KICKING OFF WITH THOUGHTS ON THE BUFFALO BILLS
They still don’t know how to win.
No excuses for Sunday’s 34-31 overtime loss to Atlanta in Toronto. The Buffalo Bills had much more to play for, were healthier and probably have more talent than the Falcons.
I am convinced that the Bills have advanced to the upper half of the 32-team NFL in terms of overall talent. But they have a lousy 4-8 record.
The main reason: EJ Manuel has been injured and still is under wraps and learning on the job. We know he looks like a prototype quarterback. We’re pretty sure he’ll grow into a solid NFL QB. We hope it won’t take too much longer.
I’m not blaming Manuel for the latest heart-breaking loss – 34-31 to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday in overtime in Toronto. He connected with Stevie Williams and Scott Chandler. They fumbled on the two plays that gave another game away.
But Manuel didn’t exactly take charge. He didn’t throw deep enough – apparently by design – and he passed up the chance to run for a few timely first downs when it looked like he had clear sailing – again probably by design to protect his knees.
These Bills don’t need a makeover. All they need is some fine-tuning and the emergence of Manuel as a confident leader capable of delivering in the clutch.
The Bills will finish 6-10 if they split their remaining four games. That’s a reasonable goal now. That should be good for a No. 10-to-No. 12 draft pick. A linebacker or a big receiver would fill the bill for the Bills.
I commend the eternal optimists for their loyalty to the Bills, but for now, winning consecutive games would be a nice change of pace. It hasn’t happened since Weeks 2-3 of the 2012 season. This won’t be a playoff team until they clear that modest hurdle.
WAS THIS THE GREATEST SPORTS ENDING EVER?
Auburn’s thrilling 34-28 upset victory over Alabama last Saturday made me feel sorry for folks who don’t love sports the way we do -- and couldn’t appreciate what the rest of us saw.
It might have been “the greatest ending in the history of sports.” That’s what New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro called it. The headline: PLAY OF THE CENTURY!
Exaggerations? Maybe. But if so, not by much.
Why this ending was so special:
It came in the Iron Bowl – one of college football’s greatest rivalries.
It came on the last play of the game. Time had apparently run out in regulation when Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon stepped out of bounds. But a replay showed one second remaining. Rather than take a knee to send the game into overtime, Alabama decided to try a 57-yard field goal for the victory. Predictably, it was short. Unpredictably, Auburn’s Chris Davis returned the kick 109 yards for the game-winning TD. How was that for an absolutely amazing turnaround?
It probably cost Alabama a shot at a third straight national championship.
It probably cost Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron the Heisman Trophy. He had a possible Heisman moment with a 99-yard TD pass play for a 28-21 lead in the fourth quarter. Auburn’s rally overshadowed that play.
It made Alabama “genius” coach Nick Saban look human. It was ridiculous strategy to try the long field goal. The Crimson Tide was 0x3 on shorter FG tries in the game (with regular kicker Cade Foster) and freshman Adam Griffith was asked to nail a 57-yarder under extreme pressure. Small wonder he missed. Most of Alabama’s most athletic players were on the sidelines watching slower, beefier teammates – who were on the field to block for the field-goal attempt – look like statues as Chris Davis sped by them.
It made Auburn’s Gus Malzahn a top candidate for college football’s Coach of the Year. Auburn was 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC) and lost to Alabama 49-0 in last year’s Iron Bowl.
Auburn now is 11-1, ranked No. 3 in the nation and will play Missouri Saturday at the Georgia Dome in the SEC championship0 game. If Auburn wins and No. 2 Ohio State loses to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, Auburn probably would play Florida State in the BCS national championship game.
MORE THOUGHTS ON NFL WEEK 13
Peyton Manning (Denver) took a big step toward his fifth NFL Most Valuable Player award with a 403-yard, 5-TD passing performance in a 35-28 come-from-behind victory in Kansas City...New York Jets coach Rex Ryan says he hasn’t decided who’ll start at quarterback Sunday against Oakland. If he starts Geno Smith instead of Matt Simms, I’ll believe Ryan is trying to get himself fired...New England trailed host Houston 17-7 at halftime, and didn’t you just know that Tom Brady had the Texans just where he wanted them. Final score: Patriots 34, Houston 31.
Nick Foles (Philadelphia), the NFL Offensive Player of the Month for November, is off to a strong start in December. He had 3 TD passes, 0 INTs and a 112.0 passer rating in Sunday’s 24-21 home win over Arizona. He set a team record for passes without an INT (233) and is within 1 TD pass of Peyton Manning’s record of 20 TD passes and 0 INTs to start a season... Thumbs up to Adam Vinatieri (Indianapolis), who is building a strong case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Always a clutch kicker, he booted field goals of 37, 45, 47, 48 and 49 yards in a 22-14 home win over Tennessee.
