National Sports Headlines from NBC Sports

Bobby Bowden's grandson killed in crash

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) Former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden's grandson was one of two men killed when their car flipped into a small ditch off a central Florida road, officials said Thursday.

Taylor Jeffrey Bowden, 23, and driver Rafael Fernandes De Aguiar Valim, 25, died in the crash, according to a news release from the Polk County Sheriff's Office. A third man in the crash - 22-year-old Robert Lewis Edwards - was rescued after spending hours in water up to his neck.

"Our whole family had just celebrated Christmas together in Panama City, as well as celebrated T.J.'s graduation from Florida State just three weeks ago," Bobby Bowden said in a statement released by the University of Akron, where son Terry is the football coach. "We will cherish those last memories together with T.J. forever."

T.J. Bowden was the son of Jeff Bowden, a former Florida State assistant coach under his father who is now on brother Terry's staff at Akron.

"I can't express the grief I feel right now," Jeff Bowden said in a statement. "Please keep us in your prayers."

A trash collector reported the submerged car at 7:47 a.m. The Mitsubishi wasn't very visible from the road, but the Florida Refuse truck was high enough to allow the worker to see it.

At first, Winter Haven police, sheriff's deputies, paramedics and the sheriff's office dive team who responded couldn't find survivors. The front end of the care was completely submerged, while part of the back end was sticking up out of the water.

More than three hours later, dive team members in the water heard noises coming from in the car. They were able to communicate with Edwards, who said he was cold and needed help. After several minutes, Edwards was out of the water and he was being treated for hypothermia and other injuries at a hospital.

The dive team then located the bodies of Bowden and De Aguiar Valim.

The details of the crash were being investigated, but alcohol appears to be a factor, the sheriff's office reported.

Deputies have attempted to talk to Edwards about what happened but said he wasn't lucid. It appears that the car was heading north on Country Club Road when it cross the southbound lane, crashed through a fence, went down an embankment and came to a rest upside down in the water.

Bobby Bowden led the Seminoles from 1976 to 2009. The 84-year-old holds the NCAA Division I record for career wins and bowl victories and won two national championships.

In September 2004, Bobby Bowden's grandson, 15-year-old Bowden Madden, and former son-in-law, John Allen Madden, were killed when their car was hit a by a utility truck that was helping to restore power outages caused by Hurricane Frances.

Cowboys' Bryant misses practice, plans to play

IRVING, Texas (AP) Dallas receiver Dez Bryant says he will play in a winner-take-all finale against Philadelphia despite missing practice because of a persistent back problem.

Bryant was downgraded on the practice report Thursday, a day after being a limited participant when the back flared up. He said he aggravated his back in the 24-23 win over Washington.

The Cowboys (8-7) play the Eagles (9-6) on Sunday night in their third straight season-ender with the NFC East title and a playoff berth on the line.

Bryant said he planned to have doctors take a closer look at his back after the season. He had back problems last season as well.

Receiver/kick returner Dwayne Harris (hamstring) was upgraded to a full participant.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Nnamdi Asomugha to retire after 11 seasons

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) Former All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha will retire after 11 years in the NFL.

The Raiders said Asomugha will announce his retirement officially at a news conference at team headquarters Friday.

Asomugha had his greatest success in the NFL with the Raiders after being drafted in the first round out of California in 2003. He earned three Pro Bowl selections in eight seasons in Oakland and was a first-team All-Pro in 2008 and 2010.

Asomugha struggled after joining Philadelphia as a high-profile free agent in 2011. After two seasons with the Eagles, Asomugha played three games with San Francisco this season before being cut last month.

Packers' Rodgers back, to start Bears game

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Aaron Rodgers has been cleared to return from a left collarbone injury, just in time to start Sunday for the Packers against the Chicago Bears in a game to decide the NFC North title.

With no advance warning and little fanfare, the franchise quarterback received the long-awaited good news at the same time as the rest of his teammates Thursday.

"This is a fun day for me, but I think the focus needs to be on this game and the opportunity we have to win the division," Rodgers said.

Soon enough. But the spotlight for now is squarely on the return of one of the NFL's most irreplaceable players.

Green Bay (7-7-1) is 2-5-1 since Rodgers went down during the first series of a 27-20 loss Nov. 4 to Chicago. The Packers have managed to hang on, with a shot to win a third straight division title with a victory Sunday at Soldier Field.

"I'll start with the announcement that we're preparing for the Chicago Bears with Aaron Rodgers as our starting quarterback," coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Thursday after practice.

Win and Green Bay returns to Lambeau Field the following weekend to host a wild-card team in the first round of the playoffs.

"We're in it. You know we have a chance against our rivals, and what a better way than to go down there and get some redemption and host a home playoff game," Rodgers said.

The last two months have been filled with angst for Packers fans. Discussions about whether Rodgers should risk future injury or return to bolster Green Bay's playoff chances have filled sports talk radio shows and holiday office parties.

