Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

College Football: Week Nine Power Rankings and Week 10 Twitter Picks

Power Rankings for Week Nine

1. Alabama (8-0, Last Week: 1st, College Football Playoff Rankings: 1st)
2. Clemson (8-0, 2nd, 2nd)
3. Michigan (8-0, 3rd, 3rd)
4. Washington (8-0, 4th, 5th)
5. Louisville (7-1, 5th, 7th)

6. Ohio State (7-1, 6th, 6th)
7. Wisconsin (6-2, 9th, 8th)
8. Texas A&M (7-1, 10th, 4th)
9. Oklahoma (6-2*, 12th, 14th)
10. Nebraska (7-1, 8th, 10th)

11. Florida (6-1, 14th, 11th)
12. Auburn (6-2, 15th, 9th)
13. Florida State (5-3, 11th, 22nd)
14. Baylor (6-1, 7th, 17th)
15. North Carolina (6-2, 16th, 21st)

16. LSU (5-2, 20th, 13th)
17. Utah (6-2, 19th, 16th)
18. Oklahoma State (6-2, unranked, 18th)
19. Western Michigan (9-0, 21st, 23rd)
20. West Virginia (6-1, 17th, 20th)

21. Virginia Tech (6-2, 24th, 19th)
22. Penn State (6-2, 23rd, 12th)
23. Boise State (7-1, 13th, 24th)
24. Colorado (6-2, 25th, 15th)
25. Tennessee (5-3, 18th, unranked)

Also Ranked in CFP Rankings:  Washington State (5-2, 25th)

Fell from Rankings:  Navy (5-2, Last Week: 22nd)

*Oklahoma improved to 7-2 in their Week 10 game on Thursday night, beating Iowa State 34-24.

 

Twitter Picks for Week 10

Game of the Week

#1 Alabama (8-0) at #13 LSU (5-2)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Alabama by 8
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Alabama- 1st, LSU- 16th

 

Big Game Guarantee

TCU (4-4) at #17 Baylor (6-1)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  Baylor by 8
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  TCU- unranked, Baylor- 14th

 

Upset of the Week

Pittsburgh (5-3) at Miami (4-4)
Saturday, 12:30 pm ET, ACCN
Favorite:  Miami by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

#10 Nebraska (7-1) at #6 Ohio State (7-1)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite:  Ohio State by 17
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Nebraska- 10th, Ohio State- 6th

 

Not Closer Than the Experts Think

#11 Florida (6-1) at Arkansas (5-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Florida by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Florida- 11th, Arkansas- unranked

 

Bad Spread Game

#18 Oklahoma State (6-2) at Kansas State (5-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2
Favorite:  Kansas State by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Oklahoma State- 18th, Kansas State- unranked

 

Group of Five Game of the Week

Notre Dame (3-5) vs. Navy (5-2)
at Jacksonville, Fla. (EverBank Field)
Saturday, 11:30 am ET, CBS
Favorite:  Notre Dame by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Is This Futbol?

Missouri (2-6) at South Carolina (4-4)
Saturday, 4:00 pm ET, SECN
Favorite:  South Carolina by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Is This Basketball?

Texas (4-4) at Texas Tech (4-4)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, FS1
Favorite:  Texas by 3.5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Toilet Bowl

Indiana (4-4) at Rutgers (2-6)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, BTN
Favorite:  Indiana by 14
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Miscellaneous:  Commander in Chief’s Trophy, Game #2

Air Force (5-3, 1-0 in Comm. in Chief Trophy) at Air Force (5-3, 0-0)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, CBSSN
Favorite:  Army by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

NFL Game of the Week

Denver Broncos (6-2) at Oakland Raiders (6-2)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite:  Raiders by 1

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 59-47-1
Last Week: 7-5
College Overall Record: 56-43
NFL Game of the Week: 3-4-1

Game of the Week: 5-4
Big Game Guarantee: 3-6
Upset of the Week: 4-5
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-5
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-2
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 4-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 6-3
Is This Futbol?: 7-2
Is This Basketball?: 7-2
Toilet Bowl: 5-4
Miscellaneous: 4-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

College Football: Week Five Power Rankings and Week Six Twitter Picks

Power Rankings for Week Five

1. Alabama (5-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
Alabama cruised 34-6 over Kentucky, but now they enter the gauntlet of the next four games (at Arkansas, at Tennessee, Texas A&M, at LSU).

2. Clemson (5-0, 3rd, 3rd)
The Tigers beat Louisville 42-36, and will now be favored in every game through a potential ACC title game as they try to reach the College Football Playoff again.

