Articles By Nathan Rush
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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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.
A freshman claimed college football’s most prestigious award for the first time ever this season when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy. But Johnny Football is nowhere near the first frosh to make a splash on the national scene during his rookie season. These are the 10 freshmen — of both the true and redshirt variety — who made the biggest impact in college football history.
1. Herschel Walker, RB, Georgia (1980)
Prior to winning the 1982 Heisman Trophy, Walker was the most dominant running back in the country as a true freshman in 1980. At 6’1”, 225 pounds, Walker possessed the size, speed and power to sprint past or truck through any defender standing in his way — just ask Tennessee’s Bill Bates. Walker rushed for 1,616 yards, on 5.9 yards per carry, and scored 16 total TDs while carrying Vince Dooley’s Bulldogs to a perfect 12–0 record and national championship season.
2. Marshall Faulk, RB, San Diego State (1991)
An unheralded runner out of George Washington Carver High School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Faulk exploded onto the scene in his first season with the Aztecs. In one of the greatest single-game performances by any player in any class, Faulk posted 37 carries for a then-NCAA record 386 yards and seven TDs against the University of the Pacific in just his second college game. Faulk finished his true freshman season with 1,630 yards from scrimmage, on 7.5 yards per touch, and 23 total TDs.
3. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M (2012)
The legend of Johnny Football has reached Paul Bunyan tall tale proportions — and rightfully so. Manziel completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 3,419 yards, 24 TDs and eight INTs through the air, while showing off the open field moves of a punt returner en route to 1,181 yards and 19 trips to the end zone on the ground. The Aggies’ redshirt freshman signal-caller’s signature game came in a 29–24 win on the road at Alabama, where Manziel completed 24-of-31 passes for 253 yards, two TDs and zero INTs, while rushing for another 92 yards and all but locking up this year’s Heisman Trophy.
4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma (2004)
“All Day” got off to a quick start with the Sooners, leading the country with 339 carries for a freshman record 1,925 yards and 15 TDs as a true freshman. Peterson led Oklahoma to a BCS national title game appearance, set the freshman record for 100-yard games in a single season with 11 and was runner-up to USC quarterback Matt Leinart in the Heisman Trophy voting — the highest a freshman had ever finished at the time.
5. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1996)
Although the “Great Dayne” went on to win the 1999 Heisman Trophy as well as a pair of Rose Bowl MVPs — one of only four players in history to repeat as the prize bloom in Pasadena — the New Jersey native never put up better numbers than he did during his freshman campaign for the Badgers. The 250-pound power back bowled over the competition with a career-high 1,863 rush yards, on 6.3 yards per carry, and 18 TDs. Dayne went on to set the FBS career rushing yards record, thanks in large part to his unbelievable rookie year.
6. George Shaw, CB, Oregon (1951)
The Ducks’ ironman is better known for being a quarterback drafted No. 1 overall by the Baltimore Colts in the 1955 NFL Draft, Shaw hauled in a freshman-record 13 INTs for 136 return yards in just 10 games as a freshman cornerback. The mark remains just one shy of the FBS all-time single-season INT record, trailing Washington’s Al Worley’s 1968 mark by only one INT.
7. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech (2007)
The first two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver, Crabtree won the triple crown of pass-catchers by leading the country with 134 catches for 1,962 yards and 22 TD receptions. After switching positions from quarterback to receiver, the redshirt freshman out of Dallas’ Carter High School quickly established himself as the greatest first-year receiver in college football history.
8. Michael Vick, QB, Virginia Tech (1999)
Vick’s reputation has always preceded him, but back in 1999 that meant something entirely different. The redshirt freshman out of Newport News, Va., was supposed to revolutionize the quarterback position with his cannon left arm and track star speed. The Michael Vick Experience was everything it was hyped to be, as No. 7 became the first freshman quarterback to lead his team to the national championship game, while also tying Herschel Walker’s then-freshman-record third-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting.
9. Maurice Clarett, RB, Ohio State (2002)
Although Clarett has become a cautionary tale and a punch line of jokes, he was the best player on Ohio State’s undefeated 2002 national championship team. The local product out of Youngstown’s Warren Harding High School graduated early, participated in spring practice and went on to rush for 1,237 yards, on 5.6 yards per carry, and 18 TDs in his first season for the Buckeyes. In the national title game, Clarett stripped Miami safety Sean Taylor on an INT return before scoring the game-winning TD in overtime — his final carry as a college player.
10. Andy Katzenmoyer, LB, Ohio State (1996)
The “Big Kat” wore two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin’s No. 45 jersey, became the first OSU freshman to start every game at middle linebacker and finished his true freshman season as a second-team All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Katzenmoyer had 12 sacks, including three in the Rose Bowl, for the 11–1 Buckeyes — whose only lost came at Ohio Stadium against Michigan in the regular season finale.
