If you had to pick the Super Bowl winner now, before the week 16 games, who would you pick? I go with the New Orleans Saints. While it is true that quarterback Drew Brees is not playing as well as he did earlier this season, he’ll get back there. A bonus: The 11-2 Saints play good defense, and will be be a tough out for anybody.
The Kansas City Chiefs lead the league in points and no-look passes. But they don’t play defense as well as New Orleans does. So, I stick with the Saints, whom I picked to win the Super Bowl before the season began, not that I want to make a big deal out of it.
The New England Patriots’ defense is shaky, and not just on the final play of the game. But still. It’s Brady and Belichick, and they can outscore you.
The AFC offers interesting candidates, among them the Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Chargers and perhaps the Houston Texans and Baltimore Colts.
In the NFC, we’d be fools to ignore the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears. The Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys lurk, and I still believe in the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles are almost good.
There are lots of candidates, but you get only one of them. I have the Saints. How about you?
Last Week: 9-7
Lock of the Week: Picked Arizona (+2) over Detroit. This was not a good pick. The Lions won by 14.
Season Lock: 9-5
This week’s picks, with the home team in CAPS:
KANSAS CITY 2 over Los Angeles Chargers
Houston 3 over NEW YORK JETS
DENVER 5 over Cleveland
CHICAGO 4 over Green Bay
BUFFALO 3 over Detroit
BALTIMORE 8 over Tampa Bay
ATLANTA 6 over Arizona
CINCINNATI 1 over Oakland
NEW YORK GIANTS 2 over Tennessee
MINNESOTA 7 over Miami
JACKSONSVILLE 9 over Washington
INDIANAPOLIS 1 over Dallas
Seattle 8 over SAN FRANCISCO
PITTSBURGH 4 over New England
LOS ANGELES RAMS 2 over Philadelphia
Lock of the week: New Orleans (-6½) 11 over CAROLINA
CFNS symptoms lingering
I suffer from CNFS – Cam Newton Fatigue Syndrome. It’s draining. And I sense it is going around.
Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton is the most divisive athlete in the history of Charlotte. He doesn’t have to do anything. Hit a receiver, miss a receiver, run, don’t run, throw short, throw short again, answer a question, don’t answer a question, wear a post-game hat – wham, it’s on.
Newton was divisive even before the Panthers took him with the first pick in the 2011 draft. Revisionist history suggests that Newton was the obvious No. 1 pick. He wasn’t. In a poll of general managers, some wouldn’t even take him in the first round.
Newton wasn’t always Carolina’s top pick. A.J. Green, the fine receiver out of Summerville, S.C., and Georgia, once sat atop the board. But a scout pushed relentlessly for Newton, and the Panthers did more research on him, more interviews, than they had on any player in team history.
I learned early that the Panthers would take Newton, and the first person I asked about Newton asked: “Why would the Panthers do that?” The second or third said: “That would be great. I hope they have the guts to do it.”
That was 2011, Here we are, seven years later, and little has changed. I wrote after the 2014 season that Newton was a franchise quarterback, and the Panthers needed to pay him like one.
The response was nasty and, in some cases, overtly racist. If I had written Newton was not a franchise quarterback and the Panthers should not pay him, I would have been slammed, too.
A Super Bowl victory would eliminate some of the doubters. A failure to get there again would eliminate some of the supporters.
But your opinion has nothing to do with my CNFS.
I have CNFS because almost every week is the same. The losing streak began Nov. 8 at Pittsburgh. The game was an exception because the Steelers are good and because the Steelers blew the Panthers out.
The losing streak’s other four games have been almost identical. Each outcome was determined by seven or fewer points. And with the exception of the Seattle Seahawks, each loss was to a mediocre team.
Here’s the script, take five.
The Panthers’ defense allows the opponent to make so many big plays it is as if the other team collects them. The Panthers fail to pressure the quarterback. Yet, as the clock ticks down, they have a chance to tie or even win. But they have to be good at the end.
They aren’t. Newton isn’t. Sunday was a microcosm. The Panthers had the ball on the Cleveland 3, Newton had Jarius Wright open in the back of the end zone and -- threw high. Wright is 5-10. But 6-5 Kelvin Benjamin wouldn’t have caught it. A good 6-5 receiver wouldn’t have, either.
Newton’s right shoulder is sore. We know that.
But he has devolved into a pocket passer. Perhaps he wants to protect the shoulder by staying in the pocket and playing the way that old-school fans have always insisted he should, the way Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas did.
