Marshawn Lynch spent the first quarter of Sunday night's game vomiting into a Gatorade bucket and scarfing down Skittles, according to various reports. Whatever he did, it worked well enough to inspire him to one of the greatest runs of the NFL season.

The game was already well in hand when Lynch ripped off this 79-yard beauty, a masterpiece that included speed, strength, stamina, will, and a good old-fashioned, flying-backward ... well, let's call it an "equipment adjustment."

The run marked Lynch's longest run from scrimmage, and firmly sealed a 35-6 victory over Arizona that put Seattle on a Super Bowl trajectory. Lynch finished with 110 yards and two touchdowns, and whatever strife exists between him and the rest of the Seahawks seemed far, far away.

After the game, buoyed by the victory and basking in the glow of a fine day's work, Lynch was friendly, forthcoming, and thoughtful. Ha! Just kidding.

He was as distant as ever, and he's only a few games away from repeating reporters' questions back at them word-for-word like an 11-year-old just trying to tick you off:

Lynch talks and answers every question with: "Thank you for asking. I appreciate it.''

— Terry Blount (@TerryBlountESPN) December 22, 2014

That plus the crotch grab is certainly going to keep Lynch unpopular with the type that expects a certain level of behavior out of pro athletes. But as far as Seattle and its fans are concerned, Lynch could sing nursery rhymes in the locker room and conduct self-colonoscopies on the field, just so long as he's tearing off nights like this.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 22, 2014, 5:25 am

Look, we're sure Ryan Lindley is a nice fellow, and his friends and family surely love him. But man oh man, was he awful on Sunday night against Seattle. And Lindley's troubles bode ill for Arizona's suddenly flimsy hopes to get out of the NFC.

Lindley, the Cardinals' third-string quarterback, was pressed into service after injuries to Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton. Facing Seattle's vicious Legion of Boom defense, Lindley came in with low expectations. Sadly, he didn't even meet those, getting pasted 35-6 and throwing a whole new load of concern onto the shoulders of Arizona fans.

There simply was nowhere for Lindley to go, and even when he had chances, he couldn't capitalize on them. He was 18 of 44 for 216 yards, and he took one sack and threw an interception. He wasn't the sole reason Arizona lost; a wave-as-they-go-by secondary didn't help. But Lindley remains the owner of a dubious NFL record: most passes without a career touchdown, now up to 225.

Lindley's rough game paled even more in comparison to the gem crafted by Seattle QB Russell Wilson. Late in the game, NBC ran the following graphic:

Tonight's QB comparison #SNF pic.twitter.com/gZZNy3D5TK

— SundayNight Football (@SNFonNBC) December 22, 2014

Stanton could be back for Week 17; he practiced lightly this week after injuring his knee in Week 15. And to be fair, nobody this side of Tom Brady could have handled the Seahawks defense as it played Sunday. Still, the loss may have cost Arizona the NFC's top seed and a first-round bye. Seattle closes out the regular season against St. Louis, while Arizona finishes against San Francisco. Anything other than a Seattle loss and Arizona win or tie gives Seattle the division and a possible first-round bye.

Arizona has been one of the season's great stories; head coach Bruce Arians is deserving of Coach of the Year, and the team's victories through injury adversity have been impressive in every regard.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 22, 2014, 5:02 am

Jim Harbaugh's departure from the San Francisco 49ers has been such a rumored fait accompli for so many weeks that it's tough to remember that, in fact, it hasn't happened and that Harbaugh is still the coach of the 49ers. But according to Fox Sports' Jay Glazer, you can now measure Harbaugh's tenure on your fingers.

Glazer has reported that the 49ers will cut Harbaugh loose within 24 to 48 hours after San Francisco's season ends. And since the 49ers aren't making the playoffs, that end will come Sunday at home against Arizona.

Harbaugh had been an unqualified success his first three years at San Francisco, taking the team to three straight NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. But the team has fallen apart this year, going 7-8 and flailing at every aspect of the game.

For his part, Harbaugh will bounce from the 49ers right into a highly lucrative job of his choosing. Reports have persisted that Michigan has offered a contract in the neighborhood of $50 million for Harbaugh to return to the college ranks, and the Chicago Bears are also interested as well, per Glazer.

Wherever he ends up, apparently, he can go ahead and start packing.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 22, 2014, 4:09 am

The NFL has picked the Cincinnati Bengals-Pittsburgh Steelers AFC North title clash as the last game of its regular season, on “Sunday Night Football" to cap what will be an interesting Week 17.

The league waits until the Sunday night game in Week 16 to announce the last “Sunday Night Football” matchup of the year to ensure a good prime-time game. The Bengals-Steelers was selected over the Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers, which will determine the NFC North champ, and the Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons game that will decide the NFC South winner.

The Steelers have battled inconsistency and rebounded from some bad losses to win three in a row and put themselves in position to win the AFC North with one more home victory. The Bengals, who won the division last season, play Denver on Monday night. Cincinnati can clinch a playoff berth with a win in that game, but no matter what, Sunday night's showdown will determine the division champ.

The Lions-Packers game will be at 4:25 p.m. ET, the Lions announced. Not only will the Lions-Packers determine the North champion, the winner also gets a first-round bye, the NFL said. The loser will have to go on the road as a wild card in the first round, so there’s a lot riding on that game.

The Packers are 7-0 at home, and Detroit doesn’t have history on its side either. The Lions’ last win at Lambeau Field was 1991. They haven't won a division title since 1993. However, the Lions already beat the Packers 19-7 earlier this season.

The NFC South will have a play-in game. The winner of Panthers-Falcons will be the second losing team in NFL history to make the playoffs. The Panthers are 6-8-1 and the Falcons are 6-9, so the Panthers would win the division if there is a tie. The Cardinals, Seahawks, Packers, Lions and Cowboys have all clinched playoff spots in the NFC.

Nine NFL teams have clinched a playoff spot, and the Bengals can make it 10 with a win or tie on Monday night. But there are a lot of seeding implications on the line in Week 17 as well. The Patriots can clinch the No. 1 seed through the AFC playoffs with a win against Buffalo (or if the Broncos lose on Monday night at Cincinnati). The Broncos can clinch a bye with a win on Monday night at Cincinnati, but if Denver loses it can still clinch a bye by beating the Raiders at home next Sunday.

The top three seeds in the NFC were all unsettled heading into Sunday night’s Seattle Seahawks-Arizona Cardinals game, although Dallas can’t be the No. 1 seed unless the Packers and Lions tie, the NFL said. The Cowboys were still alive to get a top-two seed and a bye as the Seahawks and Cardinals kicked off on Sunday night, however.

The San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans are still alive for a wild-card spot, with the Chargers clinching a spot if they win at Kansas City next Sunday. The Steelers clinched a playoff spot on Sunday by beating the Chiefs, joining the Patriots, Broncos and Indianapolis Colts in clinching a playoff spot in the AFC.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 22, 2014, 3:21 am

Here are the top five must-see plays from Week 16 in the NFL:

Wanna start at QB?

Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has a tough decision to make: Arian Foster, starting quarterback in 2015? We joke, yes, but check out this throw from Foster to rookie tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

What a pick

The Minnesota Vikings lost under fairly bizarre circumstances, having a punt blocked against them for a safety in the final minute. But early in the game, Harrison Smith made a fantastic interception that shows why he’s one of the better young safeties in the NFL. It almost looked like Smith just stole the ball straight from Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s hands on a blitz. 

Remember him?

Johnny Manziel didn’t do much better in his second start than he did in his first, with Brian Hoyer having to come on for the Cleveland Browns in relief after Manziel injured his hamstring. Hoyer was far from perfect either, but he did manage to hit Jordan Cameron on an 80-yard touchdown pass that tilted this game back in the Browns’ favor temporarily.

Game saver

The New Orleans Saints had two timeouts, the two-minute warning and 90 yards to go save a shot at the playoffs. But Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert McClain never let them get started. McClain picked off Drew Brees on the first play of the drive with just over two minutes left, helping preserve the Falcons’ win with a shot at the NFC South title next week.

Making it look so easy

It’s almost boring at this point, but Dez Bryant once again showed why he is about to be a very rich man. His touchdown might have been, oh, his seventh-most impressive score of the season, but by normal human standards he’s still in rare company. The Dallas Cowboys are a dangerous team entering the playoffs with this man on their side. 

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 22, 2014, 3:20 am

The thing about a maddening, inconsistent team is that sometimes their best days can be really good.

And so it goes for the Pittsburgh Steelers lately.

It’s hard to remove the stink of losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets and New Orleans Saints, but the Steelers have emerged as a contender in the AFC the past few weeks. 

The Steelers’ 20-12 win against a Kansas City Chiefs team battling for a wild-card spot was impressive, and it also clinched a playoff spot. The Chiefs’ passing game is stuck in 1943 at times, but they’re still a good team. And the Steelers kept them out of the end zone and controlled the game. Pittsburgh's winning without its offense clicking was a good sign because more often than not, an offense with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will do just fine.

That’s what makes the Steelers dangerous in the playoffs. If they beat Cincinnati next week on "Sunday Night Football," they’ll win the AFC North and get a home playoff game. Then they could be a tough matchup for the New England Patriots or Denver Broncos. The offense is very good and diverse, and if they can get hot, who knows?

The first step comes next week with the AFC North championship game in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers can show they're beyond the yo-yo effect from earlier in the season by taking care of business against the Bengals. The Steelers will be favored to win, and rightfully so.

The Steelers have won three in a row since that inexcusable home loss to the Saints (that’s one of two New Orleans wins since October, and the other was against a Chicago Bears team that looks entirely disinterested), and that streak has been good enough to lock up a playoff spot. As up and down as the Steelers have been, now that they’re in the field anything seems possible, especially considering the Buccaneers and Jets won't be hanging around in January. At very least, nobody is going to want to face the Steelers in the postseason. They'll be a very tough out, unless the bad Steelers suddenly reemerge.

Here are the rest of the winners and losers for Week 16 in the NFL:

WINNERS

Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett: It seemed dumb when Jones stuck by Garrett despite those strings of 8-8 seasons.

It seemed like this was the stubborn billionaire marching to his own beat, and he took plenty of heat for it. It doesn’t look so foolish now, does it?

The Cowboys clinched the NFC East on Sunday with a thorough 42-7 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts. Very few people expected too much of the Cowboys before the season. If Bruce Arians hadn’t already had the coach of the year award sewn up, Garrett would be a fine choice for it.

And this seems impossible, but these Cowboys have been underrated all season. Everyone is waiting for them to regress, but that hasn’t happened. They’re now 11-2 if you discount the game in which Tony Romo broke his back and the game he missed the following week. They’re a really good team. Garrett deserves a lot of credit for that. So does Jones, no matter how tough it is for you to admit it. 

Carolina Panthers: I’m not thrilled the NFC South is going to get a playoff spot, but I can still give the Panthers credit for being alive to win what is probably the worst division ever.

Carolina was once 3-8-1. Quarterback Cam Newton suffered two fractures in the transverse process in his back in a car accident on Dec. 9. But the South was so collectively bad that the Panthers were never out of it, and three straight wins have them in line for a play-in game against the Falcons on Sunday. The winner goes to the playoffs. There has never been a repeat champion in the NFC South; the Panthers could be the first.

The Panthers had to come back on Sunday. The Cleveland Browns hit an 81-yard touchdown to tight end Jordan Cameron in the fourth quarter to take a lead, but Jonathan Stewart’s 9-yard touchdown catch from Newton with 7:07 gave Carolina a 17-13 lead they never gave up. Newton didn’t look like someone who was in a scary car accident 12 days earlier. He had 201 passing yards and 63 yards rushing. It wasn’t easy for the Panthers on Sunday, but it was a tough win and good enough to stay alive for a division title.

Joe Philbin: It was a great day for Philbin. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said he would be back as his head coach next season. But was it a great day for the Miami Dolphins? You could probably find more than a few Dolphins fans that would say no.

The Dolphins were eliminated from the playoffs despite beating Minnesota 37-35 when a late blocked punt resulted in a safety. It was a weird time for Ross to announce Philbin is coming back, with one year on his contract. It was even stranger because Jim Harbaugh will likely be available soon. Ross is a Michigan alum, and Harbaugh played quarterback there. Instead of making a run at Harbaugh (maybe Ross wants Harbaugh at his alma mater instead?), via trade or if the 49ers let him go, Philbin will coach a lame duck season. Or Philbin will get a contract extension, which probably wouldn’t go over too well in Miami, where Philbin has gone 23-24 in three seasons.

But, all of this worked for Jones and Garrett, so maybe there’s something to Ross’ patience. If nothing else, you can cross off a potential NFL landing spot for Harbaugh.

#JJforMVP: This week’s update on Texans defensive end J.J. Watt: Seven tackles, a sack, and a  domination of a Ravens team that could have clinched a playoff spot with two more wins. Joe Flacco was 4-for-22 at one point against a defense that will probably have just one Pro Bowl player. The 25-13 win, with the Texans on their fourth quarterback of the year, keeps Houston alive for a playoff spot.

Watt won’t win the NFL MVP award he deserves because: A) He doesn’t play offense (or, specifically, he doesn’t play quarterback), and B) the Texans likely won’t make the playoffs. I can’t figure out which reason is more illogical.

LOSERS

St. Louis Rams: The Rams were far more interested in delivering cheap shots to Odell Beckham Jr. than actually covering the New York Giants rookie receiver.

What did that get the Rams? Not much. They lost 37-27 and Beckham had 148 receiving yards and two touchdowns. If the Rams didn't want Beckham to celebrate, maybe they should have kept him out of the end zone.

Giants Jason Pierre-Paul, Antrel Rolle and Jameel McClain all said the Rams were “dirty,” according to ESPN.com.

"Dirty-[expletive] team! That dirty [stuff] doesn't help you win! They suck as an organization!" McClain said as he left the field, according to ESPN.com.

But that’s what Jeff Fisher has built in St. Louis. The lack of discipline is one reason a team that is talented enough to beat Denver, Seattle and San Francisco is 6-9 and got worked by a bad Giants team at home on Sunday.

Lovie Smith: If you’re ranking NFL coaches this year, Smith checks in at No. 32. Wait, the Raiders have had two coaches this year. So make it No. 33 for Smith.

Smith ruined the Buccaneers, and if he was fired after one season, it would be justified. A 2-13 team hasn’t played Mike Glennon, last year’s all-rookie quarterback, since Nov. 2. Josh McCown, who is 35 years old, was 12-of-26 for 147 yards and looked awful in a 20-3 loss to the Packers, but he was never pulled. Remember, the reason McCown was signed and is starting is because Smith needs to feel comfortable with a veteran quarterback, apparently no matter how bad that veteran is. This is coaching malpractice.

The good news for the Buccaneers is that their constant losing (and for Smith’s sake I hope this is tanking, because there’s no way the Bucs should be this inept if they're not trying to lose) has put them in position to get the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. Tampa Bay will pick first if they lose to New Orleans next week, and can pick no lower than second. Tennessee will select first if it loses and Tampa Bay wins. The Buccaneers might pick Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota if they get the top pick, but would you want Smith around a promising young quarterback?

Indianapolis Colts: I know the Colts didn’t have much to play for on Sunday, but it’s clear this team is not ready to be a contender.

The Colts looked bad at Dallas. Tony Romo had four touchdowns and two incompletions. Brandon Weeden came off the bench to add a long touchdown. Even Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was awful, with just 109 yards, a career low. From Mike Chappell of RTV6, the Colts have allowed Romo, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger to complete 99 of 135 passes for 1,331 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions this season. That’s a 133.1 rating. And the Colts are going to face some good quarterbacks in the playoffs. Maybe the Colts can win a January game or two if Luck gets really hot, but he would have to overcome a roster that’s not as good as its 10-5 record.

The Louisiana Superdome: Remember when the Saints had an advantage in that building? That’s long gone.

The Saints lost their fifth home game in a row, which seemed inconceivable a year ago. This has been a remarkable collapse for the Saints, which culminated with a 30-14 loss to the Falcons. When the Saints trailed 20-14 and Drew Brees needed to take his team 90 yards with less than three minutes left to avoid playoff elimination, he threw a terrible interception to practically end the Saints' season.

Where do the Saints go from here? It’s possible the Sean Payton-Brees combination is having an off year and will be fine in 2015. But they had salary-cap issues this past offseason, and already have more than $160 million committed to the cap for 2015 according to OverTheCap.com, which is well over the projected cap. So there won’t be any quick fixes in the offseason, and it's likely their depth takes another hit. 

The loss to the Falcons not only eliminated the Saints from this season’s playoff race, it’s possible it will be a while before the Saints completely rebound.

The worst loss of the week: The Ravens tried to take the title, blowing a game at Houston to screw up a win-and-in playoff scenario, but there’s only one answer here. The Philadelphia Eagles lost to a 3-11 Redskins team on Saturday, their third loss in a row, and were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday. What a long offseason it will be in Philly.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 22, 2014, 3:07 am

The Oakland Raiders are expected to remain in the Bay Area for the 2015 season, according to an NFL Network report.

The team's lease with O.Co Coliseum is set to run out, but the Raiders are expected to announce a one-year extension to remain in their current digs. Owner Mark Davis told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport that "all our energy is going towards trying to stay in Oakland."

Last week, word got out that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that no team would relocate to Los Angeles — one of the main locations the Raiders have been linked to — in 2015.

The San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams are the two other teams that have been mentioned as the most likely candidates to move to L.A.

It might be off the table for 2015, but there still will be a lot of talk about relocation after that. For now, however, the NFL's teams will be staying put next season.

And the Raiders gave their fans a nice little double tip of the cap with an upset win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, even if it likely hurt their draft positioning.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 22, 2014, 12:46 am

Of all the games on Sunday, only one had absolutely no playoff ramifications whatsoever: the New York Giants versus the St. Louis Rams. The very definition of a play-out-the-sched game, this one naturally descended into madness.

There was plenty of chippiness from both teams throughout the game; even the Giants kicker got in on the act with an unnecessary roughness penalty. But what tore the roof off the joint was a late tackle: St. Louis' Alec Ogletree threw New York's Odell Beckham Jr. out of bounds in a way that Beckham didn't much care for.

