National Sports Headlines from NBC Sports

Thunder's Westbrook out until after All-Star break

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook had arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will be sidelined until after the All-Star break.

Westbrook will miss at least 27 games.

"He will be missed," coach Scott Brooks said before Oklahoma City's game Friday night against the Charlotte Bobcats. "Obviously we are a very good team with him, and without him we're still going to be a very good team."

General manager Sam Presti said in a news release earlier in the day that Westbrook has been playing pain-free, but "recently had experienced increased swelling" in his right knee.

"After consultation and consideration by his surgeon in Los Angeles, a plan was established to monitor the swelling that included a series of scheduled MRIs," Presti said in the release. "On the most recent MRI it was determined by the surgeon that there was an area of concern that had not previously existed, nor was detectable in the previous procedures, and it was necessary to evaluate Russell further. The consulting physician determined that arthroscopic surgery was necessary to address the swelling that was taking place."

Brooks said Reggie Jackson, who is averaging 12.5 points, will start. Jeremy Lamb will also see increased playing time in Westbrook's absence.

"Guys believe in what he does for our team," Brooks said of Jackson. "He's only going to get better. He's a young point guard in this league."

Westbrook's knee problems began in April when he tore his meniscus in the second game of the Western Conference playoffs, sidelining him for the remainder of the postseason and all but ending Oklahoma City's chances of reaching the NBA Finals.

He had a second arthroscopic surgery as the Thunder were preparing for training camp after developing inflammation in the knee. However, Westbrook missed only two regular-season games before returning to the floor.

Oklahoma City has since gone on a 21-3 tear with Westbrook in the starting lineup.

The five-year NBA player is averaging 21.3 points, seven assists and six rebounds for the Thunder, who entered Friday night's game with a 23-5 record, a half-game behind the first-place Portland Trail Blazers in the Northwest Division.

Oklahoma City has won 10 of its last 11 games.

In his last game on Christmas, Westbrook didn't look like a player who was in pain, finishing with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 123-94 rout of the New York Knicks.

Brooks said he didn't know the knee was an issue until after Wednesday's game.

"He's passed every medical benchmark and he was playing great basketball, probably some of the best basketball in the entire league," Brooks said. "We're looking forward to him coming back and getting back to the level that he has played at - and he will."

Cowboys' Romo has surgery, out for Eagles finale

IRVING, Texas (AP) Tony Romo had back surgery and will miss Dallas' third straight season finale with the NFC East title and a playoff berth on the line.

Coach Jason Garrett said Romo underwent surgery Friday after consultation with doctors during the week following his injury in a win over Washington.

Kyle Orton will start for the Cowboys in the winner-take-all game against Philadelphia on Sunday night.

Romo lost the past two winner-take-all finales - to the New York Giants two years ago and Washington last season. He also lost to the Eagles in the same situation in 2008.

Philadelphia (9-6) is trying to complete a worst-to-first turnaround from a 4-12 season under first-year coach Chip Kelly. The Cowboys (8-7) want to end a three-year playoff drought.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Boston Marathon bombing AP sports story of year

NEW YORK (AP) The Boston Marathon bombing was selected the sports story of the year Friday in an annual vote conducted by The Associated Press.

Two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the April 15 race in an area packed with fans cheering the passing runners. Three people were killed and more than 260 injured, including at least 16 who lost limbs.

Authorities say brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, ethnic Chechens from Russia who emigrated to the United States as children, planned and carried out the bombings in retaliation for U.S. involvement in Muslim countries.

Ninety-six ballots were submitted from U.S. editors and news directors. Voters were asked to rank the top 10 sports stories of the year, with the first-place story receiving 10 points, the second-place story nine points and so on.

The marathon attack received 761 points and 67 first-place votes. It was also second in AP's national/international story of the year poll.

The No. 2 sports story, Lance Armstrong's admission of doping, had five first-place votes and 517 points.

The top five stories were grim: terrorism, performance-enhancing drug use, legal settlements, murder charges. The first on-field action came in at No. 6 - the Boston Red Sox's worst-to-first World Series title, though even that was tinged by the city's heartache less than seven months earlier.

Here are 2013's top 10 stories:

1. BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS: The throngs of spectators lining the streets at a storied big-city marathon were once a wholesome scene of civic pride and friendly support. April's attack came as a haunting reminder that the crowds at a high-profile event are also a vulnerable target. Bag searches and metal detectors were a common sight at games the rest of the year. As victims persevere on prosthetic limbs, the 118th edition of the world's oldest marathon is set for the spring, with security undoubtedly heightened but runners determined to take part.

2. LANCE ARMSTRONG: The disgraced cyclist was also the No. 2 sports story last year. In 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped him of his record seven Tour de France titles, releasing mounds of evidence that he used PEDs to win them. In January, after years of defiant denials, Armstrong finally admitted it, telling Oprah Winfrey: "It's this myth, this perfect story, and it wasn't true."

