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Stadium Series: Crossing an item off my sports bucket list — My experience at Lambeau Field

I like going to Major League Baseball stadiums that I’ve never visited before because baseball stadiums, while each adhering to the field dimensions regulated by MLB, have their own distinct features and quirks that separate them from the others, whether it’s the now-gone hill and pole in center field of Houston’s Minute Maid Park, the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston, or the famed ivy on the outfield walls at Wrigley Field.

I don’t have the same feelings about NFL stadiums because, for the most part, there is nothing notable that distinguishes one from another.They are pretty much cookie-cutter facilities without unique features. There is one exception to that rule, in my opinion: Lambeau Field in Green Bay. That is the one NFL building that I feel is a classic that all football fans should visit in their lifetime. For me, that journey took place this past weekend.


I am a fan of the Texans, who only played at Lambeau Field one time previously — a 24-21 Houston victory on Dec. 7, 2008. With the NFL’s scheduling formula, the Texans only play in Green Bay once every eight years because the teams play in different conferences. Knowing that, I knew if I didn’t go to the Week 13 game this year, I didn’t know if I would ever make it to Lambeau. Seeing a game at Lambeau Field has been on my sports bucket list for a while, so I made the trip from New York to experience a Packers weekend in Green Bay.

Stadium Tour

My Lambeau Field experience began on Saturday morning, with a tour of the stadium. I had never gone on a stadium tour before, but that was one of the things I wanted to do on this trip. It did not disappoint. It was informative, with tour guide Mike sharing a lot of information about the history of the team and facility, and took us to places throughout the stadium, most notably through the tunnel Packers players run through to take the field every home game and onto the outer edge of the field. It was a pretty cool experience to be standing there looking out at the nearly 80,000 empty seats — or, more accurately, bleachers — that just over 24 hours later would be filled with rowdy fans cheering on their team.

While being on the field was the highlight of the tour, there was more to the 90-minute-long experience. Other highlights of the tour included getting a panoramic view from a deck high above the south end zone, which is the highest point in Green Bay. Other stops included areas of the stadium that are accessible to people who buy suites and the Champions Club, which Mike described as similar to a country club, that has indoor seating in an area filled with Packers memorabilia, including Super Bowl rings, and access to the aforementioned viewing deck near the south scoreboard.

Packers Hall of Fame

After the tour, my next stop was to visit the Packers Hall of Fame which, as you’d expect, is filled with memorabilia and information about the history of the team and its best players. Highlights of the Hall of Fame include a room that houses the Packers’ four Lombardi trophies, of course named for the team’s famous head coach Vince Lombardi, and a replica setup of Lombardi’s office including the actual desk, chairs and telephone he used while serving as the team’s coach. There were video exhibits showcasing such events as highlights of 1967’s Ice Bowl — which was reportedly the impetus for Lambeau getting the nickname the Frozen Tundra — and the original Lambeau Leap, which was first performed by S LeRoy Butler on Dec. 26, 1993. Among the more unique memorabilia included in the Hall of Fame’s collection is pieces of goalposts from key games throughout Packers history and the trade agreement 1992 deal that sent young QB Brett Favre from the Falcons to the Packers for a first-round draft pick that would ultimately become RB Tony Smith, who totaled 329 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns in his NFL career.

The Game: Texans at Packers

Then came Sunday and the game between the Texans and the Packers. The weather provided what I was hoping for — snow, which I feel is the part of the true Green Bay football experience. There was light snow for most of the morning and throughout the game. With a noon kickoff, there were already people in the parking lot tailgating by the time I got to Lambeau shortly before 9am. The weather didn’t deter fans from getting to the stadium hours early to partake in the usual drinking, eating and game-playing that is associated with tailgating. But it’s not just in the stadium parking lot, it extends beyond the grounds of Lambeau. The owners of nearby homes surrounding the stadium allow people to park in their yards and set up mini-tailgates for a fee — generally ranging from $10-40, depending on the home’s distance from the stadium. Nearby restaurants and bars also run their own pregame tailgate parties, offering unlimited food and drinks for a fee. I opted to go with the tailgate at Brett Favre’s Steakhouse, which had Super Bowl champion and Packers Hall of Fame WR Antonio Freeman in attendance signing autographs.

At noon, it was time for the main attraction of the weekend, with a kickoff temperature of 31 degrees and snow falling throughout the duration of the game. As mentioned earlier, the majority of the stadium — the original bowl plus some of the earliest additions — is made up of aluminum bleachers, which can get uncomfortable on cold days so many people either bring their own seat cushions or rent one upon entering the stadium. The newest additions in the upper levels of the stadium offer more traditional stadium seats.

As for the game itself, both offenses got off to slow starts — each team lost a fumble on their first offensive drives of the game — with no points on the scoreboard until Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw a touchdown pass to WR Randall Cobb nearly halfway through the second quarter for a 7-0 lead that stood until Texans QB Brock Osweiler tied to the game with a touchdown pass to TE Ryan Griffin midway through the third quarter. The Packers then took a 14-point lead with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter — a pass to a wide-open WR Jordy Nelson early in the period and a three-yard run into the endzone by RB Aaron Ripkowski with 4:18 remaining in the game, putting Green Bay up 21-7. The Texans responded around the two-minute mark with a 44-yard catch-and-run by WR DeAndre Hopkins, but a missed PAT by K Nick Novak kept the score at 21-13. After a failed onside kick, the Texans were able to keep the Packers from earning a game-clinching first down, but with only one timeout remaining on the drive, the Texans got the ball back with just four seconds remaining. With the ball at their own 12-yard line, the Texans tried a short pass followed by several laterals as a last-ditch effort to score, but that failed as the Packers handed the Texans their third straight loss in front of a crowd of 77,867.

Both teams now sit at 6-6 on the season, with the Packers in third place in the NFC North and the Texans falling into a first-place tie with the idle Titans and, following Monday Night Football, the Colts in the AFC South.

Overall, even though the team I was rooting for lost, it was a good weekend as I finally got a chance to experience Lambeau Field for the first time. It is a trip that I would recommend any NFL fan should take at some point — including the tour — because of all of the tradition and history associated with the team and the stadium.

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Why I Don’t Agree With New York Banning DraftKings and FanDuel

On Tuesday, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman ordered daily fantasy sports (DFS) operators DraftKings and FanDuel to stop accepting bets by state residents, arguing that the companies’ games are considered illegal gambling, according to state law. I disagree with the decision, which affects me as a New York resident who has been playing in NFL contests on DraftKings this season. The companies plan to appeal the decision.

For some background, DFS companies are legal under federal law; a 2006 federal law exempted fantasy sports from a prohibition that was instituted on online gaming, under the guidance that it is a game of skill as opposed to luck. Schneiderman apparently doesn’t agree that DFS is legal under that law, saying “it is clear that DraftKings and FanDuel are the leaders of a massive, multibillion-dollar scheme intended to evade the law and fleece sports fans across the country.”

In his letter to DraftKings, Scheiderman stressed some of the differences between DFS and traditional, seasonlong fantasy sports that makes DFS illegal while the seasonlong variety is legal, including that the “instant gratification” makes it easy to play DFS, which has “no long-term strategy.” He also argues that DFS is closer to poker — in that a small number of pros profit at the expense of more-casual players — than a lottery. According to Schneiderman’s investigation of the site’s data, the top one percent of winners get the majority of the winnings.

Let me address the points made by Schneiderman. First, I think comparing DFS to poker hurts his argument because I have long argued that poker is a game of skill that, like DFS, should be exempt from that 2006 ban on online gambling. Schneiderman seems to think that because the outcome of the contests relies on outside forces that the DFS players cannot control — namely the athletes — there’s no skill involved in winning at DFS. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, DFS participants have no control over the performance of the players they select, but there is skill involved in choosing which players you want on your team. The people who do it right study stats of previous games and the players’ matchups in the coming games to determine who to select — you’re not randomly selecting players with no basis for your choices.

This also goes into my counterargument to Schneiderman’s point that the top one percent of DraftKings players win the most money. Many of them are DFS professionals who do it full-time. They spend hours, and even days, to select their lineups each week. Conversely, a casual player like me often spends some time on Sunday morning choosing players before the kickoff the 1:00 games. Naturally, you would expect the people who are able to put more time and research into it to win more often — and that would kind of indicate there’s some skill involved in DFS, not that it’s a “multibillion-dollar scheme,” which was the conclusion that Schneiderman jumped to.

Further, those DFS pros are wagering a lot of money, with the possibility of a large payout. So, of course, they’re going to get the majority of the winnings when most DFS players are probably closer to me; I play in one $3 contest a week, and sometimes add a second, similarly priced contest. I don’t expect to win thousands of dollars when I’m wagering so little. I’ve won $10 each of the past two weeks, which is a decent return on my small investment.