That set off a melee that wouldn't have looked out of place at a NASCAR race. In the end, three players, New York's Damontre Moore and Preston Parker, and St. Louis' William Hayes, got an early exit. The Giants would go on to run away with the ultimately meaningless game. So maybe that's the best excuse of all for letting off some steam. Not like these guys are going to knock themselves out of the playoffs or anything.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 22, 2014, 12:11 am

Tony Romo overtook Troy Aikman to become the Dallas Cowboys' all-time passing yards leader against the Indianapolis Colts.

It was only fitting, too, that Romo hit Jason Witten — his partner in crime for all of his years of starting — on a gorgeous touchdown pass as the Cowboys took a 35-0 lead on the Colts, inching closer to a division title.

Aikman finished his career with 32,942 passing yards, and Romo passed him to move into No. 31 on the all-time passing yards list.

Romo accomplished the feat in 15 fewer regular-season game and with more than 500 fewer pass attempts. Aikman left the NFL following the 2000 season at age 34 — the same age Romo is now.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 11:29 pm

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Even though New York Jets center Nick Mangold wore a walking boot on his left foot following an injury and yet another tough loss for his team, he walked out of MetLife Stadium a winner.

Mangold, who suffered an ankle injury in a 17-16 loss to the New England Patriots, decided to pay tribute to the two New York City Police Department officers who were killed on Saturday afternoon in an execution-style shooting.

During the walk into the stadium as part of the Jets' pregame rituals (the players get dropped off on buses and then walk through the crowd into the stadium), Mangold wore an "NYPD" baseball cap. His support for the police department set off a flood of positive messages on social media.

It was a simple gesture that got rolling on Saturday night when, after he read the story about the two officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, he reached out to a friend with law enforcement ties to get a hat. He got it on Sunday morning and wore it to the game. There was also a moment of silence for the officers before kickoff.

Wearing an NYPD hat, @nickmangold walks into the stadium. pic.twitter.com/dcsVTGz9jr

— Kristian Dyer (@KristianRDyer) December 21, 2014

In recent weeks, players throughout the league have been criticized for sending messages aimed at law enforcement, including the St. Louis Rams players running onto the field with arms raised to protest the shooting death of Michael Brown. Mangold said he wasn't concerned about any backlash against his statement.

It didn't cross my mind. Even if there was a backlash, those families deserve the support,” Mangold told Yahoo Sports after the game. “I would have been happy to take it. I just wanted to do something to support them." 

Mangold has been politically active in the past, even campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. He said he had an overwhelming desire to support the families of the victims in a small way.

I wasn't angry, just saddened. The fact that those guys sitting in their car didn't know it was coming, it was tough,” Mangold said. “Thinking of their wives, their kids – it must be tough. I'm just sad for them, sad for their families. I wanted to do something for them.”

Mangold said he is contemplating putting the hat up for auction to raise money for the families of the two officers.

Related NFL content:

- - - - - - -

Kristian R. Dyer writes for Metro New York and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KristianRDyer

Author: Kristian Dyer
Posted: December 21, 2014, 11:02 pm

Seven fans in the parking lot at Raymond James Stadium following the Buccaneers-Packers game were injured after lightning struck in a parking lot. Officials with Tampa Fire & Rescue said that seven people were taken to a local hospital with minor injuries.

The storm rolled in just as the game ended, and clearly many fans were caught without shelter. However, it now appears that the hits were indirect:

#BREAKING: We're working to confirm local reports of up to 9 ppl hit by #lightning at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. pic.twitter.com/cvSwcvDK3i

— The Weather Channel (@weatherchannel) December 21, 2014

Electrical storms and large crowds are always a potent, threatening mix. Two years ago, one fan was killed and nine more were injured when lightning struck the crowd just after a NASCAR race in Pocono, Pa.

Yahoo Sports is investigating the story and will update when more details are available.

At St. Joseph's hospital in Tampa awaiting updates on fans possibly hit by lightning after the Bucs game. pic.twitter.com/9ZIsA0VpGK

— Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) December 21, 2014

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 21, 2014, 10:53 pm

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton scolded his own fans after Sunday's game.

When Cleveland Browns rookie Johnny Manziel went down with a hamstring injury, some Panthers fans cheered. Manziel is a player fans love to hate, but that still crosses a line that makes just about any NFL player upset.

Newton wasn't happy at the crowd's reaction to his fellow Heisman Trophy winner's injury, and didn't mince words.

"It was saddening to see the crowd's response [to Manziel's injury]," Newton said, according to the Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones. "It was classless."

Newton also said about the Panthers' fans reaction, "We are better than that." Manziel didn't return to the game.  

Newton himself was coming back off a bad injury, a pair or fractures in the transverse process in his back when he was involved in a car accident. Only 12 days later, he was starting.

Not all Panthers fans will like Newton's lecture. But the smart ones will understand it.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 21, 2014, 10:23 pm

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was once hot on Jim Harbaugh's trail, but it appears you can kill off any more talk of Ross chasing the San Francisco 49ers' head coach this coming offseason.

According to Palm Beach Post's Andrew Abramson, Ross has said that embattled head coach Joe Philbin will return in 2015.

Steve Ross says Philbin is coming back

— Andrew Abramson (@AbramsonPBP) December 21, 2014

Ross to reporters: "Here's a Christmas present. You don't have to ask me anymore. He has one year left on contract and is coming back"

— Andrew Abramson (@AbramsonPBP) December 21, 2014

The Dolphins won in dramatic fashion on a final-minute blocked punt on Sunday, and a Week 17 win could give them a 9-7 record, which would be Philbin's first winning season with the team.

Will this appease Dolphins fans eager for a playoff appearance? Likely not, since they were eliminated from the picture Sunday. But it would be hard to argue with an owner supporting a coach who has made progress with a .500 team when a six- or seven-win team will be making the playoffs a week from now.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 10:13 pm

You blew it, Dewey.

On a curious fake punt from their own 19-yard line, Indianapolis Colts safety Dewey McDonald dropped a surefire first down on a wide-open pass from punter Pat McAfee in the first quarter.

One play later, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo connected with wide receiver Dez Bryant for a 19-yard touchdown that gave Dallas a 14-0 lead. Both the Colts and Cowboys entered the game with a 10-4 record and have plenty left to play for in terms of playoff positioning, all of which makes a fake punt deep in their own zone so early in the contest a mind-blowing decision by Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano.

It's the second time this season the Colts have watched a player drop such a simple catch, as tight end Coby Fleener let a sure TD against the Washington Redskins slip through his hands three weeks ago.

Author: Ben Rohrbach
Posted: December 21, 2014, 10:08 pm

The Minnesota Vikings went for the win late in regulation, and they paid for it.

In a wild game between two teams out of the playoffs and playing for pride — and jobs — the Vikings got the ball back against the Miami Dolphins on their own 13-yard line with 1:05 remaining in a 35-35 game. The Vikings had all three timeouts, had moved the ball well all game (20 first downs) and wanted to give rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater a shot to win it.

That decision came back to haunt the Vikings.

Bridgewater scrambled for 2 yards on first down, and the Vikings stopped the clock with 45 seconds left. After an incomplete pass on second down, Bridgewater got sacked by the Dolphins' Cameron Wake and the Dolphins called timeout to force a punt.

It didn't go well.

Vikings long snapper Cullen Loeffler skipped his snap back to punter Jeff Locke, and rookie reserve defensive end Terrance Fede broke through and blocked Locke's attempt. The ball skipped out of the end zone for a safety for what would be the game-winning score.

You can't blame the Vikings for wanting to go for it and see if Bridgewater could deliver, but it was a low-percentage situation, and playing for overtime that deep in their own zone felt like the right call there.

The Dolphins have some recent history with game-winning safeties. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals last season on a walk-off safety in overtime on Halloween night.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 10:03 pm

Look, being a kicker has to be a tough gig. The risk-reward ratio is more of a chasm for kickers than any other player. And yet they're still disrespected by pretty much everyone, from coaches to teammates to media to fans. So you can understand why a kicker might want to prove that, hey, he can be just as tough as anybody out there on the field.

Giants kicker Josh Brown decided to get in on a scrum, and being a kicker, he wasn't having a whole lot of impact on the pile. But the Rams' Cody Davis violated every rule of the stable by approaching a kickin' type from the back, and Brown made him pay with a kick to the face. The result? A 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty, which might just be the first time a kicker has earned that particular flag.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 21, 2014, 9:50 pm

Joe Flacco was outplayed by Case Keenum. Heck, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster was a more effective passer than Flacco on Sunday.

As a result, the Baltimore Ravens have lost control of whether they make the playoffs.

Flacco started off an impossibly terrible 4-of-22 with three interceptions on Sunday in a 25-13 loss against the Houston Texans, against a team that probably has just one Pro Bowl player on defense (yeah, but J.J. Watt isn’t the NFL MVP, gotcha). Flacco was absolutely, positively miserable.

The Ravens trailed 16-0 at the half and the way the offense was playing, there was little hope at a comeback. Had the Ravens won, they could have clinched a playoff spot with another win next week. That control is gone.

Baltimore needs help in Week 17 to get in. If the San Diego Chargers win next week against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chargers are in. Ravens coach John Harbaugh can thank his brother Jim, whose San Francisco 49ers blew a 21-point lead to lose to the Chargers on Saturday night, for that one.

The Ravens’ AFC north rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, clinched a playoff spot with their win against the Chiefs.

Flacco rallied a bit to make his numbers look a little better, but the game was long gone by then. He finished 21-of-50 for 195 yards. Keenum, signed off the Rams’ practice squad this past week because the Texans’ top three quarterbacks are hurt, wasn’t great but at least he didn’t blow the game. Foster threw a touchdown pass on a trick play, which is more than Flacco did before the game was out of hand. There's a regular debate about if Flacco belongs in that hard-to-define “elite” class of quarterbacks, but it’s hard to argue you’re elite if you throw 18 incompletions in 22 tries while blowing a game to wreck your team’s clear path to the playoffs.

The good news for the Ravens is they finish the season against the Cleveland Browns, as they’ll be favored in that one. But they need help to get into the postseason. They also need Flacco to play better than he did Sunday, when he couldn’t have been much worse.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 21, 2014, 9:40 pm

The quarterback may have been different, but the end result was a familiar scene.

With the game on the line, Jimmy Clausen did what Chicago Bears fans had come to expect from the man he replaced, throwing an interception that put a 20-14 loss to the NFC North rival Detroit Lions on ice.

Making his first NFL start since 2010, Clausen played fairly well until tossing a pick on a deep pass intended for wide receiver Alshon Jeffery with 2:02 remaining. He completed 23 of 39 attempts for 181 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He made a decent case for starting again next week over Jay Cutler, who had thrown 12 interceptions during an eight-week span that resulted in just two Chicago victories.

Clausen threw an 11-yard touchdown to running back Matt Forte just before halftime, and then hit Jeffery for a 20-yard TD that gave the Bears (5-10) a 14-10 lead late in the third quarter before the Lions scored 10 unanswered to finish the game.

Clausen actually outperformed Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, who completed 22 of 39 attempts for 243 yards and a pair of interceptions with zero touchdowns.

Still, the Lions set up a showdown against the Green Bay Packers next Sunday with a division title and a potential first-round playoff bye on the line. Detroit defeated the Packers 19-7 in Week 3. The Philadelphia Eagles' 27-24 loss to the Washington Redskins on Saturday clinched the Lions a playoff spot. Both the Lions and Packers enter the final week of the regular season with 11-4 records.

Author: Ben Rohrbach
Posted: December 21, 2014, 9:25 pm

The New Orleans Saints have been wondering where Jimmy Graham has been this season. They found out where he was in the worst way on Sunday in a critical game against the Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints found themselves in a 20-7 hole with the pitiful NFL South race in the balance, and yet they were driving deep into Falcons territory with a chance to cut it to a one-score game at the start of the fourth quarter.

Drew Brees found Graham with a pass right at the goal line, and the television angle appeared to show Graham just crossing the threshold of the end zone.

I say TD. What say you Twitter? pic.twitter.com/y5WpsbMbIp

— Michael Shamburger (@mshamburger1) December 21, 2014

But cornerback Kemal Ishmael stripped Graham of the ball, recovered it and ran it back to the Atlanta 20-yard line. Replay upheld the fumble call on the field. It was the turning point of the game.

Pool reporter Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune caught up with head referee John Parry after the game and was given his explanation of what he saw on the play.

On what referee John Parry saw on the replay: “We spent the full 60 seconds, and we looked at every (replay) angle. We primarily focused on the angle that was — I wouldn’t say exactly — but was pretty close to being down on the goal line to try to determine if it was either a score and/or a catch-fumble recovered by Atlanta. There was nothing clear and undisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field. If we would have ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score. If we ruled catch-fumble, recovered Atlanta, nothing enough to change it.

On if Parry had trouble seeing the ball on the replay because of the Saints’ black jerseys: “I don’t think that was an issue. It just wasn’t enough to say this amount of football has clearly penetrated the goal line to make the change.”

Notice the key words: "nothing clear and undisputable." Is that a satisfying enough answer?

Graham scored on the Saints' next drive, cutting the score to 20-14, with 5:52 left. But given a chance to win the game, Brees threw an interception with 2:35 left from his own 10-yard line, which drove a stake in the Saints' season during an eventual 30-14 loss.

The Saints were eliminated from the playoffs in what was their fifth straight home loss — consider that for a moment. They had several chances this season to grab ahold of the division but never could take care of business in the Superdome, the building they had dominated opponents in prior to this season.

The NFC South will come down to an elimination game in Atlanta, with the Falcons hosting the Carolina Panthers. The winner of this much-mocked division either will be 7-9, 7-8-1 or — no kidding — 6-8-2.

That would happen, wouldn't it? 

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 9:19 pm

No way around it: This was a dirty play.

Lions center Dominic Raiola finished up a play in Sunday's Bears-Lions game by stomping on the outstretched ankle of Chicago defensive tackle Ego Ferguson. No doubt about it. He saw the ankle and stomped down hard.

Raiola told reporters after the game that the stomp wasn't intentional and that he apologized to Ferguson after the game.

"It was totally unintentional," Raiola said via ESPN. "I remember I was stumbling out. I didn't see the end of it. I apologized at the end of the game, told him it was unintentional and we shook hands and that was it."

Ferguson saw things differently and would not elaborate on what Raiola said to him. 

"None of that matters," Ferguson said. "We all saw the play. You can't take back what happened with that play. That's the end of that."

This isn't the first time this season Raiola has stirred up trouble. Earlier this year, he charged at the knees of several New England Patriots defenders on a victory-formation play. This was much, much worse and Fox's referee expert Mike Pereira said Raiola can expect to hear from the league very soon.

Sizable fine coming for Dominic Raiola

— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) December 21, 2014

Raiola got hit with a $10,000 fine for the New England incident. Expect the NFL to come down a lot harder this time around, even if one Detroit beat writer says he believes Raiola's story.

"There's no need for it," Bears lineman Jared Allen said to reporters. "That's our guy's careers here. You can break someone's ankles."

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 21, 2014, 8:53 pm

Running back Arian Foster has done everything else for the Houston Texans' offense this year, so why not ask him to throw a touchdown pass?

Foster, who has more than 1,000 yards rushing this season, the fourth time he has reached that mark, had never thrown an NFL pass in his career. His first one was right on the money.

Foster ran to his right, drew the Baltimore Ravens defense in and lofted a pass to C.J. Fiedorowicz in the end zone for the score. Foster had his first career passing touchdown, and the rookie Fiedorowicz had his first NFL touchdown catch. That gave Houston a surprising 16-0 lead.

Considering that the Texans have gone through four quarterbacks this season, maybe they can do worse than have Foster keep throwing it every now and then.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 21, 2014, 7:39 pm


You know, there are people involved in the NFL who use their vast powers and resources for good. Here's one of those stories. Fox Sports' Jay Glazer connected the Oakland Raiders with the family of 4-year-old Ava Urerra of Las Vegas. Ava has a heart condition that Glazer says is like having "half a heart." The result was magnificent.

The Raiders offered young Ava, who has undergone 14 different procedures on her heart, the opportunity to "captain" the team, and gave her signed gear and toys throughout a visit with the team. Offensive lineman Menelik Watson, so touched by Ava's condition, donated his entire game check, $18,000, to help with the expenses of Ava's family.

"Sir, I would like to make sure Ava has the greatest holiday," Watson told Ava's father, according to Glazer. "Here is my game check."

It's not a small gesture, particularly from a second-year player who's in a profession whose careers can be measured in just a handful of years. NFL players are paid in 17 installments over the course of the year, not 52, so Watson just donated almost 6 percent of his entire salary. Great gestures all the way around.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 21, 2014, 7:35 pm

#Section222 #JetLife pic.twitter.com/CEqnoOjCiC

— Jet Elation (@section_222a) December 21, 2014

By all accounts, New Yorkers only filled half of MetLife Stadium for Sunday's tilt against the New England Patriots, but the Jets probably would have preferred one fan who did show up had stayed home.

Probably not too pleased with his last-place team's 3-11 record this season, a Jets fan wore a jersey with the phrase "Dying Inside" written on the back — naturally above the No. 69 to keep it ultra classy.

Jets fans have found creative ways to voice their frustration all year, raising $10,000 to post a billboard in favor of firing general manager John Idzik, flying a "rebuilding since 1969" banner above the stadium and sending depressing Christmas cards reading, "We hope your team does not disappoint you these holidays."

Chasing the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans for the league's worst record and the No. 1 overall pick, the Jets rewarded this fan by taking a 10-7 lead against the Patriots into halftime. With a chance to regain the lead late, however, the Jets had a field goal blocked for the second time against New England this season, ultimately losing 17-16 to their AFC East rivals. Dying inside, indeed.

Author: Ben Rohrbach
Posted: December 21, 2014, 7:22 pm

Johnny Manziel's second NFL start didn't go a lot better than his first.

Manziel was crushed on a quarterback sweep late in the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers by Luke Kuechly and Colin Jones and was knocked out of the game with a hamstring injury.

Brian Hoyer replaced Manziel at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. The Panthers won, 17-13, to stay alive for the NFC South division title.

Manziel had a towel hung over his head as he went into the locker room.