Adrian Peterson (Minnesota) is pretty good. He ran for 211 yards on 35 carries Sunday despite a lingering groin injury. He now leads the NFL in rushing (1,208 yards)...The only reason I don’t think Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin should be suspended by the NFL is that I don’t believe he stepped into the field of play on purpose last Thursday night. Of course, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. For a long time, I thought Saturdays of college football were a watered down brand that helped pass time until NFL Sundays. Now – for the first time – I enjoy Saturdays at least as much as Sundays... I assume Miami will select an explosive offensive player in the 2014 college draft. The Dolphins have managed a 6-6 record despite being the only team in the NFL yet to score 28 points in a game this season.
Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon became the first player in NFL history to post consecutive 200-yard receiving games (237 and 261). The Browns lost both games. He is No. 2 in the league in yards receiving (1,249) and has played in one less game than Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (1,299 yards in 11 games). Johnson missed the first two games of the season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and was available at the trade deadline. Can the rebuilding Browns risk keeping him and what could they get in trade for him?...Seattle playing at home (5-0 by a combined 162-77) looks like the NFC’s trip to the Super Bowl. New Orleans would need to be super sharp to beat the host Seahawks Monday night.
BOB’S NFL POWER RANKINGS (entering Monday Night Football)
1—Seattle...2—Denver...3—New Orleans...4—Carolina...5—New England...6—Sanh Francisco...7—Kansas City...8—Cincinnati...9—Indianapolis...10—Philadelphia.
11—Dallas...12—Detroit...13—Arizona...14—Baltimore...15---Miami...16--Green Bay...17—Chicago...18—Pittsburgh—19--San Diego...20—New York Giants...21...St. Louis...22—Tennessee.23—Buffalo...24—New York Jets...25—Minnesota...26—Cleveland...27—Oakland...28—Tampa Bay...29—Jacksonville...30—Atlanta...31—Washington...32—Houston.
NFL WEEK 13 TOP PERFORMERS
Peyton Manning (Denver) 403 yards (won)
Tom Brady (New England) 371 (won)
Brandon Weeden (Cleveland) 370 (lost)
Josh McCown (Chicago) 355 (lost)
Ryan Tannehill (Miami) 331 (won)
Matthew Stafford (Detroit) 330 (won)
Matt Ryan (Atlanta) 311 (won)
Carson Palmer (Arizona) 302 (lost)
Josh Gordon (Cleveland) 261 yards (lost)
Alshon Jeffery (Chicago) 249 (lost)
Eric Decker (Denver) 174 (won)
Roddy White (Atlanta) 143 (won)
Andre Holmes (Oakland) 136 (lost)
Rob Gronkowski (New England) 127 (won)
Brian Hartline (Miami) 127 (won)
Andre Johnson (Houston) 121 (lost)
Keenan Allen (San Diego) 106 (lost)
Demaryius Tho0mas (Denver) 106 (won)
Julian Edelman (New England) 101 (won)
Calvin Johnson (Detroit) 101 (won)
Adrian Peterson (Minnesota) 211 yards (won)
C.J. Spiller (Buffalo) 149 (loss)
Matt Forte (Chicago) 120 (loss)
Reggie Bush (Detroit) 117 (won)
Montee Ball (Denver) 117 (won)
Ben Tate (Houston) 102 (lost).
NFL WEEK 13 STAT PACK (entering Monday Night Football)
Home teams are 8-7 outright (113-77-1 this season) and 6-8-1 against the Las Vegas point spread (97-85-9 this season)
Las Vegas favorites are 11-4 outright (116-74-1 this season) and 7-7-1 against the spread (94-89-8 this season)
Teams winning the turnover battle are 7-2 (114-26-1 this season)
Teams leading in time of possession are 10-5 (123-67-1 this season)
Teams with the most yards rushing are 9-6 (118-71-1 this season)
Teams with the most passing yards are 8-7 (111-79-1 this season)
Teams with the fewest penalties are 10-4 (93-84-1 this season)
Teams with the fewest yards penalized are 9-6 (95-92-1 this season)
Teams scoring first are 7-8 (120-70-1 this season)
Teams leading after the first quarter are 5-5 (122-46-1 this season)
Teams leading at halftime are 9-3 (126-44-1 this season)
Teams leading after three quarters are 9-4 (144-32-1 this season)
Teams with the better record entering the game are 9-4 (79-58-1 this season)
Five of the 15 games have been decided by three points or less (51 of 191 games this season)
Ten of the 15 games were decided by 7 points or less (96 of 191 games this season)
The NFC was 2-0 head-to-head against the AFC this week and leads this season’s interconference series 30-24.
There have been 687 points in 15 games (45.8-point average).
TRIP TO HAWAII COULDN’T HAVE BEEN BETTER FOR SU HOOPS
Syracuse University’s basketball team departed for the EA Sports Maui Invitational as a dubious top-10 team despite their 4-0 record. They returned to the mainland with a championship trophy, a 7-0 record and the look of a legitimate big-time team.
The Orange host Indiana Tuesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Hoosiers are 6-1 (only loss was 69-68 to Connecticut). The Carrier Dome crowd figures to give their team a warm welcome home from its fruitful trip to Hawaii.
