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2021 NFL Season Predictions: MVP, playoff picks and more – Sportsnet.ca

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A new NFL season is officially upon us, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys opening the action Thursday night.

Can Tom Brady and the Bucs run it back? Will Josh Allen win the MVP race? How will things play out in Green Bay? We’ve got storylines aplenty, and an extra week to watch them all play out, with the NFL introducing its 17-game schedule.

As we do each year, we’ve rounded up our picks and predictions for the season ahead. This year, our panel includes writers Donnovan Bennett, Mike Johnston, and Emily Sadler, editors Craig Battle and David Morassutti, and analyst Andy McNamara. Let’s dig in.

TEAM PICKS: DIVISION CHAMPIONS AND WILD CARD CLUBS

PREDICTING 2021’S BIGGEST WINNERS: TOP PLAYERS + SUPER BOWL PICKS

Craig Battle, Editor

League MVP: Josh Allen, QB, Bills
Rookie to watch: Najee Harris, RB, Steelers
Player poised for big season with new team: Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams

Harris has a major Day 1 role in an offence that needs to run the ball a ton to be effective. Feels like a recipe for overwhelming statistical support for a Rookie of the Year case.

Battle’s Super Bowl LVI prediction: Packers over Bills

Donnovan Bennett, staff writer

League MVP: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Rookie to watch: Najee Harris, RB, Steelers
Player poised for big season with new team: Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams

Mahomes is healthy, he’s got a revamped offensive line, a new signature shoe and an extra game to break every regular season passing record that exists.

Bennett’s Super Bowl LVI prediction: Chiefs over Rams

Mike Johnston, Staff Writer

League MVP: Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals
Rookie to watch: Mac Jones, QB, Patriots
Player poised for big season with new team: Orlando Brown Jr., OT, Chiefs

Jones is in a great situation going from playing for Nick Saban at Alabama to Bill Belichick in New England. He played well enough in the pre-season that the Pats cut Cam Newton, which says a lot.

Johnston’s Super Bowl LVI prediction: Browns over Buccaneers

Andy McNamara, Analyst

League MVP: Josh Allen, QB, Bills
Rookie to watch: Greg Newsome II, CB, Browns
Player poised for big season with new team: Jonnu Smith, TE, Patriots

Entering Year Four with a fat new contract, all Allen has done is improve every season. Passing yards, completion percentage, touchdowns all keep rising, and I believe he hits his peak in 2021 on a Buffalo team with championship aspirations.

McNamara’s Super Bowl LVI prediction: Buccaneers over Bills

David Morassutti, Associate Editor

League MVP: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Rookie to watch: Najee Harris, RB, Steelers
Player poised for big season with new team: Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams

Stafford and Rams coach Sean McVay are a match made in heaven. The former Lions quarterback has his sights set on a Super Bowl run in L.A.

Morassutti’s Super Bowl LVI prediction: Rams over Chiefs

Emily Sadler, Staff Writer

League MVP: Baker Mayfield, QB, Browns
Rookie to watch: Mac Jones, QB, Patriots
Player poised for big season with new team: John Johnson III, S, Browns

Bringing in Johnson on a smart contract gives Cleveland a vocal leader for their revamped secondary, which is filled with young talent and looks poised to make some noise.

Sadler’s Super Bowl LVI prediction: Chiefs over Packers

SIX STORYLINES WE THINK WILL SHAPE THE SEASON

Battle: Ramifications of the new 17-game-season format

The first and most obvious question here is how an extra game of all-out, high-leverage football action will affect injuries. It’s already a grueling season, but now contending teams have one more gauntlet to run in their quest to get to the post-season as unscathed as possible. If a major name on a major team goes down specifically in Game 17? All hell could break loose.

On top of that, there’s also the potential effect on season-long milestone stats — will we see enough 1,000-yard rushers and receivers that the stat will lose all meaning? Or, conversely, will it be kind of cool to see a handful of 5,000-yard passers?

Finally, one of the most interesting things to watch about the new schedule is the additional game itself. On top of the 16-game schedule teams would have had, each club will play a team from the opposite conference with the same divisional placement. So, in other words, bad teams from 2020 will play other bad teams from 2020. (Also, in the first year of the new plan, all of these games will be hosted by AFC teams.) So what does that mean, and who stands to benefit? Well, it’s undoubtedly a good thing for, say, the 49ers, who dealt with injuries on the way to a 6-10 record last season, and therefore will get to play the Bengals in their “bonus” game on Dec. 12, whereas their division mates get the Browns, Steelers and Ravens.

