Best second-half MLB teams of wild-card era

Whether it comes as a strong finish to an already dominant season or an amazing comeback, or it’s a newly emerged contender coming out of nowhere, there have been some remarkable finishes in the recent history of Major League Baseball. The wild-card era has ushered in far more opportunity for the postseason than ever before but also has raised the stakes within the pursuit.

With 2019’s pennant chase preparing to take shape, let’s take a look back some of the great finishes of baseball’s modern postseason era. 1 of 20

Seattle Mariners, 1995

After owning a 34-35 record at the All-Star break, the ’95 Mariners went from last to first place in the season’s second half. Ken Griffey Jr returned from a two-month absence to hit 10 home runs over the final two months, Edgar Martinez won the AL batting title and Randy Johnson won his first Cy Young Award. The Mariners bested the California Angels in a tie-breaker game to claim their first division title in franchise history. They reached the AL Championship Series, led by a legendary performance by Martinez against the Yankees in the ALDS. Seattle lost to Cleveland in the ALCS. 2 of 20

Chicago Cubs, 1998

While the summer of ’98 is best known for the home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, it also is known for a tight NL playoff race. Sosa’s Cubs were one of the hottest teams in the game in the middle of the year before cooling off late. Meanwhile, Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants won nine of their last 12 games to catch the Cubs. The teams squared off in one-game playoff in which Bonds nearly hit a ninth-inning grand slam amid a Giants rally that fell short. The Cubs hung on to win, and they reached the playoffs for the first time in nine years. 3 of 20

New York Yankees, 1998

Not all memorable second-half performances included airtight races to the finish. Take the case of one of the greatest teams of all time, the ’98 Yankees. They were dominant from start to finish, winning 20 games in three separate months en route to a record 114-win season. They won the AL East by 22 games, with a breakout season for a young Derek Jeter, who hit .324 with 203 hits. They finished the season 66 games over .500 and set a record for most wins in a season, 125, after sweeping the San Diego Padres in the World Series. 4 of 20

Cleveland Indians, 2001

Aided by Minnesota’s huge collapse, the 2001 Indians staged an incredible comeback to claim an AL Central title. After reaching the All-Star break 23 games over .500, the Twins dropped 15 of their first 20 second-half contests, losing their grip on the division in the process. Meanwhile, behind a 49-homer season from Jim Thome, after being five games back at the All-Star break, the Indians finished six games ahead to win a sixth AL Central title since 1995, going 9-3 against Minnesota in the second half. 5 of 20

Oakland Athletics, 2001

In the wild-card era, no team has had more second-half success than the 2001 A’s. They set a 162-game schedule record by going 63-18 over their final 81 games, which included an incredible 29-4 record over the season’s final month. Led by their hallowed three-ace rotation of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, along with a string of incredible starts from Cory Lidle, who went 11-2 after the break, the A’s set a record for most wins by a wild-card team with 102. It also was the most wins by a second-place club, but they still finished 14 games behind the record-setting 2001 Seattle Mariners.

6 of 20

Seattle Mariners, 2001

Led by an incredible jolt of energy from MVP/Rookie of the Year Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 Seattle Mariners tied the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most regular-season wins in history with 116. The team never posted a double-digit loss total in any month and saved the best for last. From Sept. 1 through Oct. 7, they went 20-7, with a 4-3 loss on the season’s final day, costing them a chance to set the outright record for most wins in a season. 7 of 20

Oakland Athletics, 2002

For a second consecutive season, in 2002 Oakland channeled second-half magic, going 24-4 in August, a run that included the bulk of one of the greatest winning streaks in MLB history. Oakland went undefeated from Aug.13 to Sept. 4, embarking on an AL-record 20-game winning streak — which included walk-off wins during the final three victories of the streak. However, taking over the division outright required a second, shorter winning spree, when Oakland won nine of its final 11 games over divisional foes to win the AL West. It was a season that changed the way the sport is perceived and inspired the book and movie”‘Moneyball.” 8 of 20

Florida Marlins, 2003

The 2003 Marlins are the definition of a team that got hot at just the right time. After losing eight of their final nine games in August, Florida entered the final month 13 games back in the NL East and barely in control of a wild-card spot. However, its “team of destiny” run — which included an NLCS victory aided by the “Bartman Game” vs. the Cubs and a stunning upset of the New York Yankees in the World Series — got underway quickly in September. Jack McKeon’s club went 10-2 to start the month and won seven of its last nine to claim the NL wild-card spot. 9 of 20

Minnesota Twins, 2006

In 2006, the Twins pulled off the biggest second-half comeback of the last quarter century, erasing an 11-game deficit in the process. With Johan Santana embarking on a 13-0 second half en route to claiming AL Cy Young Award honors, Justin Morneau capturing AL MVP and Joe Mauer being crowned as AL batting champion, the Twins went 49-27 in the second half. This allowed them to track down the Detroit Tigers, who had posted the game’s top record in the first half but stumbled south of .500 following the All-Star break. Ultimately the Twins won the AL Central on the final day of the season. 10 of 20

Colorado Rockies, 2007

On Sept. 15, Colorado was barely above .500 and 6.5 games back of the San Diego Padres. However, the Rockies soon turned the booster jets on, winning 13 of their final 14 games to incredibly reach 90 wins and force a one-game playoff for the NL wild-card spot. The game featured another incredible comeback, as the Rockies rallied from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the 13th inning, capped by Matt Holliday scoring a still-disputed run on a Jamey Carroll sacrifice fly to send the Rockies back to the postseason for the first time in six seasons.

