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Guregian: The lowdown on the NFL’s divisional round matchups

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Guregian: The lowdown on the NFL’s divisional round matchups

The AFC and NFC’s semifinalists are set to hit the big stage this weekend in divisional round action.

While the Patriots might be done for the season, searching for answers to improve for next year, there’s still a few more weeks of playoff football left, and interesting matchups all around.

Among the remaining eight teams, there’s plenty of star power at quarterback. At age 44, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady led the league in passing yards (5,316), and touchdowns (43). The former Patriots great also tops everyone in championship rings with seven.

Is he headed for No. 8?

Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes are also ring-owners. So is San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo, who has two rings from his time in New England, but didn’t play in any of the playoff games.

Beyond the jewelry, Pro Football Focus has seven of the remaining quarterbacks ranked in their Top 15 based on performance this season, led by Cincy’s Joe Burrow, who sits in the top spot. After Burrow, Brady (2), Rodgers (4), and Buffalo’s Josh Allen (5) round out the Top 5.

How do the games shape up? Let’s take a look.

Bengals at Titans

When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS, Paramount+)

Where: Nissan Stadium

Biggest concern for Bengals: Joe Burrow was sacked a league-leading 51 times during the year. Can the offensive line keep Burrow upright against the Titans, who were among the league leaders in sacks (43)?

Biggest concern for Titans: The expectation is for star running back Derrick Henry to play. He’s been sidelined since Week 9 with a Jones fracture in his right foot. It remains to be seen how much of an impact he’ll have coming off that type of injury.

Bengals stat of note: The first team ever with a 4,000-yard passer (Burrow), a 1,000-yard rusher (Joe Mixon) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Ja’Marr Chase & Tee Higgins).

Titans stat of note: Henry is the only player in the NFL with 10-plus rushing touchdowns in each of the past four seasons.

Lowdown: The Titans, as the AFC’s top seed, are seeing their first action in the 2021 playoffs. They should have all of their key players on offense (A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Henry) together for the first time since November. They’ll need all hands on deck to compete with the firepower of the Bengals offense.

Burrow’s connection with Chase (13 TDs) is frightening for any defense. If the Titans manage to contain that threat, there’s still Higgins, Tyler Boyd and tight end C.J. Uzomah, who had six catches last week in the Wild Card round. Mixon, who rushed for over 1,000 yards, offers some balance to the attack.

While the Titans defense has improved, it has on occasion proved vulnerable in the secondary.

Overall, however, the Bengals defense has surrendered more points per game (27.1) and yards per game (350.8) than the Titans.

The Bengals also lost starting defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to a season-ending foot injury in Saturday’s win. Pro Bowl defensive end Trey Hendrickson was in concussion protocol, but was back at practice.

This game certainly has the potential for an upset. Just not totally sold on the Bengals defense, or offensive line. The Bengals have the edge at quarterback, with Burrow over Ryan Tannehill, but the Titans get the checkmark on defense and at head coach. Mike Vrabel should come up with a game plan to slow Burrow & Co. for the Titans to advance.

Prediction: Titans 28, Bengals 24

49ers at Packers

When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (FOX, FOX Deportes)

Where: Lambeau Field

Biggest concern for 49ers: Whether Jimmy Garoppolo can deliver with thumb and shoulder injuries.

Biggest concern for Packers: Stopping the run. The Packers were 30th overall during the regular season, allowing 4.7 yards per carry. The last three games, the number climbed to 5.6 yards per rush.

49ers stat of note: Defensive end Nick Bosa (21) tied with Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt for the most tackles for loss in 2021.

Packers stat of note: They’re the only team with an undefeated record (8-0) at home during the 2021 regular season.

Skinny: In the strange but true department, Aaron Rodgers is 0-3 against the 49ers in the playoffs. Will that have any bearing in this game?

Doubt it.