Now imagine what it was like for the Packers' brass and team doctor. The organization made a big investment in Rodgers this past offseason, signing him to a five-year contract extension through the 2019 season worth as much as $110 million.

"Every football player that plays in this game Sunday will have risk. I think we all understand that," McCarthy said. "So we've done our due diligence. We've gone through all the evaluations and we feel it is time. Aaron is ready to play."

Finally at 8:05 a.m. Thursday, McCarthy gave the official word at a team meeting. No rousing speeches or rounds of applause.

"The scene? We were sitting in the team room and he told us," Rodgers said matter-of-factly. "That was the scene."

Rodgers is returning just when pass-rushing linebacker Clay Matthews is leaving the lineup again with a right thumb injury. Green Bay also has gone the majority of the season without tight end Jermichael Finley (neck). Projected starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga went down in training camp. Defensive end Johnny Jolly (shoulder/neck) was the latest Packer to get knocked out for the year last week.

Still, the Packers managed to start 5-2 despite the injuries with Rodgers leading the offense.

Things changed drastically after the 2011 NFL MVP got hurt on a sack while scrambling out of the pocket in the Week 9 loss to Chicago at Lambeau Field. The Packers went on a five-game winless skid, shuffling through three more starting quarterbacks.

Green Bay then won two straight with backup Matt Flynn before falling 38-31 last week to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Losses by Chicago and the Detroit Lions set up the winner-take-all finale Sunday with the Bears for the division.

Rodgers' impending return wasn't the only good injury news Thursday in Titletown.

Rookie running back Eddie Lacy was held out of practice with a lingering ankle injury, though McCarthy expects his 1,100-yard rusher to play Sunday. Playmaking receiver Randall Cobb, out since Week 6 with a leg injury, is moving well in practice and appears to be getting closer to returning.

While he won't make the final call, Cobb said "This week in practice I'm going out and preparing to play."

And now with Rodgers back, positive vibes are reverberating through the locker room.

Rodgers has gained added perspective from having to watch from the sideline with a headset. He's been there to help Flynn. He understands that every move he makes in Chicago will be dissected by armchair quarterbacks.

"It's easy to talk about it with you guys and understand the risks," he said. "But when you're out on the field, it's about performing and playing and not worrying about it."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP

Manchester United fights back to beat Hull 3-2

HULL, England (AP) - Manchester United was gifted a winner by former defender James Chester as the English Premier League champion came from two goals down to beat Hull 3-2 on Thursday.

Ashley Young's cross was inadvertently headed by Chester into his own net in the 66th minute, allowing United to claim a third straight league win.

"We had to dig deep with our fighting spirit and we've done that," United striker Wayne Rooney said. "It was poor defending for the two goals."

Chester, a product of the United academy who made only one first team appearance, scored the opening goal with a fourth-minute volley. United conceded again in the 13th when David Meyler's shot deflected in off United defender Jonny Evans.

But Rooney's free kick was headed in by Chris Smalling in the 19th, and the striker volleyed in the equalizer seven minutes later.

After Chester's own-goal, United was reduced to 10 men in stoppage time. Antonio Valencia received a second booking for time wasting after kicking the ball away.

"We've had some poor results at the start of the season and we have shown some real quality in the last few weeks," Rooney said. "We are having a go."

United, which was eight points behind league leader Arsenal, arrived late at KC Stadium due to traffic problems.

United had to phone in the team sheet, which included Darren Fletcher in the starting lineup for the first time since last December following treatment for a bowel disorder.

It was Hull which made the brighter start, and scored with the first chance of the game.

Tom Huddlestone delivered a corner into the box where Alex Bruce got above Patrice Evra to head toward the far post.

United striker Danny Welbeck was slow to come off the line but Chester was one step ahead, advancing to volley into the roof of the net.

Meyler then drove Hull into the penalty area and stayed up to collect Yannick Sagbo's cutback across the box. Meyler's first connection was wayward but Evans allowed him a second chance with a sloppy clearance that came back to the Irishman.

The resulting shot would not have troubled goalkeeper David de Gea, but Evans again intervened, wrong-footing the Spaniard and turning the ball into his own net.

An apparent groin injury to defender Rafael da Silva gave Moyes a chance to change things, and the manager made a determined move in sending on winger Adnan Januzaj.

He had an almost immediate impact, winning a 19th-minute free kick from which United scored.

Rooney provided the hanging cross from the right and Smalling produced a clinical header that went inside the far post.

As United regained confidence, Rooney netted the goal of the game. He controlled Evans' long ball effortlessly with his back to goal before flicking an overhead pass to Welbeck.

When it came back to Rooney, via a combination of Welbeck and Curtis Davies, the England striker took another deft touch before sending in a fierce 30-yard volley.

Bruce had to reshuffle at the interval, Steve Harper on for McGregor and Robert Koren replacing Meyler. But the hosts once more came out brightly, with Davies glancing a header and Huddlestone denied by a ricochet off Evra.

