The Year in Smack: Bat Flip, GOAT, You Like That & Goodbye to the Ole Ball Coach

SmackNewYearHappy New Year! Another 365 has come and gone. Time to look back at the year in smack. Time to pay homage to those rare, few heroes of sports smack who really know how to talk the talk and demonstrated that skill with aplomb in 2015.

Here are 10 memorable moments of shade and hard-core snark – and, of course, good, old-fashioned smack.

(Editor’s note: We hated everything about Deflategate. Even typing that fake “word” hurts our fingers. There will be no mention of Deflategate or Tom Brady or the Patriots here. OK, no MORE mention of those things. SO OVER IT.)

Joey Bat Flip.
Joey Bat Flip.

Joey Bat Flip. The Blue Jays didn’t make it to the World Series, but slugger Jose Bautista sent Toronto into hysterics and the ALCS with a walk-off home run to end the division series against the Rangers. Joey Bats took a lot of heat for that demonstration of bravado, but it was classic smack and deserves a place on any list of iconic sports moments in 2015.

You like that! The Redskins trailed the Buccaneers, 24-0, but roared back behind quarterback Kirk Cousins. Afterward, Cousins – who had operated in the shadow of RGIII for too long – became the voice of redemption when he yelled at Washington beat reporters – “You LIKE that! You like THAT!”

Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Josh Norman: Giants-Panthers in Week 15 featured an NFL heavyweight battle – the best receiver in the league against one of the top, if not the top, cover corners in the game. It quickly devolved into a nasty brawl that landed Beckham a one-game suspension and Norman a hefty fine.

Johnny Rehab. The Browns drafted Johnny Manziel, then immediately began to mishandle the mercurial partier from Texas A&M. Johnny Football’s swagger demanded a starting role right out of college, but he instead had to sit and that idle time was not spent working in the film room. One of the off-season’s biggest story lines will be Johnny Football’s future – and the speculation will be sure to provide sweet smack fodder for many more months.

Kevin Durant vs. Stephen A. Smith. The NBA All-Star from Oklahoma City and the loud-mouthed former sportswriter from Philly got into it publicly when Smith “reported” that Durant wanted a trade to the Lakers. Durant called Smith a liar. Smith responded with a weird, threatening declaration that Durant didn’t want to make an enemy out of him. So much sound. So much fury. So much smack.

MJ, GOAT. With aloof amusement, Michael Jordan observed the “emoji war” sparked by Chandler Parsons after DeAndre Jordan spurned the Dallas Mavericks to remain with the Clippers. While Chandler fooled around with his little airplane and others jumped in with their insipid foolishness, His Airness – one of the acknowledged Smack Zone Legends of Smack – ended the debate with his allusion to himself as the Greatest Of All Time:

Jonathan Papelbon vs. Bryce Harper. The Nationals closer and MVP got into it in the dugout during a game. Who knows why? Something about a half-eaten sandwich, maybe? I don’t know. Anyway, they fought like cats (not cats and dogs – cats), and later buried the hatchet.

Kurt Busch vs. Trained Assassin. NASCAR nabob and former champion Kurt Busch went off the deep end in February when he publicly asserted that his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, was a trained assassin and shadow operative. Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t. But Busch is one weird dude, regardless. Either he dated a trained assassin and let it slide until they broke up, or he decided to publicly out a trained assassin – someone who could, by definition, kill him in his sleep with a Q-tip. Ain’t no smack like NASCAR smack!

Chase Utley vs. Ruben Tejada: The Dodgers-Mets NLDS took an ugly turn when Utley plowed Tejada breaking up a double play, breaking Tejada’s leg and becoming Public Enemy No. 1 in NYC. This was physical smack that overnight transformed Utley into one of the most hated opponents in Mets history.

The Head Ball Coach Suddenly Calls it Quits. Steve Spurrier, another of the Smack Zone Legends of Smack – the inspiration for the creation of Smack Apparel – left the South Carolina Gamecocks high and dry in the middle of the season. We appreciate the Ole Ball Coach orchestrating the perfect exit for one of sports’ best smack talkers of all time.

Greased Pigs to Playoffs: the Evolution of College Bowl Games

Michigan State and the other three Final Four participants are hoping to get the equivalent of TWO bowl games this season.
Michigan State and the other three Final Four participants are hoping to get the equivalent of TWO bowl games this season.

