Cam Newton comes of age as Panthers topple Saints, 17-13

December 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

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CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton met a defining moment and didn’t flinch.

This is what has always made the big-time quarterbacks special. Yet it sure looked bleak for the Carolina Panthers’ young quarterback on a soggy field at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, when Newton set up in the shotgun with 55 seconds left on the clock.

To that point, his passes had repeatedly sailed off course. The defense’s blitzes were relentless. He had a sore ankle.

But Newton had one last chance to make amends for the mishaps.

“I was thinking, ‘This is kind of like the San Francisco game,'” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly told USA TODAY Sports. “We played well on defense and were down a little bit, but Cam came back, took ’em down the field and scored.

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“Look at the Miami game. We sputtered early, but Cam got it done. Same thing against New England. So, really, it was just a matter of time. That’s Cam. He’s a gamer.”

Newton led the Panthers (11-4) to a 17-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints (10-5) — which clinched a playoff berth and put them on the doorstep of winning the NFC South — with three scintillating throws that made all of the difference.

On the first, he hung in the pocket amid a heavy rush and, just before taking a hit, threw a pass off his back foot over the middle to wide receiver Ted Ginn. Ginn raced across the field for a 37-yard gain. The second was a laser throw over the middle to tight end Greg Olsen for 14 yards.

Finally, Newton beat a blitz and hit his “alert” target, Domenik Hixon — filling in for injured Steve Smith — for a 14-yard touchdown that provided the winning points with 23 seconds remaining.

His finish was more impressive, given his struggles throughout a game when the Panthers offense had season lows for first downs (10) and total yards (222).

Yet it also spoke volumes about Newton’s mental toughness. He kept his poise when his team needed him the most. He has come a long way. During his first two seasons, Newton drew much attention for his demeanor when things weren’t going well. No more.

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He proved it in his biggest game.

“I think this shows his level of maturity and growth,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We’re not 11-4 just because of our defense. We’re 11-4, too, because Cam has played well. We believe in him and we’re following our leader.”

It’s interesting that Davis, a ninth-year veteran, would emphasize Newton’s leadership, which has been a hot topic for discussion in the past.

Yet if you saw and listened to Newton at his postgame news conference, that characteristic was evident.

He didn’t take credit for his heroics, repeatedly referring to the team when asked about his exploits. That’s significant when recalling the heat he took before the draft in 2011, when his comments about desiring to be an entertainer and an icon were interpreted by some as an indication he wasn’t fully dedicated to his craft.

That’s mentioned in this context because when Newton was asked Sunday about the chance to win the division title in Week 17 when he returns to his hometown, Atlanta, to take on the Falcons, he had no desire to take the bait and promote himself.

“I’m not trying to get personal, by no means,” he said.

And he has a firm grasp on this journey. The Panthers started the season 1-3.

“When we were 1-3, there were a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people jumping off the bandwagon,” he said. “(There) was a lot of pointing fingers, saying, ‘I told you so,’ but we stuck together as a team and didn’t veer off.”

The Panthers entered this season with coach Ron Rivera wanting to reduce the pressure on his young star. Part of the equation was developing a more potent rushing attack that doesn’t have to live and die with Newton running the read option.

Sure enough, with a sore ankle limiting Newton’s mobility Sunday, he ultimately beat the Saint from the pocket.

Yet the support from a second-ranked defense lessens the pressure for Newton on another level. He doesn’t have to try to generate 30 points a game when the defense can keep the score down.

It happened again Sunday, with the Panthers flipping the script from an embarrassing 31-13 loss at New Orleans two weeks ago. Carolina sacked Drew Brees six times, and Davis and Kuechly had interceptions that came off additional pressure.

No, it’s not all on Cam.

Smith, who was injured during the first half, thought as much as he watched the drama unfold from the training room, icing his knee.