Before he left, Manziel completed three of eight passes for 32 yards and ran twice for 3 yards.

Hoyer started the second half at quarterback, with Manziel on the sideline.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 7:21 pm

It might be a small miracle that Cam Newton is playing Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

It also might be a miracle that he's alive.

Newton is less than two weeks removed from a frightening car crash that caused him to miss last week's game after he suffered a tranverse process injury in his back.

It could have been a lot worse. Newton appeared to acknowledge that fact as he took the field against the Browns before his Panthers beat the Browns, 17-13, to stay alive in the playoff race

12 days after car accident, Cam Newton broke huddle on 1st play today, walked up to line of scrimmage and did this: pic.twitter.com/Orac0OhBut

— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) December 21, 2014

Now, Newton apparently does this before every game. But you'd have to think Sunday's prayer might have had a little additional meaning.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 6:27 pm

This has been the season of protest in the NFL, with players expressing support for the protesters in Ferguson, Mo.; frustration with the death by asphyxiation of Eric Garner in New York; and a call for justice in the deaths of two Ohio individuals at the hands of police. On the morning after two police officers were gunned down while in their police car in Brooklyn, Nick Mangold of the New York Jets offered his own support, wearing an NYPD hat.

Yahoo Sports contributor Kristian Dyer snapped this photo of Mangold before Sunday's game against the Patriots:

Wearing an NYPD hat, @nickmangold walks into the stadium. pic.twitter.com/dcsVTGz9jr

— Kristian Dyer (@KristianRDyer) December 21, 2014

New York City-area teams have a long history of connection with the NYPD. Players from the Yankees and Mets wore NYPD caps in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and Mangold's support is now part of that long-running tradition. His support continued before the game:

#Jets held moment of silence before game in honor of 2 fallen NYPD officers. Mangold held black NYPD cap over heart during anthem.

— Dennis Waszak Jr. (@DWAZ73) December 21, 2014

Many fans and police unions expressed disappointment with the players who took stances in support of victims. However, neither the NFL nor the individual teams punished the players involved in the protests. Clearly, the NFL has a situation on its hands now where players are feeling the freedom to express points of view across the political spectrum without fear of being fined or disciplined.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 21, 2014, 5:45 pm

Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is expected to play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, per ESPN's Ed Werder, doing so with a surgically repaired bone in his left hand.

It is about functional ability, pain tolerance. Just informed DeMarco Murray has told friends and family he's definitely playing vs. #Colts

— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) December 21, 2014

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

For former major-league baseball pitcher Jim Abbott, that's good enough for him. After all, Abbott made a career out of pitching with one good hand.

Starting DeMarco Murray today in FF football, this hand thing shouldn't be too much of a problem.

— Jim Abbott (@jabbottum31) December 21, 2014

Former major-league pitcher Jim Abbott (Getty Images).How great is this? Abbott was a hero in his generation, born without a right hand but able to win 87 games in the major leagues over 10 season and finish in the top five in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1989 and the Cy Young race in 1991.

How respected was he? I was witness to Abbott pitching his second four-hit shutout his rookie season against the Boston Red Sox, and the Fenway Park crowd gave Abbott a standing ovation — no small achievement for that tough fanbase.

The Cowboys need Murray, and he has been a workhorse all season for the surprising playoff contenders who try to wrap up a playoff bid Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.

And Murray can take inspiration from Abbott: One hand, apparently, is plenty for fantasy football.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 5:45 pm

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – What started off with a bang six years ago, with promises Super Bowl trips, might soon come to an end with a whimper for New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan.

With a 3-11 team that could cost him his job, Ryan is left to play out the string of a sad season.

But before Ryan faces his likely departure from his first job as an NFL head coach, he must face off against nemesis Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Ryan, who got the second win of his Jets career in 2009 against the Patriots, had some memorable moments squaring off against the divisional rivals. He has also had some famous words for Belichick, the coach who has bested him more times than anyone else over the past six years.

In the summer of 2009 just months after he was hired, Ryan famously declared on New York sports radio station WFAN that "I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick's, you know, rings. I came to win – let's just put it that way. So we'll see what happens; I'm certainly not intimidated by New England or anybody else.”

Even with his team a shell of its former glory (the Jets knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs in the 2010 season, part of a pair of trips to the AFC championship game), Ryan still has no regrets for how he has gone through his tenure in New York. And certainly not a single regret about what he said about Belichick years ago.

Oh, hell no, because I never came here to do that. I came here to kick his butt,” Ryan said. “Obviously, I haven’t been very successful at it, but that list is long. I’m not just the only name on that list." 

This past week, Ryan has been complimentary of Belichick, calling him a Hall of Fame head coach and repeatedly heaping praise on his supposed nemesis. But he hasn't lost all of his bravado.

Ryan is facing what is likely his final two games as the Jets' head coach, and this will be the fourth straight season without a playoff berth (although it's hard to fault the coach for all of it; the personnel on the Jets is in the bottom tier in terms of talent).

But the desire to beat the Patriots still burns. Even though the odds are against it, he'd like to beat his rival one more time, just like he predicted years ago.

"I might be the only one that had the guts to say something about it, but that’s how I am," Ryan said. "That’s how I feel this week too. No different than any other time I’ve been here.

- - - - - - -

Kristian R. Dyer writes for Metro New York and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KristianRDyer

Author: Kristian Dyer
Posted: December 21, 2014, 4:50 pm

The San Diego Chargers gave the San Francisco 49ers every chance to win their game Saturday night. Practically begged them to.

In front of a sparse Levi's Stadium crowd that was apathetic about the playoff-denied 49ers, the Chargers — their playoff hopes already slim, and in dire need of a win — spotted the Niners a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and then gifted the 49ers a touchdown right before the half to make it a 28-7 deficit for the Chargers.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Philip Rivers, essentially duct-taped together at this point, threw two picks in the first half, one of which was run back for a touchdown, and a third horrible interception at the end of the third quarter that killed a potentially good drive when the Chargers were down two scores.

But somehow Rivers and these not-dead-yet Chargers — who started the season 5-1, still looked solid at 8-4 but would have been in deep trouble with a loss to the 49ers — found a way. They forced overtime and eventually won it, 38-35, in the most thrilling prime-time game of the NFL season.

That keeps them in the playoff hunt.

Barely, but who cares? They were also barely in it a year ago when they not only got into the postseason, but went on the road, won a game and gave the AFC champion Denver Broncos a battle in the next round.

Is it concerning when a team makes this many mistakes and wins? Certainly. And the Chargers had, uh, quite a few things they'll wince at when they go back and watch this game tape.

First, letting Frank Gore run all over them hurt, but that's nothing new; they've been gashed on the ground defensively more than once this season. But this was bad, even by their standards.

The 49ers' 355 rushing yards are the most for a losing team in NFL history. The Chiefs had just set the record on 12/23/12 with 352.

— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) December 21, 2014

The end of the first half was a debacle defensively. The Chargers committed two penalties in the final 30 seconds and allowed the 49ers to convert three third-and-goals (!) to score a touchdown that really should have been a field goal.

Momentum swung back in the third quarter when the Chargers cut it to a two-touchdown lead and the 49ers wanted in on the Keystone Cop routine, with a brilliantly awful two-play, 14-point swing. First there was Vernon Davis — yes, he's alive — catching an apparent touchdown that would have pushed the lead back to 21.

A chop block on Gore crushingly wiped out the play. One play later, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick was strip-sacked and the ball was recovered by the Chargers' Corey Liuget for the improbable touchdown.

It was the game neither team wanted to win.

That defensive score made it 28-21 with 3:26 left in the third. A mere 46 seconds later, the Chargers had Kaepernick backed up inside his own 10-yard line, and Sean Lissemore nearly sacked him, but Kaepernick wiggled out, ran past several defensive backs in man coverage, eyes glued to their receivers, for a 90-yard score — the second-longest by a QB in NFL history. Chargers safety Eric Weddle's terrible angle to the ball didn't help, either.

Still, tough, the Chargers were not dead. Rivers led touchdown drives of nine plays and 85 yards and 14 plays and 80 yards in the final nine minutes, tying the game with 32 seconds left, as Rivers found Malcom Floyd for the score.

The Chargers might have had a chance to win in regulation, believe it or not, as 49ers kicker Phil Dawson's 60-yard field-goal attempt at the buzzer barely reached the front of the end zone. Yes, the Chargers have this guy on the roster but failed to send him back for the kick:

There would be no "Kick Six" on this evening for Chargers rookie DB Chris Davis, but his team found a way with a different kind of magic. Weddle atoned by knocking the ball out of 49ers receiver Quinton Patton's hands, and Rivers and Ronnie Brown led them down for the game-winning field-goal drive.

It wasn't pretty. In fact, it was quite the opposite of that word. So much so that Snoop Dogg (or whatever he's known as these days) had a pretty good way of summing it all up.

How lucky are the Chargers? Very. But they also were opportunistic. There were four fumbles combined by the two teams on Saturday, and the Chargers came up with all four. One happened on the goal line. One was run back for a touchdown. One would have ended the game. And the final one set up the Chargers for the win.

And it sets up an interesting Week 17 in the AFC playoff race.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 6:06 am

Frank Gore might be entering the final four quarters of his San Francisco 49ers career. As a pending free agent, and with the 49ers perhaps heading in another direction next season, it could be the end of an era.

The former third-round pick has been nothing short of a warrior for the franchise.

Gore can move into the NFL's top 20 all time for rushing next week, passing Warrick Dunn, if he can gain 39 yards in Week 17 against the Arizona Cardinals. And with 38 yards, he can become only the ninth back in NFL history with eight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Most 1,000-yard rushing seasons in NFL history (NFL.com)

It hasn't been the easiest season for Gore or for the 49ers, who have been eliminated from the postseason in the wake of injuries, Colin Kaepernick's struggles and the Jim Harbaugh nonsense.

But Gore ran like gangbusters, like none of that mattered, giving the same incredible effort Saturday night in a 38-35 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers as he did when he broke into the league 10 seasons ago.

Gore kicked off the scoring with a 52-yard touchdown on his second carry of the game to set the tone for the evening.

Check out the broken tackles on the run — three of them, including against Melvin Ingram and Eric Weddle, two great defenders — and the burst Gore still has at age 31. 

Per @EliasSports Gore is only player in the NFL in ‘14 w/ a 50-plus TD run (52 - tonight) and 50–plus TD recept. [55 vs. Phi. (9/28/14)].

— Bob Lange (@49ersPR) December 21, 2014

Later in the first half, Gore showed another one of his underrated skills: pass blocking. It has helped make him maybe one of the more underappreciated backs of this generation, despite being beloved by 49ers fans.

Frank Gore has put his man on the ground with cut blocks on back-to-back pass plays. I can’t imagine there’ve been many better than him.

— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) December 21, 2014

On the first play of the second quarter, Gore reached the 100-yard rushing mark. He finished the game with 158 rushing yards on 26 carries.

Gore has now rushed for over 100 yds. in the 1st half for the 8th time in his career – last 9/26/13 at StL (107 yds.).

— Bob Lange (@49ersPR) December 21, 2014

Gore has now rushed for over 100 yds. in the 1st half for the 8th time in his career – last 9/26/13 at StL (107 yds.).

— Bob Lange (@49ersPR) December 21, 2014

Entering Saturday, the 49ers were 6-0 this season when Gore had 15 or more carries in a game, and 18-2 in his previous 20 games with 15 or more.

But naturally, the 49ers forgot about him in the second half and overtime. Gore carried the ball 12 times after halftime, none after the 4:23 mark in the fourth quarter.

And yet somehow, the 49ers can call a QB sweep for Kaepernick right after that, an obvious clock-killing tactic, only to watch him run out of bounds and stop the clock on 3rd and 5. Maybe hand it to Gore?

Also: Quinton Patton — he of the four career touches entering Saturday — received a carry in overtime ... which he promptly fumbled away. The Chargers won the game nine plays later.

Such has been the season for Gore and the 49ers. And it might be the end of their relationship in a little over a week. Both will move on, but neither will be the same without each other.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 21, 2014, 4:56 am

DeSean Jackson is why teams give controversial players the benefit of the doubt.

The Philadelphia Eagles obviously had a reason for cutting Jackson this past offseason after not getting any legitimate offers on the trade market. It wasn't because Jackson couldn't play; it would be foolish to think it had anything to do with his production. Jackson had 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns last year. He was a great fit on the field.

But for whatever reason the Eagles decided they'd be better off without him. Well, no.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Jackson torched the Eagles on Saturday night, catching four passes for 126 yards in a 27-24 win that likely ended Philadelphia's playoff hopes. In a dismal Washington Redskins season, Jackson has been fantastic. Despite playing with three different starting quarterbacks, he has 1,083 yards and is averaging an amazing 20.1 yards per catch. The Eagles could use a guy like that.

And Jackson could have taken the high road and said nothing about getting revenge on the team that cut him, but would you?

He mocked the Eagles as he ran into the locker room.

Here's video of DeSean Jackson mocking Eagles heading to lockeroom. From @bencelestino https://t.co/dMejf7uvdX

— John Clark CSN (@JClarkCSN) December 21, 2014

He also had some interesting comments, according to John Clark of CSN Philly. Jackson said that Eagles players told him during the game that they miss having him on the team. He also said the Eagles defense was "naive" against top receivers.

"Thats Philadelphia Eagles defense," Jackson said, according to Clark.

Ouch. If anyone deserved the moment to gloat, it was Jackson.

Jackson can't be thrilled about Washington's 4-11 season, but it had to feel good to play a big part in likely ending his former team's playoff hopes on Saturday. The Eagles will enter the offseason looking for answers for why their season collapsed after a 9-3 start. Maybe one of the reasons is they haven't had a dominant deep threat to make a big play when they need one.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 21, 2014, 2:38 am

This was Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez’s career in a nutshell.

For all the good he might do, we’ll always remember the bad.

Sanchez didn’t play poorly against the Washington Redskins on Saturday, and in fact he was in line to be the hero after bringing the Eagles back from a 10-point deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter. The Eagles had the ball at the two-minute warning, and looked to get into field-goal range and win the game, keeping their playoff hopes alive.

Instead, Sanchez was the goat in a 27-24 loss. Sanchez threw an interception to Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland on a poorly thrown ball inside of the two-minute warning. On Washington’s next play, Cary Williams missed a tackle on Pierre Garcon, who gained 23 yards, and the Eagles also took a roughing-the-passer penalty on the play to put the Redskins into field position. A few more runs later – and the Eagles had no clue they should have let the Redskins score a touchdown, to at least give them some hope to score in the final minute and send the game to overtime – and the Redskins had the chip shot field goal to win the game and put the Eagles’ playoff chances on life support.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

With the Eagles loss, their third in a row after starting 9-3, the Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Detroit clinched a playoff spot with Philadelphia’s loss. The Packers and Seahawks each clinch a playoff spot with a win or tie on Sunday, thanks to the Eagles’ loss.

If all that happens, the Eagles are eliminated. And what a disappointment that will be in Philadelphia, with all of its expectations coming into the season.

The Eagles probably didn’t deserve to win, playing so poorly against a Redskins team that was 3-11. But Sanchez’s 374 yards and a great effort by tight end Zach Ertz, who had 15 catches for 115 yards (where has that been all season for Philadelphia’s offense?) put the Eagles in position to win. Sanchez’s interception turned that around. Two missed field goals by Eagles kicker Cody Parkey didn't help either.

Quarterback Robert Griffin III played fairly well for Washington. He completed 16-of-23 passes for 220 yards. He made some nice plays from the pocket and put his team in position to win. That’s a nice development for the Redskins, but the story of the day was that Washington probably ruined Philadelphia’s season on Saturday.

The Eagles are probably done after that loss. Even though Sanchez has played reasonably well at times replacing Nick Foles, nobody will remember the good plays. The only thing worth mentioning now is that this talented Eagles team’s season, which looked pretty promising three weeks ago, will likely be done in eight days.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 21, 2014, 12:43 am

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a bit of an outlier.

Nobody throws the ball like him, with that compact delivery and velocity and great ball placement. He also has a random element to his game, although he isn’t really a runner. He plays on the edge of the offense’s structure, often making plays late in the down.

Once in a while, he’ll play on the wrong side of that edge. That’s what happened last week against the Buffalo Bills. He just didn’t have it.

I’m not taking anything away from Buffalo, because they have a good defense, but tactically they didn’t do anything where you said, "This is amazing, I’ve never seen that before." And while they have a good front four that gets bodies around the quarterback, they weren’t drilling Rodgers to the turf. They did a good job recognizing routes based on formation, but mostly it was a game in which Rodgers’ late-in-the-down tendencies just didn’t work.

It was immediately evident that Rodgers was having a bad day throwing the ball; he was glaringly inaccurate beginning in the first quarter. The plays where Rodgers moves and navigates n the pocket and makes a big throw late in the down didn’t happen in this game.

Both of Bills safety Bacarri Rambo’s interceptions were mistakes by Rodgers. On the first one, it was actually a busted coverage. The Bills showed “Cover 3” to cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s side, but “Cover 2” to cornerback Corey Graham’s side. Reading it as “Cover 3,” Rodgers looked to Randall Cobb on the “over” route, and his throw had to beat Rambo, the single high safety. It was just an inaccurate throw to the inside of Cobb that allowed Rambo to jump it. An accurate throw might have been a touchdown.

On the second interception, the Packers went to four receivers and Rodgers threw a slant to Jarrett Boykin. Rodgers hesitated on the initial throw, threw the slant late, and it was picked off as a result.

One thing also caught my eye and I wondered about it as I watched this game: The Bills dictated where Rodgers didn’t throw the ball. It reminded me of Week 1, when the Packers didn’t throw to Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s side, or when the Packers played the New England Patriots and Rodgers rarely threw at top two cornerbacks Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner, picking on other matchups instead. In this game, the Bills played a deep safety over Cobb’s side often, and Rodgers didn’t target Cobb against that defense. Can other defenses dictate where Rodgers goes with the ball? The sample size from these examples is way too small to draw any conclusions, but it’s something worth monitoring.

Manning's strength

Peyton Manning dealt with a thigh injury and the flu last weekend, but he was still able to do something he does as well as any quarterback: exploit matchups in man-to-man coverage. That was the story of the Denver Broncos’ win over the San Diego Chargers.