By Bob D’Angelo, Smack Zone Cotributor

And to think, the college bowl system that has evolved over the last century got its start with participants chasing greased pigs.

It’s true. On January 1, 1890, members of the Valley Hunt Club paraded through the streets of Pasadena with flower-draped horse and buggies. It was the first Tournament of Roses parade, and soon after the pig chasing contests were introduced during ensuing years, officials found a better alternative to publicize the event.

Pigskins, college football style.

On New Year’s Day 1902, Michigan met Stanford at Tournament Park and cruised to a 49-0 victory. The college bowl system was born and would flourish until 1998, when the BCS system was implemented to determine a national champion. That has since been replaced by a four-team playoff, which will enter its second year in January.

It’s true, bowl games before 1998 rarely matched the top two teams in the nation; between 1936 and 1992 (when the first bowl coalition began), the top two teams met eight times out of 57 seasons. And the advent of the BCS meant that No. 1 faced No. 2 thanks to an intricate system of human opinion and computerized fact.

Most of Alabama's 15 titles came under the old bowl game system.
Most of Alabama’s 15 titles came under the old bowl game system.

But there was something charming about the old bowl system. It was conceived as a reward for teams who excelled and won their conferences during the season. The bowls had locked-in conference ties. You knew the Rose Bowl would pit the winner of the Big Ten against the Pac-10 champion, and that one Sugar Bowl berth would be claimed by the Southeastern Conference titlist. The Orange Bowl normally featured the Big Eight champion, while the Cotton Bowl showcased the Southwest Conference winner.

It also was rewarding for the teams and conferences represented in bowl games. Before the BCS, bowl revenue was shared only by the conferences playing in the game. So, if the SEC had a strong year and six teams went to bowl games, that was a huge boost to that conference’s balance sheet.

Bowl games also were a huge financial lure for the cities that hosted them. Warm-weather venues were appealing to football teams and their fans, who longed for a mid-winter break from snow and bitter cold. Cities like Miami and New Orleans played up their warm, sunny climates to the hilt. Since the Orange Bowl had a tie-in with the Big Eight, that meant that schools from the upper Midwest would travel south in droves to fill up Miami’s hotels, eat at its restaurants and shop at its stores. It was a boon to the city’s economy, and bowl officials made sure the team (and its fans) had a great time.

The Tigers beat Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl to win the national title 34 years ago.
The Tigers beat Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl to win the national title 34 years ago.

Other warm-weather cities followed suit, like Tampa (Outback Bowl); El Paso, Texas (Sun Bowl); and Tempe, Arizona (Fiesta Bowl). Cuba even got into the act, hosting a game in Havana in 1937 between Auburn and Villanova in the appropriately named Bacardi Bowl.

Bowl games provided teams a chance to bond and enjoy a nice vacation. Certainly, some teams were still in the hunt for a national title, but many were not and were eager to have a good time. Bowling outings, trips to tourist attractions and photo opportunities were commonplace.

In December 1983, Iowa visited Jacksonville to face Florida in the Gator Bowl. The night before the game, Iowa hosted a dinner for players, fans, media and friends in the Jacksonville Coliseum. It was all the steak you can eat, and while no numbers were released, there was a lot of beef consumed that night.

Sometimes, teams take a bowl game too seriously. The 1987 Fiesta Bowl, which pitted No. 1 Miami vs. No. 2 Penn State, was hyped as the “Duel in the Desert.”  On the flight to Arizona, Hurricanes players changed into military-style fatigues to play up the “war” element of the game.

The battle plan backfired, and Penn State won the game 14-10 to take the national title.

Bowl games have had some great names, like the Raisin Bowl in Fresno, California; Tampa’s Cigar Bowl; the Camellia Bowl in Lafayette, Louisiana; and an all-time favorite in Phoenix — the Salad Bowl.

The biggest weakness of bowl games were also a strength — the tie-in to conferences. Because of that, a No. 1 team from the Big Ten, for example, had to play in the Rose Bowl. And if No. 2 was not from the Pac-10, then a true, head-to-head national title game would not be played.

That has changed now with the four-team playoff system. There are no more mythical national champions.

But the bowl experience remains a strong one, a time for cities to show civic pride and tout their area.