“It’s not about having confidence in one person,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s the mistake people make. His job is not easy. But he is not alone. He’s not snapping it to himself, he can’t throw it to himself and he’s not blocking for himself. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Rivera, who admits he was hoping to force overtime with a field goal on the final drive, knew his quarterback had it in him, given the team’s other close wins this season.

“He always does something spectacular,” Rivera said after circling the locker room congratulating his players. “He always does. You just don’t know when.”

Sunday, the timing was perfect.

Bell Tolls: Saints at Panthers leads Separation Sunday

December 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

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This is the type of drama the NFL architects spanning decades always aimed for: mad scramble time.

With two weeks left in the regular season, it would take a math scientist to account for the hundreds of possible scenarios.

It’s Separation Sunday, and there are some simple equations.

If the New Orleans Saints win the big NFC South showdown at the Carolina Panthers, they will claim the division crown and a first-round bye – which seemed a given a few weeks ago.

If the Seattle Seahawks handle the Arizona Cardinals, they will clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

Win-and-you’re-in scenarios also exist for the San Francisco 49ers and Panthers.

We mentioned Carolina? Of course. This is where it gets tricky.

Just when you think you know exactly how it will unfold, along comes Week 15 – when one division leader after another tumbled.

And then there’s Week 17. The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles might meet in a winner-take-all finale for the NFC East title. The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers could meet to settle the NFC North crown. The Denver Broncos might need Week 17 to wrap up the AFC West.

Will Saints’ road struggles continue at Panthers?

Imagine the joy at the NFL’s headquarters on Park Avenue. This is exactly what Commissioner Roger Goodell envisioned – as did predecessors including Pete Rozelle and Bert Bell – when he made the decision a few years ago to save more divisional games for the final two weeks of the season.

That was brilliant, and the tight races that have kept the NFL’s interest at a steady climb – at the right time of year – are the byproduct of the scheduling, in addition to the parity.

This year, it’s as if the stars have aligned for the NFL, with the scheduling strategy in harmony with the competitiveness.

As we sit here now, one team has clinched a division title And it’s not even Seattle, which has the NFL’s best record.

Take a bow, Indianapolis Colts.

Eight of the 12 playoff slots have yet be claimed.

If you’re a participant, scoreboard watching might never hit home like this.

Or does it?

“You can’t really focus on that because so much is unknown,” Eagles center Jason Kelce told USA TODAY Sports. “Anytime you focus on a gray area, you’re misdirecting your energy.”

Kelce’s stance is understood. Worry about what you can control.

In another sense, though, he might realize you could drive yourself batty trying to sift through the various machinations.

The Eagles actually catch a bit of a stress break, in that they will host the Bears on Sunday night.

By the time they hit the field, they will know whether the Cowboys won at the Washington Redskins.

Even if the game is meaningless, the Eagles better keep their heads on a swivel. Coach Chip Kelly, coming off an embarrassing loss at the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, says he won’t rest his starters.

The Bears, on the other hand, need to win, regardless. They can clinch the NFC North title with a victory combined with losses by the Detroit Lions and Green Bay.

Such scenarios are all over the place. The New England Patriots are desperate for a win, but so are the Baltimore Ravens, who could have a Week 17 showdown for the AFC North crown at the Cincinnati Bengals.

Yes, it’s Separation Sunday.

Report: Orioles, Grant Balfour agree to 2-year deal

December 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

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BALTIMORE (AP) — Two weeks after trading their closer to Oakland, the Baltimore Orioles agreed to a two-year, $15 million contract with former Athletics closer Grant Balfour on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the deal.

Balfour’s contract will not be completed until the right-hander passes a physical, the person told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because the transaction had not been announced by the Orioles.

Balfour fills the vacancy left by the trade of closer Jim Johnson, who was dealt to Oakland because Baltimore didn’t want to pay him about $10 million a season. Johnson had 50 saves in each of the past two seasons but was in line for a huge raise.

“It’s really about the allocation of resources and to have a competitive team,” Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said at the time. “You have to have proper balance.”