3. Michigan (5-0, 4th, 4th)
In a defensive slugfest, the Wolverines beat Wisconsin, 14-7.  They do not faced another currently ranked team until a showdown with Ohio State on Nov. 26.

4. Ohio State (4-0, 5th, 2nd)
The Buckeyes destroyed Rutgers, 58-0, and are heavy favorites again against Indiana this week, before traveling to Wisconsin next week.

5. Washington (5-0, 12th, 5th)
Chris Petersen’s team got a program-defining win last Friday, beating Stanford, 44-6, to take control of the Pac-12 North.  Oregon, whose coach may be on the hot seat, comes to Seattle this week in a border war game.

6. Louisville (4-1, 2nd, 7th)
The Cardinals played well enough to win at Clemson, coming just a few yards short on their final drive.  With such a close loss on the road against a top five team, if the Cardinals win out they should still contend for the Playoff.  Louisville is idle this week, before hosting Duke next Friday.

7. Houston (5-0, 7th, 6th)
Houston beat UConn, 42-14, to continue their hot start.  The Cougars have no margin for error if they want to make a case for the Playoff, and travel to Navy this week.

8. Tennessee (5-0, 9th, 9th)
Tennessee, after falling behind on a Hail Mary with 0:10 remaining, pulled off a successful Hail Mary of their own as time expired to beat Georgia, 34-31, and remain undefeated.  It won’t be easy to stay that way this week, as they travel to Texas A&M, ahead of next week’s home showdown with Alabama.

9. Wisconsin (4-1, 6th, 11th)
The Badgers played well enough defensively to win at Michigan, but could only muster seven points against the Wolverines defense in a 14-7 loss at the Big House.  This week the Badgers are idle, before facing their third straight top 10 opponent next week against Ohio State.

10. Nebraska (5-0, 13th, 12th)
Nebraska survived a tight game entering the fourth, pulling away from Illinois to win 31-16, and gets this weekend off.  The Cornhuskers travel to Indiana, who just upset Michigan State, next week.

11. Baylor (5-0, 11th, 13th)
12. North Carolina (4-1, 18th, 17th)
13. Miami (4-0, 14th, 10th)
14. Texas A&M (5-0, 16th, 8th)
15. Ole Miss (3-2, 15th, 14th)

16. Stanford (3-1, 8th, 15th)
17. Florida State (3-2, 10th, 23rd)
18. Oklahoma (2-2, 19th, 20th)
19. Boise State (4-0, 20th, 19th)
20. Virginia Tech (3-1, 25th, 25th)

21. Arkansas (4-1, unranked, 16th)
22. Florida (4-1, unranked, 18th)
23. Colorado (4-1, unranked, 21st)
24. West Virginia (4-0, unranked, 22nd)
25. Western Michigan (5-0, unranked, unranked)

Fell from Rankings:  Michigan State (2-2. Last Week: 17th), Iowa (3-2, 21st), Utah (4-1, 22nd) San Diego State (3-1, 23rd), TCU (3-2, 24th)

Also ranked in AP Poll:  Utah (4-1, 24th)

 

Twitter Picks for Week Six

Game of the Week

#9 Tennessee (5-0) at #8 Texas A&M (5-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Texas A&M by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Tennessee- 8th, Texas A&M- 14th

 

Big Game Guarantee

#25 Virginia Tech (3-1) at #17 North Carolina (4-1)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2
Favorite:  North Carolina by 2
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Virginia Tech- 20th, North Carolina- 12th

 

Upset of the Week

#23 Florida State (3-2) at #10 Miami (4-0)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite:  Miami by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Florida State- 17th, Miami- 13th

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

Indiana (3-1) at #2 Ohio State (4-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Ohio State by 28
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Indiana- unranked, Ohio State- 4th

 

Not Closer Than the Experts Think

#1 Alabama (5-0) at #16 Arkansas (4-1)
Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Alabama by 14
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Alabama- 1st, Arkansas- 21st

 

Overhyped Game

Texas (2-2) at #21 Oklahoma (2-2)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, FS1
at Dallas, Tex. (Cotton Bowl)
Favorite:  Oklahoma by 13
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Texas- unranked, Oklahoma- 18th

 

Group of Five Game of the Week

#6 Houston (5-0) at Navy (3-1)
Saturday, 3:00 pm ET, CBSSN
Favorite:  Houston by 17
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Houston- 7th, Navy- unranked

 

Is This Futbol?

Army (3-1) at Duke (2-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, RSN
Favorite:  Duke by 6
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Is This Basketball?

