LAS VEGAS — Justin Herbert’s brilliant rookie season is now a record-setting campaign.
Herbert scored on 1-yard plunge to give the Los Angeles Chargers a 30-27 overtime victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Thursday night.
“It was pretty crazy,” said Herbert, who set an NFL rookie record with his seventh 300-yard game and has 27 passing scores on the year, tying Baker Mayfield (2018) for the most by a rookie in NFL history. “I kind of waited to see the replay and guys didn’t really know what had happened. So I got up and started shaking hands and kind of saw the game was over.
The Chargers (5-9) snapped a nine-game losing streak against their AFC West counterparts, and snapped a three-game skid against the Raiders. Las Vegas (7-7) lost quarterback Derek Carr to a left groin injury in the first quarter. It has lost four of five, all but killing its playoff chances.
Moments after Daniel Carlson’s 23-yard field goal on the Raiders’ first possession put Las Vegas ahead 27-24, Herbert found wideout Jalen Guyton streaking by cornerback Keisean Nixon for a 53-yard reception to set up the winning score.
Los Angeles improved to 1-2 in overtime games, while all four of its games against division foes have come down to the final play.
Herbert, who targeted nine receivers and completed at least one pass with seven, was 22 for 32 with 314 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth over the past couple weeks,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “He’s doing it with young receivers on the field and spreading the ball around.”
With five receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown, Los Angeles’ Hunter Henry now has a career-high 60 receptions on the year, third-highest among tight ends this season.
The Chargers got revenge from the first meeting on Nov. 8, when Herbert’s apparent TD pass to Donald Parham was overturned by replay to end the game.
For the Raiders, the storyline quickly changed from must-win to stay alive in the playoff hunt, to how to win with backup Marcus Mariota seeing his first action as a Raider, while setting up a showdown of former University of Oregon quarterbacks.
“It was a pretty crazy experience,” Herbert said. “I grew up watching Marcus. He was my favourite player. To see him on the field and play against him was really cool. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted.”
Just four days after firing defensive co-ordinator Paul Guenther, plus missing four starters on defence, and having their offensive co-ordinator Greg Olson sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19, the Raiders lost Carr when he came up lame on a third-down scramble near the goal line in the first quarter. Carr immediately went to the locker room and did not return.
Mariota was poised in his return from the first snap.
In his first drive, he was 3 for 3 for 70 yards and a perfectly placed over-the-top pass to Darren Waller. Mariota also scrambled for 11 yards for a first down.
“When it comes down to it, I think it’s part of your job to be prepared,” Mariota said. “Just try to give these guys a chance to win and unfortunately we came up a little short.”
The sixth-year pro finished 17 of 28 for 226 yards with one TD and one interception. He also rushed for 88 yards on nine carries, including a touchdown.
“It just shows the kind of player and football character he has,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Mariota. “You lose Derek, and we change gears offensively. Marcus came in and did a great job. I’m really proud of him. That just puts an exclamation point on why we signed him. Just wish we could have won the game for him.”
Los Angeles placekicker Michael Badgley missed two field goals near the end of the game — one from 47 yards and one from 51 — while the Raiders blew their chance when Mariota made his first bad decision of the game with an ill-advised pass that went off the hands of Zay Jones and into the hands Chris Harris Jr., who returned it 51 yards to give Badgley his second opportunity.
Las Vegas lined up for a 65-yard, game-winning field goal at the end of regulation, but a bad snap was bobbled by AJ Cole, preventing Carlson from making an attempt.
