.
6. Texans (12-3) Held out of the end zone for first time since 2006.
7. Broncos (12-3) Riding 10-game win streak after beating Browns.
8. Ravens (10-5) Ray Lewis activated on 53-man roster for Week 17.
9. Colts (10-5) Fourth-quarter comeback clinches berth in playoffs.
10. Bengals (9-6) Josh Brown game-winner comes with four ticks left.
11. Redskins (9-6) Aiming for first NFC East division title since 1999.
12. Cowboys (8-7) It’s win or go home after loss to New Orleans in OT.
13. Vikings (9-6) Adrian Peterson needs 102 yards to reach 2,000.
14. Bears (9-6) Defense scores two more TDs in victory at Arizona.
15. Giants (8-7) Outscored 67–14 in losses at Atlanta, at Baltimore.
16. Steelers (7-8) Miss playoffs for just second time in Mike Tomlin era.
17. Rams (7-7-1) Jackson nearing eighth straight 1,000-yard season.
18. Saints (7-8) Playoff hopes ended by Vikings’ victory over Texans.
19. Dolphins (7-8) Reggie Bush scores three TDs in win over Buffalo.
20. Panthers (6-9) Cam Newton apologizes for bumping game official.
21. Buccaneers (6-9) Lose five turnovers, turnover on downs twice in loss.
22. Chargers (6-9) Antonio Gates passes Lance Alworth with 82nd TD.
23. Jets (6-9) Greg McElroy sacked 11 times in loss to San Diego.
24. Titans (5-10) Held scoreless until 1:39 remaining in 48-point loss.
25. Bills (5-10) Have missed playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons.
26. Browns (5-10) Richardson tops Jim Brown rookie rushing record.
27. Cardinals (5-10) Throw four pick-sixes, zero TDs in last four games.
28. Lions (4-11) Megatron can’t transform records into better record.
29. Eagles (4-11) Mike Vick doesn’t see Week 17 start as “audition.”
30. Raiders (4-11) Palmer, Leinart, Pryor all see action at QB in defeat.
31. Jaguars (2-13) Break inaugural 1995 season record for most losses.
32. Chiefs (2-13) Jamaal Charles’ 226 rushing yards still not enough.
The year in sports was full of both highlights and lowlights. There were great moments like Usain Bolt’s 100-meter dash at the London Olympics and LeBron James winning his first NBA championship. But there were even more blunders made on and off the field by players, coaches and entire leagues. Here’s a look at the bottom 10 worst sports moments of 2012:
1. Golden Tate’s replacement referee TD
The Replacement Refs went out with a bang, making a controversial call of simultaneous possession on a game-winning touchdown “catch” by the Seahawks’ Golden Tate to beat the Packers in prime time on Monday Night Football.
After watching the scab refs throw yellow flags, hand out fourth timeouts, put more or less than the right amount of time on the clock, spot the ball on the wrong yard-line, call college football rules in an NFL game or create an environment of casual chaos on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays from Weeks 1-through-3 this season, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL owners finally decided enough was enough after one of the wildest finishes in NFL history.
2. Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal
“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Armstrong said in a statement declaring he would not continue his fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency. “For me, that time is now.” And with that, Armstrong’s reputation was wiped out mere mortal cyclists on the Pyrenees or Alps, his seven Tour de France titles were stripped and the signature Livestrong yellow wristbands became fodder for South Park jokes. The cancer survivor was cast away into the asterisk purgatory of Barry Bonds, as the greatest cheater his sport has ever seen.
3. Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle wreck
The ultimate April Fool, the 51-year-old married father of four wiped out on his motorcycle with 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell, a blonde former Arkansas volleyball player turned football program employee. When the neck brace was off, it turned out that the young Dorrell had accepted some $20,000 in gifts used for a car, vacation and wedding expenses — that’s right, she was engaged to be married.
