Happy Friday, everyone! The first week back after a holiday is always tough, so congratulations on making it through.
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We have an absolutely stacked sports lineup this weekend starting tonight, so let's get right to today's news.
Good morning to everyone, but especially to...
THE DALLAS COWBOYS
Playing in the Superdome without head coach Mike McCarthy and with Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper limited, Dallas got its best defensive performance of the season to win comfortably. The Cowboys picked off Taysom Hill four times, including a game-sealing pick six by 305-pound defensive lineman Carlos Watkins.
The offense -- out of sync for most of the night -- got 122 total yards from CeeDee Lamb and a 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter from Tony Pollard. Our NFL expert Patrik Walker explained how the Cowboys' defense pulled this all off.
- Walker: "It was an all-out onslaught by the Cowboys' defense that ruled the day -- landing four interceptions on the evening and, in doing so, tying a franchise mark set in December 2010 ... A two-game losing streak is now ended for Dallas, and it can thank Dan Quinn (who also had duties as interim head coach) and his defense for stealing the gumbo out of Sean Payton's kitchen."
- Welcome to the record books, Grizzlies! Memphis beat Oklahoma City 152-79 last night -- the largest margin of victory in NBA history. That's a 73-point difference. NBA expert Colin Ward-Henninger found the wildest numbers and notes from the blowout.
- After registering multiple negative rapid PCR tests more than 24 hours apart, LeBron James has cleared the NBA's Health & Safety Protocols, just two days after being put in the protocols following a positive COVID-19 test. He'll be available as the Lakers take on the Clippers tonight. The league -- and the Lakers -- are much better when James is playing.
- The Suns topped the Pistons 114-103. It was Phoenix's 18th straight win, a franchise record. Tonight they go for 19 in a row tonight against the Warriors.
- College football fans, one of the best weekends of the year is here. Check out our Tom Fornelli's best picks for all the big games this weekend.
And not such a good morning for...
The NFL announced on Thursday that is has suspended Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown, Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards and former Buccaneers wide receiver (and current free agent) John Franklin III three games for "misrepresenting their vaccination status."
If this rings a bell, it should: In mid-November, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Brown's former live-in chef alleged Brown had a fake card. Brown denied those claims through his attorney, Sean Burstyn, and the Buccaneers said they found "no irregularities."
On Thursday, Burstyn said Brown is fully vaccinated, but they will not challenge the suspension. Brown was already expected to miss at least the next two weeks with an ankle injury. Brown's absence has impacted the Buccaneers in a major way this season:
- Tampa Bay averages 7.1 yards per play with him on the field this season, compared to just 5.7 when he's not. Furthermore, the team is 5-0 when he plays -- and 3-3 when he doesn't.
That sort of impact may make it difficult for the Super Bowl-contending Buccaneers to part ways with him from an on-field perspective. But our NFL reporter Jonathan Jones opines that it would be the right move:
- Jones: "[Buccaneers head coach Bruce] Arians now looks foolish for taking Brown at his word. The team's medical staff looks equally foolish for being duped by a fake vaccination card when the league investigation found not just one but three cards all to have been forged. ... [A]t some point enough is enough. Several NFL teams had decided 'enough' on Brown last season. The Bucs figured he was worth it, and on the field, he was. Now his immaturity and selfishness have embarrassed another franchise, and there's only one way the Buccaneers should turn."
Pete Prisco's NFL Picks, including a surprise in a crucial AFC North battle 🔮
It's a big, big weekend in the NFL (when isn't it?) especially in the AFC. Pete Prisco's picks are in for several of the key matchups, including...
- Chargers at Bengals: "The Bengals are playing some of their best football. I think that carries over here as Joe Mixon runs wild against the Chargers defense to overshadow the Justin Herbert-Joe Burrow showdown. Pick: Bengals 29, Chargers 23"
- Ravens at Steelers: "This has become a great rivalry known for physical play, but the Steelers have hardly looked physical the past two weeks. ... Even so, the Ravens offense isn't good right now. The Steelers will find a way to win this late playing in a survival game. Pick: Steelers 23, Ravens 20"
- Broncos at Chiefs: "The defense is playing much better, and the Chiefs will limit the Broncos offense. Patrick Mahomes will get his shots down the field against an aggressive secondary and hit them for big plays. Pick: Chiefs 31, Broncos 17"
The numbers behind one of Sunday's biggest games 🏈
Now that you have some picks, let's take a look at some stats that could go prove those predictions right. I tracked these numbers down myself and I'm going to focus on...
Chargers at Bengals
When the Chargers have the ball
- The Bengals pressure opponents on 33 percent of dropbacks, good for eighth in the NFL, but their pressure doesn't arrive quickly. On average, it takes Cincinnati 2.6 seconds to register pressure on the passer, fifth-slowest in the NFL.
- Justin Herbert can combat the Bengals' pass rush by getting the ball out quickly. He has a 13-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio when getting the ball out in 2.6 seconds or fewer and an 11-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio when taking more than 2.6 seconds.
- That could mean a lot of quick passes to Austin Ekeler: The Bengals are allowing 55.8 receiving yards per game to running backs this season, fourth-most in the NFL.
When the Bengals have the ball
- Expect the Joe Mixon show. Over the past two weeks, Mixon has 58 carries for 288 yards, both his most in any two-game span in his career.
- The Chargers have allowed 5.5 yards per carry -- 2.2 of which come before any contact is made -- on rushes up the middle this season, both worst in the NFL.
- Interior rushes haven't necessarily been Mixon's strength -- he's averaging 4 yards per carry up this middle this season compared to 4.9 to the right and 4.4 to the left -- but there were some promising signs last week against the Steelers, when Mixon registered a career-high 63 yards on rushes up the middle.
What we're watching this weekend 📺
🏈 Big 12 Championship: No. 9 Baylor vs No. 5 Oklahoma State (-5.5), Noon on ABC
🏈 SEC Championship: No. 1 Georgia vs No. 3 Alabama (+6.5), 4 p.m. on CBS
🏈 AAC Championship: No. 21 Houston at No. 4 Cincinnati (-10.5), 4 p.m. on ABC
🏈 Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Michigan vs No. 13 Iowa (+11), 8 p.m. on FOX
🏀 No. 16 Alabama at No. 3 Gonzaga, 8 p.m. on ESPN2