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Patriots coach says he doesn't know how balls were deflated

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Thursday he doesn't know how footballs became deflated during the game that got his team to the Super Bowl. But Belichick declined to answer questions after saying he knew nothing until Monday morning about accusations that his team cheated with underinflated footballs in its win against the Colts in the AFC championship game on Sunday night. The NFL is investigating. Belichick said the team is fully cooperating. "I had no knowledge of this situation until Monday morning," said Belichick, who said he was "shocked" to learn the news. "I would say I've learned a lot more about this process in the last three days than I knew or have talked about it in the last 40 years that I've coached in this league," Belichick said during an 8 1/2-minute opening statement during an 11 1/2-minute news conference. "I had no knowledge of the various steps involved in the game balls and process that went through." Belichick did not specify who in the Patriots organization was responsible for the underinflated balls, or absolve anyone besides himself of potential wrongdoing. Softer balls are generally considered easier to throw and catch, and quarterbacks, specialists and equipment managers are known to have very individualized preferences in how footballs are readied for games. Belichick said he was unaware of the process for game balls until the accusations were raised. Belichick said he sometimes hears quarterbacks, kickers and other specialists talk about their preferences. "I can tell you and they will tell you that there is never any sympathy from me whatsoever on that subject. Zero," Belichick said. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is expected to address reporters later Thursday. "Tom's personal preferences on his ball, footballs, are something that he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide," Belichick said. "I can tell you that in my entire coaching career I have never talked to any player, staff member about football air pressure." The NFL requires balls to be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 pound per square inch. Under league rules, each team provides 12 balls for use on offense. Referees approve the balls more than 2 hours before game time, then keep the balls until they're turned over to ball handlers provided by home teams just before kickoff. Belichick said the balls used by the Patriots offense are inflated to the "12 1/2-pound range" and "any deflation would then take us under that." Going forward, he said, the Patriots will inflate footballs to a safe level to prevent them from dropping under allowable air pressure during games. "We will take steps in the future to make sure that we don't put ourselves in this type of situation again," he said. The coach who has won three Super Bowls said he generally forces players to practice under bad-ball conditions. "Anytime players complain about the quality of the footballs, I make it worse and that stops the complaints," he said. "We never use the condition of the footballs as an excuse. We play with whatever or kick with whatever we have to use." The issue has drawn strong reaction from around the game and its fans as the Patriots prepare to play the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona, for the NFL title. Several players said it would not distract them in preparing for the game. "It's unfortunate. We'd rather be celebrating our trip to the Super Bowl," special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "It's important to us that we respect the game and deal with things in a way that's considered professional." Belichick declined to answer several questions after his opening remarks, answering several of them by saying: "I've told you everything I know," and "I don't have an explanation." ___ AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/ap_nfl

  • icon Posted: January 22

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Monday 01/19/2015
Chilean golfer fulfills Masters dream with rare chance
Posted: January 19, 2015

Matias Dominguez was like most kids who fall in love with golf and dream of one day playing in the Masters.

Not many others faced such long odds. For starters, Dominguez grew up in Santiago, Chile, a country where golf is an afterthought and only one Chilean had ever competed at Augusta National. That was Enrique Orellana, who missed the cut 51 years ago.

Until recently, Dominguez, 22, wasn't even sure he wanted to golf for a living. He is a senior at Texas Tech, not exactly a golf powerhouse, and Dominguez is fourth in scoring average for the Red Raiders after four tournaments in the fall.

One chance was all he needed — the Latin American Amateur Championship. One week of great golf left him close to tears.

With a spot in the Masters riding on the outcome, Dominguez closed with a 1-under 71 Sunday at Pilar Golf Club in Buenos Aires, Argentina, winning the inaugural event and earning the right to be among Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and his golfing idol, Phil Mickelson, at Augusta in April.

"I always told to myself, 'I hope one day I can get to the Masters,'" Dominguez said in a conference call after his victory. "Hopefully, I can just share that moment with all my friends and my family, because we all grew up with that same dream. ... I just can't believe right now that dream just became true."

That was the idea behind the Latin American Amateur, which was patterned after the Asia-Pacific Amateur.

Augusta National, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the U.S. Golf Association founded the tournament with hopes it would inspire an entire region — South and Central America and the Caribbean. It comes with perks such as a spot in the Masters, the final stage of qualifying for the British Open and U.S. Open and a berth in the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur.