The Packers are the NFC’s top seed, and record-wise (13-4), the best team in football. Rodgers has put together an MVP-type season. He’s been in total command of the Packers offense, with 37 TD passes and just four INTs.

The Niners have a decent pass rush to try and rattle Rodgers. Bosa, however, suffered a head injury in Sunday’s win over Dallas. He has advanced through the NFL’s concussion protocol, practicing in a limited fashion Wednesday and has a decent chance to play. Linebacker Fred Warner suffered an ankle injury, but he took to social media to tell fans he was a go.

As for Jimmy G., all he seems to do is win, whether he plays well or not. His thumb injury is going to be tougher to overcome, especially in the cold. Niners receiver Deebo Samuel is a stud, but so is Davante Adams for the Packers, who had 12 catches for 132 yards during the two teams’ regular season meeting, won by the Packers.

Bottom line, it’s going to be tough to knock Rodgers out, especially at Lambeau.

Prediction: Packers 31, 49ers 21

Rams at Buccaneers

When: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET (NBC, Peacock Universo)

Where: Raymond James Stadium

Biggest concern for Rams: Which team will show up? The one that blew a 17-point lead to the Niners in Week 18, or the one that just blew out the Cardinals in the Wild Card round?

Biggest concern for Bucs: Injuries to key players on offense finally catching up. WR Chris Godwin suffered a season-ending knee injury, while RB Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and RB Ronald Jones (ankle) weren’t healthy enough to play in the Wild Card round. Center Ryan Jensen and All-Pro RT Tristan Wirfs are also battling injuries.

Key Rams stat: Cooper Kupp became the 4th player since 1970 to lead the NFL in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947), and receiving touchdowns (16) in the same season.

Key Bucs stat: Tom Brady is the All-Time NFL postseason leader in games played (46), wins (35), passing TDs (85), Super Bowl titles (7) and Super Bowl MVPs (5).

Skinny: The Rams took down the Bucs Week 3, 34-24. Brady, of course, will be looking to avenge that loss and advance to the NFC Championship game. This time around, however, he’ll have to do it with a lot of missing parts.

Brady, of course, looked great against the Eagles in the Wild Card game playing with a cast of backups, but took a beating in the process with Jensen hobbled, and Wirfs eventually leaving the game with an ankle injury. The Rams, Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd and Von Miller in particular, will be looking to tee off on the GOAT and make his life miserable.

Matthew Stafford, meanwhile, threw a few too many picks down the stretch, but cleaned up his act against Arizona throwing two TDs, with a 154.5 rating. In the meeting earlier in the year against the Bucs, he passed for 343 yards with 4 TDs and no picks. And after many years of frustration in Detroit, Stafford won his first playoff game last week against the Cardinals.

The head says go with the Rams over the depleted Bucs.

But in the end, it’s never a good idea to bet against Brady. If there’s a way to win, he’ll find it. He’ll certainly be handicapped with a makeshift offensive line, and several of his key weapons likely not playing. It doesn’t make sense for a 44-year-old to overcome such obstacles. But then again, Brady’s made a living proving all the doubters wrong.

Prediction: Bucs 30, Rams 27

Bills at Chiefs

When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS, Paramount+)

Where: Arrowhead Stadium

Biggest concern for Bills: Can Josh Allen duplicate his other-worldly performances against the Patriots, or will he come back to earth?

Biggest concern for Chiefs: The defense. Steve Spagnuolo’s unit has been up and down much of the year. Of late, they’ve put up a few stinkers.

Key Bills stat: Only team in the NFL to rank in the Top 5 in total offense (381.9 yards per game) and total defense (272.8 yards allowed per game).

Key Chiefs stat: Patrick Mahomes is second behind Dan Marino (168) with the most TD passes his first five seasons (151).

Skinny: Naturally, the NFL is saving the best for last. This is a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game. The Chiefs were the superior team last year, and the Bills spent the entire offseason vowing to improve and take down Mahomes & Co. this time around. They did so earlier in the year in a rout, 38-20, at Arrowhead.