Here’s how SU measures up vs. opponents this season:
Scoring – SU 76.7 points per game...opponents 64.1...+12.6 average scoring margin
Field-goal percentage – SU .453 (187x413)... opponents .449 (155x345)
3-point FG percentage – SU .352 (37x105)...opponents ,377 (61x142)
Free-throw percentage – SU .712 (126x177)...opponents .690 (78x113)
Rebounds per game – SU 36.1...opponents 30.6
Assists per game – SU 13.0...opponents 14.4
Turnovers per game – SU 9.7...opponents 17.4
Steals per game – SU 10.6...opponents 4.7
Blocks per game – SU 4.4...opponents 3.6.
Coach Jim Boeheim is giving major minutes to C.J. Fair (36.4 minutes per game) and freshman point guard Tyler Ennis (31.7 per game). Fair leads the team in scoring (18.0-point average) and Ennis is averaging 11.7 points and has a terrific assists-to-turnovers ratio (33 assists and 8 turnovers).
SU has four solid starters – Fair, Ennis, Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant. Combine Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman equals 36.3 minutes per game, 10.1 points and 8.9 rebounds.
The most surprising stat is free-throw percentage. SU is doing better than its opponents at the foul line (.712 to .690).
NOLASCO, HUGHES BEEF UP PITCHING FOR TWINS AND THE RED WINGS
The signing of free-agent right-handers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes were positive moves for the Minnesota Twins and the Rochester Red Wings.
Nolaso and Hughes are durable pitchers and almost have to bolster Minnesota’s starting rotation. The Twins had a major-league worst 5.26 ERA last season.
Hughes’ main problem with the Yankees was giving up home runs. Minnesota’s spacious Target Field is one of the best pitchers’ parks in the majors.
Minnesota’s top five starting pitchers heading into the 2014 season figure to be Nolasco, Hughes, Kevin Correia, Samuel Deduno and Scott Diamond. That’s a respectable rotation.
Other starting pitchers on the depth chart include Liam Hendriks, Vance Worley, Kyle Gibson, Alex Meyer, Cole De Vries, Trevor May, Andrew Albers and Kris Johnson. Most of them will begin the season on a loaded staff in Rochester.
SABRES NUMBERS AREN’T PRETTY...BUT THEY ALMOST HAVE TO IMPROVE
NHL-worst .250 points percentage (14 of possible 56 points in the standings)
NHL-worst minus-37 goal differential (48 goals for, 85 goals against)
NHL-fewest 1.61 goals per game...3.04 goals-allowed per game ranks 24th.
25.1 shots per game ranks 29th...35.1 shots allowed per game ranks 28th... minus-10.0 average shot differential worst in NHL.
WILL TAKE CHARGE DID JUST THAT AFTER TRIPLE CROWN FLOPS
Long-striding Will Take Charge won last Friday’s Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs by a head over classy Game On Dude to all but clinch an Eclipse Award as the nation’s top three-year-old thoroughbred race horse for 2013. He likely will outpoll Orb, the Kentucky Derby that recently was retired.
Will Take Charge would become the first horse to win top 3-year-old honors after running in all three Triple Crown races and finishing out of the money in each: 8th in the Kentucky Derby, 7th in the Preakness Stakes and 10th in the Belmont Stakes.
Will Take Charge won the Smarty Jones Stakes in January, the Rebel Stakes at adds of 28x1 in March and later won the Travers Stakes, Pennsylvania Derby and Clark Handicap. He finished a hard-charging second by a nose to Mucho Macho Man in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Owner Willis Horton is undecided on whether to bring the colt back to the races in 2014 or retire him to stud.
TWO NBA TEAMS THAT COULDN’T BE MORE DIFFERENT
The overrated New York Knicks lost 103-99 Sunday night at home to the New Orleans Pelicans to drop to 3-13. The Knicks have lost nine games in a row and a team-record seven straight at Madison Square Garden.
The underrated Portland Trail Blazers beat the host Los Angeles Lakers 114-108 Sunday night to boost their record to 14-3. They’re 6-1 at home and 8-2 on the road.
The Knicks are a mess. No teamwork. Soft defense. A losing mix of talents. Carmelo Anthony (great but pretty selfish), Andrea Bargnani (a center in name only), Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith (completely lost), Raymond Felton, the over-the-hill trio of Amar’e Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin and Metta World Peace, Tim Hardaway Jr., Beno Udrih and Cole Aldrich are tough to watch. Injured hard-nosed, team-oriented defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler is sorely missed.
The Trail Blazers are a true team. They play together on both ends of the court. They are a winning blend of unselfish players. LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum, Wesl;ey Matthews, Mamian Lillard, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, Earl Watson and Thomas Robinson are a relatively anonymous bunch (compared to the Knicks).
Portland plays at home all this week: Indiana Monday, Oklahoma City Wednesday (those two powerhouses had better bring their A games), Utah Friday and Dallas Saturday.
The Knicks play at Brooklyn Thursday (the nation gets to see how lousy this team is), host Orlando Friday and host Boston Sunday (needless to say, that rivalry isn’t close to what it was for so long).
The Rochester Americans rank 15th in the 30-team AHL in average home attendance (4,613 in 11 dates)...The AHL average crowd is 4,783.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are early 2 ½-point favorites over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. That’s sort of embarrassing.