Texas Tech (3-1) at Kansas State (2-2)
Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, ESPNU
Favorite:  Kansas State by 10
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Toilet Bowl

Purdue (2-2) at Illinois (1-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, BTN
Favorite:  Illinois by 10
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Miscellaneous:  Worst Spread of the Week

#21 Colorado (4-1) at USC (2-3)
Saturday, 4:00 pm ET, PACN
Favorite:  USC by 6
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Colorado- 23nd, USC- unranked

 

NFL Game of the Week

Atlanta Falcons (3-1) at Denver Broncos (4-0)
Sunday, 4:05 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  Broncos by 5

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record:  29-30
Last Week:  6-6
College Overall Record: 27-28
NFL Game of the Week: 2-2

Game of the Week:  2-3
Big Game Guarantee:  2-3
Upset of the Week:  0-5
Closer Than the Experts Think:  1-4
Not Closer Than the Experts Think:  4-1
Overhyped Game:  2-3
Group of Five Game of the Week:  5-0
Is This Futbol?:  3-2
Is This Basketball?:  4-1
Toilet Bowl:  2-3
Miscellaneous:  2-3

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

Twitter Picks for College Football Week Two

A week after “the greatest opening weekend in college football history,” the second weekend of this college football season looks more like what we’re used to in the first weekend.  Solid games are hard to come by.

That said, there are still football games being played, so here are my picks for 12 of them, including tonight’s Super Bowl rematch in the NFL opener.

Game of the Week

Virginia Tech (1-0) vs. #17 Tennessee (1-0)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
at Bristol, Tenn. (Bristol Motor Speedway)
Favorite:  Tennessee by 12
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Virginia Tech- unranked, Tennessee- 7th

 

Big Game Guarantee

Arkansas (1-0) at #15 TCU (1-0)
Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  TCU by 7.5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Upset of the Week

BYU (1-0) at Utah (1-0)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  Utah by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

Iowa State (0-1) at #16 Iowa (1-0)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, BTN
Favorite:  Iowa by 15
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Iowa State- unranked, Iowa- 9th

 

Not Closer Than the Experts Think

North Carolina (0-1) at Illinois (1-0)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, BTN
Favorite:  North Carolina by 9
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  North Carolina- 23rd, Illinois- unranked

 

Overhyped Game

South Carolina (1-0) at Mississippi State (0-1)
Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite:  Mississippi State by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Group of Five Game of the Week

California (1-0) at San Diego State (1-0)
Saturday, 10:30 pm ET, CBSSN
Favorite:  San Diego State by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Is This Futbol?

Penn State (1-0) at Pittsburgh (1-0)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Pittsburgh by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Is This Basketball?

Washington State (0-1) at Boise State (1-0)
Saturday, 10:15 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite:  Boise State by 11
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Washington State- unranked, Boise State- 25th

 

Toilet Bowl

Wake Forest (1-0) at Duke (1-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ESPNU
Favorite:  Duke by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Miscellaneous:  Good Luck, Hilltoppers

Western Kentucky (1-0) at #1 Alabama (1-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite:  Alabama by 29
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Western Kentucky- unranked, Alabama- 1st

 

NFL Game of the Week

Carolina Panthers (0-0) at Denver Broncos (0-0)
Thursday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite:  Panthers by 3

 

Season to Date

Overall:  5-6
Game of the Week:  1-0
Big Game Guarantee:  1-0
Upset of the Week:  0-1
Closer Than the Experts Think:  0-1
Not Closer Than the Experts Think:  1-0
Overhyped Game:  0-1
Group of Five Game of the Week:  1-0
Is This Futbol?:  0-1
Is This Basketball?:  0-1
Toilet Bowl:  0-1
Miscellaneous:  1-0

 

Super Bowl 50 Preview: Carolina Panthers vs Denver Broncos

Super Bowl 50
Carolina Panthers (NFC Champions, 17-1) vs. Denver Broncos (AFC Champions, 14-4)
Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, CBS
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
Favorite: Panthers by 5

The biggest sporting event in the American culture (and arguably the third biggest in the world behind the World Cup and the Olympics) is tonight, and while Super Bowl storylines generally are not hard to find, this year’s golden anniversary edition seems to have even more of an abundance than normal.

Perhaps the biggest is Peyton Manning.  The surefire first-ballot hall of famer-to-be has led his Denver Broncos team back to the Super Bowl, just two years after being humiliated by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8.  Many around the game believe Manning could be retiring after the Super Bowl, so the story of whether or not the 39-year old will or will not retire, and whether or not he can finish his illustrious career with a storybook ending of a second Super Bowl title, has been a major talking point for the last two weeks leading up to the big game.  Manning will be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, and is the first starting quarterback to ever lead two teams to multiple Super Bowl appearances.  Manning is in his fourth season with Denver after a remarkable 14-year stretch with the Indianapolis Colts.