Man City beats Liverpool as Arsenal goes top of Premier League

MANCHESTER, England (AP) - Arsenal is on top of the Premier League heading into the second half of the season as Arsene Wenger looks to win the trophy for the first time in a decade.

Theo Walcott's double ensured Liverpool's stay atop the standings lasted less than a week as Arsenal came from behind to win 3-1 at West Ham and its title rival lost 2-1 at Manchester City on Thursday.

As Liverpool dropped to fourth, City climbed a place to second to sit a point behind Arsenal after the traditional Boxing Day program that saw every team in action.

Chelsea is wedged inbetween City and Liverpool in third after Eden Hazard's swerving shot secured a 1-0 victory over Swansea.

With Manchester United recovering to win 3-2 at Hull, it was left to bottom-place Sunderland to conjure the only Boxing Day shock by beating highflying Everton.

Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard was sent off for bringing down Ki Sung-Yeung, who then scored from the penalty spot to give Sunderland a 1-0 victory against the fifth-place team.

Newcastle in closing in on the top four after routing Stoke 5-1 to remain ahead of United in sixth place.

Tottenham dropped to eighth after Tim Sherwood's first match in full charge ended in a 1-1 draw against West Bromwich Albion.

Cardiff could be the next club searching for a new manager as Malky Mackay's side was beaten 3-0 by Southampton.

A change of manager has sparked a revival at Crystal Palace, with Tony Pulis producing a third success of the month after Dwight Gayle clinched a 1-0 win at Aston Villa in stoppage time.

Rene Meulensteen is celebrating his second win as Fulham manager after his struggling team came from behind to overcome Norwich 2-1.

At Upton Park, Arsenal fell behind when goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny spilled Kevin Nolan's shot and Carlton Cole pounced to score a minute into the second half.

West Ham goalkeeper Adrian was also culpable for Arsenal's equalizer, with Walcott cutting in from the right and shooting between his legs in the 68th.

Walcott headed Arsenal in front three minutes later, and Lukas Podolski rounded off the win that sent West Ham into the relegation zone.

City also had to come from behind to make it nine wins out of nine at home.

Phillippe Coutinho put Liverpool ahead in the 24th minute after Raheem Sterling rounded City goalkeeper Joe Hart to set him up.

Vincent Kompany headed City level seven minutes later after meeting David Silva's corner, and Alvaro Negredo's high shot was fumbled into the net by Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet on the stroke of halftime.

At Hull, United conceded twice in 13 minutes after traffic delayed the team's journey.

Former United youth team player Alex Bruce rose above Patrice Evra and headed a corner on for James Chester who volleyed in his first league goal. Chester made just one appearance for United - in 2009 - and, after several spells away from Old Trafford on loan, the defender moved to Hull in 2011.

United's defense was breached again when David Meyler's shot deflected off Jonny Evans past goalkeeper David de Gea.

United's comeback began with Chris Smalling heading in Wayne Rooney's free kick, and by the 26th minute, the visitors were level. Rooney played a one-two with Danny Welbeck before volleying in his 150th league goal for United from the edge of the area.

United was gifted the winner in the 66th when Young's cross was inadvertently headed into his own net by Chester.

Newcastle also fell behind at home to Stoke but the comeback began after the visitors had two players sent off in the last five minutes of the first half.

Glenn Whelan earned a second yellow card, and Marc Wilson was given a straight red card three minutes later for hauling Remy down inside the box.

Loic Remy's penalty was saved by Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen but he equalized seconds later with a deflected effort.

After the break, Yoan Gouffran quickly put Newcastle in front before Remy scored his second, while Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse also netted.

On a day of comebacks, Scott Parker scored in the 87th to give Fulham a much-needed win at Norwich after Pajtim Kasami canceled out Gary Hooper's opener for hosts.

At Cardiff, all the goals came in the first half, with Jay Rodriguez netting twice and Rickie Lambert completing a comfortable win for Southampton.

Gamecocks' Clowney pulled over again for speeding

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has been pulled over again for going at least 25 mph over the speed limit.

Clowney was stopped around 10:30 a.m. Thursday going 84 mph in a 55 mph zone on Interstate 26 near Interstate 126, about 5 miles from the Gamecocks' campus, Columbia Police said..

The traffic stop happened about an hour before the Gamecocks flew to Florida for the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin. The game will be the junior's last for the Gamecocks as he leaves school early for the NFL draft.

It's Clowney's second ticket in three weeks. On Dec. 7, state troopers say Clowney was going 110 mph in a 70 mph zone.

South Carolina's Steve Spurrier was asked about Clowney's latest ticket after the team landed in Orlando, and the coach did not sound too concerned.

"He needs to go to driving school doesn't he? Somebody told me he got another speeding ticket today," Spurrier said. "At least he'll have enough money to pay for it a week or so from now. He needs to go to driving school. Hopefully they'll send him there after the bowl game."

