Sun Bowl preview: Notre Dame-Miami (FL)

Officials from Notre Dame and Miami already finalized a revival of the Catholics vs. Convicts rivalry this summer, as the teams are scheduled to clash in 2012 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Bears. The schools also will meet in a home-and-home series in 2016 and 2017.

But Sun Bowl officials had other ideas — they wanted this game in 2010. So the rivalry that was halted after 1990 because of bad blood between the universities will get refueled in El Paso when Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish take on the Hurricanes, who are led by interim head coach Jeff Stoutland. Al Golden will officially begin his new gig after the game.

Let’s take a look at the Fighting Irish and Hurricanes.

Last meeting: No. 6 Notre Dame beat No. 2 Miami 29-20 on Oct. 20, 1990, in South Bend.

Tommy ReesICONFreshman QB Tommy Rees leads the Irish against the Hurricanes in the Sun Bowl.

Notre Dame: After Dayne Crist was injured in the home loss to Tulsa, true freshman Tommy Rees took over under center for the Irish. And while the coaching staff may have scaled back the offense a little bit for the youngster, ND found success late in the season. Three straight wins, including victories over Utah and USC, have Irish fans feeling good about the future. Rees has tossed 10 touchdowns in the past four games, and he's emerged as a quiet leader. The key in this game is how well the offensive line holds up against a ferocious Miami pass rush. The ‘Canes are sixth in the country in sacks at three per game. If Notre Dame can run the football effectively with their rotation of backs, Rees will be put in third-and-manageable spots. That will be crucial. Tight end Tyler Eifert could be a nice safety valve for the signal caller in this one.

Miami (FL): Which Jacory Harris will show up for the Hurricanes? Stoutland has been telling reporters all week that his senior quarterback has looked focused in practice and that his decision-making has been great. Coordinator Mark Whipple has echoed those sentiments, as well, and the Hurricanes better hope Harris is on because we’ve seen disastrous results when he’s turned the ball over. He’ll get the start over the injured Stephen Morris, and he’s hoping to end his career on a high note. Harris has thrown 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions on the season, and he’ll be going up against a defense that has allowed just 20.5 points per game. With the Hurricanes exuding depth in the backfield, like the Irish, stopping the run will be critical for Manti Te’o and the rest of Bob Diaco’s unit.

While the Irish defense has played very well in November, unlike in previous years under Charlie Weis, the ‘Canes still have more speed and talent on both sides of the ball. But with the coaching staff in disarray and top players perhaps looking toward the 2011 draft, the Irish may be able to take advantage of an undisciplined and unfocused Miami squad.

Notes:

• One of Miami’s 2010 recruits, tailback Storm Johnson, has really turned heads and impressed the staff in practice and should have an increased role against the Irish.

• It’s been 17 years since Notre Dame ended a season with four or more straight victories. Winning this game would be victory No. 4 to end 2010.

• The Irish lead the all-time series, 15-7-1.

Not yet pumped up for the game? Check out one of the greatest intro’s of all-time. And, of course, the clip features the great Brent Musburger.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

All eyes on Bradford

Let’s talk Sam Bradford today before you head out for your New Year’s Eve plans. Come Sunday night, we get to watch the rookie head to Seattle for what is essentially a play-in game. Win and you’re in. That simple. Play productive football, limit the amount of turnovers by your offense and you could be hosting a home playoff game next weekend. And anything can happen once you are in that post season tournament.

A big spot for a rookie QB? No question. This is bigger than any bowl game than Bradford has ever played in—no matter the circumstances. This is pro football and the young QB is playing for a shot to compete on the NFL’s biggest stage.

Sam BradfordICONBradford will face a pressure situation on Sunday night in Seattle.

Bradford has looked like a veteran QB at times this season. I have been impressed with his poise in the pocket, his ability to throw the ball on the run and his overall decision-making process. We don’t often see that from rookies, and one glance at the Rams depth chart will tell you that Bradford isn’t working with top-tier receivers. No Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Greg Jennings, etc. This guy is doing it with a position that will be upgraded this offseason in St. Louis.

And we have also seen him struggle against pressure defenses like the Saints. That’s going to happen. He isn’t going to be perfect and he will make some mistakes. Even veteran QBs force the ball in certain situations—or get too safe and play a game of check down football.