Balfour is the first significant addition this offseason by the Orioles, who went 85-77 in 2013 but came up short in their bid to reach the postseason for a second straight year.

Balfour, who turns 36 on Dec. 30, went 1-3 with 38 saves in 41 opportunities with Oakland last season. He made $4.5 million with the Athletics in 2013. He had a 2.59 ERA and 72 strikeouts, with 27 walks in 62 2-3 innings.

In 2012, he had 24 saves in 26 chances. In 10 seasons with Minnesota, Milwaukee, Tampa Bay and the Athletics, Balfour is 28-17 with 72 saves and a 3.27 ERA.

The addition of Balfour means the Orioles won’t have to try Tommy Hunter or Darren O’Day at closer. Both likely will be tried in a setup or situational role.

Bell Tolls: Marc Trestman’s decision to return to Jay Cutler bears watching

December 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Talk about a hot hand.

Josh McCown is the first quarterback in Bears history to produce three consecutive 300-yard games, which is impressive enough when considering that Papa Bear Halas established the franchise in 1920 and notables slinging the rock for Chicago have included Sid Luckman, The Punky QB (Jim McMahon) and, well, Jay Cutler.

It resonates further when taking stock of the conditions the last time out. On a frigid night (temperature at kickoff: 8 degrees), McCown felt hotter than a branding iron to a woeful Dallas defense, passing for 348 yards and 4 TDs.

And for the first time during an 11-year NFL journey that has included stops with five teams, McCown was honored as the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week.

His reward?

A seat on the bench.

Cutler will start Sunday’s game at Cleveland, back from a four-game layoff to find the Bears (7-6) very much alive in the race for the NFC North title, thanks to the bumbling Detroit Lions.

With the season on the line on any given snap, the debate over Marc Trestman’s decision to re-insert Cutler in the lineup may be just heating up.

No doubt, there’s some strong sentiment that suggests Trestman is out of his pretty mind for sitting McCown down, based on merit.

For the season, McCown has completed nearly 67% of his passes, with a 13-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio. He ranks third in the NFL with a 109.8.

“In my opinion, he should be the starting quarterback of the Bears, even if Jay Cutler is healthy,” said freshly-retired Brian Urlacher, the former Bears linebacker now analyzing for Fox. “You can’t take a guy who’s this hot out of the football game.

“If I was on that team, I would have a hard time with them taking him out.”

Urlacher’s view is welcomed, obviously, as someone who was so integral to the team for more than a decade. But he should lighten up. My guess is that as the face of the franchise for so many years, he would have screamed bloody foul – even as his play declined during the latter stages of his career — had he missed a few games due to injury and not re-assumed his spot in the lineup.

In any event, Trestman didn’t have much of a choice.

From the moment Cutler went down, first with a groin injury in Week 7, then with a more debilitating high ankle sprain in Week 10, Trestman pledged that Cutler would get his job back when he got his health back.

Trestman made the decision weeks ago. To go back on his word at this point might have ruined whatever level of credibility in the locker room he has established as a first-year coach.

He could not have known that McCown would instantly turn into Dan Fouts in sparking victories in three of the past four games, but to cash in his word at this point might have fueled another debate about trust and leadership.

Sure, they need to win. And there are many coaches who would flip the script in a heartbeat.

Yet there is much to be said for trying to win with principles.

This brings to mind the chat that I had with Trestman during the Bears’ training camp in August. Even as he was trying to establish a new program with the Bears, he told me that he was staying in touch – through text-messages – with several of his former players with the CFL Montreal Alouettes.

The way he put it, even though he had left for the NFL, he was invested in the people he left.

This is not something you hear often from NFL coaches.

 

Jameis Winston poised on eve of Heisman ceremony

December 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

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NEW YORK — Even facing questions about the investigation into a sexual assault complaint that generated so much attention for the last month, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston looked comfortable and poised Friday, roughly 24 hours before he presumably takes his place in college football history.