Yet, Newton has never been a terribly accurate passer. His strength is that he is as big as a tight end, runs like a tailback and has a heck of an arm.
Running is what distinguished him. Defenses had to prepare for the run, and often had to commit a defender to ensure that Newton would not take off. Newton exploited that. I’m not saying he can’t pass. I’m saying, simply, that he has never passed the way the elite quarterbacks do.
We’re not seeing him run. And while he throws with more accuracy than he ever has, he throws more short passes than he ever has. The Panthers have players who can turn a 5-yard catch into a 25-yard gain. So, Carolina marches in small steps down the field.
The deep passes with which you saw Cleveland rookie Baker Mayfield burn Carolina Sunday no longer are part of Newton’s repertoire. The sore right shoulder restricts what Newton can do, although the shoulder shouldn’t have impeded the overthrow of Wright from the Cleveland 3.
And if it did, if Newton is hurt worse than we know, the Panthers should replace him with Taylor Heinicke. Most of us have no idea what Heinicke can do. But the Panthers must, or they wouldn’t have gone into the season with Heinicke as Newton’s lone backup.
CNFS has one more facet and, man, is it tiring. Every week, people comment on Newton’s postgame attire. The lesser of them contend that Newton devotes more time to what he wears after the game than to how he plays during it.
I don’t understand. I don’t care how other adult males dress -- not my kids, not my friends, not my quarterback. I didn’t care when Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas wore expensive tailored suits to home games, and I didn’t care when running back DeAngelo Williams wore T-shirts.
About half the men in Charlotte males dress as if they’re on the way to the first tee. That’s fine. Newton, 29, dresses as if he’s at the age where he can pick out his own clothes all by himself. That’s fine, too.
How do we stop CNFS?
Here’s the simplest solution. Newton hits the key pass. Carolina wins.
Those crazy Wild Card odds
Playoff possibilities were more entertaining before the odds of getting in or failing to were instantly established. Oh, no, the Carolina Panthers just punted. Odds that they’ll grab the final NFC Wild Card spot have dropped to 7.13 percent.
After Seattle, the NFC Wild Card competition is a jumble. Minnesota is 6-6-1, Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington 6-7, Green Bay 5-7-1, Detroit, the New York Giants and Tampa Bay 5-8, and Atlanta 4-9. A record of .500 might be enough.
Most NFC seasons are not like this one. In the last 10 seasons, only two NFC teams qualified for a Wild Card position with fewer than 10 victories. In 2008, Philadelphia made it at 9-6-1. In 2016, Detroit did at 9-7.
Carolina did make the playoffs in 2014 with a sub-.500 record. The Panthers were 7-8-1. To make the playoffs, they had to win their final four games, and those games included trips to New Orleans and Atlanta. They then won a playoff game, beating an Arizona team that was down to a practice-squad quarterback. It still counted.
The schedule makers like drama. When they got to the Panthers, Schedule Maker 1 said, “Hey, let’s have some fun, and make them finish the season against three straight NFC South opponents.”
Schedule Maker 2 asked: “Is that fair?”
Schedule Maker 1 said: “Of course it’s fair. Before they go against New Orleans, Atlanta and New Orleans, we’ll give them a stretch in which they play three out of four against Detroit, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.”
I don’t think the Panthers, underdogs in two of their final three games – both against New Orleans – make the playoffs. But they do historically finish strong under Rivera.
Even if the Panthers don’t win, the NFL does. With the NFC division races nondescript, the Wild Card race ought to be a thrill.
If Carolina’s losing streak reaches six, odds that they advance to the playoffs fall to, oh, to 3.1 percent. But the Panthers still have a chance. After a season such as this one, you’d be greedy to ask for anything more.
Buster Douglas’ upset for the ages
If you’re a boxing fan, you remember where you were the evening of Feb. 11, 1990. You might remember where you were even if you didn’t follow the sport.
I had done a TV show with Charlotte 49ers basketball coach Jeff Mullins. On the other side of the world, meanwhile, Mike Tyson was defending his heavyweight title against big Buster Douglas. Douglas was taller and heavier and had a tremendous reach advantage. But almost everybody had a reach advantage against Tyson. Tyson was never going to trade jabs with you. He was going to move underneath, or past jab, and he was going to hurt you. He was coming.
I would like to have watched the fight, which was held in Tokyo. Could Douglas do what others hadn’t and find a way to keep Tyson away?