NFL Week 16 previews and predictions for every game on the schedule:
Falcons (12-2) at Lions (4-10)
Atlanta is one win away from locking up home-field in the NFC Playoffs, which should happen on Saturday night against Detroit’s not ready for prime time players — with the exception of Calvin Johnson, who is the only receiver in history with back-to-back 1,600-yard seasons and is in the midst of a record-tying seven-game 100-yard receiving streak.
Falcons by 9
Titans (5-9) at Packers (10-4)
Green Bay has posted a 6–0 record in Title Town at Lambeau Field since losing its season opener against San Francisco.
Packers by 13
Vikings (8-6) at Texans (12-2)
Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is 294 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984.
Texans by 9
Rams (6-7-1) at Buccaneers (6-8)
Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano appears to have hit the rookie wall, losing four straight contests.
Rams by 1
Redskins (8-6) at Eagles (4-10)
Robert Griffin III’s jersey sales continue to break all-time records thanks to games like the one he had against Philly in Week 11 — when RG3 completed 14-of-15 passes and threw four TDs.
Redskins by 6
Saints (6-8) at Cowboys (8-6)
Texas native Drew Brees returns to the state where he won an undefeated Class 5A state title as a senior at Westlake High School in 1996.
Cowboys by 2
Chargers (5-9) at Jets (6-8)
Mark Sanchez has finally been benched, and Greg McElroy — not Tim Tebow — will start against the Chargers’ rolling blackout defense.
Jets by 1
Raiders (4-10) at Panthers (5-9)
The Cats have won three of their last four, but are only 2–5 in Charlotte this season.
Panthers by 6
Bills (5-9) at Dolphins (6-8)
Buffalo beat Miami, 19–14, on Thursday night in Week 11 in a game that featured four FGs and a Leodis McKelvin punt return TD for the Bills.
Dolphins by 5
Bengals (8-6) at Steelers (7-7)
Cincy can clinch its second straight playoff berth if it can snap a five-game losing streak against the Steelers — and do so in Pittsburgh.
Steelers by 3
Patriots (10-4) at Jaguars (2-12)
Expect the frustrated Pats to beat the spots off the clawless Jags in this lopsided matchup.
Patriots by 18
Colts (9-5) at Chiefs (2-12)
Andrew Luck needs just 74 yards to break Cam Newton’s rookie passing record of 4,051 yards.
Colts by 8
Browns (5-9) at Broncos (11-3)
Peyton Manning probably won’t need a John Elway-inspired “Drive” to beat these Browns.
Broncos by 15
Giants (8-6) at Ravens (9-5)
Road warriors last December and January, the G-Men have lost three straight away from home.
Giants by 1
Bears (8-6) at Cardinals (5-9)
After losing five of last six games, Jay Cutler thinks 2012 is “right up there” with 2009.
Bears by 4
49ers (10-3-1) at Seahawks (9-5)
Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll — formerly of Stanford and USC, respectively — renew their Pac-12 rivalry under the lights on Sunday night.
49ers by 1
Last week: 11–5 // This season: 150–75
Athlon Sports' weekly rankings of NFL teams. The San Francisco 49ers have moved into the top spot after knocking off the previous No. 1 New England Patriots, while no team is playing worse than the Kansas City Chiefs, who were blanked by the Oakland Raiders for the second time in history this weekend.
Here are our NFL Power Rankings following Week 15 of the season:
1. 49ers (10-3-1) Colin Kaepernick throws four TDs to beat Pats.