The playoffs, however, are a different animal.

Can the Bills do it again? If Allen plays as well as he did against Bill Belichick’s team the last two games, never punting, while scoring every time he touched the ball, the Bills are going to be tough to beat.

Both the Chiefs and Bills have had impressive wins, but also a few head-scratching losses along the ride. At this stage, though, it’s hard to believe the game won’t live up to the hype. Both Mahomes and Allen took it up a notch last week. This one’s a heavyweight fight all the way. It’s hard to believe Mahomes vs. Allen won’t be a great duel. Predicting a slight upset in this one.

Prediction: Bills 35, Chiefs 31

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Yankees bats awake late in 7-2 win over Rays

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Yankees bats awake late in 7-2 win over Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — Aaron Boone popped out of the dugout in the ninth inning to boos. It was not the Rays fans booing, but the large group of Yankees fans. The manager was headed to the mound to get Nestor Cortes, who had just given a leadoff single to Wander Franco—but had been brilliant all night.

Cortes dominated the Rays’ dangerous lineup for eight innings as the Yankees beat the Rays 7-2 at Tropicana Field Thursday night in the first of the four-game series.

The Yankees (32-13) have won three straight games and 13 of their last 18. They maintained the best record in baseball and increased their cushion in the American League East to 5.5 games over the Rays (26-18)

Cortes threw eight scoreless innings, but Franco scored on Manuel Margot’s single off Wandy Peralta to charge him with a run. It was his 18th consecutive start allowing three earned runs or less. The 27-year old scattered four  hits, walked one and struck out five for his fourth win of the season. It was just the second time in his career that Cortes pitched into the eighth inning.

Cortes walked Yandy Diaz to lead off the bottom of the first and then gave up a single to Harold Ramirez before getting out of the inning unscathed. Cortes matched scoreless innings with Yarborough, retiring 14 straight Rays. The Yankees most consistent starter this season, Cortes threw 109 pitches and got seven swings and misses, four off his four-seam fastball.

It was just the second time in his career Cortes had gotten through eight innings. He spared a bullpen that has been hit hard recently by injuries.

And gave a lineup that has also been hit by the injury bug a chance to catch up.

The Yankees were no-hit through five innings by Ryan Yarborough, who walked Anthony Rizzo in the first and then retired 14 straight before it unraveled in the sixth. Matt Carpenter, who had arrived in the Yankees clubhouse just hours before, was hit by a pitch, the first base runner since the first, and Marwin Gonzalez’s line drive to center field was the Bombers’ first hit of the night.

Aaron Judge grounded a single—98 miles an hour off the bat—up the middle to bring in the Yankees’ first run. The slugger, playing center field after Aaron Hicks was a late scratch, stole second. Miguel Andujar singled to drive in another and a  second run scored on the Rays’ throwing error on the play.

Isaiah Kiner-Falefa led off the seventh with a walk and scored on a Ralph Garza, Jr. wild pitch. Judge drove in the Yankees’ fifth run on a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the ninth. Anthony Rizzo followed with a sharp line drive double that plated two more.

The Yankees signed Carpenter, who exercised his opt-out earlier this week, and immediately brought him into the fold with uncertainty about DJ LeMahieu, Josh Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton on the injured list.

LeMahieu, who had a cortisone shot in his wrist, was still out of the lineup and he tried hitting and took balls at third base before Thursday night’s game. He said the shot had not yet helped enough. The Yankees are also without Josh Donaldson, who is on the COVID-19 list but has not tested positive for the coronavirus. The third baseman is back in New York dealing with a respiratory illness. He is also facing a possible one-game suspension after his altercation with White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, whom he repeatedly called “Jackie,” in reference to Jackie Robinson. Donaldson issued a statement saying that he and Anderson, who is Black and interpreted the comments as racist, have a mutual understanding. Donaldson is appealing the league’s discipline.

