Matt Ryan is only 31 years old. And there are many reasons why a team does or doesn’t win championships

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The NFL playoffs — and the race to Super Bowl LI — are in full swing, including this weekend’s divisional round games. Check out ESPN.com’s coverage of every postseason game.

You’re the presumptive NFL MVP and one of the most statistically proficient quarterbacks of this generation. But we don’t know yet if you’re a champion. Can you take a team to the Super Bowl championship? Will you elevate your legacy to the highest levels of history? Or will you go down as a great passer who fell short of transcendent?

I know. Matt Ryan is only 31 years old. And there are many reasons why a team does or doesn’t win championships. Quarterback play is the most important factor, but it’s not the only one. There may never be a better chance for Ryan and the Falcons to make a run, especially after dispatching the Seattle Seahawks in Saturday’s 36-20, divisional-round victory.

But the Steelers seem to understand what it takes to win in January. The defensive game plan was to limit Tyreek Hill (45 total yards), then apply enough pressure on Alex Smith that he couldn’t find tight end Travis Kelce (five catches, 77 yards).

“It was a big focus trying to prevent their playmakers from making plays and just keeping them contained,” said linebacker Bud Dupree, whose hit on Smith in the first half caused a Ryan Shazier interception.

This game was eerily similar to their Week 15 win in Cincinnati, with Boswell also connecting on six field goals.

And now it’s on to New England.

Game Kids David Savard Jersey “These are the two best teams in the AFC,” said Bell about the Steelers and Patriots for the AFC title. “It should be a showdown.”

Fantasy football quarterback bust candidates in 2015

If the first running back or the first wide receiver you draft this season falls on his face, it’s frustrating, but you can recover from it. Such is the benefit of having five, six, seven of them on your roster, and dozens more on the waiver wire.

If your quarterback busts, though, it’s hard to find a place to turn. You might be drafting a backup (though not always), but you aren’t burning a pick on a second quarterback at any point early; you really need the guy you draft to provide a solid return on investment.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some potential quarterback bust candidates for 2015. These are just my opinion, and you might disagree, but these guys scare me more than most entering the season:

With that in mind, we’re looking at some running back sleepers, guys who aren’t going in the first round but who could be one of those win-your-league guys late. You can always pick your own — this is more art than science — but here are a few names to consider:

Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
Injuries are always going to be a part of the equation when considering Jennings, and that’s why he’s not an obvious early pick among running backs. He’s never played 16 games in a season (though last year was his first as a starter, so his opportunity to play 16 games has historically been limited). But in 11 games last year, he reached double-digit fantasy scoring four times. He had at least five points in each of the first five games before injuries ruined his season (his one- and zero-point outings in Weeks 14 and 15 came when he was obviously still injured). Now, he gets to be part of what could be an incredible offense in New York, with Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Larry Donnell and Shane Vereen. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Steelers vs. Patriots 2015: Time, TV schedule for Thursday night football

Elite Youth Dale Murphy Jersey The 2015 NFL season is finally here and it all gets started on Thursday night with a game between the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The offseason headlines for the Patriots revolved around a seven-month saga between the NFL and the franchise regarding DeflateGate. After accepting a $1 million fine and the loss of two draft picks, including a first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Patriots were still punished with a four-game suspension for Tom Brady, but the 10-time Pro Bowler is now off the hook after winning an appeal against the league in federal court.

Don Yee, who is Tom Brady’s agent, is among the founders of the league, along with former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey. Bradley Edwards, Jeffrey Husvar and John Chung are also among the league’s officers.

“Pac Pro’s concept of ‘education’ is expansive. Every team will have a counselor to help players develop their interests academically and/or vocationally, and assist with coordinating meaningful internships in their fields of interest,” Yee said in a statement.
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Edwards, the league’s chief operating officer, said that Pac Pro closed a round of angel investing and is looking at sponsors and facilities.