Drivers pleading guilty for going at least 25 mph over the speed limit in South Carolina get six points. State law allows a license to be suspended after 12 points.

LeBron James wins AP Male Athlete of the Year

MIAMI (AP) The only thing that keeps LeBron James up worrying at night is basketball, which simultaneously makes perfect sense and no sense.

On one hand, he's the game's best player.

On the other, he's rarely impressed with himself.

Even after a year like 2013 - when a spectacular wedding, a second NBA championship and a fourth MVP award were among the many highlights enjoyed by the Miami Heat star - he still is, as he puts it, striving for greatness. Or, technically, more greatness, since his enormous list of accomplishments just keeps growing.

James was announced Thursday as The Associated Press' 2013 Male Athlete of the Year, becoming the third basketball player to capture the award that has been annually awarded since 1931. James received 31 of 96 votes cast in a poll of news organizations, beating Peyton Manning (20) and Jimmie Johnson (7).

"I'm chasing something and it's bigger than me as a basketball player," James told the AP. "I believe my calling is much higher than being a basketball player. I can inspire people. Youth is huge to me. If I can get kids to look at me as a role model, as a leader, a superhero ... those things mean so much, and that's what I think I was built for. I was put here for this lovely game of basketball, but I don't think this is the biggest role that I'm going to have."

Past winners include Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Carl Lewis, Joe Montana, Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps. Serena Williams was the AP Female Athlete of the Year, announced Wednesday.

James joins Michael Jordan and Larry Bird as NBA players to win the award.

"I don't think I've changed much this year," James said. "I've just improved and continued to improve on being more than just as a basketball player. I've matured as a leader, as a father, as a husband, as a friend."

So far in 2013, with a maximum of three games left to play, James has appeared in 98. The Heat have won 78 of them.

None of those was bigger than the four Miami got in the NBA Finals against San Antonio. In Game 7, James was at his best, scoring 37 points, including the jump shot with 27.9 seconds left that essentially was the clincher.

"He always rises to the occasion when it matters the most," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Business-wise, James is booming. Some estimate his annual income around $60 million, less than one-third of that being made on the court. His wife has opened a juice bar in Miami, and David Beckham wants James to be part of the Major League Soccer team he plans on bringing to South Florida in the next couple years.

Countless people want to align with James. Few make him listen. Beckham did.

"You want to be a part of it, but it has to feel real to you," James said. "You don't want to do something that doesn't feel much to you, that you're just doing for the money. We all have money. For me, my time is more than money at this point in my life."

James has another "decision" to make in 2014. He can become a free agent again this summer, though still smarting from the circus atmosphere that followed him during his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers four years ago, James is staying largely silent on what might happen.

He insists he has no idea.

"I'm so zoned in on what my task is here this year that it's hard to think about anything else," James said. "A guy the other day asked me what I'm going to do for New Year's, and I haven't even thought about that."

When asked if there's anything he doesn't like about Miami, James offered few complaints, other than the often-clogged street - Biscayne Boulevard, or U.S. 1 - that leads to the arena the Heat call home.

"What is there not to like about Miami?" James said. "It is a home. My family is very happy; I'm very comfortable. But U.S. 1? I wish that was a highway."

Bear in mind, he's not always unhappy when that street is gridlocked.

The last two years, he's been largely responsible for hundreds of thousands of people lining that road for Heat championship parades.

And if he gets his way, they'll be back next June.

Mich. State LB Bullough suspended for Rose Bowl

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Michigan State has suspended senior linebacker Max Bullough for violating team rules, making him ineligible to play in the Rose Bowl.

In a news release sent early Thursday, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Bullough had been suspended for the rest of the season. He did not say what rules the two-time team captain violated.

"It is extremely disappointing for all parties involved," Dantonio said.

The No. 4 Spartans will play No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif. It is Michigan State's seventh straight bowl game and first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 26 seasons.

Bullough, from Traverse City, had 76 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss this season, earning him third-team All-America honors and first-team All-Big Ten honors. He has 299 career tackles and made 40 consecutive starts.

Playing for Michigan State has been a family affair. Max Bullough's grandfather, Hank Bullough, played for Michigan State in the early 1950s, and his father Shane followed in the mid-1980s. Two of Max Bullough's uncles were Spartans and his younger brother Riley is a redshirt freshman.

"Max will forever remain a Spartan and valued member in this team's achievements," Dantonio said in the statement.

No. 14 Iowa State beats Boise State 70-66

HONOLULU (AP) DeAndre Kane scored 23 points and No. 14 Iowa State overcame its worst half of the season to beat Boise State 70-66 on Wednesday in the Diamond Head Classic championship game.

Kane hit a 3-pointer with less than 2 minutes left to help seal the win for the Cyclones (11-0). Boise State's Derrick Marks had a chance to tie with less than 30 seconds left, but missed a 15-foot jumper.