By: Matt Whitener

UFC Uruguay: Liz Carmouche on first fight with Valentina Shevchenko, expectations in title rematch, experience facing Ronda Rousey

Liz Carmouche gets a rare opportunity on Saturday night when she battles Valentina Shevchenko for Shevchenko’s flyweight title in the main event of UFC Uruguay.

Carmouche (13-6) made MMA history when she was in the UFC’s first ever female fight when she headlined UFC 157 back in February 2013. Early on, Carmouche had Ronda Rousey in a bit of trouble, locking her in a standing rear-naked choke/face crank. But the UFC Hall of Famer escaped and won the thrilling affair late in the first round.

Realizing she was too small to compete at 135 pounds, Carmouche moved down to flyweight at the end of 2017. Moving down proved to be the right decision, as Carmouche has gone 2-1 to earn a crack at Shevchenko.

Days before her second shot at glory, Carmouche sat down with Sporting News to discuss her fight with Shevchenko in September 2010, if she thought she’d ever get to this point and what valuable experiences she took from taking on Rousey.

(Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity.)

Sporting News: How much do you remember from the first fight against Shevchenko?

Liz Carmouche: Not much because I was still so green. The biggest thing I took from the fight was that I was actually supposed to fight her sister and that’s who I signed the contract for. The organization was super shady and pulled one over on me when I arrived at the fight. I was able to pull off a win by an upkick and cutting her a bit. The doctor had to stop it because of the excessive blood loss.

SN: Since the fight took place so long ago, were you able to find any highlights to study from?

LC: Not at all. The organization was super shady. The fight wasn’t very well lit as it took place outside in a dark area on a reservation without any cell phone reception. I had friends and family at the fight as I liked having one of them to record my fights so I can have tape and study. I haven’t been able to find anything.

I showed up to the venue and Valentina was on the poster. After talking with the promoter, I was promised to pay her an extra couple hundred bucks and a daily per diem which they didn’t do.

SN: Looking back, did you ever think you’d be at this point in your career coming out of that fight?

LC: Not at all. Are you kidding me? At that point, I was still going to college full-time and dragging around my textbooks every time I had to go away for a fight. I was taking last-minute phone calls for matches, training, and working. I was doing all of that and not even sure if fighting was something that had a future for me. It really didn’t look like women were making a career out of it. So, I certainly didn’t know if that was something I could do. Fast forward to nine years later and where I am at, I could never have anticipated this. Ever.

I had zero interest in going to college. I used my GI Bill to help pay for training. I hated doing group projects or deal with people in the class who aren’t paying attention. That made me go insane. I was looking for any way out. My sanity was fighting. I looked forward to every day because of fighting. I had to keep my grades up or lose my GI Bill because it was paying for everything to help me train.

SN: Do you take anything from the Rousey fight that you could bring into Saturday?

LC: I took a lot from that Ronda fight. What that taught me was one – just how to manage my time. One of the things I had to do was that I was told by the UFC PR team that they need a minimum of two hours every day just to do interviews. I’m like, ‘That’s a lot of talking. Two hours every day. Are you kidding me?’ I figured out with those two hours how to budget my time. At night, I had to work and I was still going to school and doing all this stuff. I learned how to manage my time efficiently.

The other thing I learned is the adversity that I can face under everything I went through with the buildup to that fight. I knew I wanted that fight. I knew I could win that fight. I had no doubts about that in my mind. I wasn’t sure if I had a future in my fight career. Even though I lost that fight, I knew that there was plenty I could take away from the experience. I knew the work ethic I needed to put in to be that much better to learn from the lessons that were taught to me that day and how to take away and learn and grow as a fighter.

What I also took away was that I wasn’t even fighting in the correct weight class. When she rehydrated, she was enormous compared to me. I was still 135 when I walked into the Octagon. I’m genuinely a flyweight. Ronda looked like she was 155. I was thinking, “Oh my goodness, here we go again. I’m at another disadvantage.’

I’ve learned so much and grown from that fight. For me to focus on that fight would be taking a step backward and I’m only going forward.

SN: The fight ends and contemplating went wrong, did you think getting a title shot was possible since the company hadn’t implemented any more weight classes at that time?

LC: After the Ronda fight, I wasn’t sure what the UFC held for me. I think coming out of that fight, I didn’t know if losing that fight meant that I could get cut because I knew the rumors at the time was how easily fighters could get cut from the UFC. I didn’t know what that meant for me and also if I was kept on, how long it would take to get back into title contention. I certainly didn’t think at the time it would be at flyweight. I thought it would have to happen at bantamweight again or possibly have to go up a division.