2. Falcons (12-2) Have not lost consecutive contests in 49 games.
3. Patriots (10-4) Suffer defeat at home for first time in 21 games.
4. Texans (12-2) Clinch second straight AFC South title against Colts.
5. Broncos (11-3) Winners of nine straight after 2–3 start to season.
6. Packers (10-4) Riding six-game win streak in NFL’s oldest rivalry.
7. Seahawks (9-5) Third team ever to score 50 in back-to-back weeks.
8. Ravens (9-5) Offense struggles in Jim Caldwell’s first game as OC.
9. Colts (9-5) Andrew Luck sacked five times in loss at Houston.
10. Redskins (8-6) Don’t miss a beat with Kirk Cousins replacing RG3.
11. Giants (8-6) Shutout for first time since 1996 in Atlanta blowout.
12. Cowboys (8-6) Brandon Carr INT sets up game-winning FG in OT.
13. Vikings (8-6) Adrian Peterson now on pace for 2,071 rush yards.
14. Bears (8-6) Have gone 1–5 after starting season with 7–1 mark.
15. Steelers (7-7) Staggering after fourth loss in five games at Big D.
16. Bengals (8-6) A.J. Green has scored TDs in 10 of 14 games in ’12.
17. Rams (6-7-1) Steven Jackson tops 10,000 rush yards in defeat.
18. Saints (6-8) Defense pitches first shutout since 1995 vs. Bucs.
19. Buccaneers (6-8) Freeman throws four INTs, Martin held to 16 yards.
20. Panthers (5-9) Mike Tolbert does Dougie TD dance twice at Bolts.
21. Titans (5-9) CJ2K’s 94-yard TD longest run in NFL since 2006.
22. Dolphins (6-8) Notch season-high 26 first downs in win over Jags.
23. Jets (6-8) Mark Sanchez throws game away with four INTs.
24. Bills (5-9) Fall to 1–4 all-time across border in Toronto Series.
25. Chargers (5-9) Third consecutive TV blackout in Southern California.
26. Browns (5-9) Richardson breaks Jim Brown’s rookie TD record.
27. Cardinals (5-9) Snap nine-game losing streak with win over Lions.
28. Raiders (4-10) Sebastian Janikowski hits five FGs in shutout win.
29. Eagles (4-10) Suffer double-digit losses for first time since 2005.
30. Lions (4-10) Megatron unable to transform statistics into wins.
31. Jaguars (2-12) Chad Henne returns to Miami, promptly loses by 21.
32. Chiefs (2-12) Blanked by Raiders for second time in series history.
It’s fantasy football Super Bowl time. This week, the majority of leagues across the country will crown a champion who will win bragging rights, trophies, a few dollars, a trip to Vegas, who knows? And while every league is different, there are several key players acquired throughout the season who push a contender over the top, regardless of scoring, league size or any other variable.
With that in mind, here’s a look at this year’s best fantasy stars — with a mix of high-rounders who lived up to expectations, longshots who panned out and undrafted All-Pros who helped make up for a few expensive, high-pick busts.
QB – Peyton Manning, Broncos
After at least four neck surgeries and a wiped out 2011 season, even the biggest Manning fans were worried he might not return to top form. But 4,016 yards and 31 TDs later, no one is doubting No. 18 anymore.
QB – Robert Griffin III, Redskins
Those who took a late-round, backup QB flier on RG3 — hoping he would be the second-coming of Cam Newton — have been rewarded with 2,902 passing yards, 748 rush yards and 24 total TDs from the rookie.
RB – Adrian Peterson, Vikings
Just nine months after suffering a brutal knee injury, “All Day” slipped in fantasy drafts due to health concerns. Enjoy the one-year discount. After 1,812 yards and counting, he’s be a top-three pick again in 2013.
RB – Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks
“Beast Mode” has been in full effect all season, as Lynch has produced either 100 yards or one TD in nine games this season.
RB – Alfred Morris, Redskins
Unlike most Week 1 waiver wire pickups, the rookie out of Florida Atlantic has continued to shine — with 1,322 yards and nine TDs.
WR – A.J. Green, Bengals
There was no sophomore slump for the Bengals’ go-to wideout. Green has been unbelievably consistent, scoring TDs in 10 of 14 games.
WR – Brandon Marshall, Bears
The highly anticipated reunion with Jay Cutler has gone even better than most anticipated, as Marshall has 107 catches for 1,398 yards and 11 TDs.
WR – Demaryius Thomas, Broncos
If Thomas could catch passes from Tim Tebow, imagine what he could do with Peyton Manning? The answer is 1,210 yards and eight TDs.
TE – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is going out with 87 catches for 880 yards and eight TDs after being largely overlooked on draft day.
The 35-ring circus of bowl season is full of sideshows, freak shows, split stats and split personalities. And the biggest and best bowls have the most exciting high-wire acts, thanks to their award winners, NFL prospects, high-priced coaches, rabid fan bases and big dog endorsement deals. Here’s a look at 15 weird and wild facts, stats and trends from the best bowls this postseason.
BCS National Championship Game
Monday, Jan. 7, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Notre Dame vs. Alabama
1. Third Year’s an Irish Charm
In 2010, Brian Kelly left Cincinnati for Notre Dame to replace Charlie Weis and take the golden-dome throne in South Bend. Now in his third season, the 51-year-old is the national coach of the year after leading Notre Dame to a perfect 12–0 record and a spot opposite Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
If Kelly’s Fighting Irish are able to take down the Crimson Tide in Miami, he will be the fifth coach in Notre Dame history to win his first national title in his third season at ND:
1943 – Frank Leahy (3rd season, 1st National Title)
1966 – Ara Parseghian (3rd season, 1st National Title)
1977 – Dan Devine (3rd season, 1st National Title)
1988 – Lou Holtz (3rd season, 1st National Title)
2012 – Brian Kelly (3rd season, ???)
2. Roll O-line!
Nick Saban does more good for the NFL as a college coach by preparing future pros who graduate from Saturday to Sunday with relative ease. Over the past four seasons, Alabama has had 24 players selected in the NFL Draft, including 11 first-round picks.
