THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — So much is different about the Los Angeles Rams these days. They’re coming off their first playoff appearance in 13 years, with a star-studded roster that now rivals any in the NFL, and the expectations are greater than they have been in more than a decade. The city is buzzing, the players are excited.
But one key similarity remains: Aaron Donald is absent.
Donald didn’t attend the start of the Rams’ offseason program on Monday. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was absent for most of last year’s program and is still in search of a new contract, one that would make him one of the game’s highest-paid players. Donald is headed into the final year of his rookie contract, with no interest in showing up without a more lucrative deal.
After his team’s first workout, Rams coach Sean McVay said they are “proactive towards finding a solution to make sure that everybody feels good about that.”
“What I think we feel good about is the dialogue that has existed,” McVay added. “We totally understand some of the other things that are going on with regards to wanting to get that deal. With respect to Aaron, we feel really good about where we’re at with that dialogue. This is a voluntary offseason program. You know he’s a guy that’s going to work hard on his off time, and that’s kind of where we’re at. We feel good about everything that’s going on with that.”
Donald, who remains in Pittsburgh, is set to make $6.89 million in what constitutes the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. The Rams can then keep him for up to three additional years with the franchise tag, but they have expressed a desire to sign Donald long term dating back to last year’s scouting combine.
At this year’s combine, Rams general manager Les Snead said he and Donald’s CAA-based representatives “came up with a nice timeline” for negotiations, a process that might pick up after the draft. The Rams have since taken up almost all of their cap space by adding cornerback Aqib Talib, interior lineman Ndamukong Suh and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. But Snead recently said that “none of it affects Aaron.”
Signing Donald to a long-term deal might actually give the Rams more space under this year’s salary cap, because the signing bonus is prorated for the life of the contract and would allow them to lower his 2018 base salary.
The Rams and Donald might be at a better place now, which could be evidenced by their exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to Donald’s hometown for their “Behind The Grind” documentary series. Donald likes playing for McVay and is excited about the direction of the team. The Rams, meanwhile, would be more willing to pay Donald now because he’s closer to free agency.
“I think the best thing that you have going is now there’s been a year of working together,” McVay said. “There’s a rapport; there’s a relationship that’s been established, and we’re in constant dialogue and communication. When this happened last year, we weren’t really involved in much communication between myself and Aaron. I think you feel good about at least knowing where he’s at.”
Locking Donald up may require at least $80 million guaranteed and an average yearly salary of more than $20 million.
Donald, Cooks and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who signed his franchise tag prior to Monday’s workout, can all be unrestricted free agents next offseason. The Rams would ideally sign all of them to long-term deals, though they face a July 16 deadline with Joyner.
Next year, their star running back, Todd Gurley, will be on the last year of his rookie contract, and the Rams might have to seriously consider a long-term deal for him, too. Gurley, represented by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, is now in the same situation Donald was in last year. But he didn’t give much thought to staying away from the team.
Asked if he would like to start contract negotiations now, Gurley smiled wide.
“I think anyone would love to talk about contract situations.”
Offseason workouts are voluntary under the collective bargaining agreement. Players can be fined only for skipping the mandatory veteran minicamp, which for the Rams takes place June 12-14. Donald showed up to last year’s minicamp, but didn’t participate in any of the team activities. He then skipped all of training camp and the preseason schedule, staying away from the team until the day before the season opener.
Donald now has a much better feel for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, but his absence keeps the team from figuring out how Donald, Suh and Michael Brockers will work together on the same defensive line.
“I mean, we’ve dealt with it before, and we also know that it’s a business,” Brockers said. “You have the best defensive tackle in the league right now going through contract situations. I’ll kind of just leave it at that. I don’t really want to talk about if he’s here, if he’s not here. We obviously know that he’s putting in the work to get back in shape.”
Why haven’t Hall of Fame locks Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers won more Super Bowls?
They were Super Bowl MVPs in back-to-back years after the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Then they followed up with two of the most epic statistical seasons in NFL history in 2011.
Brees ranks first all time in passing yards (77,888), passing touchdowns (550) and completion percentage (67.6), while Rodgers ranks first in passer rating (102.6). The point being, these two could choose to retire at halftime of Sunday night’s marquee matchup between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) in the Superdome — and someone in Canton, Ohio, would immediately get to work on sculpting their Hall of Fame busts.
Still, it has to rank as one of the decade’s biggest sports upsets that neither has made it back to appear in a second Super Bowl.
And the 41-year-old Brees has been especially candid about how driven he is to change that.
“That’s why I came back,” Brees said bluntly at the start of training camp after he strongly considered retiring before his 20th NFL season.
When asked if he thinks it’s fair that quarterbacks are judged so much by Super Bowls, Brees didn’t shy away from that, either. “Here’s the thing, whether it’s fair or not, I think we all agree that quarterbacks and head coaches in large part are evaluated on wins, losses, championships. And so we acknowledge that, and we take on that responsibility,” Brees said.
Rodgers, five years younger at 36, will probably get a few more cracks at it — especially since he is off to one of his best starts for the 2-0 Packers. But he, too, has grown weary of falling short after three NFC Championship Game losses in the past six years.
“The window’s open, and I think we’re going to be on the right side of one of these real soon,” Rodgers said after the Packers’ loss to the San Francisco 49ers in last season’s NFC title game.
Brees and the 1-1 Saints have more pressing concerns heading into this Week 3 showdown. New Orleans’ offense has been disturbingly out of sync — leading to the spin cycle of questions about whether we might be seeing the start of a steep decline in Brees’ performance.
“I feel good. Borderline great,” insisted Brees, who rejected the notion of a sudden physical dropoff — while acknowledging the results have been disappointing so far.
Assuming Brees and coach Sean Payton can manage their way through these early struggles, we should be looking at two of the NFC’s top contenders once again after both teams finished 13-3 last season.