No more greased pig chases, though. And that’s a shame.

 

 

4 Turning Points that Shaped the College Football Playoffs

Alabama owes a debt of gratitude to the Arkansas Razorbacks for knocking off Ole Miss.
Alabama owes a debt of gratitude to the Arkansas Razorbacks for knocking off Ole Miss.

By Erez Ladetzky, Smack Zone Contributor

Every season has defining plays. Plays that win or lose games, plays that are remembered for a lifetime. This college football season is no different. There will be plays that are shown 50 years from now. Each of the final four teams had a defining moment this season, or a play that helped propel them to this position.

Let’s see how they got here:

  1. Notre Dame's questionable play-calling in OT helped the Tigers get here.
    Notre Dame’s questionable play-calling in OT helped the Tigers get here.

    Clemson – The Tigers had an early season scare at home against Notre Dame in the rain. ND scored a TD late and needed a two point conversion to send the game to OT. ND ran a terrible sweep play that Clemson stuffed, saving their perfect season.

  2. Alabama – Bama’s road to the playoffs was paved by the Arkansas Razorbacks in a game against Ole Miss. Remember, Bama lost to Ole Miss early in the season, and needed the Rebels to lose in order to play in the SEC Championship Game. Arkansas and Ole Miss went to OT, and Arkansas converted a 4th and 25 – I repeat, a 4th and 25 – to stay alive and eventually beat Ole Miss. That loss helped Bama win the SEC West, and advance to the SEC Championship Game.
  3. The Play of the Year in college football shaped the college football playoff. Punt, Michigan, punt!
    The Play of the Year in college football shaped the college football playoff. Punt, Michigan, punt!

    Michigan State – Remember how earlier I said some plays will be replayed 50 years from now? I think it’s safe to say the final play from the Michigan State-Michigan game will be played for years to come. Let’s be brutally honest with this one, Michigan dominated that entire game. In the 4th quarter, it was as if this was going to be the defining moment on Michigan’s championship run. But alas, they let Michigan State hang around and then BOOM!! Blocked punt return for a game winning TD! Could be the only time we ever see an ending like that.

  4. Oklahoma – The Sooners rallied after an ugly loss to Texas mid-way through the season. After that game, they consistently won games by large margins. Except for a game against TCU in late November. The Sooners were in control until the fourth quarter. TCU had a big comeback and scored with less than a minute to go down by one. Instead of kicking the extra point to tie it, they went for two and the win. Oklahoma made a great defensive play to secure the one point victory.

 

5 Story Lines to Follow for College Football Playoff Week

Can the Tide make it Sweet 16?
Can the Tide make it Sweet 16?

We are just three days away from the College Football Playoffs. This year left little debate as to who the final four would be. These teams have been the best all season long. There will be a lot of future NFL players in these games, and many story lines to follow.

Let’s take a look at five things to think about as we approach New Year’s Eve’s extravaganza:

  1. Can the SEC get back on top?

It has been a whole two years since an SEC team won the national championship (breathe SEC faithful). The last SEC team to win was Alabama, of course, and the Crimson Tide look to be the heavy favorite coming into this playoff. No way the SEC goes three years without a title, right?

  1. Will Clemson run the table?
Will the Tigers hold off the Sooners and finish the season perfect?
Will the Tigers hold off the Sooners and finish the season perfect?

Coming into this year, nobody thought Clemson would be this good. Sure, they have been on the cusp the last few years, but to go unbeaten and take over as the No. 1 team in the country most of the year seemed farfetched. Clemson still doesn’t have the respect of the country, evidenced that they are the underdog by 3.5 points to Oklahoma. Last year, Clemson embarrassed Oklahoma in their bowl matchup. What will the outcome be this year?

  1. Can Michigan State keep it close?

Let’s just be real. Nobody is giving Michigan State a chance to win this game. Since its early season loss to Ole Miss, Alabama has been rolling (pun intended). Their defense is playing lights out, and the offense is doing enough to win. Bama is a 9.5 (!!) favorite at the moment. Michigan State has one of the best QB in the country in Connor Cook, will the Spartans be able to solve Bama’s defense?

  1. They've been underdogs most of the season against the big boys. But they just keep winning.
    They’ve been underdogs most of the season against the big boys. But they just keep winning.

    How many carries will Derrick Henry get?