Petrino lost his job, but not before making himself into a national punch-line and reminding everyone not to use a company phone (especially if working for a state school) when trying to keep an inter-office affair hidden from your wife and boss.
4. National Hockey League lockout
The NHL owners declared a lockout of the NHL Players’ Association, canceling the scheduled Oct. 11, 2012 start of the season. The Commissioner Gary Bettman-led NHL owners want to reduce the NHLPA’s previous guaranteed share of 57 percent of hockey related revenues. The league canceled NBC’s Thanksgiving Showdown on Black Friday as well as the 2013 NHL Winter Classic, and seems set on turning the “Big Four” team sports into the “Big Three.”
5. Mark Sanchez’s “butt fumble” season
While Tim Tebow sat on the bench and watched from the sideline, the Jets’ face of the franchise formerly known as New York’s “Sanchize” quarterback was “butt-fumbling” on the field. Sanchez threw 13 TDs and 17 INTs for a 67.9 quarterback rating, while also coughing up the football with 12 fumbles, seven of which were recovered by the opposing defense — none more memorable than the one during a 49–19 loss to division rival New England in an instant classic Thanksgiving Day play.
6. Alex Rodriguez’s playoff performance
The world’s most overpaid athlete hit .120 (3-for-25) with two walks and one run scored over seven games in the playoffs. Plus, A-Rod produced the ultimate A-Rod moment when he allegedly attempted to get the phone number of Australian model Kyna Treacy by sending a souvenir baseball to her in the stands during Game 1 of the ALCS. A-Rod shut down his flirting bar fly from the bench routine when the Captain, Derek Jeter, broke his ankle hustling for the team in extra innings.
7. Miami Marlins’ fire sale trade(s)
After spending over $500 million in public money from taxpayers and the city of Miami in order to build Marlins Park, notoriously bad owner Jeffrey Loria pulled a classic bait and switch — trading away nearly every player on the roster worthy of having his own baseball card. Is a ball club better with or without Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, Mark Buehrle, Omar Infante, John Buck, Emilio Bonifacio, Heath Bell, Randy Choate, Edward Mujica and Gaby Sanchez? Doesn’t take a Sabermetrics statistician to answer that one.
8. Amare Stoudemire’s fire extinguisher fight
The Knicks’ big man punched through the glass box of a fire extinguisher following a 104–94 loss to the Heat in Game 3 of the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Massive bleeding and near nerve damage ensued. Following a handful of stitches, Stoudemire tweeted out a gruesome picture of the hand. Luckily, Stoudemire’s hand has healed (and prompted an Office Space-inspired GIF); it is his bad back that has kept him out of the lineup this year despite a contract with three years left and over $60 million still owed.
9. U.S. Ryder Cup team’s choke job
In an epic meltdown that Greg Norman, Jean Van de Velde, or any member of the 1999 European Ryder Cup team could relate to all too well, the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team folded like a Medinah spectator’s golf chair at the 38th Ryder Cup. On the comfortable confines of U.S. soil and in front of 40,000 rowdy American fans, Team USA led 10–6 on Sunday — needing just 4.5 points out of 12 singles matches. But the lineup assembled by Captain David Love III hacked their way to one of the worst letdown losses in the 85-year history of the international competition.
10. USC Trojans’ fall from No. 1 to unranked
Lane Kiffin’s club was ranked preseason No. 1 and had a storybook season ready for a Hollywood ending. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley returned to lead the Trojans out of the darkness of NCAA-imposed sanctions and into the BCS spotlight. Five losses later, USC is getting ready for the Sun Bowl rather than the national title game in Miami, the city where Reggie Bush, the man responsible for the punishment in the first place, is now allowed to play for pay. Adding insult to injury — or injury to insult as it were — Barkley suffered a right shoulder injury and is hoping to prove himself healthy in the El Paso bowl.