Bennett: QB battles aplenty

Look around the league: every division in football, except for the AFC North, has at least one QB battle. A big reason why is the infusion of rookie talent. First overall pick Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson (second) are expected to be franchise saviours in Jacksonville and New York, respectively. Justin Fields (Bears), Trey Lance (49ers), and Mac Jones (Patriots) have already won over their fan bases and the media. Plus, former top picks Jared Goff and Jameis Winston are in new places fighting for their careers as QB1s. Jimmy Garoppolo is fighting to get back to Super Bowl form, while Cam Newton is now fighting to get back into the league. Carson Wentz and Andy Dalton are looking to prove that redheaded QBs aren’t cursed. Oh, and Aaron Rodgers is going to be a free agent next season. There has never been a time where there has been both so much elite QB depth and so many QB battles going at the same time. Who is under centre and who should be under centre will be the proverbial conversation during fantasy drafts, radio talk shows and broadcasts throughout the year.

Johnston: Is this the year Bills Mafia finally gets rewarded?

The Buffalo Bills have perhaps the most passionate fan base, pound-for-pound, in all of pro sports. There’s not a folding table in upstate New York safe from being destroyed at a moment’s notice by a Zubaz pant-wearing Bills fan hopped up on wing sauce and tailgate tallboys – especially when the team fields a quality roster, which they do yet again in 2021.

MVP contender Josh Allen has been on an upward trajectory since being drafted seventh overall in 2018, and the team advanced to the AFC Championship one season ago but fell short. The Bills are favoured to win the AFC East again and are behind only the Chiefs and defending champion Bucs in the Super Bowl odds ahead of Week 1. After so much heartbreak and disappointment over the years – four straight Super Bowl losses to kick off the 1990s, the Music City Miracle etc. – this year’s team seems like the city’s best chance at a championship in nearly three decades.

McNamara: How the 2021 campaign unfolds for the New England Patriots

There is so much to track: Can rookie QB Mac Jones begin to prove he’s the long-term heir to Tom Brady’s throne? Was releasing Cam Newton a smart move, considering the lack of viable backup behind Jones? Do whispers about Bill Belichick’s future start to bubble up if the Pats miss the playoffs for a second straight year? And will stocking up on two pricey tight ends in free agency (Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith) pay off and make up for a wide receiver group void of star power?

In a big-picture sense, I’m interested in how New England measures up against an ever-improving AFC East. The Bills are king of the hill while the Dolphins continue to build around sophomore QB Tua Tagovailoa, and then there are the Jets who couple an impressive-looking rookie head coach with second overall pick Zach Wilson under centre.

I believe that Jones’ skillset, tailor-made for the Patriots’ offence, will be enough to keep the franchise in the conversation for second place in the division, but ultimately predict a third-place finish just behind Miami and outside the playoff picture.

Morassutti: Who will be the next Chase Claypool?

What the B.C.-born receiver was able to do as a rookie with the Steelers in 2020 was a nice treat for Canadian NFL fans, and sets the stage for another Canadian NFLer to follow his lead. Two names to keep an eye are defensive back Jevon Holland and running back Chuba Hubbard. Holland, the first Canadian off the board in the 2021 draft (taken 36th overall), has been asked to play at multiple positions with the Miami Dolphins and isn’t shy about making plays — as shown when he intercepted Andy Dalton during a joint practice session. As for Hubbard, he was able to claim the Panthers’ backup job behind Christian McCaffrey after being drafted in the fourth round and showed during pre-season action why he was the top NCAA running back in 2019.

Sadler: Aaron Rodgers’ last dance at Lambeau

With a revamped contract that essentially sets the stage for player and team to part ways, it’s Super Bowl or bust for the Packers and their franchise face. The rocky relationship between the Packers and their reigning MVP dominated much of the NFL off-season, and all signs suggest this is a story that’s only going to get more dramatic. Part of what made this saga so intriguing over the summer was that Rodgers himself kept quiet (save for a cryptic tweet or two), and let the speculation brew. I predict more of the same over the next 17 weeks’ worth of games, letting his play do the talking while we all analyze every facial expression and off-hand post-game comment. Can he take Green Bay to the promised land and go out on top?

