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NFL playoff picks, predictions against spread: Bucs solve Saints; Chiefs bounce Browns; Bills, Packers survive

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NFL playoff picks, predictions against spread: Bucs solve Saints; Chiefs bounce Browns; Bills, Packers survive

And then there were eight teams remaining in the race for Super Bowl 55. With the divisional round of the 2021 NFL playoffs here it’s time for another round for picks and predictions against the spread.

Although the slate drops from six games during wild-card weekend to a combined four this Saturday and Sunday, there’s still plenty of good two-day action between the AFC and NFC matchups. There are two strong favorites and two mild favorites among the home teams this week.

Here’s to trying to build on our solid success navigating through the numbers from last week:

MORE NFL PLAYOFFS:
AFC & NFC bracket | TV schedule | Super Bowl picks

(Getty Images)

NFL playoff picks, predictions against the spread

  •  Game of the Week: Ravens at Bills (-2.5, 50 o/u)

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

This game will live up to the billing of being a dynamic passing and running duel between 2018 first-round quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. The Bills’ defensive weakness is against the run, which will allow Jackson, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards to get going between the tackles and around the edges. The Ravens are solid against the run but, despite some having some good, experienced pass rushers and cornerbacks, they have lapses in pressure and coverage, which can expose them further with their frequent blitzes.

Jackson will do plenty of damage on the ground and Allen will have his share of key physical runs. It will come down to which quarterback can make a few more big pass plays off script. Jackson will see Tre’Davious White contain Marquise Brown, left leaning mostly on tight end Mark Andrews in a great matchup. The difference will be the Bills’ Stefon Diggs, who can consistently get the better of Marcus Peters outside to boost Allen.

Pick: Bills win 27-24 and cover the spread.

(Getty Images)

Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS

The Browns came out looking for big plays and takeaways against the Steelers and were successful, eventually closing out their AFC North rivals with Nick Chubb and the power running game. Chubb and former Chiefs feature back Kareem Hunt will be critical to the chances of a second consecutive (and much bigger) road upset.

Baker Mayfield can’t get into a pure chuck-fest with Patrick Mahomes because he doesn’t have the same all-around weapons and is facing the much tougher of the two overall pass defenses. The Browns need to play ball control, picking good spots for Mayfield to hit on big plays off play-action and bootlegs and then make sure they lean on Chubb and Hunt most to finish in the red zone.

The Chiefs will counter by relentlessly throwing with a rested Mahomes. The Browns simply do not have anyone who can cover wide receiver Tyreek Hill deep or tight end Travis Kelce on intermediate routes. The goal will be jumping off to a significant lead and limiting the Browns’ use of the run, putting Mayfield in uncomfortable situations against Frank Clark, Chris Jones and the rest of the Chiefs’ pass rush. Mayfield also needs to be careful throwing to the middle of the field with safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorenson looming.

The Browns won’t have answers for Mahomes. The Chiefs will find plenty for Mayfield in the second half.

Pick: Chiefs win 34-17 and cover the spread.

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  • Upset of the Week: Buccaneers (+3, 52 o/u) over Saints

Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, Fox

Tom Brady’s first game as a Buccaneer was rough in New Orleans in Week 1. His second shot at the Saints was even worse at home in Week 9. But Brady wasn’t playing nearly at the same level in either previous meeting as he is now, fully locked into his wide receivers, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. He’s set at tight end, too, whether it’s Cameron Brate or old buddy Rob Gronkowski running the routes. The Saints have developed more coverage issues all over the field and after seeing their defense twice on film, Brady will adjust into the most comfortable matchup, most every time.

The Bucs and Saints both stop the run well, so it will come down which fortysomething quarterback, Brady or Drew Brees, can avoid the big mistakes but also deliver big plays. Brady has simply been the more impressive passer with the stronger arm for his age and has more guys who can cause matchup problems. Brees will have success working on shorter routes to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, but Evans, Godwin and Brown will be of bigger help to Brady.

Pick: Buccaneers win 34-31.