However, we are talking about one game here. There should be pressure on Bradford to produce. And we should all want to see how he responds vs. the Seattle defense. Can he sustain drives and make that big play on 3rd down? What about the red zone? A two-minute situation? Or, down by a score in the 4th quarter? These are the game situations that we will judge Bradford on come Monday morning.

Qwest Field is a rough place to play. I was on a Redskins’ team that lost a game in the playoffs up there back in the ’05 season. The crowd noise is immense and it will have the feel of a playoff game once that ball is kicked off. All part of the pressure that comes along with playing in a big time NFL game—especially at the quarterback position.

Bradford is going to walk away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. No question about that. But he can add to this impressive first season with another win and a division title on Sunday night. And all of his teammates will thank him for those playoff checks when they arrive in the mail. Money well earned.

I’m excited to watch him play…let’s see what he does.

Follow me on Twitter: MattBowen41

Cowboys sign Kris Brown, turn up heat on David Buehler

David Buehler hasn’t gotten the boot from the Dallas Cowboys.

But he’s got some real competition now and he’ll have to perform in the offseason to keep his job.

A week after he missed an extra point in a 27-26 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Cowboys announced that they have signed veteran kicker Kris Brown. It’s expected Buehler will handle kicking chores in Sunday’s season finale at Philadelphia, but the Cowboys won’t have to search for competition in the offseason.

Brown, a 12-year veteran, was released by the Houston Texans at the end of the preseason and he spent time with the San Diego Chargers. Brown has made 77.3 percent of the field goal tries in his career. Buehler has made 24 of 31 field goals this season.

Follow me on Twitter: BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Michigan rules Forcier ineligible for Gator Bowl

Michigan has ruled quarterback Tate Forcier ineligible for Saturday’s Gator Bowl against Mississippi State for not meeting university standards, the school announced late Thursday.

Michigan's release simply read: “Tate Forcier did not meet University standards and is ineligible to participate in the Gator Bowl.”

While one can speculate that it’s because of academics, it’s strange that a player would be ruled “ineligible” because of a classroom issue just two days before a game. Typically an academic issue arises much earlier in the bowl prep timeline. However, grades were still trickling in at Michigan up until yesterday, according to Nicole Auerbach of the Michigan Daily.

Michigan's third-string quarterback is Devin Gardner, who is trying to get a medical redshirt. The backup situation looms large especially because of Denard Robinson's injury history. Obviously head coach Rich Rodriguez would be hesitant to play Gardner. Slot receiver Jeremy Gallon has actually worked extensively under center, according to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press, so that would be a worst-case scenario option.

I’ll keep an eye on this and update as soon as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: AP sportswriter Larry Lage reports that Forcier won't play because he's academically ineligible.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

Holiday Bowl preview: Washington-Nebraska

It certainly was not the season Jake Locker, Steve Sarkisian and the entire Washington fanbase envisioned at the start of the year. But the Huskies, still only two years removed from an 0-12 mark, righted the ship and became bowl eligible with a 35-28 last-minute win over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup. Locker, despite dropping down NFL draft boards, still led the program to its first bowl game since the 2002 season. Meanwhile, Nebraska is off to the Big Ten after falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. But the Cornhuskers first hope to beat the Huskies for the second time this season when they meet Thursday night in the Holiday Bowl.

Here’s a closer look at the Huskies and Cornhuskers.

Steve SarkisianICONIt wasn't easy, but Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies bowling.

Washington (6-6, 5-4 Pac-10): If Washington hopes to avoid a repeat of the disastrous loss to Nebraska early in the season, running back Chris Polk must carry the football. He has been excellent the last three contests, averaging 169.3 rushing yards per game and leading the team to three straight wins. A productive Polk equates to wins, as he has averaged 137 yards and 6.3 yards per carry in their six wins, while the numbers dip to 69.3 yards and 4.4 yards per carry in the six losses. As much as people talk about Locker, it’s an effective Polk that is just as crucial to the team’s success.

But, boy, do the Huskies need a productive Locker in this rematch. The senior signal caller was woeful from the pocket in the first meeting with Nebraska, but a closer look at his numbers shows that he threw the football well in the pocket in 2010, as he completed over 60 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the blitz, Locker has fared well — in Huskies victories. In the six wins, he completed 63 percent of his passes with four scores and one interception against the blitz. But in that meeting against the Blackshirts, he completed just 1-of-5 passes through the air when facing pressure. He will also need to be better on third downs, as he was only 1-of-7 passing for 6 yards in the first meeting.