The best example came on a 28-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas late in the third quarter. The Chargers ran “man free blitz” so Manning had Thomas against Brandon Flowers. He threw a back-shoulder throw and it turned into a touchdown.

The Broncos have played a much different offense in the last month, with far less shotgun formation and a lot less passing, but if the Cincinnati Bengals give Manning man-to-man matchups to exploit, he will do it.

Griffin progress, but still work to do

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III started last week against the Giants, and he showed some improvement overall. He was more comfortable, less frenetic in the pocket and coach Jay Gruden helped him tremendously with an emphasis on play action and bootleg action with defined either/or reads.

But there are still things Griffin needs to work on, as we saw. When it was third and long and the play-calling couldn’t control his reads as much, he struggled. The longer he stayed in the pocket, the less effective he was, and he still lacks refined pocket clarity.

Let’s take a look at an example. On a fourth and 2 early in the third quarter, the play design was a quick slant to tight end Jordan Reed, the “X iso” against safety Antrel Rolle. Griffin didn’t believe he had the throw initially because linebacker Jameel McClain filled the passing lane. Reed was wide open in the second window after McClain passed, but Griffin came off of Reed despite no pressure. He didn’t have a good sense of the concept against the man coverage.

(NFL.com screen shot)

(NFL.com screen shot)
(NFL.com screen shot)
(NFL.com screen shot)

It will be a work in progress for Griffin, and we’ll see what progress he makes against Philadelphia on Saturday.

Chiefs open up

The Kansas City Chiefs have famously not thrown much to receivers this season, but they did more of it last week, and Alex Smith made some nice throws. One came on a 37-yard gain to Dwayne Bowe in the third quarter, when Jason Avant ran a “9” route deep and Bowe ran a “6” route, or a deep dig, and Smith made an excellent throw.

(NFL.com screen shot)

(NFL.com screen shot)
(NFL.com screen shot)
(NFL.com screen shot)

Smith isn’t a great thrower, in part because he locks his front leg when he throws. Locked-leg throwers can’t get much velocity, their accuracy is up and down and they can’t drive the football. Smith won’t make mistakes though. But I think the Chiefs are going to have to open up the offense more, like they did against Oakland. I don’t think they can win a 13-10 type game at Pittsburgh; the Steelers offense is too potent. And if they make the playoffs, I’m not sure they can win there with a limited offense either.

- - - - - - -

NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.

Author: Greg Cosell
Posted: December 20, 2014, 8:30 pm

Until we have some actual progress involving an NFL team moving to Los Angeles, maybe it's best to stop the breathless speculation about which teams will move there.

There won't be a team moving to Los Angeles in 2015. ESPN.com's Adam Schefter said commissioner Roger Goodell told the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams the three hottest candidates to move to L.A. if that ever happened that there will be no team in Los Angeles next season.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

This news shouldn't surprise you, because the NFL has a clear strategy for Los Angeles. The league lets the market stay open (no team has been there since 1994), does nothing to discourage numerous reports which say that this is the year a team is coming to L.A. (there were reports this year that two teams might even come, which the NFL must have enjoyed tremendously) and then the NFL can use that negotiating power to get cities to publicly finance new stadiums.

This is what the league has done repeatedly for two decades. And it's working, so why change now?

If the NFL, which makes so much money despite not being in the Los Angeles market that it gave Goodell a bonus of more than $40 million in 2013 just to get rid of its cash, wanted to be in L.A. it would have been done years ago. Quit with any other discussion about that market and an NFL team. Again: If the incredibly profitable NFL thought it was important to have a team in Los Angeles, there would be a team in Los Angeles. Period. That's it. Anything that runs contrary to that statement is intellectually dishonest.

Maybe the NFL will finally change its agenda and put a team in Los Angeles one of these years, but nobody should be pretending it's a priority for the league. The Raiders don't even have a home yet for next year because their stadium lease is up, they might be playing their last game ever in Oakland this weekend, and already the NFL has ruled out them returning to L.A. If that doesn't tell you how little the NFL cares about getting a team in that market, nothing else will.

So next year, when there are more reports that an NFL team going to L.A is really, really, really going to happen this time, you might want to remember that the NFL doesn't care if it happens or not. Though, it does care that there are reports saying it might happen. It's probably better for the league if that market remains vacant, but we should all understand that by now.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 20, 2014, 4:08 pm

New York Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. doesn't have time to live in fantasy land. 

Beckham has electrified the NFL this season with his playmaking ability and has shown crossover appeal by catching the attention of athletes in other sports, most notably scoring a dinner with NBA superstar LeBron James last month. He is the favorite to be named the NFL's offensive rookie of the year thanks to his 71 catches, 972 yards and nine touchdowns, and he has also become wildly popular among fantasy football owners. If you own Beckham, there's a good chance he helped you reach this week's championship round in your league.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

He admits that he gets asked about his fantasy football impact “all the time” by fans. And while most of those people are probably grateful at this point, he doesn't really care about fantasy stats.

People talk to me about fantasy all the time. It is something that I really don’t pay much mind to it because I don’t like [it] ….I am on someone’s fantasy team, 'do good for me.' I don’t play football to play for someone’s fantasy team,” Beckham said. “I play because this is what I love to do, this is now my job. Like I said, I really don’t pay much mind to it. I know earlier when I was hurt and would see the little tweets, 'Oh, I dropped you from my fantasy team,' and that is on them. I am not the coach, people tweeting asking 'Should I start you in fantasy?' In the back of my mind, I’m like, 'I’m not your coach, I am not the team’s coach, so you do what you need to do.'"

Having played his college ball at LSU where his every move was scrutinized, nothing should shock this first-round pick. But Beckham admits to a fair amount of surprise at just how big fantasy football is.

Despite the allure to most fans he won't be attending a draft anytime soon.

No, it is not my thing. I don’t have time to do substitutions and anything like that,” Beckham said. “It just too much time. I feel like it is too time consuming.”

- - - - - - -

Kristian R. Dyer writes for Metro New York and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KristianRDyer

Author: Kristian Dyer
Posted: December 20, 2014, 3:15 pm

Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman’s offense is grounded in Bill Walsh’s West Coast philosophy.

I know the “West Coast Offense” term is vague by now because of how many changes have been made to it by different coaches, but the offense’s foundation is grounded in rhythm passing and its precision. If it’s a three-step drop, the ball goes here. If it’s a five-step drop, the ball goes there.

And my sense from afar, watching the film, is that Jay Cutler is not that kind of precision quarterback for that offense.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Before we get more into the fit between Trestman and Cutler, here’s a play that I think is telling. It was the second play of Chicago’s game last Monday night against the New Orleans Saints. On second and eight from the Bears’ 9-yard line, Cutler had a three-step drop and a throw that should have gone to the right. A three-step drop is not a full-field read; you don’t read both sides because it is supposed to come out quick. Tight end Martellus Bennett is immediately open to Cutler’s right, and that’s the throw. You get it to him, he likely gains a minimum of 5 or 6 yards, and now it’s third and 2, a manageable situation to sustain a drive.

Except that Cutler didn’t throw the ball to Bennett, and for whatever reason he looked to the other side of the field, and that’s not in play on a three-step drop. He threw the ball away. Instead of it being third and short, it was third and 8. On the next play, Cutler threw an interception.

(NFL.com screen shot)
.

(NFL.com screen shot)

(NFL.com screen shot)
(NFL.com screen shot)

Here's the end-zone angle of that play, right after the snap, and you can see Bennett breaking open on the right:

(NFL.com screen shot)

Everyone looks at the big plays with Cutler, like the interceptions that get dissected. But the small plays like this one add up, even if it won't be noticed or remembered by most people. And small plays are what Trestman’s offense is built around. If the quarterback is not making those plays, he’s not executing the offense.

This is all just my sense of what has happened in Chicago, I’m not there inside the building to know what’s going on. But I think when Trestman came in he thought about Cutler, "There’s a lot to work with here. My system is precise and it gives you answers and I can make him into a better, more consistent quarterback with those answers.” It appeared as if it was trending in the right direction last year, Trestman’s first in Chicago.

I think you can compare what has happened this year to when you’re trying to teach someone something brand new, and it takes hold for a while. Then all of a sudden it doesn’t take hold anymore because that’s not who the person is, and things get worse.

Walsh’s offense, which is the foundation for what Trestman does, is built around precision in everything, especially for the quarterback. The drop, the footwork, everything has to be very precise. Cutler doesn’t do that, and never really has. He has never been a pure anticipation thrower or a disciplined structured player. He has immense arm talent, and likely because of that he’s a “see it, throw it” quarterback. He’ll wait until he sees a receiver come open, then throw it. That’s the antithesis of being an anticipation thrower. And his arm is good enough to make many of those throws. But he’s not a highly disciplined, nuanced quarterback, which is what is needed for Trestman’s offense to work at a high level.

You need the right fit between quarterback and offensive system. Every offense has rhythm and timing, but Cutler might be more comfortable playing a game where he can pass the ball down the field regularly as part of the offensive system. However, Mike Martz was offensive coordinator there with his vertical philosophy in 2010 and 2011 and that wasn’t the answer either, so who knows.

At this point Cutler will be viewed a bit as damaged goods. But he can still throw the ball and is a talented guy, and with the dearth of quality quarterbacks in the NFL I’d guess someone will trade for him, if the Bears decide to go that route. I’m wondering if Cutler should be headed for a different type of role in an offense. Always with Cutler, coaches have looked at the physical skills and thought he would be a lead quarterback to build an offense around. Maybe he’s not that guy for whatever reason. Maybe he needs to be a complementary piece in an offense built around the running back, on a team with a big-time defense, so he can be used as a play-action passer and not put the whole offense on his shoulders.

There are a thousand things that go into Cutler not having a good season, of course. If the Bears had a better defense, maybe they have three more wins and we’re not talking about this at all. The offensive line hasn’t been very good, and that’s a factor too, especially since the Bears can’t sustain a run game even though they have a really good back in Matt Forte. But those things haven't happened, Cutler hasn't had a good year either, and now the Bears are turning to Jimmy Clausen this week.

In my opinion, I don’t think Trestman did the wrong thing trying to get Cutler to fit in his scheme. He looked at Cutler and said, there’s so much there to work with, I need to make him better so he can be good every single week, not just once in a while. I don’t think you’re doing the wrong thing when you’re trying to get a talented player to play with more structure and discipline. If that’s not who Cutler is, that’s not who he is, and that might just be where we are at this point.

 

- - - - - - -

NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.

Author: Greg Cosell
Posted: December 19, 2014, 11:21 pm

You might have heard that Sony Entertainment executives decided to pull Hollywood satire "The Interview," starring James Franco and Seth Rogen that has been condemned by the North Korean government.

It's not a football story. But President Barack Obama made it one. Accidentally.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Condemning Sony for pulling the plug on the film, and simultaneously wondering why North Korea would be so bothered by the satire, Obama mentioned the film's stars, Seth Rogen and James ... Flacco?

James Flacco: https://t.co/jsKjhmOo2z

— SportsPickle (@sportspickle) December 19, 2014

Actor James Franco (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Gucci)Yes, the president meant actor James Franco.

Not James Flacco, or Joe Flacco, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback, or any other Flacco/James/Joe combination who might be out there.

That, of course, led to some hilarious reaction from the sports world on Twitter and a discussion, of course, of whether Franco or Flacco or Obama were elite.

You might remember all the talk about Flacco's status — IS HE ELITE?! — after he signed that big-money contract with the Ravens following his Super Bowl victory two seasons ago. It was tired and overdone back then, but we're lucky to spin it forward in a pretty hilarious way now because of Obama's gaffe ...

James Flacco... Still a better QB than Matt Ryan

— lindsey ok (@lindseyyok) December 19, 2014

James Flacco is elite, y'all. #Ravens

— Baltimore Media Blog (@BaltMediaBlog) December 19, 2014

Franco or Flacco? Who cares? Neither one is Elite.

— Mike Navel47 (@Navel47) December 19, 2014

I didn't watch the Obama presser, was too busy ordering James Flacco posters

— Katie Pavlich (@KatiePavlich) December 19, 2014

But is James Flacco elite? The joke isn't too original, but that doesn't mean it's not funny. http://t.co/wWYCZcCAjR pic.twitter.com/iXgDSJN115

— Andrew Joseph (@AndyJ0seph) December 19, 2014

Why is North Korea sweating this James Flacco guy? http://t.co/8sdigSMaRu pic.twitter.com/L7wQyfySKB

— VICE Sports (@VICESports) December 19, 2014

And, naturally, the real Flacco had to chime in on this matter — and correct the president, ever so kindly.

.@barackobama It's James Franco, not James Flacco ;)

— Joe Flacco (@TeamFlacco) December 19, 2014

No response yet from the Franco camp on this, at least not from the actor's official Twitter account (@JamesFrancoTV), which is just too bad.

This is not, we might add, Obama's first sports-related tongue slip. Who can forget his famous mention of "Kaminsky Field" in an interview with Bob Costas, talking about his supposedly beloved south-side-of-Chicago baseball team's ballpark.

(A personal note: It's also bothersome the way the president pronounces "Mizzou," which happens to be my alma mater, when Obama does his NCAA bracket picks, but that's a far more nitpicky and regional complaint that we can't fault him too much for. And, luckily for the president, the Mizzou hoops team isn't making the field this year, that's for sure.)

As for North Korea, it's a serious news story, yes, certainly, but a funny slip of the tongue added a layer of levity to the whole thing.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 19, 2014, 8:07 pm

Another quarterback injury has changed the perception of the Arizona Cardinals again, at least in the betting line.

The Cardinals are the biggest underdogs ever for an 11-3 team, going back to when it was first tracked in 1980, according to OddsShark.com. Arizona is an eight-point underdog to the Seattle Seahawks, according to Yahoo Pro Football Pick 'em lines. They're a huge underdog even though they're at home. There haven't been too many teams that have been exactly 11-3, and even fewer that have been underdogs at all, so the sample size isn't tremendous, but the line is telling.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Nobody expects the Cardinals to win with third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley against a Seahawks' pass defense that has been stifling the past few weeks. Never put anything past the Cardinals, who have overcome numerous injuries to already clinch a playoff berth, but this task seems to be a bit much. And with a win, the Seahawks would pull even with the Cardinals and clinch the tiebreaker, so they’d have the inside track for the NFC West title.

All these injuries are not really fair for the Cardinals. No team is fully healthy this time of the NFL season, but the Cardinals’ plight has been tougher than most. That won’t matter to the Seahawks, who are trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions. And I can’t pick Lindley and the Cardinals either. If Bruce Arians can muster enough points with a quarterback who has a 46.8 career rating to beat the Seahawks, he’s an even better coach that we realize.

It’s unfortunate for the Cardinals that they have to play such a big game so shorthanded, but the NFL isn’t always fair.

Here are the rest of the Week 16 picks:

Jaguars (-3.5) over Titans (picked Thursday): Moving on.

Redskins (+7.5) over Eagles: Seems like a letdown spot after such a big game for Philadelphia last week, though the Eagles might be focused coming off a loss. Either way, it’s nice to have Saturday NFL football back.

49ers (-1) over Chargers: The Chargers’ offensive explosion at Baltimore seems to be an outlier. It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that Philip Rivers is dealing with injuries. He doesn’t look right lately and neither does San Diego.

Jay Cutler and Marc Trestman (USA Today Sports Images)Bears (+9) over Lions: Maybe foolish but I have a feeling the Bears actually try to rally a bit around Jimmy Clausen. Either that or they totally roll over for Marc Trestman. Either way.

Vikings (+6.5) over Dolphins: The Vikings have covered seven of their last eight, according to OddsShark. They’re undervalued here, too.

Falcons (+6) over Saints: Not sure why I’d take the Saints laying this many points, considering how poorly they’ve played most of the second half of this season.

Patriots (-10) over Jets: I hate double-digit favorites in the NFL, and the Jets will play the Patriots hard, but the disparity between the two teams is ridiculous.

Steelers (-3) over Chiefs: I know that just when I start to trust the Steelers they’ll pull the rug out from under me, but here goes anyway.

Buccaneers (+10.5) over Packers: I think an angry Aaron Rodgers could put up pinball numbers, but I also don’t need to be taking two double-digit road favorites in one week.

Panthers (-3) over Browns: After what we saw from Johnny Manziel last week, I can’t pick the Browns.

Ravens (-5) over Texans: Sorry, not picking Case Keenum over the Ravens.

Rams (-5.5) over Giants: Maybe the Rams can finally slow down the Odell Beckham train.

Cowboys (-3) over Colts: I’m not sure I get this line. The Colts have nothing to play for, really. Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton probably won’t play, it appears. Sure, DeMarco Murray will be limited at best with a broken left hand, but I’m only giving a field goal to take a good team that probably needs to win if it wants to win a division title? Dallas is 10-2 in games Tony Romo hasn’t been hurt and they’re facing a team that has nothing tangible to play for. What am I missing here?

Raiders (+5.5) over Bills: The Raiders have been surprisingly feisty at home lately.

Broncos (-3) over Bengals: The Broncos keep grinding out wins, and I’ve seen too much of Bad Andy Dalton lately to go Cincinnati. The only concern is motivation, because I think at some point the Broncos are going to realize that no matter what they do the rest of the way, the AFC is going through Foxboro.

Last week: 8-7-1
Season to date: 113-108-2

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 19, 2014, 7:10 pm

Welcome to the latest Shutdown Corner podcast! On today's piping-hot episode, we have:

• Discussion of Chicago's new quarterback, Jimmy Clausen, who once posed like this: (1:35 mark):

Jimmy Clausen


• Where's Jay Cutler going to end up? (13:25 mark)

• Our Week 16 locks, upsets, and games we'd pay to see (17:01 mark)

• The sad fate of the Arizona Cardinals (27:30 mark)

All this and more as part of the Shutdown Corner Podcast. Listen up, and while you're listening, here are some more options ...

Subscribe via iTunes right here.

Non-iTunes subscription link here.

Leave us a nice review here.

The Shutdown Corner podcast is the product of Kevin Kaduk (@KevinKaduk), Frank Schwab (@YahooSchwab) and Jay Busbee (@JayBusbee). New episodes every Tuesday and Friday, with bonus episodes when you least expect it. Enjoy!