Manning was not even starting for Denver just a few weeks ago, sitting on the bench behind up-and-comer Brock Osweiler after a foot injury, before coming into Denver’s game in Week 17 against the Chargers and leading the Broncos to victory to secure home-field advantage in the AFC Playoffs.  After defeating the Steelers, 23-16, and the Patriots, 20-18, Manning and the Broncos are back in the Super Bowl for the eighth time in their rich history (tied for the most appearances ever), as they look for their third title.

The Broncos opponent, the Carolina Panthers, do not quite have the history of their opponents, as they have only appeared in the Super Bowl once, a loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, after coming into the league as an expansion team in 1995.  The Panthers have amassed a strong recent history, as this season marked their third straight NFC South Division title (prior to this streak the division had never been won by any team in consecutive years since its inception in 2002).

A big part of the reason for that is quarterback Cam Newton, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the 2015 season.  Newton, who won a Heisman Trophy and a BCS National Championship at Auburn, is trying to become just the second player ever to win a Heisman, a collegiate national title, an NFL MVP, and a Super Bowl in a career (Marcus Allen, running back for USC/Los Angeles Raiders).  Newton is the first Heisman winner to start a Super Bowl since Jim Plunkett in Super Bowl XVIII, and just the third ever.  Newton was the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and this Super Bowl is the first in which both quarterbacks are former #1 picks (Manning was picked first by Indianapolis in 1998), as well as the first matching up the top two picks from the same draft, as Broncos linebacker Von Miller was picked second behind Newton in 2011.

Newton has improved each season, and has now led this Panthers team to the brink of the franchise’s first championship in his fifth season.  This season, Newton threw for 35 touchdowns, and rushed for 10, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for 30 or more and run for 10 or more.  His 45 total touchdowns were the most by any player in a single season since, ironically enough, Peyton Manning in 2013 (56 total; 55 passing, 1 rushing).

Opposite the quarterbacks in this game will be a pair of very stellar defenses.  In fact, Super Bowl 50 features the top two teams in the league in defensive efficiency, with Denver 1st and Carolina 2nd.  Each unit leads the league in multiple statistical categories.

The Broncos made franchise history this year by leading the NFL in total defense (yards allowed) for the first time.  The league leader in total defense is 9-2 in the Super Bowl, although one of the losses was just last year by the Seahawks.  Denver allowed the fewest rushing yards per attempt (3.28) and the third least rushing yards per game (83.6).  The defensive front led the league in sacks (52), while generating pressure on 35 percent of dropbacks, which also leads the NFL.

The Panthers lead the NFL in takeaways (39), turnover differential (+20), and points off turnovers (148), as well as interceptions (24).  These stats do not include the postseason, in which the Panthers have forced nine turnovers, including six interceptions.  Carolina is one of two teams (Bengals) to have more interceptions than allowed touchdown passes this season.  Carolina has also allowed the sixth least yards, and the sixth least points, although Denver leads and is second in the two categories, respectively.

It’s safe to say it isn’t likely either defense will be what keeps their team from winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The Denver defense is, however, facing, the best offense they have seen all year, as the Panthers are the highest-scoring offense in the NFL (31.3 points per game), which would tie them for the fourth highest-scoring offense to win a Super Bowl.  Teams to lead the NFL in scoring are 10-9 in Super Bowls, although such teams have lost four of their last five appearances (the 2009 Saints, who beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, are the exception).  The Panthers offense, with Newton and his supporting cast of characters including running back Jonathan Stewart, tight end Greg Olsen, and left guard Michael Oher (of The Blind Side fame), is a very efficient well-oiled machine, leading the league in scoring despite ranking only 11th in yards gained, although they were second in rushing yards despite the lack of a 1,000-yard rusher.

The Broncos offense has been less efficient, averaging just 22.2 points per game.  However, four of the last six teams to reach the Super Bowl with that low of a scoring average have won.  The Broncos are 14th in passing yards and 17th in rushing yards (out of 32 teams), and only 19th in points per game.  However, Brock Osweiler started seven of the Broncos’ 16 regular season games, and Manning has been very efficient since his return.  Manning has not thrown an interception in the playoffs, making this his first postseason of two games or more without an interception.  Denver has not had to score a lot of points to be successful this season due to their stingy defense, a point evidenced by their two playoff wins with 22.5 points per game, almost exactly equaling their regular season average, with both of those games coming against top five offenses in the Steelers and Patriots.