Nebraska (10-3, 6-2 Big 12): As we all know, two things come to mind when we think of Nebraska: Quarterback Taylor Martinez and the Blackshirts. Let’s continue with the defense, as its effort will be the biggest factor in this one.

Opponents are completing just 42.5 percent of their passes on third down against Nebraska’s pass defense, which ranks No. 1 in the nation. The Cornhuskers rank No. 2 in pass efficiency defense on third down. With Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard, it’s easy to understand why teams — with the exception of Oklahoma State’s aerial assault — have had little success.

The major question surrounding the Cornhuskers is the health of Martinez. From all indications, “T-Magic” is healthy and ready to revert back to early-season form. The dual-threat signal caller at one point in late October led the country with rushes of 20 yards or more. However, after suffering a leg injury against Missouri on Oct. 30, he was never the same player. In the last four games he played, he averaged just 32.8 yards per game and was not able to break off a big run. Unless Nick Holt’s group made some serious adjustments from their lackluster season, Martinez should find running room Thursday night.

Taylor MartinezICONTaylor Martinez should be healthy for the first time since October.

As much as his rushing skills can pace the offensive attack, along with Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead on the ground, Martinez will need to be effective through the air as well. Look for Shawn Watson to put him in position to be successful early — quick slants and screens perhaps — as the redshirt freshman is not yet ready to drop back and chuck the ball all over the field.

The skinny

Washington really did go on a nice run to end the season. They survived Locker getting banged up, and their survival mentality led to squeaking out some close victories. I can’t envision this playing out like the game in Seattle early in the year, as both teams are different groups at this point. But with a healthy “T-Magic” and the Blackshirts, I’m not sure if Locker and Co. can hang in this one for four quarters.

Odds and ends

• Nebraska leads the all-time series with Washington 4-3-1.

• The last time Washington went bowling was in 2002 when the Huskies fell to Purdue 34-24 in the Sun Bowl.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

Bowl Mania: Prospect breakdowns

A look at some of the top prospects playing in today’s games as Kansas State faces off against Syracuse, Tennessee battles UNC and Nebraska has and Washington have their much anticipated rematch in this year’s Holiday Bowl.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl

Who to watch for…

Kansas State

ThomasICONThomas runs with a high pad level.

RB Daniel Thomas: No. 8 (6-2, 228)
A tall, well-built back who runs angry and hard inside. Does a nice job dropping his shoulder into contact, churning his legs and fighting for additional yards. Exhibits a pretty good feel between the tackles, knows how to set up blocks, be patient and accelerate into the open field. Possesses above-average body control for a back his size with the ability to side step a defender, break a tackle and stay on his feet.

However, is an upright runner who exposes too much of his body between the tackles. Allows defenders to easily get into/under his pad level and needs to do a better job running behind his pads. Isn’t the most sudden or shifty of backs and routinely gets too long/overextended with his footwork, failing to consistently keep his feet under him and maintain proper balance. Has the ability to cut against the grain, stick his foot in the ground at full speed and side step a defender in space. However, he isn’t shifty enough to make a man miss in tight quarters and create for himself behind the line. Doesn’t exhibit a great first step when asked to press the hole and seems to only have one gear to his game. Struggles to get back up to speed quickly out of his breaks and isn’t going to outpace anyone to the edge at the second level. Can catch the football out of the backfield and looks natural in the pass game.

Impression: A big, physical back who runs hard and exhibits the vision to set up blocks and pick his way through traffic. However, he isn’t a real impressive athlete, runs upright and will have a tough time averaging 4.0 yards per carry at the next level. Looks more like a physical backup type runner to me who isn’t dynamic enough to start in the NFL.