This season, the Crimson Tide offensive line has washed away the opposition. All five members have started all 13 games this season. All five will have NFL careers; four have a chance to go in the first round when they are eligible and/or declare for the draft.
LT – Cyrus Kouandjio, 6’6”, 311, Soph.
LG – Chance Warmack, 6’3”, 320, Sr. (All-America 1st Team)
C – Barrett Jones, 6’5”, 302, Sr. (All-America 1st Team)
RG – Anthony Steen, 6’3”, 303, Jr.
RT – D.J. Fluker, 6’6”, 335, Jr. (All-SEC 2nd Team)
Thursday, Jan. 3, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Oregon vs. Kansas State
3. Kelly Spreads His Wings?
The NFL came calling Oregon coach Chip Kelly last offseason. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wooed the Ducks’ hurry-up spread offensive mastermind but fell short of their target, ultimately settling for another college coach in Rutgers’ Greg Schiano.
“After numerous discussions, I concluded that I have some unfinished business to complete at the University of Oregon,” Kelly said at the time.
Kelly’s business may be finished after this season, however. With a slew of NFL jobs — Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, etc. — expected to be open, Kelly is sure to be on the top of many lists. After posting a 45–7 record, 33–3 mark in the Pac-12 and four straight BCS bowl berths (including a national title game trip after the 2010 season), Kelly may be flying the coop after the Fiesta Bowl.
Should Kelly leave Phil Knight’s neon Nike outfit for one of Roger Goodell’s shield operations, UO offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich is expected to take over in Eugene. But who cares? What jerseys will the Ducks be wearing in Glendale? That’s what people really care about. According to To The Athletes Who, they’ll be Kelly green blurs for at least one more big game.
4. Tostitos Tickets
Kansas State fans will paint University of Phoenix Stadium purple and silver, with waves of Wildcats turning Glendale into Manhattan West. The K-State faithful devoured their 17,500 ticket allotment, then requested an additional 4,000 tickets. Meanwhile, Oregon still had 2,000 tickets left unsold as of mid-December.
This is the Wildcats’ third trip to the Fiesta Bowl, having defeated Syracuse, 35–18, in 1997 and losing to Ohio State, 35–28, in 2004. With a presumed homefield advantage, Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Collin Klein and legendary coach Bill Snyder will look to pull off an upset of the jaded Ducks.
Wednesday, Jan. 2, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Florida vs. Louisville
5. Blind Side Booster
Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is a third-team All-America talent with first-round NFL potential when he chooses to go pro. But he won’t have to exit Gainesville early due to financial hardship. The 20-year-old junior was recently adopted by Kevin Lahn, a booster whose improper benefits resulted in a two-game NCAA suspension for Floyd earlier this season. Lahn was also forced to disassociate himself with his alma mater, South Carolina, during a major NCAA investigation.
But in a case similar to Michael Oher’s famed story in The Blind Side (Oher was adopted by Sandra Bullock, right?), Floyd and Lahn have hit the gapped loophole like a dominant 3-technique D-tackle should. As a result, the NCAA can’t say a word about the 2012 Ford Explorer XLT leased to Floyd, or his new apartment, or the birthday party yacht trip in Miami also attended by Gator teammates Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley — all paid for by Lahn.
“It was not something we planned, but it’s been a natural fit,” Lahn said in an email to USA Today. “My wife and I love Sharrif and he feels the same way about us.”
6. Strong Resumé
Louisville coach Charlie Strong is “getting close” to a contract extension to 2020, according to athletic director Tom Jurich. After turning down the Tennessee job and a potential jump to the SEC, Strong appears to be putting down roots at the U of L, where he has gone 24–14 over three years, including a 10–2 record this season.
Judging by Strong’s coaching history, it looks like the 52-year-old should be the coach at Florida, the team he’s facing in the Sugar Bowl. But Strong was passed over by the Gators and Will Muschamp is in charge of the chomping at The Swamp.
Strong coached under both Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer as part of two national championship teams and four SEC title squads. He coached 13 All-Americans and seven first-round picks during his four stints in Gainesville:
1983-84 – Florida graduate assistant
1988-89 – Florida OLB coach
1991-94 – Florida assistant head coach, DT coach
2003-09 – Florida assistant head coach, defensive coordinator, interim head coach
Tuesday, Jan. 1, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Florida State vs. Northern Illinois
7. Werner is Coming
Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, before becoming a cult hero in Tallahassee, Fla. The Seminoles’ top pass rusher is a 6’4”, 255-pound beast who was named first-team AP All-America this season after recording 18 tackles for 134 lost yards, including 13 sacks for 117 lost yards, along with seven pass beatdowns, one forced fumble and another fumble recovery.