This year’s Heisman trophy winner has played like a 1980s running back. He has been the workhorse this year, evidenced by his 330+ carries. That’s around 25-27 carries a game! The running backs in the NFL don’t do that anymore. It seems Bama is content winning with their dominant defense and Henry running the ball. Can he keep it up for two more games?

  1. Can Oklahoma reward the bettors?

Believe or not, Oklahoma was the “sexy” pick to win the championship after the playoff was announced. They had the best odds to win, pointing again to the fact that nobody is respecting Clemson. You could definitely argue that Oklahoma is the hottest team coming into the playoffs. Will they get revenge on Clemson, then reward the people who bet on them?

5 Christmas NBA Games to Remember

Lebron James and the Cavaliers face Golden State and Stephen Curry in a Christmas Day rematch of the NBA Final. Smack Zone Illustration: Steve Hill
World traveler LeBron James and the Cavaliers face Golden State and Stephen Curry in a Christmas Day rematch of the NBA Final. Smack Zone Illustration: Steve Hill

By Bob D’Angelo, Smack Zone Contributor

Showcase games on Christmas Day have become a holiday tradition for the NBA, much like NFL games on Thanksgiving Day.

But while there are sometimes clunkers on turkey day, the NBA has kept fans entertained by scheduling marquee matchups. It could be an NBA Finals rematch from the previous season (like Cleveland-Golden State this coming Friday), or two big market teams, like Boston-L.A. or New York-Chicago.

The first Christmas Day game was played in 1947, during the NBA’s second season. The New York Knicks beat the Providence Steamrollers 89-75 at Madison Square Garden. With the exception of the 1998-99 lockout, the NBA has celebrated Christmas with a game every year since.

The best winning percentage on Christmas Day is .824, held by Portland (14-3). The Knicks have played in 50 games, the Lakers 42. The Knicks have won 22 times to lead all NBA squads. Kobe Bryant has played in 15 Christmas games, and Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers both played and coached in December 25 contests.

Here are some stocking stuffers as you celebrate Christmas — five memorable Yule games.

2004 – Heat vs. Lakers: Shaq against Kobe lived up to the hype. It was Shaquille O’Neal’s return to Los Angeles after his contentious relationship with Kobe Bryant. They were teammates for eight years and combined for three NBA titles, but they had obvious distaste for each other. Shaq wouldn’t even refer to Bryant by name, using the pronoun “him” instead.

But personal feelings were cast aside in 2004. The Lakers showed a pregame tribute to O’Neal on the videoboard, and Shaq got a 40-second standing ovation. Bryant stood in front of the Lakers’ bench and clapped, too.

They acknowledged one another before tipoff, and Bryant challenged O’Neal on the Lakers’ first two possessions. Shaq blocked Kobe’s first shot, but Bryant made a pull-up jump shot on the second time down the court.

O’Neal fouled out in the fourth quarter (when Bryant drove the basket). He collected 24 points and 11 rebounds. Bryant scored a season-high 42 points but was held scoreless in overtime, missing a 3-pointer at the buzzer as the Heat edged the Lakers 104-102.

2008 – Celtics vs. Lakers: This game had NBA fans salivating. It was a rematch of the NBA Finals. The defending champion Celtics were 27-2 and riding a franchise-record, 19-game winning streak. The Lakers were 23-5, and coach Phil Jackson was seeking his 1,000th career victory.

Kobe Bryant scored 27 points and Pau Gasol scored seven of his 20 points in the game’s final minutes as the Lakers went on a 13-2 run to win 92-83. That allowed Jackson to boost his record to 1,000-423  and made him the sixth NBA coach to reach that milestone.

The Lakers went on to a 65-17 regular-season record and would beat the Orlando Magic in five games to win the franchise’s 15th NBA title.

1984 — Knicks vs. Nets: Bernard King gave Knicks fans a memorable gift, scoring a franchise-record 60 points on the visiting Nets at Madison Square Garden.

But even though King was responsible for more than half of the Knicks’ points, the Nets played Scrooge by taking a 120-114 victory.

King’s record at the Garden would last until February 2, 2009, when the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant dropped 61 on the Knicks. Carmelo Anthony would then claim the team and MSG mark when he scored 62 points against Charlotte on January 24, 2014.

