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Breaking down the most critical matchups for Super Bowl 2021

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Breaking down the most critical matchups for Super Bowl 2021

Any Super Bowl is enhanced when a top-level quarterback duel is pending. Consider what goes down Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa as enhanced.

Tom Brady, at age 43, appearing in his 10th Super Bowl, his first with the Buccaneers, is countered by Patrick Mahomes, the reigning best quarterback in the NFL, going for his second-straight Super Bowl triumph for the Chiefs. As brightly as these stars figure to shine, they do not line up across from each other, but likely will have to match points with one another.

The true test comes when one side knocks heads with the other. Thus, with no further ado, we bring you the Super Bowl LV matchups:

Chiefs pass offense vs. Buccaneers pass defense

There is no more feared label than “Chiefs pass offense.’’ Mahomes is at the top of his game and appears to have allayed fear that his toe injury will hamper him much, if at all. He is hard to get to — he was sacked just 24 times this season, twice by the Bucs in Week 12. He can throw it short, intermediate or long, and his first inclination is to go deep. Why not, considering what he has at his disposal?

Speed demon Tyreek Hill devastated the Bucs (mostly CB Carlton Davis) in the regular season meeting and is a big play waiting to happen. TE Travis Kelce is basically unstoppable. Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman, take your pick, are all dangerous.

The Bucs have a young and talented secondary but will have to dominate up front with OLBs Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett going after a patchwork, injury-depleted offensive tackle group. That is the huge question: Without injured starters Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, can fill-in tackles Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie hold up? Without pressure on Mahomes, it will be lights-out in the defensive backfield for Davis, Jamel Dean, Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. The Bucs are ball-hawks, with five interceptions in three playoff games.

Edge: Chiefs.

Chiefs run offense vs. Buccaneers run defense

The Chiefs were No. 16 in the NFL in rushing, mainly because they throw it so often, rather than an inability to produce yards on the ground. A fast start to his rookie season devolved for Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who was banged up with ankle and hip injuries, but finally seems healthy. He can run it and catch it and continues in the Kansas City theme of killer speed. Darrel Williams (130 yards, one TD in two postseason games) is a capable backup. Former Steelers star and Jets flop Le’Veon Bell has been a no-impact addition, but has talent.

The Buccaneers should be bolstered by the return of massive DT Vita Vea, who returned in the NFC title game from a Week 5 fractured ankle. He is a load for a unit that allowed only 85.7 rushing yards per game. Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Will Gholston up front, Pierre-Paul on the edge and inside LBs Lavonte David and Devin White are a formidable group to run on. Again, can the backup Chiefs’ offensive tackles keep the edges clear in the run game?

Edge: Buccaneers.

Buccaneers pass offense vs. Chiefs pass defense

No wonder Brady did not look in his rear-view mirror when leaving the Patriots and their shabby offensive personnel for the talent he is surrounded with in Tampa. Mike Evans is an elite, physical receiver, and Chris Godwin, despite a few uncharacteristic drops this postseason, is a threat. The speed of Scotty Miller in the slot is a significant addition, and, oh by the way, Antonio Brown if he can shake off a knee issue is capable of a big play, especially if he is matched up on a No. 3 cornerback. Rookie Tyler Johnson is another target for Brady.

At tight end, Rob Gronkowski is a shell of his former self, but he can block and make a key catch when needed — Gronkowski’s best game (6-106) this season came against the Chiefs in Week 12. TE Cameron Brate is the more consistent option. Chiefs CBs Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland played better than expected in 2020, and L’Jarius Sneed was the highest-graded rookie corner by Pro Football Focus. Daniel Sorensen at one safety spot is a frequent blitzer.

It all begins and ends here for the Chiefs with Tyrann Mathieu. The Honey Badger had a career-high six interceptions in the regular season, encouraged by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to use his instincts all over the field. The Bucs’ offensive line — anchored by LG Ali Marpet, rugged C Ryan Jensen and stud rookie RT Tristan Wirfs — allowed pressure on Brady on just 24 percent of his dropbacks, fourth lowest in the league. DT Chris Jones can be unblockable inside and Frank Clark (two sacks vs. the Bills in the AFC title game) can be a force on the edge.

Edge: Buccaneers.

Buccaneers run offense vs. Chiefs run defense

After a solid regular season, Ronald Jones (978 rushing yards, seven TDs) has been overshadowed in the playoffs by Leonard Fournette (211 yards, three TDs in three playoff games). Jones got knocked around and lost a fumble in the NFC title game, but he cannot be discounted. Fournette, not known for his hands, has 14 receptions for 102 yards in the postseason, but also a few drops. He is hard to bring down and seems to be running to prove something.