3. NFL CONCUSSION SETTLEMENT: The NFL's settlement of lawsuits brought by thousands of former players will cost the league $765 million but won't end the turmoil over head injuries in football - or the litigation. The retirees, who had accused the NFL of concealing the long-term dangers of concussions, will be eligible for compensation for certain neurological ailments. The league did not admit to any wrongdoing after mediation resulted in a settlement in August.

4. BASEBALL DRUG BANS: Alex Rodriguez's 211-game suspension was the longest of the 13 announced in August for players connected to a Florida anti-aging clinic accused of distributing banned PEDs. The Yankees' slugger was the only one to contest the penalty, and the year ends with an arbitrator yet to rule. In July, Ryan Braun, the 2011 NL MVP who had previously denied using banned substances, accepted a 65-game suspension.

5. HERNANDEZ ARREST: On Jan. 20, New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez had nine catches for 83 yards in an AFC championship game loss to Baltimore. Just more than five months later, he was charged with murder. Prosecutors accuse him of shooting a friend to death on a secluded gravel road for talking to the wrong people at a nightclub. Hernandez awaits trial amid revelations of a history of violence by the player.

6. RED SOX WIN: Boston's 2011 season ended with a collapse and tales of fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse; 2012 ended with a last-place finish and 93 losses. New manager John Farrell and his bearded sluggers embraced "Boston Strong" and tied for the best record in the majors in a turnaround few predicted. With timely hits up and down the lineup throughout the playoffs, the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals in six games for their third World Series title in a decade.

7. RAVENS SUPER: The power came back on, and Baltimore held on. Ravens coach John Harbaugh beat younger brother Jim's San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in the Super Bowl in an unprecedented sibling showdown. But the game will be remembered most for the 34-minute outage at the Superdome in New Orleans. Baltimore star linebacker Ray Lewis rode into retirement with a ring.

8. AWESOME AUBURN: The Tigers' turnaround from a 3-9 record to the national title game was stunning enough. Even more shocking was how they did it. A deflected 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds left gave Auburn a 43-38 win over Georgia on Nov. 16. The play that ended their next game will go down as one of the most memorable in college football history: Chris Davis' return of a missed field goal attempt more than 100 yards to beat No. 1 Alabama 34-28.

9. TE'O HOAX: Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o struggled in Notre Dame's lopsided loss to Alabama in the national title game Jan. 7. Nine days later, his name became forever linked to a most bizarre sports story. That tragic tale about his girlfriend's death told over and over as the linebacker starred for an undefeated team? She didn't exist. Te'o insisted he was duped into believing the woman he never met in person was real.

10. HEAT TITLE: One more free throw or one more defensive rebound, and the San Antonio Spurs prevent Miami from repeating as champion. Instead, Ray Allen made one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history, knocking down a second-chance 3-pointer with 5 seconds left to send Game 6 to overtime. The Heat won in the extra period and again in Game 7 to give LeBron James another title.

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Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale contributed to this report.

Former Orioles star Paul Blair dies

BALTIMORE (AP) Paul Blair, the eight-time Gold Glove center fielder who helped the Baltimore Orioles win a pair of World Series titles while gliding to make catches that former teammates still marvel at more than four decades later, has died. He was 69.

Blair died Thursday night at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

Blair's wife, Gloria, told The Baltimore Sun, that Blair played a round of golf with friends Thursday morning and later lost consciousness at a celebrity bowling tournament in Pikesville.

"Paul was honestly too tired, but he never says no," Gloria Blair told the newspaper. "During a practice round, he threw two or three balls, then sat down and told a friend, `I feel funny' and kind of collapsed. He lost consciousness and they called 911 and the ambulance took him to (Sinai), but the doctors there told me they never got a pulse."

A member of the Orioles Hall of Fame, the popular Blair patrolled the outfield from 1964-76, playing key parts when Baltimore won its first two World Series crowns in 1966 and 1970. He won two more titles with the New York Yankees in 1977 and 1978 and also played for Cincinnati.

In an era before highlight reels were a daily staple on TV, Blair frequently made catches that became the talk of baseball. Thin and quick, he played with a flair - at the end of an inning, he would tuck his glove up against his chest for a regal trot back to the dugout.

"He played very shallow. People talked about how Willie Mays played shallow, and Paul did the same thing. He played with assuredness," Don Buford, an All-Star left fielder who played alongside Blair for five seasons in Baltimore, told The Associated Press late Thursday night.

"When you talk about the greatest defensive center fielders, he was right in the mix," Buford said. "With me in left and Frank Robinson in right, we played toward the lines and gave him a lot of room. He could really go get it."