Syracuse

OLB Doug Hogue: Syracuse No. 32 (6-2, 226)
A former collegiate running back who made the transition to the defensive side of the ball during the spring of his junior year. Possesses a thickly built upper body, but is a bit narrow in the lower half and looks thin in the calves. However, displays good body control and fluidity in his drop. Gets good depth off the line, can cleanly open up his hips and gets back up to speed when asked to turn and run. Isn’t the most instinctive of backers in space at this stage though. Doesn’t have a ton of experience and gets caught staring into the backfield and can be late to recognize his pass keys. Possesses good range once he locates the football, but can get caught with his feet stuck in the mud at times trying to decipher information. Doesn’t offer much as a blitzer at this stage. Has a good first step off the edge and can create a bit of a push on contact, but gets upright and struggles to slip/disengage.

Isn’t the most instinctive of run defenders either. Has trouble consistently taking proper angles toward the football and will run himself out of plays and get caught up in traffic easily at times. Does display above-average power and range to his game, has the ability to anchor vs. lead blocks and runs well in pursuit. Wraps up well into contact and has a long set of arms that allow him to break down and make some plays off his frame on perimeter runs.

Impression: A nice athlete who has some real upside to his game from a mental aspect since he has only played linebacker for about two years. He has shown flashes and is worth a draft pick, but looks more like a backup/developmental starter to me who will need some time.

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Who to watch for…

Tennessee

WR Denarius Moore: No. 6 (6-1, 195)

Possesses good size for the wide receiver position and displays an impressive initial burst off the line. Reaches top-end speed quickly and has the body control, shiftiness and power to cleanly slip the bump of opposing corners either off the line or down the field and get into his route. Accelerates well for himself when asked to separate down the field as well as once he gains a step and has the ability to track the football vertically. Possesses good straight-line speed for his size and is tough to keep pace with down the field. Exhibits good hand/eye coordination and strong hands when asked to locate and go up and make a play. Consistently is able to come down with the catch while showing the type of strength to hold onto the ball through the play.

Is still developing as a route runner. Is a bit tight in the hips, has a tendency to start to drift into his routes prematurely and isn’t real sharp in and out of his breaks. Will begin to advertise his routes early and isn’t much more than a vertical route runner at this stage. However, he will work as a blocker on the outside, can run a bit after the catch and grades out well enough to warrant a draft pick and roster spot.

Impression: A vertical route runner who has ability to accelerate away from defenders once he slips press and making plays down the field. Still needs to add some polish to his game, but he has enough athleticism to work his way onto an NFL roster and fight for playing time as a sub-package/vertical threat down the line.

UNC

LB Quan Sturdivant: No. 52 (6-2, 230)
Possesses a thicker, well-put-together frame and plays with natural bend and leverage on contact. Looks comfortable sitting into his stance, extending his arms and keeping himself clean in traffic. Exhibits good power as well when asked to take on pulling guards in the hole. However, doesn’t play with a consistent passion, at times looks content to be blocked and sealed from the play and too often simply tries to run around defenders, sealing himself away from ball carrier at times. Displays good range in pursuit and can make plays away from his frame, but isn’t the most sound of tacklers into contact. Has a tendency to easily slide off ball carriers and lacks ideal technique when asked to wrap up in space.

Displays good body control and overall fluidity in the pass game, can open up his hips, redirect cleanly and does display an above-average burst out of his breaks. However, possesses only average instincts. At times struggles to get his head around and find the football, and even when he does locate the ball in the pass game, he plays too tentative and doesn’t quickly click and close and make the play. Doesn’t’ always trust what he sees.

Impression: Looks much more comfortable playing on the outside where he doesn’t have to key off as many blocks. Displays good athleticism and can be powerful when taking on opposing linemen, but questionable instincts and work rate hurt his cause. Has the skill set to start for a team, but I don’t think he’s the type of potential blue/red-chip prospect many are making him out to be.

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl

Who to watch for…

Nebraska

AmukamaraICONAmukamara is looking to finish the season in a big way.

CB Prince Amukamara: No. 21 (6-0, 201)
A good athlete for his size who possesses good instincts in coverage and has a real feel for the pass game. Does a nice job quickly locating the football, putting his foot in the ground and clicking and closing on the pass in front of him. Possesses compact footwork in his drop when asked to play in off and does a nice job keeping his feet under him and quickly driving on throws. Exhibits impressive ball skills and consistently is able to come down with the catch. Improved his overall pad level in his drop from a year ago, does a much better job sitting into his stance through the play and not popping upright the longer he has to sit into his stance.