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 19, 2014, 4:45 pm

It was one tackle in a game that was, otherwise, the definition of unmemorable. A tackle to bring a merciful end to a slapfight between two 2-12 teams, a sack of the Tennessee Titans' Charlie Whitehurst through an indifferent O-line. But for Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, it was the most profitable tackle of his entire career.

The sack triggered a $600,000 bonus in Marks' contract; he had to achieve at least eight sacks this season, and he now has 8 1/2. The sack preserved Jacksonville's 21-13 win against Tennessee, giving the Jaguars the tiniest measure of hope for a better year and giving Titans fans more reason to hope for Marcus Mariota in Tennessee blues.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

For his part, Marks knew exactly where he stood. After making the sack, he leaped up and made the Johnny Manziel "money" gesture before getting buried by teammates in a celebratory pile. After the game, he invited pretty much the entire city of Jacksonville to party with him.

"It was pretty awesome," Marks said. "Just the excitement of all the guys. Everybody's excited about somebody else accomplishing something. It just shows the character of our team and the guys that we have. Nobody gets that check but me, but everybody's excited for me. It's just the commitment we all have to one another and the character of each guy in here."

Maybe so, but Marks deserves plenty of credit all on his own. Coming into this season, he only had seven sacks total for his previous five years in the league, one with Jacksonville and four with Tennessee. He's more than doubled his total of four sacks last season.

In the end, Marks is getting the check, but his teammates are apparently going to help him use it. "Oh, we're going to spend some of that money," DE Red Bryant said.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 19, 2014, 2:12 pm

Holiday spirit is in a little shorter supply this season in Chicago with the Bears' struggles this season, but injured cornerback Charles Tillman is trying to keep a healthy perspective on the team and himself — and also giving fans a reason to smile — as best he can.

"It has just been one of those years, man," Tillman told the Shutdown Corner. "Every year, some team just has one of those years. That's us."

Tilman has been working back from a season-ending triceps injury he suffered back in Week 2 that put his career status in doubt, but he's rehabbing dutifully and taking part in his usual dose of community service — he was the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year last season — for which he is widely respected in the community.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

He's also at a loss for words on why the Bears' season has gone so awry. Tillman blames injuries and bad luck as the primary factors.

"I don't think anyone could have foreseen how this has gone. I always have felt that we have a chance to win the Super Bowl before the season, and this year was no different. I just think injuries had a lot to do with it. We just have not been healthy, and that's something this team has struggled with the last two years.

"I think everyone did everything they could to come into the season healthy, but stuff happens. It's football, man. The football Gods made sure we were going to all be injured this year, so that's how it went."

The Bears lost Tillman in Week 2, and other stalwarts went down throughout the season: linebacker Lance Briggs, receiver Brandon Marshall, defensive end Lamarr Houston and linebacker D.J. Williams, among them. But most of those injuries took place well into the season — after the Bears' struggles were well underway.

Their injuries from the 2013 season appeared to be more serious and plentiful, when the team lost several starters for various lengths, but still finished 8-8 and on the cusp of the playoffs.

Other factors have derailed the Bears' 2014 season. First, the struggles of the defense continued to the point where coordinator Mel Tucker was made out to be the fall guy. Tillman thinks this was unfair.

"I don't agree with Mel being the fall guy," he said. "I believe we as players have to make plays. If you blame Mel, you have to blame the players, too. It's not just one man's job or duty. You need all 11 guys and coaches on board, working together as one. If you don't have that, you lose.

"We've shown collectively how great we can be at times, but we have been inconsistent. We've been consistently inconsistent. That's a little frustrating because I know the level of talent we have. On paper, we're talented. But some days we just don't show up."

More recently, the Aaron Kromer breach of trust has divided the locker room. Tillman couldn't help but acknowledge the situation but also said it's not the kind of thing that will linger long term.

"I think there might have been a little trust lost with a few words that were said a few weeks ago, but I also know that there was an apology and we've all come to terms with that," he said. "I relate that to, if you have a problem with your wife and have a falling out, are you not going to ever trust them again?

"You still love each other. You fight and you work through it. Let's be done with it and move on. It's no different in the locker room. That tension exists, and we face each other like men, forgive each other and move on. I think that's normal."

As for the much-discussed benching of quarterback Jay Cutler, Tillman indicated that the decision was above his and his teammates' pay grades.

"Those are coach's decisions," Tillman said. "We, as a team, just have to roll with it and trust that they have the best interest of the team with the decisions they make."

Does Tillman agree with Martellus Bennett's assessment following the loss to the New Orleans Saints that some Bears have quit on the team?

"I don't know. I think guys are. I think it's just one of those years where no matter what happens, everything has gone wrong. I see guys put in the work; I see the effort. I think frustration has killed some passion, though."

Tillman has said recently he intends to return to the NFL next season, health willing, but that everything feels good with his triceps now.

"The triceps is awesome," he said. "I feel strong. ...I am lifting a little weight now. Right now, the goal is to get my arm as strong as I can.

"No Peanut punching right now; maybe some peanut jabs. It's not where it needs to be yet. But I'm getting close to hopefully making some plays next year for the team."

Is a return to the Bears in the offing for 2015?

"I [would] return to the Bears," he said. "But right now I look at it as interviewing for all 32 teams. The Bears are included in that. I have no ill will whatsoever. I am keeping all options open."

But being hurt hasn't dampened Tillman's charitable heart, and he recently found a new team to work with — Courtyard, the official hotel of the NFL — to raise some holiday spirit in a video series the hotel chain is doing called "Courtyard Camera" with NFL players.

Tillman posed in disguise as an overzealous holiday video director in a Chicago branch of the hotel and tried to recruit guests to sing songs for him on tape.

"I'm a kid at heart, and anytime there are cameras there is going to be fun to be had if I am involved," Tillman said. "My job was to get [hotel guests] to go along with it and sing 'Jingle Bells.' They had no idea who I was. I had props, a disguise, I was acting so serious ... people thought I was crazy. And no one knew who I was.

"I was screwing up people's names on purpose, pushing it right to the edge without them getting mad."

The results are pretty amusing. Have a look:

Tillman's body might be injured, but his heart is just as warm and vibrant as before.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 19, 2014, 1:37 pm

Are you planning to watch all 38 college bowl games? So are we. (Eventually ... time permitting.)

Well, keep this guide handy: a list of the top NFL prospects and sleepers for the 2015 draft in every game, even the ones with weird names and sponsors.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

We tried to guess which underclassmen will enter the draft, but some impressive players were off the list. Plus, we couldn't list every gifted player who will take the field in December and January.

With that in mind, here are some players you should know about from each of the games (listed chronologically, all kickoff times ET):

NEW ORLEANS BOWL

Matchup: Nevada (7-5) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4)
Location: New Orleans
When: Dec. 20, 11 a.m., ESPN
Top prospect: Nevada QB Cody Fajardo — The dual-threat quarterback replaced Colin Kaepernick as the Wolfpack’s starter but has not progressed as a pro prospect and would have to be put into the “project” category. He’s athletic and had a great performance in the close loss to Arizona, but Fajardo remains a piece of clay that must be molded.

Sleeper prospect: Louisiana-Lafayette OG Daniel Quave — His brother Mykhael appears to be the better prospect, but he’s a junior. Daniel is a big, burly guard with late-rounds  or priority free-agent potential, per 120 Sports’ Russ Lande, who has started 50 straight games for the Ragin’ Cajuns.

NEW MEXICO BOWL

Matchup: UTEP (7-5) vs. Utah State (9-4)
Location: Albuquerque, N.M.
When: Dec. 20, 2:20 p.m., ESPN
Top prospect: Utah State ILB Zach Vigil — The Aggies’ aggressive, attacking scheme fits Virgil well, and Lande says the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year is "one of the more versatile players in the country” who could end up a mid-to-later-round prospect who fits the mold of a quality reserve and special teams demon in the NFL. Keep an eye on Vigil, who lives behind the line and will showcase his skills at the East-West Shrine game, even if some scouts feel that DE B.J. Larsen might be just as good an NFL prospect.

Sleeper prospect: UTEP TE Eric Tomlinson — His 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame alone could get Tomlinson drafted, as his massive body could make him an ideal No. 2 tight end who can block effectively in the run game. Some NFL scouts think Tomlinson could bulk up and play tackle. His receiving potential is limited, but he did catch six passes the past two games. Tomlinson and Miners QB Jameill Showers will play in the NFLPA Collegiate bowl to showcase their skills to scouts following the bowl game.

LAS VEGAS BOWL

Location: Las Vegas
When: Dec. 20, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Matchup: Colorado State (10-2) vs. Utah (8-4)
Top prospect: Colorado State OT Ty Sambrailo — With this game and the Senior Bowl, Sambrailo has a chance to make a bigger name for himself following a strong senior season in which his name has been thrown into the late first-round mix. Sambrailo could make himself some money if he holds his own against the Utes’ highly touted pass rush end, Nate Orchard, who could go as high as Round 2. This is one of the best individual battles you’ll see in bowl season.

Sleeper prospect: Utah CB Eric Rowe — The lanky cover man has been starting for the Utes since his freshman year and has handled the switch from safety to corner this past season deftly. The Senior Bowl invitee could end up being tried at both positions in the NFL, with enough size (6-1, 205) to handle either spot.

FAMOUS IDAHO POTATO BOWL

Location: Boise, Idaho
When: Dec. 20, 5:45 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Air Force (9-3) vs. Western Michigan (8-4)
Top prospect: Western Michigan CB Donald Celiscar — The 5-11, 191-pound senior tied for the NCAA lead with 17 passes defended (matching teammate Ronald Zamort) and also picked off four passes this season. His size and lack of blazing speed likely will limit how high he’s considered in the draft, but the first-team all-MAC corner has a nose for the ball that can’t be taught.

Sleeper prospect: Air Force P-PK Will Conant — The underclassman-laden Falcons have one of the best double-duty special teamers in the country in Conant, who has made 17 straight field goals on attempts under 60 yards. He also averaged 43.8 yards per punt and landed 18 of them inside the 20. He’s a mature player who hit the game-winner against Colorado State, has a future as an officer, is getting married but also could be invited to an NFL camp.

CAMELLIA BOWL

Matchup: Bowling Green (7-6) vs. South Alabama (6-6)
Location: Montgomery, Ala.
When: Dec. 20, 9:15 p.m., ESPN
South Alabama quarterback Brandon Bridge (Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports)Top prospect: South Alabama QB Brandon Bridge — There is some intrigue with Bridge, who doesn’t have the prettiest passing numbers but stands as a physical marvel at 6-5 and 235 pounds. He showed he can move, too, with a 65-yard run this season. His receivers dropped several passes, the Jaguars’ offensive line was a sub-par group and Bridge dealt with an ankle injury that caused him to miss most of the South Carolina game, which disappointed scouts eager to see him against better competition. Bridge is raw and unpolished, but he has traits that have the NFL scouting community keeping close tabs on him.

Sleeper prospect: Bowling Green LB Gabe Martin — He will  always will be up against the fact that he’s undersized and not an exceptional athlete, but his football instincts are strong. The 239-pound linebacker had a team-best 110 tackles (16 for loss) this season, along with two interceptions and a blocked kick.

MIAMI BEACH BOWL

Location: Miami
When: Dec. 22, 2 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: BYU (8-4) vs. Memphis (9-3)
Top prospect: BYU CB Robertson Daniel — The outspoken, confident and talented Daniel is a former junior-college safety who has become the Cougars’ best cornerback and has the size at 6-0 and 198 pounds to earn some late-round consideration. He has batted down 13 passes this season, which ranks him among the NCAA leaders.

Sleeper prospect: Memphis OT Al Bond — The Tigers’ right tackle likely projects to guard in the NFL, and the 6-4, 305-pound redshirt senior has a chance to be a late pick because of his respectable strength and athleticism.

BOCA RATON BOWL

Location: Boca Raton, Fla.
When: Dec. 23, 6 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)
Top prospect: Marshall DT James Rouse — He might be a man without a home in the NFL, too light at 270 pounds and tall at 6-5 to play tackle inside and perhaps not quick enough to be a true edge player. More likely, Rouse could appeal to some 3-4 clubs looking for a 5-technique end. The Thundering Herd play him at nose tackle, and he sees double teams on almost every play. His strong work ethic has allowed the sixth-year player (he lost his entire 2011 and 2012 seasons to injury) to persevere to this point.

Sleeper prospect: Northern Illinois S Dechane Durante — Scouts who broke down 2014 first-round DB Jimmie Ward commented that Durante opened some eyes during the process, and the 6-2, 200-pounder built on that with a strong senior season (four interceptions) to where he might be a late second- or early third-day pick. Durante will have his hands full tracking Marshall QB Rakeem Cato, who has some NFL traits.

POINSETTIA BOWL

Location: San Diego
When: Dec. 23, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Navy (6-5) at San Diego State (7-5)
Top prospect: San Diego State OT Terry Poole — The East-West Shrine invitee switched from right tackle in 2013 to start every game this season at left tackle. He’s a bit old at nearly 23 and has limited upside, but Poole could end up being a good swing tackle prospect in the NFL with his good height and reach.

Sleeper prospect: Navy LS Joe Cardona — A long snapper from Navy? Bet you Bill Belichick is interested. The Senior Bowl invite is considered one of the best in the country at his job. Even with that, we can’t blame you for not “watching” a long snapper. Just know his name. He’s good, and NFL teams know all about him.

POPEYES BAHAMAS BOWL

Location: Nassau
When: Dec. 24, noon, ESPN
Matchup: Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5)
Top prospect: Western Kentucky CB Cam Thomas — At 6-1, 190 pounds, Thomas has a nice long frame for the position, not to mention the temperament. It’s easy to see his confidence and competitiveness on tape, and with refinement could be a starter in the NFL in time. Don’t be surprised if Thomas, whom teams generally avoided throwing at this season, ends up being a Day 2 draft pick.

Sleeper prospect: Central Michigan WR Titus Davis — The 6-2 flanker can run and stretch the field (15.6 yards per catch) and might end up in a terrific battle with Thomas if they’re matched up. After missing three games with a knee injury earlier this season, Davis turned in a few dominant performances and has shown he’s all the way back.

HAWAII BOWL

Matchup: Fresno State (6-7) vs. Rice (7-5)
Location: Honolulu
When: Dec. 24, 8 p.m., ESPN
Fresno State safety Derron Smith (Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)Top prospect: Fresno State S Derron Smith — It’s easy to look at the numbers and say that Smith didn’t play as well as a senior, dropping from eight interceptions last season to one in 2014. But in the right scheme, Smith’s range and hitting ability could be put to good use. He has been invited to the Senior Bowl and much like eventual first-rounder Jimmie Ward a year ago, Smith (5-10, 200 pounds) could be a fast riser in the pre-draft process.

Sleeper prospect: Rice CB Bryce Callahan — A year ago, Phillip Gaines was all the rage. He rose through the draft process, tested well and landed in Round 3. Callahan does not possess ideal measurables and likely won’t blaze his 40-yard dash, but the 5-10, 180-pound corner has the toughness and temperament that will endear himself to positional coaches. He’s a winner who should  make it in some capacity.

HEART OF DALLAS BOWL

Matchup: Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)
Location: Dallas
When: Dec. 26, 1 p.m., ESPN
Top prospect: Louisiana Tech OT Mitchell Bell — The 6-3, 354-pound Bell, who also will play in the NFLPA game, is a former junior-college transfer who has helped the Bulldogs improve their scoring, rushing game and helped cut down significantly on the team’s sacks. He helped open up big holes for junior RB Kenneth Dixon (a whopping 26 touchdowns this season) and pave the way against an Illini defense that allowed 249.6 rushing yards per game (sixth worst in the country). Bell figures to be a guard in the NFL in a power-based, man-blocking scheme.

Sleeper prospect: Illinois TE Matt LaCosse — You won’t find him listed high on many pre-draft rankings lists, and LaCosse had somewhat of a disappointing career. But the 6-6, 245-pound athletic tight end has been a solid red-zone threat with occasional big-play potential. He likely won’t be drafted but could end up in a team’s training camp next summer.

QUICK LANE BOWL

Matchup: North Carolina (6-6) vs. Rutgers (7-5)
Location: Detroit
When: Dec. 26, 4:30 p.m., ESPN
Top prospect: Rutgers OG Kaleb Johnson — After sticking his toe in the draft waters a year ago, Johnson returned to school and has improved. His durability (49 straight starts) and versatility (started at left tackle, right tackle and — his position the past two seasons — left guard) are NFL-caliber for sure. Johnson might not wow you in any one way, but he’s a draftable prospect who can make a gameday roster as a rookie.

Sleeper prospect: North Carolina DT Ethan Farmer — An athletic defensive lineman who can shoot gaps and move pretty well, Farmer won’t wow you at first blush but has the kind of scheme-diverse skills that could endear him to a number of teams in the later stages of the draft. A decent wave player at the next level.

ST. PETERSBURG BOWL

Location: St. Petersburg, Fla.
When: Dec. 26, 8 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: North Carolina State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)
Top prospect: UCF LB Terrance Plummer — A natural leader and big striker, Plummer fits the profile of an old-school “Mike” linebacker but has enough skills in pass coverage to project to this era of NFL defense. His lack of size is concerning, and Plummer won’t blow scouts away at testing, either. But if you watch him play in this game, you should come away impressed. He’s a fun study.

Sleeper prospect: North Carolina State P Wil Baumann — The 6-foot-6, long-levered Baumann had a tremendous season, averaging 45.3 yards per punt, and has been a weapon for the Wolfpack. Turn on the Clemson game (four punts of 50-plus yards, four inside the 20-yard line) and you’ll see a field-position changer.

MILITARY BOWL

Matchup: Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6)
Location: Annapolis, Md.
When: Dec. 27, 1 p.m., ESPN
Top prospect: Cincinnati OT Eric Lefeld — There was some buzz about Lefeld entering the season, and even though he earned first-team all-conference honors in an explosive offense, the 6-5, 310-pound Lefeld isn’t a perfect prospect. He can boost his stock with a good performance in this game against some young talent on the Hokies’ defensive line. He’s not massive and likely has little chance to play on the left side with only adequate feet.

