Best Sports Stuff Right Now: Wild Cards, Triple-Doubles and Trade Rumors

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2017

Best Sports Stuff Right Now: Wild Cards, Triple-Doubles and Trade Rumors

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The sporting world continues to put its best foot forward to make sure fans start the new year off right.

    As the NFL closes the books on a season and the playoffs begin, college football gets ready to crown a national champion and the NBA steps on the accelerator.

    Oh, and don't forget that those NFL fans who don't have teams in the playoffs have already popped open a mock draft or three.

    With draft season in its infancy, coaching searches underway and everything at stake, the new year looks ready to set the bar high for the march through 2017. Here's a look at the best stuff of the week.

2017 Starts with Grand Expectations

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    Let Alshon Jeffery tell it: His Chicago Bears will win the Super Bowl in 2017.

    Hey, it's important to start the year on a positive note. Still, Jeffery's Bears won only three games in 2016, and he played in only 12, missing four because of a suspension and catching just 52 passes for 821 yards and two touchdowns when on the field.

    Then again, Jeffery could be talking about his next team—he's headed to free agency this offseason.

    But hey, be like Jeffery and tackle the new calendar with confidence.

Heisman Trophy Race Starts One Year Early

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    This year's Heisman Trophy race is already a thing of the past—thank Sam Darnold and Trace McSorley.

    Darnold's No. 9 USC Trojans just downed the No. 5 Penn State Nittany Lions in Monday's Rose Bowl, 52-49.

    There, the two engaged in an epic standoff, with Darnold tossing five scores and McSorley coming in at four. Fitting, really, as USC's super freshman is the reason the program turned it around after a miserable start to the season. He tossed 31 touchdowns on the year, while McSorley led a similar renaissance for the Nittany Lions.

    It was a show for the ages, though the kicker should have a fan's jaw on the floor—it was just a preview of the race between the two set to begin next season with a Heisman swinging in the balance.

Legends Say Farewell

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    In some ways, the dawn of a new year also creates bittersweet goodbyes.

    This is especially true in the NFL realm, where notably Baltimore Ravens wideout Steve Smith has decided to hang up the cleats.

    Selected in the 2001 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers, Smith finished with 14,731 receiving yards and 81 touchdowns over a legendary career.

    Of note, Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis has also decided to retire. A year after losing Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and others, 2017 is off to a strong start—for better or worse.

Historic Harden Has Rockets Rolling

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    Anybody who declared the Houston Rockets dead in the deep Western Conference after Dwight Howard's departure didn't have a chat with James Harden.

    The Beard is out of his mind this year, averaging 28.4 points, 11.9 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game. The final two numbers are huge jumps compared to the year prior. He's shooting 44.5 percent from the floor—also up from last season—and 35.6 percent from deep.

    The capper, of course, is the above-mentioned 50-point outing. This ridiculous play has the Rockets sitting third in the conference and only a few games out of first place, making Houston one of the most underrated must-watch teams of 2017.

Isaiah Thomas on MVP Pace?

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    Don't look now, but Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is crushing childhood dreams and disrupting the Eastern Conference at the same time.

    After bouncing through a few teams, the Washington product has a true home in Boston, where he currently has career-high averages of 27.7 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the floor.

    The result? Boston sits only a few games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors in the conference. If Thomas keeps crushing it on a nightly basis, he'll be a household name outside of the Greater Boston area in a hurry, and those MVP chants might turn to reality.

Peak Rodgers Has Packers Thinking Super Bowl

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    The man told you it was coming.

    Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said the team wouldn't lose another game, and it didn't, ticking off six straight wins to claim the NFC North.

    Gone went the questions about Rodgers as a leader and player; in came the Packers playing with confidence and his rediscovering a deep ball, as The MMQB's Peter King described.

    "Since then he's taken some of his best shots downfield. Eighteen touchdowns and no interceptions later (his totals since that night in Washington), Rodgers has the Packers back in the playoffs. And watching them now, they're not a team you want to play in January," King wrote.

    Rodgers has the Packers confident and looks like an MVP, which should scare the heck out of their next opponent, the New York Giants—not to mention the rest of the playoff bracket.

Jay Ajayi Looks to Run over Steelers Again, Continue Cinderella Story

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    Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi is one of the best non-quarterback stories of the playoffs.

    Ajayi came out of nowhere this year to rush for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns. Good starter numbers, but what should really impress onlookers are his three outings of 200 or more rushing yards.