Lacks elite speed vertically down the field when asked to turn and run, will allows receivers to get behind him and doesn’t possesses the type of second great to routinely make up for a false step. Possesses natural fluidity in his hips, is able to cleanly change directions and looks really comfortable smoothly getting out of his breaks and closing on the throw. Is an improved tackler from last season, has a physical element to his game, breaks down well and will stick his head in and wrap up.

Looked a lot more poised when asked to play in press coverage in 2010 as well. Did a much better job being patient off the line, using the proper hand to initially press with and was able to sit into his stance and maintain balance laterally through the play. However, doesn’t play as physical vs. bigger, stronger wide outs at times and gets content playing press-bail, which will get himself in some trouble trying to play more like a finesse corner. Is fluid when asked to turn and run and his combination of balance, footwork and strength off the line makes him really difficult to separate from even initially into routes. However, he does get a bit grabby at times down the field and will get caught stopping his feet when looking back for the football, allowing receivers to get behind him.

Impression: A fluid, balanced corner who possesses good play speed and looks like a guy capable of starting at a number of spots in an NFL secondary, but I don’t think he will ever be a real blue-chip corner.

Washington

QB Jake Locker: No. 10 (6-3, 226)
A thick, well put together quarterback that has the physical makeup to handle the rigors of the NFL game. Displays natural balance in his drop from under center, quickly getting away from the line of scrimmage before collecting himself and delivering the football. Possesses a clean, compact release, holds the football high and the ball comes out of his hands quickly. Showcases a strong arm and has the ability to make all the throws required of him at the next level. Exhibits good zip and timing when asked to go outside the numbers to his initial read and does a nice job letting go of the football on time. Is also very impressive when asked to throw on the move. Generates a lot of torque from his lower half and has the ability to fit the football into tight spots even when he’s off balance. Did a slightly better job this past season identifying coverage’s before the snap and trying to work his progressions more efficiently –still needs significant work though-. But still, too often will lock onto his initial man, doesn’t decipher info quickly in the face of pressure and force the ball into coverage. Deeds to do a better job moving his feet once he comes off a read and striding into throws. Has a tendency to get sloppy with his footwork and not align himself up with the target, which causes his accuracy — especially over the middle of the field — to suffer. Will struggle at times anticipating throws in the pass game, holding onto the football too long waiting for receivers to uncover.

Is a gifted athlete who looks comfortable on the move, can buy time for himself and create outside the pocket, but at times needs to learn to just throw the football away. Has a tendency to try to do too much and will get himself into some trouble with some negative plays. His accuracy seems to run hot and cold. When he sets his feet and keeps a solid base under him, the guy can consistently make all the throws. But too often, he gets caught throwing across his body, overextending in the pocket and/or falling off of throws. Nevertheless, he’s a tough, gritty quarterback who his teammates really seem to rally around and has proven he can bounce back after facing a ton of adversity during his first two years on campus.

Impression: The athletic ability, the arm strength and the intangibles are all there, and the upside his game possesses is still tremendous. However, there is still a lot of work needed to be done and will need time to sit back and mature if he hopes to develop into a franchise signal caller.

Follow me on twitter: @WesBunting

Week 16 rookie report card, part 2

In last Thursday’s game between Pittsburgh and Carolina, the Steelers needed a win to keep pace with Baltimore in their battle for first in the AFC North. While Maurkice Pouncey has been a solid starter all year, Emmanuel Sanders and Andre Brown have really come on the last half of the season.

Emmanuel Sanders – Pittsburgh

Sanders was the Steelers 3rd-round pick out of SMU. He was a very productive player while at SMU, catching 165 passes in his final two seasons. At 5-11, 186 pounds, he is not the biggest guy but he has great speed, averaging 4.44 at the Combine.

Emmanuel SandersICONSteelers WR Emmanuel Sanders

In the last 7 games he has caught 23 passes for a 13.0 yards per catch average. Many of the catches have come when a play was needed. Thursday he had 4 grabs for 54 yards with most of the catches being first-down plays. He has also been a very good return man this year but did not get any opportunities in this game. Along with having very good speed, Sanders has great quickness and body control. He gets in and out of cuts very quickly and he shows a very good ability to adjust to the ball. Because of his speed and quickness he is very good after the catch. A bonus feature is he is a good special teams player. He shows aggressiveness and tackling ability on the kickoff team. He earns a B+.