One storyline in this Super Bowl that is not getting as much attention as it probably should is the coaching matchup.  While we have been spoiled with the coaching matchups in recent Super Bowls, including Bill Belichick vs. Pete Carroll last year and John Harbaugh vs. Jim Harbaugh just three years ago, and while the resumes of these two coaches don’t quite match those of other recent Super Bowl coaches, both are still among the best in the league.

While Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and Panthers coach Ron Rivera are both in their first Super Bowl as a coach, neither is a stranger to the big stage of the Super Bowl, as both appeared in Super Bowls as a player, making them the sixth and seventh men to play and coach in a Super Bowl.  Kubiak is the first to do so with the same team, however, as he was on the Denver Broncos roster when they lost Super Bowls XXI, XXII, and XXIV, as the backup quarterback to John Elway.  Rivera played on the winning side of Super Bowl XX as a member of the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, and was the Bears defensive coordinator in 2006 when they lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLI.  Rivera is the 2015 NFL Coach of the Year.

Ironically enough, the last coach of both teams before Kubiak and Rivera is the same man, John Fox.  Fox led both franchises to a Super Bowl, losing Super Bowl XXXVIII with Carolina and XLVIII with Denver.  Fox parted ways with the Broncos after last season, before Denver hired Kubiak, who has reached the Super Bowl in his first season with the team (but not his first as an NFL head coach after his stint in Houston).  Rivera, like Newton, is in his fifth year with Carolina, who fired Fox after a 2-14 season in 2010 that resulted in Newton being picked first by the Panthers in the 2011 Draft.

The milestone Super Bowl marks the return of the NFL’s championship match to the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in 31 years, since Stanford Stadium hosted Super Bowl XIX in 1985.  Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the home of the San Francisco 49ers since 2014, hosts its first Super Bowl.  Since the first outdoor Super Bowl on the West Coast in 13 years will begin at 3:30 local time, the first half of the Super Bowl will be played in daylight for the first time since Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, which was also the last Super Bowl played in California.  Coldplay will perform the halftime show, while Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem.

As I mentioned, there are no shortage of storylines in this Super Bowl, but the story of the MVP and fresh new face of the league reaching the Super Bowl and going against the legendary veteran in what could be his final game is the biggest, and could also come into play in determining who wins.  While the Broncos defense is statistically the best in the league, they can and will be matched by the Panthers defense, with neither team’s defense giving them an advantage in the game.  That being said, while the Broncos offense is statistically average, the Panthers offense has been tremendous all year.  While, because of the strength of both defenses, I don’t expect a lot of points from either side in this game, I do expect the Panthers offense to reach the end zone enough to outscore the Broncos, who will struggle offensively against the Panthers defense.

Panthers 24, Broncos 13.

 

 

Twitter Picks for NFL Championship Sunday

AFC Championship Game
New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (13-4)
Sunday, 3:05 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Patriots by 3

 

NFC Championship Game
Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at Carolina Panthers (16-1)
Sunday, 6:40 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  Panthers by 3

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 70-51
College Overall Record: 55-41
Game of the Week: 11-5
Big Game Guarantee: 31-17
Upset of the Week: 6-14
Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-6
NFL Game of the Week: 14-10
Last Week: 3-1

Twitter Picks for College Football Week 13

Game of the Week

#3 Oklahoma (10-1) at #11 Oklahoma State (10-1)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite:  Oklahoma by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Oklahoma- 3rd, Oklahoma State- 10th

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#7 Baylor (9-1) at #19 TCU (9-2)
Friday, 7:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Baylor by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Baylor- 7th, TCU- 19th

 

#22 UCLA (8-3) at USC (7-4)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2
Favorite: USC by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: UCLA- 20th, USC- unranked

 

#18 Ole Miss (8-3) at #21 Mississippi State (8-3)
Saturday, 7:15 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite: Ole Miss by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Ole Miss- 19th, Mississippi State- 22nd

 

#13 Florida State (9-2) at #12 Florida (10-1)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Florida State by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Florida State- 14th, Florida- 9th

 

#6 Notre Dame (10-1) at #9 Stanford (9-2)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Stanford by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Notre Dame- 4th, Stanford- 12th

 

(Extremely Mild) Upset of the Week

#8 Ohio State (10-1) at #10 Michigan (9-2)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Ohio State by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Ohio State- 8th, Michigan- 11th

 

NFL Game of the Week

New England Patriots (10-0) at Denver Broncos (8-2)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite: Patriots by 3

 

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 55-42
Last Week: 6-6
College Overall Record: 46-36
Game of the Week: 7-5
Big Game Guarantee: 26-14
Upset of the Week: 6-12
Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-6
NFL Game of the Week: 8-6