With just two Sundays left in the 2020 NFL regular season, it’s all about the push for the playoffs over the next seven days.
The action on Christmas Day and Boxing Day has already delivered plenty of drama, and Sunday is gearing up for more of the same.
So from No. 1 seeds to wild-card races, here’s what we’re watching for in the NFL on Sunday.
Chiefs, Packers can lock up No. 1 seeds
Under the new playoff format that sees seven teams from each conference qualify for the post-season, the No. 1 seed is more vital than ever as it represents the only team that will get the first round of the playoffs to rest up.
The teams in the driver’s seat for those coveted seeds are currently the Chiefs and Packers, and both can lock up a first-round bye on Sunday.
For Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, it’s simple: a win for heavily favoured K.C. at home against the Falcons and the defending Super Bowl champions will secure a weekend off.
With both the Bills and Steelers two games behind the Chiefs, if Andy Reid’s team somehow doesn’t get it done this weekend against the Falcons, they’ll have another chance next weekend with a victory over the Chargers.
Unlike the Chiefs, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will need some help in order to clinch the top seed in the NFC.
A win over the Titans in a tough Sunday night matchup in Green Bay would not be enough, as the Pack need the Seahawks to drop their crucial NFC West clash against the Rams (more on that later).
With Seahawks-Rams scheduled to kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET, Rodgers and Co. will know before the Sunday nighter gets underway at Lambeau Field if they’ll have a chance to clinch the NFC’s top seed.
MVP watch continues
Speaking of the Chiefs and Packers, Mahomes and Rodgers are also the frontrunners in the 2020 MVP race. So as their teams battle to secure the No. 1 seeds in the NFL, keep an eye on how the two signal-callers are performing in what could end up being a pretty tight battle for MVP.
According to Odds Shark, Mahomes is the favourite heading into Week 16’s Sunday action at -300, while Rodgers trails as second-favourite at +260. Bills standout quarterback Josh Allen rounds out the top three at +900.
Mahomes is undoubtedly in pole position to win the second MVP award of his short-yet-stellar career, but this race is far from finished.
Four division titles hang in the balance
The New Orleans Saints’ huge win over the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Day, fuelled by a historic Alvin Kamara performance, wrapped up the NFC South title for the Saints and clinched the fourth division title of the season.
That means half of the division crowns still hang in the balance heading into Week 16’s Sunday action, and the day’s games will go a long way in deciding when or how the remainder of the divisions will be settled.
The matchup with the biggest divisional consequences on Sunday is a massive game between the Seahawks and Rams that could end with a champ being crowned at the final whistle: a win by Russell Wilson’s team would see the Seahawks capture the NFC West title for the first time since 2016. A win by Sean McVay’s Rams, however, would mean the fate of the division won’t be decided until next week.
The AFC North could be just as intriguing: as the Steelers slump, the Browns surge. Cleveland can clinch its first playoff berth since 2002 on Sunday, but a division title for the first time since 1989 isn’t out of the question. While a Steelers win Sunday would clinch the division for Pittsburgh, a Steelers loss to the Colts and a Cleveland win over the Jets – which they’ll have to do without four wide receivers due to COVID-19 – would mean Week 17’s game between the Steelers and Browns will be for the AFC North title.
On behalf of NFL fans all over the world: yes, please.
The NFC (L)East can be decided in Week 16, too, and finally put the other three teams out of their misery. If Washington can beat Carolina and the Giants lose to Baltimore, the Football Team will be division champions — and we can finally leave this terrible division behind us.
Finally, the AFC South. The Titans and Colts are in a dead heat through 15 weeks of the season, with both teams at 10-4. Tennessee, however, holds the tiebreaker over Indianapolis and can clinch the division with a win at Green Bay on Sunday night plus a Colts loss.
Depending on how things unfold on Sunday, all eight divisions could have champions come day’s end. More likely, though, is that at least one of the remaining division titles up for grabs will come down to the final weekend.