SN: The consensus among MMA pundits is that Valentina is the second-best female fighter in the world behind Amanda Nunes. How do you view Valentina as a fighter?

LC: As the person standing in the way of my belt because that’s all I see.

Written By Steven Muehlhausen

Jeremy Lin considering playing in China next season

Jeremy Lin still is not drawing any significant interest from NBA teams more than a month after the start of free agency, and he acknowledged this week that he is considering the possibility of playing overseas.

Lin was in Guangzhou, China, on Friday endorsing Chinese sportswear brand Xtep when a reporter asked him if he has thought about playing in the Chinese Basketball Association next year. The 30-year-old admitted he has.

“Of course I am thinking about the CBA,” Lin said, via Jonathan White of the South China Morning Post. “I don’t know where I will be next year, so I don’t have expectations. I know what level I can play at, so if I don’t get that I won’t settle.”

Lin’s top choice would obviously be continuing to play in the NBA, but it’s unclear if he will get a shot. Regardless of what he chooses, he says happiness is his No. 1 priority.

“I want to be happy, that is the main thing,” Lin said. “When you are competing, everything is about the NBA. But I am 30 now, the main thing is to be happy.”

Lin became emotional during a recent public appearance and said he feels like the NBA has given up on him . He averaged 9.6 points per game last season in time split between the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors, and it sounds like he already has at least one opportunity to play overseas. There should be plenty of others if he chooses to go that route.

By: Steve DelVecchio

Should Broncos fans trust Elway’s QB eye? Here’s why they should worry.

With draft success sparse in Denver between 2013-17, the Broncos finally appear to have formed a young core capable of supplementing their handful of Super Bowl 50 holdovers. The Broncos’ projected starting lineup is probably the franchise’s most talented since its 2015 championship campaign.

The 2018 draft class and undrafted free-agent RB Phillip Lindsay give the four Super Bowl-era starters left –- Von Miller, Chris Harris, Emmanuel Sanders and Derek Wolfe –- reason for optimism after the past two seasons shoved the Broncos off the national radar. Rookie head coach Vic Fangio’s credentials dwarf Vance Joseph’s, new offensive line coach Mike Munchak is one of the NFL’s premier assistants and additions Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan help form one of the league’s better-looking secondaries.

Potential enhancements notwithstanding, the Broncos’ years-long headliner issue remains. As such, it is difficult to see them escaping the lower rungs of the NFL’s middle class. The absolute best-case scenario? A Joe Flacco-fronted wild-card season. The more realistic outcome? Something closer to the Broncos’ post-Peyton Manning slates, when the Broncos went 9-7, 5-11 and 6-10.

Denver’s 2019 operation looks to feature a low ceiling for a few key reasons, the most visible being Flacco’s track record. And the Broncos’ longer-term route back to relevance involves notable impediments. 

In nine years running the team, general manager John Elway has invested in four veteran quarterbacks and four rookies, with the intentions of one day starting them or reluctantly having to do so. Brock Osweiler (a 2012 second-round pick and 2017 free-agency addition) counts twice. This era’s non-Manning QBs -– Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum and Paxton Lynch -– and several non-quarterback draft misfires threw the Broncos off course, with the decision to take Lynch at No. 26 overall in 2016 doubling as one of the bigger turning points in franchise history.

Elway’s Flacco-Drew Lock combination approach, in theory, stabilizes the Broncos in the short term while providing future upside. This formula obviously could work. But it has a better chance to fall short of helping the Broncos capitalize on their somewhat promising roster.

The Broncos are, with straight faces, counting on Flacco to recapture his age-29 form . He is now 34. In 2014, under then-Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, Flacco started two playoff games after compiling a career-best 68.2 QBR figure (ninth that season) in the future Broncos head coach’s system. New Denver OC Rich Scangarello’s offense is derived from Kubiak’s. This plan’s rather notable caveats? Flacco, since recording his quarterback-record seventh road playoff win in 2014, has suffered a torn ACL (2015), dealt with back (2017) and hip (2018) problems, has not cleared seven yards per attempt in a season or posted a QBR figure higher than 19th.

This latest Elway swing connecting would represent an incredible comeback and make Scangarello (two years as an NFL position coach, three seasons of Division I-FBS work) an unusual head coaching candidate. Elway attributed some of Flacco’s recent woes to the Ravens’ lack of offensive weaponry. That is not a flawed theory, but the Broncos’ skill-position group may limit Elway’s latest stopgap passer.

Emmanuel Sanders, eight months post-Achilles tear, is now 32. The former Pro Bowler likely will not return completely to his pre-injury version. Denver’s 2018 offense cratered (13.3 points per game) without Sanders in its final four games (all losses). This one is counting on a bevy of second-year cogs –- running backs Lindsay and Royce Freeman and wideouts Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton — elevating Flacco. The Broncos selected Noah Fant in the first round, but tight ends are notoriously slow developers. Just one (Evan Engram) exceeded 575 receiving yards as a rookie this decade. Elway’s assessment of his own skill corps may be off. Envisioning Flacco success without prolific chain-moving help is difficult.