1986 – Knicks vs. Bulls: For the first time, Michael Jordan met Patrick Ewing in a professional game. This was a rivalry that would be big in the Eastern Conference. And while Jordan and the Chicago Bulls would grab the lion’s share of glories, in 1986 it was Ewing and the Knicks who were winners.

The Bulls led the Knicks 85-84 late in the game. The Knicks got the ball back with seconds remain, and after a missed jump shot, Ewing grabbed the rebound the shot and tossed in a short shot to beat the buzzer.

Jordan scored 30 points in a losing effort.

2010 – Heat vs. Lakers: LeBron James stunned the NBA by taking his talents to South Beach, and fans — particularly those of his former team in Cleveland — were not happy with “The Decision.”

So there were many who wanted to see James fall flat against the Lakers at the Staples Center.

It didn’t happen.

With celebrities like Kanye West and Lionel Richie in the stands, James silenced his detractors. He had his third triple-double with Miami, scoring 27 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out 10 assists in a 96-80 win against the Lakers. LeBron also had a season-high five 3-pointers.

Kobe Bryant had 17 points in a losing effort. Late in the game, he and James were yapping at each other as they jogged downcourt.

“Just asked him what he got for Christmas,” James said.

It wasn’t as sweet as the gift LeBron got that Christmas Day.

Will Fiesta Bowl Launch Ohio State Toward Next Title?

Ohio State and Notre Dame were close in the national title chase. They'll try to use the Fiesta Bowl as a launching point toward glory in 2016-17.
Ohio State and Notre Dame were close in the national title chase. They’ll try to use the Fiesta Bowl as a launching point toward glory in 2016-17.

It’s not a rivalry, really. Notre Dame and Ohio State, the two historical college football behemoths of the Midwest, have co-existed without much conflict. Amazingly, they have only shared a football field five times, most recently the 2006 Fiesta Bowl.

Ohio State won that game, 34-20, with Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith easily out-dueling Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn. The stakes were similar then, too. Nothing much at stake 10 years ago beyond Midwest bragging rights.

The Buckeyes hold those rights at the moment, based on that victory a decade ago and the modest success they’ve experienced in the few meetings over the years.

Only Clemson (2-1) and Florida State (6-2) have better all-time records against Notre Dame than Ohio State, which is 3-2. Because these two powers have met so infrequently, the Irish must look all the way back to 1936 for their most recent victory against the Buckeyes.

They will play a home-and-away series for the first time starting in 2022 at Ohio Stadium.

Besides the novelty of the rare Ohio State-Notre Dame matchup, what is there to draw the attention of the neutral fan in this year’s Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day?

Well, it starts with the defending national champions trying to salvage something respectable from their follow-up season. A stunning loss to Michigan State in the Big 10 Championship Game created a brief but very public burst of upheaval and dissent in the program, leading some to wonder if Urban Meyer’s ability to keep things together depended strictly on winning.

Ezekiel Elliott’s apology after his harsh public criticism of Ohio State’s play calling against Michigan State didn’t do much to settle things. But with less than a national title at stake, could a victory against Notre Dame right the ship for a team that will again have championship aspirations in 2016-17?

That’s where things stand now for the Buckeyes. This is the first step toward potential redemption next season. A bit more history: The victory in that 2006 Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame launched the Buckeyes to a championship chase the next season that didn’t end until a loss to Florida in the BCS title game.

As for the Irish … Brian Kelly’s lads might still be in the conversation for the national title if they had managed just three more points against Stanford on Nov. 28. Prior to that, Notre Dame’s only loss came at Clemson – a 24-22 setback on the road against the No. 1 team in the nation.

So, basically, the Irish were a touchdown’s worth of points away from heading into the New Year undefeated and firmly placed among the final four participants.

What all this means is, the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl, despite having possibly the worst name in the history of big bowl games, could very well be the most significant and entertaining non-playoff bowl game of the season.

We know we’ll be watching.

 

Beckham Jr., Norman Take Their Place in Heated Sports Rivalries

While Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman went at it Sunday, the Panthers held on to their dream of perfection.
While Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman went at it Sunday, the Panthers held on to their dream of perfection.

Watching Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman try to tear each other’s helmets and heads off all day Sunday during Carolina’s thrilling, last-second victory at the Meadowlands brought to mind some of the greatest and most hate-filled and heated individual rivalries in sports history.