Douglas came in 29-4-1, Tyson 37-0 with 33 knockouts.
One sportsbook couldn’t entice anybody to bet on Douglas. So, it incrementally raised the odds until they reached 42 to 1.
The name of the latest installment of ESPN’s superb 30 for 30 series is is “42-1.” It made its debut Tuesday.
The story is a toast to underdogs. Unless the favorite is our favorite, don’t we love to see the unexpected win?
Virginia’s Tony Bennett is my favorite ACC men’s basketball coach. He called me from the Cavaliers’ team bus en route to Charlotte for the NCAA tournament. You think Mike or Roy are going to do that?
In the NCAA regional in Charlotte last March, 16th-seeded Maryland-Baltimore County upset top-seeded Virginia 74-64. Until Charlotte, no 16 seed had ever beaten a 1 seed. Unless you were a Virginia fan, you celebrated.
Unless you were an Iron Mike Tyson fan, you cheered Douglas. He came in fighting. I know a guy who fought Tyson. The guy was brave. And then the fight began. You can’t prepare for the power with which Tyson punches, and the guy I know immediately stopped being brave.
Douglas, however, did what the others could not. He was aggressive, utilizing his reach, using his jab and, when Tyson stepped beneath it to get inside, tying up the champion. As the fight wore on, fans of Tyson became excited when Tyson threw a good shot at Douglas’ gloves. At least he threw a big shot.
In round eight, Tyson landed one of those Tyson quality uppercuts, and Douglas went down. Tyson’s corner later claimed that Douglas was knocked out, that he was down for than 10 seconds. But at the count of nine, Douglas rose, and then the bell rang.
In round nine, Tyson pursued Douglas, but Douglas landed the bigger shots. Douglas took over, and in round 10, he knocked Tyson out.
There are popular boxers now. But in this, a time before mixed martial arts captivated the young, Tyson was bigger than his sport. Even if you didn’t watch him, you knew about his menace and disdain for frills, walking to the ring without music in a Kmart like coverup that wasn’t even a robe.
We know Tyson’s story. We didn’t know Douglas’. ESPN tells it well.
My favorite of the 30 for 30s is Ric Flair, because of the willingness to show the real Flair. True, the man in the sequined robe was (is) real. But there was a dark side, and it’s on the screen for all to see, storytelling at its finest.
I tire of hot takes. Wait, how do you know it’s a hot take? Well, a producer or broadcaster says so. Buster Douglas is not a hot take. But he is a compelling one.
Short takes: Rick Barnes’ Vols, Atlanta’s soccer treasure
▪ Tennessee made such a good move when in 2015 it hired basketball coach Rick Barnes. On Sunday, on a neutral court, the Volunteers beat Gonzaga, the lone team to beat Duke.
Barnes is only 64, three years younger than new North Carolina football coach Mack Brown. He is from Hickory and played basketball for Lenoir-Rhyne.
Two quick Barnes stories. I was writing a piece about Davidson coach Bob McKillop, and watched a practice. Barnes, then the head coach at Texas, was sitting at courtside taking notes on a legal-sized yellow pad.
I asked why, and the Texas coach told me that he could learn from the coach at Davidson. They coached together as Davidson assistants in the late 1970s.
When Barnes coached Clemson, he told then North Carolina coach Dean Smith to stop talking to his players. I wrote that Barnes had every right to say this. The column was not well received.
At the Final Four in Seattle, I was with a woman who grew up and remains a fan of the Tar Heels. I saw Barnes in a coffee shop – hey, a coffee shop in Seattle, who knew? – and told the woman I wanted to grab coffee. She didn’t see Barnes until it was too late.
I shook Barnes’ hand and introduced my friend to him. My friend’s hand froze. She had stopped time, and everybody began to look. Reluctantly, she extended her hand and shook with Barnes. She washed it with industrial strength soap when we returned to the hotel. She washed it twice.
Sometimes life is nothing more than a series of very good moments. I owe you a cup of coffee, Rick….
▪ Atlanta United, I salute you. You didn’t just win the Major League Soccer championship. You won a city. The team is beautifully put together, and fans have responded beautifully. The connection is between town and team is striking.
What would it take for Charlotte to pursue a team? An owner with interest and money, and a place to play…
▪ I drove one day this month with the top down on my car. You know how you can tell if a climate is civil. You can drive in December with the top down...
▪ If we held ourselves to the same standards we hold coaches, the unemployment rate would hover at about 92%