Melvin Ejim had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

The win gives Iowa State its best start to a season in school history.

Derrick Marks had 23 points for Boise State (10-3).

Iowa State came back after making less than a third of its shots in the first half.

Ward earned tournament MVP honors for his three-game performance.

Harden-Howard duo helps Rockets get by Spurs

SAN ANTONIO (AP) James Harden scored 28 points and Dwight Howard had 15 points and 20 rebounds, leading the balanced Houston Rockets to a 111-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.

Each of Houston's starters scored in double figures as the Rockets improved to 2-0 against the Spurs this season, with both victories coming on the road. They also moved within 3 1/2 games of San Antonio (22-7) for the lead the Southwest Division.

Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones each scored 21 points for the Rockets (19-11), who shot 52 percent from the field. Jeremy Lin had 13 points, eight assists and just one turnover.

The Spurs have dropped two of three and split their last six games. They are just 3-6 over the last month against teams with a record above .500.

Super sub Manu Ginobili led San Antonio with 22 points, and Tim Duncan added 11 points and 14 rebounds. Kawhi Leonard had 13 points, but Tony Parker was held to six points on 3-for-11 shooting.

San Antonio never recovered after Houston raced out to a 27-9 lead. The Spurs were unable to stop Parsons' long shots, Harden's drives, Howard in the paint or Jones on the boards for follow ups.

After trailing by 18 points in the first half, San Antonio made a couple of charges in the second half but couldn't get the defensive stops necessary to complete the rallies.

Leonard's three-point play on Howard's fourth foul pulled San Antonio to 71-64 with 4:47 left in the third. The Spurs closed to 73-71 before Harden and Lin began draining long jumpers to help the Rockets pull away again.

Harden closed out the victory, scoring 16 points in the final quarter. His second 3 of the game made it 100-90 with 5 minutes remaining.

NOTES: Rockets G Patrick Beverley (right hand) and C Omer Asik (thigh contusion) missed the game. ... Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones sat courtside, a row in front of David Robinson's customary seats. The actor laughed and applauded when The Coyote, the Spurs' mascot, snuck beside him disguised as a Christmas tree. ... Terrence Jones pushed Matt Bonner after the Spurs' reserve forward wrapped up Howard high after the Rockets star grabbed his third offensive rebound on one possession. Duncan stepped between, putting his hand in Jones' chest and pushing him away before officials broke up the gathering. ... While the Rockets got smatterings of cheers throughout the game, Howard was lustily booed whenever he attempted a free throw or entered the game.

Chargers expect Mathews to play despite ankle injury

SAN DIEGO (AP) Chargers rookie coach Mike McCoy expects running back Ryan Mathews to play against the Kansas City Chiefs despite missing practice Wednesday because of an injured left ankle.

"It's as simple as that," McCoy said.

Mathews wore a walking boot to protect his ankle Wednesday. He has played in all 15 games despite leaving one game with a concussion and two others with a hamstring injury.

"There's a big difference between being injured and being hurt," Mathews said. "I'm just trying to work hard and be there for my teammates, and that's all that matters, being there for my teammates."

For Mathews, drafted 12th overall in 2010, it would be his first season without missing a game. He has rushed for a career-high 1,111 yards in helping the Chargers (8-7) stay in playoff contention.

"I try to be as good as I can be for the linemen up front," he said. "They block their tails off."

Mathews was hurt during a 26-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. He ran for 99 yards and a touchdown. He left in the second half but briefly returned to the game.

"He's doing fine," McCoy said. "He'll be ready. He's got a great frame of mind right now. I'm looking forward to him having another big game."

The Chargers remain a long-shot to earn the AFC's No. 2 wild-card berth. They need to beat the Chiefs and have Miami and Baltimore both lose or both tie. San Diego also can get in if it ties Kansas City and the Dolphins and Ravens both lose.

No Kobe on Christmas; says recovery is 'slow'

LOS ANGELES (AP) Kobe Bryant wasn't happy about spending Christmas Day on the sideline, unable to help the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.

It's a place he's unaccustomed to being on the holiday. Bryant leads the NBA with a record 15 appearances on Christmas Day, but he's out an expected four to six weeks with a fracture in his left knee.

"It's strange to be coming in on Christmas and not playing," he said before the Lakers' 101-95 loss to the Miami Heat on Wednesday. "It's a foreign feeling, but I'm here to support my guys."

LeBron James and Co. have won six in a row, and Lakers have dropped three straight.

Bryant's injury was diagnosed last week, his second major one of the season.

He didn't play his first game until Dec. 8 after nearly eight months away while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Then he got hurt again Dec. 17 at Memphis while playing his fourth game in five nights.

"I was fortunate that it was not a meniscus," he said.

Initially, Bryant didn't think he was seriously hurt against Memphis. He went down late in the third quarter, but returned to finish out the victory in which he logged a season-high 21 points in 32 minutes.

