Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! Wow, the last day of 2021. Lucky for me, I get an early start on my 2022 resolution: Watch more football. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think I’ll be up to the task. And hopefully you’ll be up to the task of subscribing to this newsletter and getting it every day in your inbox.
Let’s get right to it.
Good morning to everyone, but especially to …
COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS EVERYWHERE!!!
It’s College Football Playoff semifinal day, everyone!
- No. 4 Cincinnati vs No. 1 Alabama in the Cotton Bowl Classic at 3:30 p.m.
- No. 3 Georgia vs No. 2 Michigan in the Orange Bowl at 7:30 p.m.
In yesterday’s newsletter, we explored how each of the four teams could win it all. Today, we’ve got even more good stuff, including expert picks for both of the matchups and wagering advice from betting expert Tom Fornelli:
- Fornelli: “Both offenses are built on running the ball behind an excellent offensive line that can wear down an opposing defense and break them in the second half. Both have passing attacks that are overlooked due to a pair of quarterbacks who aren’t elite but are the more traditional “game-manager” types. Then there are the defenses. Georgia has an elite front seven that’s proven impenetrable to nearly everybody it has faced this year. Michigan has an elite pass-rush led by Heisman finalist Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Pick: Michigan +7.5“
Fornelli’s picks also were available in yesterday’s afternoon newsletter, in case you missed it.
- Sallee: “Historically, Alabama’s defense has had issues slowing down mobile quarterbacks, which exactly describes Cincinnati signal caller Desmond Ridder. … His style and ability to come up big in the clutch on the ground makes him one of the biggest threats under center that this Alabama defense has faced.”
Today’s games check many boxes. Star power. Strength vs. strength. Blue blood vs. new blood. Underdogs. Dynasties. Mystery. Suspense. I can’t wait.
- Shout out to South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer for living up to his promise after the Gamecocks beat North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. A video of a man getting bathed in mayonnaise is gross. Or beautiful. Regardless, you can’t look away.
- Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey took over down the stretch as the 76ers beat the Nets in Brooklyn, 110-102, one of their best wins this season.
- The NFL announced 15 modern-era finalists for the 2022 Hall of Fame class. The group includes Reggie Wayne, Devin Hester and DeMarcus Ware.
And not such a good morning for…
THE BALTIMORE RAVENS
From Marcus Peters and J.K. Dobbins having their season end before they even began to the recent absences of Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley — and so many other injuries in between — the fact that the Ravens are still in the playoff hunt is impressive.
Yesterday brought another blow: After limping through Wednesday’s practice, Jackson did not practice Thursday, leaving his status for Sunday’s showdown with the Rams in doubt. It couldn’t come at a worse time, writes Tyler Sullivan:
- Sullivan: “This lingering injury for Jackson is ill-timed for Baltimore’s playoff hopes. Thanks to a four-game losing streak the team is currently on, the Ravens are now 8-7 on the year and are slotted in as the No. 8 seed, just looking outside of the playoff picture in the AFC. They’d need to win out to give themselves the best chance of making the playoffs and having Jackson in the fold during this critical time would certainly be key in saving their season.”
While Jackson has had his ups and downs, there’s no doubt he’s the team’s best option to pull off an upset. This season, Baltimore has averaged nearly a yard per play more when Jackson is on the field than when Huntley is on the field. They’re better in almost every aspect when the 2019 MVP plays.
Las Vegas agrees: Baltimore was a 3.5-point underdog at Caesars Sportsbook when betting opened Monday, and the line has slid to 4.5 points as of this morning.
As NFL scribe Cody Benjamin writes in his “One thing we learned about each NFL team in Week 16” column, “(The Ravens are) in real trouble.” At their best (and healthiest, by this year’s standards), the Ravens were a Super Bowl contender with wins over the Chiefs, Colts and Chargers. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen that version in a while, and may not see it until next season.
- COVID-19 is running rampant through the NBA to the point where over one-third of the league’s referees are in the health and safety protocols.
Prisco’s picks: Chiefs or Bengals? 🏈
Pete Prisco made his picks, and he thinks this game won’t disappoint, with the Bengals covering the 5-point spread.
- Prisco: “This is the game of the week. The Bengals are riding high after blowing out the Ravens last week, while the Chiefs are the top seed in the AFC. This has all the makings of an offensive shootout, with Joe Burrow trying to match Patrick Mahomes. It will be a treat to watch. It will be close, too. Pick: Chiefs 33, Bengals 31“
- Prisco: “The Cardinals have lost three straight, yet they are still in the playoffs. They need to play better. Dallas seemed to right things last week against Washington, especially on offense. The Cowboys will use their running game to push around the Cardinals in this one. Pick: Cowboys 27, Cardinals 20“
If you want more on this matchup, here’s a statistical preview from yours truly.
Will Monday be Ben’s Heinz finale? 😲
“I don’t ever speak in definites or guarantees. That’s just not what I’ve ever done or who I am. But looking at the bigger picture, I would say that all signs are pointing that this could be it.“
That was Ben Roethlisberger yesterday when asked about whether Monday night’s contest against the Browns could be his last home game as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While it may be surprising for Roethlisberger to acknowledge it, the impending retirement is not a surprise, writes Tyler Sullivan:
- Sullivan: “Rumors that this could be Roethlisberger’s final season have been around for quite some time. Last offseason, he restructured his contract to remain with the Steelers for one more season, but is not contractually linked to the organization beyond 2021.”
The Steelers only have a 17.1% chance to make the playoffs according to the latest projections, so the end of an era may be very near. Drafted back in 2004, Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls and climbed all the way to fifth on the NFL’s all-time passing yards list. The Steelers are the only team he has played for.
- In possibly related news, Aaron Rodgers has promised not to drag out his own future decision about returning to the Packers or going elsewhere, and Cody Benjamin ranked his most likely destinations with that hint in mind. Russell Wilson, meanwhile, seems to want to stay in Seattle.
What we’re watching this weekend 📺
(Alternate title: Will I turn my TV off at all this weekend?) All times Eastern, odds via Caesars Sportsbook
🏈 Cotton Bowl Classic: No. 4 Cincinnati vs No. 1 Alabama (-13.5), 3:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏈 Orange Bowl: No. 3 Georgia (-7.5) vs No. 2 Michigan, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Trail Blazers at Lakers (-5.5), 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV
🏈 Fiesta Bowl: No. 9 Oklahoma State vs No. 5 Notre Dame (-2), 1 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 No. 22 Villanova at No. 15 Seton Hall, 2 p.m. on CBS
🏀 No. 1 Baylor at No. 8 Iowa State, 2 p.m. on ESPNU
🏈 Rose Bowl: No. 11 Utah vs No. 6 Ohio State (-4), 5 p.m. on ESPN
🏈 Sugar Bowl: No. 7 Baylor vs No. 8 Ole Miss (-1.5), 8:45 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Warriors at Jazz, 9 p.m. on NBA TV