Another troublesome component of Denver’s potential road back: the timeline issue Lock creates. Fangio’s early Lock analysis underscores how committed the team is to Flacco. Lock sitting throughout 2019, as the Broncos hope he will, would be atypical. Of the 36 quarterbacks selected in the first or second rounds from 2010-18, only seven have failed to start at least two games as rookies. Given Flacco’s trajectory, Lock probably joins the majority of his 2010s predecessors.

Barring a Johnny Manziel- or Christian Hackenberg-esque rookie year, Lock will also likely deter the Broncos from drafting one of the highly touted QBs expected to be available in 2020. The Broncos, then, stand to be tethered to an injury-prone passer on the way out and a No. 42 overall pick. For a franchise that saw the Lynch mistake accelerate this descent and prevent Elway from making a play for Patrick Mahomes a year later, bypassing a higher-touted QB class because of Lock (56.9 completion percentage at Missouri) is a gamble.

Since 2000, 21 quarterbacks have been chosen in Round 2 . Drew Brees became an all-time great. The rest of the viable-starter list includes Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo. Based on the Broncos’ run of miscalculations at this position, would you bet on Lock joining this group or the larger one that includes Osweiler, Brian Brohm, Quincy Carter and Co.?

Elway’s attempts to prop up his long-productive defense with passable QBs failed, and that unit’s cornerstones (Miller and Harris) are now north of 30. The Broncos’ past three-plus years look a lot like the pre-Deshaun Watson Texans, who trotted out four below-average starting QBs from 2013-16. It took a first-round quarterback investment to (sort of) revitalize the Texans. But Houston’s Osweiler- and Brian Hoyer-piloted playoff teams benefited from poor AFC South competition. The Chiefs and Chargers give the Broncos a vicious divisional docket — a primary reason this latest reboot could be inconsequential.

Elway earned the job security he has enjoyed, but he should be about out of chances to fix this. If the Flacco-to-Lock baton pass unfolds like Elway’s other attempts to install a Manning successor, the Hall of Fame quarterback’s eye for QB talent should raise concerns. History shows the odds being against this latest solution reviving the Broncos.

By Sam Robinson

D.C. United Forward Wayne Rooney to Depart Following 2019 MLS Season

D.C. United have announced that following the conclusion of the 2019 MLS season, star forward Wayne Rooney will be departing the club to continue his career in England in order to be closer to family. It was announced today that, with the consent of D.C. United, Rooney completed negotiations to become a player-coach for Derby County in the English Championship in 2020.   “I remain fully focused on giving my all for the team for the rest of this season and repaying the support shown by the Black-and-Red faithful by hopefully delivering an MLS Cup to Audi Field,” Wayne Rooney, said. “My time in Major League Soccer is something I will always be proud of. The supporters in the Screaming Eagles, Barra Brava and District Ultras have made my time in America so enjoyable. While the decision to move home was a tough one, family is everything to us and we make this change to be closer to the ones we love back in England. The opportunity to go back home and start the next step of my career in coaching was the factor that made my mind up. I would like to thank everyone at D.C. United for the incredible support my family and I have received over my two seasons at the club.”   “After speaking to Wayne and understanding his difficult situation of being so far away from his family, we have accepted that this is the best decision for all parties,” Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, D.C. United Co-Chairmen, said. “Our main focus now is the 2019 MLS Season and ensuring we make a push towards the playoffs with the ultimate goal of bringing an MLS Cup back to the District. Wayne is an exceptional leader and one of the most iconic players to play the game so we look forward to his continued contributions to the team this season.”   Terms of the deal with Derby County are undisclosed. Rooney will become a club ambassador for D.C. United.    Rooney and D.C. United are currently in fourth place in the Eastern Conference Standings, just six points out of the top spot, and will face the LA Galaxy at home on August 11 (7:30 PM ET, FS1/FOX Deportes).

2019 NFL MVP favorites and odds

The NFL quarterbacks’ MVP dynasty

Two gifted running backs — Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson — won the Associated Press NFL MVP Award in consecutive seasons, 2005-2006. Since then, 11 of the past 12 MVPs have been quarterbacks, including 2018 top dog Patrick Mahomes who earned 41 of the 50 first-place votes. Fellow quarterback Drew Brees finished second. So Adrian Peterson’s 2012 season — less than a year removed from a torn ACL — remains the last time somebody other than an NFL quarterback hoisted the NFL MVP hardware.

Spoiler alert: Based on the favorites to win the 2019 MVP, don’t expect this trend to change anytime soon.