Without the Latin American Amateur, the only way for someone like Dominguez to play in the Masters would be as a top professional or to win an established amateur event open to the best in the world.

"Right before they announced this tournament, it seemed almost impossible for a Latin American to get there," Dominguez said. "And then here I am today. Just saying, 'I'm going to the Masters and play with everyone there,' it's just shocking."

Who could have imagined the road from Santiago to Magnolia Lane would lead through Lubbock, Texas?

Dominguez is in his final semester at Texas Tech, where his greatest achievement was leading them to a spot in the NCAA Championship as a sophomore. He is starting to branch out with academics and figure out where golf fits into the equation.

Asked for similarities between Santiago and the open spaces of West Texas, Dominguez broke out into laughter.

"Almost none," he said. "Probably if you want to find something that is the opposite of Chile, you would have to say Lubbock, Texas. But it's been a great journey. Lubbock has been something new, totally new people and new culture. It broadens my mind and makes me learn from other cultures and people, and it's been awesome for me. I wouldn't change it for anything."

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne has talked about using the reputation and resources of the Masters to help attract players from Asia — and now Latin America — to the game. The idea was to identify good golfers, which could create heroes for younger kids from the region.

The Asia-Pacific Amateur already has produced Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who made the cut at Augusta both times he qualified and now is among the top players in the world. The Latin American Amateur is just getting started, but the goal is the same.

South America has produced two major champions — Roberto de Vicenzo (1967 British Open) and Angel Cabrera (2007 U.S. Open, 2009 Masters), both from Argentina. Chile's best golfer is Felipe Aguilar, who is No. 160 in the world and plays the European Tour.

Aguilar and Mickelson are Dominguez's golfing inspirations, he says, mainly because they always smile. And no one was beaming quite like Dominguez on Sunday.

"Everyone in Chile is just going crazy," he said. "It was something that for all of us, we thought it was almost impossible. ... We were waiting a few more years for the next player to get into the Masters. I think everyone is in shock right now that we got another Chilean guy playing the Masters after like 50 years.

"Hopefully, I can represent them the best I can at the Masters."

Friday 01/16/2015
No. 1 Kentucky's back on the road vs. Alabama
Posted: January 16, 2015

A few things to watch this week in the Southeastern Conference:

GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 1 Kentucky at Alabama: The Wildcats were back to their dominant ways during a blowout victory over Missouri on Tuesday following two surprisingly close games against Mississippi and Texas A&M to open SEC play. Now Kentucky faces a more challenging test on the road against Alabama, which has a 10-0 record this season at Coleman Coliseum.

LOOKING AHEAD: Georgia is showing signs that the Bulldogs are on their way back into contention. The Bulldogs entered the SEC schedule as prime NCAA tournament contenders but opened conference play with losses to Arkansas and LSU. They bounced back Wednesday by winning at Vanderbilt for the first time since 2005-06. Now Georgia enters a crucial stretch of its schedule, with three of the next four games at home, including intriguing matchups against Florida and Mississippi. Guard Kenny Gaines has been very good for the Bulldogs in SEC play, averaging 15.3 points on 50 percent shooting from the field.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Auburn forward Cinmeon Bowers is averaging a double-double in his first season in the SEC since arriving from Chipola (Florida) College. The 6-foot-7, 278-pound forward leads the SEC in rebounding and already has 10 double-doubles and a couple of 17-rebound performances this season. Bowers had 20 points and 14 rebounds Saturday in Auburn's 85-79 victory over Missouri.

KEY STATS: Kentucky's 86-37 wipeout of Missouri on Tuesday represented the Wildcats' largest margin of victory in an SEC game since a 106-44 blowout of Vanderbilt in 2003. Missouri's 37 points were the fewest that Kentucky had allowed in an SEC game since a 50-36 triumph over Mississippi State in 1987. ... Kentucky owns a 100-5 record during John Calipari's coaching tenure when it has allowed 63 or fewer points. The Wildcats are 50-0 under Calipari when they allow 55 or fewer points. ... Mississippi State has lost 16 straight regular-season SEC games dating back to last season. Third-year MSU coach Rick Ray has a 7-32 record in regular-season SEC play.