These were two of the very best in the business. Beckham is regarded by many as the finest receiver in a generation. Norman has emerged as the definition of a shut-down cornerback, and could be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year – with some consideration as league MVP.

And man, were they mad Sunday.

Interestingly, as their personal feud raged in the second half, the Giants found the spark they needed to rush madly back from a 35-7 deficit to tie it with the closing minutes. Cam Newton had the ball last and got the last laugh with a game-winning field goal drive, and the Panthers became the fourth team in NFL history to go 14-0.

It was compelling sports TV, for sure. No matter how the season ends up, Panthers-Giants will be looked back upon as the Game of the Year.

And Beckham-Norman now takes its modern-day place among some fabulous individual heated sports rivalries, in which the personal enmity often drove the narrative even more than the contest itself.

Here are a few examples:

Carl Lewis vs. Ben Johnson: The Canadian sprinter, Johnson, was convinced that bitter American rival Lewis was part of a conspiracy that robbed Johnson of his 1988 Olympic gold medals because of steroid use. Of course, Johnson actually tested positive for steroids shortly after his world-record gold medal 100 meters, and Lewis was awarded the medal instead. But the bitterest of sports rivalries are defined by irrationality, so it’s unlikely Johnson will ever think kindly of Lewis.

Tanya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan: We turn to the winter Olympics, where Americans Harding and Kerrigan were favored for individual honors in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and the 1994 Olympics. During the lead-up, Kerrigan was attacked on the ice by a thug (Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly), and injured severely enough to miss the national championships. Harding wasn’t implicated until later, and she won the national title in Kerrigan’s absence. Kerrigan got the last laugh by earning silver in the Olympics (Harding was eighth) and Harding’s reputation was permanently tinged by her role in the attack on Kerrigan.

Donnie Allison vs. Cale Yarborough: On the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500, Allison and Yarborough battled into the penultimate turn. They wrecked, allowing Richard Petty to slide by for the victory in the first NASCAR race broadcast live nationally in its entirety. And then, Yarborough, Allison and his brother Bobby got into an on-track fight that made pro wrestling look like patty cake. Even 30-plus years later, the Allison-Yarborough feud still simmered:


Michael Crabtree vs. Richard Sherman: While Crabtree doesn’t have the juice of Beckham Jr., there was a time when Sherman was considered the top cover corner in the game. So, when the two of them met in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, it was a heavyweight battle and it ended in Sherman’s favor, with the Seahawks heading to the Super Bowl. Then, this happened:

Will the Carolina Panthers go 19-0?

Can the Carolina Panthers join the 1972 Miami Dolphins in the Undefeated Club?
Can the Carolina Panthers join the 1972 Miami Dolphins in the Undefeated Club?

Can they do it?

Can the Carolina Panthers finish this off?

Can they become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to go undefeated and win a championship?

Six more games. Six more victories.

Six more victories to 19-0.

That’s never been done.

The 1972 Miami Dolphins won all 14 of their regular-season games, then three more in the postseason. The 2007 New England Patriots won all 16 of their regular-season games, then two more in the postseason – and then came Eli, and the end of the dream of perfection.

The Panthers are poised to make NFL history. Can they do it?

The short answer: Sure. Why not?

Carolina has won six more games in a row five times in its relatively brief history, including the current 13-game streak.

Look at it this way. No one, not even the biggest Panthers fan in Charlotte, would have predicted a 13-0 start. Especially after second-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the year with an injury during the preseason.

They have defied expectations, largely because of outstanding team defense and quarterback Cam Newton’s consistent excellence. The closest they came to losing was an overtime victory against the Colts on Nov. 2. That was a month and a half ago.

So, seeing as how they’ve already had their inevitable near-miss and won 13 in a row, why would anyone conclude they can’t finish the job?

Coach Ron Rivera has his team right where he wants it. The NFC South title is already theirs. Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs remains a very reachable goal.

The Giants, Falcons and Buccaneers and three potential postseason opponents stand between the Panthers and perfection.

The question will be answered soon enough. Can they do it? We’ll know by Super Bowl 50, at the latest.

Meanwhile, the three regular-season opponents would seem to pose little threat. Of course, any team can beat any other team in the NFL on any given blah blah blah.