Odds via Bovada 2 of 16

Cam Newton

Odds: +2,500
2018 Stats: 3,395 pass yards, 24 TDs and 13 INTs | 488 rush yards  and four TDs

A shoulder injury may have cost Newton the final two games on paper, but anybody who watched the Panthers quarterback grind out the 2018 season knows it cost the team much more. Carolina started the season 6-2 and in a prime position to reach the playoffs. However, the severity of Newton’s shoulder injury prevented him from throwing balls down field and allowed defenses to cheat up and play the underneath routes. After the hot start, the Panthers lost seven of their last eight games. Newton had offseason surgery to repair the shoulder, and he’s expected to be back at 100 percent by the start of the season. His MVP chances ride on improved play of DJ Moore, Jarius Wright and a healthy Greg Olsen. The veteran tight end has missed 16 games over the past two seasons due to injury, but when healthy he’s Cam’s most trusted target. If Olsen misses time, running back Christian McCaffrey’s MVP odds could be just as high as Cam’s. 3 of 16

Philip Rivers

Odds: +2,000
2018 stats: 4,308 pass yards, 32 TDs and 12 INTs

Rivers may be the NFL equivalent of MLB’s Cal Ripken. The Chargers ironman has not missed a game for 13 consecutive seasons. While the league has gone to great lengths to protect the quarterback, the fact Rivers hasn’t sustained a serious injury over the past 208 games is nothing short of a miracle. Led by Keenan Allen, his receiving corps remains intact and receives a slight upgrade with the full-time return of tight end Hunter Henry who missed the 2018 regular season with a torn ACL. The one constant who is missing as of press time is Melvin Gordon. The Chargers starting running back is holding out in hopes of a new contract. If Gordon’s holdout lingers into the regular season, Rivers’ odds of winning the 2019 MVP should take a notable hit. 4 of 16

Jimmy Garoppolo

Odds: +3,300
2018 stats: 718 pass yards, five TDs and three INTs (in only three games due to torn ACL)

The saying goes, “we don’t know what we don’t know,” and when it comes to Jimmy G. what we don’t  know outweighs his elite hype. Garoppolo has yet to play in more than six regular-season games and missed the final 13 games of the 2018 season with a torn ACL. So the 2019 season will be a fresh canvas on which to either paint a masterpiece and fill in those unknown gaps OR post pedestrian stats as he has through his first nine games as the 49ers quarterback: 12:8 TD:INT ratio. If you’re looking for a reason to back this long shot, Kyle Shanahan’s offensive schemes will benefit — not hurt — Jimmy G’s shot at the 2019 MVP. 5 of 16

Matt Ryan

Odds: +3,000
2018 Stats: 4,924 pass yards, 35 TDs and seven INTs

Ryan was one of only four quarterbacks last season to finish with more than 600 pass attempts. Aside from a pass-first offense, the primary reason his pass attempts reached a three-year high is due to a host of injuries on the defensive side of the ball, which turned the secondary into Swiss-cheese city, and opponents racked up early leads. So Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley (10 TDs as a rookie) and others spent most of the game in rally mode via the pass. If the defense can stay healthy, the Falcons are one of those squads that could flip the script and qualify for the playoffs one year after missing them. Ryan is as consistent as they come and despite turning 30 years old, Jones will go down as one of the top targets in NFL history. 6 of 16

Ben Roethlisberger

Odds: +3,000
2018 Stats: 5,129 pass yards, 34 TDs and 16 INTs

Without Le’Veon Bell last season, Roethlisberger led the NFL in completions (career-high), attempts (career-high), passing yards (career-high) and pass yards per game. The loss of both Bell and Antonio Brown will no doubt change the Steelers’ offensive dynamic, but don’t sleep on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to fill Brown’s shoes as Big Ben’s primary receiver in addition to a healthy running game of James Connor and Jaylen Samuels behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. While many believe the AFC North torch has been passed to Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns, an MVP season by Roethlisberger would mute any chance of that happening. 7 of 16

Deshaun Watson

Odds: +2,000
2018 Stats: 4,165 pass yards, 26 TDs and nine INTs | 551 rush yards and five TDs

The good news for Watson is that he’ll probably compete for an NFL MVP one day. The bad news is that unless his offensive line play improves 1,000 percent, he won’t be among the 2019 MVP finalists. Remember: Despite mobility that rivals Russell Wilson, Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times. To be fair some of those sacks were no doubt Watson’s fault. However, as of early August, head coach Bill O’Brien admits he still doesn’t know who will start on the offensive line. How does this not get addressed in the offseason? Forget Watson’s MVP chances. The Texans could find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time. 8 of 16

Mitch Trubisky

Odds: +2,000
2018 Stats: 3,223 pass yards, 24 TDs and 12 INTs

The Chicago Bears 2018 defense ranked first in points allowed and against the rush, third in turnover differential (+12) and seventh against the pass. Its pass offense ranked outside the top 20. So the obvious question becomes where can Trubisky improve in his third year when the top three receiving targets remain the same and the Bears front office elected to shake up the running back depth chart after averaging 121 rush yards per game last season (11 th)? It’s a loaded question. Despite an above-average arm and 421 rush yards and three rush TDs last season, it’s hard to fathom Trubisky making enough of a statistical leap toward MVP when the most valuable players — plural — on the team likely reside on the defensive side of the ball. 9 of 16