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Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, Fox

The Rams will make this a game because of their running game. Their offensive line pushed around the Seahawks with Andrew Whitworth back and the fresh legs of rookie Cam Akers has made the rushing attack central again. Jared Goff will be a little healthier to take advantage of that, working play-action to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. The Packers will handle some of that by putting cornerback Jaire Alexander on Woods.

On the other side, Aaron Rodgers will see Davante Adams locked up with Jalen Ramsey and knows center Corey Linsley and the rest of his strong interior offensive line need to keep Aaron Donald at bay, especially with the edge compromised without left tackle David Bakhtiari. Rodgers and Aaron Jones don’t find it easy at first, but then Rodgers finds tight end Robert Tonyan and other matchups he likes away from downfield and Jones will go to work on a worn-down group in the second half.

The Rams’ defense makes a statement against the MVP QB in Green Bay, but they can’t do enough to make sure the Rams’ offense outscores whatever Rodgers leads the Packers to do.

Pick: Packers win 24-20 but fail to cover the spread.

Stats of the Week

  • Wild-card playoff straight up: 5-1
  • Wild-card playoffs against the spread: 3-2
  • Season straight up: 169-93
  • Season against the spread: 135-119

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Coach K belittles Duke student reporter instead of examining own flailing team

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Coach K belittles Duke student reporter instead of examining own flailing team

Maybe what Mike Krzyzewski didn’t like was the challenge to his authority by a journalist.

Because he shouldn’t have been upset about the question, which was absolutely fair under the circumstances. And he shouldn’t have cared about the age of Duke Chronicle reporter Jake Piazza, who as an independent scribe had every right to be there. So perhaps when he unleashed his snark-filled response to the student reporter Saturday night after Duke lost 70-65 to Louisville and fell to 5-5 this season, he was just upset someone would confront his failure so directly.

It’s a mindset found consistently in the college ranks, where the heads of basketball and football programs double as university deities in many parts of the country.

“I’m just curious as to what the next step forward is for the team as you guys move into another week of basketball,” the reporter asked Coach K on a virtual news conference not long after Duke had turned the ball over 15 times while dishing just seven assists.

Not the most incisive query, to be sure, but one worth putting forward as Duke continues its worst start to a season in decades.

It was enough for Krzyzewski to dig in.

“Why don’t we just evaluate this game?” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not into what our next step forward is right now. We just finished a hard-fought game. What’s your major? What’s your major at Duke? What’s your hardest class?”

When the reporter answered that he was an economics major, Krzyzewski continued, “OK, say you just had the toughest econ test in the world, and when you walked out, somebody asked you, ‘What’s your next step?’ You see what I mean? Do you have some empathy? Just give us time to evaluate this game and we’ll figure it out, just like we always try to do.”

MORE: Auburn’s Sharife Cooper on an outrageous five-game streak

Coaches say far worse things to young interviewers — hazing rituals often target the most anxious and inexperienced questioners. It doubles as a sort of “test” from coach to reporter.

But what’s the point of the intimidation tactic? Why do the very people tasked with guiding the lives of teenage athletes — and who work those players as if they were paid pros — think it’s reasonable to belittle journalists of any stripe?

In the end, the exchange between Coach K and the Duke Chronicle reporter probably served as a different type of learning experience than intended. Rather than discourage tough questions, Krzyzewski shattered the illusion of his own infallibility. Now the writer knows the people he covers are not worth the pedestal many place them on, and that when he touches a nerve with a probe, it’s a sign he might be on the right track.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know how Duke plans to avoid its first NCAA Tournament miss since 1995.

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Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2 live fight updates, results, highlights from UFC 257

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Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2 live fight updates, results, highlights from UFC 257

The highly anticipated return of Conor McGregor is set to take place Saturday night (Sunday morning local time) when the former two-division champion meets old rival Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.

A lot has changed since McGregor stopped Poirier in the first round more than six years ago at UFC 178. McGregor became the biggest star in the UFC while also becoming the first fighter to hold world titles in two divisions simultaneously. Poirier, meanwhile, built himself back up with marquee wins over Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway, Dan Hooker and Justin Gaethje while also claiming the interim UFC lightweight title.

