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Woody's Winners, NFL Week 9

NFL WEEK NINE

Apologies for this column being a day late, but I've been focused on doing my part to crank out the next issue of mental_floss magazine. Week 10 brings Thursday Night Football, so we'll be a day early next week (and for the rest of the season). See? It all works out in the end.

Woody chose several upsets last week, and paid for that by posting a pedestrian 5-8 record. Teams I expected to wake up (Dallas, Denver) failed to do so, and those I thought would lie down (Green Bay, San Diego) suddenly came to life. Then, on Monday Night Football, Peyton Manning proved that he can get the ball to any receiver who can catch it. Are you ready for Week 9?

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Tampa Bay (5-2) @ Atlanta (5-2)

The NFC South boasts three five-win teams, and the top two face each other this week for sole possession of the division’s “big kahuna” designation. The Bucs are 3-0 on the road this season, while the Falcons are 3-0 at the Georgia Dome. Save for Atlanta’s victory in New Orleans, neither team has beaten a quality foe this season (owing to an easy first-half schedule). RB LeGarrette Blount has rejuvenated Tampa’s rushing game, but I expect the Blackbird defense to shut him down and pressure QB Josh Freeman, which will let their defenders do what they do best – pick off passes. Dirty, dirty birds.

Woody’s Winner: Atlanta

FACT: Every NFC South team – except the Falcons – appeared in a Super Bowl during the 2000s.

Please click "more" to see my picks for Week 9's other NFL matchups!

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New Orleans (5-3) @ Carolina (1-6)

The Saints have struggled against inferior competition, losing to Arizona in Week 5 and to Cleveland in Week 7. With their bye looming, New Orleans might overlook the Panthers, which would be a mistake. The teams are statistically very similar on defense and with their rushing offense. The difference-maker is QB Drew Brees, who has has completed more passes (234) this season than Carolina has even attempted (228). A win against les Panthères would boost the French to numéro deux in the NFC South. Gagner!

Woody’s Winner: New Orleans

FACT: Since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, the Saints have lost 170 games – more than any other team.

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Chicago (4-3) @ Buffalo (0-7)

Six of the their final eight games this season are against 2009 playoff teams, so Chicago is well aware of the importance of Bearing down to earn a victory in Week 9. This “home” game for Billy Buffalo is being played 100 miles away in Toronto, where the franchise is 0-2. New head coach Chan Gailey hopes to remedy the fact that the Bisons are the NFL’s only 0-for-2010 team. Grizzly QB Jay Cutler has lost his last three starts, with 1 TD, 5 interception, 19 sacks, and 5 fumbles. If he’s still hibernating, he’ll be in no shape to stop the stampede that may result when Buffalo hoofs it (or is that hooves it?) across his sleepy face.

Woody’s Winner (in a close one): Chicago

FACT: These teams have met each other 10 times in NFL history, and the home team has won 9 of those.

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N.Y. Jets (5-2) @ Detroit (2-5)

The Lions have won two of their last three games. Did I just say that? Wow. Detroit showed some fire – almost confidence – with Matthew Stafford at the helm during last week’s comeback win. Both teams’ strengths seem to feed their opponents’ weaknesses, so special teams may play an important role. Back-to-back wins would change things dramatically for the Honolulu Blue, but the Jets are bound to be angry after being shut out at home last week. A Big Cat in the cargo hold of a 747 could create an exciting scenario, if the kitty can get out of the cage. Luckily for New York, security is tight.

Woody’s Winner: New York.

FACT: Of the Lions’ four wins over the last two seasons (all at home), three of them were blacked out on metro Detroit television, including last week’s victory vs. Washington.

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Miami (4-3) @ Baltimore (5-2)

The combination of a strong defense and a capable running game has allowed these East Coast teams to win more close games than they’ve lost. High scores aren’t predicted here as both offenses rely on two-headed running attacks – Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams of Miami and Ray Rice and Willis McGahee of Baltimore. Expect the Dolphins to arrive in Maryland with one porpoise in mind: whaling on the Ravens. Will they eat crow, or will they eat Crow?

Woody’s Winner: Baltimore

FACT: The Dolphins have won each of their four games on the road.

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New England (6-1) @ Cleveland (2-5)

This matchup places one of the NFL’s most consistent teams over the past decade against one of the most erratic, but Cleveland has shown improvement of late. Their losses have come against strong teams (the Bucs, Chiefs, Ravens, Falcons, and Steelers) and last week’s win at New Orleans put the Browns in a new light. So maybe now they’re the Beiges. The Patriots have underachieved their way to the NFL’s best record, managing to convert an average offensive effort (ranked 19th in yardage) into a league-best 29.3 points per game. New England’s defense needs help, however, and sooner or later, their struggles will cost the Founding Fathers a win. Let’s say sooner.

Woody’s Winner (in a big upset): Cleveland

FACT: The Patriots are 5-1 against the Browns since Cleveland’s return to the NFL in 1999.