Antonio Brown – Pittsburgh

Brown was the Steelers 6th-round choice out of Central Michigan. He has about the same size as Sanders — just not quite as much straight-line speed. He is another young player that has come on as of late. In the last 4 games he has 10 catches in a backup role. He also is a better than average kickoff return man with a 24.0-yard average. Brown is a little more of a straight-line player than Sanders, he doesn’t quite have the body control and separation quickness but he still can make quick cuts and accelerate.. He has good hands and will compete for the ball in traffic. With his speed and burst he is dangerous after the catch. Overall, this is a player that has shown steady improvement all season and with Mike Wallace and Sanders they give the Steelers three young receivers with a lot of speed. He earns a B- for his play on Thursday.

Maurkice Pouncey – Pittsburgh

I have already written about Pouncey a few times this season. He is a very impressive player and as a rookie was invited to the Pro Bowl earlier this week. That is not an easy thing to do for a rookie offensive lineman. He has gotten better all season and it won’t be long before he becomes THE dominant center in the league. He has great size, strength and athleticism. For a young player he is already a very accomplished run and pass blocker with excellent hand use. There is not much more to say that hasn’t already been written. He gets an A+

Jimmy Clausen – Carolina

Clausen has played in 12 games this year and I thought that he would have progressed more than he has. Granted, the Panthers don’t give Clausen a great supporting cast but with the amount of playing time Clausen has gotten he should be playing better. During his sophomore year at Notre Dame I questioned his instincts and didn’t think that he was a good decision maker. That area of his play improved dramatically in 2009 so I thought that it was just inexperience. I may have been wrong. His play this year shows he is not a quick decision maker and not instinctive. He holds onto the ball too long and forces throws. With as much playing time as he has gotten this season he shouldn’t be doing that this late into the year. He has the physical tools and will make some very good throws, you just don’t see consistency. He earns a C at best.

Andre Neblett – Carolina

Neblett was an undrafted free agent defensive tackle from Temple University. At 6-foot, 295 pounds, you can understand why he wasn’t a draft pick. Every year we find guys like this — tough overachievers who will themselves to become good football players. He appreciates his opportunity and gives everything he has on the field.

Neblett didn’t play early in the season and has really gotten his chance to play the last few weeks. He plays in a rotation at defensive tackle, often lining up on the nose. This player doesn’t have a lot of height but he has long arms and is very strong. He is quick off the ball and can be disruptive in the run game because he gets penetration. He goes all out every down and is a tough competitor. He is not much of a pass rusher; he lacks moves but he is able to get a push. I like the way he stays low and drives his feet.
Overall, Neblett doesn’t have a strong physical trait, he’s just a hard-nosed football player and earns a B-.

Joe Webb – Minnesota

With the game Webb played Tuesday night we have to write about him. Given the situation in which Philadelphia had to win to keep their chances of a first-round bye in the playoffs, Webb’s play was remarkable. Though a quarterback in college he has gotten very few reps at quarterback in practice until the last few weeks. Many times in situations like this when you have a rookie quarterback you tone the offense down and ask him “not to lose the game.” Hell, he won it. He took control and outplayed Mike Vick. He completed 17 of 26 for 195 yards and NO interceptions. He also rushed for 31 yards and a touchdown. It was the way he kept plays alive with his feet that was fun to watch. He is a remarkable athlete with great speed and body control. The Vikings may have found themselves a quarterback by accident. He earns an A.

Urlacher latest Bears player to rip Soldier Field surface

First, Jay Cutler ripped the playing surface at Soldier Field earlier this month, sending the Chicago Park District into a full-blown panic.

The city, which owns and operates the stadium, hastily called a press conference to announce that grass is difficult to grow in Chicago in the winter. That’s not what they said, but that was the basic message.

Now, Brian Urlacher, the face of the Bears’ franchise for a decade, has taken a turn ripping the sod at Soldier Field, continuing what at the minimum is a PR nightmare for the team and Soldier Field.

“The footing at Soldier Field has been horrible,” Urlacher said Thursday in his weekly press conference at Halas Hall. “We've all seen that. You watch us on film. Our D-line slipped. It's hard. We're a fast team. I think when you get us on a (Soldier Field) surface like that, it kind of takes a little bit of our speed. Health-wise, I think we're OK. We're playing fast from that aspect. It's just that the field has been so bad that we haven't been able to do what we normally do.”