"I didn't know it was fractured," he said. "I was expecting a bone bruise more than anything else. I thought (the doctor) was joking when he told me."

Bryant has been limited to riding a bike; he isn't supposed to put any pressure on his knee.

"It's just been slow in terms of laying off it and letting it heal," he said. "When you don't have activity, you got to watch the other parts like nutrition."

Typical of Bryant's attention to detail, he said he has been reading critical comments that suggest he won't return this season.

"It's the same old tune, just being sung a little more loudly now," he said. "These type of things just help me lock in more."

Asked if there's any chance he won't be back, Bryant replied, "Not that I'm aware of."

Los Angeles signed the 35-year-old guard to a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension in November.

James, along with other NBA players, tweeted out well wishes to Bryant, although the two superstars haven't talked.

"Especially games like today, you want to have the best guys out there," James said.

After the Achilles injury, Bryant expressed rare self-doubt. He hasn't felt any this time.

"The knee is not really a concern to me," he said. "The biggest question was would the Achilles respond to my game. It felt fine. It was strong."

Bryant was looking forward to playing against the defending NBA champions as a way to see where he was physically with his Achilles.

"This was a really big measuring stick," he said.

Instead, he sat at the end of the bench wearing a black suit and print T-shirt. He sat on a chair with extra inches of padding, likely to take stress off his left knee.

"My spirits are fine," he said. "I feel more locked in now than my entire career."

Heat fend off Lakers to pick up 6th straight victory

LOS ANGELES (AP) Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade had 23 points apiece, and the Miami Heat beat the Los Angeles Lakers 101-95 on Wednesday for their sixth straight win.

Bosh also had 11 rebounds in the Heat's fifth consecutive victory against the Lakers on Christmas Day. LeBron James added 19 points and Ray Allen had 12.

Miami shot 51 percent (41 for 80) from the field while improving to 7-0 against the Western Conference this season. It was its 19th straight win overall against West opponents.

Nick Young scored 20 points for the Lakers, who were tied four times in the fourth quarter. Los Angeles shot 42 percent (33 for 79) in its third straight loss.

Kobe Bryant was relegated to the sideline with his fractured left knee, leaving him unable to extend his NBA-record Christmas Day appearances to 16. Jodie Meeks had 17 points for Los Angeles, Xavier Henry scored 14 and Pau Gasol had 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Jordan Farmar returned from a left hamstring tear after missing 10 games, giving the Lakers a true point guard to run the offense. But he was ineffective, with three points and two assists in 32 minutes.

The Lakers stayed right with the Heat despite their poor shooting and the absence of Bryant, Steve Nash (nerve root irritation) and Steve Blake (right elbow). They led by 10 points and never trailed by more than that.

Young's basket tied the game for the last time at 83-all. The Heat promptly took off on a 13-5 run. Wade, Norris Cole and James scored all of the Heat's points.

Young answered with his fourth 3-pointer of the game and Meeks made 1 of 2 free throws to pull the Lakers to 96-92 with 1:26 to play. But Wade had an acrobatic reverse layup and James made two foul shots to give Miami some breathing room.

Young scored 12 points in the third, when the Lakers trailed by nine before scoring the final seven points of the period, capped by Young's 3-pointer, to trail 76-74 heading into the fourth.

Allen and Wade combined to score the Heat's first 13 points of the second, with Allen hitting 3-pointers to bookend the run and pull the Heat into a 34-all tie.

Bosh took over and scored 10 points in a row, including a layup that gave Miami just its second lead of the game, 40-39. James interrupted Bosh's offensive spurt with a one-handed dunk off Wade's fast-break alley oop before Bosh made three of four free throws to extend the Heat's lead to 51-41. The Lakers scored the final two baskets to trail 51-46 at the break.

NOTES: The Lakers played for the 40th time on Christmas and fell to 21-19, including 13-10 at home. ... Miami improved to 8-2 on the holiday, including 5-2 on the road. ... The Lakers used their 14th different starting lineup through 29 games. ... The teams played with sleeves on their jerseys. ... The Heat wore a mix of holiday-themed red and green shoes, some with touches of glitter. Some of the Lakers wore green-soled shoes. ... Bryant got up and hugged Samuel L. Jackson during a timeout in the second quarter. Jack Nicholson, Kevin Hart, George Lopez and Dyan Cannon were among other celebs in attendance.

Packers LB Clay Matthews out for Bears game

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Packers linebacker Clay Matthews will miss Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears for the NFC North title after aggravating a right thumb injury.

Green Bay didn't practice Wednesday but issued an injury report as if it did. Matthews was listed as out.

Matthews got hurt during a sack in Sunday's 38-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Matthews missed four games earlier this season after initially breaking the thumb in Week 5 in October.

Matthews looked to be in extreme pain on the sideline Sunday after the sack. Coach Mike McCarthy has described it as a "repeat injury."

