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USATSI

Happy Tuesday, folks! I hope this newsletter finds you in good position to make your fantasy football playoffs after picking up a crucial win this week.

And if it doesn't, well, there's always next year.

Let's get right to it.

Good morning to everyone but especially to...

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THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Forty-six carries, three pass attempts, two completions... and one massive win for the New England Patriots. How massive, you ask? Bill Belichick actually cracked a smile!

On a cold, windy night in Buffalo, the Patriots gashed the Bills for 222 rushing yards and made two crucial fourth-quarter redzone stands in a hard-fought 14-10 victory. It was their seventh straight victory, and one that gives them full control of the AFC.

Wind gusts made passing extremely difficult, and Belichick was more than happy to rely on the ground game and the defense, as he has done all year. The Patriots' three pass attempts in the entire game were the fewest by any team since 1974.

  • Damien Harris had 111 rushing yards, including a 64-yard dash to open the scoring.
  • Rhamondre Stevenson added 78 rushing yards.
  • Mac Jones must feel like the guy who contributed nothing to the group project but still got an "A."
  • Buffalo scored just once on four redzone trips. The Bills' second-to-last drive ended on Tyler Bass missing a 33-yard field goal, and their last drive ended on Josh Allen misfiring on three consecutive passes from inside the New England 20-yard line.

It may not have been pretty, but New England's gameplan sure was effective, writes our NFL expert Tyler Sullivan:

  • Sullivan: "Bill Belichick simply elected to not test Mother Nature and deployed his running game heavily throughout Monday's contest. Of the Patriots' 49 total plays on the night, 46 were running plays that were spearheaded by Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson... The Patriots' altered play-calling due to the weather was evident... as they opted to go for the two-point conversion rather than kicking the extra-point attempt into the wind (in the first quarter)."

Whatever works, right?

Honorable mentions:

  • We have Heisman Trophy finalists! Alabama QB Bryce Young, Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud, Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson and Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett will head to New York for Saturday night's announcement. Young is the massive, massive favorite; his odds to win sit at -4000 at Caesars Sportsbook.

And not such a good morning for...

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Oregon
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THE OREGON DUCKS

Just hours after firing Manny Diaz as its head football coach, Miami announced it is hiring Mario Cristobal away from Oregon.

Cristobal was 35-13 in his time in Eugene and won the Rose Bowl to cap the 2019 season.

  • It looked as if the Ducks might climb to even greater heights in 2021 after they won at Ohio State in September and had a path to the College Football Playoff just a month ago...
  • Instead, they got blown out at Utah in mid-November, squeaked by in-state rival Oregon State and then, with a Rose Bowl bid on the line, got shellacked again by Utah in the Pac-12 Championship.

And now Cristobal, who not only was a solid coach but an outstanding recruiter, has left -- as has Oregon's top 2022 commit. Oh, did I mention Pac-12 rival USC now has Lincoln Riley in charge, too?

As for a list of candidates to be the Ducks' next head coach, our college football scribe Shehan Jeyarajah isn't ruling out a potential reunion with a big name:

  • Jeyarajah: "Chip Kelly, UCLA coach: Sequels are rarely as good as the originals, but Kelly's first act at Oregon was a legendary era. Three top-five finishes and a national title game berth helped set the table for the Ducks to become one of the hottest brands in college football. However, he is just 18-25 in four seasons at UCLA, though the Bruins jumped to 8-4 in 2021. Nostalgia mixed with a rare second chance could be enough."

Not so honorable mentions:

The best bowl game? The worst? We ranked all 42 (and made early playoff picks) 🏈

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Graphic by Michael Meredith

Before I go any further, let me reiterate what my colleague Tom Fornelli has to say, loud and clear:

  • Fornelli: "There are no bad bowl games. Any bowl game is better than the infomercial or useless debate show that would've been on if it didn't exist, so we cherish all bowl games."

Now that that's out of the way, there has to be some way to rank all 42, just so you can know which games belong on the big TV, which ones belong on the small TV/computer and which ones belong on the phone. Just me? Ok, anyway, here are the rankings. We'll focus on the top three:

  • 3. Rose Bowl: (6) Ohio State vs. (11) Utah -- "It's one of the most beautiful settings in college football, and there's nothing quite like watching the sunset over the horizon from inside the Rose Bowl. Luckily, if you aren't into all the beauty and pageantry of the game, we've got a fantastic matchup to watch."
  • 2. Cotton Bowl semifinal: (1) Alabama vs. (4) Cincinnati -- "Nick Saban looks to win his seventh national title at Alabama and the eighth of his coaching career. To do it, he'll first have to get past a Cincinnati team that broke the glass ceiling of the CFP, becoming the first program from outside the Power Five conferences to be chosen."
  • 1. Orange Bowl semifinal: (2) Michigan vs. (3) Georgia -- "These are two similar football teams, even if one garnered a hell of a lot more attention than the other during the regular season. ... This game has all the potential in the world to be a classic."

Now, who's going to win it all? Well, I don't have a crystal ball, but I can provide our experts' picks, which is the next-best thing. 

We're still three-and-a-half weeks away, but our college football scribe Dennis Dodd is pumped:

  • Dodd: "Be satisfied there is some new blood in the system. Well, new blueblood. It's been 142 years since Michigan's first football team. Meanwhile, be concerned that the dominant color of this CFP is red. The two favorites boast it. If one or both don't win their semifinal, we might be looking at the best playoff ever."

Is Damian Lillard at the center of the Blazers' problems? 🏀

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USATSI

If the only news you've heard about Portland this season is the firing of Blazers president of basketball operations/GM Neil Olshey, well, you haven't missed much. Portland is the definition of mediocre, with a record floating around .500 and the worst defensive rating in the NBA.

The roster and coaching are deeply flawed, writes our NBA expert Brad Botkin, but the problems go beyond that. They start and end with... Damian Lillard:

  • Botkin: "This is Dame's franchise. We can't continue to laud Lillard's leadership when night after night, year after year, he's setting a half-hearted example. Even if he is limited as a defender personally, his effort would trickle down. When role players see their superstar giving maximum effort, paying attention to the details, when they see him competing for stops the same way he competes for buckets, they tend to follow suit. And vice versa."

What we're watching Tuesday 📺

🏀 Nets at Mavericks (+3.5), 7:30 p.m. on TNT
🏀 No. 6 Villanova at Syracuse (+9.5), 8 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Celtics at Lakers (-2.5), 10 p.m. on TNT