In 17 seasons in the majors, he hit .250 with 134 home runs, 620 RBIs and 171 stolen bases. Blair appeared in six World Series, two All-Star games and won Gold Gloves in 1967 and 1969-75.

In the 1966 World Series, Blair homered for the only run in Baltimore's Game 3 victory over Los Angeles.

The underdog Orioles completed an unlikely sweep the next day, with Blair jumping high above the fence at Memorial Stadium to snare Jim Lefebvre's bid for a tying home run in the eighth inning. It was a timely grab, too - Blair had just been inserted in the game as a defensive replacement.

Blair caught a routine fly by Lou Johnson with two runners on base for the final out in a 1-0 victory in Game 4, and leaped high in the air after the clinching grab to begin Baltimore's celebration.

Blair led the Orioles in the 1970 World Series with a .474 average in Baltimore's five-game victory over Cincinnati. That year, he hit three home runs and had six RBIs in a game against the Chicago White Sox.

Beaned by a pitch in late May that season, Blair came back from the injury to boost the Birds. Ever mindful of being hit in the face, he would shield his face at first base when retreating to the bag on pickoff throws.

"It affected his hitting a little bit after that, but not his fielding," Buford said.

Inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1984, Blair coached Fordham in 1983 and at Coppin State from 1998-2002. He had a heart attack in December 2009.

Blair played baseball and basketball and ran track at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

Blair was originally drafted by the New York Mets and spent one season in their minor league system. The Orioles drafted him from the Mets in late 1962.

He fit neatly into a team built on strong defense - led by third baseman Brooks Robinson - and pitching, and Baltimore reached the World Series four times in six years. He was surrounded by stars, yet a picture or drawing of Blair often made the cover of the Orioles' game programs.

Friendly in the clubhouse, he was called "Motormouth" for his constant banter.

"He'd be talking about something, and maybe you'd get two words in, and then he'd be off starting another conversation," Buford recalled.

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AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker contributed to this report.

Chiefs' Daniel, other backups ready for chance

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) The Chiefs are paying Chase Daniel more than $4 million in salary and bonuses this season, yet the backup quarterback has not taking a meaningful snap in a game.

There's an argument to be made that fact won't change Sunday, when the Chiefs head to San Diego to play a game that can't affect their playoff situation. Kansas City is already locked into the No. 5 seed and is merely waiting to find out who it will face the following weekend.

But there's also an argument to be made that every snap Daniel takes - and it stands to reason there will be many - is very important.

After winning their first nine games, the Chiefs have lost four of their last six. And any positive vibes that came with back-to-back wins over Washington and Oakland may have evaporated in a 23-7 rout last weekend by the Colts, a potential first-round playoff opponent.

So while most of the starters will likely sit out the majority of this one, it could be up to Daniel and a slew of backups to give Kansas City some momentum headed into the postseason.

"My mindset going in is to prepare like the starter, just as I have my entire career," Daniel said. "Hopefully, I'll get to play a little bit."

Chiefs coach Andy Reid has said only that he plans to "mix and match" his players Sunday, leading to some heated water-cooler discussions about who should be held out.

Jamaal Charles? Probably. There may be no more valuable player to the Chiefs, let alone any other team in the NFL.

Alex Smith? Possibly. He's coming off a miserable performance against the Colts, and said this week that there's some benefit to entering the postseason on a roll.

One player almost certain to get the weekend off is linebacker Tamba Hali, who missed practice again Thursday with swelling in his knee. Otherwise, all bets are off.

"If you play, the argument is yeah, you're staying in rhythm," Smith said. "You're keeping your timing, all that stuff. The speed of the game, you stay used to it. The negative, of course, is the injury risk. Not playing, the benefit is you're getting healthy and fresh. The downside is yeah, you're missing out on some rhythm and momentum heading into the playoffs."

That's where Daniel, running back Knile Davis and the rest of the backups come into play.

Daniel played earlier this season in mop-up duty against the Redskins and Raiders, and the results were forgettable. He was 4 of 8 for 48 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.

Davis had emerged as a solid No. 2 option behind Charles, but then started coughing up the ball against the Colts. He's had trouble with fumbles throughout his career, so San Diego could give him a chance to get that in check as the Chiefs' feature back.

Then there are the guys who haven't gotten much playing time, such as linebacker Nico Johnson, a fourth-round pick out of Alabama. This could be their first extended playing time since training camp - in a game that matters, no less, depending on how you look at it.

"It gives us an opportunity to see these guys, and it gives them some confidence," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. "If we can get them out there, get some plays in, it would be great. See what Andy wants to do with it, but I think that would be awesome."

No amount of prying this week could get the Chiefs to divulge their exact plans, especially with San Diego having something on the line. The Chargers can squeeze into the playoffs if they beat Kansas City and Baltimore and Miami lose earlier in the day.

Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson even declared Thursday that Smith is the starter, and that Daniel would be taking the same "mental reps" that come with being the regular backup.