ON THE WOMEN'S SIDE: No. 10 Kentucky must play the rest of the season without starting point guard Janee Thompson, who broke a bone in her left leg Sunday during the Wildcats' 68-60 loss to top-ranked South Carolina. Thompson had been averaging 10.1 points per game. Joining South Carolina and Kentucky in this week's Top 25 are No. 6 Tennessee, No. 11 Texas A&M, No. 15 Mississippi State and No. 18 Georgia.

_____

Complied by AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, and David Brandt in Jackson, Mississippi.

Tuesday 01/13/2015
Ohio State beats Oregon 42-20 in national championship game
Updated: January 13, 2015 - 1:31 am

ARLINGTON, Texas — Ohio State can add the newest version of the national championship trophy to a case that already has a bunch of the old ones.

Monday 01/12/2015
Ohio State, Oregon title game will crown a 'true champion'
Updated: January 12, 2015 - 3:53 pm

DALLAS (AP) — Ohio State and Oregon will meet in a game that has never been played for a trophy that has never been raised.

The winner Monday night in North Texas can be called the truest champion in the history of major college football.

The first College Football Playoff national championship game matches the second-seeded Ducks and fourth-seeded Buckeyes at AT&T Stadium.

"It's college football history," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said Sunday during a news conference with Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, with that new championship trophy sitting in between them.

The days of bowls, polls and the BCS having the final say about who is No. 1 are over. The playoff that fans wanted for so long — and finally got — will determine a champion without a doubt.

Oregon (13-1) and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota are in search of the program's first national title, the last remaining goal for a school that has barged onto the national stage over the last two decades with ostentatious flare and flashy uniforms.

Ohio State (13-1) is shooting for national championship No. 5, but the first under coach Urban Meyer, who returned to his home state three years ago to take over a college football goliath that was looking to start its next golden age.

Tradition rich vs. cutting edge.

The Ducks from the Pac-12 raced into the championship game with an emphatic 59-20 victory against Florida State last week at the Rose Bowl.

The Buckeyes from the Big Ten upset Alabama 42-35 at the Sugar Bowl to cap an improbable rebound from an early season loss and injuries to two star quarterbacks.

"This is much more of a business trip, this time around," Ohio State All-America defensive end Joey Bosa said. "Last week we went, we hung out and had some fun. This week it's all about business; no going out, no messing around. We're just preparing."

Ohio State has won 12 straight since stumbling at home to Virginia Tech in September.

The Ducks have won nine in a row since, all by double-digit margins, since losing to Arizona in October.

"We've been playing, both our program and Ohio State have played with that kind of early loss, and your back was against the wall to get to this point every play of every game, the entire rest of the season, it was to the those words: do or die," Helfrich said.

For decades college football's best team was picked by poll voters and postseason matchups were set with little regard for determining a national champion.

The Bowl Championship Series was implemented in 1998, a system designed to create a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national championship game to end the season. It was an awkward and imperfect step in the right direction, often leaving everyone involved unsatisfied. The conference commissioners who ran the BCS relented a couple of years ago and decided to create a four-team playoff.

Here are some things to know about the ultimate winner-take-all-game:

SUPER MARIOTA

Mariota can become the seventh Heisman Trophy winner since 1996 to win the national championship in the same season he won the Heisman. Florida State's Jameis Winston did it last season.

Another victory in what is very likely his last college game would top off a career that can go down as one of the best in college football history.

Mariota has thrown for 10,463 yards, 103 touchdowns passes and just 13 interceptions while winning 35 games in three seasons as Oregon's starter.

"Our No. 1 concern is their quarterback," Meyer said.

The Buckeyes hope to contain the fast-moving Mariota with a defensive line, led by Bosa, that is among the best in the nation.

"They've got an awesome front seven," Mariota said. "Big, physical guys that really control the line of scrimmage."

MEYER'S MILESTONE

Meyer can become the second coach in college football history to win national championships with two schools, joining Nick Saban, who won the BCS title in 2003 with LSU and then three more titles with Alabama.

Meyer won national titles with Florida in 2006 and 2008. A third championship would make Meyer the ninth coach in college football's poll era (dating to 1936) to win at least three championships. Bear Bryant leads with the six he won at Alabama.

MISSING

The Ducks will be down their most productive receiver over the last two games.

Darren Carrington is ineligible after failing an NCAA administered drug test. He is second on the team in yards receiving with 704 and averages 19 yards per catch. He's been especially good lately.