In other words, don’t go betting the mortgage payment on 16-0, even though New York, Atlanta and Tampa Bay are not exactly the ’72 Dolphins.

The question that isn’t being asked is this: Do the Panthers even WANT to go undefeated? Admittedly, that sounds absurd. What team actually would prefer to lose, even one game?

No, what we mean is, how much do they want it? Does 19-0 mean enough to Rivera and his team that they would be willing to risk the health of Newton in an essentially meaningless season-ending matchup against Tampa Bay?

And if Newton doesn’t play, can the Panthers still reasonably be expected to win? Or do they start him, then let him rest the second half? Who’s to say he wouldn’t get hurt in that limited time?

It’s a tough decision for Rivera. The fans want the goose egg in the loss column. The coach has to be smart about it, though. A 15-1 or even a 13-3 regular season that ends with a Super Bowl championship surely would more than make up for failing to join the ’72 Dolphins.

On the other hand, one fan, in particular, would love to see 19-0. The father of Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula is on the record as a public supporter of an undefeated year in Charlotte.

So, yeah. Even Don Shula wants it to happen.

Can they do it? Six more games.

We’ll find out soon. Meanwhile, let us know what you think. Vote in our quick poll:

Will the Carolina Panthers go 19-0 and win the Super Bowl?

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NFL Awards: Carolina Panthers Line Up for the Hardware

Jameis Winston is the clear front-runner for NFL Rookie of the Year.
Jameis Winston is the clear front-runner for NFL Rookie of the Year.

By Erez Ladetzky, Smack Zone Contributor

The end of the NFL regular season is almost upon us. That means awards will be handed out soon. There are a lot of deserving players for each award. I’m looking at MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, as well as Coach of the Year.

Here are my top three for each award and predicted winner:

MVP

  1. Cam Newton – while Cam might not be the “best” QB in the league, he is definitely playing the best right now. The 13-0 Panthers have a legitimate shot to run the table. Cam is the big reason why.
  2. Carson Palmer – the Cardinals are a different team with Palmer under center. He has the most the second most passing yards and TDs in the league. The Cardinals’ defense has struggled at times, but Palmer has the offense scoring more than 31 points a game. It’s time that Palmer gets some love.
  3. Tom Brady – this was pretty much a toss-up between him and Palmer. Both have the same statistics, and are the catalysts’ for their teams’ success. This is the norm for Brady, he will still finish top three. If Carolina losses a game, don’t be surprised if Brady is the MVP.

Prediction: Cam Newton

Defensive Player of the Year

  1. Luke Kuechly – it would be pretty special to have the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year on the same team right? That’s how it’s shaping up with three weeks left. Kuechly is a beast on the field, flying around making play after play. His Thanksgiving Day performance against Dallas put him in the lead. He missed a few games but still has 4 INT, 1 TD and 2 forced fumbles.
  2. Aaron Donald – the DT from St. Louis is playing like the best DT in the league right now. He has 11 sacks, which is incredible for an interior rusher. He also is excellent at stopping the run, and getting constant pressure on the QB. He has been a menace in the backfield this year, and will win this award a few times in his career if he keeps this play up.
  3. Khalil Mack – Mack is still a raw player, but the second year LB has taken off this year. Last week, he had not one, not two, but five – yes FIVE – sacks against Denver. He is one of the best pure pass rushers in the league, as evidenced by his league-leading 14 sacks this season. He has a bright future in the silver and black.

Prediction: Luke Kuechly

Offensive Rookie of the Year

  1. Jameis Winston – this is a QB driven league, and the best rookie QB will win the award. Jameis has taken over as the leader in Tampa, and just became the youngest QB to ever throw for 3,000 yards in a season. Tampa has tripled its win total from last season already, in large part because of Winston.
  2. Marcus Mariota – Mariota is making this race as close as possible. He has had some phenomenal games this year, but consistency has been an issue. He is getting more comfortable in the pocket and is excelling faster than most spread option college QB. However, the main difference is Winston has had a clear impact on the win/loss total in Tampa. Mariota’s Titans aren’t much better this year than last.
  3. Todd Gurley – it must stink being a RB in the league right now. They just don’t get any love any more. Gurley is doing things that only Eric Dickerson had done as a rookie. This is all coming off a torn ACL to boot. He got off to a really hot start, but then cooled off the last month. Had he kept up that pace, he might be the front runner.