Going back to Schneiderman’s letter, he charges that DraftKings promotes its games as “a path to easy riches that anyone can win,” enticing player with claims of becoming a millionaire. That scenario sounds familiar. Where have I previously heard claims of easy riches and becoming a millionaire? Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m thinking of New York Lottery commercials. Of course, that’s it.

So how do DraftKings’ and FanDuel’s claims of winning big differ from the New York Lottery’s? Simple. New York runs its lottery and profits from the people who gamble on it, hoping to win millions in contests in which they have no control over the outcome. Which is pretty much the argument Schneiderman makes for banning DFS — which, I should point out, New York doesn’t make any money off of. And that, in my opinion, is why Schneiderman is going after the DFS companies — he wants his share of the pie from the more than 500,000 New Yorkers who play DFS, according to DraftKings spokeswoman Sabrina Macias.

The fact that Schneiderman only banned DraftKings and FanDuel — by far the two largest and most successful DFS operations — and not the other, smaller sites that run DFS games seems to confirm my suspicion that it’s about money. He is going after the two sites that make the most money off of DFS becasue the state stands to gain the most by going after those two sites.

So the solution is simple. Rather than banning DFS, New York should regulate and tax it. By regulating it, the state can control how DraftKIngs and FanDuel run their games, to make sure it’s not the “scheme” that Schneiderman thinks the sites are running. By taxing it, New York gets its share of the millions of dollars that the sites take in from New York residents. New York is obviously not opposed to gambling; in addition to the lottery, the state regulates the New York Racing Association, which runs several horse racing tracks across the state, and a couple years ago legalized casino gaming other than the Indian casinos that have long operated on Indian reservations in the state.


Super Bowl LIII Preview: Can Goff, Rams upset Brady and the Patriots?

It’s Super Bowl week as the playoffs conclude NFL season comes to an end, with a champion soon to be determined in Super Bowl LIII. This year’s title game pits the two No. 2 seeds against each other. That means the Patriots are representing the AFC and the Rams are the NFC representatives at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This is the Patriots’ third straight Super Bowl appearance, and they have gone 1-1 in their last two. It is the ninth Super Bowl in total for the combo of head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady. The Patriots are going for their sixth championship total, which would tie them with the Steelers for the most all-time. The Rams’ last appearance was in Super Bowl XXXVI, when the then-St. Louis Rams lost to the Patriots in Brady and Belichick’s first Super Bowl. This is the Rams’ fourth Super Bowl appearance; they are 1-2 to date, with their win coming in Super Bowl XXXIV.

The Patriots jumped out to an early 14-0 lead against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship, but the Chiefs came back to tie the game and force overtime. The Patriots ended up winning the game 37-31 when RB Rex Burkhead had a two-yard rushing touchdown after a nearly five-minute drive to open the overtime period after the Patriots won the coin toss. Brady threw for 348 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. RB Sony Michel ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. WR Julian Edelman was Brady’s top receiver, catching seven of his 10 targets for 96 yards, while TE Rob Gronkowski had 79 yards on six receptions, and WR Phillip Dorsett was the recipient of Brady’s only touchdown pass; it was Dorsett’s only reception of the game, a 29-yard catch. RB James White, who usually has a lot of receptions was targeted just six times, catching four of those balls. The defense had four sacks — two from LB Kyle Van Noy — and a forced fumble, also by Van Noy, but no interceptions.

The Rams also needed overtime in the NFC Championship to get past the Saints, but unlike the Patriots they were in a hole early in the game and had to come from behind to pull it out. The Saints had a 13-0 lead after the first quarter, which the Rams cut to 13-10 at halftime. The score was 23-23 at the end of regulation — thanks in part to an uncalled pass interference that is one of the most controversial plays in recent memory — and K Greg Zuerlein won the game for the Rams with a 57-yard field goal — his fourth of the game — on the team’s first offensive drive of the extra period. Goff threw for 297 yards with a touchdown and an interception. RB Todd Gurley only touched the ball five times, accounting for 13 total yards and a touchdown, and backup RB C.J. Anderson had 16 carries for 44 yards. WR Brandin Cooks led the team with seven receptions for 107 yards and TE Tyler Higbee caught the only touchdown pass from Goff and caught all four of his targets, but he had just 25 yards receiving. WR Gerald Everett had two catches for 50 yards, including a 39-yarder. The defense had two sacks — 1.5 from DT Ndamukong Suh — and a forced fumble with an interception. The INT was a big one, as S John Johnson picked off Drew Brees in overtime to give the Rams the ball for what became the game-winning drive.

The Patriots are favored by 2.5 points after the game opened as a pick ’em, with an over/under of 56.5, a point lower than where it opened.

With an over/under that high, you know that this is expected to be a shootout. A key to the game for the Rams will be Gurley’s health. He didn’t play much in the conference championship game, which was thought to be related to the knee injury he was dealing with late in the regular season, but he was not on the team’s initial injury report for Sunday so he appears to be healthy and ready to go. If that is the case,you can expect him to get significantly more than the five touches he had last time out. For the Patriots, Gronkowski was dealing with injuries for much of the season, but he had his best outing in more than a month in the AFC title game so he may be healthier than he has been in a while. Both teams have good offenses and kickers, with Stephen Gostkowski on the Patriots and the Rams’ Zuerlein. So the X factor in the game may be the defenses. Defensive players to watch for for potential gamemaking plays include Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore and the Rams’ Suh and DT Aaron Donald.

On the sidelines, it’s hard to go against Belichick, who may be the best head coach in NFL history, but Rams head coach Sean McVay is among the best young coaches in the league. When it comes down to it, I think the Rams have the more talented roster, but it’s hard to go against Brady and Belichick, especially given Belichick’s tendency to be able to successfully take away the opponent’s best offensive weapon. The Rams were my pick to win the Super Bowl in the preseason, and I’ll stick with that. It should be a close game, but I’ll take the 2.5 points and go with the Rams to win the game outright, 31-27, which would go over the 56.5

Rams (+2.5), over 56.5

(Spread and over/under from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks: Conference Championships — Young quarterbacks battle Super Bowl-winning vets

Three of the four underdogs won on the road in the wild card round, but things were different in the divisional round when all four home favorites won. That means that the top two seeds in each conference will be playing each other for the right to head to Atlanta to play in Super Bowl LIII on February 3. In addition to both conference championship games pitting the No. 1 and 2 seeds against each other, both feature an all-time great veteran quarterback with at least one Super Bowl ring facing off with a young quarterback with a bright future in the NFL.

The Sunday doubleheader kicks off in New Orleans, with QB Drew Brees and the top-seeded Saints hosting the No. 2 seed Rams, led by QB Jared Goff. When these teams played each other back in Week 9, the Saints won 45-35. The Rams are looking to make the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season, while the Saints are looking to return to the title game for the first time since they won it in the 2009 season. In the nightcap, QB Tom Brady leads the Patriots — who are in the AFC championship game for the eighth straight season — into Kansas City to take on QB Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, who hope to make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Last week, I went 3-1 picking games, but 0-4 against the spread and 2-2 on over/unders. Through the first two weeks of the postseason, that puts me at 4-4 straight up, 1-7 against the spread and 4-4 on over/unders.

No. 2 seed Los Angeles Rams at No. 1 seed New Orleans Saints (-3, over/under 56.5)

When these teams played each other in Week 9, the Saints won 45-35 at home. Both quarterbacks put up big numbers in that one, with Goff throwing for 391 yards and three touchdowns and Brees tossing four touchdowns on 346 passing yards. Saints RB Alvin Kamara ran for a couple of touchdowns in that game, but the player of the game was Saints WR Michael Thomas. He caught 12 of his 15 targets for 211 yards and a touchdown. But Rams WR Brandin Cooks also had a good game, securing six receptions for 114 yards and a score. The Rams had WR Cooper Kupp in that game, but they’ll be without him in the conference title game as he has been out since the middle of the season with a season-ending injury. 

The Superdome is a tough place for opponents to play; the Saints are 6-3 at home this season, including last week’s win over the Eagles. And this should be another shootout, as it was when these teams met during the regular season. They combined for 80 points in that contest, and they probably won’t reach that total again, but both teams certainly have the ability to score in the 30s. The Saints were middle-of-the-pack in points allowed during the regular season, and the Rams were 20th in the category. When it comes down to it, I think the Saints have the overall advantage in the passing attack. I’ll take Brees and his experience over Goff — even though Brees didn’t play as well in the second half of the season — and Thomas was one of the best receivers in the league this year. I’ll take him over Cooks or Robert Woods. The Rams may have a slight advantage at the running back position, though. Kamara is good, but Rams RB Todd Gurley — when healthy — is probably better than him. That “when healthy” qualifier is key because Gurley has been dealing with a knee injury that kept him out of the Rams’ last two regular season games, but he played through it last week against the Cowboys to carry the ball 16 times for 115 yards and a touchdown. Backup RB C.J. Anderson has played surprisingly well in his three games with the Rams, totaling at least 20 rushes, 123 yards and a touchdown in all of those contests. That is a good insurance policy to have in case Gurley can’t carry the full workload in the running game. Although neither team has a great defense, the Rams have the best defenders in the game with DTs Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, although CB Eli Apple has played well for the Saints since they acquired him from the Giants before the trade deadline.