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Early game, massive opportunity, especially for two Edmonton Oilers prospects – Edmonton Journal

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This in from Reid Wilkins of 630 CHED, the Edmonton Oilers expected line combos tonight against the Calgary Flames, a game that will live-streamed on EdmontonOilers.com.

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Benson-McLeod-Marody
Perlini-Shore-Turris
Sceviour-Ryan-Bourgault
Hamblin-Cracknell-Lavoie

Koekkoek-Bouchard
Broberg-Berglund
Lagesson-Kemp

Skinner
Konovalov

My take

1. It’s the first pre-season game, but first impressions are huge for at least two young-ish Edmonton Oilers prospects who need to put on a big show if they’re finally going to crack the Oilers roster. They will have other chances to do so, yes, but the clock is ticking, all Oilers organizational eyes are on them, and it’s time to shine if they hope to stick in Edmonton. They both have golden opportunities.

2. Tyler Benson is the first of the two. The kid was drafted in 2016, five years ago. Indeed, Benson is no longer a kid. He’s 23, and all kinds of fellow forwards from that draft have established themselves as NHLers, like Auston Matthews, Matt Tkachuk and Patrik Laine from the top of the draft, but also forwards taken late in the first round or in the second round and after, such as Alex DeBrincat, Jordan Kyrou, Jesper Bratt, Tage Thompson, Max Jones, and Brett Howden. It’s Last-Chance-Gas for other relatively high picks like Sam Steel, Rasmus Asplund, Nathan Bastian and Boris Katchouk. Can they finally grab an NHL job?

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3. Oilers GM Ken Holland said this past week in a radio interview that Benson is penciled into the line-up and that it’s his job to loose. That’s good news for the young forward, but as the old saying goes, that and $2.00 will get him a coffee at Tim Horton’s. Benson has to earn it now on the ice, Holland said. So far in camp, the reports have been good, with Benson coming to camp in excellent shape and looking quicker on the ice.

4. Benson has been teamed up in camp with his AHL linemates Ryan McLeod and Cooper Marody. They were arguably the AHL’s best two-way line last year. McLeod has already made the jump to the NHL and played OK two-way hockey there late last season. He earned a spot in some playoff games. Marody, like Benson, is in Last-Chance-Gas territory as a prospect. But the trio can wheel on the attack and defend effectively. They need to do both tonight against Calgary. There is an outside shot, say 20 per cent, that the trio could somehow find their way forward together as the Oil’s third scoring line to start the year.

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5. The other Oilers prospect on the hot seat is “Wild” Bill Lagesson, who has played seven full seasons since he was drafted 91st overalll in 2014. If he makes it, he’ll be a super rarity, a player who eventually makes the NHL as 25-year-old who is still with the original team that drafted him. It’s such a glorious storyline that one has to think whichever entity is running The Simulation will align things to make it happen.

6. Lagesson got an early boost heading into camp, with veteran Kris Russell still injured and with even more veteran Duncan Keith out until his COVID quarantine ends next Friday. Lagesson is going to get some exhibition games, maybe a few more than anyone had originally planned, but what will he do with them? Will he be the player who looked like he might just hand in there as a shut-down d-man when he played so well with Adam Larsson early in the 2020-21 season? Or will he be the guy who struggled as that same season went on and he got hurt? Injury is a major factor in any player’s career, of course.

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7. Right now, Benson is slotted into the fourth line left wing spot. Lagesson ranks fifth on the left d-man chart, after Darnell Nurse, Keith, Slater Koekkoek and Russell. But injuries happen. Veterans slide. And sometimes a long-time prospect turns the corner and plays the kind of impactful hockey that allows him to stick in the NHL for a season or two or five.

8. The Flames have plenty of Big Bobby Clobbers in their line-up — Erik Gudbranson, Nikita Zadorov, Milan Lucic, Brett Ritchie and Martin Posisil — while the Oilers are going with skill. It will be an interesting test to see if Edmonton’s skill can stand up to and get the best of Calgary’s muscle. Rock beats scissors, so the Oilers will have to do more than make fancy plays. They’ll have to fight through the rough stuff and be all over these Flames, harassing and covering them at every turn. Paper beats rock.