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San Diego (3-5) @ Houston (4-3)

The Texans’ hopes of victory in Week 9 hinge squarely on the health of the Chargers’ receiving corps. TE Antonio Gates and WR Malcom Floyd both missed practice this week; otherwise, the meeting between San Diego’s league-best pass offense and Houston’s league-worst pass defense would be a no-brainer prediction. Even if the Electric Ones have trouble sending signals through the air, the one-two RB punch of Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert – along with their solid D – should keep the Texans holed up in the barn.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): San Diego

FACT: The Chargers are 0-4 on the road this season.

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Arizona (3-4) @ Minnesota (2-5)

The Vikings are struggling, and solutions are being tossed around like salad: Fire coach Brad Childress. Give QB Tavaris Jackson a chance. Let Adrian Peterson run the ball 50 times a game. The truth is that Minnesota’s five losses have been close games against strong teams (the Saints, Dolphins, Jets, Packers, and Patriots). Randy Moss’ departure has fueled more discussion, but the Purple are not a bad team, and they’ll prove it this week against Arizona. The Vikes’ ace-in-the-hole is still QB Brett Favre. Despite dealing with a broken foot and stitches in his chin, he’ll find a way to shuffle the Cards.

Woody’s Winner: Minnesota

FACT: Arizona and Minnesota were the two teams that fell victim to New Orleans in last season’s NFC playoffs.

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N.Y. Giants (5-2) @ Seattle (4-3)

The Giants are all about ball control and yardage – they’ve gained more yards and held their opponents to fewer yards than any team in the NFC. On the other coast, the Seahawks’ offensive struggles aren’t going to improve with replacement QB Charlie Whitehurst, who’s never thrown a pass in a regular-season game. The G-Men will have their way with the ‘Hawks, particularly near game’s end when Plan A (Ahmad Bradshaw) and Plan B (Brandon Jacobs) go into effect. The Tall Guys will prove masterful in the Battle of Seattle.

Woody’s Winner: New York

FACT: The home team has won the last 9 games in this matchup, dating back to 1986.

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Kansas City (5-2) @ Oakland (4-4)

As members of the AFC West, these foes face off twice a season, and the last six games between them have all been won by the road team. So much for a home-field advantage for O-Town. The Chiefs and Raiders are ranked #1 and #2 in rushing yards in the NFL, so don’t expect the pigskin to see very much atmosphere. It’ll travel up and down the field, however, particularly when the defenses begin to tire. Expect lots of scoring in the second half during this ground-based battle as the Silver-and-Black fend off the Red-and-Gold.

Woody’s Winner: Oakland

FACT: In Week 8, Raiders QB Jason Campbell threw passes of 69, 55, and 51 yards (to three different receivers).

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Indianapolis (5-2) @ Philadelphia (4-3)

If the Eagles had knocked off the Titans last week, Kevin Kolb might be back at QB this week. But they didn’t, and he’s not. Michael Vick is expected to get the start when the Colts rumble into the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday. It’s got to be tough for a team to perform well under two so radically different helmsmen, as Philly will find out sooner or later. The Colts know which side their bread is buttered on, of course, and Peyton Manning is slicker than wet jelly. Toot, toot, peanut butter.

Woody’s Winner: Indianapolis

FACT: The Colts have beaten the Eagles by 3 TD or more in each of their last four meetings.

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Dallas (1-6) @ Green Bay (5-3)

Jon Kitna at QB, Roy Williams at WR, silver-and-blue uniforms, and a WHOLE bunch of losses. The Lions? No, these are the Dallas Cowboys, and Woody won’t make the mistake of picking them to win again this season. Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the mess that the ‘Pokes find themselves in. Two weeks ago, Williams predicted an 11-0 run to end the season, and now he’s saying 9 in a row is possible. But he’s never won more than 3 consecutive games as a pro. Next week, maybe he’ll keep quiet. Uh-huh.

Woody’s Winner: Green Bay

FACT: The Packers (-10 yards) and Cowboys (-1 yard) combined for negative-11 yards passing in their matchup on 10/24/65, an NFL record for futility that still stands.

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Pittsburgh (5-2) @ Cincinnati (2-5)

The Steelers seem to have gotten a grip on the mistakes that cost them a playoff spot in 2009. They faded last week at New Orleans, and face a third consecutive road game on Monday Night Football against the Bengals. After a 2-1 start, the stripes are beginning to fade for Cincinnati, who has dropped four games in a row (including two at home). Pressure from Pittsburgh’s defense will prevent Carson Palmer from throwing long balls to the Tigers’ 30-something WRs, and Rashard Mendenhall will do the rest. Can you say “Cats on a Hot Steel Roof?”

Woody’s Winner: Pittsburgh

FACT: QBs Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, and Ben Roethlisberger have each started and won games this season for the Steelers.

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BYE: Denver, Jacksonville, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tennessee, Washington

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Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, but please be cordial to others; this is all in good fun. Thanks!

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
Brett Deering/Getty Images
Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

© Bettmann/CORBIS

His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
Al Bello/Getty Images
Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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