Wild Cards, You Make My …

The Texans beat the Bengals in week 14 of the regular season. Expect the same result when they open up Wild Card weekend Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Finish the line yourselves, sickos. Here’s my preview for this weekend’s NFL Wild Card games.

Bengals vs. Texans

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at Houston

Neither quarterback for this game terrifies opposing defensive coordinators. T.J. Yates, Houston’s starter since Matt Schaub went down with a shoulder injury in Week 12, has matched Schaub’s accuracy – 61.2 vs. 61.0 percent – but he’s coming off an injury. He also lacks Schaub’s decision-making skills, throwing three picks and fumbling four times in just six games. Cincinnati, meanwhile, counters with Andy Dalton, a less accurate passer who in his rookie year has thrown a troubling 13 interceptions, despite the 20 touchdown passes.

Fortunately for the Texans, they have one of the most elite running backs in the game: Arian Foster, whose 94.2 yards per game ranks second in the NFL. Houston can overcome a weak passing game with their juggernaut rushing attack.

Defensively, the Bengals are good, but the Texans are better. Texan linebacker Connor Barwin is tied for ninth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks, and the Texans have the third best pass-defense in the league. They also have the fourth best run-defense and allow the fourth-fewest points per game. Supposedly, defense and running the ball wins in the playoffs. If conventional wisdom holds, the Texans beat the Bengals. Pick: Texans.

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Bruins Smother Flames With Nine Goals, Twelve Point-Scoring Players

Nathan Horton scores one of two second-period goals against Leland Irving of the Calgary Flames during Thursday's blowout win at the TD Garden. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

As a young boy, I played on a recreation-league soccer team in Brookline, Mass. We weren’t very good, but I liked the team’s name: the Flames.

I’m pretty sure we could’ve given the Boston Bruins a better game than the Calgary Flames gave them Thursday night at TD Garden.

Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton each scored two goals and assist, providing more than enough power in a 9-0 Bruins blowout over the Flames.

Bruins Win a Minute Into First

The Bruins won Thursday’s game just 1:14 into the first period. Benoit Pouliot – moving up a line because Brad Marchand had the flu – took the puck through the neutral zone and into the Flames’ zone. Pouliot then dished the puck to Bergeron along the boards by the right circle. Bergeron took the puck behind the net, then at the last second passed it in front to an awaiting Tyler Seguin.

Seguin wasted no time putting it past Calgary goalie Leland Irving for the only goal the Bruins would need. Not that that slowed down the offense or anything.

The Bruins went up 2-0 two minutes later on a bizarre shot by Milan Lucic. Stationed behind the right circle and not facing Leland, Lucic fired off a wristshot. Wherever the puck was supposed to go, it instead bounced off Flames center Olli Jokinen, ricocheting with such force that it went past a very surprised Irving and in for a 2-0 lead at 3:17. Horton and David Krejci both earned assists.

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Rob Gronkowski Has Returned the Tight End to the NFL

Gronkowski's unique combination of size, strength and sure-handedness presents a model by which the tight end might survive in the speedier 21st century NFL. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

As strength and conditioning training has gotten better and better over the years, NFL players have become stronger and faster. Running backs like Adrian Peterson can both bust through lanes without a lead-blocker and also break tackles on short-yardage runs. Slot-receivers like Wes Welker can slip into the middle of the field, then burst for big gains after the catch.

Slower, strength-based offensive positions like the fullback and tight end are becoming redundant. Teams just don’t need as much talent at these spots because they have other position-players who can match the muscle without sacrificing speed. And when teams need muscle, offensive linemen (think Nate Solder) have become fit enough to double as blockers.

With only two marquee tight ends in the NFL through the first decade of the new millennium – Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates – the position was in danger of extinction.

Then Rob Gronkowski arrived, and with him a second renaissance for tight ends.

Fullback Fading Away; Tight End, Too

A look at Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees shows how the league has moved away from certain positions. Gale Sayers was the last halfback to make it to the Hall of Fame, and his career ended in 1971. The fullback seems headed that way as well: Larry Csonka – whose career ended in 1979 – was the last fullback inducted.

The tight end, meanwhile is the third-least-represented position in the Hall of Fame, trailing just place-kickers and the near-extinct fullbacks. Only eight modern-era tight ends are in the Hall of Fame, and the only one who played in the 1990s or later is Shannon Sharpe. Of the remaining seven, most played in the 60s and 70s.

Y2K Almost Killed the Tight End

Though tight ends had hung around longer than the fullbacks, the NFL looked by the mid 2000s like it was sending the position the way of leather helmets.

From 2001 to 2010, a tight end only finished among the top 10 receivers in yardage once: Gonzalez, who finished seventh in 2004. Otherwise, the top tight end – Gonzalez or Gates in eight of those 10 years – averaged a below-18th final ranking in the NFL. Tight ends have been decent scorers, however, finishing among the top 10 for touchdown receptions nine times during that decade, and six times placing among the top five.

