By Bill Campbell

Game On

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They tell me the New Orleans Saints don’t like to play in cold weather. The statistics on their games seem to bear that out. If it’s true, that also would make the Philadelphia Eagles a substantial favorite in their long-awaited play-off game on Saturday night at home, where the temperature is expected to hover around eighteen degrees. If the weather forecast is accurate, it should be near-arctic cold when quarterback Drew Brees and his New Orleans Saints run on to the field at The Linc. However, although the weather may favor the Birds, they will have more than a problem to contend with: Jimmy Graham, the Saints tight end who finished the season with the most running touchdowns in the NFL (16). Graham also was the only tight end to top 1,000 rushing yards. He lines up on the line, in the slot and split wide, which means that left backs, safeties and cornerbacks have to try to cover him. So far, they’ve done so this year with little success. Eagles’ safety, Earl Wolff, described Graham, saying, “He’s not even a tight end. He’s a real big receiver.” He’s the Saints’ best receiver and probably the most dangerous still-position player the Eagles have faced this season with the possible exception of the Detroit Lions’ Calvin Johnson. Eagles’ offensive coordinator, Bill Davis, said, “Graham catches everything thrown near him and they move him all over the place and it’s tough to practice and get a beat on how to help guys on him.” Graham is a moving target, 6’7″ and 265 pounds and he didn’t start playing football at the University of Miami until he had finished 4 seasons of college basketball. He finished this regular pro season with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards. In the last three seasons, he’s averaged 90 catches for 1,169 yards, 12 TD’s. He leads all players in those categories. They have to be ready for him.

The Eagles’ defense has posted relatively impressive stats against tight ends for most of 2013 before struggling in the last two weeks. Shutting out Jimmy Graham may be an unrealistic goal for the Birds but they must play better than they did against the last two tight ends they’ve faced: Cowboys’ TE Jason Witten racked up 12 catches for 135 yards on Sunday and the Bears’ Martellus Bennett had 5 for 85 yards on December 22nd. “We know the challenge with Jimmy Graham coming in here but I’m confident our defensive staff will have a plan to cover him,” said Eagles head coach, Chip Kelly. We have to hope he’s right.

The Philly weatherman says that, in addition to very low temperatures, there is a 60% chance of rain or snow showers over the weekend. Saints quarterback, Drew Brees, hasn’t had much success in the cold. Crowd noise could also be a factor. Eagles’ Owner, Jeffrey Lurie, said after the Dallas win on Sunday that he hoped the home crowd at the Linc would compete with the Saints’ stadium, where the fan noise always is “deafening”. Pat Shurmur, Eagles offensive coordinator, said, “This is just the second playoff game at The Linc in the past seven years and there is a boisterous crowd in Philadelphia.” That crowd is sure to be loud and proud come Saturday night.

Villanova Rebounds on Butler

After losing to Syracuse, the now eleventh-ranked Villanova Wildcats helped to make the New Big East look like the Old Big East as they scrapped and clawed for everything they could in Indianapolis on New Year’s Eve against Butler. They needed an overtime period to win it and did it on two foul shots with 3.2 seconds left to beat the Bulldogs, 76-73. Coming off their first loss of the season, Villanova was led by JayVaughn Pinkston with 22 points and Darrun Hilliard with 15. Kellen Dunham scored 22 to lead Butler and freshman, Elijah Brown, had a career-high 10. Leading 74-73, Villanova gave Butler a final chance to win, turning the ball over when Ryan Arcidiacono fumbled an inbounds pass leading to a loose ball call. Once the Wildcats got the ball back and Pinkston went to the line to make those two foul shots, the victory was Villanova’s.

Still undefeated, Syracuse’s Jeremiah Grant scored 15 points in his first start of the season against Eastern Michigan over the holiday break. Rakeem Christmas matched his career high of 15 as the Orangemen won it handily, 70-48. Syracuse is now 13-0, winning its 51st consecutive game in the Carrier Dome. At this writing, the team is ranked second in the country.

Here at home, St.Joe’s ran its winning streak to four in a resounding defeat of Binghamton, 71-44, on New Year’s Eve. The Hawks had an especially good game shooting three-pointers. They ran the halftime lead to 39-15, making 7 of 9 three-point shots, and finished with 14. Langston Galloway led the team with 20 and made 6 of 9 from the arc.

Steve Mason Brilliant for Flyers

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On New Year’s Eve, the Flyers played the Vancouver Canuks on the road and won 4-3 in a shoot-out at the Rogers Arena. Goaltender Steve Mason was spectacular, making 41 saves, stopping breakaways, two-on-ones and point blank shots. He also stopped all three shots in the shoot-out. Braden Schenn sent the game into overtime with 47 seconds left in regulation, bailing out his team and his brother, Luke. Coach Craig Berube was unhappy, however, with his team’s overall performance. The Flyers were badly outshot 47-27 in the contest, but they did win a shootout in back-to-back games for only the second time in the history of the franchise. The last was in 2006. Claude Giroux took a career best, nine-game point streak (6 goals, 11 assists) into the team’s next game against Calgary on Tuesday night where goalie Ray Emery was to make his third start in place of Mason, who had earned a rest.

Bill O’Brien to Houston

Penn State’s head football coach, Bill O’Brien, appears to be heading to the Houston Texans at this writing. In two years with the Nittany Lions, O’Brien had a 15-9 won/lost record. If he goes, there are several names being tossed around to replace him: Al Golden of Miami (and formerly Temple), Jim Franklin at Vanderbilt, Greg Schiano (who was just fired by Tampa Bay) and Greg Roman of the San Francisco 49ers, to name a few. I was surprised to see O’Brien exit after just two years in Happy Valley but, I guess when the NFL calls again, you listen.

The Bowl Games were played on New Year’s Day and the most noteworthy ended as follows:

Gator Bowl: Nebraska 24, Georgia 19.
Capitol Bowl: South Carolina 34, Wisconsin 24.
Outback Bowl: LSU 21, Iowa 14.
Rose Bowl: Michigan 24, Stanford 20.
Fiesta Bowl: University of Central Florida 52, Baylor 42.

In the NBA

On Monday night former 76er, Jrue Holiday, had a fine game with the New Orleans Pelicans. He scored 31 points and had only 2 turnovers in just under 38 minutes in a 110-108 win over the Portland Trailblazers. Holiday bounced back from a poor showing the night before against Houston. In the fourth quarter against Portland, he made 7 of 12 shots, including a three-pointer. Holiday finished the game with 13 assists and 7 rebounds.

Meanwhile, Andrew Bynum, who said he’s lost his joy for basketball, has been suspended indefinitely by the Cleveland Cavaliers who, though shopping him, can’t seem to be able to work out a trade for him. Not surprising to us here in Philly, is it?

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