These teams are pretty evenly matched, and I would normally pick the Saints at home, but the Rams were my preseason Super Bowl pick and I’m going to stick with them. I’m going to count on the Gurley-Anderson combo to lead the offense. Plus, I expect the Rams to focus on stopping the run to try to make Brees beat them because he hasn’t played that well recently. I’m expecting a close game, but not as high-scoring as their first meeting. I’ll go with the Rams 35-30.

Rams (+3), over 56.5

No. 2 seed New England Patriots at No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs (-3, over/under 56)

Getting home-field advantage could be big for the Chiefs because the Patriots were 9-0 at home this season — including last week’s victory over the Chargers — but just 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium. One of the Patriots’ home games was a Week 6 tilt in which they edged the Chiefs 43-40. Mahomes threw for 352 yards and four touchdowns in the loss, with Brady going for 340 yards with just one touchdown. Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt had nearly 200 all-purpose yards for the team, but he is no longer with the Chiefs after being released late in the regular season. WR Tyreek Hill had a big game, catching seven balls for 142 yards and three scores. TE Travis Kelce had 61 receiving yards on five catches. For the Patriots, RB Sony Michel carried the ball 24 times for 106T yards and two touchdowns. The Pats’ leading receiver was TE Rob Gronkowski, who had three receptions for 97 yards. WR Julian Edelman had the home team’s only touchdown through the air as one of his four catches that totaled 54 yards. WR Chris Hogan caught all four of his targets for 78 yards.

Earlier in the week, it looked like there could be bitter cold and/or snowy conditions for the game on Sunday evening, but more recent forecasts have bumped the temperatures up into the 20s and done away with the calls for snow. So it doesn’t look like the weather will play as much of a factor in the game as it appeared earlier, but Brady and the Patriots are used to playing in cold and snow anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have negatively affected them much. The Patriots theoretically have the defensive advantage in this game, having given up nearly 100 fewer points during the season than the Chiefs did, but it’s hard for defenses to keep the Chiefs from scoring a lot and they scored more points against the Patriots than any other team this season.  So I’m not sure how much of an advantage that will be. The Chiefs’ offensive weakness is in the running game, but RB Damien Williams did run for 129 yards and a touchdown last week against the Colts. That was one of four rushing touchdowns in the game as the Colts held Mahomes without a passing touchdown. But Kelce had a big receiving game with 108 yards on seven receptions. The running backs were also a big part of the Patriots’ win over the Chargers last week. Michel had 129 rushing yards with three touchdowns, and RB James White caught 15 of his 17 targets for 97 yards. But Edelman had an even better receiving game, with 151 yards on nine receptions.

 I expect the Patriots to go with a similar game plan as last week, relying on Michel to run the ball and short passes to White to move downfield. The Chiefs, meanwhile, should rely on Mahomes’ arm to get the job done, mixing in Williams’ work on the ground. I think the Chiefs get the win at home, 35-27, to advance to Atlanta.

Chiefs (-3), over 56

By the end of the night Sunday, we’ll know which teams will be playing in Super Bowl LIII. If my picks end up being correct, it’ll be the two young guns in Goff and Mahomes each playing in their first title game.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks: Divisional Playoffs — Rivers battles Brady for spot in AFC Championship

With the Wild Card round in the rear-view mirror, there are four games left to determine which teams make it to the conference championship games. QB Nick Foles led the Eagles to an upset over the Bears last week to keep alive the Eagles’ hopes for repeating as Super Bowl champs, but they’ll have to beat QB Drew Brees and the Saints in the weekend’s final game to advance to the conference final. In the earlier game on Sunday, Chargers QB Philip Rivers looks to slay his postseason demons when he heads to Massachusetts to take on QB Tom Brady and a Patriots team that seems like it could be easier to beat than it has been during much of the Brady-Belichick dynasty. The weekend begins with resurgent QB Andrew Luck leading the Colts into Kansas City to take on the Chiefs, with likely MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. In the late Saturday game, the Cowboys look to get back to the NFC title game for the first time since the 1994 season with QB Dak Prescott battling QB Jared Goff and the Rams.

I didn’t get off to a good start with my picks last week, going 1-3 both against the spread and straight-up, but I was 2-2 on over/unders. Let’s see if I can do better with the four divisional games.


No. 6 seed Indianapolis Colts at No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, AFC West champions) (-5.5, over/under 57)

In his first full season as a starting quarterback, Mahomes exceeded all expectations by throwing 50 touchdown passes, and in his first career playoff game he faces another surprising quarterback in Luck, who many people weren’t sure if he could return from his shoulder injury and play at a high level. Mahomes’ top targets on the season were WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce, who combined for 190 catches and 22 touchdowns. For the Colts, WR T.Y. Hilton is coming off a Wild Card game in which he had five receptions for 85 yards, while TE Eric Ebron continued to find the end zone, securing one of his three receptions against the Texans for a touchdown.

Counting last week’s win over the Texans, the Colts have won 10 of their last 11 games, but I think the success ends this week. While the Chiefs’ defense isn’t good, I think Mahomes and the rest of the offense will be able to put enough points on the board to win the game. I do, however, think the Colts keep it close enough to cover. And both of these teams have good offenses, so I’m going over the 57.

Colts (+5.5), over 57


No. 4 seed Dallas Cowboys at No. 2 seed Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC West champions) (-7, over/under 49.5)

The Rams begin their playoff run at home against a Cowboys team that beat the Seahawks by two points last week. Goff threw for nearly 4700 yards and 32 touchdowns during the regular season, despite losing one of his top receivers WR Cooper Kupp about midway through the season. He still has WRs Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, who each surpassed 1200 yards on 80-plus receptions during the year. RB Todd Gurley sat out the team’s last two games with a knee injury, but he is expected to start on Saturday. For the Cowboys, RB Ezekiel Elliott is coming off a 137-yard game on 26 carries with a touchdown, and WR Amari Cooper had seven catches for 106 yards, nearly half of Prescott’s 226 passing yards.

I think the keys to victory for the Cowboys will be another good game from Elliott and a strong defensive performance. I think the Cowboys will keep it close, but I expect the Rams to win the game, and I think both teams can reach the mid 20s, so I’ll go over 49.5.

Cowboys (+7), over 49.5



No. 5 seed Los Angeles Chargers at No. 2 seed New England Patriots (11-5, AFC East champions) (-4, over/under 47.5)

The Chargers beat the Ravens on the road a week ago, now they have to head back east again, this time to try to topple Brady and the Patriots. Brady threw just 29 touchdown passes, his fewest in a full season since 2013. Part of the reason for that is because TE Rob Gronkowski only played in 13 games and WR Josh Gordon played in 11 before leaving the team to deal with personal issues. Brady’s leading receiver was RB James White, with 87 catches, followed by WR Julian Edelman, who caught 74 balls in 12 games. Those two players accounted for 13 of Brady’s 29 touchdowns. Rookie RB Sony Michel led the team with 209 rushes for 931 yards and six scores. Last week, the Chargers only had 243 total yards of offense, but the defense held the Ravens to 229 yards and caused the Ravens to turn the ball over three times.

Despite the Patriots’ struggles this season, the Chargers’ defense will probably have a harder time than it did last week against rookie QB Lamar Jackson. On offense, the Chargers are expected to get back TE Hunter Henry, who missed the entire regular season and last week’s Wild Card game with a torn ACL. His return should give the Chargers’ passing attack a boost. On the other side of the field, Gronkowski hasn’t had more than two receptions in a game since Week 14. Even though the Patriots traditionally do well in home playoff games, this isn’t the same Patriot team as in the past and I think they are vulnerable. I think Rivers leads the Chargers to another win on the road to advance to the conference championship game for the second time in his career. Chargers cover and win outright, and I’ll take the over. 