Also on the league’s advisory board are former head coach Mike Shanahan, former NFL executive Jim Steeg, current Fox NFL officiating analyst Mike Pereira, former chief strategist for the John McCain campaign Steve Schmidt and ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Schefter’s role is unpaid, and he will be available for league officials to consult as needed.

Hawks GM Wes Wilcox apologizes for making racially charged joke

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Atlanta Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox has apologized for making a racially charged joke during a team-oriented discussion with close to 200 season-ticket holders and club members in December.

Wilcox, who is white, spoke at a “Chalk Talk” event before the Hawks’ Dec. 7 game against the Miami Heat. According to a story on Deadspin, fans offered opinions ranging from their dismay over coach Mike Budenholzer’s job performance, to how players’ minutes are being distributed, to the need for a veteran point guard.

Alex Mack Jersey Amid the tension that came with the questioning, Wilcox made an attempt to offer some levity with his reply.

“I really just started to get pissed off,” Irving said of what changed, after he started the game 4-for-14 from the field. “Just, the momentum was shifting. We had a few plays, a few opportunities at the rim, a few in-and-outs, but we weren’t executing plays. As the point guard, I take full responsibility for that. So going into that fourth, the start of it, (the lead) cuts down to 11, gets to eight, and then at that point it just comes out of me naturally. Being in that fourth quarter, being ready for whatever situation I’m put in. Just being aggressive and just making the right plays.”

Again, the “right” way to end the thing would be the Cavs not needing the extra flurry from Irving in the first place, but it certainly was not a bad way for Irving to make his return to the court, either.

For the long haul in the Cavs’ quest for a repeat title, the most important thing out of Friday was seeing their second-best player in Irving return after missing three games from what can be a tricky, haunting injury.

The Blues are the yang to the Cardinals¡¯ yin. The Cardinals are celebrated for their success

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These games matter for the cities that host them. The games make money for the NHL hand over fist, but they are also financial boons for the local markets and economies.

Authentic Barry Church Jersey For a city like St. Louis, and a team like the Blues, the Winter Classic is more than money. There are two major league sports teams here, and both love their history. The Cardinals, with their eleven World Series championships and countless hall of famers, is one of the most storied franchises in Major League Baseball.

Many here have heard of the 40/60/80 rule for valuing a player¡¯s arbitration years. That is, in a player¡¯s three years of arbitration, he¡¯ll make 40% of his worth in the first year, 60% in the second year, and 80% in the third. That is outdated though. Great baseball blog The Point of Pittsburgh found that 25/40/62 was much more appropriate. The arbitration process doesn¡¯t make rulings based on public valuations of WAR though, so we¡¯re talking broad strokes here. Some skill sets are over-valued and under-valued by arbitration. Using MLBTR¡¯s projection for Carlos¡¯ first year of arbitration, and giving him raises commensurate with TPOP¡¯s averages, here¡¯s how Carlos¡¯ arbitration years stack up:

If you¡¯re still looking for a reason why the Cardinals guaranteed Lance Lynn his arbitration salaries ahead of time without getting any free agent years, this will do. According to this estimation, Lynn took about $5M less than what he would have received on average going year to year through the arbitration process. That seems like savings the Cardinals should have been interested in.

Giants vs. Dolphins 2015 picks and predictions: New York getting slight majority of expert nods

The New York Giants and Miami Dolphins have matching 5-7 records and have had matching inconsistencies during their 2015 seasons. So it’s anybody’s guess what teams will show up when the two duel on Monday Night Football in Week 14.

After a rough start to the year, the Dolphins fired Joe Philbin and then scored 82 points in two weeks to climb to 3-3 before falling apart again. Miami is No. 29 in offense and No. 27 in defense, yet has managed to eke out some close victories, including a 15-13 win over the Baltimore Ravens last week that kept slim postseason hopes alive.

The 5-7 Giants are in much better shape for the playoffs thanks to the laughable records in the NFC East. A month ago the Giants had a winning record, but the team hasn’t earned a win since Week 9, although six of the seven losses were one-score games. Every win is huge in a division without a winning record, so beating the Dolphins would keep New York in great shape to get into the playoffs.