The Packers had Christmas day off. They return to practice Thursday, when the team is also expected to announce if quarterback Aaron Rodgers is ready to return from a left collarbone injury.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Welker returns to practice field

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Wes Welker returned to the Denver Broncos practice field on Christmas Day for the first time since suffering his second concussion on Dec. 12.

He was allowed to participate on a limited basis according to the league's concussion protocol.

Also returning to practice was defensive end Derek Wolfe, who hadn't practiced since having a seizure-like episode on the team bus trip to the airport on Nov. 29.

And rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster practiced for the first time since undergoing surgery on his right thumb on Dec. 13 after breaking it in the first half against San Diego the night before.

The only player who didn't practice was backup center Steve Vallos, who sustained a concussion during Denver's 37-13 win at Houston on Sunday.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Durant, Thunder roll over Anthony-less Knicks

NEW YORK (AP) Kevin Durant scored 29 points, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double by the middle of the third quarter, and the Oklahoma City Thunder rolled to a 123-94 victory Wednesday over the New York Knicks, who played without Carmelo Anthony.

The Durant-Anthony showdown between the NBA's top two scorers was canceled because of Anthony's sprained left ankle, so the Thunder had the Christmas spotlight all to themselves while winning for the 10th time in 11 games.

Westbrook finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in his first triple-double of the season and seventh of his career. Serge Ibaka added 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting.

Amare Stoudemire scored a season-high 22 points, and Tim Hardaway Jr. had 21 for the Knicks, who also were missing starting point guard Raymond Felton. J.R. Smith scored 20 points, but shot 8 for 22 and was booed when he left the court for good.

Anthony was forced to sit out for the first time this season. The Knicks were never really in it without him and may not have had a chance with him the way the Thunder played.

The Knicks not only had trouble with the Thunder, but also with the special edition sleeved jerseys NBA teams are wearing on Christmas.

Beno Udrih hit the side of the backboard on two shot attempts in the first half, tugging on his sleeve after the second as if blaming his struggles on his equipment.

Oklahoma City had a much easier time in the uniforms. Coach Scott Brooks said before the game the Thunder hadn't had a formal practice in them, but players had shot around the last few days in the jerseys that featured a giant logo in the middle of the chest and jersey numbers on the left sleeve.

"They look great. Hopefully, we play well in them," Brooks said.

They played superbly.

Coming off a 104-98 loss to Toronto on Sunday that ended a nine-game winning streak and was their first setback at home this season, they shot 54 percent and got 18 points from Reggie Jackson.

Durant made all five shots in the first quarter, with the Thunder leading 35-29 after shooting 70 percent. Jackson and Durant made 3-pointers to start the second, making Oklahoma City 16 of 22. Ibaka did most of the work in an 8-2 spurt midway through the period that extended the lead to 52-35, and the Thunder led 60-46 at halftime.

They kept up the pressure in the third, Durant and Westbrook taking turns being unguardable on the perimeter, and Oklahoma City went on to its sixth straight road victory.

Anthony was hurt Monday night in a victory at Orlando, saying afterward he hoped to play Wednesday. But he looked glum and wasn't walking particularly well by the locker room area after getting treatment and testing the ankle, and the Knicks announced he wouldn't be in uniform about 50 minutes before the start.

He sat on the bench wearing a brown sports jacket, getting up slowly during timeouts whenever the Knicks called them in a futile attempt to stop the Thunder's onslaught.

Anthony averaged 28.7 points last season, ending Durant's three-year reign as scoring champion, but Durant has moved right back to the top this season with 28.1 to Anthony's 26.3.

The Knicks fell to 0-7 in orange uniforms this season.

Notes: Chris Smith, J.R.'s brother, made his NBA debut with a scoreless minute at the end. ... Kenyon Martin returned to the Knicks after missing five games with a strained left abdominal muscle. ... Knicks coach Mike Woodson said he thought Felton (strained right groin) would see more doctors Thursday, perhaps getting a better idea how long he would be out. The Knicks were also without Metta World Peace, who has been battling a sore left knee.

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Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

Bulls use big third quarter to rout Nets 95-78

NEW YORK (AP) Taj Gibson scored 20 points and Jimmy Butler added 15, and the Chicago Bulls routed the Brooklyn Nets 95-78 on Wednesday.

Trailing 50-49 early in the third quarter, the Bulls took over behind Butler. He keyed a 21-5 run that gave Chicago control.

Butler, who sat out the last game with a right ankle injury, started the burst with a 3-pointer and then soon added a three-point play that made it 57-52. That was the first of 12 straight points by the Bulls.

Another three-point play by Butler made it 66-52.

Chicago (11-16) led by 19 at the end of the period after Reggie Evans' dunk with less than a second left ended a 5 1/2-minute field goal drought for the Nets (9-19).

Brooklyn couldn't get much closer in the fourth and was serenaded with a chorus of loud boos from the fans.