 Chargers (+4), under 47.5


No. 6 seed Philadelphia Eagles at No. 1 seed New Orleans Saints (1-3, NFC South champions) (-8, over/under 51)

When these teams met during the regular season, the Saints won 48-7 in Week 11. Like that game, this one is at the Superdome, where the Saints traditionally play better than they do on the road. Saints WR Michael Thomas had 125 receptions for 1405 yards and nine touchdowns during the season. RB Alvin Kamara added another 81 catches for 709 yards, despite the fact that Brees didn’t put up the kinds of numbers we have come to expect from the future Hall of Famer. In the Eagles’ upset of the Bears last week, Foles continued his impressive play, throwing for 266 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The running game was virtually nonexistent, though, with just 42 yards on 23 carries. That is where the Eagles’ biggest weakness lies with a committee made up of RBs Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams.

Counting last week, the Eagles are on a four-game winning streak, but I think that ends in New Orleans. The game won’t be as much of a blowout as it was last time, but I still think the Saints can win by a double-digit margin, so I’ll pick them to cover, and I’ll go slightly under the 51. 

 Saints (-8), under 51

So this outcomes would set up a NFC Championship between the Rams and Saints, the top two seeds in the conference, in New Orleans, while the AFC title game would feature the fifth-seeded Chargers heading to Kansas City to take on the top-seed Chiefs on the road to Super Bowl LIII and an NFL championship for one of the remaining teams.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks: Wild Card and Playoff Predictions — The Eagles look to repeat in a stacked NFC

The 2018 NFL regular season is now in the books, and it’s time for the playoffs to get under way. Only five of this year’s 12 playoff teams were in the postseason last year, meaning seven teams are returning to the tournament after at least one season out of the playoffs. The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles needed some help in Week 17, but they ultimately snuck into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed to look to successfully defend their title. The other holdovers from last year are the Rams and Saints in the NFC and the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC. The teams returning to the postseason after an absence are the Colts, Texans, Chargers and Ravens in the AFC, and the Bears, Seahawks and Cowboys in the NFC. The Eagles are the only team returning from last year’s postseason that did not earn a first-round bye. The Chiefs hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC, with the Patriots behind them at No. 2, and the top two spots in the NFC went to the Saints and Rams, respectively. The 12 teams entering the postseason are all hoping to make it all the way to Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

I didn’t have a good year picking games against the spread during the regular season, going 129-127 — although I went 14-2 in Week 17 — but I was better picking straight up, with a 156-98-2 record.

Now we’ll get to my detailed Wild Card picks, followed by how I think the whole postseason will go.


No. 6 seed Indianapolis Colts (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Houston Texans (11-5, AFC South champions) (-1.5, over/under 48.5)

This is one of the most unlikely playoff matchups we could have expected to see early in the season after the Texans began the season 0-3 and the Colts were 1-5 in their first six games. Both teams also had nice bounce-back seasons after finishing with identical 4-12 records a year ago to get to double-digit wins this year. A big piece of the improvement for both teams was the return to health for their quarterbacks, with Colts QB Andrew Luck returning to the field after missing all of the 2017 season with a shoulder injury and Texans QB Deshaun Watson playing his first full season after missing more than half of his rookie campaign with a knee injury.

Neither team should be worried about the performance they’ll get out of the quarterback position. Luck is the likely Comeback Player of the Year award winner after throwing for 4,539 yards and 39 touchdowns in a season in which people weren’t sure how he’d do after missing more than a year since he last played. Watson also had a good season, throwing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions. He is also a threat on the ground, with 551 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

The running game is where the Colts have their biggest question mark on offense, with their 1,718 rushing yards good for just 20th in the league, with their 13 rushing touchdowns ranking middle-of-the-pack. RB Marlon Mack did have two of his best games late in the season, running for a season-high 139 yards and two touchdowns in Week 15, and putting up a 119-yard performance in Week 17. Backup RB Nyheim Hines started four games, but never ran for more than 78 yards in a contest. The Texans were eighth in the league with 2,021 yards, but they only had 12 touchdowns on the ground. Their workhorse was veteran RB Lamar Miller, who had four games in which he ran for more than 100 yards in his 14 starts, including a season-best 162 yards in Week 12. Backup RB Alfred Blue started two games but didn’t have much success, with a total of 499 rushing yards on the season.

The Colts’ receiving corps was top-heavy this season, led by WR T.Y. Hilton, who had 76 catches for 1,270 yards and six touchdowns. TE Eric Ebron was the other significant part of the passing game, totaling 66 receptions for 750 yards and an impressive 13 touchdowns, which were not only a career-high but more than his total number of scores in his four seasons with the Lions combined. The Texans have been hit hard by injuries in the receiving game. WR DeAndre Hopkins, who is the team’s top receiver, is pretty much the last  man standing. He had 115 receptions this season for 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns. WR Keke Coutee, who has missed the past five games with a hamstring injury, has 28 catches for 287 yards and a touchdown in six games, including two starts. Miller and TE Ryan Griffin added 26 and 25 receptions, respectively. WRs Will Fuller and Demaryius Thomas are both out after suffering season-ending injuries. 

The Texans have the advantage defensively. They allowed 316 points, the fourth-fewest in the league, and were 12th in yards allowed. The Colts were just ahead of the Texans in the latter category, ranking 11th, but they were 10th with 344 points given up to opponents. Texans DE J.J. Watt played in his first full season since 2015, and put up good numbers coming off injuries in recent years. He forced seven fumbles and recorded 16 sacks. DE Jadeveon Clowney added nine sacks — .5 off his career high — in 15 games. DE Denico Autry led Colts defenders with nine sacks in 12 games. Both teams accounted for 15 interceptions, which was tied for ninth-most in the league.

Both teams have a good offense, but the Colts are healthier — especially among their receivers. The Texans will be relying on rookies like WRs DeAndre Carter and Vyncint Smith and TEs Jordan Thomas and Jordan Akins to catch passes from Watson. Watt also suffered a hand injury in Week 17’s win over the Jaguars. The severity is unknown, but it would be surprising if it is bad enough to keep him out of a playoff game. If he isn’t able to play at his full potential, the Texans’ defense may have to rely more on CB Tyrann Mathieu and S Justin Reid, who had a good rookie season. The teams split their season series, with the Texans winning an overtime thriller, 37-34, in Indianapolis in Week 4, and the Colts won the return contest in Week 14 by a 24-21 margin. The offensive line is a concern for the Texans, as Watson was sacked more than any other quarterback in the league this season, but I think they’ll be able to overcome it against the Colts. These teams are pretty evenly matched, and I’d expect another close game. I think the Texans’ defense may end up being the difference, stopping the Colts late in the game to solidify the victory. I’ll go with the Texans to win, 27-24, to barely cover the spread and make the over. 

Texans (-1.5), over 48.5

No. 5 seed Seattle Seahawks (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Dallas Cowboys (10-6, NFC East champions) (-1.5, over/under 43)

Both teams are returning to the postseason after a one-year absence, with each improving from 9-7 last season to 10-6 this year. Like the Colts and Texans, the Seahawks got off to a slow start in 2018, losing their first two games and being just 3-3 going into their Week 7 bye. But a late push — going 6-1 in their last seven games — earned them a Wild Card and the fifth seed in the NFC. The Cowboys were 3-4 going into their bye in Week 8, but they went 7-2 after the bye to ultimately win the NFC East, helped in large part by the acquisition of WR Amari Cooper, who the Cowboys traded for from the Raiders before the trade deadline.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw for 3,448 yards and 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions — both career highs. He also ran for 376 yards on 67 carries. For the Cowboys, QB Dak Prescott threw for a career high with 3,885 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran the ball 75 times, going for 305 yards and six scores. Like with the AFC game earlier in the day, there should be a good quarterback matchup in this one.

The Seahawks led the league in rushing with 2,560 yards, and their 15 touchdowns were tied for the 11th most in the league. The Cowboys ranked 10th in the category with 1,963 yards, and their 13 touchdowns on the ground ranked them in the middle of the league. RB Chris Carson led the Seahawks’ ground game, running for 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games. RB Mike Davis started the two games Carson didn’t and played in 15 total contests, gaining 514 rushing yards and four touchdowns. RB Rashaad Penny added another 419 yards and two scores. On the other side of the field, Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 304 times in 15 games, gaining 1,434 yards and running for six touchdowns. Prescott was the next most productive rusher, and the only other Cowboy to get double-digit carries was RB Rod Smith, who started in Week 17, and had 127 rushing yards and a touchdown on 44 runs during the season.

The Cowboys didn’t have a true No. 1 receiver in the first half of the season, but then they traded for Cooper. In nine games with the Cowboys, he caught 53 passes for 725 yards and six touchdowns — leading the team in the latter two categories. Elliott led the team with 77 catches, going for 567 yards and three touchdowns. WR Cole Beasley had 65 catches for 672 yards and three scores. Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett led the team with 57 receptions, for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 13 games, WR Doug Baldwin added 50 catches for 618 yards and five scores. Davis also had 34 receptions, in addition to his workload in the running game.