Werner’s relentless effort on the field and international man of mystery style have given him a larger-than-life warrior persona. As a result, an internet meme inspired by the HBO hit series Game of Thrones has gone viral, and the Florida State marching band has made a habit of playing the Game of Thrones theme song in honor of the Seminoles’ chief defender and most popular player.
8. BCS Busters
Northern Illinois has MAC-attacked the BCS this season, crashing the Orange Bowl. Although the Huskies are one of only five schools with 10 or more wins in each of the past three seasons — along with Alabama, LSU, Oregon and Stanford — most casual fans aren’t giving NIU a chance against FSU. History, however, shows that assumption is a flawed one.
Non-Automatic Qualifiers in BCS Bowls:
5–2 record all-time in BCS Bowls
4–1 record vs. Big Six Conferences
Boise State (2–0), Utah (2–0), TCU (1–1) and Hawaii (0–1) have paved the way for Northern Illinois, a team with a superstar of its own in quarterback Jordan Lynch — who passed for 2,962 yards, 24 TDs and five INTs, while rushing for another 1,771 yards and 19 TDs on the ground this season.
Tuesday, Jan. 1, ESPN, 5:00 p.m.
Stanford vs. Wisconsin
9. Kulabafi in the Backfield
Stanford running Stepfan Taylor has posted three straight 1,000-yard, 10-TD seasons. This year, he rumbled for 1,442 yards and 12 TDs on the ground, with another 270 yards and two scores as a receiver out of the backfield.
The workhorse runner had his biggest games in the biggest games — with 213 total yards and two scores in a 21–14 upset of USC, 200 total yards and a TD in a 21–3 win at Cal in The Big Game, 161 rush yards in a 17–14 overtime victory at Oregon, and a combined 302 total yards and three trips to the end zone in back-to-back wins over UCLA in the season finale and Pac-12 title game.
But it is Taylor’s alter-ego, Kulabafi, who makes the most noise on The Farm.
10. Barry’s Bonus
After Bret Bielema bolted Wisconsin to take the same post at Arkansas, many Badgers fans had hopes that UW athletic director and former head football coach Barry Alvarez would return to the sideline in Pasadena for a shot at his fourth win in the Rose Bowl. That wish was granted.
The 65-year-old who coached Heisman Trophy winning runner Ron Dayne and went 3–0 in the Rose Bowl — compared to Bielema’s 0–2 mark in the “Granddaddy of Them All” — is back in charge. And he’s getting a nice pay bump to be coach-slash-AD during the month of December. Alvarez’s $203,500 monthly salary is a $118,500 increase and has a chance to be a cool $168,500 if he can lead the Badgers to victory.
$195,000 – 90 percent of Bielema’s monthly salary as coach
$8,500 – 10 percent of Alvarez’s monthly salary as AD
$50,000 – Rose Bowl winner’s bonus incentive clause
“We weighed the factors involved, including the unique circumstances that developed less than a month before the game, the challenges of the job, the marketplace and his strength as a coach and concluded that this is a reasonable arrangement,” said Wisconsin Board of Regents president Brent Smith.
Friday, Jan. 4, FOX, 8:00 p.m.
Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma
11. Johnny Football’s House
The Cotton Bowl will be played at Cowboys Stadium, while the Heart of Dallas Bowl will kick off at the Cotton Bowl. Makes sense, right? Either way, Jerry’s House will be Johnny Football’s House when the new SEC powers from Texas A&M take on their old Big 12 rivals from Oklahoma.
The first freshman to win college football’s most prestigious award, Johnny Manziel will be the eighth Heisman Trophy winner to play in the Cotton Bowl. It’s a good group that has combined for a 3–4 record in the game.
1948 – Doak Walker, RB, SMU (W, Cotton Bowl)
1963 – Roger Staubach, QB, Navy (L)
1977 – Earl Campbell, RB, Texas (L)
1984 – Doug Flutie, QB, Boston College (W)
1985 – Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn (L)
1987 – Tim Brown, WR, Notre Dame (L)
1998 – Ricky Williams, RB, Texas (W)
Monday, Dec. 31, ESPN, 7:30 p.m.
LSU vs. Clemson
12. Playing Chicken
Only the Mad Hatter would have a conflict of interest involving fried chicken. LSU coach Les Miles has an endorsement deal with Raising Cane’s, a chicken finger joint that opened in Baton Rouge in 1996 that has since expanded to 17 states nationwide.
As a result of his business partnership, Miles has refused to chow down on any of the Chick-fil-A spread during pre-bowl functions and festivities.
“I have a chicken issue,” said Miles, adding to his surreal reputation.
Capital One Bowl
Tuesday, Jan. 1, ABC, 1:00 p.m.
Georgia vs. Nebraska
13. Plan B Bowl
According to Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel, the Capital One Bowl would have preferred to invite Texas A&M and Northwestern to town. But after both the SEC and Big Ten objected, the bowl relented and reached out to the runners-up of both conference’s championship games, Georgia and Nebraska.