What once was viewed as a Christmas Day showdown between Eastern Conference contenders became a matchup of two of the NBA's biggest disappointments so far, as both teams have been plagued by injuries.

Deron Williams scored 18 points and Mizra Teletovic added 17 for the Nets, who have lost four straight.

The victory was Chicago's second straight, the first time since five consecutive wins from Nov. 8-18 that the Bulls had two in a row. Chicago is starting to get healthy with the return of guard Kirk Hinrich and Butler, both of whom started.

Hinrich spurred a 12-0 run midway through the second quarter that gave Chicago a 39-31 lead. Williams then scored seven straight to make it a one-point game. Chicago led 41-38 at the half before Butler took over.

While the Bulls got both guards back, they were still missing Luol Deng (Achilles) and Derrick Rose, who is sidelined for the season with a right knee injury.

Brooklyn has its own injury issues with center Brook Lopez lost for the season Friday to a broken right foot.

The two teams were wearing their Christmas short-sleeve jerseys that look straight out of a rec league game. Instead of numbers and a team name on the front, there was a big shiny logo. There are numbers on the sleeves, while the backs look more like a normal NBA jersey.

Both teams were also wearing striped socks to complete the outfit.

Notes: The Nets were still missing forward Andrei Kirilenko, who has been sidelined this season with a back injury. Nets coach Jason Kidd said before the game that his forward is making progress. ... Kidd always has loved playing on Christmas. "One of the biggest honors as a player and coach is to participate on Christmas," he said. "The world is watching so you can showcase your talent." ... These two teams met in the first round of the playoffs last season and the Bulls won in seven games. ... Chicago has won eight of the last 10 regular-season meetings.

Belichick blames practice limits for extra injuries

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) Patriots coach Bill Belichick is blaming recently instituted NFL rules shortening offseason practice time for what he claims to be an increasing number of player injuries.

"I'm in favor of total preparation for the players for the season," Belichick said during a conference call with Buffalo reporters this week in leading up to New England's home game against the Bills on Sunday. "And I think that's been changed significantly and, I would say, not necessarily for the better when you look at the injury numbers."

Belichick said players are more vulnerable to being hurt because they're less prepared, and described the limits placed on offseason workouts - including training camp - as being counterproductive.

"Personally, I think that's taking the wrong approach," he said. "You have a gap between preparation and competition level. And I think that's where you see a lot of injuries occurring. We get a lot of breakdowns. We get a lot of situations that players just aren't as prepared as they were in previous years, in my experience anyway."

Belichick was specifically challenging several new rules negotiated into the NFL labor deal that ended an offseason-long lockout in 2011.

Teams were prevented from holding two-a-day practices during training camp. Limits were also placed on how many times players practiced in pads throughout the year. In the spring, offseason team activity time was reduced from 14 to nine weeks (10 if the team changed head coaches).

What's in question is whether injuries are, in fact, on the rise in the NFL, as Belichick suggested.

Though he didn't cite specific numbers, Belichick said he was citing "a matter of record not opinion," in saying injuries league-wide have been on the rise over the past three years.

League spokesman Michael Signora disputed Belichick's assertions.

"We carefully monitor player injuries," Signora said. "There is no evidence that the new work rules have had an adverse effect on the injury rate or that injuries have in fact increased."

The NFL declined to released its numbers. But according to STATS, the number of NFL players finishing a season on injured reserve has risen significantly over the past 14 seasons.

From 2000-06, there was an average of 239 players on IR. That average has jumped to about 314 over the past seven years.

The low over that span was 192 in 2001, with the high being 353 in 2010, but that was before the new offseason rules came into effect.

As of Monday, there were 288 players on IR, the lowest total since 287 in 2008.

Those figures, however, don't include players who have been on injured reserve and released by their teams during the season.

It has also been difficult to measure how many regulars have missed games due to injury.

The Patriots (11-4) have been beset by a rash of injuries to key contributors this season. They have six starters on IR, including tight end Rob Gronkowski (right knee), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Jerod Mayo, defensive lineman Vince Wilford (Achilles tendon) and safety Adrian Wilson.

Belichick insists injuries are up.

"When you see the number as high as they are, then I don't think that's a randomness that's been two years in a row," Belichick said. "I've got to think there's some correlation there."

Serena Williams wins 3rd AP Athlete of Year award

Serena Williams is The Associated Press' 2013 Female Athlete of the Year, easily winning a vote by news organizations.

It's the third AP award for the tennis star, who also won in 2002 and 2009.

Williams went 78-4 in 2013, including a 34-match winning streak and 11 titles. Her French Open and U.S. Open championships raised her Grand Slam total to 17 singles trophies. She was ranked No. 1 from February until the end of the season.

Williams received 55 of 96 votes in the AP results announced Wednesday.

Brittney Griner, a two-time AP Player of the Year in college basketball and the No. 1 overall pick in April's WNBA draft, finished second with 14 votes. Swimmer Missy Franklin was next with 10.

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