The Cowboys had a surprisingly strong defense this season, ranking sixth with 324 points allowed and seventh in yards allowed. The Seahawks weren’t far behind, placing 11th with 347 points and 16th in yardage. The Seahawks had two players with at least 10 sacks, DE Frank Clark led the team with 14 and DT Jarran Reed totaled 10.5 sacks. DE Demarcus Lawrence racked up 10.5 sacks to lead the team, with DE Randy Gregory next on the list with six sacks in 14 games. Both teams were in the bottom half of the league in interceptions; the Seahawks had 12 — which tied them for 18th in the league — and the Cowboys were tied for 26th with just nine interceptions on the season.

These teams both have pretty balanced offenses, though the Cowboys may rely too much on Cooper in the passing game, and good defenses so this should be a close game. The teams met in Seattle in Week 3 with the Seahawks winning 24-14, but the Dallas offense is different now than it was then. The Cowboys also have the benefit of home-field advantage this weekend. I think the Cowboys get the victory 27-24, to cover and hit the over/under number.

Cowboys (-1.5), over 43


No. 5 seed Los Angeles Chargers (12-4, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens (10-6, AFC North champions) (-2.5, over/under 41.5)

The Chargers have made it to the postseason for the time since the 2013 season as veteran QB Philip Rivers continues to vie for his first Super Bowl appearance. The Ravens last played in the postseason in the 2014 season. Perhaps the best thing to happen for the Ravens this year was veteran QB Joe Flacco — the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII — getting injured, giving them a chance to give rookie QB Lamar Jackson a chance at the starting job, which he has not relinquished despite Flacco’s health improving. That sets up a quarterback matchup of old school vs. new school, with Rivers facing off with Jackson.

The two quarterbacks in this game have wildly different styles. Rivers had a typically strong season for him, throwing for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. But he had just 18 rushes on the season for seven yards. Jackson, on the other hand, is known for his running ability and actually led the Ravens with 147 attempts in which he totaled 695 yards and five touchdowns in his seven starts and sporadic snaps taken in the other nine games. In terms of passing, Jackson was 99-for-170 for 1,201 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.

The Chargers’ 1,873 rushing yards placed them 15th in the league, while the Ravens were second — helped by Jackson’s numbers — with 2,441 ground yards. Chargers RB Melvin Gordon was limited to 12 games this season, running for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns. Backup RBs Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson started the four games Gordon missed; Ekeler made three of the starts, and played in 14 games overall, rushing or 554 yards and three touchdowns. In 13 games — one start — Jackson totaled 206 yards and two scores. Ravens RB Gus Jackson had 137 rushes for a team-high 718 yards with two touchdowns in 11 games, including six starts. RB Alex Collins made 10 starts, compiling 411 yards on 114 carries and found the end zone seven times.

WR Keenan Allen led the Chargers in the receiving game, with 97 catches for 1,196 yards and six touchdowns. Gordon added 50 receptions for 490 yards and four touchdowns. WRs Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams put up similar numbers; MIke had 43 catches for 664 yards and 10 scores, while Tyrell caught 41 balls for 653 yards but just five touchdowns. Veteran TE Antonio Gates, who contemplated retirement before TE Hunter Henry suffered a season-ending injury before the season, had 28 catches for 333 yards and two touchdowns. WR Willie Snead was the Ravens’ top pass-catcher, recording 62 receptions for 651 yards and a touchdown. WR Michael Crabtree had 54 catches for 607 yards and three touchdowns, with WR John Brown adding 42 catches for 715 yards and five scores. Rookie TE Mark Andrews had 34 receptions for for 552 yards and three touchdowns despite getting the start in just three of his 16 games.

The Ravens have the clear advantage on defense. They allowed the second-fewest points in the league at 287 and they led the NFL in yards allowed with 4,687. The Chargers ranked eighth with 329 points, and they were ninth in opponents’ yardage, so they were good but still at a level below the Ravens. DE Melvin Ingram was Los Angeles’ sack leader with seven. Ravens DE Za’Darius Smith led his team with 8.5 sacks. Both teams were tied for 15th in the league with 13 interceptions.

The Chargers will be able to move the ball against a tough Ravens defense if they want to win the game. They had a top 10 scoring offense during the season, so they’re able to put points on the board, but they were able to put up just 10 points in a Week 16 loss to the Ravens at home. The Chargers may get Henry back from his torn ACL, but if he plays he probably won’t be very effective in his first game action of the season. The Chargers have to head across the country and play an early game, which is being played at 1pm Eastern, which will be 10am on their body clocks coming from the West Coast. I think that plays a factor in the end result. I expect the Ravens to win a low-scoring affair, 24-17, to just miss the over/under number.

 Ravens (-2.5), under 41.5

No. 6 seed Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Chicago Bears (12-4, NFC North champions) (-6, over/under 41)

This game has the biggest spread of the four games this weekend, which isn’t surprising because I think this is the biggest mismatch as an Eagles team with a quarterback who is potentially not 100% faces the best scoring defense in the NFL. Eagles QB Nick Foles left last week’s game early with bruised ribs, but he is expected to be ready to play this week. Among the Bears defenders he’ll be opposing is LB Khalil Mack, who they traded for prior to the start of the season. The Eagles are in the postseason for the second straight year, and looking to defend their Super Bowl LII title, while the Bears are playing into January for the first time since the 2010 season, when they made it to the conference championship. They’re looking for their first Super Bowl title since 1985.

For the second straight year, Foles stepped in as the Eagles’ starting quarterback for injured QB Carson Wentz. Foles made five starts this season — in Weeks 1 and 2, then again in Weeks 15-17 — and threw for 1,413 yards and seven touchdowns, with four interceptions. With Wentz not expected back for the postseason, QB Nate Sudfeld will be Foles’ backup if his ribs get worse or he suffers a new injury. The Eagles went 4-1 in his starts. Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky started 14 games and took a step forward from his rookie season. He threw for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. 

The Eagles were 28th in the league this season with 1,570 rushing yards, while the Bears’ 1,938 yards on the ground put them in 11th place. The Eagles’ rushing woes were caused in part by injuries to RBs Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. RB Josh Adams, who only started five games, was the Eagles’ leading rusher with 511 yards and three touchdowns on 120 rushes. RB Wendell Smallwood, who started six games, ran the ball 87 times for 364 yards and three touchdowns. RB Jordan Howard was the Bears’ leading rusher, with 250 carries for 935 yards and nine touchdowns. RB Tarik Cohen had 99 rushes for 444 yards and three scores. Trubisky ran for 421 yards and three touchdowns on 68 carries.

Eagles TE Zach Ertz had a career year en route to being the team’s top pass-catcher, recording 116 receptions for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns. Next up was WR Alshon Jeffery, who had 65 catches for 843 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games. WR Nelson Agholor added 736 yards and four scores on 64 catches. Rookie TE Dallas Goedert caught 33 balls for 334 yards and four touchdowns. In eight games with the Eagles after being traded by the Lions, WR Golden Tate had 30 catches for 278 yards and a touchdown. Cohen was the Bears’ leading pass-catcher with 71 receptions for 725 yards and five touchdowns. WR Taylor Gabriel wasn’t far behind him, with 67 catches for 688 yards and two touchdowns. WR Allen Robinson had 55 receptions for 754 yards and four scores in 13 games, while TE Trey Burton added 54 catches for 569 yards and six touchdowns. WR Anthony Miller had 33 catches for 423 games and seven touchdowns in 15 games, but just four starts.

The Bears had the NFL’s best scoring defense, allowing opponents to score just 283 points, and they ranked third in yards allowed. The Eagles were 12th with 348 points allowed and 23rd in opponents’ yardage. In addition to having the allowing the fewest points, the Bears had the most takeaways, becoming just the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to lead outright in both categories. Acquiring Mack had a big impact on the team’s strong defensive performance; he forced six fumbles and recorded 12.5 sacks in his first season with the team. DT Fletcher Cox led the Eagles with 10.5 sacks, and DE Michael Bennett wasn’t far behind him with nine. DE Chris Long added another 6.5 sacks.

Foles is 9-2 as a starter over the last two seasons, including last year’s postseason, but this will be one of his biggest challenges in that stretch as he faces the dominant Bears defense. The lack of a bonafide No. 1 running back could hurt the Eagles because the Bears will be able to focus on defending against the passing game. I think the Bears win easily, 28-17, to cover both the spread and the over/under.

 Bears (-6), over 41

Based on the above picks, here is how I see the rest of the postseason playing out:

Divisional Round

Chiefs beat the Ravens
Texans beat the Patriots
Rams beat the Bears
Saints beat the Cowboys

Conference Championships

Chiefs beat the Texans
Rams beat the Saints

Super Bowl LIII

Rams beat the Chiefs

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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MLB Hot Stove: End-of-year recap, where are Harper and Machado going?