Thursday night, the Yankees were just trying to get through their first series against the always tough Rays. It is also the first of a streak in which the Bombers will play 10 out of 13 games against teams with a winning record, after facing the perpetually rebuilding Orioles seven out of the last 10.

Carpenter, signed by the Yankees after opting out of his minor league deal with the Rangers last week, arrived at the visitors’ clubhouse about an hour and a half before first pitch and minutes before he was hustled off to the hitters’ meeting. The three-time All-Star and former Cardinal was rushed into the lineup less than an hour before first pitch when Hicks was scratched with tightness in his right hamstring.

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Jessica Gelt: Why The Onion’s take on the Uvalde shooting captures every parent’s worst nightmare

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Jessica Gelt: Why The Onion’s take on the Uvalde shooting captures every parent’s worst nightmare

It’s the yellow caution tape that gets to me when I look at the pictures tweeted by the satirical website The Onion in the wake of the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, this week. Emblazoned with the words “Sheriff’s Line Do Not Cross,” the yellow tape is draped around the schoolyard after an 18-year-old man gunned down 19 small children who had recently finished their honor-roll ceremony.

Yellow is a bright, cheery color. It’s one of my 6-year-old daughter’s favorites. It’s the color of the sun, of sunflowers, of balloons and candy. It’s the color of her hair — soft and fine as corn silk.

On police tape, however, yellow is the color of every parent’s worst nightmare: that their child’s school became the target of yet another mass shooting, and that maybe their precious baby has been violently murdered.

It’s a fear we have lived with since the unthinkable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, after which absolutely nothing was done to effect change when it comes to guns in America. In fact, since 20 children were shot down in cold blood in Newtown, Connecticut, gun laws have actually loosened in this country. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to soon deliver a decision undoing a long-standing New York law that forbids people from carrying guns in public without first demonstrating a “special need” for self-defense.

Wednesday morning, The Onion devoted its entire home page to dozens of images from mass shootings dating back to 2014, accompanied by the same devastating headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

The picture at the very top is the one of Robb Elementary in Uvalde, with the yellow tape circling a schoolyard that should have been filled with joyful kids. The image made the rounds across Twitter and trended rapidly. The Onion has a history of cutting to the chase when it comes to moments of extreme national tragedy in the way that only razor-sharp satire can. No one looking at it was laughing, though. Especially not parents, for whom that specific set of signifiers has a particularly horrific resonance.

The image of yellow tape, paired with police cars, sirens flashing, in front of a school — that’s the image that fills parents with the kind of grief they can taste. The kind that keeps them up at night, wondering if one day they too will have to face such a scene at their child’s school.

The crushing news out of Uvalde came about an hour before I was due to pick up my 6-year-old and her best friend from kindergarten. I could not get to the elementary school fast enough. My heart pounded, and I wiped at my eyes because I couldn’t see through my tears to drive. The radio didn’t help, as the scope and scale of the carnage in Texas began to crystallize. I was not alone in my race to get to my child. The schoolyard was filled with parents who had shown up early, who could not wait to wrap arms around their babies. Our worried, pained eyes met as we hustled toward the pickup line. But we didn’t speak. We couldn’t. What would we say?

The bell rang, and children burst forth from the school doors — yelling and laughing, chasing one another and running to their waiting parents. Little kids full of giggles and questions, wearing clothes dirty from play, shoelaces untied, hair messy, faces caked in food, bearing lopsided smiles.

As we walked back to the car, my daughter and her friend chattered on about the dance party they had in school and the glow-in-the-dark bracelets they got as a special treat. They wore paper crowns that they made in art class, decorated with tender kid drawings: smiling faces, stick arms, flowers and birds.

The worry and fear were more palpable Wednesday morning, as parents who had spent the night stewing in this new horror were further processing its vast implications — and realizing that this grief was theirs to shoulder forever, maybe, unless actual change was made in favor of common-sense gun legislation.