Russell Wilson

Odds: +2,500
2018 Stats: 3,448 pass yards, 35 TDs and seven INTs

Because the Seahawks averaged a league-leading 160 yards per game last season, Wilson’s passing totals were the lowest since 2014. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for the Seahawks to make another Super Bowl run, the offense needs to find a consistent passing game aside from Wilson running for his life on third and long. Wilson was sacked 51 times last season, but that total could have been higher if not for his elite mobility out of the pocket. So the offensive line play must improve, and Pete Carroll needs to find lighting in a bottle with second-round draft pick DK Metcalf. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound receiver out of Ole Miss is a polarizing brand, but Wilson has no choice but to embrace the rookie because without Doug Baldwin, No. 3’s primary target is 5-foot-11, 175-pound speedster Tyler Lockett. 10 of 16

Carson Wentz

Odds: +1,200
2018 Stats: 3,074 pass yards, 21 TDs and seven INTs (11 games)

Wentz’s 2017 season was cut short due to an ACL tear, and he missed the final three games of the 2018 season with a stress fracture in his back. The knock of Wentz is that these annual ailments date back to high school. However, when you place the injury history on the back burner and assess a potential 16-game campaign for the Eagles quarterback, it’s evident he has the talent and players around him to make a run at an MVP and Super Bowl title. One guy who will help him reach those goals is DeSean Jackson. The speedy, downfield receiver returns to Philadelphia at age 32 and should allow for Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor to enjoy softer coverages this season. Also, the arrival of Jordan Howard should improve the Eagles 28 th-ranked running game of a season ago, which should also boost Wentz’s MVP odds.

By: Ryan Fowler

Why under-the-radar Falcons and these sleepers could surprise in 2019

A few recent Super Bowl entrants barely resemble their ultimate-game versions. The Seahawks, Panthers and Broncos hover at different retooling stages, well off the level of their championship-caliber teams. Another franchise that claimed a mid-2010s conference title isn’t far from its 21st-century apex but is being treated as one whose contention window is nearly shut.

Bovada views nine NFC teams as more likely to win Super Bowl LIV than the Falcons. While the franchise that won the 2016 NFC Championship should not be regarded as a 2019 favorite, based on events last season, its current iteration looks much closer to contender than lower-middle class operation.

Slotted ahead of the Falcons entering training camps: the Packers, Vikings, Seahawks and 49ers. Oddsmakers are giving a pass to a few 2018 underachievers, and an overachieving Seattle outfit, while not affording the Falcons (plus-1500 to win the NFC) the benefit of the doubt. A playoff team in two of the past three years, and one that lost three starting defenders in September of last season’s 7-9 slog, the Falcons feature fewer questions than most of their mid-level NFC brethren.

Calvin Ridley gave the 2018 team three 800-plus-yard receivers; one of the better prospects in a loaded ’18 draft, he should improve this season. This Falcons edition employs a scarier aerial corps than Atlanta’s Super Bowl LI team. The Falcons will have Devonta Freeman back after a 14-carry season, and first-round offensive linemen (right guard Chris Lindstrom, right tackle Kaleb McGary) join stalwarts Alex Mack and Jake Matthews. The offensive coordinator of the No. 1-seeded 2012 Falcons, perhaps a pass interference no-call from Super Bowl XLVII, is the returning Dirk Koetter, an upgrade from ill-fitting Steve Sarkisian.  The Falcons’ Freeman-less offense still finished sixth offensively. Few NFC attacks can compete with this version’s firepower.

Of course, the Falcons are minimized on preseason radars because of their defense, which finished 25th in points allowed last season. But it was battling uphill, with safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen missing 15 and 13 games, respectively. Atlanta’s top defender, middle linebacker Deion Jones, played in just six. Football Outsiders’ injury stat, adjusted games lost, ranked the Falcons’ defense 25th.

In 2017, this Falcons core finished eighth in points allowed. A healthier Atlanta defense muzzled the Rams in Sean McVay’s playoff debut and held the Eagles to 15 points in the divisional round. GM Thomas Dimitroff clearly believes in his defense, given his top outside defensive investment this off-season (an Adrian Clayborn reunion, for just $750,000 guaranteed) and his extensions for Jones and Grady Jarrett this week. With no defenders chosen before Round 4, the Falcons may be banking too much on holdovers. But the Jones-, Jarrett- and Desmond Trufant-fronted lineup does not need to become a top-10 crew for the Falcons to contend again. It just can’t sink as low as it did last season. 

Fourteen starters remain from Atlanta’s Super Bowl LI team. With the exception of 34-year-old quarterback Matt Ryan, only one (Mack, 33) is north of 31. This nucleus has not reached its expiration date.

Spearheading a weakened team, Ryan (ninth in 2018 QBR) threw a quiet 35 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. If Drew Brees’ late-season valley was an indicator of a decline, the Falcons will lead the beneficiaries. Even if Brees continues his historic path and keeps the Saints atop the NFC South, Atlanta will almost certainly vie for a playoff spot.

The Falcons do not profile as 2019’s only candidates to shake off depressing seasons.