It’s been two months since the Red Sox won the World Series, and MLB has seen quite a bit of player movement in the hot stove. The two biggest pieces available this winter, however, have yet to sign as the calendar turns to 2019 and OF Bryce Harper and SS/3B Manny Machado are still on the market. The biggest names to be moved so far this offseason have come via trades.


The biggest story of the offseason to date has been the rebuilding of the Mariners, who saw their playoff drought extend this season after a promising first half of the season turned into a disappointing second half that saw the team fail to make the postseason for the first time since 2001. The Mariners’ first trade saw a package highlighted by C Mike Zunino go to the Rays in exchange for OFs Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley. The next trade was their most significant, as they sent veteran SP James Paxton to the Yankees in exchange for several minor leaguers, with the centerpiece of the package being SP Justus Sheffield. They also made two trades on December 3. One sent 2B Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz to the Mets for four players, including OF Jay Bruce and P Anthony Swarzak. Seattle’s other trade that day included SS Jean Segura and Ps Juan Nicasio and James Pazos going to the Phillies for 1B Carlos Santana and SS J.P. Crawford. The Mariners subsequently flipped Santana to his former team, the Indians, in a three-team deal in which the Mariners acquired DH Edwin Encarnacion. All of that action by GM Jerry DiPoto helped the Mariners shed salary and get younger as part of a rebuild, which is likely to extended the team’s streak of missing the playoffs by at least a couple more years.

The aforementioned three-team trade with the Mariners and Rays wasn’t the only deal the Indians have made, as they also sent 1B Yonder Alonso to the White Sox and extended the contract of SP Carlos Carrasco with a team-friendly three-year, $37.5 million that will keep him under team control through 2022, with a vesting option for 2023. While Carrasco will be with the Indians long-term, there have been rumors that they will trade either SP Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber as they also look to pare down their payroll.

The biggest trade at this point of the offseason occurred a few days before Christmas and involved the team that has lost the World Series in each of the last two seasons. The Dodgers traded OFs Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, SP Alex Wood and C Kyle Farmer to the Reds for SP Homer Bailey and a couple of minor leaguers, SS Jeter Downs and P Josiah Gray. Making those moves helped clear some room on the payroll for the Dodgers, who have been linked to Harper and are believed to be among the teams most likely to land the coveted free agent, who is expected to sign for more than $300 million.

Free-agent signings

As has been the case in recent winters, the free-agent market has been slow to get moving with the biggest names still available heading into January. Some of the bigger names behind the big two — including OFs Marwin Gonzalez and A.J. Pollock , SP Dallas Keuchel, C Yasmani Grandal, DH Evan Gattis and closer Craig Kimbrel — are likely waiting for Harper and Machado to sign before the other dominos begin to fall and we get a better idea of what teams’ rosters will look like heading into spring training and the regular season.

The Red Sox re-signed a couple of their World Series heroes, including inking SP Nathan Eovaldi to a four-deal and bringing back World Series MVP 1B Steve Pearce for another season. The team the Red Sox beat in this year’s ALCS, the Astros, who are likely going to lose Gonzalez and Keuchel, have made a couple signings with C Robinson Chirinos and OF Michael Brantley agreeing with the team to one-year and two-year deals, respectively. Among other playoff teams, the Braves brought back C Brian McCann, who started his career with them, and signed 3B Josh Donaldson each to a one-year deal. The Phillies, hoping to keep pace with the Braves in the NL East, signed veteran OF Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal, and another division rival in the Mets signed C Wilson Ramos for two years and RP Jeurys Familia — who they traded to the A’s during the season — for three years.

The Nationals — in all likelihood preparing to be without Harper starting in 2019 — have signed four free agents so far, with the biggest deal being a six-year, $140 million contract for SP Patrick Corbin, with SP Anibal Sanchez also signing a two-year deal with the team. They also signed C Kurt Suzuki for two years, with a one-year deal going to 1B Matt Adams. The Rays signed Astros 2017 postseason hero SP Charlie Morton to a two-year contract, and the Cardinals’ biggest signing has been RP Andrew Miller, with a two-year contract worth $25 million. The Yankees re-signed SPs J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia.

Other notable players who have come off the board so far in the offseason (with the team that signed them) include: 2B Jonathan Schoop and DH Nelson Cruz (Twins); RP Joe Kelly (Dodgers); SPs Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill, OF Justin Bour (Angels) ; OF Billy Hamilton (Royals); SP Tyson Ross (Tigers); and 2B Daniel Murphy (Rockies).

Likely landing spots for Harper and Machado

With Harper and Machado both reportedly seeking long-term deals in excess of $300 million, the number of teams that could sign them are limited. The Yankees, at times entering the offseason, have been linked to both players but appear to be focusing in on one while some high-profile National League teams appear to be leading the pack for the other.

The Yankees, Phillies and White Sox are the three teams thought to be pursuing the services of Machado, who visited all three cities and met with the teams prior to Christmas. The Phillies and White Sox — especially the former — seem to be willing to spend more money for Machado than the Yankees, but I think if the money is close Machado could still sign with the Yankees due to the perceived prestige of playing for the team. The Yankees are reportedly shopping 3B Miguel Andujar in trade talks, which could be a sign that the Yankees may still sign Machado. Signing him would make Andujar more expendable, as Machado can play either shortstop — where he would likely begin the season while SS Didi Gregorius is out — or third base. In the end, I think Machado signs with the Yankees.

The Dodgers’ biggest intention in making that big trade with the Reds was likely to clear room on the payroll to sign Harper. Other teams that have been connected to Harper are the Cubs — who have 3B Kris Bryant who, like Harper, is a Las Vegas native — Phillies and Nationals, who are likely still in on Harper, even though he reportedly turned down a $300 million team late in the season. Being from Vegas, I think Harper wants to sign with a West Coast team to be closer to home, and why not make it the team that has represented the National League in the World Series each of the last two seasons? I think the Dodgers ultimately sign Harper.

Possible trades still to come

Even though there have already been several trades this offseason, the trade market likely isn’t closed yet. All winter, the Marlins have been trying to shop C J.T. Realmuto, with teams like the Mets, Dodgers, Yankees and Astros reportedly among the teams interested in the backstop. Signing Ramos means the Mets are out. Reports have tabbed the Yankees as wanted a straight swap of Realmuto-for-Gary Sanchez, which the Marlins have seemingly balked at. If the Yankees sign Machado, maybe they’ll be willing to include Andujar in a possible deal. The Dodgers may not have enough trade pieces anymore after the Reds deal, and the Marlins are reportedly asking for one of the Astros’ top prospects — SP Forrest Whitley or OF Kyle Tucker — for Realmuto. Whitey is reportedly untouchable from the Astros’ perspective, but Tucker would likely be the centerpiece of the trade if the Astros are successful in acquiring Realmuto, even though they signed Chirinos earlier this winter. The Marlins may keep Realmuto for now and reconsider trading him near the trade deadline this summer, but if they trade him this offseason — which I think they will — I think he goes to Houston to fill one of the holes on the Astros’ roster.

Another trade to watch out for is the Mariners dealing Encarnacion. They are reportedly shopping him around, and drawing interest from the Rays, White Sox and Astros. The Mariners likely want to get rid of as much of the $25 million remaining on the veteran’s contract as possible because the 1B/DH, who is almost 36, doesn’t fit in with the team’s rebuilding effort. If he is traded, whichever of the Rays, White Sox and Astros doesn’t get him may turn their sites to Cardinals 1B/OF Jose Martinez, who has also been the subject of trade rumors.

With almost two months remaining before the start of spring training, there is still plenty of time left for free agents to sign and teams to make more trades. We’ll be updating the moves that happen as the hot stove continues.

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My NFL Picks Week 17: Steelers, Ravens, Colts among teams vying for final playoff spots

This is it. It’s Week 17, the final week of the 2018 NFL regular season, giving teams one more chance to make it to the postseason or improve their playoff seeding. All four divisions have been clinched in the NFC, but only the AFC East champ has been decided in the AFC with the Patriots winning that division for a record 10th straight season. The Ravens and Steelers are vying for the AFC North, the AFC West is down to the Chiefs and Chargers, and it’s a three-way race for the AFC South with the Texans, Colts and Titans all still in contention. In all there is one playoff spot still up for grabs in the NFC, with two teams yet to punch their tickets into the postseason on the AFC side of the docket. As is traditionally the case, all 16 games this week are divisional games being played on Sunday, with the Colts visiting the Titans in a winner-take-all game as Game 256 on Sunday night. I went 7-9 last week, giving me an overall record of 115-135 for the season. As always, I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Sunday 1PM games

Falcons at Buccaneers (-1.5) – The Falcons are hosting the Super Bowl this year and since they are not in the postseason, the streak of a team never playing in the Super Bowl in its home stadium continues. Neither of these teams is very good, but I trust Falcons QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones more than the QB Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers offense. I think the Falcons win the game, so I’ll take the points on the road.