Make no mistake, Brady at this stage of his career wants to run it and use the play-action game to ignite the air attack. Chiefs DE Tanoh Kpassagnon is primarily a run-stopper. The Chiefs’ inside linebackers do not attract a great deal of attention but they are active, as Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson are solid against the run. The Chiefs have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past six games.

Edge: Chiefs.

Special teams

After six years with the Titans, Ryan Succop came to Tampa Bay and solved the Bucs’ kicker issues, hitting 28 of his 31 field goal attempts. He is 8-for-8 in the postseason, with one missed extra point. Bradley Pinion put six of his nine punts during the playoffs inside the 20-yard line. Jaydon Mickens had a 43-yard kickoff return against the Packers two weeks ago.

For the Chiefs, Harrison Butker is reliable (25-of-27 on field goals this season) and one of the more consistent kickers in the league. He is 4-of-5 in the playoffs, with a missed extra point. Tommy Townsend punted just 52 times this season and put 20 of them down inside the 20-yard line. Hardman has great speed, but he lost a fumble on a kick return two weeks ago against the Bills.

Edge: Chiefs.

Coaching

Remember when Andy Reid was known as a good coach who could not win the big one with the Eagles? He is a superior play-caller and orchestrator of an offense, and as the man in charge, he keeps his team loose with his Hawaiian shirts, hunger for postgame cheeseburgers and easy-going demeanor. He has an ally in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who already has helped beat Brady once in a Super Bowl (with the Giants after the 2007 season).

Bruce Arians, 68, came out of retirement to take the Bucs’ job, and he is known for his “no risk it, no biscuit’’ approach. He is a gambler and put together the most diverse staff in the league. His defensive coordinator, former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, is not afraid to send pressure.

Edge: Chiefs.

Intangibles

This is the first time a team will play a Super Bowl on its home field. Wouldn’t you know it, much of the home-field advantage will be mitigated by having just 22,000 fans in the stands, though it figures to be more of a Bucs crowd. The Chiefs have the added pressure of trying to win a repeat title, something that has not been done in the NFL in 16 years. The Bucs have the all-time Super Bowl winner in Brady (six rings) but he has been beaten three times in the Super Bowl.

Edge: Buccaneers.

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Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic ejected for Flagrant 2 foul in Game 4 vs. Suns

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When was Nikola Jokic drafted? How the Nuggets landed the future MVP in a draft day steal

Nikola Jokic’s MVP season may have ended a few minutes earlier than the rest of his Nuggets teammates Sunday night.

The big man was ejected from Game 4 of Denver’s playoff series with Phoenix for a Flagrant 2 foul with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter. Jokic hit Cameron Payne across the face while trying to swat the ball out of Payne’s hands.

MORE: CP3 egged on refs to T up Jokic in Game 3

Officials determined that Jokic met the criteria for a Flagrant 2, deeming the contact “unnecessary and excessive.” The action consisted of “windup, impact and follow-through.”

Before learning his fate, Jokic went nose to nose with Suns guard Devin Booker, who was assessed a technical foul for the encounter. Jokic exited after scoring 22 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.

Denver trailed 83-75 at the time as it tried to stave off a sweep attempt by Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals.

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Islanders vs. Lightning: Three takeaways from New York’s Game 1 win

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Islanders vs. Lightning: Three takeaways from New York's Game 1 win

It has been a long time since the Islanders and Lightning have faced off in any kind of game, let alone a postseason clash. To be exact, it has been 265 days. That was when they met in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they did not go toe-to-toe in the regular season this year.

And while the score was exactly the same as the final in Game 6 of last year’s battle, the result was different in Game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup semifinal series. In this one, the Islanders were the victorious squad, skating away with a 2-1 win.

Here are three takeaways from New York’s Game 1 win:

Mat Barzal delivered

As mentioned in Sporting News’ series preview, Barzal’s play is critical to getting New York into the Stanley Cup Final. The Isles need him to be at his best. He struggled at the start of the playoffs, collecting just three points against the Penguins and going goalless in his first eight games. Then, he flipped the switch and has had six points — three of them goals — in the last six games.