Seemingly half-man, half-machine, Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson — the All-Pro wideout known simply as “Megatron,” a nickname inspired by the Transformers character, broke the single-season receiving yards record held by Jerry Rice — the retired Hall of Fame pass-catcher known to many as the “G.O.A.T.,” or “Greatest of All-Time.”
Johnson hauled in 11 catches for 225 yards in prime time on Saturday night, during a 31–18 defeat to the Falcons. The sixth-year receiver out of Georgia Tech now has 1,892 yards and counting, surpassing the previous mark of 1,848 yards set by Rice as a member of the 49ers in 1995.
“I’ve been an NFL fan my whole life, dating back to watching Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry as a kidd, and I’ve coached in this league for 19 years,” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. “I’ve seen a lot of Hall of Famers, but I’ve never seen a better player than Calvin Johnson. He just broke a record set by Jerry Rice, who is arguably the best player in the history of this league.”
Johnson also broke the NFL records for consecutive 100-yard games (with his eighth straight) and consecutive games with 10 catches or more (with his fourth straight), while tying Michael Irvin’s record with his 11th 100-yard game this season.
“He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen and, like I said, I’ve seen a bunch of them,” said Schwartz. “To see somebody do what he’s done when every game plan is designed to stop him. It says a lot about Calvin.”
The 6'5", 235-pounder has awed fans and foes alike this season, with both his on-field exploits and off-field demeanor.
“Calvin is one of the best players in the game and I think everybody is a big fan of his,” said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, after the game. “He’s one of the most genuinely nice people you could meet.”
With one game remaining, Johnson needs just 108 yards to reach the 2,000-yard receiving mark. With another 162 yards, Johnson would top Barry Sanders’ team record of 2,053 yards rushing set in 1997. Another 213 would best Eric Dickerson’s all-time record of 2,105 rush yards.
The Bears, however, stand in between Johnson and the 2,000-yard club. Earlier this season, he was held to a season-low 34 yards receiving during a 13–7 loss at Chicago in Week 7.
“It’s going to be a tough task,” Johnson told NFL Network, when asked about possibly becoming the first receiver in history to break the 2,000-yard mark in a single season.
“We have a tough Bears defense that we have coming into our place. So we have to be on our P’s and Q’s this week, eliminate a lot of errors we have on film (from Saturday), and push forward. Finish this season on the right note.”
Fresno State and SMU will be spending Christmas on Christmas Island at the Hawaii Bowl, as the only game on television Christmas Eve.
The game will be a homecoming of sorts for SMU coach June Jones, who guided Hawaii to a 76–41 record over nine seasons from 1999-2007. Jones’ last season on Oahu, he led the Warriors to an undefeated 12–0 regular season and a BCS berth in the Sugar Bowl, where Hawaii lost to Georgia.
Hawaii Bowl — Fresno State (9–3) vs. SMU (6–6)
Date and Time: Dec. 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii
When the Fresno State Bulldogs have the ball:
Fresno State fourth-year junior quarterback Derek Carr — the younger brother of the Houston Texans’ No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, current New York Giants backup and former Fresno State star David Carr — has been lights out since taking over as the starter last season. The 6’3”, 210-pounder has threw for 3,742 yards, 36 TDs and five INTs.
Carr’s top target is redshirt freshman Davante Adams, who had 89 catches for 1,168 yards and 13 trips to the end zone. The Bulldogs’ top playmaker is senior running back Robbie Rouse, who had 1,468 yards and 12 TDs on the ground, 58 catches for 406 yards and two TDs, and a one-yard TD pass this season.
SMU’s defense could have trouble containing a Fresno State offense that averges 40.2 points per game. The Mustangs allowed 40 or more points four times this season, going 1–3 in those games — losing to Baylor, Texas A&M and UCF, while beating Houston. SMU will lean heavily on the senior leadership of defensive end Margus Hunt and linebacker Ja’Gared Davis, a pair of first-team All-C-USA defenders. If the game comes down to a field goal, Hunt owns the NCAA career record for blocked kicks (17).