Dolphins at Bills (-3.5) – The Dolphins lost to the Jaguars at home last week, and now they have to head to Buffalo to take on the Bills in the cold weather. The Bills have been playing better since QB Josh Allen returned from his injury. Based on that and the Bills being more used to playing in cold weather in upstate New York, I’ll go with the home team to cover.

Cowboys at Giants (-6.5) – This spread is likely based on the assumption that the Cowboys, who are locked into the NFC’s four seed, will rest their starters for at least part of the game. That means QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott will probably play, at most, a quarter or two. That would mean backup QB Cooper Rush and RB Rod Smith would get in some work. But the Giants, who could be without WR Odell Beckham for a fourth straight game, aren’t that good either. Even if the Cowboys’ offense struggles without Dak and Ezekiel, they still have a pretty good defense. Even though the Cowboys may not win the game, I think they’ll stay within a touchdown so I’ll take the points.

Lions at Packers (-7.5) – This seems like a big spread for a Packers team that needed overtime to beat the Jets on Sunday. I don’t think the Packers are that much better than the Lions this season. I think QB Aaron Rodgers will find a way to get the Packers the victory at Lambeau Field in their season finale, but I don’t know if they’ll win by more than a touchdown. I’ll go with the Lions.

Jets at Patriots  (-13.5) – The Patriots ended their two-game losing streak last week by beating the Bills. They need to win this game to ensure they end up the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the first-round bye that comes with it, so they will be playing their starters. But the Patriots’ offense isn’t the same as it once was, with age seeming to finally be catching up with QB Tom Brady and injuries hampering the performance of TE Rob Gronkowski. With that in mind, I’m hard pressed to imagine the Patriots being able to beat the Jets — who scored 38 last week against the Packers — by two touchdowns. Knowing what’s on the line for them, I expect the Patriots to win at home but the Jets cover.

Panthers at Saints (-10.5) – When the Rams lost to the Eagles last week, it clinched the top seed in the NFC for the Saints, who know they have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. With that in mind, QB Drew Brees is unlikely to play all 60 minutes in this game since the Saints have nothing to play for. The Panthers will have their third different starting quarterback in as many games after QB Taylor Heinicke, who got the start on Sunday, injured his elbow in the game. The team has placed him on IR and announced that QB Kyle Allen will get the start as the team continues sitting QB Cam Newton rather than risk further injury in a meaningless game. That, combined with the Superdome being a tough place for opponents to play, would seem to indicate that the Saints should win the game easily. But if Brees doesn’t play the whole game, that may not be the case. I’m counting on Brees only playing a quarter or so, so I’m going to go with the Panthers to cover.

Jaguars at Texans (-7.5) – After making it to the AFC Championship last year, the Jaguars are just 5-10 entering Week 17 and won’t make a return trip to the postseason. The Texans, on the other hand, clinched a playoff spot when the Steelers lost the Saints last week and they control their own destiny for the AFC South title. If the Texans win this game, they win the division. They would also get a first-round bye with a win and a Patriots loss, or a win and other results going their way. After starting QB Cody Kessler for the last four games, the Jaguars have announced that they’re going back to QB Blake Bortles as the starter for Sunday’s game. Regardless of who’s starting for the Jags, their offense isn’t very good and the Texans should easily win behind the offense led by QB Deshaun Watson and WR DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans will, however, be without WR Demaryius Thomas, who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles against the Eagles on Sunday. I’m giving the points. 

Sunday 4PM games

Bears at Vikings (-5.5) – This game is meaningful for both teams, but especially the Vikings, who control their own destiny for the final playoff spot in the NFC. If the Vikings beat the Bears — or if the Eagles lose to the Redskins — they get the remaining wild card in the conference. For the Bears, they have a chance to earn a first-round bye. They’ll get that bye if they win and the Rams lose to the 49ers. Given the fact that the bears can earn that bye with a win, I’m surprised the Vikings are such big favorites. I think the Bears win the game outright, so I’ll take the points.

Bengals at Steelers (-14.5) – Last week’s loss to the Saints proved costly for the Steelers, who now need help to make it to the postseason. Simply beating the Bengals won’t be enough to secure a playoff spot. The Steelers would also need the Ravens to lose to the Browns to earn the AFC North crown. The Steelers also have an outside chance at a wild card, but in order for them to get that they would need to win and have the Colts-Titans primetime game end in a tie.The Steelers should definitely win the game because the Bengals’ offense isn’t nearly at the same level as the Steelers with QB Ben Roethlisberger and WRs Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Steelers win the game, but I think the Bengals cover the spread.

Browns at Ravens (-6.5) – Unlike the Steelers, the Ravens control their own destiny. If they beat the Browns, they win the AFC North. They also have an outside chance at earning a first-round bye if a lot goes their way, or getting a wild card if they tie and the Colts-Titans game ends in a tie. Since the double-tie scenario is unlikely to happen, the only realistic scenario for the Ravens is getting the division by winning their game. That will be easier said than done, though, because the Browns aren’t the pushovers they have been in the past thanks to the emergence of rookie QB Baker Mayfield. With QB Lamar Jackson continuing to start for the Ravens, I think they win the game and earn the division title, but I think the Browns keep it close so I’ll take the points on the road.

Chargers at Broncos (+6.5) – The Broncos seem to have given up on the season, having lost their last three games without scoring more than 16 points in any of those contests. The Chargers have already clinched a playoff spot, but they can still win the AFC West and earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win and a Chiefs loss. So they definitely have something to play for, which means they won’t be resting QB Philip Rivers or RB Melvin Gordon in this one. Given the talent discrepancy between these teams, I think the Chargers cover the spread, and could win by double digits.

Raiders at Chiefs (-13.5) – The Chiefs simply need to win this game to ensure they win the AFC West and earn the No. 1 seed in the conference. That shouldn’t be hard to do with QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek HIll and TE Travis Kelce leading the offense against a subpar Raiders defense. I don’t typically like picking the favorite with a double-digit spread, but I think the Chiefs have enough firepower on offense to win by a couple touchdowns. I’ll give the points.

49ers at Rams (-9.5) – The Rams need a win or a Bears loss to get the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. Despite this game meaning something, the Rams may hold out RB Todd Gurley for a second straight game to rest him for the postseason as he continues to deal with inflammation in his left knee. RB C.J. Anderson performed well in Gurley’s absence last week, running for 167 yards and a touchdown in his first game with the team after being released by both the Panthers and Raiders earlier in the season. Regardless of who starts at running back, QB Jared Goff and WR Brandin Cooks will be out there for the Rams, which should be enough to beat the 49ers, who are relying on TE George Kittle and WR Dante Pettis to make up the bulk of their offense. While the margin of victory could be close to the 9.5-point spread, I think the Rams barely cover it.

Eagles at Redskins (+6.5) – The Eagles need to win this game and have the Vikings lose to earn the final playoff spot in the conference. If QB Nick Foles plays like he did last week — throwing for 471 yards and four touchdowns — winning the game shouldn’t be much of a challenge. I don’t expect another game like that for Foles, but I do think the Eagles beat the Redskins team that doesn’t have much of an offense apart from RB Adrian Peterson, who had his first 100-yard performance since Week 8 on Sunday. Eagles cover.

Cardinals at Seahawks (-12.5) – Both The Cardinals have clinched a wild card and are locked into their seed. With nothing to play for, QB Russell Wilson may not play the whole game, so backup QB Brett Hundley may see some action under center. Given that, I’m hesitant to go with the Seahawks to cover, even though the Cardinals are a bad team. I’ll give the points.

Sunday Night Football – Game 256

Colts at Titans (+1.5) – The final game of the regular season is a winner-take-all contest. If the Texans lose in the afternoon, the winner of this game is the AFC South champion. If the Texans win, the team that wins this game gets a wild card. The Titans got a scare last week when QB Marcus Mariota had to leave their game against the Redskins with a stinger. He is, however, saying he’s optimistic he will be able to play on Sunday. And with the importance of this game, he will do whatever he can to take the field. If he can’t go, backup QB Blaine Gabbert would get the start. Even if Mariota plays, I don’t think the Titans have much of a chance to win the game. Their offense isn’t very good, unless RB Derrick Henry has a big game. The Colts have QB Andrew Luck and WR T.Y. Hilton, although TE Eric Ebron — who has a career-high 12 touchdowns in his first season with the team — left last week’s game against the Giants with a concussion, and his status for Sunday night is unknown at this time. Even with the players who are questionable with injuries, I think the Colts are the better team and I think they can cover the minimal 1.5-point spread on the road to officially clinch their first postseason berth since the 2014 season.