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More than 621,000 Canadians play in organized hockey leagues, but community hockey has been suspended in most provinces with high COVID-19 infection rates after a series of arena-related outbreaks. Air quality research and a growing understanding of how the virus spreads are helping to explain why facing-off indoors can be risky during the pandemic. In recent months, there have been COVID outbreaks traced to hockey arenas all over the U.S. and Canada. In Saskatchewan there were 20 separate outbreaks tied to arenas. One old-timers hockey team from the interior of British Columbia travelled to Alberta and brought the infection back with them to their families and co-workers. In Ottawa, a single hockey practice in December led to 89 infections as the players unknowingly brought the disease home to their families. Hugh Campbell has been a minor hockey league director in Barrie, Ont., for more than 40 years. In November, he had to deal with a COVID outbreak in a team of 15- and 16-year-olds after one player became ill the day after a practice. “We immediately isolated the whole team for a 14-day period,” he said. “During that 14-day period, eight of the boys actually ended up testing positive. It was a good thing that we got on it right away and managed to curtail it just to the one team and one group.” Last October, just two weeks after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, the Atlanta Centers for Disease Control issued a little-noticed Morbidity and Mortality Report about the dangers of contracting COVID-19 from playing hockey. The report was based on an amateur hockey game in Tampa Bay last June in which one infected player passed the disease on to 13 of the 22 other players who were on the ice with him, as well as to one rink attendant. All this comes as little surprise to experts who have been studying air quality in hockey arenas for many years. Most of those studies had to do with the exhaust from the Zamboni machines that clean and re-surface the ice before games or between periods. Older versions of those machines have internal combustion engines that pollute the air. Cold air does not rise, and the studies showed that polluted air tends to stay close to the ice level, even when there is building ventilation. That same phenomenon applies to air contaminated with the COVID-19 virus, according to Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto. “We have a potentially infected player on the ice, and the pollutants get trapped near the ice surface,” he said. “Even more respiratory aerosols are being produced because people are working hard, because they’re doing this physical activity. Combine that with these higher concentrations near the ice surfaces, people breathing deeply because they’re working hard too, and you can end up potentially with some quite high exposures.” Professor Qingyan Chen of Indiana’s Purdue University has studied the air in hockey arenas in Boston and Halifax. “Suppose you were sick, the particles exhaled by you will be just behind you in the wake of your moving body. We also conducted another study showing this moving wake could carry the particles to different places, and even another player chasing you on the surface could stay in the high concentration zone of the breathed air,” Chen said. The risk of infection can be even higher in dressing rooms, and on the bench between shifts when players are often coughing or spitting. Wearing full-length plexiglass face visors that resemble the shields worn by medical personnel doesn’t solve the problem, according to professor Siegel. “Plastic visors work great for very large respiratory droplets, but for anything that’s small, the air just goes around the visor. And so do they help? Yes. Are they a perfect solution? Absolutely not.” Many wonder why the National Hockey League was able to complete its last season and playoffs with relatively few COVID-19 cases. The answer lies at least in part in the strict precautions taken by players and staff off the ice. Infectious disease expert Dr. Issac Bogoch helped to design elaborate testing and strict bubble protocols for the NHL. Players were tested for days before being admitted to the NHL bubble, were quarantined in their rooms upon arrival, and tested daily thereafter. “What you saw at the end of the day were, I think, very tight protocols that took a lot of buy-in and were adhered to by everyone — not just the players, but all the other personnel in the bubble,” Dr. Bogoch said. “But of course that takes a lot of resources and a huge commitment. Many of the minor hockey leagues just don’t have the resources to do that.” One of the few community games still being played in Canada last week was in St. John’s, N.L., on Jan. 10. The players had to wear masks in public areas before and after the game. There was no spitting allowed, and plenty of bottles of hand sanitizer were around. Playing in the Newfoundland game was former figure skater Dwan Street, who converted to hockey five years ago. “Hockey’s pretty big here. And just being a part of that and the whole hockey culture, you know, it’s a huge part of who I am,” she said. “It’s a social thing as well. Most of my best friends are on the hockey team, and you definitely miss that. I think when it comes down to precautions, we’re definitely willing to do what we have to do. Whether that’s going back to showing up [for games] fully dressed, where the only thing you had left to put on was your skates, whatever it takes.” Air-quality expert Siegel understands that many Canadians are devoted to community hockey. “I really get it,” he said. “Physical activity is important, it’s important for physical health, it’s important for mental health. Playing hockey is really important to a lot of people. But there’s kind of a balance here, because it is also a higher risk for infection.” So how do you balance those two things? “I think it’s going to come down to the individual choices,” Siegel said. “If someone lives in a household with a vulnerable family member, maybe someone who’s older or someone who’s got a respiratory condition that makes them more sensitive to COVID, that might be a good time to say, ‘maybe I shouldn’t play hockey this season.'” Dr. Bogoch thinks one solution would be to move as many community games as possible to outdoor rinks. “I think you can get out on the outdoor ice and have a safe experience, as long as it’s done well,” he said. “So rather than saying no, no, no, I think we should say, well, is there a way that we can get around this and do this safely? And if careful and if done right, I think you probably can do it on the outdoor ice in a much safer environment.”