In the Pac-12 championship game against Arizona and the Rose Bowl against Florida State, Carrington had 14 catches for 292 yards and three touchdowns.

Oregon also lost Devon Allen, second on the team in catches (41) and touchdown receptions (seven), at the Rose Bowl to a knee injury.

"We don't have things in our system that it's, hey, we need to throw this guy the ball in this play period," Helfrich said. "That doesn't exist."

OH-FER OHIO STATE

This will be the ninth meeting between Oregon and Ohio State. The Buckeyes have won the previous eight.

___

Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

Tuesday 01/06/2015
Baseball: Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz, Biggio elected to Hall of Fame
Updated: January 06, 2015 - 9:34 pm

NEW YORK — Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, a trio of star pitchers who dominated in an era of offense, were elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame on Tuesday along with Craig Biggio, the first time since 1955 writers selected four players in one year.

Friday 01/02/2015
Ohio State wins Sugar Bowl to move on to face Oregon in championship
Posted: January 02, 2015

NEW ORLEANS — Cardale Jones came through again at the Sugar Bowl in his second career start and Ezekiel Elliott ran for 230 yards, leading Ohio State to a 42-35 upset of top-ranked Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal Thursday night.

Mizzou rolls past Minnesota
Posted: January 02, 2015

ORLANDO, Fla. — When Missouri played its best this season, the Tigers stopped the run or ran well themselves. Minnesota found out what happens when the Tigers are successful at both.

Oregon crushes Florida State in Rose Bowl
Updated: January 02, 2015 - 12:54 am

PASADENA, Calif. — Marcus Mariota and Oregon turned an avalanche of Florida State mistakes into a mountain of points and the Ducks rolled past the defending national champions 59-20 Thursday to turn the first College Football Playoff semifinal into a Rose Bowl rout.

No. 7 MSU shocks No. 4 Baylor
Posted: January 02, 2015

ARLINGTON, Texas — Connor Cook and the Michigan State Spartans want to have a different role in the playoff talk next season.

Gordon leads Wisconsin past Auburn in overtime
Posted: January 02, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. — Wisconsin hoisted Barry Alvarez into the air for one more victory ride.

Thursday 01/01/2015
Jackets rack up 452 rushing yards against Mississippi State
Posted: January 01, 2015

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Trapped behind the line of scrimmage, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas escaped by veering sharply and upfield, leaving a defender flailing and Yellow Jackets fans cheering another touchdown.

Wednesday 12/31/2014
Boise St. beats Arizona in Fiesta Bowl
Updated: December 31, 2014 - 11:10 pm

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Boise State Broncos are no longer just trick-play ponies.

No. 6 TCU crushes No. 9 Ole Miss, 42-3 in Peach Bowl
Updated: December 31, 2014 - 11:09 pm

ATLANTA — Gary Patterson knew just what to say when asked if TCU’s rout of Mississippi was a statement the Horned Frogs should have been in the four-team playoff.

No. 13 Georgia runs over No. 20 Louisville, 37-14
Updated: December 31, 2014 - 9:59 am

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Freshman Nick Chubb ran for a career-high 266 yards and two touchdowns, and No. 13 Georgia overcame an injury to starting quarterback Hutson Mason to beat 20th-ranked Louisville 37-14 in the Belk Bowl on Tuesday night.

Notre Dame downs LSU in Music City Bowl
Posted: December 31, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Notre Dame and senior kicker Kyle Brindza finished the season off with some much-needed redemption.

Monday 12/29/2014
Falcons fire Mike Smith after 2nd straight losing season
Updated: December 30, 2014 - 12:13 am

ATLANTA — Mike Smith’s status as the winningest coach in Falcons history wasn’t enough to save his job.

Tuesday 12/23/2014
Masters races to keep field under 100 players
Posted: December 23, 2014

Here's a new tradition unlike any other — the race to see if the Masters can keep its field under 100 players by April.

For the fourth time in the last five years, at least 90 players already have qualified for the Masters at the end of the year with three months of opportunities remaining before the field is set. Each time, Augusta National managed to achieve its objective of keeping the number of competitors in double digits.

By far the smallest field of the four majors, the Masters has not had more than 100 players since 1966.

That's what Augusta National prefers. Club chairmen have talked about a small field creating a better experience. Remember, the original name of the Masters was the Augusta National Invitation Tournament.