MORE: McGregor poised to become the best version of himself after finding calm amid chaos

Aside from their accomplishments, both McGregor and Poirier have seen their lives change outside the Octagon. Both have become fathers and are now fighting for more than just themselves. 

Unlike their first meeting, there has been no bad blood; McGregor appears to have put his controversial past behind him and will enter the Octagon as a competitor who has seemingly found a new reason for fighting. Poirier made the mistake of allowing McGregor to get into his head before their first fight; this time, a seasoned and mature fighter will stand across the cage from the sport’s biggest star as he attempts to stake his claim as the best lightweight in the world 

There is a lot at stake in this fight as Khabib Nurmagomedov remains retired. The winner will certainly be near the front of the line for a title opportunity while the loser will fall to the back of the pack.

The co-main event features another pair of lightweights who are jockeying for position in the title picture. Michael Chandler will make his UFC debut against the battle-tested Dan Hooker. Chandler arrives after a stint in Bellator, where he is widely recognized as one of the greatest fighters ever in that organization. Can he prove that he’s worthy of having his name among the best in the UFC, too, or will Hooker turn back the challenge?  

Sporting News is tracking live fight updates and highlights from Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2. Follow below for complete results from UFC 257’s main event and undercard.

MORE: Save over 30% when you buy UFC 257 and an ESPN+ Annual Plan for only $89.98

Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier live updates, highlights from UFC 257

9:41 p.m.: The final fight on the televised prelims is up next and takes place under curious circumstances. Matt Frevola takes on Arman Tsarukyan in a catchweight bout. Frevola was originally set to take on Ottman Azaitar until Azaitar was removed from the card, and the UFC, for violating COVID-19 safety protocols after attempting to sneak a teammate into his hotel room in Abu Dhabi. It was absurd and cost Azaitar his UFC career. Fortunately for Frevola, Tsarukyan needed an opponent after Nasrat Haqparast was removed due to illness. And here we are. 

9:37 p.m.: Brad Tavares earned a decision over Antonio Carlos Junior in middleweight action. The takedown defense from Tavares was impressive as he prevented “Shoeface” from bringing the fight to the canvas. He also showcased some solid counterstriking. That performance is a start for Tavares as he attempts to work his way up the middleweight ladder.  

9:01 p.m.: Just when you thought we were heading to another decision, Pena managed to get McMann’s back in the final round and cinch in a rear-naked choke to earn the submission victory. It’s a win that Pena needed to end a skid as she tries to work her way back into title contention. The best part was that Pena called out Amanda Nunes and accused the champion of “ducking” her. Interesting. 

 

 

8:45 p.m.: Welcome to Sporting News’ coverage of UFC 257: McGregor vs. Poirier 2. As we continue through the prelims, we have had a stretch of three consecutive decisions. Sara McMann and Julianna Pena are up now. Will this fight also be decided by the judges or will Pena or McMann take it out of their hands. 

McGregor vs. Poirier 2 start time

  • Early prelims: 6:30 p.m. ET
  • Prelims: 8 p.m. ET
  • Main card: 10 p.m. ET
  • Live stream: ESPN+

The main card of UFC 257 is scheduled to start at 10 p.m. ET, following the early prelims (6:30 p.m. ET) and preliminaries (8 p.m. ET).

How to watch McGregor vs. Poirier 2 on PPV

  • UFC 257 early prelims TV channel: ESPN+, UFC FIght Pass
  • UFC 257 prelims TV channel: ESPN+, ESPN 2
  • UFC 257 main card channel: ESPN+ (pay-per-view)

The early prelims and preliminaries at UFC 257 are free to watch on ESPN+ for those who are already subscribed to the streaming service. The pay-per-view portion (i.e., the main card) can be purchased for $69.99. New subscribers can pay a bundle price of $89.99, which includes the fight and an annual subscription to ESPN+.

Click here to learn about the different pricing and bundling options with the ESPN+ platform.