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You lose like this to the presumed seventh seed inside the Group of Seven and the arrows will be pointed in familiar directions.
Frederik Andersen looks like an easy target, as does a defensive program that surrendered more goals per game than all but one team invited to the NHL’s summer bubble last year.
But neither touches the heart of the biggest questions facing the Toronto Maple Leafs coming out of Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators: Why did they veer into the ditch after a solid opening 29 minutes? And where was the offensive wave that’s supposed to be a distinguishing quality for them in this North Division?
Toronto’s 39 per cent expected-goals rate tells us even more than the result, especially since it generated next to nothing at 5-on-5 while playing the back half of the game from behind.
Any potential offensive flow died in transition. And the gold-standard series of shifts with sustained pressure building up to Alex Kerfoot’s 2-1 goal quickly became notable because they couldn’t be repeated while Ottawa roared back to win the first game it was playing in 310 days.
“Scoring that goal for us, if we want to be a team that’s going to accomplish anything, the game should be over from there,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We should be able to take care of the lead and then build on the lead. Obviously, it showed that we’re not there yet.”
They were a long way off against D.J. Smith’s determined group.
That Smith would have his team closely protecting the net front should surprise no one that watched Ottawa battle through a rebuilding season. The Sens’ issues were personnel-related and their personnel improved considerably since March.
But they still boast the kind of defensive corps a team with Toronto’s weapons should be expected to overwhelm — only it didn’t happen nearly enough in the opener of a back-to-back set at Canadian Tire Centre.
Trailing 4-2 entering the third period, the Leafs put just four more shots on Matt Murray while attempting five shot attempts at even strength. That’s why the rush to dissect every defensive breakdown feels a little incomplete.
These are the early days of a weird season that included no exhibition games and a lot of money is being made by those betting the “over” league-wide right now. There’s isn’t much tight, organized hockey being played anywhere right now and, theoretically, that should play directly into the hands of a team like the Leafs.
Yes, they’ve hung eight goals on the scoreboard across two games, but they haven’t tilted the ice nearly as much as desired. Against the Senators they were pushed toward the perimeter and looked too often for the ideal play.
“There’s a great number of goals that are scored in the league that are just randomness,” said Keefe. “You just put the puck to space and try to outnumber the opposition and win loose pucks and that’s really all their goals for the most part came off of situations like that.
“We had great control of the game for long periods of time but didn’t accomplish much with it.”
The coach will have his patience tested during the quick turnaround before Saturday’s game. He’s indicated a desire to give his lines a chance to find some cohesion but must be feeling the itch to rearrange the pieces.
An obvious change would be removing fourth-line winger Alexander Barbanov, who saw just over four minutes in Friday’s game. The taxi squad offers multiple replacement options — one of Nick Robertson, Adam Brooks or Travis Boyd could jump in, or perhaps Keefe might elect to give Mikko Lehtonen or Rasmus Sandin a look as part of a 11F/7D rotation.
A silver lining from a tough night came from the fact his glue guys showed cohesion. Keefe has high hopes for Kerfoot, Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev as a third line and they managed some tone-setting shifts, plus the Kerfoot goal.
“I think that we all play fast, we play hard,” said Hyman. “I thought we had a strong game. I thought we played well together. I like playing with those guys.”
It may only be a matter of time for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Joe Thornton — assuming they remain intact. They’ve played big minutes and generated enough chances to have scored a couple goals already but are still looking for their first.
We got a glimpse of what Thornton can offer early in Friday’s game when he stationed himself behind the net and fed Matthews for a chance in close.
“Those little give-and-go plays, we’re just trying to create little wedges, 2-on-1s, and try to find open guys,” said Matthews.
“We’re trying to speed up our game a lot offensively and challenge the net a lot more,” added Keefe. “I mean we just haven’t done that. That’s going to take some time, that’s a big adjustment from a lot of our guys.”
The lack of flow has been noticeable. They’ve played from behind in both games and haven’t yet found a high gear, even while rallying to beat the Montreal Canadiens in Wednesday’s season opener.
Ottawa is supposed to be their easiest mark in the division and yet the struggle was real in Game 2.
“It shows you how tough it is to win in this league,” said Andersen.
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