The people around Winston, however? Not so much.

Awarding the 79th Heisman Trophy quickly turned awkward Friday at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square when Florida State’s sports information staff — flanked by Winston’s attorney, Tim Jansen — pulled him away halfway through his scheduled media availability after warning reporters to keep the questions focused on football.

Several minutes later, they brought Winston back, where he calmly and reasonably answered a question about whether he wanted to give his side of the story of what happened between the time the accusation surfaced and last Thursday, when the State Attorney decided not to file charges.

“The thing about the investigation, I always respected the process,” Winston said. “So by me being a football player, knowing my team needed me and them supporting me, I knew I had to focus on the future. But I also had to focus on my family with everything going on with the investigation, and I knew I did nothing wrong.

“That’s why I knew I could respect the process and I’d eventually be vindicated. It was more about me being silent for my family because I didn’t want to put my family in that situation…I knew I did nothing wrong and everything would be OK.”

Like it or not, it was going to be impossible for Winston to ascend into the pantheon of Heisman winners — which seems like a formality at this point — without facing questions related to the investigation. As Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit weighed whether to prosecute the 19-year old Winston, his status as Florida State quarterback and Heisman favorite very much hung in the balance.

Even for this award, which has seen controversial winners in recent years (most notably Auburn’s Cam Newton, whose recruitment drew NCAA scrutiny), this was an unusual situation. Only when State Attorney William Meggs announced a few days before ballots were due that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Winston with a crime was the Heisman Trust able to steer clear of an incredibly chaotic situation.

The awkwardness of it, though, turned out to be unavoidable.

Asked about dealing with off-field concerns, Winston said it was “stressful, but you have to look forward and focus on the goals we have as a team. He then sidestepped a question about what he learned from the incident, saying only that, “I love my college football experience and the way that I’m processing things right now and the way I’m getting better every single day.”

After the third question related to the incident, associate sports information director Kerwin Lonzo intervened, saying Winston would only entertain questions about football and admonishing reporters to “move on.”

Moments later, when Winston was asked if there should be a code of conduct associated with the award, Lonzo quickly responded “Next question!” before ending the interview a short time later.

At that point, Winston was supposed to get up and go to a second table of reporters, as the four other Heisman finalists present had done (Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron hadn’t yet arrived in town). Instead, Lonzo huddled with senior associate athletics director Monk Bonasorte, sports information director Elliott Finebloom, Jansen and Heisman Trust coordinator Tim Henning before whisking Winston away to a separate room.

Asked why he made the trip to New York with Winston, Jansen said, “I’m here just to enjoy him winning or possibly winning the Heisman. I’m not here officially. I’m on my own dime.”

When Winston returned later, Lonzo apologized and said Florida State officials were “confused” about the two-table interview setup.

That incident will likely be more dramatic than Saturday’s announcement.

Broncos flop at home, Chargers capitalize for big win

December 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) changes a play in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos Sports Authority Field at Mile High.DENVER – Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie was the last Denver Broncos player to take off his shoulder pads and grass-stained orange jersey.

The Broncos’ cornerback was so worked up that he couldn’t bring himself to sit at his locker in the first half-hour following the Broncos’ 27-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night at Sports Authority field, so he hopped up on a counter and just watched the scene in a silent and stunned locker room. As he sat there, watching hordes of reporters swarm his teammates, Rodgers-Cromartie steamed. “I’m one of the feisty guys on the team, and I get mad real fast,” Rodgers-Cromartie told USA TODAY Sports. “To see us not go out there and play with that enthusiasm and fire, it just makes me mad. It’s not like we weren’t out there playing fast or playing physical, we just got outplayed, and that can’t happen.”

There was plenty for the Broncos (11-3) to be angry about Thursday night.

It wasn’t just that Denver lost its first AFC West game since 2011, or even that the Broncos may have lost their hold on the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. It’s that in early December, the time when a team with Super Bowl aspirations should be ascending, the Broncos flopped.