“You have to understand that we’ve had a 20-year relationship with the SEC and Big Ten where we’ve had the top (non-BCS) selection from those conferences. That’s an important place to be and we’d like to continue that relationship,” said Steve Hogan, executive director of the Capital One Bowl.
Tuesday, Jan. 1, ESPN, 1:00 p.m.
South Carolina vs. Michigan
14. NFL Scouting Combine
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is currently the clear-cut No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan is jockeying for position as a first-round prospect in this year’s draft. All eyes will be on Lewan as he takes on Clowney in easily the most talented one-on-one matchup of this year’s bowl schedule.
Saturday, Dec. 29, ESPN, 6:45 p.m.
Oregon State vs. Texas
15. Dreaded Vote of Confidence
Texas coach Mack Brown has a 21–16 record over the past three seasons and appears to be losing considerable ground in the Lone Star State — which has produced the past two Heisman Trophy winners in Baylor’s RG3 and Texas A&M’s Johnny Football, neither of whom were offered to wear burnt orange as quarterbacks. Now, the 61-year-old has been given the dreaded vote of confidence from his bosses.
“Now that the Longhorn football team has finished its regular season, there has been an increase in media speculation about Coach Mack Brown’s future,” wrote University of Texas president Bill Powers. “I’d like to state unequivocally that Coach Brown has my full support as well as the support of Men’s Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds. Put succinctly, Mack Brown is and will remain the Longhorns’ head football coach.”
A betting preview of every game (against the spread) on Sunday and Monday in Week 15.
Locks of the Week
Rematches of heated rivalries, a neutral site home game in Canada and a nine-game losing streak all look good to go this week.
Packers (-2.5) at Bears
Green Bay took down arch-rival Chicago 23–10 in Week 2. The Bears have lost four of their last five contests.
Raiders (-3) vs. Chiefs
Oakland handed Kansas City a 26–16 loss at Arrowhead in Week 8. Things have only gotten worse for K.C. since that.
Seahawks (-6) vs. Bills (at Toronto)
Buffalo is 1–3 all-time at “home” in the Rogers Centre in Ontario, Canada. The Hawks are soaring after a 58–0 win last week.
Lions (-6.5) at Cardinals
Larry Fitzgerald’s dad is right; Arizona has given up. If Detroit can’t win by more than a TD, Jim Schwartz may join Ken Whisenhunt on the open market this offseason.
These games may or may not be straight up upsets, but they should be closer than the numbers they’re up against.
Panthers (+3) at Chargers
The Cats have won two of their last three games, with Cam Newton accounting for a combined 10 TDs by land and air.
Jaguars (+7.5) at Dolphins
Chad Henne returns to Miami, where he was once the starter. Since Henne took over in J-Ville, the Jags have lost by eight or more just once in four games.
Colts (+9) at Texans
Houston may clinch its second straight AFC South title, but it won’t come easy against Indianapolis, whose only loss in its last eight games was at New England.
Unless you’re a compulsive degenerate or a hometown homer, stay away from these games completely.
Falcons (-1) vs. Giants
The Big Blue Wrecking Crew stomped out the Dirty Birds 24–2 in the playoffs last year, but Atlanta owns the Georgia Dome.
Steelers (-1.5) at Cowboys
Big Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo could throw the ball back and forth to the wrong team all afternoon.
Rams (-3) vs. Vikings
Minnesota is 1–5 on the road this season, but St. Louis plays tight games, with four 3-pointers and another tie.
Broncos (-3) at Ravens
Peyton Manning takes on his old Indy coach, Jim Caldwell, who replaces the recently fired Cam Cameron as OC in Baltimore.
Saints (-4) vs. Buccaneers
New Orleans marched to a 35–28 win at Tampa Bay in Week 7, but Drew Brees has thrown nine INTs in the last three weeks.
Patriots (-6) vs. 49ers
A potential Super Bowl preview. Wait until the actual Super Bowl to bet on a matchup between these two powerhouses.
Monday Night Money
The last game of Week 15 is the time to get back or let it ride, depending on how the weekend went.
Titans (-1.5) vs. Jets
The Monday night party is in Hank Williams Jr. and his rowdy friends’ hometown, expect CJ2K to go honky tonkin’ against the Jets.
Off the Board
With RG3’s sore knee in play, Las Vegas doesn’t want this Skins game on the Big Board until as late as possible. Still, let’s guess the line.
Redskins (N/A) at Browns
Robert Griffin III will redefine the term “cornball brother” by taking a bite out of the Dawg Pound. Take the Redskins (-6)?
NFL Week 15 previews and predictions for every game on the schedule:
Bengals (7-6) at Eagles (4-9)
Philadelphia ended its eight-game losing streak — the team’s longest run of futility in 42 years — on a last-second TD at Tampa Bay. Now the Eagles look to end a four-game losing streak at home. If they do, the game will be a close one; Philly’s four wins this season have come by a combined six points.