When the SMU Mustangs have the ball:
Jones doesn’t have a record-breaking passer like he did with Hawaii’s Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan, but SMU does have a highly decorated transfer from Texas under center. Garrett Gilbert — who replaced Colt McCoy in the 2010 BCS title game against Alabama — threw for 2,720 yards, 14 TDs and 13 INTs. But the heart and soul of the Mustangs offense is senior Zach Line, who rushed for 1,207 yards and 12 TDs.
First-year Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter was defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and has the luxury of a stop-unit led by senior safety Phillip Thomas — the first player in school history to be a unanimous All-America selection. The Bulldogs ranked 27th in scoring defense (22.3 ppg) and could put the clamps on an inconsistent SMU attack that was held under 20 points five times.
This will be the seventh meeting between Fresno State and SMU, with all six meetings coming between 1999-2004 when both schools were members of the WAC. The Bulldogs hold 5–1 edge in the series. Expect that trend to continue, as Fresno State says “Aloha” — hello and goodbye — to Jones’ Hawaii homecoming.
Prediction: Fresno State 42, SMU 33
Related College Football Content
A betting preview of every game (against the spread) in Week 16.
Locks of the Week
Two divisional rivalry showdowns plus another two matchups of the haves and have nots look like good picks in a tough week to call.
49ers (-1) at Seahawks
Seattle is 6–0 at home this season; but New England had won 20 straight at home in December before last week’s San Fran upset.
Bears (-6) at Cardinals
Ken Whisenhunt is probably on his way out anyway, might as go out with a Dennis Green-style rant after a Chicago loss.
Redskins (-6.5) at Eagles
RG3 is set to play against Philly, a team he went 14-of-15 with four TDs against during a 31–6 blowout win in Week 11.
Patriots (-14.5) at Jaguars
The Pats has won by 15 or more points in four of their seven road games — against the Titans (34–13), Bills (52–28), Rams (45–7) and Jets (49–19).
Saturday Night Fever
With no Thursday of Monday night games, the NFL schedule breaks out its first Saturday night prime time affair.
Falcons (-4.5) at Lions
Detroit has lost six straight, with three road games by five or more points and three home games by a combined nine points.
Straight Up Upset
This field goal spreads could come down to just that; but the game-winning kick might just come from the foot of an underdog.
Ravens (+3) vs. Giants
Baltimore has lost three straight contests, while New York has fallen in its last three road games — including a 34–0 whipping at Atlanta last week.
Bad Teams, Worse Opponents
The Ryan brothers have been up and down — mostly down — this year, but the Bolts and Aints have had even harder times.
Jets (-2.5) vs. Chargers
San Diego has gone 7–16 in games played in the Eastern Time Zone under Norv Turner.
Cowboys (-3) vs. Saints
New Orleans is 2–5 on the road, while Dallas has won five of its last six, including three of its last four at home.
Steer clear of these games unless you happen to be a degenerate or a hometown homer who has to have action on every game, all the time.
Buccaneers (-3) vs. Rams
St. Louis is 2–3–1 on the road, with wins over bottom feeders Arizona and Buffalo the past two weeks.
Steelers (-4) vs. Bengals
Cincinnati is riding a five-game losing streak against the AFC North rivals from Pittsburgh.
Dolphins (-4.5) vs. Bills
Buffalo beat Miami, 19–14, in Week 11 during a game that featured four FGs and a punt return TD.
Colts (-7) at Chiefs
Indy has only one win by eight or more points this season, on the road at Jacksonville.
Panthers (-9) vs. Raiders
Oakland is 0–4 in the Eastern Time Zone this year, but Carolina can’t be trusted.
Texans (-9) vs. Vikings
Adrian Peterson’s quest to join the 2,000-yard club may hit a Watt wall in Houston.
Packers (-12.5) vs. Titans
Tennessee may need CJ2K to break another 90-plus-yard TD run to stay within a Lambeau Leap.