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Boston Sports Review, 2011 Edition

Tim Thomas hoisting the Stanley Cup in triumph was easily the highlight of 2011 for Boston sports. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Humankind has always felt a deep need to chart the passage of time.

I’m a human.

That’s as much of a transition as you’re getting into my third annual review of the previous year in Boston sports, which in 2011 saw three teams win their division and one win it all.

Boston Bruins

• 2010-11 Final record: 46-25-11, Northeast Division Champions; defeated Vancouver Canucks in 2011 Stanley Cup, 4-3

The Bruins ended a 39-year championship drought on the back of Tim Thomas, who submitted perhaps the greatest single season in NHL goalie history. He set an NHL record for best save percentage, then won his second Vezina Trophy (top goaltender in the league), the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the playoffs) and, oh yeah, the Stanley Cap.

Before they could win the Stanley Cup, the Bruins would submit three spectacularly entertaining playoff series. They beat the Canadiens in seven games in the quarterfinals, overcoming an 0-2 deficit and winning three games in single or double overtime. They next swept the Flyers, flushing the bitter taste of the previous season’s blown three-game lead against them. Finally, the Bruins played a hard-fought, evenly matched series with the Lightning that culminated in a penalty-free, 1-0 victory in Game 7 at the TD Garden.

The Bruins’ blue-collar hockey succeeding against the much flashier Canucks validated Boston’s long-suffering Bruins fans. The 2011 NHL playoffs so entertained me that I can finally count myself among them.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 17

Rob Gronkowski led all Patriot receivers with two touchdown catches Sunday against the Bills, and his 108 yards helped set an NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

All’s well that ends well. The New England Patriots overcame an early 21-point deficit Sunday, blowing out the Bills in the second half and cruising to home-field advantage for the playoffs. Final score: Patriots 49, Bills 21. A fitting revenge after the Bills came back from being down 21 to beat the Patriots in September.

Who finished the regular season on the high honor roll, and who’s spending Wild Card weekend with an outside tutor? Here’s the final report card before the playoffs.

Quarterbacks: A

Despite a rough start, Tom Brady still finished the game with 338 passing yards and three touchdowns. He refused to be cowed by the Bills’ lead, instead slowly chipping away until the Bills crumbled beneath his far-superior abilities. With a healthier Wes Welker and a year of development from his tight ends, Brady’s yardage skyrocketed this season to the tune of 5,235 yards – not the most in the NFL this season, but the most for Brady by over 400 yards. A combination of shoulder strength, pocket protection and down-field plays will determine Brady’s playoff success.

Running Backs: A-

Stevan Ridley did the grunt-work Sunday, picking up 81 yards on 15 carries. In the red zone, however, Bill Belichick chose the sure-handed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to bust it in. Green-Ellis delivered two rushing touchdowns, including the Patriots’ first. He also executed a flawless screen play, chewing up 53 yards on the second play of the second half. That drive ended in a field goal that cut the Bills’ lead to one point.

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2012 Rose Bowl Preview: Wisconsin vs. Oregon

As good as Wisconsin's offense has been, Oregon's combination of RB LaMichael James and QB Darron Thomas may be too much to handle at the 2012 Rose Bowl. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Tuesday’s 2012 Rose Bowl matches up the losers of the previous two Rose Bowls: Wisconsin lost to TCU in 2011; Oregon to Ohio State in 2010. Each team wants a victory to replace the sour taste of the previous year’s loss, and for the Ducks the feeling is doubled, having lost last year’s BCS Championship.

The Badgers and Ducks mirror each other in many other ways, too. Both went 11-2 in the regular season, each losing one game they absolutely should have won (Wisconsin vs. OSU, Oregon vs. USC). Both teams feature rush-first offenses, with the Ducks ranked sixth (295.7) and the Badgers 11th (237.4) in the NCAA in rushing yards per game. And both teams score a ton of points, with the Ducks ranked third in the NCAA in points per game (46.2), and the Badgers just two points behind at fifth.

So who wins? Here’s my preview.

Wisconsin Offense Slightly Better

Both offenses play at the extremely high level expected of two top-five scoring teams. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson connects over 70 percent of the time, averages a first down a catch and rarely makes mistakes, posting a ridiculous 31-3 touchdown-interception ratio. Oregon’s Darron Thomas, meanwhile, throws with 61.4 percent accuracy and sports a 5:1 (30:6 actual) touchdown-interception ratio. Wilson’s speed, especially running against a blitz, gives him a slight edge, but only slight.

Wisconsin has the same slight edge at running back. Heisman Trophy-finalist Montee Ball has rushed for more yards and scored more touchdowns than anyone else in the NCAA. He could very well break Barry Sanders’ record for single-season touchdowns. Ball is the best offensive weapon the Badgers have, but he’s still only slightly better than the Ducks’ LaMichael James, who ranks fourth in the NCAA with 1,646 and averages a yard more per carry than Ball.

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