Bengals by 3
Packers (9-4) at Bears (8-5)
Green Bay took down arch-rival Chicago, 23–10, on Thursday night in Week 2. The Bears went on a six-game winning streak after that embarrassing loss in the NFL’s oldest rivalry. Chi-town has lost four of its last five contests.
Packers by 5
Colts (9-4) at Texans (11-2)
The AFC South’s old guard, Indianapolis, won seven of the division’s first nine titles. But there appears to be a new sheriff in town. Houston will clinch its second straight division crown with a win over Indy this week.
Texans by 6
Broncos (10-3) at Ravens (9-4)
Peyton Manning’s old coach, Jim Caldwell, makes his debut as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, replacing the recently fired Cam Cameron as the team’s play-caller.
Broncos by 3
Jaguars (2-11) at Dolphins (5-8)
Jacksonville is a predictable, balanced attack — but not in any way an NFL team should be. The Jags have lost nine of their last 10 games and rank 31st in both offense and defense.
Dolphins by 7
Redskins (7-6) at Browns (5-8)
Cleveland missed out on a chance to trade up — the Browns held the No. 4 and 22 overall picks in the 2012 NFL Draft — for Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. If that wasn’t bad enough, fans at the Dawg Pound might miss out on one of their few chances to watch RG3 if the rookie phenom rests his injured knee.
Redskins by 1
Vikings (7-6) at Rams (6-6-1)
Adrian Peterson’s quest to become the seventh running back to rush for 2,000 yards — or, as he tells it, his mission to top Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season mark of 2,105 yards — goes up against St. Louis and Jeff Fisher, who coached the Titans’ Chris Johnson during his CJ2K season (2,006 rush yards) back in 2009.
Rams by 1
Buccaneers (6-7) at Saints (5-8)
Drew Brees has thrown four TDs and nine INTs during the Aints’ current three-game losing streak. But Brees threw four TDs and one INT during a 35–28 win at Tampa Bay in Week 7.
Saints by 5
Giants (8-5) at Falcons (11-2)
Atlanta has a 3–2 record since starting the year 8–0, with losses to division rivals New Orleans and Carolina. That said, New York’s Blue Blue Wrecking Crew is probably not the most welcome Georgia Dome guest this week. The Giants demolished the Falcons the last time the teams met, in a 24–2 blowout in the Wild Card Round of last year’s NFC Playoffs.
Falcons by 2
Seahawks (8-5) at Bills (5-8)
The fifth regular-season game of the Bills’ Toronto Series will kick off indoors at the Rogers Centre in Ontario, Canada. “At home” across the border, the Bills have a 1–3 record.
Seahawks by 5
Panthers (4-9) at Chargers (5-8)
Ron Rivera and Norv Turner coach for their jobs. Both teams are fresh off of wins, but they’ve also combined for a 3–7 record since Week 10.
Chargers by 4
Lions (4-9) at Cardinals (4-9)
One of the NFL’s three longest losing streaks will end this week, as Detroit (six-game slide) hits Arizona (nine-straight defeats).
Lions by 5
Chiefs (2-11) at Raiders (3-10)
The once-proud rivalry between the franchises long run by the late, great Lamar Hunt and Al Davis has fallen on hard times. Oakland won, 26–16, at Kansas City in Week 8.
Raiders by 3
Steelers (7-6) at Cowboys (7-6)
Pittsburgh and Dallas have squared off on Super Sunday three times — in Super Bowls X, XIII and XXX. The pressure will be on both teams this week, as the clock is running out on the 2012 season. The Steelers have lost three of their last four, while the Cowboys have earned wins in four of their last five.
Steelers by 1
49ers (9-3-1) at Patriots (10-3)
San Fran’s sledgehammer defense is led by sack artist Aldon Smith, who has 19.5 sacks this season — with more than one sack in seven games and zero sacks in three contests. New England’s high-powered offense will be tougher to take down, however. Tom Brady’s crew has averaged 40.6 points per game over their current seven-game winning streak.
Patriots by 2
Jets (6-7) at Titans (4-9)
Since the Monday night party’s in Nashville, maybe Hank Williams Jr. will get rowdy again.
Titans by 1
Last week: 10–6 // Season: 139–69
Athlon Sports' weekly rankings of NFL teams. The New England Patriots have moved into the top spot after knocking out previous the No. 1 Houston Texans, while no team is playing worse than the recently humiliated Arizona Cardinals.