Of the NFC’s middle tier, the Vikings (plus-1200 to win the NFC) have balance their peers do not. They have staked their immediate future on GM Rick Spielman’s early- and mid-2010s draft picks (and Kirk Cousins justifying the expensive roster). In hiring Gary Kubiak as de facto offensive czar, the Vikings are going all-out to make their unprecedented quarterback contract work. Cousins learned the NFL through the Shanahan-Kubiak scheme, which produced McVay’s. Cousins set Redskins records in McVay’s offense. This, and a better offensive line, stands to increase Cousins’ comfort level.

A veteran Viking defense (top 10 in points and yards last season) has not crossed the “aging” threshold. It should remain capable of helping the team to the playoffs. 

No team replaces wideouts like the Steelers, who will be fairly motivated given the events of the past 10 months. It is certainly possible Antonio Brown, now a Raider, catalyzed Ben Roethlisberger’s mid-career metamorphosis into a statistically dominant passer. If the 16th-year quarterback maintains most of his Brown years’ form, the Steelers — bolstered by a legitimate commitment to restocking their long-unreliable defense and still carrying a stacked offensive line — boast a stronger roster than 2018’s. If Pittsburgh can reasonably navigate the Brown void, its cornerstone talents have obviously proven more than Cleveland’s. 

Neither the Vikings nor Steelers have a Saints-level obstacle in their way, but both are short on time. If they flounder this season, it will mean sobering self-evaluations and likely the end of their nuclei’s contention stretches. It is fair to wonder how much time the Falcons have left, too.

The franchise’s best players –- Ryan and Julio Jones –- are in their primes but won’t be for too much longer. Not making a serious run this season will probably mean head coach Dan Quinn’s ouster, after the off-season canning of all three coordinators. The fallout from another bungled season would mean chances increase the Ryan-Julio-Quinn era will be remembered for the most crushing defeat in NFL history, in Super Bowl LI against New England.

Despite scant references to their existence on 2019 sports debate shows, the Falcons have plenty of tools to return to relevance. Too much talent and experience reside on this roster to believe Atlanta will allow this run to end meekly. Bet on the Falcons playing a key role in shaping the NFC playoff seedings this season.

By: Sam Robinson

Stargazing: A Baseball Hall of Fame crystal ball

Here are major leaguers with three or fewer service years, minor leaguers, collegiate and high school stars and international prospects who could end up in Cooperstown in the distant future.  1 of 23

Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves OF

After a breakout rookie year as a 20-year-old, Acuna became the youngest $100 million man in baseball history. He etched his name in the history books when he became the youngest player to hit a postseason grand slam, in Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. During his Rookie of the Year campaign, Acuna hit 25 home runs and stole 15 bases, becoming the fourth 20-or-younger player to accomplish the feat. (He joined Alex Rodriguez, Orlando Cepeda and Mike Trout.) 2 of 23

Jo Adell, Los Angeles Angels OF prospect

Adell has put on a five-tool talent show early in his professional career, rising to become the top homegrown Angel prospect since Mike Trout. His game is reminiscent of that of his potential future teammate, as Adell is a gifted defender who makes high-quality contact at the plate. He hit 20 home runs across three different levels in his first full pro season as a 19-year-old. 3 of 23

Pete Alonso, New York Mets 1B

Alonso has wasted no time making an impact as rookie. His 26th home run, on June 22, set the National League first-half rookie record. In the process, “Polar Bear” tied Darryl Strawberry’s full-season rookie home run record. He has 31 HRs, more than halfway to Aaron Judge’s 2018 rookie record of 52. 4 of 23

Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers 1B/OF

Bellinger’s career is off to a torrid start. The third-year big-leaguer captured NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2017, after hitting an NL-rookie-record 39 home runs. In 2019, Bellinger set an April record with 97 total bases and tied the record for home runs (14) and runs (32). 5 of 23

Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher

Buehler made an immediate impact upon arrival in L.A., becoming the latest in an increasingly long line of recent Dodger prodigies. In 2018, he capped a terrific rookie year (8-5, 2.62 ERA, 151 strikeouts) with a dominant, seven-shutout-innings performance in Game 3 of the World Series. On June 21, he became the first Dodger pitcher to turn in a 15-plus strikeout outing (16 overall) with no walks. 6 of 23

Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics 3B

A dazzling defender on the hot corner, Chapman has turned into one of the most dependable highlight creators in the game. Chapman’s presence at the plate has continued to grow as well, as he has produced an .870 OPS since 2018. 7 of 23

Jasson Dominguez, Dominican Republic OF

The 16-year-old Dominguez is widely considered the top international amateur prospect. The multiskilled outfielder is a switch-hitter with a strong, 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame and the ability to hit for power from both sides of the plate. He’s also fast. The Yankees gave him a $5 million signing bonus earlier this month. 8 of 23

Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays SS prospect

The game’s next great prodigy, Franco has been sensational in his first year-and-a-half as a pro. As a 17-year-old, he hit .351 with 11 home runs and seven triples to claim MVP of the Appalachian League. He was three years younger than the league average age. He has kept his foot on the gas in Year 2, recently inheriting the mantle of the game’s top prospect despite just turning 18 in March. 9 of 23