Wild card race living up to its name
The addition of a third wild-card spot has led to a pair of very tight races in both conferences that, thanks to some unexpected and insane results on Saturday night, will come down to the final week of the season.
In the AFC, the Dolphins still sit in the third wild-card spot after an unlikely last-second victory over Las Vegas on Boxing Day that eliminated the Raiders and would’ve left Jon Gruden fuming.
Miami now sits one game ahead of the 9-5 Ravens, who currently sit on the outside looking in, and the Dolphins hold the tiebreaker thanks to a better win percentage in conference games. Baltimore needs a win over the Giants on Sunday to keep pace with Miami for the final AFC post-season berth, and to push the race to a final and deciding weekend.
In the NFC, a Saturday evening upset loss to the 49ers by Kyler Murray and the Cardinals means the Bears could leapfrog Arizona into the conference’s final wild-card spot on Sunday with a win over the lowly Jaguars.
The Cardinals’ Week 16 loss could prove decisive: if Arizona and Chicago finish the season with an identical record, the Bears hold the tiebreaker (better record against common opponents) and would make the playoffs.
So keep an eye on the Bears and Ravens on Sunday – if they both win, it sets up what will undoubtedly be a dramatic climax in the race for the final wild-card spot in both conferences.
The battle for the top pick in 2021
And what a battle it is.
The Jets had the best road to the top pick in next spring’s draft until a shocking win over the Rams last week allowed the Jaguars to leapfrog Gang Green for the honour of picking the top 2021 NFL prospect, presumably Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Can the Jets be worse than the Jaguars over the next two weeks and get back into top position for the No. 1 pick before the season comes to an end?
If we were to wager, we’d bet no – neither of these teams look primed to win another game this season. But as last week showed all too well, anybody can win on Sundays – even the Jets or Jaguars – so we can’t always count on the seemingly improbable.
Berrettini ends Murray’s comeback at Queen’s
The 34-year-old two-time Wimbledon champion, playing in his first singles tournament on grass for three years, could not handle the ferocious pace of Berrettini as he slid to defeat.
Murray eased past Benoit Paire in his opening match on Tuesday but world number nine Berrettini was too big a step up.
Berrettini’s huge first serve and forehand did most of the damage but the Italian also showed plenty of silky touch on the slick lawns to register his first career win over Murray.
Berrettini, 25, finished the match off with a powerful hold of serve, banging down four massive first serves before sealing victory with a clubbing forehand winner.
He faces British number one Dan Evans in the quarter-final after Evans beat Frenchman Adrian Mannarino.
Murray, a five-time winner of the traditional warm-up event but now ranked 124 after long battles with hip injuries including resurfacing surgery in 2019, has been handed a wildcard for the Wimbledon championships.
Apart from a slight groin niggle, Murray said he was reasonably happy with his condition, considering this was only his third Tour-level tournament of the year.
“I think obviously I need to improve,” Murray told reporters. “I actually felt my movement was actually quite good for both of the matches. My tennis today was not very good today. That’s the thing that I’ll need to improve the most.
“I felt like today that that sort of showed my lack of matches.”
Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez, who won the singles title in 2019 and the doubles alongside Murray, was beaten 6-2 6-3 by Canada‘s Denis Shapovalov.
(Reporting by Martyn HermanEditing by Toby Davis and Pritha Sarkar)
Be Like the King of the North Division and Develop Skills
It’s been a year unlike no other for Canadian hockey teams, with COVID-19 travel restrictions forcing the creation of a new NHL division made up entirely of Canadian teams. The previous generation of NHL hockey was known as the “Dead Puck Era” because referees tolerated slowing down the game with clutching and grabbing.
The leading scorers today score in jaw-dropping fashion and routinely pull off stickhandling dangles that were unimaginable until only recently. The Canadian team that will win the North Division will be the one with the most skill.
Here are the training aids that will help you develop your skills all year long.