Since their Super Bowl victories, Rodgers and the Packers are 6-7 in the postseason with the three NFC Championship Game appearances, while Brees and the Saints are 4-6 with one trip to the NFC title game.
But when asked if he is surprised by their Super Bowl droughts, NBC analyst and Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said, “Not really.” “Because people think it’s easy. But so many things have to go right for you.”
Dungy and Peyton Manning reached only one Super Bowl in their seven years together with the Indianapolis Colts, winning it in the 2006 season. And Dungy said that team probably ranked “No. 4 or No. 5” when it came to talent among all their years together.
“Every year on the first show on NBC, ‘Who are you picking to win the Super Bowl and can the previous team repeat?’ And I always say no. I don’t care who it is,” Dungy said.
Should titles be the barometer for Rodgers’ success?
Shortly after Brett Favre and the Packers lost Super Bowl XXXII to the Denver Broncos — and their chance to repeat as champions — the architect of those teams offered a memorable line about their place in history.
“We’re a one-year wonder, just a fart in the wind,” then-Packers general manager Ron Wolf said.
It might have taken a couple of decades to come to grips with it, but he realizes now he was unfairly harsh — especially as it pertained to Favre and his legacy.
“Is that the barometer?” Wolf asked ESPN.com recently. “Is that the only barometer of success in the National Football League, whether you won a Super Bowl, two Super Bowls or not? Does that make you a great player, whether you won a Super Bowl or not? If you’re a really good player, that should not matter.”
Rodgers’ résumé includes four NFC title games — all on the road. He won his first, in 2010, at Chicago, on the way to Super Bowl XLV but lost the 2014, 2016 and 2019 conference championships.
Wolf said later in his career that he regretted not getting more weapons for Favre to make a stronger run, and the Packers of today could be criticized for doing the same. Ted Thompson, the GM who drafted Rodgers in 2005, mostly shied away from free agency, and his replacement, Brian Gutekunst, hasn’t drafted a wide receiver higher than the fifth round in any of his three years running the show.
Coaching deserves a share of the blame, too. Former coach Mike McCarthy might have stuck with defensive coordinator Dom Capers longer than he should have before firing him after the 2017 season.
If Rodgers never gets to a second Super Bowl, the loss at Seattle in the 2014 NFC Championship Game likely will hurt the most. While McCarthy took much of the blame for the defeat — blowing a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter — Rodgers got off mostly scot-free.
When Morgan Burnett intercepted Russell Wilson to give the ball back to the Packers with 5:04 left in a 19-7 game, the Packers ran the ball three consecutive times (the first two for losses), and McCarthy got crushed for taking his foot off the gas.
But the Packers had a rule going into that game — never run at Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. On the first play after Burnett’s interception, Rodgers made a pre-snap adjustment to move fullback John Kuhn to his left, which meant running back Eddie Lacy was to follow Kuhn — right into Bennett’s gap. The play lost 4 yards. The next play was a run-pass option. The Seahawks stuffed the box, yet Lacy got the ball again and ran right into Bennett for a 2-yard loss. The Packers ran again on third down before punting. Just a little over a minute ran off the clock before the Seahawks got the ball back.
The Packers lost in overtime, when Rodgers never touched the ball.
Last year’s surprising 13-3 season and improbable run to the NFC title game in coach Matt LaFleur’s first year didn’t leave Rodgers bitter after another near miss. It was in the moments immediately after the blowout loss to the 49ers that Rodgers proclaimed that the Packers’ Super Bowl window remains open.
“It’s on my mind every day,” Rodgers said during the playoffs last season when asked about winning another Super Bowl. “That’s why we play the game. That’s why you put in the time in the offseason, that’s why you do the little things. It’s to put yourself in this position, where we’re two games away from being able to compete for that. I’m 36, I know what this is all about. This is an important opportunity for us. I feel like I’ve got a lot of really good years left, but you never know.”
And if he doesn’t and he has to settle for one Super Bowl (including being MVP) and four appearances in the NFC championship?
“That’s still damn good,” Wolf said. “To me, that has always been the one huge factor. Wins and losses. That’s the only thing that matters, is if you win. You guys are going to have a real interesting thing here because there’s going to become a time here when Eli Manning and [Philip] Rivers come up for the Hall of Fame, and they’re going to say, ‘Well, Manning won two Super Bowls, but he’s a .500 quarterback.’ Now is that a Hall of Famer? I think there’s too much emphasis on that Super Bowl. I don’t think that’s a barometer. It shouldn’t be. But some people have certainly determined that is.”
Gut-wrenching playoff exits the norm for Brees
Despite the growing predictions this week of Brees’ demise, he has actually done an outstanding job of keeping the Saints in contention beyond his 40th birthday.
Although the deep ball has become a decreasing part of Brees’ arsenal, he has adjusted by becoming even more efficient over the past two seasons. He posted the two best passer ratings of his career (116.3 in 2019 and 115.7 in 2018) and the two best completion percentages in NFL history (74.4 in 2019 and 74.3 in 2018).
Unfortunately, the Saints might actually have the Packers beaten when it comes to gut-wrenching playoff exits. Last season it was an overtime playoff loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round. The season before that it was the missed pass interference call against the Los Angeles Rams when the Saints were minutes away from winning the NFC Championship Game in the Superdome. And the season before that it was the “Minneapolis Miracle” in the divisional round at Minnesota.
And yet many Saints players and fans will still tell you that 2011 season was the “one that got away.” That team led by Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston and running back Darren Sproles still holds the record for most yards gained in a season. But New Orleans was stuck as the No. 3 seed despite its 13-3 record and lost in the final seconds at San Francisco in the divisional round.
There were also two playoff losses at Seattle, after the 2010 and 2013 seasons — including Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Quake” run. New Orleans can obviously also point to the severe “Bountygate” penalties that led to Payton being suspended for the entire 2012 season and stripped the franchise of two second-round draft picks.
Drew Brees discusses the Saints’ performance through the first two weeks of the NFL season and shares his confidence in New Orleans’ ability to get back on track offensively.
The Saints can blame some poor free-agent spending decisions that flopped (like safety Jairus Byrd in 2014, cornerback Brandon Browner in 2015 and tight end Coby Fleener in 2016). And they can blame a lot of bad defensive performances while burning through four different coordinators in the decade.
In 2012, the Saints set the NFL record for most yards allowed in a season (7,042). In 2015, they set NFL records for most TD passes allowed in a season (45) and highest opponents’ passer rating (116.1).
When asked if he and Rodgers are two prime examples of how hard it is to reach a Super Bowl, Brees said, “Maybe so.”
“We’ve each been to one and we’ve each won one. And we’ve had probably some heartbreaking moments in the playoffs — both teams,” Brees said. “But regardless, each season is a new season and each team is a new team. And you’re gonna face your fair share of challenges that we’ve all faced in order to try to get to the ultimate prize.”
What Super Bowl rings mean to legacy
While Brees and Rodgers have secured their place in history, it is also completely fair to wonder how much differently they would be viewed with just one more ring.
For example, both were left off of the recent “NFL 100 All-Time Team” made up of 100 players and 10 quarterbacks, as chosen by an all-star panel of the game’s coaches, players, executives and media members.
“When you’re on a committee like that, the people you’re leaving off are great players,” said Ernie Accorsi, a longtime general manager of the Giants, Browns and Colts. “But there is no question [how Brees and Rodgers are viewed]. I’ve heard people talk about both of them in independent conversations as the greatest of all time.”
Dungy, who was also on that panel and who was recently added to the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, said he isn’t swayed by Super Bowl appearances when it comes to such decisions.
“Maybe in some people’s mind. But in my mind, Dan Marino and Dan Fouts are two of the toughest guys I ever had to play against, and I’m putting them in that ‘great’ category, and I don’t care that they didn’t win Super Bowls,” Dungy said.
Dungy readily admitted winning Super Bowls is every competitor’s mission.
“Whether it’s Tom Brady and you want seven or anybody trying to get their first one, that’s the goal every year,” Dungy said. “Now, I’ll tell you that first one, there’s a lot of pressure to win one. You think, ‘Gosh, boy, I’m Aaron Rodgers, I’m Drew Brees, I don’t want to play 15, 16, 17 years and not win one.’ So then you win one, that takes some pressure off.
“But then you also realize, ‘Now, how many guys have won two?'”
The answer is 12: Brady with six; Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with four each; Troy Aikman with three; John Elway, Bob Griese, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Jim Plunkett, Ben Roethlisberger, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach with two each.
“It’s not fair [QBs are judged by Super Bowls]. But we don’t live in a fair world, and playing quarterback in the NFL is not for people who want that,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky. “Listen, this a very black and white and easy statement for me: Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are two of the greatest players and quarterbacks that have ever played the position.
“Do you wish that they won more Super Bowls? As fans, as course. But that will never change the way I look at them.”
Ravens vs. Chiefs: Best regular-season game ever in Baltimore? – Baltimore Ravens Blog
BALTIMORE — When the Baltimore Ravens play host to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, it will mark a showdown of the two hottest teams in football, a matchup of the last two NFL MVPs and a battle for the inside track for home-field advantage in the AFC.
And, if you ask long-time sports personalities in Baltimore, it rises above any other home game in the Ravens’ 25-year history in this city.
“This is the game where people all around the country will either have Patrick Mahomes‘ or Lamar Jackson‘s jersey on when they’re watching,” said Gerry Sandusky, the Ravens’ play-by-play announcer on radio who has been a sports broadcaster in Baltimore for 32 years. “I think that makes this the biggest game we’ve ever seen the Ravens play at home in the regular season.”
The Ravens have taken the field for 193 games in Baltimore, and none have matched the national hype and attention as the one being played Monday night. This was considered the NFL’s game of the year when the schedules came out three months ago, and both teams are exactly what everyone thought of them through two weeks.
Here is the tale of the tape in this NFL heavyweight bout:
This marks the first matchup in NFL history between former NFL MVPs who are 25 or younger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Their average age (24.4) is four years younger than any other MVP QB matchup in NFL history.
This features the unique battle between the two teams who hold the longest active win streaks in the league. The Ravens have won 14 straight regular-season games, and the Chiefs have won eight consecutive games, including the playoffs. The last two teams to meet on eight-plus-game win streaks was in 1969, when the Rams (winners of 11 straight) played host to the Vikings (10 straight), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
For just the fifth time in NFL history, there’s a quarterback matchup that showcases the reigning NFL MVP and the Super Bowl MVP. It’s the third time this has occurred on Monday Night Football.
“Let’s say this was a midseason game and they were both 7-5, football fans would want to see it for the quarterbacks, if nothing else,” said Scott Garceau, the Ravens’ original play-by-play radio announcer who has been in Baltimore for 40 years and is a Hall of Fame voter. “You take the best two teams on paper in the AFC, and likely the two best teams in the NFL, you’ve got a special game. I don’t think it’s overhyping by saying it’s the biggest home game in Ravens history.”
Other Ravens’ home games have been heightened due to history. The Ravens’ inaugural game at Memorial Stadium in 1996 was long-awaited because it announced Baltimore’s return to the NFL after a 12-year absence. The Ravens’ 1998 game against Indianapolis was memorable because it was the Colts’ first game in Baltimore since their bitter relocation. Still, few outside of Maryland carried a vested interest in these games.
There have been games in Baltimore where playoff implications raised the stakes. In 2008, the Ravens needed to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in order to have a shot at winning the AFC North. In 2017, Baltimore had the opportunity to clinch a playoff berth by beating the Cincinnati Bengals. A year later, the Ravens faced a scenario where they had to defeat the Cleveland Browns to capture the AFC North.
“You could make a case that [2018 game against the Browns] was the biggest game because of the stakes. But there wasn’t nearly the national interest in that game as it is in this game,” Sandusky said. “That game only had one potential playoff team. This one has two potential Super Bowl teams. Everybody has the belief right now that the winner of this game has the upper hand in home-field advantage.”
The Ravens and Chiefs are the favorites to win the Super Bowl with 4-to-1 odds, according to Caesars SportsBook. The path to the Lombardi Trophy will get easier for whomever wins this game, especially with only the top seed getting a first-round bye in the playoffs.
If Baltimore wins, its chances to get the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the postseason increases to 73% and Kansas City’s chances drop to 9%, according to ESPN Analytics.
If the Chiefs win, their chances go up to 43% and the Ravens’ chances fall to 35%.
For a September game, it doesn’t get much bigger.
“I don’t think you can ignore it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of his approach this week. “The guys understand that. You can’t sit there and pretend. Every game is important. But who wouldn’t get excited for a game like this? It’s not something that we downplay. We don’t ignore it. We try to embrace it and make the most of it, really.”
This represents one of the biggest regular-season games in recent NFL history. There’s only one game in the past six years that had a higher pregame matchup quality from ESPN Analytics, and that was Chiefs-Patriots in 2019.
That’s why this is also the most disappointing game in Ravens history. The franchise has hosted just two home Monday Night Football games since Harbaugh became coach in 2008, the fewest of any team over that span.
Now, the Ravens host the defending Super Bowl champions and fans won’t be allowed to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The irony of it is pretty unbelievable in terms of how few Monday night home games we’ve had in the past 13 years. We get one against the Chiefs, and it’s kind of a big game, and fans are not going to be there,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t even know what to say about that. 2020, man — it’s that kind of a crazy year, I guess. But we’ll be excited to play still. And all that being said, it’ll still be a great environment. It’ll still be a lot of fun. We’ll be ready. They’ll be ready. It’ll be a great night for football.”
Some would say the greatest night for football in the Ravens’ existence in Baltimore.
NFL Week 3 game picks, schedule guide, fantasy football tips, odds, injuries and more
The Week 3 NFL schedule is stacked with great matchups. Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the keys to every game, a bold prediction for each matchup and final score picks.
Additionally, ESPN Stats & Information provides a stat to know for each game, and the Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a matchup rating (on a scale of 1 to 100) and a game projection. ESPN Fantasy‘s Kyle Soppe and ESPN Chalk‘s Dave Bearman hand out helpful nuggets as well. It’s all here to help get you ready for a loaded weekend of NFL football.
Let’s get into the full Week 3 slate, including a huge AFC showdown between the reigning MVP and Super Bowl MVP on Monday night.
Thursday: MIA 31, JAX 13
1 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 74.9 | Spread: BUF -2 (47)
What to watch for: Bills quarterback Josh Allen leads the NFL in scramble yards since entering the league in 2018, but Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald ranks second in the league in sacks since 2014. It’s unstoppable force meets immovable object, and something’s got to give. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Bold prediction: Rams running back Darrell Henderson Jr. rushes for 100-plus yards. Yes, the Bills’ defense ranks third in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing an average of 75.5 rushing yards per game, but Henderson gained 121 all-purpose yards in a Week 2 win, and he says he wasn’t even 100 percent with a lingering hamstring injury. Watch for him to find another gear in a breakout performance. — Lindsey Thiry
Stat to know: Stefon Diggs has 239 receiving yards this season, tied for the most in the NFL. The most receiving yards through the first three games of a season in Bills history is 352, by Peerless Price in 2002.
What to know for fantasy: Two of Allen’s top five fantasy games of his career have come this season, and he’s averaging 65% more points per pass attempt than he did last season. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: The Rams are 13-5 against the spread (ATS) since the start of last season (2-0 this season). Read more.
Thiry’s pick: Rams 28, Bills 26
Louis-Jacques’ pick: Bills 24, Rams 21
FPI prediction: BUF, 52.9% (by an average of 1.1 points)
Matchup must-reads: Sports psychologist Carrie Hastings has become essential resource for Rams players … Playmaking WRs led by Diggs have Bills’ passing attack flying high … Henderson Jr. emerges as ‘closer’ in Rams’ running back committee
1 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 63 | Spread: NE -5.5 (47.5)
What to watch for: How the Patriots plan to cover Raiders tight end Darren Waller (18 receptions) is the game within the game. In Week 1, second-year defensive back Joejuan Williams was primarily assigned to cover Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki, but that’s because the Patriots viewed Gesicki as more of a wide receiver. Waller has a more complete skill set that makes him a true tight end, and the Raiders move him around a lot, even putting him in the backfield at times. So finding and locating Waller is the first challenge. — Mike Reiss
Bold prediction: Patriots quarterback Cam Newton will rush for at least two touchdowns. At an athletic 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, he is bigger than any linebacker or defensive back the Raiders have on their active roster. So you know Newton, called a “power forward” by Raiders coach Jon Gruden, is champing at the bit to run the read-option. — Paul Gutierrez
Stat to know: The Raiders have the second-highest offensive efficiency rating (90.6) in the NFL through Week 2 (Packers, 94.0). They have scored 30-plus points in their first two games but have not done so in three straight games since 2016 (Weeks 7-9), the last season they made the playoffs.
What to know for fantasy: Waller saw a career-high 16 targets in Week 2, and his 24 targets through two weeks are the third most in the NFL. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: New England is 51-26 ATS after a loss in the Bill Belichick era, including 40-15 ATS since 2003. Read more.
Gutierrez’s pick: Patriots 35, Raiders 34
Reiss’ pick: Patriots 31, Raiders 17
FPI prediction: NE, 63.4% (by an average of 4.8 points)
Matchup must-reads: Bill Belichick: Raiders’ Waller going to be ‘big challenge’ for Patriots … Raiders coach Jon Gruden calls Patriots’ Cam ‘Slam’ Newton a power forward playing quarterback … Runnin’ Rebels, bitten ears and ‘Fan Man’: Top 10 moments in Las Vegas sports history … Randall Cunningham proudly watches Patriots’ Newton tie rushing mark … Patriots’ Cam Newton: Money, potential extension with Patriots not priorities
1 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 50.6 | Spread: TEN -3 (50)
What to watch for: Will the Vikings’ offense be able to keep up with Tennessee’s scoring pace? Minnesota’s defense has struggled to get its opponents off the field, and the lack of opportunities for its offensive playmakers not named Adam Thielen has been noticeable. Is this the week when the offense leans heavily on running back Dalvin Cook, and can quarterback Kirk Cousins finally involve rookie receiver Justin Jefferson and/or tight end Irv Smith Jr.? — Courtney Cronin
Bold prediction: Titans QB Ryan Tannehill will finish with 300-plus passing yards. That might not seem bold, but here’s something to consider: Tannehill has finished with 300 or more passing yards only three times since taking over in Week 7 last season. Defenses are focused on stopping Derrick Henry, which presents one-on-one matchups for the receivers. Tannehill and the passing game should have the advantage against a depleted Vikings secondary in those situations. — Turron Davenport
Stat to know: The Titans are seeking their first 3-0 start since 2008 (started 10-0 and finished 13-3), and the Vikings are trying to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2013 (the last Vikings team to lose 10-plus games).
Ryan Clark is worried about the Vikings after their 0-2 start, describing his panic level as Samuel L. Jackson in “Snakes on a Plane”-high.
What to know for fantasy: Since 2018, Henry is averaging 54.4% more points per game when his team is favored than when it is the underdog. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: Minnesota is 7-3 ATS as a home underdog under Mike Zimmer, including the playoffs. Read more.
Davenport’s pick: Titans 28, Vikings 14
Cronin’s pick: Titans 31, Vikings 20
FPI prediction: MIN, 51.5% (by an average of 0.6 points)
1 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 48.6 | Spread: PIT -4 (45)
What to watch for: The Steelers have blitzed 64% of the time this season, the most in the NFL by a wide margin, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. And Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson has the second-worst Total QBR against the blitz. Though Watson is the best signal-caller the Steelers have faced this season, look for the defense to still get a ton of pressure on the quarterback — and from everywhere on the field. — Brooke Pryor
Bold prediction: J.J. Watt and T.J. Watt will combine for five sacks. The Watt brothers usually have to check their phones after playing in a game to see how the other pass-rusher did, but on Sunday, they’ll get to play in front of each other. In Week 2, the Watts combined for 4.5 sacks, which was the second most by a set of brothers in a single day in NFL history. They’ll top that on Sunday. — Sarah Barshop
Stat to know: The Steelers have started 2-0 for the seventh time in the Ben Roethlisberger era (since 2004). They went on to make the playoffs in each of the past six instances (2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2016 and 2017). The Texans, on the other hand, are off to an 0-2 start for the third time in the past six seasons (2015 and 2018). But they recovered to make the playoffs in each of the previous two instances.
What to know for fantasy: Pittsburgh running back James Conner sure looked healthy in Week 2, as he piled up 97.2% of the Steelers’ rushing yards. He was the only running back with a rate north of 85% last week. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: Pittsburgh is 7-13-2 ATS as a favorite since 2018. Read more.
Barshop’s pick: Steelers 24, Texans 17
Pryor’s pick: Steelers 27, Texans 17
FPI prediction: PIT, 66.3% (by an average of 5.9 points)
Matchup must-reads: Texans’ run defense ‘was bend but don’t break, and we broke’ … Roethlisberger to set Steelers record for career games played … Watt calls punch by Blacklock ‘stupid, selfish’ … Texans’ offensive struggles continue as unit searches for identity … Blitzburgh is back: Steelers getting after QBs at a championship rate
1 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 44.3 | Spread: SF -3.5 (41.5)
What to watch for: Who is playing — and where — for each team? The 49ers are without their top two running backs, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa and several others. The Giants are missing Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard. Who takes their spots? And can they be capable fill-ins? Start with 49ers backup quarterback Nick Mullens and newly signed Giants running back Devonta Freeman. All eyes will be on those two. — Jordan Raanan
Bold prediction: 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon will have his first 100-plus-yard rushing game since 2014 and just the third in his career. With Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman out because of knee sprains, McKinnon will have an expanded role this week, and he gets it against a Giants defense that has been shoddy against the run over the first two weeks and hasn’t seen a rushing attack as dangerous as the Niners’ unit yet. McKinnon will take advantage and reach the end zone for the third time in as many weeks. — Nick Wagoner
Stat to know: Giants quarterback Daniel Jones has nine games with at least two turnovers since 2019, tied with Jameis Winston for the most in the NFL in that span — and that includes three straight dating back to last season.
What to know for fantasy: It’s been over 1,000 days since McKinnon (roughly 80% available) has had 15 carries in a game, but with Mostert and Coleman out, the path to volume has been paved. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: Since 2017, the Giants are 2-14 ATS as a home underdog of less than seven points. Read more.
Wagoner’s pick: 49ers 20, Giants 17
Raanan’s pick: 49ers 22, Giants 20
FPI prediction: SF, 67.3% (by an average of 6.3 points)
Matchup must-reads: 49ers seek peace of mind before returning to turf of terror … Giants sign Pro Bowl running back Freeman … An MCL injury, a baby on the way and matching Jim Brown: Mostert’s wild week … Manning content with retirement and helping Giants QB Jones out
1 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 42.8 | Spread: ATL -3 (47)
What to watch for: The Falcons are 0-2 in a must-win season for coach Dan Quinn, and a home loss to a subpar Bears team would make Quinn’s hot seat even hotter. The Falcons have to stick to the formula of balance on offense and creating turnovers on defense. A rash of injuries to players such as Julio Jones and Dante Fowler Jr. might be their big obstacle this week, but the game is too critical to use injuries as a crutch. — Vaughn McClure
Bold prediction: Bears running back David Montgomery rushes for 100-plus yards for just the third time in his NFL career. Chicago had one of the worst rushing attacks in 2019, but head coach Matt Nagy entered the season with a renewed determination to run the football. Montgomery gained 82 yards on the ground in 16 carries versus the Giants last Sunday. The former third-round pick, who dealt with a groin injury over the summer, is on the verge of having a breakout performance. — Jeff Dickerson
Stat to know: After catching a pair in each of Atlanta’s first two games of the season, Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley now has 21 career receiving touchdowns, the second most by a Falcons player over his first three seasons (Andre Rison, 22).
What to know for fantasy: The Falcons have allowed the top-scoring fantasy QB in each of the first two weeks, and Mitchell Trubisky does have the third-best fantasy quarter by a QB this season (Week 1, fourth quarter). See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: The Falcons are 4-8 as the home favorite in the past three seasons. Read more.
Dickerson’s pick: Falcons 24, Bears 23
McClure’s pick: Falcons 35, Bears 21
FPI prediction: ATL, 54.9 (by an average of 1.8 points)
Matchup must-reads: Bears fans mourn loss of Gale Sayers … Special-teams coach Ben Kotwica takes blame for onside kick fail vs. Dallas Cowboys … Bears’ D suspect despite 2-0 start … Falcons must shore up red zone defense fast to avoid repeat of 2019
1 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 27.9 | Spread: CLE -7 (45)
What to watch for: Can Browns QB Baker Mayfield and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. build off their breakout performance Week 2? They finally connected on several big plays together, including a 43-yard touchdown. Before that, OBJ had only had four TD grabs since being traded to Cleveland last spring. — Jake Trotter
Bold prediction: Beckham will have his first 100-yard receiving day since Oct. 13 last season. He had 74 yards last week and is now facing a secondary that has allowed too many players to get behind it. Washington will be so focused on stopping running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt that Beckham will benefit off play-action. Beckham has two catches for 59 yards off play-action this season; he’ll add to that total. — John Keim
Stat to know: Washington leads the NFL with 11 sacks over its first two games. And 13.8% of opponent pass attempts have resulted in sacks, the second-highest rate in the NFL behind Indianapolis (15.2%).
What to know for fantasy: Half of Beckham’s points this season have come on a single catch, but that could work out, as only two teams have allowed more 25-plus-yard receptions than Washington this season. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: The Browns have failed to cover in their past five games, dating back to last season. Read more.
Keim’s pick: Browns 21, Washington 17
Trotter’s pick: Browns 27, Washington 19
FPI prediction: CLE, 63.4% (by an average of 4.8 points)
1 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 24.9 | Spread: PHI -4.5 (47)
What to watch for: This game will be decided based on whether the Eagles can generate a pass-rush. Rookie Bengals QB Joe Burrow has been sacked six times so far this season, tied for the fifth most in the NFL, while the Eagles’ defense ranks towards the bottom of the league with four sacks generated. With defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (oblique) ailing, the pressure falls to players like Brandon Graham and Malik Jackson to turn up the heat. — Tim McManus
Bold prediction: Eagles running back Miles Sanders will rush for at least 150 yards. The Bengals’ run defense has been woeful through the first two weeks of the season. With defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels potentially out for another week, Sanders could be in for a big day. — Ben Baby
Stat to know: Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz has struggled with accuracy this season. He’s completing just 58.8% of his passes, well below his expected completion percentage of 67.7%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s the second-worst completion percentage over expectation (minus-8.8%) in the NFL, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, behind Dwayne Haskins (10.6%). And after throwing multiple interceptions two times all of last season, Wentz has thrown two in each of his first two games this year. No Eagles QB has done so in three straight games since Ron Jaworski in 1985.
What to know for fantasy: Burrow’s 61 pass attempts were the highlight of Thursday Night Football, but don’t overlook his 15 rushing attempts this season (fifth most among QBs). See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: The Bengals are 13-0 ATS all-time against the Eagles. Read more.
Baby’s pick: Eagles 27, Bengals 21
McManus’ pick: Eagles 30, Bengals 20
FPI prediction: PHI, 60.4% (by an average of 3.7 points)
4:05 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 36 | Spread: IND -11.5 (44)
What to watch for: What will the Colts’ defense do against a banged-up Jets offense? The Colts are coming off a game with three sacks against the Vikings, and the Jets will likely be without their starting running back, center, right tackle and top three receivers. Indianapolis should be able to keep its status as the NFL’s best defense by the end of Sunday. — Mike Wells
Bold prediction: Colts defensive end Justin Houston and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner will combine for at least three sacks against the Jets’ banged-up offensive line, which likely will be without center Connor McGovern and right tackle George Fant. Houston usually lines up over the left tackle, but he could flip sides. Rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton is the Jets’ best lineman at the moment. — Rich Cimini
Stat to know: Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton now has 13 consecutive games with fewer than 100 receiving yards, dating back to 2018 — the longest streak of his career. And he has seven consecutive games without a receiving TD, tied for the second-longest such streak of his career and his longest since 2015-16 (also seven straight).
What to know for fantasy: In his first career start, Jonathan Taylor was one of two backs to carry the ball 20 times and rack up over 100 rushing yards in Week 2. Since 2015, teams playing with a lead run the ball 46.6% of the time (30.9% when trailing), and the Colts are the biggest favorite of Week 3. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: The Jets are one of three teams to lose both games by double digits this season. Read more.
Cimini’s pick: Colts 27, Jets 13
Wells’ pick: Colts 31, Jets 13
FPI prediction: IND, 65.8% (by an average of 5.7 points)
Matchup must-reads: Darnold isn’t a bust, but Colts-Jets 2018 trade now feels one-sided … Bad handoff: Colts’ Leonard gives fan his gloves with wedding ring inside … Jets safety McDougald, LB Williamson question ‘slow’ practices amid 0-2 start … Colts put Campbell, Hooker on injured reserve … Jets need fresh legs on offense; it’s time for rookie Perine … Colts laid out blueprint for success with game plan vs. Vikings
4:05 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 30.8 | Spread: LAC -6.5 (43.5)
What to watch for: Will Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert be even better after working all week with the starters? He drew praise from his coaches after stepping into the starting lineup in Week 2 just minutes before kickoff. Now they’ve had a week to work with him. Coach Anthony Lynn says he’s as shy on the field as off it, but he looked sharp in his debut for the most part. — Shelley Smith
Bold prediction: The Panthers will get a sack and two QB pressures. Not bold? Consider that the Panthers still have no sacks through two games and only six pressures. But with the tendency of rookie quarterbacks to hold on to the ball too long trying to make a play, this feels like the game the sack-less streak ends. — David Newton
Stat to know: The Chargers have called a designed rush on 54% of their offensive plays this season, the second-highest rate in the NFL behind only the Rams (55%), after being ranked 25th in the NFL in designed rush percentage last season (36%).
Betting nugget: The over is 11-4 in Carolina’s past 15 games. Read more.
Newton’s pick: Chargers 23, Panthers 17
Smith’s pick: Chargers 24, Panthers 17
FPI prediction: LAC, 63.4% (by an average of 4.8 points)
Matchup must-reads: McCaffrey injury gives Panthers’ Bridgewater an opportunity … Chargers QB Taylor’s lung punctured by team doctor before Chiefs game … Panthers believe in Davis with McCaffrey injured … McCaffrey out 4-6 weeks with high ankle sprain
4:25 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 74.7 | Spread: SEA -5 (56.5)
What to watch for: Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ passing game have a favorable matchup against Dallas’ banged-up defense. The Seahawks have leaned more on Wilson over the first two games, and he has delivered, including a five-touchdown performance last week against New England’s strong secondary. Now he faces a Cowboys defense that won’t have cornerback Chidobe Awuzie or linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. With Seattle dealing with defensive issues of its own, this game has shootout potential. — Brady Henderson
Bold prediction: Wilson will throw for more than 300 yards. Yes, he has thrown for 610 yards with nine touchdowns and just 11 incompletions in the first two games, but before you question my boldness, consider this: In five games against the Cowboys for his career, Wilson is averaging just 154.4 yards through the air. He has completed 78 of 125 passes for 772 yards in five games. — Todd Archer
Stat to know: Wilson has completed 52 of 63 passes this season (82.5%) for the highest completion percentage in NFL history by a QB with at least 50 pass attempts through two games. And now he is looking to become just the fifth player ever to throw four pass touchdowns in three consecutive games (Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees).
Betting nugget: Dallas has covered eight of its past 10 as an underdog. Read more.
Archer’s pick: Seahawks 35, Cowboys 31
Henderson’s pick: Seahawks 34, Cowboys 28
FPI prediction: SEA, 60.6% (by an average of 3.8 points)
Matchup must-reads: With Seahawks up next, Cowboys need to find winning ways on the road … Seahawks’ Metcalf projects greatness with performance vs. Gilmore … How come-from-behind wins have altered Cowboys’ past seasons … Seahawks’ defense comes up big late against Patriots, but questions remain … Why did the Cowboys go for 2 down 9 points? It’s all about knowing the future
4:25 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 54.8 | Spread: TB -5.5 (42)
What to watch for: C’mon, it’s Tom Brady. Now that he’s moved to the NFC, this might be his last game in Denver, where Brady faces a statistical quirk in his storied career — the Broncos are the only team he does not have a winning record against. He has faced the Broncos 17 times in his career and is 8-9 overall against them (7-6 in the regular season, 1-3 in the playoffs). It will be a struggle for the injury-ravaged Broncos to keep Brady from getting back to .500, but to have any shot at stopping him, they will have to find a way to generate more of a pass rush. Denver cranked up five-man rush packages just four times against the Steelers last week and surrendered touchdowns on two of those plays. — Jeff Legwold
Bold prediction: The Buccaneers will notch five more sacks this week, with three coming from Shaquil Barrett. Champing at the bit for his first sack of 2020 and returning to Mile High as the 2019 sack champion, the former Bronco has been primarily rushing from the left side this year, and right tackle Elijah Wilkinson has had 4.0 sacks against attributed to him in two games — more than any other player in the league. — Jenna Laine
Stat to know: Denver tight end Noah Fant is averaging 14.3 yards per reception since entering NFL in 2019, a rate that ranks second among tight ends in that time (Jared Cook, 16.0). He could become the first Broncos player with a receiving TD in three straight games since Demaryius Thomas did it in 2017.
What to know for fantasy: The Buccaneers D/ST ranks eighth in fantasy points this season, and the Broncos are allowing pressure at the third-highest rate. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: The over has hit in 14 of the past 16 Buccaneers games. Read more.
Laine’s pick: Buccaneers 31, Broncos 18
Legwold’s pick: Buccaneers 24, Broncos 16
FPI prediction: TB, 57.8% (by an average of 2.8 points)
Matchup must-reads: Gronkowski’s ultimate Florida road trip: A guided tour with festivals, mermaids and manatees … Broncos challenged by injuries just 19 days removed from optimism … Godwin clears concussion protocol; no RB change … Who is new Broncos starting quarterback Driskel?
4:25 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 39.1 | Spread: ARI -5.5 (55.5)
What to watch for: The Cardinals’ offense keeps getting better every week, while the Lions have given up 27 and 42 points in the first two weeks, respectively. That doesn’t bold well for Detroit taming Arizona, which should put on another offensive show and, perhaps, announce its arrival as one of the NFL’s teams to watch this season. — Josh Weinfuss
Bold prediction: Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray will have a 100-yard rushing and 250-yard passing day against the Lions. Detroit’s defense has struggled against both the run and the pass this season, a large part of the Lions’ 0-2 start. Considering Detroit’s inability to create a pass rush with its defensive line (one sack, one quarterback hit), Murray might have the option to either take off or sit back and watch. Watch for him to take advantage of it over and over again Sunday. — Michael Rothstein
Stat to know: The Lions have lost 11 straight games, the longest active losing streak in the NFL and the team’s longest since it dropped 19 in a row over the 2007-09 seasons. The Lions have also lost four straight games dating back to last season in which they led by 10-plus points at some point, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, they’re the first team in NFL history to blow a double-digit lead in four straight games.
Ryan Clark recognizes Kyler Murray’s talent, but doesn’t see him as a top-10 player in the NFL just yet.
What to know for fantasy: The list of active wide receivers with more touchdown receptions than Marvin Jones Jr. since 2017 is short: DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: The Lions have failed to cover in their past six road games. Read more.
Rothstein’s pick: Cardinals 31, Lions 23
Weinfuss’ pick: Cardinals 38, Lions 21
FPI prediction: ARI, 67.7% (by an average of 6.5 points)
Matchup must-reads: Can Sheila Ford Hamp’s lifetime of experience turn around the Detroit Lions? … Vacuum the floor? Workout at 5 a.m.? Cardinals’ bolder Murray stays humble … Lions keep losing double-digit leads … Cardinals laud Murray’s mobility through 2-0 start
8:20 p.m. ET | NBC
Matchup rating: 78.5 | Spread: NO -3 (53)
What to watch for: This one features two of the greatest QBs in NFL history, and both are still on a quest for that elusive second Super Bowl. This could be Drew Brees’ last season at age 41, and he should be extra motivated to silence those predicting his demise after a slow start to the season. On the flip side, Aaron Rodgers is off to a great start, so we haven’t heard any hot takes about rookie Jordan Love waiting in the wings to replace him. “It’s like when Peyton [Manning] and Tom [Brady] used to play,” says NBC analyst Tony Dungy. “It’s a team game, but they understood they were gonna have to be on top of their game for their team to win.” — Mike Triplett
Bold prediction: I’ve got this one soaring past the over with 60-plus points. This is the fifth meeting between Rodgers and Brees, and the average combined point total in those games was 69.5, the highest-scoring quarterback matchup in the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Packers have scored 40-plus in each of their first two games, and even though Brees & Co. have struggled, it’s not like they’re facing a defensive juggernaut in Green Bay’s unit. — Rob Demovsky
Stat to know: The Packers lead the NFL in offensive efficiency rating (94.0) and are one of four teams to record 500-plus passing yards and 400-plus rushing yards through their first two games of a season since the merger in 1970. The previous three — 2019 Ravens, 1998 49ers, and 1978 Cowboys — all went on to make the playoffs.
What to know for fantasy: Brees has scored under 15 fantasy points in consecutive games, something he didn’t do in 2019. His upside is limited, given that he is averaging 4.8 air yards per throw this season. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: New Orleans is playing its second straight prime-time game. Teams playing their second straight prime-time game are 16-26-1 ATS in the past three seasons, and 106-126-3 ATS in the past 20 seasons. Read more.
Demovsky’s pick: Packers 37, Saints 33
Triplett’s pick: Packers 27, Saints 26
FPI prediction: NO, 53.2% (by an average of 1.2 points)
Matchup must-reads: Who says Packers don’t need Adams? He does (jokingly) … Brees remains confident, feels ‘borderline great’ … Come for Rodgers-Brees, but stay for Jones-Kamara … Brees laughs off talk of decline, says out-of-sync Saints ‘not even close’ to full capability
What to watch for: Can the Ravens jump out to another early lead? Since Lamar Jackson took over as Baltimore’s starter midway through the 2018 season, the Ravens are an NFL-best 19-0 when leading at halftime and 0-5 (including the playoffs) when trailing after two quarters. The Ravens haven’t trailed at any point in the second half in their past 12 games, which is the third-best streak in league history. — Jamison Hensley
Bold prediction: The Chiefs and Ravens will combine for 900-plus yards and at least 60 points. Both teams are in the top 10 in points allowed, but don’t look for a defensive battle. This game will be similar to the one from Week 3 last season, when the meeting produced 955 yards and 61 points. — Adam Teicher
Stat to know: The Ravens have won 14 straight regular-season games, and the Chiefs have won eight straight — the two longest active win streaks in the NFL. The last time two teams on 8-plus-game win streaks met was 1969, when the Rams (11 straight) hosted the Vikings (10 straight). This also marks the fifth QB matchup between the reigning MVP (Jackson) and Super Bowl MVP (Patrick Mahomes). The Super Bowl MVP won the previous four matchups.
What to know for fantasy: The quarterbacks will get the headlines, but when these two teams met in Week 3 last season, there were three running backs who reached double-figure point totals. See Week 3 rankings.
Betting nugget: In the past 20 seasons, reigning Super Bowl champions are 11-1 ATS as underdogs within the first three weeks of the season. And Mahomes is 10-2 ATS in September games with 28 passing TDs and zero interceptions. Read more.
Teicher’s pick: Ravens 34, Chiefs 31
Hensley’s pick: Ravens 31, Chiefs 30
FPI prediction: BAL, 59.6% (by an average of 3.4 points)
Matchup must-reads: Ravens’ Jackson downplays matchup vs. Chiefs … Former Ravens OL Urschel left NFL for MIT … Chiefs’ Watkins placed in concussion protocol … Ravens karate kick away doubts they can’t win without Lamar
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