It was, statistically, Denver’s worst offensive game of the year, with only 20 points (well below their average of 39.8 per game), just 18 rushing yards and a second quarter in which the Broncos didn’t manage a single first down in three possessions.

“Hey, it’s our job to score points when we have the ball, no matter if we have it for 40 minutes or 20 minutes,” quarterback Peyton Manning said. “We had it for 20 tonight, and we didn’t do a good enough job.”

But this isn’t a story about the failures of Manning and the offense. Manning still managed to throw two more touchdowns (Nos. 46 and 47 for the season), both to backup receiver Andre Caldwell, who was filling in for a concussed Wes Welker. Manning also threw an interception (his 10th) late in the fourth quarter, quelling Denver’s comeback bid.

Thursday’s loss to San Diego (7-7) revealed a defense in crisis.

“Maybe this was the punch in the mouth that we needed to wake up and realize that every team is going to give us their best shot and we’ve got to be prepared all the time,” defensive tackle Terrance Knighton told USA TODAY Sports.

The Broncos allowed at least 27 points for the fourth consecutive game and more often looked like a sloppy group that was just trying to find its way in a preseason game rather than a group that is bound for the playoffs. Denver’s defense was twice flagged for having 12 men on the field, and reserve linebacker Nate Irving was penalized for a neutral zone infraction on a San Diego punt. That penalty gave Philip Rivers more downs, and the Chargers milked nearly eight more minutes off the clock before finally punting again.

The Chargers converted 6 of 12 third downs, including 4 of 6 in the first half as they built a 17-10 lead, and rushed for 177 yards (the most rushing yards allowed in a game by Denver this year). San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers’ numbers were modest, just 12 completions for 166 yards, but he had just the perfect knack for exposing weaknesses in Denver’s defense.

On Thursday night that was rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster, who was in single coverage on one of Keenan Allen’s touchdown catches. Allen, a leading candidate for the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year award, hurdled Webster on his way into the end zone for his other touchdown.

PHOTOS: Best of NFL Week 15

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The loss enables the New England Patriots to move into a tie for the best record in the AFC with a win against Miami on Sunday. The Patriots own a head-to-head win against Denver. The Kansas City Chiefs also could match the Broncos’ record by beating the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, though the Broncos swept the Chiefs in their two games this year.

“The bad thing is we were in the position to control our own destiny, and now we’ve got to hope things happen in order to keep the No. 1 seed,” Knighton said. “Hopefully things will work out, but first and foremost we’ve got to handle our business, see what we can do better, and focus on Houston.”

San Diego, meanwhile, is proving that its own playoff bid is far from over. The Chargers have two home games remaining, against Oakland and Kansas City.

“We have to stay alive,” Rivers said. “We obviously need to win the next two and need some help. We just have to keep it one game at a time and enjoy the heck out of the turn we made and see if we can keep it going.”

George W. Bush sends Alabama kicker encouraging note following Iron Bowl loss

December 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

George W. Bush sends Alabama kicker encouraging note following Iron Bowl loss

Description-No one felt worse after Alabama’s shocking Iron Bowl loss to Auburn this year than Cade Foster.

The Crimson Tide’s starting kicker missed three field goals during the game, then was yanked with one second remaining in favor of redshirt freshman Adam Griffith, who ended up missing the 57-yard field goal that was returned 109 yards for a Tigers game-winning touchdown.

Foster received threats and horrible, awful messages on Twitter. His teammates stuck up for him though.

It’s been two-and-a-half weeks since the Iron Bowl, but Wednesday, Foster, who wears No. 43, Instagrammed a letter he received from another No. 43 — President George W. Bush. The letter says, “Dear Cade (#43), Life has its setbacks. I know! However you will be a stronger human with time. I wish you all the best – Sincerely – another 43 George Bush.” Foster then writes in the caption, “Framing this

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