Innovators like HockeyShot Canada make “passers” so that players can develop pinpoint accuracy and the soft hands necessary to cradle and control a pass when it lands on your stick. The high-quality rubber bands return the puck with the same force which passed it, so you can give yourself one-timers or work on accuracy.
Whether you’re on a two-on-one, sending a breakout pass from the defensive zone, or holding down the blue line on the power play, every positional player needs to pass accurately.
A player is lucky to get a few shots on net each game, and they can’t let them go to waste. Until recently, players needed to rent ice in the off-season to practice their shots in realistic game-like conditions.
Now, players can use shooting pads at their home that let pucks glide as they do on real ice. Shooting is perhaps the one skill that requires the most repetition because one inch can be the difference between going bar-down and clanking one wide off the post.
Practice your quick release and accuracy and develop an arsenal of shots, including wrist shots, slapshots, one-timers, and more. The more tools in your tool kit, the deadlier a sniper you’ll be.
Having the puck on your stick is a responsibility, and you don’t want to cough it up to the other team and waste a scoring chance or lose possession. The ability to stickhandle helps you bide time until a teammate is open, so you can pass them the puck and continue attacking.
If you’re on a breakaway, you may want to deke the goalie rather than shoot if your hands are silky enough. Develop stickhandling skills, and you’ll keep goalies and opponents guessing – being unpredictable helps make a sniper’s job easier.
Of course, you also need to handle the puck in your own zone without causing a turnover. Stickhandling is a crucial skill in all areas of the ice.
When the coach sends you over the board, you need to be prepared for whatever comes your way. Maybe you’ll get the puck in the slot or somewhere else, but when it’s playoffs, you always need to be ready. The Kings of the North Division have all of the above skills and more, and you can too if you practice all year.
Australia swim trials calendar shift to reap Tokyo rewards
Australia broke with tradition to hold its swimming trials just six weeks before the start of the 2020 Olympics and former world champion Giaan Rooney said the move could reap rich rewards in Tokyo after disappointments at London and Rio.
Australia has typically held its trials up to six months before an Olympics but that gap has been drastically cut this year with swimmers vying for Tokyo spots this week in Adelaide.
Rooney, who won individual world titles at Fukuoka and Montreal and a relay gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said Australia is gearing up for a much improved Games after its swimmers flopped at Rio and London.
“I think we needed to make it work,” she told Reuters. “The shift started about a year ago to bring the trials into line with the rest of the world and qualify five or six weeks before.
“In sport and swimming, six months is a long time,” Rooney added. “From a coaching perspective, it’s much better to know you have chosen the team in form.”
After winning five gold medals at Sydney 2000 and seven in Athens, the Australian team was rocked by accusations of disruptive behaviour by some of its top sprinters at the 2012 Olympics.
Australia won just one gold medal in the London pool and three in Rio five years ago.
Australia knew something had to be done if it was to close the gap on the powerful Americans and moving the trials is part of the strategy.
“I think it’s to make your swimmers more resilient to change,” Rooney said.
“In the USA they get to race every week regardless of illness or breakups and under all circumstances. Nothing rattles them.
“Australia doesn’t have that racing continuity. This is about making sure you are prepared for anything. I think our swimmers are more resilient than they have been in the past decade, COVID is part of this.”
Rooney said there might even be an “upside” for Australia with the Olympics postponed by a year due to the global health crisis, with the emergence of swimmers like teenager Kaylee McKeown, who broke the women’s 100m backstroke world record on Sunday.
“We are now talking about athletes who are not only going to make the Olympics but are medal chances,” Rooney said.
“We wouldn’t have been talking about her this time last year. She might not have been ready for a position on the team. She is now a legitimate gold medal chance in Tokyo once she gets there.”
For all her confidence about Australia’s performance in Tokyo, Rooney was wary of making predictions about a gold rush for her compatriots.
“I think this will be a more successful Olympics for us than Rio in the pool but individual goal medals will still be difficult to come by,” said the 38-year-old.
“The biggest challenge is to make the jump from minor medals to gold.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)