Sleeper prospect: Virginia Tech S Detrick Bonner — The redshirt senior has had a bit of an inconsistent career in Blacksburg, but he finished strong and has shown the kind of do-everything temperament (he’s played corner, safety and nickel linebacker) that could make the 6-1, 204-pounder a core special teamer and dime back in the NFL.

SUN BOWL

Location: El Paso, Texas
When: Dec. 27, 2 p.m., CBS
Matchup: Arizona State (9-3) vs. Duke (9-3)
Top prospect: Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong — With ideal measurables, sneaky speed and outstanding positional instincts, Strong might be a cleaner, better version of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jordan Matthews. Strong isn’t a blazer, but he makes plays downfield and has a flair for the dramatic, making some highlight-reel grabs this season. Expect the 6-4, 205-pound Strong to go out with a bang against a young, undersized Duke secondary.

Sleeper prospect: Duke OG Laken Tomlinson — The 330-pound, Jamaica-born Tomlinson is a road grader and squarely build right guard who has started for four years straight. Although he has considered a medical career after his football days, Tomlinson is very football-driven and it shows on the field. He’ll display his skill in the Senior Bowl, too, and will have the chance to perform at a high level in this game against a good Sun Devils front.

INDEPENDENCE BOWL

Location: Shreveport, La.
When: Dec. 27, 4 p.m., ESPN2
Matchup: Miami (6-6) vs. South Carolina (6-6)
Top prospect: South Carolina OG A.J. Cann — Roundly regarded as the top interior prospect in the 2015 crop, the 6-4, 311-pound Cann has been praised by coaches up and down this season and has been an equal force in both the run and pass games. Cann might be a high second-round pick in a draft class that appears thin inside.

Sleeper prospect: Miami OT Ereck Flowers — Gifted RB Duke Johnson might declare for the draft, and LB Denzell Perryman will be everywhere in this game, especially trying to take down South Carolina draft-eligible RB Mike Davis; both Johnson and Perryman could be top-50 picks. But Flowers has a chance to rise through the draft process, even in a crop loaded with OT talent. He has come on the latter part of the season.

PINSTRIPE BOWL

Location: New York
When: Dec. 27, 4:30 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Boston College (7-5) vs. Penn State (6-6)
Top prospect: Penn State DB Adrian Amos — The 6-0, 205-pound Amos is a Senior Bowl invitee who plays downhill and has a physical presence in the secondary. He could play safety and cornerback on the next level and has started at both positions for the Nittany Lions.

Sleeper prospect: Boston College C Andy Gallik — Following in the Eagles’ long tradition of undersized, smart centers, Gallik handled some of his toughest matchups (USC and Florida State, in particular) very well and has the brains and technique to be an NFL starter in time.

HOLIDAY BOWL

Location: San Diego
When: Dec. 27, 8 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Nebraska (9-3) vs. USC (8-4)
Top prospects: USC DT-DE Leonard Williams and Nebraska DE Randy Gregory — You could argue that Williams and Gregory might be vying to be the first non-quarterback selected in the draft. Williams has top-five potential as a disruptive defensive lineman capable of playing almost any technique, and Gregory is an edge burner whose pass-rush ability stacks him up among the best in a deep crop of defensive ends in the 2015 class. Either of these physical specimens could help an NFL defense from Day 1 next fall.

Sleeper prospect: USC CB Josh Shaw and Nebraska WR Kenny Bell — If we’re going to pick two top prospects in this game, why not two sleepers — who could match up — as well? Bell doesn’t blow you away physically, and he’s playing in a crude passing offense, but he delivers in key situations — such as his two-TD game in the overtime win against Iowa, despite being banged up. Shaw has returned after his bizarre preseason balcony leap, and he has only a few more chances — including this game — to convince NFL scouts he has moved past the incident. He has some NFL-caliber skills but requires polish.

LIBERTY BOWL

Location: Memphis, Tenn.
When: Dec. 29, 2 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Texas A&M (7-5) vs. West Virginia (7-5)
Top prospect: Texas A&M OT Cedric Ogbuehi — Entering the season, the athletically blessed Ogbuehi was viewed as a potential top-five pick, but after some struggles he shifted back to right tackle and overall has had an up and down season. He struggled against top talent but still has the ability NFL teams won’t wait too long to take a chance on.

Sleeper prospect: West Virginia DE Shaquille Riddick — The Gardner-Webb transfer has the kind of length, quickness and closing ability to tempt NFL teams. Just look at the Baylor game, in which he had three sacks, for evidence of that. He and Ogbuehi might lock horns a few times in this one.

RUSSELL ATHLETIC BOWL

Location: Orlando, Fla. 
When: Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Clemson (9-3) vs. Oklahoma (8-4)
Top prospect: Clemson DE-OLB Vic Beasley — Facing off against mid-to-late-round OT Tyrus Thompson and facing a run-heavy team such as the Sooners (even if star freshman Samaje Perine can’t play because of injury), Beasley will get a great test. NFL teams want to know if Beasley can stack with power and play the run, or if he will be only a pass-rush specialist on the next level. That they know he can do.

Sleeper prospect: Oklahoma LB Eric Striker — You mean there’s a pass rusher in this game smaller than Beasley? Indeed. Striker opened eyes a year ago when he torched Alabama OT (and future second-rounder) Cyrus Kouandjio in the Sugar Bowl and followed it up with 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks this season. That said, he’s listed at 6-0 and 221 pounds, and might not have a clear NFL position, lacking base strength. Still, his ability to disrupt is intriguing.

TEXAS BOWL

Location: Houston
When: Dec. 29, 9 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Arkansas (6-6) vs. Texas (6-6)
Top prospect: Texas DT Malcom Brown — A possible first-round pick, Brown is an interior penetrator who made plenty of plays in the backfield (14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, both team highs) despite not a lot of established talent around him. How he’ll handle the physical, nasty ground attack of the Hogs will be a test for Brown, whose calling card comes more often in passing situations.

Sleeper prospect: Arkansas LB Martrell Spaight — The Senior Bowl invitee is all around the ball and racked up the tackles this season — 123, 55 more than any other Razorback. His technique could use refinement, but it’s not hard to appreciate the way he approaches the game, makes hustle plays and motors through the whistle. A yoga routine this past summer helped him get more flexible.

MUSIC CITY BOWL

Location: Nashville, Tenn. 
When: Dec. 30, 3 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: LSU (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (7-5)
Top prospects: Notre Dame OT Ronnie Stanley and LSU OT La’el Collins — Both have had strong seasons and have put themselves in the same range as possible first-round picks. A perfect opportunity to do some OL scouting without having to change channels. Both players could end up being starting left tackles in the NFL.

Sleeper prospect: Notre Dame TE Ben Koyack — Another year, another Irish tight end prospect. Koyack has flown beneath the radar this season and lost out on All-America lists to more well-known players at his position, but Koyack has the all-around game to become a solid pro, a la John Carlson. He might not be as talented as Tyler Eifert or Troy Niklas, other high-round Irish prospects in recent seasons, but Koyack has a fairly high ceiling as a prospect.

BELK BOWL

Louisville's Gerod Holliman stands with the Jim Thorpe Award (AP Photo/John Raoux)Location: Charlotte, N.C.
When: Dec. 30, 6:30 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Georgia (9-3) vs. Louisville (9-3)
Top prospect: Louisville S Gerod Holliman — With a 14-interception season, Holliman put himself in the discussion of being the best safety in the country with an unbelievable nose for the ball. Were a few of them gift-wrapped? Sure. Is he a suspect tackler at times? Yes. But there’s a lot of intrigue to his game in a league where finding half-field safeties is hard. Holliman is expected to declare for the draft early and might not have to wait too long to hear his name called, even if there is a one-year-wonder concern about him. WR Davante Parker might end up being the best pro from this team, but Holliman's incredible season and a lack of depth at safety could affect where the two players are picked.

Sleeper prospect: Georgia C Damian Swann — Swann dipped his toe in the NFL waters a year ago but wisely returned to school and had a nice — but not great — final season. Still, he has some Cover 2 skills and playmaking ability that could make him a late Day 2 or early Day 3 pick. A coach such as Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith will take note of Swann’s turnover-forcing ability and live with his average speed and measurable.

FOSTER FARMS BOWL

Location: Santa Clara, Calif.
When: Dec. 30, 10 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Maryland (7-5) vs. Stanford (7-5)
Top prospect: Stanford OT Andrus Peat — Will he come out? Some people believe he might end up staying in school another year, as Yahoo Sports' Rand Getlin reported, and Peat could end up a top-five pick in 2016.

#Stanford OT Andrus Peat is on the fence about whether to declare for the 2015 NFL Draft or not, per multiple sources.

— Rand Getlin (@Rand_Getlin) December 16, 2014

But Peat still could be in the first-round mix (and perhaps even high up in it) if he continues to show well in this game and decides to declare early. The 6-7, 319-pound Peat has everything you look for in a left tackle prospect but still could play with a little more vinegar in his diet.

Sleeper prospect: Maryland WR Deon Long — Junior Stefon Diggs is more gifted but less reliable than Long, who has been the Terps’ most consistent and reliable receiver this season. After a broken leg, Long took a bit to regain his form and was called out by head coach Randy Edsell for his work ethic. But Long has some nice ability and also seems to play with passion and purpose on game days.

PEACH BOWL

Location: Atlanta
When: Dec. 31, 12:30 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Mississippi (10-2) vs. TCU (11-1)
Top prospect: Mississippi S Cody Prewitt — It’s between Prewitt and CB Senquez Golson as to who might be the best pro prospect in the Rebels’ secondary, but Prewitt has good size for the position, and safety appears the shallower position of the two in next year’s draft class. At 6-2, 212 pounds, Prewitt has excellent size and a ballhawking style. He was the captain of the “Landsharks” defense, and it showed up on tape. Watching him combat TCU’s explosive offense should be great theater.

Sleeper prospect: TCU DT Chucky Hunter — The former power lifter is as strong as an ox and has decent quickness and anticipation skills inside, even if he is a bit sawed off at 6-1, 300 pounds. He’s a mid-round prospect but one who plays hard and with a purpose.

FIESTA BOWL

Location: Glendale, Ariz.
When: Dec. 31, 4 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Arizona (10-3) vs. Boise State (11-2)
Top prospect: Boise State RB Jay Ajayi — The junior will wait until after this game, reports have said, to decide whether he’ll declare. Arizona’s defense has played well most of the season, led by linebacker Scooby Wright, but if Ajayi goes off in this game he might keep running to the league. Well-built at 6-0, 217 pounds, Ajayi — who had a streak of seven straight 100-yard games this season — runs through contact, sees holes quickly and can spring big plays as a runner and receiver. He might be a better prospect, some have said, than Doug Martin.

Sleeper prospect: Arizona WR Austin Hill — Scouts say he is still coming back from a 2013 knee injury and might be a better prospect than he has shown. A month off prior to this game could return a little more explosion to the 6-3, 212-pound wideout’s game. He’s not a burner, but Hill glides and has solid hands.

ORANGE BOWL

Location: Miami
When: Dec. 31, 8 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Georgia Tech (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (10-2)
Top prospect: Mississippi State LB Benardick McKinney — It’s almost a certainty that McKinney applies for the draft, and he could be the first off-the-ball linebacker selected in April — perhaps even in the first round. He’s well-built at 6-5 and 245 pounds and could play inside or on the strong side in the pros. He has shown the requisite physicality to be an impact defender in the NFL. Some have compared him to the Dallas Cowboys’ Rolando McClain, who is enjoying his finest season as a pro.

Sleeper prospect: Georgia Tech S Isaiah Johnson — He has impressive size and intelligence, and has come back nicely from missing the entire 2013 season with a knee injury. Johnson might not have as much range as you’d like in a safety, and he looks more effective the closer he is to the line of scrimmage. He was awarded the team's defensive effort award at the end-of-season banquet, which will endear him to NFL teams as a reserve and special teams contributor early in his pursuit of a pro career.

OUTBACK BOWL

Location: Tampa, Fla. 
When: Jan. 1, noon, ESPN2
Matchup: Auburn (8-4) vs. Wisconsin (10-3)
Top prospect: Auburn WR Sammie Coates — A player with warts but also enticing physical skills, Coates has declared for the draft and will tease NFL teams with his ability. A strong performance here and at the Senior Bowl (the fourth-year junior is eligible for the game) could ease scouts’ concerns over his hot-and-cold performance and inconsistent execution because he has game-breaking ability and a pro-ready frame at 6-2 and 204 pounds with vertical speed.

Sleeper prospect: Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein — The massive right tackle would be a great fit for a power-running team such as the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets or Cincinnati Bengals. Havenstein might not be the world’s most agile lineman, but watch in this game: When the Badgers need that third-and-short conversion, there’s a good chance Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement will be running behind Havenstein’s backside to get it.

COTTON BOWL

Location: Arlington, Texas
When: Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Baylor (11-1) vs. Michigan State (10-2)
Top prospects: Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun and Baylor DE Shawn Oakman — They are vastly different prospects, comparing the lean, quick-footed Calhoun to the massive, bear-strong Oakman. Calhoun had a slow start to the season after entering it with sky-high expecations, and Oakman too often plays with a cool motor. But both players possess the physical traits and playmaking potential to be possible first-round choices this spring.

Sleeper prospect: Baylor OT Spencer Drango — The fourth-year junior could declare for the draft and would be in a deep mix of talented tackles who would be taken in the top 50 picks. Drango came back nicely from a ruptured disk in his back last season and has shown the toughness, strength and movement skills to make him a very good pro. He and Calhoun should go head-to-head plenty in this fascinating battle of the Bears’ high-powered offense against the Pat Narduzzi-coordinated Spartans defense.

CITRUS BOWL

Location: Orlando, Fla. 
When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ABC
Matchup: Minnesota (8-4) vs. Missouri (10-3)
Top prospect: Missouri DE Shane Ray — Expect a big performance from Ray in what could be his final college game and what will be the final game for Mizzou defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who is taking the Missouri State head coaching job. Ray, one of the fiercest and best pure rushers in the country, should have a fantastic battle with Gophers junior OLT Josh Campion, who has started all 37 games in his career and is a key to the strong run game.

Sleeper prospect: Minnesota RB David Cobb — Speaking of which, Cobb is the main workhorse for the Gophers’ ground game, and yet he is rarely mentioned among the best backs in the country, much less even the Big Ten. Cobb might not have special traits, but he’s well-built, well-rounded and has ideal vision to hit the hole quickly. He is always falling forward, too.

ROSE BOWL

Location: Pasadena, Calif.
Date: Jan. 1
Time/TV: 5 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Oregon (12-1) vs. Florida State (13-0)
Top prospects: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota and Florida State QB Jameis Winston — In a game loaded with top-tier NFL talent, Winston — despite all the character questions — remains the player who could be a transcendent pro … or a colossal bust if he doesn’t get his head on straight. But just turn on the tape and you see a confident, pro-style quarterback with good athleticism, a strong arm and rare on-field intangibles. Of course, Mariota might be the higher — and safer pick — despite playing in a scheme that worries some NFL talent evaluators. His physical traits are strong, and his character is off-the-charts good. One of the most exciting on-field, prospect vs.prospect games we’ve seen this late in the season in a long time.

Sleeper prospect: Oregon C Hroniss Grasu — The Ducks found out how valuable Grasu was when he suffered a leg injury and left the win against Utah; the offense suffered without him in the second half. He is expected to return for this game, where he’ll need his great athleticm, top-notch smarts and awareness against the interior of the Seminoles, which features DT Eddie Goldman, a possible first-rounder, and NT Nile Lawrence-Stample, who could come back from injuiry.

SUGAR BOWL

Location: New Orleans
Date: Jan. 1
Time/TV: 8:30 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Alabama (12-1) vs. Ohio State (12-1)
Top prospect: Alabama WR Amari Cooper — We’ve written plenty about Cooper this season, as he figures to be the first wide receiver taken in this class. He’s smooth, fluid, reliable and dangerous on short passes. Cooper also can track down deep balls, even though he’s a high-flier, and will line up all over the field.

Sleeper prospect: Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman — Although he is seldom used as a receiver, Heuerman has an NFL build for the position at 6-5, 255 pounds and possesses better foot speed than he is given credit for. He could land on Day 2 of the draft and be a more productive pro than he has been in college.

ARMED FORCES BOWL

Location: Fort Worth, Texas
When: Jan. 2, noon, ESPN
Matchup: Houston (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)
Top prospect: Pitt OT T.J. Clemmings — Every time you watch Clemmings, it’s easy to see why scouts have warmed up considerably to his game to the point where he could be drafted in the top 40 or 50 picks, perhaps even in Round 1. The converted defensive lineman has been a pile driver for the Panthers, who feature one of the NCAA’s rushing leaders in James Connor. Clemmings is among the country’s most-improved players this season.

Sleeper prospect: Houston DT Joey Mbu — He’s not a top playmaker, but the fact that Mbu will play in both the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl shows that he is on NFL scouts’ radars. The momentum toward landing as a Day 3 draft pick can start with a good game against such a powerful running team.

TAXSLAYER BOWL

Location: Jacksonville, Fla. 
When: Jan. 2, 3:20, ESPN
Matchup: Iowa (7-5) vs. Tennessee (6-6)
Top prospect: Iowa OT Brandon Scherff — The massive and powerful Scherff has overcome some early season injuries to regain top form and put him back in the talk of perhaps being one of the top two or three tackles drafted, even as high as the top half of the first round. He’s not an elite pass blocker, however, which could keep him from being an NFL left tackle.

Sleeper prospect: Tennessee CB Justin Coleman — Quietly reliable three-year starter for the Vols who will showcase his skills at the East-West Shrine Game and could be a late-round pick. There’s nothing flashy in his game, and he’s not expected to test like a rock star, but Coleman is a willing tackler with a nose for the ball.

ALAMO BOWL

Location: San Antonio
When: Jan. 2, 6:45 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Kansas State (9-3) vs. UCLA (9-3)
Top prospect: UCLA QB Brett Hundley — In what is expected to be his final college game, Hundley still has a lot of people to win over in scouting circles. The expectation is that he’ll be drafted — and maybe overdrafted — on potential alone and be viewed as a high-ceiling prospect in need of serious development. Still, Hundley is a very good athlete and competitor who will also earn high marks for his sterling character. This is a good Wildcats defense he’ll be facing with a chance to put more good tape out there.

Sleeper prospect: Kansas State WR Tyler Lockett — A player with NFL bloodlines and the holder of several school receiving and return records does not normally qualify as sleeper material. After a slow start this season and with less national buzz than he should receive, Lockett has come on of late and reminded people of how special a playmaker he can be. He might be a No. 3 receiver in the NFL, but Lockett could thrive as a mismatch piece in the slot for a prolific passing offense.

CACTUS BOWL

Location: Tempe, Ariz.
When: Jan. 2, 10:15 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Oklahoma State (6-6) vs. Washington (8-5)
Top prospect: Washington LB Shaq Thompson — There are not many athletes in college football who can do what he does, with or without the ball in his hands. Thompson is a rare athlete who projects to being a fast-flow linebacker, despite his incredible two-way work as a running back (456 rush yards, second-most for the Huskies this season). The funny part: Four of Thompson’s six TDs have come on defense, where he is an Alec Ogletree-like specimen with great instincts.

Sleeper prospect: Oklahoma State DT James Castleman — As a three-technique, Castleman could stand to play with better balance and power, but he has good feet and can find the ball (42 tackles, seven for loss). He has a chance to get drafted with a good performance here and in the East-West Shrine Game.

BIRMINGHAM BOWL

Location: Birmingham, Ala.
When: Jan. 3, noon, ESPN
Matchup: East Carolina (8-4) vs. Florida (6-5)
Top prospect: Florida DE Dante Fowler — Fowler decided to leave school early right after head coach Will Muschamp was let go, and he is still a player with upside. Occasional flashes of greatness remind us just how special a player Fowler can be, as he balances power and finesse in his game and could be a more dominant pro than a college player. His motor runs scalding hot on almost every play and he plays with a nasty edge.

Sleeper prospect: East Carolina QB Shane Carden — It was a rough finish to the season for Carden and the Pirates, but the heady, gutsy passer continued putting up big numbers in the team’s prolific passing game. He lacks ideal NFL measurables and might be a product of said system, throwing to two NFL-caliber receivers, but Carden compares to 2014 fifth-rounder David Fales and former NFL journeyman Bruce Gradkowski (CBS’ Dane Brugler first made that apt comp) as a heady backup who could last a decade in the league.

GODADDY.COM BOWL

Location: Mobile, Ala.
When: Jan. 4, 9 p.m., ESPN
Matchup: Arkansas State (7-5) vs. Toledo (8-4)
Top prospect: Toledo C Greg Mancz — Keep an eye on him. You might not be blown away by the tape, and Mancz might not look all that pretty or dominant. But the four-year starter has played every spot on the line except left tackle and could be the type of versatile backup who thrives in a zone-based scheme for years. Playing center ups his value and makes him a mid-to-late-round prospect.

Sleeper prospect: Arkansas State LB Qushaun Lee — The first time you hear a loud crack in the game, look up and check: It probably will be Lee, who doesn’t mess around. Lee is built in the Dexter Coakley/Dat Nguyen mold and won’t be for every NFL team. But he has the temperament to do whatever it takes to make a team — as a reserve linebacker, special teamer, you name it. He made nearly 400 tackles, forced six fumbles and hauled in an impressive eight interceptions (four this season) in his career with the Red Wolves.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 19, 2014, 1:16 am

At age 31, Jay Cutler is experiencing something new. He had never been benched before.

With the news that the Chicago Bears replaced him as their starting quarterback for Jimmy Clausen, he has the same questions about his future with the team that everyone else has had.

“Yeah, of course. Everyone would wonder that,” Cutler said in a press conference Thursday that was broadcast on NFL Network. “That’s the natural response to wonder that. Going forward, it is what it is. Whatever happens at that point after the season, in March or whenever, we’ll cross that when we get there.”

The Bears’ offseason will be interesting, to say the least. It's safe to say that some major changes will be coming, whatever they are.

Cutler was shocked to hear he was being benched, then he was disappointed, he said. But he understood it. His $126 million contract he signed this past offseason raised the bar for his play, and he didn’t reach it.

"There’s a lot of money involved in my contract, which comes with a lot of expectations and a lot of responsibility," Cutler said. "Whenever you’re not winning and performing the way you should, there’s a likelihood that could happen."

Coach Marc Trestman answered everything vaguely on Thursday. Why was Cutler benched? Because the team needed more out of the quarterback position. What were his mistakes? Not going into that, just need more out of the quarterback position.

About as far as Trestman went to actually answering the question about his decision – and he made clear it was his decision – was to say that Cutler’s issues were “multiple.” But he still thinks Cutler can be the Bears quarterback, just not this week.

“That doesn’t mean it can’t work out,” said Trestman, who added that no decision has been made on who will be the Week 17 starter. “That’s where we are now. That doesn’t mean the process of Jay’s growth as a quarterback can’t continue and he can’t get to where we think he could be. Each quarterback is on their own journey and some people go through these times.

“There’s evidence historically, that players are 30 years old or 31 years old and haven’t reached their potential, and by the end of their career they have. Right now Jay is not at a good point, he’s not playing as well as he can play, I’ve said that starts with me.”

The list of quarterbacks who have not played at a high level consistently before age 31 who suddenly turn it on after that is incredibly short. Warren Moon had his best NFL seasons in his mid-30s, though he was great in the CFL before that. Joe Theismann and Jim Plunkett revived their careers and led Super Bowl winners in their 30s. Steve Young's work from his age 31 season and on with the 49ers is the reason he's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Cutler might follow a similar path, perhaps with the Bears.

Cutler’s contract, with $15.5 million guaranteed next year, might preclude a trade. If Cutler returns, as he said he wants to ("Going forward, this is where I’d like to be," he said), he said he could work with Trestman.

“Yes, yes," Cutler said. "I think I could. Umm .. “

At that point Cutler paused for a few seconds.

“Yeah, I definitely think I could,” Cutler continued. “We’d have to figure some things out through the offseason, which would be easy enough to identify and work on things but that’s not out of the question, in my book anyway.”

Trestman might not be around, though. There was a report earlier this week that he’s likely to be fired, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he is. Trestman’s flat tone and desire on Thursday to not answer anything specifically can lead to a lot of interpretation, and he never clearly said that general manager Phil Emery agreed with his decision to bench Cutler. He specifically mentioned multiple times that he decides which 46 players are active on Sunday, so the decision to bench Cutler was ultimately his. When he was finally asked if Emery supported it, he answered in a roundabout way, after a very long pause. 

“I think that’s the way we are with each other,” Trestman said. “When we make decisions, we support it. We give our opinions, then we actively and passionately support each other with the decisions we have to make. That’s the way it’s been the last two years.”

Everyone’s future seems to be up for grabs in Chicago. When a team has bottomed out like the Bears have, going 5-9 with little offensive production, a terrible defense and plenty of drama off the field, no one should be safe. Earlier this year the team was all smiles when Cutler was signed to a huge contract that seemed to make him the Bears’ starter for seasons to come. Less than a full season later, Cutler was demoted behind Clausen.

“I want to play better,” Cutler said. “I wish I would have played better. Maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 18, 2014, 8:48 pm

The NFL has changed in many ways. For the better, in many ways. For the worse in terms of player nicknames.

Where have all the nicknames gone? Mean Joe and Papa Bear would be so disappointed.

How has it happened that Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo have gone this long without a recognizable and good nickname? (As an aside, I’m quite disappointed “Breesus” never took off. It should have been a classic.)

There aren’t many nicknames that ring out for the current players. The type of nicknames that are interchangeable with the players’ names are hard to come by lately. And no, shortening a guy’s name isn’t good enough. Sorry, Gronk.

But there are a few. How about running down some of the great NFL nicknames, from the present and then the past? In no particular order …

Megatron

Fine, I lied. This one is in the correct order. It’s the best nickname in football, maybe the best in sports. With one word, you know who I’m talking about. And it fits.

When Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson were teammates on the Detroit Lions, Williams gave Johnson the name based on the “Transformers” character.

“He catches everything, he’s so big, jumps out of this world. He had the visor, and I put it all together and I’m like, ‘He’s Megatron,’” Williams told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2011. “I said it one day in an interview, and it just stuck ever since then.”

Beast Mode

Another nickname that sums up a player, and you know who it is immediately. Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch doesn’t talk much, but he carries a big stick.

Honey Badger

Not my favorite nickname, probably because every middle-aged college football broadcaster thought it would make them cool to use it … so they’d use it 97 times per game. But it is synonymous with Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu, so it wins those points.

AND THE BEST FROM THE PAST …

Sweetness

The story goes that Chicago Bears great Walter Payton was given his famous nickname in college, and he wasn’t sure whether it was for his running style or his personality. Whatever the case, it was one of the most fitting and enduring nicknames in NFL history.

Deacon

You know a nickname is great when it sticks so well that you forget a player’s first name. When is the last time you heard anyone talk about the great defensive end David Jones? Been a while. But Deacon Jones? A legend.

Mean Joe

Mild mannered off the field and a scary dude on it, until the end of time Joe Greene will be Mean Joe. A fitting nickname for the greatest defensive tackle who has ever played. 

Night Train

As the legend goes, Dick Lane liked the Buddy Morrow song “Night Train." The result was the smoothest sounding sports nickname this side of James “Cool Papa” Bell. And “Night Train” Lane is one of the greatest cornerbacks ever, a Hall of Famer.

Too Tall

At his first football practice at Tennessee State, the 6-foot-9 defensive end’s pants didn’t fit right and a teammate said he was “too tall” to play football. He was rarely known as Ed Jones after that. He was a heck of a player for the Dallas Cowboys, and unquestionably “Too Tall” Jones’ legend great thanks to an all-time nickname.

Refrigerator

In late 1985, there was no athlete hotter than William Perry. The Chicago Bears’ rookie defensive tackle was scoring touchdowns, doing commercials and becoming a star. Still to this day, “Refrigerator” Perry is among the NFL’s legends, probably more memorable for his nickname than a career that never saw him make the Pro Bowl.

Others considered: Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh, Daryl “Moose” Johnston, “Broadway” Joe Namath, George “Papa Bear” Halas, Red “Galloping Ghost” Grange, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, Ken “The Snake” Stabler, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, John “Diesel” Riggins.

 

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 18, 2014, 6:36 pm

This season hasn't exactly been a memorable one for Michael Vick, but then you could say that about pretty much anybody who's quarterbacked for the New York Jets for the last four decades. Vick's on a one-year deal with New York, and so it's no surprise that he might be looking elsewhere.

At the top of his list? None other than the Washington Redskins.

"That's home," Vick said, while "beaming like a child," according to Newsday. "That's home for me. Don't get me excited. Don't get me excited."

The idea of Vick playing for Daniel Snyder in the chaos that is Washington is sheer perfection. But on an on-field level, Vick might do well from a reunion with his old Philadelphia teammate DeSean Jackson.

"I know his speed, I know his acceleration path, I know when he's coming out of his breaks," Vick said. "There's nobody that knows DeSean Jackson better than me. I think he knows that, and we were just trying to position ourselves to be together again [in New York], but it didn't work out."

There are many steps between today and Vick in a Redskins jersey, certainly. But it's clear Vick believes he can continue to contribute, even as a backup, for a team in 2015, whether or not it's D.C. "I'm open to playing for anybody that wants to win," he said. "But obviously, going back home, I mean, that'll be a dream come true. But I would hate to get my hopes up for something that wouldn't happen."

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 18, 2014, 4:15 pm

Troy Aikman.Troy Aikman retired from the Cowboys in 2000, but he very nearly returned to the field as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Aikman, a longtime commentator for Fox Sports, told sports station KESN this week that years after he retired, he received a call from then-Eagles head coach Andy Reid after Donovan McNabb went down with an injury. This call happened to come in the middle of a game Aikman was calling in San Diego. (Aikman recalled it as 2003, but it was actually 2002.)

As Aikman recalled, he walked out onto the concourse at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego to get cell service, and had the strange conversation with Reid about coming out of retirement to replace McNabb, who'd gone down with a broken leg. Aikman promised to think on it, and he did, consulting with friends and former coach Norv Turner.

"I got back to Santa Barbara," he said, "and this was around November or whenever it was, and I woke up and I’m thinking, ‘I can either enjoy the next couple of days in Santa Barbara, California, it’s about 65, 70 degrees, or I’m going to be on a plane flying to Philadelphia and probably going to be playing on Monday night against the 49ers. I called Andy and I said, ‘Hey, I’m honored that you’ve called me, but I’m going to stay put.’"

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

As it turned out, McNabb's replacement, Koy Detmer, also went down with an injury, but AJ Feeley was able to pick up the slack, and the Eagles finished the season 5-1. McNabb returned in time to take the Eagles to the NFC championship game, where they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

So there you go. An unretirement that wasn't. It's probably better for everyone involved that Aikman stayed on the sidelines, though as good as Philly was in those days, he might have added another ring to his pile.

More NFL coverage from Yahoo Sports:

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 18, 2014, 3:03 pm

If the Chicago Bears were willing to bench Jay Cutler for Jimmy Clausen, it seems like anything is on the table for the franchise and Cutler going forward.

The Bears made a mistake signing Cutler to a massive contract last offseason, and now they might try to get out from that error by trading him. The good news for the Bears is there are always general managers and coaches in the NFL on the hot seat, willing to make a bad move in a self-serving attempt to save their jobs. If Cutler doesn’t work out in 2015, it won’t be their problem in 2016 anyway. 

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

If the Bears trade Cutler, it will be just a $4 million cap hit for them with $12.5 million in 2015 cap savings, according to OverTheCap.com. The team trading for Cutler would take on his $15.5 million in guaranteed 2015 salary and also a likely $16 million in guarantees, according to OverTheCap.com, but again – some desperate general manager won’t care about that. OverTheCap.com said if the Bears cut Cutler, he will still count $19.5 million against their 2015 salary cap, so that’s not realistic.

So which team might let the Bears off the hook when it comes to what might be the NFL’s worst contract? Let’s take a look at Cutler's possible teams for 2015:

New York Jets
If general manager John Idzik survives this horrible season, he might need a quick fix to buy another year or two. It’s hard to imagine the Jets going into another season with Geno Smith as their starter, but it’s also hard to land a competent starting quarterback. So Cutler might be an option.

Buffalo Bills
The Bills are desperate to make the playoffs and snap a drought that dates back to the 1999 season. Their fans are desperate too and are easily sold on questionable, splashy moves to “go for it,” even if “it” would be just a wild-card berth. The Bills are a good team that is a quarterback away. Would a mediocre and mistake-prone QB like Cutler provide the upgrade they need? Maybe, and you can easily see the Bills talking themselves into it. And the fans would probably be on board too.

St. Louis Rams
The Rams are another great example of a “just a quarterback away” team. And like the Bills, their record will be too good to draft an immediate starter next year. The Rams’ staff has to wonder when ownership will start looking a little closer at its record, which has been disappointing despite the great haul from the Robert Griffin III trade, and maybe that’s enough to pull the trigger on Cutler.

Tennessee Titans
The Titans are maybe the most anonymous team in the NFL right now. What player would you put on the network television promo ad for a Tennessee game? Bishop Sankey? Cutler went to Vanderbilt and would at least be a marketable name, even if it would be incredibly dumb to trade for him and not give promising 2014 rookie Zach Mettenberger another look.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are likely going to be in a position to draft either Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. But given how badly Lovie Smith botched the quarterback situation there this year, you can’t rule out the Bucs making matters worse by taking on Cutler.

Cleveland Browns
I doubt the Browns are the landing spot, but what have we seen in the last six weeks or so to lead anyone to believe they’ve finally found their long-term answer at quarterback?

Washington Redskins
Cutler for Griffin, just for kicks. Hey, if Daniel Snyder is involved, anything is possible.

Chicago Bears
If all NFL teams come to their senses and realize that a quarterback who has never posted a rating better than 90 in a season isn’t worth more than $31 million the next two seasons, then the Bears are likely stuck with Cutler again, unless they feel he’s so toxic they’d pay a crazy amount of money for him to go away. It’s also worth noting the Bears have no backup plan if they trade Cutler, and no way to get anyone but a below-average stop-gap starter while they develop someone.

Is it possible that the Bears change coaches and bring in someone else to attempt to turn around Cutler? They might have no other choice.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 18, 2014, 2:47 pm

The Chicago Bears made a heck of a statement this offseason. They gave quarterback Jay Cutler a $126 million contract.

The team was telling everyone that even though Cutler was a mediocre quarterback for eight years, the ninth would be different. He would be paid like he was on the same level as the game's best quarterbacks. And now, 14 games later, they’re benching Cutler for Jimmy Clausen.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter reported the news. It’s a stunning move by a team that is falling apart at the seams through constant backbiting, both public and private. The Bears have lost three in a row, there are reports that coach Marc Trestman will be fired, and now the team is starting Clausen (three touchdowns, nine interceptions in his NFL career) over the man they paid like one of the best quarterbacks in football less than a year ago.

Mistakes? Oh, there have been a few.

In fact, this benching might be a mistake. Cutler isn't a great quarterback, with just one Pro Bowl and one playoff appearance in nine seasons and never a quarterback rating higher than 90 in a season (for comparison, much maligned Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has never posted a rating below 90 in a full season). But Cutler's better than Clausen. The move seems to serve no real purpose. Is this a last, final statement by a lame duck head coach, scapegoating the quarterback for the offense's struggles? Is it a desperate move by a coach trying to save his job? Or did the staff become so fed up with Cutler's reckless play that they figured anyone would be better?

Remember that while offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer was probably wrong to be the anonymous source on an NFL Network story ripping Cutler, nothing that he said was really wrong. Cutler has 28 touchdowns, but he also has 18 interceptions, and constantly throwing deep into double coverage doesn't help the offense. Maybe the Bears will try to trade him this offseason, and nobody should trade for a quarterback whose contract far exceeds his accomplishments, but NFL general managers and coaches who are desperate to save their jobs don't always think logically.

Who knows for sure why Trestman is making this move from Cutler to Clausen, but the truth is this: The Bears have an incredibly expensive backup quarterback.

More NFL video from Yahoo Sports:

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 17, 2014, 11:49 pm

(Courtesy of Rich Nagle)
An NFL fan embracing the passion for his team on a holiday card is nothing new. But for New York Jets fan Rich Nagle, his holiday card is hoping for coal in the stocking of the team's general manager.

In recent weeks, second-year general manager John Idzik has come under intense scrutiny from Jets fans, tired of the step backwards from their 3-11 team. There is a website, FireJohnIdzik.com, whose domain name leaves nothing to the imagination. There are billboards asking for his firing by owner Woody Johnson, and a planned protest for this weekend's home finale against the New England Patriots.

And now, the "Season of Giving" has Jets fans wanting to give him a new job. Nagle, a Jets fan in north Jersey, has included the "Fire Idzik" movement into his seasonal spirit, turning the family's Christmas card into another call to fire the team's GM.

It was actually my wife's idea,” Nagle told Yahoo! Sports. “I think she must have been sick of hearing me complain about the bad season and poor management and thought it would be a fitting way to express it while letting friends and family know the state of affairs in the Nagle household.”

The card went out to a distribution list of 80 people, mailed showing the holiday cheer of wife Marni and children Thomas, Maya, and Ian. Sprinkled on top is a little “Bah, humbug!” for Idzik.

This wasn't just some sort of online joke or an e-card. This was the official holiday message from the Nagle family. Clearly from top to bottom, they just don't like Idzik.

To the point that they are willing to put that as part of their holiday cheer.

For us it is simple. The last draft was one of the richest in recent history and we don't have one good pick to show for it,” Rich Nagle said. “In addition there was significant money left on the table that could have been used to get some free agent help.”

- - - - - - -

Kristian R. Dyer writes for Metro New York and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KristianRDyer

Author: Kristian Dyer
Posted: December 17, 2014, 11:10 pm

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 14: Michael Vick #1 of the New York Jets warming up before a game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on December 14, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)Prison will always define Michael Vick. But in a very tangible way, he's almost shed one of the heaviest burdens of his days behind bars: an $18 million debt.

Vick's career out of prison, six seasons, is now as long as his career before it. But as ESPN's Darren Rovell notes, much of the second half of Vick's career, which is now in low gear in New York, has been spent paying off a $17.8 million debt to creditors. Vick declared bankruptcy while in prison on federal dogfighting charges in July 2008.

Vick has spent the last five years on a budget in an effort to pay back creditors. Vick had to pay back the Atlanta Falcons $6.5 million in salary, among many others.

Now, granted, Vick is still making a substantial amount of money, an estimated $49 million in salary since his release from prison. Rovell adds sentences like the following, apparently without irony: "As part of the plan to pay off his creditors, Vick stuck to living on an annual $300,000 budget, because more than 50 percent of what he was making went toward taxes and legal fees." That budget, presumably after taxes, seems like enough to scrape by.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

As ESPN notes, Vick opted to go with Chapter 11 rather than Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which meant he paid back all that he owed, not a small percentage. To him, it was an important and necessary step to demonstrate his willingness to atone. The deal with creditors is set to expire at the end of the year, and Vick will likely sell some property to close off the last of his debt.

"I feel blessed because I came out and found myself in a position where I had a lot of people that really believed in me, people who gave me an opportunity," Vick said. "At the time, it wasn't about trying to fulfill all the bankruptcy needs, I was trying to fulfill all the needs that I had in my life because I had nothing."

Vick will never escape the shadow of the events that landed him in prison. But he's shown through his actions that he won't remain defined by them. That's admirable, in its own way.

More NFL video from Yahoo Sports:

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 17, 2014, 9:53 pm

The Shutdown Corner Playoff Projection (Kevin Kaduk).
A few things happened in Week 15 that caused us to reshuffle our playoff projections.

Here's how the playoff field looks right now entering Week 16 of the NFL season, with the Arizona Cardinals still sitting atop the NFC field with home-field advantage and the Super Bowl being played on their home turf.

However, with the Cardinals' shaky quarterback situation (and injuries elsewhere), we're projecting a new team landing the coveted top seed — the Seattle Seahawks — in advance of their meeting with the Cards this weekend.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Losses by the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles and victories by the Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints also tilted those respective divisional races and the wildcard picture. One double-digit team will miss the field entirely, and right now it's the Eagles on the outside looking in.

With that in mind, here's how the first-round matchups could end up looking if our projections are accurate.

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys: Yes, the Cowboys still need to firm up a postseason bid, but we think they have a great chance to take the NFC East and host this intriguing matchup of the Cowboys' offensive prowess against the fine defense of the Lions — specifically, the Lions' stout run defense (tops in the league) against the league's leading rusher in DeMarco Murray, assuming he has no complications from his left hand injury. Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan spent the past several years calling plays for the Lions, so he certainly would have some intel on how to slow down Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense, too. Johnson and Dez Bryant would be a fun postseason showcase of two of the NFL's premiere wideouts.

Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints: The fact that Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians appeared very optimistic about Drew Stanton's health this week, we'd have to think that Stanton would have an excellent chance to quarterback them — and boy, they'd need it, even against a lesser defense — in this game. The Cardinals are 4-3 on the road, and the Saints are a fairly stunning 3-4 at home right now, but the Saints whipped the Green Bay Packers at the Superdome, and the Cardinals earned an impressive victory over the Cowboys away from home, so don't assume the worst. These teams met in this building in the 2009 postseason — Kurt Warner's final NFL game — en route to the Saints' first and only Super Bowl victory.

Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts: This would be a rematch of the teams that met at Lucas Oil Stadium back in Week 5, an ugly 20-13 win by the Colts that featured four field goals, one passing touchdown in 87 combined pass attempts between Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco and an interception by none other than Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who would be scheduled to return from his four-game suspension for this playoff game. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was the Ravens' defensive coordinator from 2008 to 2011, so it would be another chance for him to beat his former team.

Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bengals actually lead the AFC North right now, but we think the multiple-personality Steelers have the firepower to overtake them and earn home field in this battle. Heinz Field is where these teams will meet in Week 17, so we could have rare back-to-back games between teams — and on the same field. (The Bengals also lost to the Steelers in Week 14 in Cincinnati, 42-21, so that would mean they'd have met three times in a 28- or 29-day span, depending on the playoff schedule.) Including the Week 14 result, the Steelers have beaten the Bengals 22 of the past 30 times they've met, which included one playoff game — during the 2005 postseason, the game where Carson Palmer tore his ACL and the Bengals blew a halftime lead to lose, 31-17.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 17, 2014, 9:53 pm

The Chicago Bears have become a joke. Football teams that have become jokes illicit jokes from the people who watch them.

But there's a line of taste and standards, too, and one Chicago broadcaster certainly crossed it.

After the Bears lost to the New Orleans Saints, deeping their nightmare of a season, WLS-TV sports anchor Mark Giangreco spoke over while a sixth-grade pun of a chyron headline — "Cut him or cut your wrists" — ran next to a picture of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who has drawn the continued ire of Bears fans after another slew of turnovers in the loss.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Suicide-prevention advocates likely didn't see the gallows humor in the caption.

After a strong negative response to it, Giangreco issued an apology, via mediabistro.com.

“My remarks were inappropriate, and I deeply regret and apologize for this incident. I will be issuing an on-air apology in [Wednesday] evening’s newscast,” Giancreco said.

It was not a good night for the Bears or Giangreco. He could have stopped with "Cut him," and it likely would have resonated with Bears fans just fine. The words tacked onto the end were tasteless and, frankly, unneeded.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 17, 2014, 9:20 pm

Well, well, look who made an appearance at football practice on Wednesday.

A mere eight days after he was in a frightening car accident, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton participated in practice in advance of Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns, according to Black and Blue Review's Bill Voth.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Is it possible that Newton could play Sunday against the Cleveland Browns?

Pump the breaks there — part of this is the Panthers seeing where Newton is with his transverse process injury he suffered in the crash. But it has to be tremendously encouraging that Newton is even in a place where he can go through basic practice movements, which would give the Panthers a lift as they remain in the thick of the NFC South race.

Derek Anderson is 2-0 in his two replacements starts for Newton, although we feel compelled to add a tony asterisk to his mark considering both games were against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Still, Anderson has completed an impressive 65 of 97 passes this season for 701 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Panthers play the Atlanta Falcons in Week 17, a game that could decide the South division. Atlanta, by the way, is Newton's hometown, so it will be fascinating to see if he can return for that game if he doesn't play this weekend against the Browns.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 17, 2014, 8:11 pm

(AP)San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who was in the news earlier this season for an alleged domestic violence incident for which he ultimately wasn't charged, is being investigated for alleged sexual assault.

And the 49ers have had enough of those headlines. The team released McDonald,  general manager Trent Baalke announced.

According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Baalke said the team released him because of a pattern of poor decision-making. McDonald, in his eighth NFL season, had started all 14 games for the 49ers this season.

"This is a team decision, not a league decision," Baalke said, according to the 49ers' Twitter feed.

The San Jose Police Department said it received a call at about 10:43 p.m. on Tuesday from an area hospital regarding a possible sexual assault victim, CSN Bay Area reported. The SJPD said no arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing. The alleged victim is not McDonald's fiancee, CSN Bay Area said. 

“Officers responded and made contact with the adult female victim,” SJPD reported in a statement, via CSN Bay Area. “The victim alleged she was possibly sexually assaulted a day prior. The preliminary investigation revealed the alleged suspect was Ray McDonald.”

CSN Bay Area said detectives secured a search warrant and served it at McDonald’s house.

The 49ers stuck by McDonald in the domestic violence incident after he was arrested Aug. 31, citing due process. No charges were filed because there wasn't sufficient evidence.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 17, 2014, 7:55 pm

Nobody should question Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray's toughness again.

Two days after undergoing surgery for a broken bone in his left hand, Murray was back on the field, wearing a pad on his injured hand. He caught passes, too, in the warm-up period open to the media before practice. While there are still a few days to go before the Cowboys play the Indianapolis Colts, it would seem he's got a great chance of playing given that he appeared at Wednesday's practice.

UPDATE: Although Murray was suited out for practice and participated in the warm-up period open to the media, the Cowboys' official listing for him was "did not participate" in Wednesday's practice, according ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. That technically means he was not a part of any team drills in practice.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Many fantasy football owners carried to the championship this week by Murray, who leads the NFL with 1,687 yards (nobody else has more than 1,278), are impatiently waiting to hear if he'll play.

It looks like if Murray plays, it'll be with a large pad over his surgically repaired left hand, like he wore in practice.

DeMarco Murray, with special padded glove on surgically repaired left hand, catching passes early in practice today. pic.twitter.com/540SQpRZsU

— Bill Jones (@CBS11BillJones) December 17, 2014

It wouldn't have been surprising if Murray sat out at least this week, and it would have been understandable in what is a contract year for the Cowboys' running back. But the Cowboys can win the NFC East with two more wins, so it looks like Murray is pushing to play less than a week after surgery. For a player who was known for injuries early in his career, to play this week would be quite impressive.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 17, 2014, 7:00 pm

Social media was supposed to be great for athletes, a way for them to get their message directly to fans.

Here’s the rub: People then have unlimited access to complain to those athletes. And with the anonymity of the Internet, they could blast away. If you want to criticize the media for being overly cynical and critical, that's fine, but go and check a prominent athlete's mentions on Twitter sometime. It can be brutal. If an athlete screwed up and it cost a fantasy victory, plenty of fans will let him know in 140 characters.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III had enough of it. Once very visible on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Griffin has shut it down for the season, ESPN.com's John Keim said. Griffin, who added that he plans to continue with social media after the season, said his unfiltered message was getting twisted around, the very thing social media was supposed to eliminate for athletes.

"It just felt like, for me, anything I was saying, whether it was positive or negative, whether it was a positive retweet or anything, was getting twisted and turned against me and against this team," Griffin said, according to ESPN.com. "I feel I can be free up here and talk to you guys, but sometimes things get twisted and turned and it creates a distraction for the team. I didn't want that to happen."

The criticism has been an annoyance, too, especially during a season in which Griffin has struggled and was benched. Griffin recently tweeted a get-well message to Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry in his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and some fans took that as an invitation to rip Griffin. Not all fans were so harshly negative – plenty of right-minded fans attacked the trolls for being insensitive – but why would Griffin need to bother with such nonsense?

"Sometimes you don't understand certain things and they don't go the way you want them to go, but if I get criticized for retweeting about going to a charity event for a foundation, I mean what else can you do?" Griffin said. "So I decided to shut it down and not focus on it."

It won’t be a surprise if more athletes give up social media. It turns out, the great communication solution has its pitfalls as well.

- - - - - - -

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

Author: Frank Schwab
Posted: December 17, 2014, 6:19 pm

Former FBI director Robert Mueller at the Department of Justice on Aug. 1, 2013. (AFP Photo)The key questions remaining in the Ray Rice spousal abuse investigation remain: What did the NFL know and when did it know it?

An investigation into those questions is digging deep into NFL personnel's correspondence.

In July, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell served Rice with a two-game suspension for striking his then-fianceé in an Atlantic City elevator in February. However, when a videotape of the incident became public in September, Goodell increased that suspension to indefinite. Rice appealed that decision, saying the league office had knowledge of and access to the incriminating videotape at the time of the initial punishment. Rice won that appeal and is currently available to be signed by any team.

Meanwhile, former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III is leading an investigation into whether the NFL actually had the videotape earlier than its public release. According to two AP sources, Mueller has ordered nearly 500 employees in the NFL's New York offices to turn over phone and email records to Mueller.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

At issue are calls made from the NFL offices to a New Jersey area code. The Mueller investigation seeks to establish who, if anyone, in the NFL offices obtained and possibly viewed the incriminating videotape before it was made public. The AP report does not indicate whether the Mueller investigation's scope will go beyond the question of whether certain parties actually received the videotape and into, for instance, whether Goodell actually had the opportunity to view the tape.

Mueller's investigation is being overseen by John Mara, owner of the New York Giants, and Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The investigation's report is expected to be completed later this month.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter.

Follow @jaybusbee

And keep up with Jay over on Facebook, too.

Author: Jay Busbee
Posted: December 17, 2014, 3:34 pm

The NFL's concussion era has raised the moral question of what the league can do to protect players who don't appear to want to protect themselves.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

"I'd rather have the experience of playing in the NFL and die 10 to 15 years earlier than not play in the NFL and have a long life," Chris Conte said Monday on WBBM Radio (via Chicago Tribune, h/t PFT).

"I don't really look toward my life after football. I'll figure things out when I get there. As long as I outlive my parents."

Conte, who turns 26 in February, has been beset by injuries throughout his short career, and especially this season: back (which kept him out Monday against the New Orleans Saints), shoulder and eye ailments, and, maybe worst of all, mutliple concussions. Of the 12 games Conte has played this season, he has been unable to finish seven of them.

The subject of Bears fan ridicule, Conte — Soldier Field fans cheered when it was announced Conte was out with a back injury in Week 14 against the Dallas Cowboys — has sacrificed his body for the team and has kept a starting position, tied for the team lead in interceptions this season.

But at what cost?

Conte is a free-agent-to-be and very well could look for work elsewhere next season. He has no intention, it appears, to stop playing despite the physical and mental toll.

"I'm not saying I'm going to go die when I'm 45, 50," he said. "I'm fortunate to go out and play football."

And, outside the constraints of supply and demands of the NFL's free market, there might be little standing in his way to seek doing so.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 17, 2014, 2:23 pm

Your browser does not support iframes.

The San Diego Chargers will stay put. For another season, at least.

The franchise could have opted out of its lease at Qualcomm Stadium but has decided to extend the agreement at least through the 2015 NFL season, with the hope of getting a long-term agreement on a new, publicly funded stadium.

From the Chargers' website:

"On February 1st of every year since 2007, the Chargers have been eligible to terminate the team’s lease for Qualcomm Stadium," said Mark Fabiani, the Chargers' special counsel to team president Dean Spanos, in a prepared statement. "And each year since 2007, the Chargers have announced that the team will not exercise the termination clause and instead continue to work toward a permanent stadium solution in San Diego.

"Today, the Chargers are making the same announcement that the team has made each year since 2007: The team will not be exercising the lease termination clause and will keep working to find a publicly acceptable way to build a Super-Bowl quality stadium in San Diego. Calendar year 2015 will constitute the team’s fourteenth year of work on a San Diego stadium solution."

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

Fabiani has been the Chargers' point man on the club's stadium concerns.

The club had been in the Super Bowl mix, hosting the big game four times between 1988 and 2003. But Qualcomm has become outdated and has fallen to substandard quality compared to more modern structures and would not be considered for the game without major improvements. More likely is the construction of a new stadium, but that requires taxpayer assistance, which has been a roadblock to this point.

The Chargers are one of a handful of NFL teams, along with the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams, who are using the spectre of a franchise landing in Los Angeles as leverage to land a new stadium in their respective city. But short of landing a deal for a new building, any of those clubs — all of which have ties to L.A. — could opt to move.

There is a three-month window, between Feb. 1 and May 1, during which the Chargers can opt out of their lease with the city of San Diego. Leaving would require the Chargers to pay the city $17.6 million next year.

For now, though, the Chargers are staying.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 17, 2014, 1:28 pm

Adding insult to injury (or is it the other way around?) following the Chicago Bears' miserable loss on Monday to the New Orleans Saints, Bears chairman George McCaskey was shoved by a Saints fan at Soldier Field. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, McCaskey arrived at some of his seats only to find some Saints fans sitting in them. After speaking with them briefly, McCaskey left to the concourse to get Soldier Field security to rectify the situation.

[Join FanDuel.com's $2M Week 16 fantasy league: $25 to enter; top 17,475 teams paid]

That's when Richard Kohnke, 58, pushed McCaskey in the back, according to police and the team. After that, a Bears fan tackled Kohnke, who pushed McCaskey to the ground, according to the team.

Kohnke, an attorney from New Orleans, was ejected from the stadium, arrested after the incident and charged with simple battery, according to police.

The Bears said that McCaskey did not require medical attention.

- - - - - - -

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

Author: Eric Edholm
Posted: December 16, 2014, 11:24 pm

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


7 − = five

Looking for older news? Search in the archive