Broncos (-13) vs. Browns
Peyton Manning will pull off the win, but Cleveland is improved with a 3–1 record the last four weeks.
With nearly one-third of the NFL coaching jobs expected to be vacant by year’s end — including sweet gigs like the Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints, as well as the revolving doors of the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars — silly season is officially upon us.
As always, the normal retread head coaches and rising star coordinators will be rumored for nearly every job opening. But so will a slew of big-name, high-dollar college football coaches. And with the recent success of the San Francisco 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh (formerly of Stanford), Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll (USC), Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Greg Schiano (Rutgers) and New York Giants’ two-time Super Bowl champ Tom Coughlin (Boston College), the stigma of hiring coaches from the college ranks has faded away.
Here’s a look at the top 10 college football coaches for NFL jobs, along with their pro resume, upside and downside, potential coaching style at the next level, and their odds of eventually ending up on an NFL sideline.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Notable NFL experience:
Head Coach, Miami Dolphins (2005-06; 15–17 record)
Def. Coordinator, Cleveland Browns (1991-94; under Bill Belichick)
Pros: Proven winner with NFL experience. Had a 9–7 record with the Dolphins in 2005 — with Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels as his starting quarterbacks.
Cons: The Nick-tator walks on water in Tuscaloosa, where he has a statue just like Bear Bryant and is playing for his third national title in four years. Why would Saban leave?
Imagine: Bill Belichick excessive expectations with Jeff Fisher reasonable results.
Odds: 2-to-1 — It may not be this year, but Saban will return to the NFL one day; he’s too good to coach anywhere other than the big leagues.
2. Chip Kelly, Oregon
No NFL experience
Pros: Fearless, innovative offensive mind. Kelly’s influence is already being felt at the NFL level, with the Patriots’ implementing some of his fast-paced philosophies.
Cons: Not only does Kelly lack any NFL experience, he only has four seasons of head coaching experience on any level under his belt, having gone 45–7 at Oregon.
Imagine: Mike Martz mad scientist with Mike Shanahan mentality.
Odds: EVEN — As soon as the Fiesta Bowl is over, Kelly will fly the Ducks’ coop faster than his hurry-up offense can snap the ball.
3. Les Miles, LSU
Notable NFL experience:
TE Coach, Dallas Cowboys (1998-2000; under Chan Gailey)
Pros: Bold personality who takes charge and manages egos well. Miles has a persona that precedes him and could conceivably command respect in an NFL locker room.
Cons: The perception that LSU does more with Les is based on a history of odd behavior and poor clock management. Miles is a wild card with boom or bust potential.
Imagine: Barry Switzer swagger with Rex Ryan press conference quotes.
Odds: 10-to-1 — One day Jerry Jones will hand the Mad Hatter a white cap with the Cowboys’ blue star on it and Miles will accept the offer.
4. Jim Mora, UCLA
Notable NFL experience:
Head Coach, Seattle Seahawks (2009; 5–11 record)
Head Coach, Atlanta Falcons (2004-06; 26–22 record, 1–1 playoffs)
Def. Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers (1999-2003; under Steve Mariucci)
Son of Jim E. Mora, retired NFL head coach
Pros: High energy, likable personality with NFL pedigree. Mora has a division crown and NFC title game appearance from his days with Michael Vick in Atlanta.
Cons: Mora’s NFL win total went down in each of his four seasons, from 11 to eight to seven to five. He was replaced by two college coaches, Bobby Petrino and Pete Carroll.
Imagine: Jim E. Mora “playoffs?!” offspring with Dick Vermeil enthusiasm.
Odds: 3-to-1 — When the NFL calls, Mora will answer; if he has a few more seasons like this one at UCLA, the phone might ring again.