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My NFL Picks Week 16: Teams making a final push for the playoffs

It’s the penultimate week of the regular season in the NFL, which means teams have just two games left in which to secure playoff spots or improve seeding. After losing two in a row, the Patriots return home to host the Bills as they hope to get back into one of the AFC’s top two seeds to earn a first-round bye. The second seed is currently held by the Texans, who are coming off a Saturday win against the Jets, and this week they head to Philadelphia to take on an Eagles team that is still in the postseason hunt in the NFC. Other games with playoff implications include Steelers at Saints and the Sunday night contest, featuring the Chiefs visiting the Seahawks. Thursday night games are done for the season, but we have another Saturday doubleheader this week. I went 7-9 last week, giving me an overall record of 108-126 for the season. As always, I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Saturday games

Redskins at Titans (-10.5) – The Redskins beat the Jaguars last week — with QB Josh Johnson picking up his first career win as a starter in the process — to keep alive their slim hopes of winning the NFC East. This week, they face a tougher opponent, although the Titans have been inconsistent this season. Titans RB Derrick Henry will likely be able to run on the Redskins, and lead Tennessee to a win, but i think 10.5 is a lot of points to give, so I’ll take the Redskins to cover.

Ravens at Chargers (-4.5) – The Chargers upset the Chiefs last Thursday and will have had nine days to prepare for a Ravens team that is still in the playoff hunt. The Chargers should get RB Melvin Gordon back this week, after he has missed the last few games with a sprained MCL. While that will be a boon to the 11-3 Chargers, who are looking to win the AFC West and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, they may be without WR Keenan Allen, who bruised his ribs in last Thursday’s win over the Chiefs. I don’t think Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is a good enough passer yet to have much success through the air, so I expect the Chargers to win and cover.

Sunday 1PM games

Falcons at Panthers (-3.5) – The Panthers have lost six straight and now they face Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Falcons in a battle of teams that have disappointed this season. RB Christian McCaffrey has been by far the Panthers’ best player of late, and he will likely have to carry the team in the final two games as the Panthers have shut down QB Cam Newton for the season, which means QB Taylor Heinicke will make his first career start this week. I think the Falcons win the game, so I’ll take the points,

Bills at Patriots (-12.5) – These Patriots are not the Patriots of old, in the midst of a rare two-game losing streak in December. Age my finally be starting to get the best of QB Tom Brady, and TE Rob Gronkowski isn’t himself and likely isn’t fully healthy. WR Julian Edelman is probably Brady’s best pass-catcher right now. For the Bills, rookie QB Josh Allen can get things done on the ground. The Patriots need to win this game if they want to stay alive for the No. 2 seed and a potential first-round bye. I expect them to win the game, but I think the Bills keep it close and could even pull off the upset. Give me the points.

Bengals at Browns  (-6.5) – The Browns have won two straight and are surprisingly still in the hunt for a playoff spot entering Week 16, though they need to win and get quite a bit of help from other teams to get the chance to play in January. But Browns QB Baker Mayfield seems to be the real deal, and RB Nick Chubb has been performing well since the team traded RB Carlos Hyde to the Jaguars earlier in the season. The Bengals basically have RB Joe Mixon and not much else. The Browns should win the game, but I think the Bengals can keep it within a field goal or so, so I’ll take the points on the road in the divisional battle.

Buccaneers at Cowboys (-7.5) – The Cowboys were shut out on Sunday for the first time since 2003, leaving the NFC East up for grabs. Now they look to bounce-back from that bad loss against the Buccaneers. I think QB Dak Prescott, RB Ezekiel Elliott and WR Amari Cooper will play better than they did last week and should pick up an important win, but I’m hard pressed to give more than a touchdown with a team that couldn’t score a week ago, so I’ll take the points.

Vikings at Lions (+5.5) – This looks like it should be a low-scoring game between two teams that have been struggling offensively in recent weeks, save for the Vikings’ 41-point output last week against the Dolphins. Still, I don’t trust QB Kirk Cousins right now, so I don’t think the Vikings will score more than about 21-24 points. Given that expectation, I think the Lions cover the spread although Minnesota likely wins the game.

Packers at Jets (-0.5) – At the beginning of the season, I don’t think many people expected the Jets to be favored over the Packers in this game, even if it is just by half-a-point. Part of that could be uncertainty over the status of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. Now that the Packers have officially been eliminated from playoff contention, there has been speculation that they could sit Rodgers for the final two games and go with backup QB DeShone Kizer. If KIzer does get the start, I think the Jets win the game, and even if Rodgers does start, there’s no guarantee he’ll play the whole game and the Jets may still win. Jets QB Sam Darnold is playing well, as is RB Elijah McGuire so I’m going to go with the home team.

Giants at Colts (-9.5) – A week ago, the Giants were shut out by the Titans, while the Colts handed the Cowboys their first shutout loss in 15 years, so it would appear that the Colts have the advantage in this game. The Colts definitely have the advantage under center, with Andrew Luck vs. Eli Manning, and the Giants may be without top WR Odell Beckham Jr., who has sat out the last two games with a quad injury. The Giants say they are “hopeful” for his return on Sunday, but it is not yet official. If Beckham doesn’t play, I think the Colts could cover the 9.5. But I expect Beckham to take the field, so I think the Giants may barely cover.

Jaguars at Dolphins (-4.5) – The  Jaguars are not playing well with QB Cody Kessler starting in place of Blake Bortles, and it seems like they may be playing to get a better draft pick rather than playing to win games. Even RB Leonard Fournette didn’t have a great game in Sunday’s loss to the Redskins. The Dolphins aren’t a great team, but I think they can win by a touchdown or so, so I’ll give the points. 

Texans at Eagles (-0.5) – Both teams need to win this game. For the Texans it would clinch the AFC South and keep them in the No. 2 seed in the conference. For the Eagles, it could keep them alive in the NFC East race. The Eagles have already announced QB Nick Foles will start again this week, but he has a tough challenge against the Texans defense led by DE J.J. Watt. Texans RB Lamar Miller injured his right ankle in Saturday’s win over the Jets and may not be able to play. But the Texans still have a strong passing game led by QB Deshaun Watson and WR DeAndre Hopkins. I think the Texans win the game.

Sunday 4PM games

Bears at 49ers (+3.5) – The 49ers pulled off the upset of a potential playoff team in the Seahawks last week, and now they’ll look to do the same against the NFC North champion Bears. I don’t think this is going to be a close game, so I’m surprised it’s just a 3.5-point spread. Bears win easily.

Rams at Cardinals (+14.5) – The Cardinals may be the worst team in the league at this point, and now they have to go up against an 11-3 Rams team looking to stay alive for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. The Rams’ offense hasn’t been as explosive in the last couple of games as it had been earlier in the season, and it may take a hit with RB Todd Gurley not at 100% after tweaking his knee in last week’s game. He should play on Sunday, but he may be limited with backup RB John Kelly getting some of Gurley’s workload. Regardless, the Rams should win the game but I don’t know if they’ll do it by two touchdowns, so I’ll take the points.

Steelers at Saints (-6.5) – The Steelers are coming off a big win at home against the Patriots, but now they have to hit the road to go to the Superdome to take on QB Drew Brees and the Saints. New Orleans’ offense has struggled recently, scoring 12 or fewer points in two of the team’s last three games. With Brees, RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas, the Saints are always capable of hanging a big number on the scoreboard, but they haven’t been doing it lately. The Steelers, meanwhile. may see the return of RB James Conner this week, which would likely give the offense a boost and take some of the pressure off of QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Brown. although RB Jaylen Samuels had a good game in Conner’s absence last week., I think the Saints will win the game, but I think the Steelers keep it close so I’ll take the points here.

Sunday Night Football

Chiefs at Seahawks (+2.5) – Both teams lost last week and are looking to bounce back, with the Seahawks looking to retain their hold on one of the NFC’s wild card slots and the Chiefs hoping to solidify their standing as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes had one of his worst statistical games of the season last week, but he still threw for two touchdowns in the defeat. I expect a bit of a bounce-back game for the Chiefs, and Seattle is a tough place to play for the opposing team, but I think the Chiefs can win and cover the spread.

Monday Night Football

Broncos at Raiders (+2.5) – The week ends on an anticlimactic note with two teams that won’t be playing in January. The Broncos’ offense isn’t great, but neither is the Raiders’. I think the Broncos have the best offensive player on the field with RB Phillip LIndsay, so I think they’ll win the game. I’ll give the points on the road.

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