MacKenzie Gore, San Diego Padres pitching prospect

Injury plagued last season, Gore has firmly established himself as one the game’s top coming attractions on the mound. The southpaw — who drew comparisons to Clayton Kershaw en route to becoming the third overall pick in 2017 — is dominating minor league foes as a 20-year-old. 10 of 23

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays, 3B

There may be no more naturally talented hitter to emerge in the past 20 years than Vlad Jr. He famously destroyed minor league pitching over the past two years, hitting .323 and .381, respectively, with a number of tape-measure homers mixed in. Few 20-year-olds feel like they are overdue to reach the majors when they did, but Guerrero Jr. fit that bill. On May 14, he became the youngest Blue Jay to homer. For good measure, he hit another one that night.

By: Matt Whitener

Hall of Very Good? Bleh. Let’s make halls of fame great again.

The best part about Hall of Fame debates is that they never end — even after someone gets voted in. No offense to Harold Baines, but really?

I understand why the Veterans Committee decided to put Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates in; and as a Mets fan I totally respect his World Series-ending home run that devastated the Yankees in 1960. But over time, the standards to reach a hall of fame have been lowered in multiple sports. For example, ever since we’ve been watching sports, there have been transcendent athletes who are no-doubt-it, first-ballot hall of famers. And in most cases, all you need to identify them are their first names or nicknames: Magic, Kobe, The Babe, to name a few.

But the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 threw me for a loop. Jack Sikma and Paul Westphal were really good players in their day, but what stunned me was the fact that both of them had the identical career scoring average: 15.6 points. Granted, they played different positions — and Sikma played nearly 300 more regular-season games than Westphal did — but that’s irrelevant. The point is that all halls of fame should not be for really good players; they should house only the greats.

I get that the entire process — and the ongoing debates about candidates — are totally subjective. But when did our definition of all-time great  change along the way? Look at Yankees lefty CC Sabathia, for instance. He more than likely will get voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame because of the precedent that has been set with Mike Mussina’s election earlier this year. 

Sabathia is in his 19th big-league season — Mussina, who will be inducted Sunday, pitched 18 — and both have had exactly one 20-win season. Yet Sabathia will more than likely get a hall call because he is the 17th pitcher to strike out more than 3,000 batters. Fourteen of the pitchers who reached this milestone are in Cooperstown, including fellow lefties Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson. The other two are Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling.

So when evaluating potential HOF candidates, I ask myself the following question: At any point in their careers, were these players ever the best in their sports at their positions? I raise that because in some cases, some recent inductees weren’t even the best pitchers on their particular teams. When Mussina and Clemens were teammates from 2001-03, who was the Yankee ace? Yes, Clemens may have been using PEDs at the time, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Has Sabathia even been the best pitcher of his era? Pedro Martinez and other outstanding hurlers over that span might have something to say about that.

Halls of fame should remain places where no-doubt-about-it, all-time greats end up. I understand why sports halls feel compelled to have an induction class every year; it certainly doesn’t hurt the bottom line to keep this annual tradition going. But it seems as if we’ve reached a point where we have yearly induction classes just for the sake of having them.

Meanwhile, the softening of standards has apparently reached other HOFs. Look at this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction class. Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, Radiohead and the Zombies are all worthy inductees. But using my earlier argument, were Roxy Music and the Cure ever the best bands of their respective eras? Jann Wenner and that hall’s voters might disagree with me, but that’s totally debatable. And I happen to love both Bryan Ferry and Robert Smith.

So do we really want a Hall of Very Good? 

Let’s keep halls of fame — and those in them — great. Otherwise, what’s the point of having them?

By Stan Chrapowicki  |  Last updated 7/15/19

Ezekiel Elliott to hold out of training camp without a new deal?

Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys could be headed toward a contract impasse that keeps him out of training camp.

Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote Monday that, “Per a league source, Elliott has privately said that he will hold out of training camp unless he gets a new contract.”

The Los Angeles Chargers are already facing a similar threat. Melvin Gordon has declared through his agent that he will demand a trade and could hold out into the season if he doesn’t get a long-term extension worthy of his production.

Elliott is clearly one of the NFL’s best running backs and is more valuable than the $3.85 million he’s due to make in 2019 without a new deal.

Sitting out of training camp does makes sense, especially if Elliott believes the Cowboys will eventually grant him his new deal. Running backs already deal with tremendous wear and tear, and it’s not like Elliott doesn’t know the offense. There are penalties to missing camp days, but it stands to reason Dallas could waive those in this situation.

However, his situation isn’t as simple as all that. The Cowboys have other players they might see as higher priorities who are also looking to get paid big-time money — quarterback Dak Prescott, defensive back Byron Jones and receiver Amari Cooper being atop that list.

Then there’s the looming legal battle with a Las Vegas security guard, who said he will sue Elliott over an incident at a concert earlier this year.

Needless to say, this game of contract chicken will be fascinating to watch unfold.

Originally posted on Sportsnaut  |  By Jesse Reed  |  Last updated 7/15/19