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Falcons hold on to big lead for 1st win of season

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The Atlanta Falcons completed a week of new beginnings Sunday by taking a big lead — and holding it.

After jumping out to a 20-point halftime lead at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Falcons closed out their first victory of the season and trounced the Minnesota Vikings 40-23. The performance made a winner out of interim coach Raheem Morris, who replaced the fired Dan Quinn earlier this week.

The Falcons entered the game without a win despite holding a 20-0 lead in one of their games (Week 2 against the Dallas Cowboys) and a 26-10 advantage in the fourth quarter of another (Week 3 against the Chicago Bears).

The firing of Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff initiated an organizational overhaul focused on the long-term future, but Sunday’s victory — albeit against the 1-5 Vikings — suggested the Falcons might still be competitive in 2020.

The Falcons scored 20 points in each half, enough to hold off a late run from the Vikings. Receiver Julio Jones returned to the lineup to spark the offense, hauling in eight receptions for 137 yards and his first two touchdowns of the season. Quarterback Matt Ryan, meanwhile, threw a total of four touchdown passes while completing 30 of 40 passes for 371 yards.

More surprisingly, the Falcons defense clobbered the Vikings’ offense — and quarterback Kirk Cousins — in a stunning reversal of its play for most of this season. Entering the game, the Falcons’ defense had allowed the league’s highest Total Quarterback Rating to its opponents (81.8). It had managed only two interceptions and given up 15 touchdown passes, and not once had it shut out a team in a half of play.

Sunday, the Falcons shut out the Vikings in the first half in large part because they intercepted Cousins three times. In so doing, the Falcons avoided their first 0-6 start since 1996.

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Mayfield: 4-2 feels like 0-6 after loss to Steelers

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BEREA, Ohio – Baker Mayfield admitted that even though the Browns still boast a winning record, it hasn’t felt like it this week following a deflating 38-7 loss to the Steelers.

“The feeling throughout [our] building after that loss — 4-2 has never felt so much like 0-6 before,” the Cleveland quarterback said Wednesday. “But that’s because we have very high expectations for ourselves.”

The Browns last held a winning record in 2014. But an otherwise strong start has been marred by blowout losses to AFC North division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, which combined to outscore Cleveland, 76-13.

In spite of that, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Browns a 56.6% chance to finally snap the NFL’s longest playoff drought of 18 years. According to FPI, Cleveland also faces the easiest remaining schedule in the league.

“We’re eager to get back to work,” Mayfield said. “Fix the problems we know are within our control.”

Mayfield has taken the brunt of the criticism for the loss to the Steelers after producing a QBR score of 5.5, the third-worst QBR performance of any quarterback this season. While battling a chest injury that limited him in practice last week, Mayfield threw a pick-six on Cleveland’s third-snap, and Pittsburgh went on to sack him four times and intercept another pass. He was eventually replaced by Case Keenum late in the third quarter.

Coach Kevin Stefanski explained afterward, “I didn’t want to see him get hit one more time.”

“I’ve got to have a short memory playing quarterback,” Mayfield said. “It’s tough when you’re in a momentum swing like that to get back on track. But this position, you have to be able to do that.”

Mayfield said avoiding early mistakes will be key to bouncing back.

“Not let them up front pin their ears back and bring a bunch of different crazy blitzes,” he said. “Get the ball out of [my] hands, not give them a taste for hitting the quarterback, getting those sacks. . … Playing the field position early on is more than OK.”

Mayfield said his chest and rib injury had improved since Sunday despite taking several big shots and that he expects to get more practice snaps this week.

And as for criticism from the pundits?

“I don’t give a damn what they say,” he fired back. “We know we can be better. I know I can be better. The outside noise doesn’t matter. They get paid to talk and we get paid to do our work. So, that’s how it’s going to be handled.”

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2020 MLS Cup playoffs: Who’s in, fixtures, results, final date and key info

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The coronavirus-affected 2020 Major League Soccer regular season is in the home stretch, with teams vying for places in the postseason, which begins on Nov. 20 and concludes with MLS Cup on Dec. 12.

A total of 18 teams will qualify for the postseason, four more than in 2019, with the last day of the regular season — Decision Day — coming on Nov. 8 (watch all matches live on ESPN networks and ESPN+ in the U.S.).

Below is a list of teams who have qualified, those still in the hunt and what this year’s playoff format looks like.

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Clinched playoff places

Eastern Conference (6 teams qualify straight to Round 1, 4 have a play-in game):

Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union, Columbus Crew SC, Orlando City SC.

Western Conference (8 teams qualify directly to Round 1):

None.

Still in contention

Eastern Conference:

New England Revolution, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Montreal Impact, Chicago Fire, Nashville SC, Atlanta United FC, Inter Miami SC, D.C. United and FC Cincinnati.

Western Conference:

Minnesota United FC, FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps, Real Salt Lake, Houston Dynamo, Colorado Rapids and the LA Galaxy.

Eliminated

None.

Format

The first round will be made up of a pair of one-off play-in games with the 7-10 seeds in the Eastern Conference vying to secure the final two spots in Round One of the playoffs.

Round One

Round One begins on Nov. 20, with 16 teams playing single elimination matches in the higher seeds market for a spot in the Conference semifinals.

Eastern Conference

Times and matches TBD.

Western Conference

Times and matches TBD.

Conference semifinals

Eastern Conference

Times and matches TBD.

Western Conference

Times and matches TBD.

Conference finals

Times and matches TBD.

MLS Cup

TBD vs. TBD (Dec. 12)

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Why Dortmund vs. Schalke is the Bundesliga’s biggest derby by far

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On Nov. 25, 2017, I had a spring in my step while making the reassuringly familiar, brisk walk from the Westfalenhallen S-Bahn rail station past the numerous bratwurst vendors, to my favourite football stadium: the Signal Iduna Park, or the Westfalenstadion, as Borussia Dortmund fans still refer to it.