But if the last eight months were any indication, this could be the closest call yet.

Of the 90 players who are eligible and expected to compete, 17 earned invitations by winning PGA Tour events that award full FedEx Cup points. That's up from 12 a year ago, a reminder not only that winning is difficult for everyone but that the PGA Tour is stronger and deeper than ever.

There are 13 chances for players not already in the Masters to win a full PGA Tour event and get in. And because the Match Play Championship has been moved from its traditional late February slot, top international players such as Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Adam Scott are not expected to play much (if at all) before the Florida swing.

The other way to qualify is to move into the top 50 in the world ranking published on March 30. Among those on the outside is Brandt Snedeker (No. 58) from the PGA Tour. Tommy Fleetwood (51), Alexander Levy (53) and Francesco Molinari (55) are also outside the top 50, though they will face some of the European Tour's stronger fields during the Middle East swing.

Also, the Masters had created a new spot for the winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship, to be played in January in Argentina.

A year ago, 90 players were eligible after the first cutoff in December. Seven players not already eligible won PGA Tour events, and Stephen Gallacher was added from the world ranking. Then again, one spot was reduced when Tiger Woods had back surgery a week before the Masters.

This year? Stay tuned. It starts with the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, a field that includes four players who won before last year's Masters — Scott Stallings, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones — and are not yet eligible at Augusta.

___

FALL OPPORTUNITIES: Two years into a wraparound schedule is too soon to analyze trends, though there was one significant change this year.

A year ago, Chris Kirk had the worst world ranking of the six winners in the fall. He was at No. 93 when he won the McGladrey Classic. Dustin Johnson had the highest ranking (No. 23 when he won he HSBC Champions), and the others were scattered in between. Jimmy Walker at the Frys.com Open was the only first-time winner.

This year provided more opportunity.

There were three first-time winners — Ben Martin, Robert Streb and Nick Taylor — among the seven tournaments. The player with the worst ranking? That would be Taylor at the Sanderson Farms Championship (played opposite Shanghai), who checked in at No. 594.

Bae Sang-moon was at No. 195 when he won the Frys.com Open, while Streb was No. 177 before winning at Sea Island.

The best ranking belonged to Bubba Watson, who was No. 7 when he won the World Golf Championship in China.

___

SCHEDULE SWAP: It's always good to have solid title sponsors, even better to have sponsors who are flexible.

The European Tour discovered that anew when the Turkish Airlines Open — typically the third of four events in the Race to Dubai final series — ran into problems for 2015. The G20 Summit starts in Turkey on Nov. 15, the same day as the final round of the golf tournament. The Turkish Golf Federation feared it would be exceedingly difficult for the events to clash and asked to change the date.

The BMW Masters in Shanghai — typically the Final Series opener — agreed to swap.

That means the Turkish Airlines Open will be the opening Final Series event, followed by the HSBC Champions in Shanghai and then the BMW Masters. The final event is the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

"We are a dedicated partner of golf worldwide, and we were keen to act in the interest of golf," Thorsten Mattig of BMW said.

BMW also sponsors European Tour events in Germany and at Wentworth, along with a FedEx Cup event on the PGA Tour.

___

REACHING OUT, GIVING BACK: The PGA Tour already is involved with military outreach with its "Birdies for the Brave" program. It added another layer for 2015 by offering military members complimentary or discounted tickets to its tournaments.

Starting with the Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, the "Birdies for the Brave Military Ticket Program" allows active duty and reserve military members, retired military and their dependents to get free admission to 30 PGA Tour events.

Discounted tickets to other tournaments also will be available to nonretired veterans.

The program is supported by Quicken Loans, the Detroit-based company that sponsors Tiger Woods' tournament in the Washington area in the summer. Military personnel only have to visit www.birdiesforthebrave.sheerid.com to access tickets to various tournaments.

"The Military Ticket Program ... is just one way we express our gratitude to those who put their lives on the line every day to keep America safe and free," said Charlie Zink, the co-chief operating officer for the PGA Tour.

Zink is a former Navy officer.