Barzal continued to roll Sunday. He notched the critical first goal with an outracing-the-defender, net-crashing, five-hole effort. After receiving a stretch pass from Josh Bailey, he got past 2021 Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman and buried the puck behind netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“I’d say it’s more so, just, I’m actually putting the puck in the net,” Barzal said when asked what has changed in the last few games. “I think my chances throughout the whole season, in the playoffs, are always there. It’s just a matter of beating a goalie. . . . This is the playoffs, so sometimes, in some games we’ve played, I don’t need to get the fifth goal in when we’re up 4-1. So, it’s just a matter of trying to be there for the boys when they need me and just doing the right things.”

Tampa Bay’s power play is lethal

The Lightning entered the semis with a 41.7 percent effectiveness on the power play. 

“Anytime you play a team like Tampa or Boston or anyone with a lethal power play, you don’t want to be in the box all night, ’cause that’s just, you’re just asking for a loss,” Barzal noted.

New York did a good job of playing a hard game while not taking too many penalties — one in the last minute of the middle frame (interference on Kyle Palmieri) that it killed off, and a high-sticking by Brock Nelson with 98 seconds left. Brayden Point did get the Lightning’s lone tally on that last man advantage, which was effectively a 6-on-4 with Vasilevskiy pulled. 

After going 1 for 2 on the power play, the Lightning are now at 42.1 effectiveness. Needless to say, the Islanders need to remain disciplined. 

Game 2 will be interesting

It’s obvious that the Islanders walked into Amalie Arena with a game plan, and they executed it to perfection. Last year in the conference finals, they were blown out 8-2 in Game 1. Things were definitely not the same in this year’s opener. 

“No. 1 is just managing a puck,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said when asked what the keys were Sunday. “Two, we were disciplined. Three, we didn’t take a lot of risk, unnecessary risk. . . . I thought we made pretty good decisions.”

On the Lightning’s bench, Jon Cooper was anything but happy with his team’s decision-making. 

“Our work ethic was there, our compete was there, our minds weren’t there,” he said. “Some of our decisions were poor. That’s what happens when you get this deep into the playoffs. There are only four teams left and you have to have everything working in unison. We just weren’t quite there tonight.”

New York did a good job of keeping the Lightning away from the front of the net as goalie Semyon Varlamov only faced three high-danger shots at 5v5 and stopped 8 of 9 overall (per Natural Stat Trick). Varlamov made 30 saves while Vasilevskiy turned aside 29 shots.

There’s nothing more the Islanders would like than going wheels up back to New York with a 2-0 series lead, but there’s a reason the Lightning are the defending Cup champions. While this may be the first time it has trailed in a series in 2021, Tampa Bay has a skilled squad that will not go quietly into the night.

“We knew it was going to be extremely tough,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve been in this position before, so there’s definitely no panic in this room. But we do realize that it’s going to be an extremely tight series and we just have to expect that going forward.”

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Glen Davis implies Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury a result of Celtics basketball karma

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Glen Davis implies Kyrie Irving's ankle injury a result of Celtics basketball karma

Glen Davis clearly believes in basketball karma.

Nets guard Kyrie Irving exited Sunday’s playoff game vs. the Bucks after spraining his right ankle. Irving would later be ruled out of the game with the injury. The Nets would fall to the Bucks in Game 4 107-96, sending the Eastern Conference semifinal series back to Barclays Center even at 2-2. 

Davis, a member of the Celtics’ 2008 championship-winning squad, had some thoughts on the injury. In an Instagram reply, Davis seemed to imply that it was a result of basketball karma after Irving stomped on Boston’s center court logo earlier in the playoffs.

“Karma is real. Energy is real no matter what you guys say,” Davis said in another IG comment. “That logo means something negative or positive. Ky wished that on hisself (sic). Energy is real, always have respect for other no matter if its (sic) a logo are (sic) not.”

MORE: Kyrie crossover sends Thanasis into another galaxy 

After the Nets’ Game 4 victory over the Celtics in the first round, Irving greeted teammates at center court and stomped on the drawing of Lucky the Leprechaun, the team’s mascot. A fan was ejected from TD Garden, arrested and charged with felony assault for allegedly throwing a water bottle at Irving following the stomp.

Davis’ comments are pretty baseless, all things considered. Karma isn’t a tangible effect, after all. What is tangible is that the Nets and Bucks head back to Brooklyn with the series tied and both Irving and James Harden’s status for Game 5 uncertain.

By the way, it wasn’t the same ankle that stomped on Lucky, just to fact check. That was Irving’s left one. The injury was to Irving’s right one.

Think before you comment, folks.

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