The German Football League (DFL) had, for a second year running, assigned me to commentate for the world TV feed on the fixture that really matters in Germany’s bustling industrial west, and my heart was aflutter. To me, there’s nothing in world club football that beats it. Quite simply, Dortmund vs. Schalke is die Mutter aller Derbys (the “mother of all derbies”) and carries a resonance that’s sometimes difficult to convey to fleeting observers of German football.

Germany, unlike England, is a country without a significant culture of city derbies. The big cities tend to have one major club that serves as a focal point for local fans. Other clubs exist, of course, but their reach tends to be smaller. So the best derbies involve rival communities in close proximity to each other — in this case the cities of Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen, which are separated by 20 miles of densely populated Westfalen territory.

A Revierderby refers generally to a neighbourly meeting of two clubs from the heavily industrialised Ruhr district, but this is THE Revierderby. The Dortmund-Schalke rivalry carries echoes of a hardworking past. It’s mined from coal and forged from steel, and every game serves as a poignant reminder of Bundesliga meetings past. Here are just some of the memories:

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In September 1969, Schalke defender Friedel Rausch was bitten on the backside by an Alsatian police dog called Rex as fans stormed the pitch at Dortmund’s old Rote Erde, which adjoins the modern-day stadium. It followed a goal for the Royal Blues, and Rausch carried on to complete the 90 minutes, but only after receiving a tetanus shot. He had to sleep on his stomach for two nights.

In December 1997, just six months after both clubs lifted European trophies, Schalke’s Jens Lehmann headed home an injury-time equaliser for 2-2, thus becoming the first goalkeeper to score from open play in Bundesliga history. Five years later, Lehmann would win his solitary Bundesliga title — albeit as a Dortmund player.

Schalke had a real chance of winning the Meisterschale in 2007. It would have been their first since the formation of the new league in 1963. But naturally, on the penultimate matchday they ran into their great Ruhr rivals, who, with little to play for other than spoiling the party, sent Schalke packing with a resounding and haunting 2-0 defeat.

Let’s go back to the November 2017 meeting I mentioned earlier. I was on air in Dortmund that day with Steffen Freund, a superb companion at the best of times, but especially valuable on Revierderby days given his considerable experience of playing for both clubs.

Steffen and I could hardly believe our eyes as Dortmund, in a rampant mood, reeled off four first-half goals without reply. But the second half saw Schalke produce the best comeback I’ve ever commentated on in a major fixture, coming back to level it at the death thanks to Brazilian defender Naldo’s injury time header. This week I revisited what I said from the commentary position in the heat of a remarkable that day. “Naldooooo … 4-4 … THIS is why they call it the mother of all derbies!” My eyes were just about popping out of my head as I incredulously barked out the words.

The fixture has a way of delivering excitement against the grain of expectations. The following season, Steffen and I were back in Dortmund for another derby, this time near the end of the campaign. BVB still entertained title hopes while having little margin for error. Schalke, off form, needed all their time to stave off relegation. Greeting us pitchside as we filmed our on camera stand-up, Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc had that derby look in his eye. He knew from experience that nothing could be taken for granted. Schalke, despite being 42 points behind the Schwarzgelben, prevailed 4-2, effectively saving themselves and consigning Dortmund to another season of near-misses.

It’s important to talk about the “Ruhrpott” fans, with their distinctive gruff but enchanting humour, because they are the ones who make this rivalry special. BVB and Schalke fans actually have much in common as fellow residents of what I see as the most vibrant football area in Germany — the country’s beating heart of passion. It’s often known as Luedenscheid-Nord (Dortmund) vs. Herne-West (Schalke), reflecting the desire by both sets of fans not to even acknowledge the existence of the other club. Dortmund is technically to the north of the former, while Gelsenkirchen lies to the west of the latter.

Only 300 fans will be allowed to attend the 97th edition of the rivalry on Saturday (LIVE at 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+), and that is right as new coronavirus infection numbers climb abruptly across Westfalen. But consider what a group of around 80 Schalke “Ultras” did outside the Veltins Arena after last week’s 1-1 draw with Union Berlin. It was Schalke’s first point of the season but the fact remains, they have now gone 20 Bundesliga matches without a win, stretching back to January.

It’s traditional for teams to face their fans postgame in good times as well as bad. These were the words that emanated from the Schalke fans’ spokesman out of a loudspeaker. It tells you everything about how much Saturday means.

“That was OK today, but for the derby you must put a few more percent into it. The derby is the most important game of the year. You go out and give it everything. You can lose the game, but it’s a matter of how. If you don’t show at least what you did today, we’ll see each other again. Then it won’t be quite as peaceful though. Got it? Two hundred percent from everyone! For Schalke! Let’s go!”

The statement was followed by loud applause.

Borussia Dortmund made heavy weather of their initial Champions League assignment on Tuesday in Rome against Lazio, losing 3-1. But they are huge favourites to beat Schalke, while knowing that actually doing it can present considerable challenges. In 96 previous Bundesliga encounters, BVB have 34 wins, Schalke 32, with a draw often a good pick given that there have been 30 of them down the years.

I’ve often said, if in the hopefully very distant future, I were given the chance to pick a commentary match to bow out on, it would be the Revierderby. For now, I long for the time when I can return to the glorious Ruhrpott, chat again about the state of BVB and Schalke with fans of both while munching on currywurst and sipping a Pilsener.

The realist in me knows, bearing in mind the pandemic, it could be a long time. But mentally this weekend, I will be transported back to Dortmund.

Long live the Revierderby.

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