It’s tough to know what to expect from either team, but most experts are pegging the Giants to snap their three-game losing streak on Monday. It’s far from unanimous, though.

Game Womens Nik Stauskas Jersey Unless there’s a catastrophic injury, playing Week 17 shouldn’t hurt the team’s postseason performance. The most obvious example of teams not resting in the last game of the season is the 2007 contest between the 15-0 Patriots and the 10-5 Giants. Both teams were locked into their spots, first seed and fifth seed. They battled that day with the Patriots coming from behind to win. Both teams then met in the Super Bowl with the Giants upsetting the undefeated Patriots.
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This is an excellent example of why playing Week 17 can be an attitude-setting game. By playing this game like a normal week, Coach Coughlin was sending a message about being competitive and stepping up to the best. He wanted to measure his team against the best team in the league. I totally loved this move. But as well, Eli had been to the playoffs twice, losing both times, the team was younger, and they were healthy so it made total sense for Coughlin to treat this week like usual. And it paid off.

Rob Gronkowski is believed to have suffered his initial chest injury on this hit from Earl Thomas

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Gronkowski got just that $12.9 million in cash over the first three years of his contract, which is staggeringly low. To put that number in context, the far inferior Jared Cook got $17 million over the first three years of his deal when he hit free agency the following season. Gronkowski’s cap hit was 17th among tight ends in 2012, 21st in 2013, and ninth in 2014 before rising to second last year. This year, it’s sixth in the league at $6.6 million, behind the likes of Jordan Cameron ($8 million), Julius Thomas ($7.3 million) and Kyle Rudolph (also $7.3 million).

By getting that $8 million signing bonus two years before free agency, Gronkowski capped his future earnings over the next six years. With base salaries of less than $5 million between 2012 and 2017, the significant money in Gronkowski’s deal came way down the line and was totally unguaranteed. (This is why you shouldn’t listen when articles say somebody has the “biggest” contract unless it’s talking about guaranteed money.) The first gate Gronkowski had to crash was 2016. The Patriots started footing the cap bill for a $10 million option bonus in 2015 but then actually paid the cash out to Gronk this year, stretching the other four cap hits for that bonus through each of the four remaining seasons on his deal.
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Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints: Brees is completing an NFL-best 71.5 percent of his passes, and the Lions are allowing opponents to complete a league-high 74.0 percent. The Saints’ three most recent losses have been by a total of 11 points. With a victory, New Orleans would get back to .500 at 6-6.

LeSean McCoy’s monster day: He has been a handful for opponents all season long. McCoy has 819 rushing yards and is averaging 5.22 YPC. His elusiveness combined with the Buffalo Bills’ blocking has led to a yards-before-contact average of 3.81, the top mark among all NFL running backs. The Oakland Raiders’ defense is 27th against the run, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, their plus-32 point differential is the second-worst mark in league history among teams that have started 9-2 or better.

The end of the Miami Dolphins’ win streak: The Dolphins have won six in a row, but they face a difficult matchup against Baltimore. The Ravens have the top defense in the NFL and the sixth-ranked special-teams unit through the first 12 weeks. Adam Gase has done an excellent job in his first season in Miami, but this is a tough spot for the Dolphins, who are 3.5-point underdogs.

NFL panic index, Week 17: 4 playoff teams have QBs with no postseason experience

Christmas Eve was a rough one for two of the league’s most promising young quarterbacks. The Raiders’ Derek Carr and the Titans’ Marcus Mariota each left the second halves of their Week 16 games on carts thanks to a pair of broken fibulas.

Mariota’s injury closed the door on an uneven playoff push in Nashville. Carr’s bum wheel likely razed his MVP chances and puts his team’s first postseason appearance since Nickelback was an emerging young talent in the hands of a backup.

Other teams have had their postseason fates altered by the fickle hands of the injury gods. Thanks to the stretch run of the 2016 season, and Ryan Tannehill’s sprained ACL, NFL fans may be treated to a showdown between Matt McGloin and Matt Moore.

It hardly seems fair when the other starting quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs include a four-time Super Bowl winner (Tom Brady) and a two-time Super Bowl winner (Ben Roethlisberger).

There’s more playoff experience among the starter quarterbacks in the NFC. Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, and (if the Packers clinch a spot) Aaron Rodgers all have Super Bowl rings. Depending on if the Lions or Washington lock down a playoff berth, Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins have both played in the postseason. So has Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

For four of the 10 teams already officially in the playoffs, they’ll be trotting out a quarterback who has zero experience on this big of a stage.

The Raiders have plenty of talent; Amari Cooper, Donald Penn, and all 265 pounds and 57 years of Sebastian Janikowski rank among the team’s standouts. But despite placing seven players on the AFC Pro Bowl team, Oakland’s success rises and falls on two men — and one of them won’t return this season.

Cincinnati place-kicker Randy Bullock’s attempt for a winning field goal sailed wide right on Saturday night

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Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5). A brilliant Ben Roethlisberger comeback against the Ravens on Sunday night clinched the Steelers’ second division title in three years and eliminated Baltimore. Pittsburgh will host a playoff game on Jan. 7 or 8.

Houston Texans (9-6). When Cincinnati place-kicker Randy Bullock’s attempt for a winning field goal sailed wide right on Saturday night, it made Houston champion of the AFC South for the second year in a row. The Texans’ Week 17 game in Nashville now has no relevance.

Kansas City Chiefs (11-4). The Chiefs can still claim the AFC West, but they need to beat San Diego in Week 17 and hope the Raiders lose in Denver.

Miami Dolphins (10-5). After a 1-4 start, the Dolphins have won nine of their past 10 games. And Miami clinched a playoff spot with Denver’s loss to Kansas City on Sunday night.
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Prescott is every bit as poised in 2016 as Brady was in 2001. This isn’t to say that Prescott is destined for long-term greatness, for a legacy seat in Brady’s ballpark. But just like Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana were the ultimate standards for young hopefuls of bygone generations, Brady is the benchmark for today’s up-and-comers.

“The guy every week just sounds under control and looks under control on the field, and it really is extraordinary. He’s only going to get better.”

And in terms of intellect and temperament, Prescott seems to have a lot of Brady to his game. The comparison goes far beyond the fact that Prescott and Brady were draft room afterthoughts who replaced injured stars in Tony Romo and Drew Bledsoe.

the Bears have struggled with tackling and with containing quarterbacks over the past three weeks

On defense, the Bears have struggled with tackling and with containing quarterbacks over the past three weeks. In three straight losses, the Chicago defense let Blaine Gabbert, Kirk Cousins and Teddy Bridgewater all have career games. Gabbert, Cousins and Bridgewater combined for 727 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception. On Sunday, Winston and the Bucs won’t make things easy.

Elite Youth Mitch Williams Jersey The Bucs are coming off of a tough 31-23 loss on the road to the St. Louis Rams in Week 15. The Rams gutted out the win in what may well be their last game in St. Louis, helped along by two rushing touchdowns from receiver Tavon Austin. The Bucs put up a fight, though, and scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to make it a game. Winston threw for 363 yards and two touchdowns while Mike Evans caught nine passes for 157 yards.

Game Jimmy Hayes Jersey Winston is certainly part of the team’s turnaround, as is new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, whose scheme has boosted the Bucs’ offensive performance. A strong ground attack, buoyed by a resurgent season from running back Doug Martin also has helped. Martin is the NFL’s second-leading rusher this season, trailing Adrian Peterson by just 9 yards.

The Bears are coming off of a devastating 38-17 loss to Peterson’s Minnesota Vikings, which knocked them out of playoff contention. Chicago has faced injury-related adversity all season, especially among its receivers. Alshon Jeffery has battled recurring injuries throughout the year, first-round pick Kevin White never set foot on the field during the regular season after undergoing surgery in August, and the team also recently placed tight end Martellus Bennett on injured reserve.