The Bears are 5-3 at home and they have surrendered 70 points in their last two home games to the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Defensive end Julius Peppers has blamed the turf for costing him a handful of sacks. The Bears have a defense built for turf – or built for Tampa, it is the Tampa-2 after all – and they’re playing in a difficult outdoor stadium in a northern climate.

The park district would like to install an artificial surface because it would save money quickly and be able to do much more with the stadium. The Bears, for the time being at least, prefer a natural grass surface. Not all of the players are in favor of that, though.

“(Opposing teams) are playing on the same thing we're playing on, so it goes both ways,” Urlacher said. “But, we're not able to use our speed like we like to. Our corners are slipping when they are coming out of breaks. Our D-linemen are slipping (while) pushing off the ground. But (opposing teams) are doing the same thing. I guess it goes both ways.”

Follow me on Twitter: BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Using Vegas odds to examine playoff scenarios

Evaluations and predictions regarding the various playoff scenarios entering Week 17 are two things you can find just about anywhere on the internet. So we decided to look for a different approach to breaking down Sunday’s pivotal matchups.

We reached out to R.J. Bell of Pregame.com to get his take on the various postseason berths that are up for grabs this Sunday. You can check out more of R.J.’s terrific work by CLICKING HERE.

From R.J. Bell:

I consider it beyond debate that Las Vegas odds are an unmatched predictor of game outcomes. And the reason I’m so sure of that is the fact that Las Vegas DARES anyone to disagree, and they back up this dare will millions of dollars. Quite simply, if you can predict games better than Las Vegas, you can beat Las Vegas out of millions of dollars.

So, using Las Vegas odds, we can make a hyper-accurate assessment of the unsettled playoff races. This assessment allows us to gauge the motivation of the teams involved.

DIVISION WINNERS

Steelers win division? 74% odds

Scenario: Steelers win (68%) OR Ravens lose (19%)

Colts win division? 91% odds

Scenario: Colts win (82%) OR Jags lose (50%)

Falcons win division? 93% odds

Scenario: Falcons win (91%) OR Saints lose (24%)

NFC #1 SEED

Falcons number one: 92.5%

Scenario: Falcons win (91%) OR both Saints and Bears lose (19%)

Saints number one: 7%

Scenario: Saints win (76%) AND Falcons lose (9%)

Bears number one: 1/2%

Scenario: Bears win (21%) AND both Falcons and Saints lose (2%)

NFC FINAL WILD CARD SPOT

Green Bay: 84% odds

Scenario: Packers win (79%) OR both Giants and Bucs lose (26%)

Giants: 14% odds

Scenario: Giants win (66%) AND Packers lose (21%)

Bucs: 2% odds

Scenario: Bucs win (24%) AND both Giants and Packers lose (7%)

NFC WEST WINNER

Scenario: Winner advances – Rams 58%, Seattle 42%

Note: The very rare chance of games ending in a tie has been discounted for these calculations.

So, for example, the Bears have only a 1 in 200 chance of winning the #1 seed, and they have the #2 locked up, so it’s logical to assume their effort will be minimal. It’s also interesting to consider that some of these games play at 1:00 et, and some play at 4:00 et – and thus some of the contingencies of these scenarios will be determined by the time the 4:00 games kick-off. If you are a sports bettor, and you understand correlated parlays, then there’s a great profit opportunity this week. (And if you are bettor and don’t understand correlated parlays, you need to read, watch, and listen more at www.Pregame.com).

RJ Bell is the founder and CEO of Pregame.com, and is the world’s most quoted sports betting expert, including ESPN, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and NationalFootballPost.com! Follow RJ’s news-making info at www.Twitter.com/RJinVegas

Giants bring in a new return man

The New York Giants, forced to juggle their roster for return men since the offseason, have made one final change in signing Brian Witherspoon to replace veteran Will Blackmon, who was placed on injured reserve.

Blackmon, signed in late October, appeared in five games for the Giants, missing two with a chest injury, before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Witherspoon has appeared in 22 career games for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions. The Giants have struggled with production all season in the return game and will turn to the newcomer for Sunday’s season finale at Washington.

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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune