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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With four games left in the season, the Tennessee Titans find themselves in contention for the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Titans probably have to win out, starting with their matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night, to punch their postseason ticket.

To beat the Jaguars (4-8), the Titans (6-6) will have to stretch the field to open up the rest of the offense. The bulk of that responsibility falls on quarterback Marcus Mariota, and he is starting to complete passes down the field.

His completion percentage this season (68.6) would be by far the best of his career thanks to a steady diet of short throws, but over the past couple of weeks, he has started to connect with his pass-catchers for more explosive plays. Through 12 games, Mariota has completed 30 passes of 20 yards or more. Five of those plays were good for 40 yards or more (tied for 14th in the NFL), and four of those five have come over the past two games.

Receiver Taywan Taylor exploded for 104 yards on three catches in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets on Sunday, when Tennessee rallied for a 26-22 win. Taylor and Mariota connected for plays of 44 yards and 55 yards, respectively, that fueled the comeback.

The big plays brought the fans at Nissan Stadium to their feet and lit a fire under an offense that was struggling until that point.

Those explosive plays are back-breakers for a defense because they flip the field quickly, and more importantly, they force opposing teams to play the Titans differently. The dink-and-dunk passing by the Titans that was prevalent for most of the season allowed teams to condense the field because they didn’t respect the deep passing game. Defensive backs would squat on routes by Tennessee receivers because they weren’t worried about getting beat deep.

Head coach Mike Vrabel wants to make sure that doesn’t happen going forward.

“We have to do more of that, just to keep teams from sitting on you and bodying up at the top of the route,” he said. “It was good to see Taywan be able to stretch the defense and go make a play. To be able to hit two of those to change field position and momentum. Certainly, we would like to have as many of those every week as we could.”

The vertical threat Taylor presents will help open things up underneath for players such as wide receiver Tajae Sharpe to work the middle of the field. Running back Dion Lewis also will have more space to run choice routes out of the backfield. The tight ends can have a more significant impact with more space as well.

“It definitely helps,” Mariota said. “When you’re able to have that threat, I think defenses have to keep on us, and not really just hang on everything and play tight on all of our routes underneath.”

These are the areas that Tennessee tends to attack in third-down situations. Mariota likes to make the high-percentage throws between the hashes where Sharpe can create separation.

Stretching the field also will help the running game. When Tennessee wasn’t hitting deep throws, opposing safeties played closer to the line, making it tougher to run. Finding balance on offense by establishing the run makes offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur’s scheme go, and fewer defenders close to the line of scrimmage is important in LaFleur’s zone scheme. Running backs will have a more open cutback lane leading to big plays on the ground.

Success on the ground makes play-action work, and that produces big plays because it provides max protection so the receivers can run longer-developing routes. Those explosive plays make defenses back up, which makes it easier to run the ball effectively.

A stout Jaguars defense, fresh off pitching a shutout against the explosive Colts, will make it difficult for Tennessee to keep up its recent trend of hitting big pass plays. The highlight reels have been focusing on Mariota and his receivers, but the quarterback says the big plays can’t happen without protection.

“They’re huge,” Mariota said about the offensive line. “To give us the time to be able to do that is so important. Those guys, they don’t get a whole lot of credit for what they do, but they are definitely the focal point of this offense.”

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Follow live: Playoff implications on the line as Seattle hosts Minnesota

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Russell Wilson looks to extend the Seattle’s three-game winning streak and move the team closer to locking up a wild-card spot.

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Pierre Garcon of San Francisco 49ers to undergo season-ending knee surgery

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For the second time in as many seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, receiver Pierre Garcon will end his season on injured reserve after appearing in just eight games.

Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday that Garcon is set to have arthroscopic knee surgery on Tuesday and the team will place him on season-ending IR later this week.

Garcon has not played for the Niners since the Week 9 win against the Oakland Raiders because of lingering knee issues that first flared up the week in Week 6.

While Garcon has practiced in the time since and has been hoping to get back on the field, he ultimately realized he needed to do something about it.

“We waited on Pierre for a bit,” Shanahan said. “It was going very positive for a while, that’s why I felt real good about it. But we came back from that bye week and it had gotten worse. We tried out hardest last week. He went out and went full go Wednesday, it swelled up on him, caused him a lot of pain and after having that same thing through almost most of the year, especially it was the week before the Green Bay game that it really started coming, it was just lingering too long where P knew he had to get something done. So we had to shut him down now.”

In eight games this season, Garcon had 24 receptions for 286 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers come after a 2017 season in which Garcon appeared in the first eight games before suffering a season-ending neck injury against the Philadelphia Eagles. He had 40 catches for 500 yards in that season before the injury.

While Garcon can now get his knee taken care of, he will head into the offseason with some uncertainty about his future.

Garcon signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Niners on March 9, 2017. Although the Niners are responsible for the $7.2 million that’s left of his prorated $12 million signing bonus, the rest of his contract is comprised of a series of option years and the Niners could get out without any additional financial penalty.

The 49ers have until the end of the 2018 league year in March of 2019 to exercise that option. Shanahan indicated no decision will be made right away on Garcon’s future with the team but did say Garcon, 32, plans to continue playing.

“I saw P in training camp when his knee wasn’t bothering him,” Shanahan said. “He was playing at a high level. It’s very hard to do that when you’re not healthy, especially the age these guys are at. Hopefully they can get healthy this offseason and then you’ve got to make decisions. You don’t just get rid of people to get rid of people. They’re all good players, good people, people we love here but you’re always trying to improve and get better. That’s what we see. What’s the competition you can create? What are the options out there?”

As for the short-term, Shanahan said a decision also hasn’t been made on who will take Garcon’s spot on the roster, though he acknowledged there are multiple options.

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Gambling recap – Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders help sportsbooks to another winning weekend

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Notable bets is a regular Monday roundup of wagers — some sharper than others — made recently at sportsbooks across the nation.

Sunday went to the underdogs and left bettors battered and bruised, especially the unfortunate souls who put big money on the New England Patriots to beat the Miami Dolphins.

Underdogs went 9-5 against the spread on Sunday, with seven outright upsets, and sportsbooks across the nation reaped the benefits.

Here are the notable bets:


NFL

• Nevada sportsbook operator CG Technology took a $20,500 money-line bet on the Patriots beating the Dolphins straight up at -410 odds. The Patriots were leading 33-28 with 16 seconds to play, before the Dolphins converted a 69-yard multi-lateral play for the winning touchdown as time expired. The $20,500 bet would have produced a $5,000 net win.

• The largest money-line bet on the Dolphins that CG Technology took was $10,000 at +340 odds. The bettor won $34,000.

• A bettor at the Golden Nugget sportsbook in New Jersey placed a $20 money-line parlay on the Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers. The parlay paid $2,633.

Amari Cooper‘s touchdown catch off a tipped pass in the Dallas Cowboys‘ 29-23 overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles completed a $1,000, five-team parlay at PlaySugarHouse.com, an online sportsbook in New Jersey, that paid $26,351. The bettor took the Dolphins +7.5, Colts +4.5, Browns +1.5, Ravens +6.5 and Cowboys -3.5.

• CG Technology took a $40,000 money-line parlay on the Buffalo Bills (-225) and Los Angeles Chargers (-1,400). The Chargers held on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, but the Bills squandered a 17-6 lead, surrendering a touchdown to the New York Jets with 1:17 to play, and lost 27-23. The bet would have won just under $22,000.

• CG Technology also took a $50,000 bet on the Bills -3.5.

• The most lucrative game Sunday for MGM sportsbooks was the Baltimore Ravens covering as 6.5-point underdogs in a 27-24 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

• Caesars Entertainment director of specialty gaming Bill Sattler said the book took a few five-figure money-line parlays Sunday, each including the Patriots and/or the Steelers. Pittsburgh lost as 10-point road favorites to the Oakland Raiders 24-21.

• The lucrative game Sunday for Caesars sportsbooks was the underdog 49ers’ 20-14 upset of the Denver Broncos.

• A bettor at the sportsbook at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia placed an $8,000 bet on the Washington Redskins to win the NFC last week at 350-1 odds. The bet would pay $2.8 million. Washington lost to the New York Giants 40-16 Sunday.

• After the early games ended Sunday, CG Technology sportsbooks were in an enviable position. “The Ravens and Dolphins covering killed so many parlays that we had no chance of losing the rest of the day no matter what happened,” CG Technology vice president Jason Simbal said.

• The Chicago Bears‘ 15-6 upset of the Los Angeles Rams produced the biggest win of the day for FanDuel’s sportsbook, which reported that 80 percent of the point-spread bets were on the favored Rams.

• Multiple Las Vegas sportsbooks mentioned that handle was light over the weekend, something common for December. Still, there were few complaints on what was another profitable weekend. “Sunday was very good,” John Murray, director of The SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, told ESPN. “The kind of results we wish we could get earlier in the season when the handle is higher.”

• Notable Week 15 opening lines via SuperBook:

Chargers at Chiefs -3.5 (Thursday)
Cowboys at Colts -3
Packers at Bears -5.5
Patriots at Steelers NL
Eagles at Rams -7.5
Saints -7 at Panthers


College football

• More money was bet on the Army-Navy game at CG Technology sportsbooks than was bet on the Thursday night game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.

• West Virginia star senior QB Will Grier has elected to sit out the Mountaineers’ bowl game against Syracuse to prepare for the NFL draft. West Virginia opened as 7-point favorites over the Orange at most books. The line began dropping last week and was down to -5 before the Grier news was made official Saturday. Redshirt sophomore Jack Allison is expected to start in place of Grier. The Mountaineers were 1.5-point favorites at most sportsbooks Monday. Syracuse and West Virginia will play in the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 in Orlando, Florida.

• Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray opened at 25-1 to win the Heisman Trophy. He captured the award Saturday, becoming the second straight Sooner quarterback to win the award, following Baker Mayfield. A Caesars Palace sportsbook manager told ESPN that the house won five times as much money with Murray winning as it would have lost if Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa had won.

• The early betting action on the College Football Playoff semifinal games was on both favorites, Alabama and Clemson. As of last Thursday at William Hill’s sportsbooks in Nevada and New Jersey, 86 percent of the money that had been wagered on the Orange Bowl point spread was on the Crimson Tide, who remained 14-point favorites over Oklahoma.

The Cotton Bowl between Clemson and Notre Dame had been more evenly bet, with the Tigers receiving 57 percent of the money wagered on the point spread. Clemson was an 11-point favorite at most sportsbooks.

• On Nov. 21, a bettor at a William Hill sportsbook in New Jersey placed a $100,000 bet on Notre Dame to win the national championship at 7-1 odds. The bet would win a net $700,000.

• On Aug. 10, a bettor at a William Hill sportsbook in Nevada placed a $10,000 bet on Clemson to win the national championship at 5-1 odds. The bet would win a net $50,000.


Odds and ends

• Boxing: A bettor at the Flamingo sportsbook in Las Vegas placed a $1,000 bet on heavily favored Vasiliy Lomachenko to defeat Jose Pedraza in their lightweight title fight Saturday. The bettor laid -7,000 odds and won a net $14.30 when Lomachenko was awarded a unanimous decision.

• Soccer: Team USA opened as the favorite to win the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer in France. The SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas installed the U.S. as the favorite at 2-1, followed by France (7-2) and Germany (5-1). Japan, England and the Netherlands are each 10-1.

• Parlay: A bettor at the MGM sportsbook at GoldStrike Casino in Tunica, Mississippi hit a $40, 13-team parlay that paid $103,581 on Saturday. The bettor parlayed 12 college basketball games with Army on the moneyline (-340) against Navy in college football.

The 12 basketball winners: Toledo +2, South Alabama -2, Hofstra -2.5, Central Michigan -8.5, Penn -5.5, Georgetown +10.5, Villanova -10.5, Oklahoma -6.5, Pittsburgh +10.5, South Carolina +17.5, Oakland +10 and Maryland -9.5.

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