UFC 257 fight card

Main card

  • Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier; lightweights
  • Dan Hooker vs. Michael Chandler; lightweights 
  • Jessica Eye vs. Joanne Calderwood; women’s flyweights 
  • Marina Rodriguez vs. Amanda Ribas; women’s strawweights 
  • Andrew Sanchez vs. Makhmud Muradov; middleweights 

Prelims

  • Matt Frevola vs. Arman Tsarukyan; catchweight (157 pounds)
  • Brad Tavares def. Antonio Carlos Junior via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27 & 29-28) 
  • Julianna Pena def. Sara McMann via 3rd round submission (3:39)
  • Marcin Prachnio def. Khalil Rountree Jr. via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28 & 29-28)

Early prelims

  • Movsar Evloev def. Nik Lentz via split decision (29-28, 29-28 & 28-29)
  • Amir Albazi def. Zhalgas Zhumagulov via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28 & 29-28)

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Matthew Stafford trade rumors, possible destinations: Colts, Patriots, Steelers & more

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Matthew Stafford trade rumors, possible destinations: Colts, Patriots, Steelers & more

Another productive NFL quarterback is on the trade market, expanding the deep pool of available passers this offseason.

Matthew Stafford is reportedly done with the Lions and has requested a move elsewhere, according to multiple reports. He has spent his entire 12-year career in Detroit, but wants the opportunity to return to the playoffs before retirement.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft joins Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz and Tua Tagovailoa as passers potentially set to leave their teams via trade — not to mention the likes of Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton, who hit the open market in free agency. After a healthy 2020 season produced more than 4,000 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions, Stafford will be one of the most sought-after options of that group, perhaps behind only Watson in stature.

Several AFC teams seem to be good matches for Stafford, including the Colts, Patriots and Steelers. The 32-year-old — he turns 33 in February — is better suited for a roster able to compete immediately than one needing to execute a multi-year rebuilding plan. ESPN reported Saturday that the Lions would likely receive at least a first-round pick for him.

MORE: Deshaun Watson trade tracker

Stafford is owed $43 million through next season — part of a contract amount that was considered onerous when he first signed, but is now viewed as team-friendly, given escalating payments for quarterbacks around the league and his continuously solid performance.

Below is an overview of where Stafford might be headed once the offseason begins:

Possible trade destinations for Matthew Stafford

Colts

With Philip Rivers retiring, Indianapolis has reason to dip into its cap space for Stafford, who would provide the same steady hand Rivers did during an 11-5 season. The Colts boast one of the most well-rounded rosters in the NFL; with the Texans and Jaguars nowhere near contention, they have only the Titans to contend with in the AFC South.

As Stafford ages, having a capable running game to keep defenses from honing in on his arm would be helpful. Rookie sensation Jonathan Taylor, then, would be a crucial ally in his success. Stafford also had to play from behind in Detroit much of the time, an occurrence that would probably be less frequent in Indianapolis.

The Colts aren’t exactly loaded with wide receivers — Michael Pittman Jr. is the only one with obvious upside — but they have enough going on outside for Stafford to feel supported.

Patriots

Just because the Cam Newton era was a dud doesn’t mean New England plans to accept a losing record and high draft pick next year. Eight Patriots players opted out of this past campaign because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but their defense still ranked seventh in points allowed. With the expected returns of Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower to that group, a return to contention isn’t impossible.

Stafford would give the Patriots an exponential offensive lift, though the franchise needs to find more effective receivers than the Jacobi Myers-led corps that floundered in 2020.

Steelers

Stafford would be an exciting replacement for Ben Roethlisberger if the latter retires this offseason. Even if JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves Pittsburgh in free agency, the Steelers’ pass catchers should be among the NFL’s best. It has been a long time since Stafford had a duo with the potential of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

A lack of cap room makes a Stafford trade to Pittsburgh extremely difficult — Roethlisberger alone has a dead cap of $22.25 million and the franchise is projected to be well above its allotted 2021 space — but the potential reward for the franchise, if the money can be worked out, would be immense.

Other landing spots

The 49ers, Dolphins, Panthers, Washington Football Team and Broncos are among the teams that have also been discussed in Stafford trade rumors.

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