This week had been spirit week at Robb Elementary, and Tuesday was foot loose and fancy-free day, with the kids encouraged to wear their fanciest footwear. We parents had to grapple with images of tiny bodies in glittery, fabulous shoes — shoes that made the morning fun and exciting to kids who were still learning to read. I thought about that as I put my daughter’s feet into her own glittery shoes as we got ready for school. They are the kind that light up when she runs. She finds so much joy in those shoes. Because little kids can find joy in anything.

I thought about not taking my daughter to school this morning. But I did. And I wasn’t alone. We parents got up and did it again. As we walked toward the main doors, we held our children’s hands a bit more tightly. Many parents got down on their knees at the school gate and hugged their kids longer than usual. Our eyes still filled with worry. We were not yet ready to speak.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a conversation I had with my daughter a few nights ago, just before the nightmare in Uvalde. I had just put her to bed, when she got up again and came timidly into my room. She said two things were “concerning her.”

She asked if dying meant she would never imagine anything again. I said that was likely the case. I told her everyone dies. That her daddy would die one day, that I would and that she would too. But, I said, she didn’t have to worry about that for a long, long time.

She asked how people die. I told her it happens when our hearts stop beating — from sickness, or accidents, or when we are very, very old.

She nodded and then said, “Maybe if I die, I’ll come back as a little baby somewhere else.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Some people believe that. Your grandma Boo always said she would come back as a yellow butterfly. That’s why when we see yellow butterflies, we think of her.”

She thought about this for a moment.

“I’m going to come back as a black and white cat,” she said. “And I’m going to show up at your door, and you’ll know it’s me. I’ll push up against your door, and I won’t go.”

I liked the image of the cat, but I didn’t at all like the idea that I would still be around when she was not.

I told her, “Oh, sweetheart, I hope I’ll be long gone before then.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I said, “I hope I die before you. Mamas should die before their babies.”

“Most mamas and daddies stay alive until their babies are gone,” she said.

I could tell she needed me to say I’d never leave her, so I said, “OK, deal. I’m not going anywhere, as long as you promise not to either.”

“Deal,” she said.

I kissed her and tucked her back in. Then I went to my room and cried my eyes out.

Parents aren’t supposed to lose their babies. We aren’t supposed to show up at school to be confronted by the shock and horror of yellow tape and police cars on a clear blue day just before summer vacation is about to begin. We aren’t supposed to digest one mass shooting after another after another, always hoping that the bullets won’t one day fly closer to home.

And we should never have learned to accept the standard line after such a tragedy occurs, the one currently blanketing The Onion’s homepage in a heart-shattering tableau of yellow tape and emergency vehicles. Like a relentless funeral dirge, it reads: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

Jessica Gelt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

 

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Yankees, Rays tweet about gun violence instead of game

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Yankees, Rays tweet about gun violence instead of game

The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays shared facts about gun violence instead of baseball on their Twitter timelines during Thursday night’s game.

“In lieu of game coverage and in collaboration with the Tampa Bay Rays, we will be using our channel to offer facts about the impacts of gun violence,” the Yankees said in a statement before first pitch. “The devastating events that have taken place in Uvalde, Buffalo and countless other communities across our nation are tragedies that are intolerable.”

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old fatally shot 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde. Ten days earlier, a white teenager targeted a Black grocery store in Buffalo for his own rampage, killing 10 people and wounding three more.

One of the Yankees’ and Rays’ tweets was about the disproportionate impact of gun violence on Black communities.

“Every three hours, a young Black man dies by gun homicide,” the teams wrote.

In addition to the tweets, the Rays announced a $50,000 donation to Everytown for Gun Safety. Rays relief pitcher Brooks Raley is from Uvalde and graduated from Uvalde High School, the same school that killer Salvador Ramos attended.

“Every day, more than 110 Americans are killed with guns, and more than 200 are shot and injured,” the teams wrote to open the game.

Other tweets touched on topics such as domestic violence and suicide, and how access to guns can make things worse.

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