Here are our NFL Power Rankings following Week 14 of the season:
1. Patriots (10-3) March to seventh straight victory in MNF statement.
2. Texans (11-2) Six-game winning streak ends in decisive fashion.
3. Falcons (11-2) Lose to Panthers for second time in last 10 games.
4. Broncos (10-3) Stampede to eighth straight victory against Raiders.
5. 49ers (9-3-1) Aldon Smith sets team single-season sacks record with 19.5.
6. Packers (9-4) Earn 22nd consecutive home win over rival Lions.
7. Seahawks (8-5) Rush for 284, hold Cards to 43 yards on ground.
8. Redskins (7-6) Griffin suffers mild LCL sprain in fourth straight win.
9. Giants (8-5) Eli throws four TDs for first time since Sept. 2011.
10. Ravens (9-4) Defense can’t stop RG3 backup rookie Kirk Cousins.
11. Colts (9-4) Andrew Luck leads sixth fourth-quarter comeback.
12. Vikings (7-6) Adrian Peterson on pace for 1,969 rushing yards.
13. Bears (8-5) Jay Cutler suffers neck injury in upset loss to Vikes.
14. Steelers (7-6) Ben Roethlisberger returns, throws three TDs in loss.
15. Cowboys (7-6) Dedicate victory to fallen teammate Jerry Brown.
16. Bengals (7-6) Burn timeouts early, unable to stop clock late in loss.
17. Rams (6-6-1) Win three straight games for first time since 2006.
18. Saints (5-8) Paul Tagliabue vacates player bounty suspensions.
19. Buccaneers (6-7) Post second three-game losing streak of season.
20. Jets (6-7) Tim Tebow spends J-Ville homecoming on bench.
21. Panthers (4-9) Back up Hardy’s promise of “payback” vs. Falcons.
22. Chargers (5-8) First win at Pittsburgh in 15 regular-season visits.
23. Browns (5-8) Have more wins than 2011 after three-game streak.
24. Titans (4-9) Confused, call QB sneak on first down in loss at Indy.
25. Bills (5-8) C.J. Spiller to carry load after Fred Jackson injury.
26. Dolphins (5-8) Jonathan Martin struggles to replace Jake Long at LT.
27. Lions (4-9) Fifth straight loss in prime time at snowy Lambeau.
28. Eagles (4-9) End eight-game slide with Nick Foles’ first victory.
29. Raiders (3-10) Is it Terrelle Pryor time after sixth straight defeat?
30. Jaguars (2-11) Mike Mularkey hospitalized for undisclosed illness.
31. Chiefs (2-11) Dwayne Bowe done for season due to broken ribs.
32. Cardinals (4-9) Ken Whisenhunt’s ninth straight loss a 58–0 margin.
Tom Brady may not have had much sleep on Sunday night — since he and wife Gisele Bundchen welcomed baby daughter Vivian Lake to the family on Dec. 5 — but the New England Patriots quarterback sure looked well-rested during a 42–14 win over the Houston Texans in prime time on Monday night.
Brady completed 21-of-35 passes for 296 yards, four TDs and zero INTs during the 28-point win, marking the future Hall of Famer’s 14th four-TD game and his 36th game with at least three TDs as well as zero INTs — trailing only Peyton Manning (37) on the all-time list.
The near-perfect performance came at just the right time, against a team many felt was the best in the league heading into the high-profile contest.
“It was a big game because they were 11–1, leading the AFC and we had to see where we’re at, see where we match up against the better teams in the league,” said Brady. “We lost to Baltimore, who’s winning their division; we beat Denver, who’s leading their division; and we beat the Texans, who are leading their division. It’s always good to win these games.”
Winning big games at Foxborough in December — and January and February, for that matter — is nothing new for New England during the Brady and Bill Belichick era.
The Patriots have won 20 straight home games in December, with their last loss coming against the Jets on Dec. 22, 2002. Overall, the Pats have won 13 straight in December, last losing to the Panthers on Dec. 19, 2009.
New England carries an NFL-best 43–5 record in December since 2001 — Brady’s first season as the starter and Belichick’s second season at the helm. During that stretch, the Patriots have gone undefeated in December seven times (2001, ’03, ’05, ’07, ’08, ’10 and ’11). This season, two of its final three regular-season games are at home, giving New England a great chance to earn a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs.
Brady and Belichick have made the playoffs together nine times. In six of those postseasons, the Patriots have been either a No. 1 or 2 seed. They advanced to the Super Bowl in five of those seasons.
Fresh off a big win, with a short week to prepare for an aggressive San Franchisco 49ers defense, the Patriots will need to be firing on all cylinders this week — which will be played in prime time, on Sunday night.
New England has scored 472 points through 13 weeks, putting it on pace for 581 points — eight points shy of the record Brady and Co. set in 2007. But, in classic Brady-Belichick fashion, the previous weeks don’t matter. The upcoming December showdown with the 49ers is all that matters.
“We have played in a lot of big games in December,” said Brady. “It needs to come together now. This is the perfect time for it.”