___

DIVOTS: Waialae Country Club has agreed to host the Sony Open for four more years. This will be the 50th straight year at Waialae. Only Colonial and Augusta National have hosted PGA Tour-sanctioned events for more continuous years. ... Bubba Watson donated his winnings from the Thailand Golf Championship to the Thongchai Jaidee Foundation, which is helping children with scholarships, golf lessons and accommodation. Watson tied for 25th and sent Thongchai a check for $9,250. ... Half of the 84 professionals who already have qualified for the Masters are Americans. ... Medinah Country Club has approved a $3.6 million project to restore the No. 2 course to its original character and upgrading standards of greens, bunkers and drainage. That means Medinah will have invested $14 million since 2008 to upgrade three courses, including the No. 3 course that has held majors and the Ryder Cup.

___

STAT OF THE WEEK: The Masters currently has 23 players from outside the top 100 in the world — 12 are former champions and six are amateurs.

___

FINAL WORD: "It's as good. I can't believe that I'm saying that, comparing it to my lifetime goal to win on the PGA Tour. ... Because the way things went the last two years, I didn't think I would play again or compete again." — Arjun Atwal after winning the Dubai Open.

Tackling becomes lost in era where offenses rules
Posted: December 23, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) — Jessie Tuggle knows a thing or two about tackling. They didn't call him the "Hammer" for nothing.

When the retired linebacker gets together with other former players, one subject inevitably comes up.

These guys today just don't tackle like we used to.

"A kid has played in high school and played in college, so you assume when he gets to the NFL ... that he knows how to tackle," said Tuggle, who was credited with more than 2,000 stops during his 14-year career with the Atlanta Falcons. "That assumption is not right."

It's not really surprising, either.

In football, one of the essential elements of the game — tackling — just doesn't get a whole lot of practice time anymore. It's like a baseball infielder who doesn't take grounders before a game, or a hockey goalie who never faces 100 mph shots until it counts.

"We don't tackle live, not in practice," said Bob Sutton, defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. "I don't think anybody in the league does."

The reasons for that are understandable. Tougher restrictions on full-contact drills have taken hold at all levels of football, mostly spurred by a heightened awareness of the devastating long-term damage that concussions can cause.

From high schools to colleges to the pros, the impact of that change is noticeable to everyone — especially those who are trying to avoid getting tackled.

"It's a lost art," said Falcons running back Steven Jackson, who had rushed for more than 11,000 yards in the NFL.

For pro teams, where the top players are making millions of dollars and rosters are limited to 53 players plus a small practice squad, one of the primary goals during the week is just making sure everybody is healthy for the game. Hitting in practice is simply not feasible, especially at this time of year when most teams are all beat up.

"Probably the most challenging thing is having your guys prepared and ready to tackle," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said, "because you don't have the opportunity to practice in pads."

There seems to be more hitting in practice at the college level, where the rosters are larger, but even then it's rare for a team to do full-scale tackling once the season begins.

At Georgia, like many schools, they do most of their work using "thud" drills, where the defensive players — wearing helmets and shoulder pads — are expected to do everything they would do during a normal tackle except take the offensive player to the ground.

"There are a lot of fundamental drills that are actually harder to do than tackling," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "Sometimes, you can just lay out, grab a guy, trip his heels, and that's considered tackling him. But when you're teaching to thud, you've got to have good body position, sink your hips, strike with your eyes up, then let the guy go. That takes more effort, more energy."

But most of the rule changes over the last decade or so were largely designed to increase scoring and penalize those who dole out especially brutal tackles. To some, that's made defensive players more hesitant to tackle the way they were always taught.

"They don't want you hitting with your head," Buffalo Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "They want you to arm tackle."

Good luck with that. Since there's so much emphasis on offense these days, it's inevitable that many of the biggest, fastest, strongest players end up on that side of the line.

At 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, Falcons safety Dwight Lowery is usually trying to bring down players who are bigger than he is.

"The athletes are different," Lowery said, with a knowing grin. "It would be interesting if you could take players from the past and bring them to the present."

For that matter, the old-timers never faced the sort of complex passing schemes that are the norm in today's NFL game. Teams used to line up most of the time with two running backs and a tight end, which essentially left all but two receivers jammed close to the ball. These days, teams line up with four or five receivers, intent of spreading the field as much as possible.

"There's so much more space in the game today than there was years ago," said Kevin Coyle, defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. "Years ago, teams were lining up with two backs and they were pounding the ball and everybody was crowding around the ball. Occasionally, you would get the ball thrown outside quickly. Nowadays, half to three-quarters of the game are the perimeter plays."