"You go in and attack the game like any other," Pederson said. "We're professional and we attack it like professionals. We get our guys ready to go. We're excited obviously about being in the postseason and playing next week, but you can't look past San Diego."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Aggies beat Lynch, No. 24 NIU 21-14 in Poinsettia

SAN DIEGO (AP) Brian Suite intercepted Jordan Lynch's pass and recovered a fumble by the Heisman Trophy finalist to help Utah State beat No. 24 Northern Illinois 21-14 on Thursday night in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Joey DeMartino, who went to high school and junior college in San Diego, carried 23 times for 143 yards and a touchdown for Utah State (9-5).

Lynch, who was third in the Heisman Trophy voting and made The Associated Press All-America team as an all-purpose player, had a rough end to his college career. Besides the two turnovers, he was held to just 39 yards rushing, keeping him from becoming the first major college player to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards in the same season.

Lynch ran for a touchdown and passed for another for NIU (12-2), which lost its second straight game.

Conner leads Pitt to 30-27 win over Bowling Green

DETROIT (AP) The way James Conner and Tyler Boyd played in their first postseason game, it's no wonder Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst is excited about next season.

With a pair of freshmen leading the way - and breaking some long-standing school records in the process - the Panthers edged Bowling Green 30-27 on Thursday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Conner rushed for 229 yards. Boyd caught eight passes for 173 yards and also scored on a punt return.

"We obviously have some great young talent and that's why we are so confident about the future of this program," Chryst said. "We think we're in great shape going forward."

Conner broke a Pittsburgh bowl record for yards rushing held by Tony Dorsett, and Chris Blewitt kicked a tiebreaking field goal with 1:17 remaining.

Conner even played a handful of snaps on the defensive line. Boyd gave Pitt (7-6) a boost with his versatility as well.

One star the Panthers will have to replace is Aaron Donald, their All-American on the defensive line. Donald, a senior, helped thwart any last-ditch comeback with a sack deep in Bowling Green territory in the final minute.

"They were without question the most physical team we faced all season," said Adam Scheier, Bowling Green's interim coach. "The offensive line was tough, the running back was obviously a bear to tackle and the whole defensive line was disruptive. We knew we had to keep Donald and their other guys out of our backfield, but we couldn't do it."

Scheier took over after Wake Forest hired coach Dave Clawson away from the Falcons. Scheier coached the bowl, but now Dino Babers takes over.

Dorsett rushed for 202 yards in Pitt's win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1977. The school's receiving record for a bowl came the next season. In a Gator Bowl win over Clemson, Gordon Jones had 163 yards receiving.

Both marks fell Thursday.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Conner rushed for 165 yards in the second half, helping Pitt overcome the loss of quarterback Tom Savage, who didn't play after halftime because of a rib injury. Conner and the Panthers drove 51 yards in seven plays late in the fourth quarter to set up a 39-yard kick by Blewitt, who had missed from the same distance earlier.

Then Conner was back on the field on defense, helping the Panthers protect the lead.

"After the last game, coach told me they wanted to unleash me on both sides of the ball, so I've been getting a lot of reps both ways," Conner said. "I was pretty tired by the end, but I wasn't going to tap out. They kept giving me the ball, so I just kept running."

Chad Voytik relieved Savage and put Pitt ahead 27-20 with a 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but the Falcons - who upset Northern Illinois in Detroit in the Mid-American Conference title game earlier this month - tied it on Matt Johnson's 15-yard strike to Ryan Burbrink with 4:42 to play.

Boyd's 54-yard punt return gave the Panthers a 17-3 lead in the second quarter. Bowling Green (10-4) rallied, tying it at 17 on a 94-yard kickoff return by BooBoo Gates to start the second half.

Bowling Green appeared to catch a break on the kick return by Gates. A tussle behind the play drew a flag as Gates approached the goal line, but officials ruled that the touchdown stood, with offsetting penalties after the play.

The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl faces an uncertain future now that the Detroit Lions have decided to get in the bowl business and will host a game next season. If this game vanishes from the bowl lineup, this was an entertaining finale.

Conner put Pitt ahead 7-3 with a 15-yard scoring run near the end of the first quarter. Boyd nearly lost his balance trying to stay inbounds at the end of his punt return, but he was able to reach the end zone.

"I knew I had to stay inbounds, because I'm not in the goal-line package," Boyd said. "So if I stepped out, I wouldn't get a chance to score."

The Falcons rallied thanks in part to an ill-timed loss of discipline by Donald, who picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with Bowling Green about to punt from its own territory. The Falcons ended up scoring on the drive when Alex Bayer took Johnson's short pass on fourth-and-1 and turned it into a 29-yard touchdown to make it 17-10.

Savage completed eight passes in the first half. Seven of them went to Boyd, for 111 yards.

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.

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