    One of those outings came against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 30-15 victory in Week 6. Now Ajayi looks to do much of the same in the playoffs against those same Steelers.

    Ajayi personifies the Dolphins well: a 10-win team that surged to the postseason despite enduring a 1-4 start, with the only win an overtime escape of the Cleveland Browns. As such, he'll decide outright if the AFC has a new serious contender.

The Bulls Are Who We Thought They Were...for Now

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    It all looked so good on paper—Dwyane Wade would return home, pair with Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, and be the glue that kept it all together.

    OK, so most didn't read that without smirking because like the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls took a five-years-ago-this-worked-on-paper approach to the roster.

    ESPN.com's Zach Lowe pointed out the biggest issue in the Windy City:

    After a hot start, Chicago looks exactly like the punchless, clogged-up outfit most of us expected when they cornered the market on bad 3-point shooters. The Bulls are down to 17th in points per possession, and over the last month, they're tied in the basement with the Lakers, per NBA.com. They're dead stinking last, by a mile, in both 3-point attempts and shooting accuracy from deep. Their point guard situation is a disaster.

    Nobody would suggest the Bulls can't turn this thing around, even at 16-18 and behind the Knicks in the conference.

    But because of the struggles, the Bulls now become one of the most interesting teams to watch over the course of the next couple of months—and intrigue around teams is never a bad thing.

Sean Payton and the NFL's Coaching Carousel Heats Up

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton headlines the wacky rumor season assaulting the NFL realm right now.

    Payton is still the head coach of the Saints and says he plans to honor his contract with the team, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, but various rumors keep linking him to places such as the Los Angeles Rams.

    Either way, the Rams job isn't the only gig worth a major raise of the eyebrow right now—the San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos all have openings.

    So yes—strap in for a crazy ride with surefire twists and turns, if not a loop or two. Oh, and without a guaranteed exit.

Draft Season Officially Begins...

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    This might come as a shock to some (sarcasm font enabled), but the Browns lead the way at No. 1 overall as draft season begins in earnest.

    A quick Google search reveals an army of mock drafts just got unleashed upon the globe, which is a great distraction from a campaign of whiffed expectations for the fans of teams out of the playoffs.

    Myles Garrett, Mitch Trubisky, Jabrill Peppers and Leonard Fournette are just a sampling of the names fans will pray for in the coming months with the process officially underway.

    In a way, it's fitting the fans not rooting for something in the playoffs have something new to look forward to that coincides with the dawn of a new year.

...as Does NBA Trade-Rumor Season

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    At the start of the year, intentional or not, the NBA tries to match the hype of NFL draft season by trotting out the rumors.

    This holds true in 2017, with rumblings suggesting the Atlanta Hawks will listen to offers for starting forward Paul Millsap, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein.

    While not the most exciting rumor in the world, the fifth-place Hawks clearly need a shakeup, and the 31-year-old Millsap, who still averages 17.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, could act as a key cog for a title contender.

    In other words, it is a fitting way to get rumor season started.

Clemson and Alabama Prep for Epic Title Game

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    A new year beginning with a rematch isn't a terrible situation, provided that rematch is epic and folks wouldn't mind seeing it.

    Few would suggest a rematch of last year's College Football Playoff National Championship between the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide is a bad thing.

    Clemson, revenge on the mind, slammed through the schedule and took one loss by a single point along the way before laughing Ohio State out of the building 31-0 in the CFP semifinals.

    Alabama did what it usually does, repeat on the mind, cruising through a tough SEC schedule before holding a hyped Washington offense to seven points in its semifinal game.

    The collision on Monday, January 9, won't blow up our planet or anything, but it's not something to miss.

Wild Card Weekend Promises Fireworks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Speaking of rematches to start the new year, the NFL Wild Card Round features a handful.

    Fans will get to see the Oakland Raiders attempt to take down the Houston Texans for the second time this year, though this time without starting quarterback Derek Carr. The other AFC matchup also features a rematch, as the Dolphins look to cap off a shocking season with another takedown of the Steelers.

    On the NFC side, the Packers hosting the Giants is a rematch of an encounter from the regular season that went to the Packers. The Detroit Lions visiting the Seattle Seahawks is a fresh encounter and quite a welcome one between a pair of elite defenses.

    Moral of the story? Unlike many years, this year's opening round boasts eight believable Super Bowl champions thanks to teams one could feasibly see getting hot at just the right time and making a run.