It's much the same in college, where spread formations and no-huddle offenses are all the rage.

"Space is the enemy in tackling," Richt said. "The more space they have, the harder they are to tackle."

Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has assembled some of the college game's greatest defenses, said the whole culture of practicing has changed, spurred on by the number of teams that run fast-paced offenses.

"I think it's more difficult to coach defensive players in practice," he said. "Do you practice fundamentals or do you practice the pace of play? Until recently, we always emphasized fundamentals, but we didn't play very well when the pace of play was faster. So this year, we put more emphasis on the pace of play."

Saban doesn't regret that decision.

But he recognizes the trade-off.

"I do think it has affected tackling."

___

AP Sports Writers John Wawrow in Buffalo; Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, New Jersey; John Zenor in Montgomery, Alabama; Steven Wine in Miami; Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri; Anne Peterson in Portland, Oregon; Dennis Waszak in New York; Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis; and AP freelance writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Florida contributed to this report.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

Monday 12/22/2014
Falcons hoping for 0-0 fresh start in playoffs
Posted: December 22, 2014

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Atlanta Falcons players have been wearing 1-0 shirts in recent weeks as a reminder to focus on one game instead of their ugly record.

The winner of Sunday's game between the Falcons (6-9) and Carolina (6-8-1) will clinch the NFC South and have a home playoff game. Wide receiver Julio Jones says the losing record won't matter because "when you get to the postseason, it's 0-0."

Atlanta remained in the playoff chase with Sunday's 30-14 win at New Orleans.

The Falcons may be playing to save coach Mike Smith's job. They are assured of their second straight losing record after five straight winning seasons under Smith.

Smith said Monday he has not been distracted by speculation about his status.

___

Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Charles Odum on Twitter at www.twitter.com/CharlesOdum

QB Jameis Winston cleared in conduct hearing
Posted: December 22, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was cleared Sunday of the accusations he faced at a student code of conduct hearing involving an alleged sexual assault two years ago.

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding wrote in a letter to Winston that the evidence was "insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof." Prosecutor Willie Meggs made a similar decision a year ago when he decided not to criminally charge Winston, citing a lack of evidence.

This month, a two-day hearing was held to determine whether Winston violated four sections of the code of conduct — two for sexual misconduct and two for endangerment.

The ramifications for Winston ranged from a reprimand to expulsion from school.

The woman can request an appeal within five days.

"We will consider an appeal but right now we feel a little duped," Baine Kerr, one of the woman's lawyers, said in an emailed statement. "At some point we have to recognize that Florida State is never going to hold James Winston responsible."

AP is not identifying the woman because it does not identify people who say they are victims of sexual abuse.

"Somehow Jameis Winston still wins," Kerr said. "The order doesn't even follow the Student Conduct Code and it ignores the bulk of the evidence."

Kerr said that between his client, Winston, and two teammates that were at the off-campus apartment — Chris Casher and Ronald Darby — only the woman would answer questions about what happened.

Winston did submit a lengthy statement detailing his version of events.

Florida State president John Thrasher said the university selected the former state Supreme Court justice to remove any doubt about the integrity of the process.

"He (Harding) conducted a thorough Student Conduct Code hearing and reviewed more than 1,000 pages of evidence generated by three other investigations, and we would like to thank him sincerely for his service," Thrasher said.

Harding wrote that both sides' version of the events had strengths and weaknesses, but he did not find the credibility of one "substantially stronger than the other."

"In sum, the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for any of the charged violations of the Code," Harding wrote.

Winston family adviser David Cornwell did not respond to requests for comment.

Cornwell has contended that attorneys for the former student pushed for the hearing after they were rebuffed in an attempt to reach a settlement with Winston.

Florida State faces Oregon in the College Football Playoffs semifinal on Jan. 1. Before the ruling, there were questions whether Winston would be available to play. The Seminoles won a national championship with Winston at the helm last season and have not lost a game since he earned the starting job before the beginning of the 2013 season.

Florida State is currently being investigated by the Department of Education on how hit handles possible Title IX violations. The woman who said Winston assaulted her filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which decided the university should be investigated for possible Title IX violations over the way it responds to sexual violence complaints.

Title IX is a federal statute that bans discrimination at schools that receive federal funding. The Department of Education in 2011 warned schools of their legal responsibilities to immediately investigate allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence, even if the criminal investigation has not concluded.

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