Prediction: Jameis Winston

Defensive Rookie of the Year

  1. Marcus Peters – only a rookie, Peters is tied for third in the league in passes defended and INT. His draft stock to a hit when he was kicked off his college team. But hey, if you’re talented enough, you will find a spot in the NFL. He is a shut-down corner that can be on an island. Looks to be a future Pro Bowler and All-Pro.
  2. Ronald Darby – another CB playing exceptionally well as a rookie. This Bills’ cover man got off to a torrid start, raking up Defensive Rookie of the Month for September. He has the most passes defended in the league with 21, to go along with two picks. He can tackle in the open field, and play man to man.
  3. Kwon Alexander – Had Alexander not gotten suspended, he would be higher in this list. For some reason he fell to the fourth round in the draft, but Tampa was happy to get him. As a rookie, Alexander is the play caller on defense, gets everyone lined up correctly. He is also a tacking machine, and has made a few splash plays, with interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles. He has a bright future ahead of him.

Prediction: Marcus Peters

Coach of the Year

  1. Ron Rivera – is an explanation necessary? He has the Carolina Panthers at 13-0, and looking at the schedule, 16-0 is very possible, especially if they get by the Giants this weekend. What the team is doing with the offensive weapons they have, is ridiculously good.
  2. Bruce Arians – just like his QB Palmer, Arians came to Arizona and changed the culture of the team. He has them at 11-2 right now, and are very close from locking up a first round by in the playoffs. Behind Carolina, Arizona is the second hottest team, winning seven straight games.
  3. Marvin Lewis – even though it looks like the Bengals’ season is over after Dalton got injured, I’m still going to show some love to Lewis. He had the Bengals at 10-0 and looked to be a lock to get a first round bye. Now they are fighting off the red-hot Steelers. But, this team could still win 12 games with McCarron, that’s how good the entire roster is.

Prediction: Ron Rivera

Cam Newton is the NFL's MVP this year, and it's not even close.
Cam Newton is the NFL’s MVP this year, and it’s not even close. And his teammate Luke Kuechly could be defensive player of the year. Oh, and then there’s coach Ron Rivera, the clear choice for coach of the year. Nice year in Carolina!

 

 

Which 3 Borderline Teams Have the Inside Track into the NFL Playoffs?

By Erez Ladetzky, Smack Zone Contributor

The NFL playoff picture is beginning to come into focus with three weeks left. While most divisions probably won’t be clinched until the final weekend, we have a general feel of who the playoff teams will be, especially in the NFC.

There are a few teams on the outside looking in right now, and a couple might spring a surprise and keep playing into January.

Here are some teams to keep an eye on the final three weeks:

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars – yes, really, the Jaguars. After shellacking the Colts 51-16, the Jags are one game out of first place in the putrid AFC South. They are only 5-8, but there is a good possibility the winner of this division finishes with 7 wins. Look out for Jacksonville.
  2. Oakland Raiders – fresh off their upset of the Broncos, the Raiders still have their playoff hopes alive. They can’t win the division but they can sneak into the Wild Card. They will need a lot of help along the way, but they have a good offense and Khalil Mack sacking everything in sight.
  3. New York Giants – after their win Monday, the Giants are still tied for first place in the NFC Least. However, their schedule is so brutal I think Washington will win the division. But Minnesota could falter and the Giants can catch them for the last NFC playoff spot (they face off in Week 16).

These are the three teams that still have playoff hopes and control their destiny.

Of course, the Bucs could sneak in if they win out against the Rams (Thursday), the Bears and the Panthers AND the Vikings lose out against the Bears, Giants and Packers. The Falcons also could still make it, theoretically, but they would need a lot of help and they’re riding a current six-game losing streak, so … yeah. Not so much.

All of this parity can be considered a testament to how average the NFL has been this year. Or, it can be considered a testament to how fun it is to have most teams at or below .500.

And of course, realistically, there are only three or four teams that have a chance to win the Super Bowl (we’re talking Pats, Panthers, Cards and maybe the Seahawks if they stay hot and remember who they are the rest of the season).

What do you think? Will the Jaguars sneak in? Are the Raiders going to fold down the stretch? Can Eli and the Giants push through to the NFC East title?

This is getting good. Hang on for the ride.

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