At the Cult

LEAVINS: The Archibald conundrum

McCURDY: Day 3 of on-ice at Edmonton Oilers camp and the first cuts come down

STAPLES: What the Josh Archibald situation mean for the Edmonton Oilers

LEAVINS: Oilers off-season makeover made with an analytics brush

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Is this it as a Ryder Cup player? Lee Westwood shares singles win with son as caddie – Golf Channel

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Whether or not Lee Westwood will captain the European Ryder Cup team in Rome, Italy in 2023, he seemed resigned to the fact that this was his last competition as a player.

“Listen, this match I played this afternoon, it might be the last match I’ve played in the Ryder Cup. I’d rather it wasn’t, but I’m 49 next April, and the likelihood is it is. I got to share it with my son. Won my point,” Westwood said Sunday evening, pausing to hold back tears.

“I hate this tournament. It makes you so emotional, but that’s what makes it great as well.”

Westwood’s son, Sam, was his caddie this week as the 48-year-old Englishman won his singles match, 1 up, over Harris English.


Match scoring for the 43rd Ryder Cup


Westwood went 1-2-0 at Whistling Straits, moving his all-time record to 21-20-6. His 11 appearances tie him with Nick Faldo for most ever, on either side.

Westwood was one of four 40-somethings on this year’s European team, along with Ian Poulter, 45, Paul Casey, 44, and Sergio Garcia, 41. While this may mark the end of Westwood’s career as a player (he’ll most certainly be a future captain), Poulter, Casey and Garcia weren’t ready to concede to the future.

The Europeans were routed at the Ryder Cup. Here’s a look at the individual player records for the away team.

When asked by a reporter, “For the veteran guys, I don’t want to suggest for a second that you won’t be back, but do you find yourself taking it in more just in case?”

Garcia responded, I’m not answering this one. I’m not a veteran.”

To which Westwood followed, “I guess that’s me, then, is it?”

If this is it for Westwood, he leaves as a member of seven victorious European teams.

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Blue Jays beat Twins; stay two back in AL wild-card race – TSN

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Teoscar Hernández, Marcus Semien and George Springer homered, and the Toronto Blue Jays held their position in the playoff chase by beating the Minnesota Twins 6-1 Saturday night.

Robbie Ray (13-6) scattered three hits in six innings as the Blue Jays ended a three-game slide.

Toronto stayed two games behind Boston and New York in the AL wild-card race with seven games remaining.

Semien hit his 43rd home run in the sixth for a 3-1 lead. That tied him with Dave Johnson of Atlanta in 1973 for the most home runs in a season by a second baseman.

Springer snapped an 0-for-16 skid with a two-run shot in the seventh. It was his 18th of the season and first since Sept. 11.

Ray, who leads the AL with a 2.68 ERA and tops the majors with 244 strikeouts, gave up one run and fanned six.

Minnesota scored on a sacrifice fly in the first and had runners on in four of the next five innings. Ray escaped a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth, ending his outing by getting Miguel Sanó to foul out and Nick Gordon to line out. The Twins were 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position.

Hernández homered and Santiago Espinal scored on a double by Randal Grichuk, coupled with an error by right fielder Brent Rooker, for a 2-1 lead in the second.

Out since Sept. 14 with a left abdominal strain, Minnesota starter John Gant (5-10) came off the 10-day injured list and allowed two runs — one earned — in three innings.

MINNESOTA’S MORNEAU

Former 1B Justin Morneau was inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame.

The native of New Westminster, British Columbia, hit .278 in 11 years with the club. Morneau ranks second on the Twins all-time list in games played at first base (1,124), third in home runs (221), sixth in RBI (860), and eighth in hits (1,318) and walks (501). The American League MVP in 2006 also was a four-time All-Star. He finished his 14-year career with stints in Pittsburgh, Colorado and with the White Sox, and was inducted in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2020. He remains with the Twins as a special assistant to baseball operations and part-time analyst on the team’s television broadcasts.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Joakim Soria was placed on the COVID-related injured list and LHP Kirby Snead was recalled from Triple-A Buffalo. … Manager Charlie Montoyo said OF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. might not return to the lineup until Tuesday. Gurriel’s hand was stepped on by a teammate during an outfield play Thursday and he received stitches in his middle finger.

Twins: To make room for Gant, RHP Joe Ryan was placed on the family medical emergency/bereavement list.

UP NEXT

Toronto RHP Alek Manoah (7-2, 3.36) and Twins RHP Griffin Jax (3-4, 6.75) are Sunday afternoon’s scheduled starters. Manoah has allowed just two earned runs and six hits over 14 innings across his past two starts.

___

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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