5. Lane Kiffin, USC
Notable NFL experience:
Head Coach, Oakland Raiders (2007-08; 5–15 record)
Son of Monte Kiffin, retired NFL def. coordinator
Pros: Wunderkind whose experience is remarkable for his age. Kiffin has already coached in the NFL, the SEC and at USC. Lane Kiffin is great at getting hired.
Cons: As impressive as his resume building may be, Kiffin has yet to establish himself as a good coach. This season’s fall from preseason No. 1 to unranked was embarrassing.
Imagine: Josh McDaniels entitlement without Bill Belichick’s blessing.
Odds: 15-to-1 — The youngest coach in NFL history (31 years, 8 months upon hiring) may be gun shy after being burned by Al Davis.
6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Notable NFL experience:
OL Coach, Baltimore Ravens (1996-98; under Ted Marchibroda)
OL Coach, Cleveland Browns (1993-95; under Bill Belichick)
Pros: Belichick disciple who looks the part and can talk the talk. Ferentz has NFL experience and a history of producing quality O-linemen and D-linemen at Iowa.
Cons: The game seems to have passed by Ferentz, at least on an elite level. Ten years ago he was winning conference titles and would have been an exciting hire. Not anymore.
Imagine: Marty Schottenheimer calm under pressure with Chan Gailey intensity.
Odds: 20-to-1 — Overpaid to underachieve for the Hawkeyes, Ferentz has turned down too many chances to change his mind now.
7. David Shaw, Stanford
Notable NFL experience:
QB/WR Coach, Baltimore Ravens (2002-05; under Brian Billick)
QB Coach, Oakland Raiders (2001; under Jon Gruden)
Son of Willie Shaw, retired NFL def. coordinator
Pros: Rising star whose ascension through the ranks has yet to slow down. Shaw is an intelligent grinder who played for both Bill Walsh and Dennis Green at Stanford.
Cons: Much of Shaw’s success has been credited to Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck. He is still in the infant stages of running his own program as a head coach.
Imagine: Jim Harbaugh formula with Jason Garrett sideline demeanor.
Odds: 5-to-1 — Young enough to stay at Stanford for a decade and still make the jump, Shaw should coach on Sundays if he’s not a Cardinal lifer.
8. Steve Sarkisian, Washington
Notable NFL experience:
QB Coach, Oakland Raiders (2004; under Norv Turner)
Pros: Go-getter with tremendous upside. Sarkisian was on the NFL radar even before becoming a college head coach.
Cons: For all his potential, Sark has yet to show he’s anything special — posting a mediocre 26–24 record in four years at UW.
Imagine: Sean Payton confidence with Joe Vitt winning percentage.
Odds: 25-to-1 — It’s too early to call for Sark, who got a taste of the NFL coaching life but didn’t stick around for more than a cup of coffee.
9. Will Muschamp, Florida
Notable NFL experience:
Def. Coordinator, Miami Dolphins (2005; under Nick Saban)
Pros: Fiery personality with respected defensive mind. Muschamp’s Dolphins defense ranked No. 15 overall and allowed 19.8 points per game in 2005.
Cons: Muschamp is a loose cannon who may not have the temperament for big time college football, let alone the pressure cooker of the NFL.
Imagine: Jack Del Rio-level strategist with illusions of Bill Cowher grandeur.
Odds: 50-to-1 — Muschamp’s demeanor is that of a retired NFL player, but he’s not. That act works in college but would not fly in the league.
10. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
No NFL experience
Pros: Big name who would be an instant-gratification hire. Meyer is a calculating coach who can run a football factory, with two BCS national titles and two undefeated seasons.
Cons: Meyer has no NFL experience, has retired or taken a leave of absence twice for health reasons, and runs an offense that is not currently being implemented in the NFL.
Imagine: Steve Spurrier money-grab scheme with Bobby Petrino exit strategy.
Odds: 100-to-1 — If Dan Snyder opens up his wallet or the Cleveland Browns get desperate enough, Meyer might just take the money and run.