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Judging Week 6 overreactions: Are the Steelers the NFL’s best team? Tannehill for MVP?



Here came the Browns on Sunday, rolling into Pittsburgh looking nothing at all like the Browns we’re used to. They carried a 4-1 record and a four-game win streak into Heinz Field, eager for a chance to prove their legitimacy at the home of a 4-0 division rival.

And they got smoked.

Caring absolutely nothing about Cleveland feel-good stories, COVID-19 scheduling disruptions or Myles Garrett revenge narratives, the Steelers crushed the Browns 38-7 on Sunday. They sacked Baker Mayfield four times and intercepted him twice. They had three rushing touchdowns and more than 34 minutes’ time of possession. They held one of the best running teams in the league to 75 yards on 22 carries.

The Steelers are now 5-0, a half-game clear of Baltimore for first place in a very strong-looking AFC North. And they are where we have decided to begin our Week 6 overreactions column.

The Steelers are the NFL’s best team

In a year in which it feels like no team outside of Chicago and Tampa Bay are playing defense, the Steelers are allowing just 18.8 points per game while scoring 31.2. This is a group that managed to go 8-8 last season with Ben Roethlisberger hurt and a pair of replacement quarterbacks who seemed to do more harm than good.

With Roethlisberger back, the Steelers rolled into this season with the highest of hopes and expectations, and it is fair to say that so far they’ve looked as good as anyone. The Ravens and Chiefs each have losses. The Titans — I still don’t know how they didn’t lose Sunday, but more on that in a bit. The Seahawks are unbeaten but struggle on defense. The Packers had a claim before Sunday, but after what happened to them in Tampa, they’re no longer as spotless as the Steelers. Some team has to be the best.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. Because it’s almost certainly still the Chiefs, their weird loss to the Raiders notwithstanding. And because as impressive as Pittsburgh has been, we can absolutely pin the “Yeah, but who have they played?” tag on it. The Cleveland win is a good one, given the way the Browns have played so far, but the other four teams the Steelers have beaten have a combined record of 5-17-1.

I’ll say this, though: We’re going to get a chance to find out. The Steelers’ next two games are in Tennessee and Baltimore, and they have a trip to Buffalo still left on the schedule. The Devin Bush injury could be a tough one for their great defense to overcome, but they are going to have chances to prove this isn’t an overreaction. Check back in a couple of weeks.

The Patriots will miss the playoffs

The Patriots on Sunday looked like a team that hadn’t spent a lot of time together over the past couple of weeks, which is what they were. Outside of Tennessee, no team has endured more coronavirus-related schedule disruption than New England, and its offense looked awful in Sunday’s 18-12 loss to the Broncos.

Cam Newton endured a Mayfield-esque four sacks and two interceptions. The team ran for just 117 yards on 25 carries. They managed to score the game’s only touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Denver’s six field goals. As a result, the Patriots are 2-3. This is the first time they’ve been under .500 this late in the season since 2002, which was also the last season they failed to win at least 10 games.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. I might go down with this ship, but I’m not going to believe a Bill Belichick team is going to miss the playoffs until I see it happen. Five of the Patriots’ remaining 11 games are against teams that have losing records, including two against the Jets.

This new offense, built around the run with the quarterback as one of the most dangerous running threats, can still work the way it did earlier in the season. The Patriots haven’t had a lot of practice time together these last couple of weeks, which is part of what led Belichick to say postgame, “Hopefully we’ll be able to practice this week. We certainly need it.”

The AFC field looks brutal, but it’s still too soon to write off this team.

Ryan Tannehill should be in the MVP discussion

How did Tennessee win Sunday? Down 36-29 to the Texans with 1:50 left in the game, the Titans went 76 yards in nine plays for the tying score, won the overtime coin toss and went 82 yards in six plays for the winner. Tennessee’s offense rolled up an astounding 601 yards — in large part because Derrick Henry rushed for 212 — but Tannehill’s 364 passing yards and four touchdowns on 30-for-41 passing can’t be overlooked.

The Titans appear to have complete confidence in themselves with Tannehill under center.



Ryan Tannehill finds Adam Humphries down the sideline for a 22-yard touchdown.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Henry was on the team before Tannehill was, but the midseason switch last season from Marcus Mariota to Tannehill has changed everything in Tennessee. The Titans are 14-4 with Tannehill as their starting quarterback. He entered Sunday fourth in the league in Total QBR (83.6), behind only MVP candidates Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. His team is 5-0.

It’s possible there is a faction of the football-watching world that still believes this to be a fluke, but that faction isn’t watching as closely as it should be. Tannehill is a legit candidate for MVP, especially as long as his team keeps winning.

The Bears’ defense can carry them to the playoffs

Chicago won again Sunday, ending Carolina’s three-game winning streak with a 23-16 road victory that put the Bears ahead of the Packers, who have played one fewer game, in the NFC North.

They don’t have any MVP candidates on offense — though Allen Robinson‘s value shouldn’t be overlooked — but their defense sure does make life miserable on opposing quarterbacks.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. “Would you rather lose pretty or win ugly?” mercurial quarterback Nick Foles asked after the game, his own answer obvious by the question. The Bears won a game in which their own quarterback was a less-than-breathtaking 23-for-39 passing for 198 yards, one touchdown pass and one interception (plus a one-yard rushing touchdown). Carolina had more yards, more first downs and more time of possession than Chicago. But the Panthers turned it over three times, as opposed to the Bears’ one, and therein lay the difference.

It was just two years ago that a monster Bears defense carried the team to the postseason with a 12-4 record. And while this unit might not exactly measure up to that one, it’s doing enough in a no-defense league to stand out.

The early contenders for the seven-team NFC playoff field include Green Bay, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Los Angeles, maybe Arizona, maybe Carolina and whichever team limps out of the NFC East. The Bears have a better record than any of those teams besides Seattle. Winning ugly can keep them in this.

The Packers aren’t as good as their record

Green Bay came out of the bye week humming along, up 10-0 on the Bucs in Tampa in the second quarter. To say things fell apart after that would be like saying things got a little too warm in Pompeii after the volcano went off.

Aaron Rodgers threw his first interception of the season, and Jamel Dean returned it for a touchdown. Literally two throws later, Rodgers threw his second interception, and Mike Edwards returned it to the 2-yard line. So Tampa Bay’s first two touchdowns of the game required two offensive yards.

The Bucs were off to the races after that, scoring 28 points in the second quarter and 38 unanswered the rest of the way. When Tim Boyle and Blaine Gabbert are finishing the game at quarterback, you know a game has gone off the rails.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. Before Sunday, the last time Rodgers threw two interceptions in a game was Dec. 17, 2017, when he threw three against Carolina. Prior to that, the last time he threw two interceptions in a game was Nov. 13, 2016. Rodgers throwing two interceptions in a game is something that has happened four times in the last five calendar years. It’s no wonder his team had no idea how to react. Some of these guys were still in college the last time Rodgers threw two picks in a game.

What are we getting at here? Basically, I don’t see this game as some kind of damning reflection on the Packers as much as a great win for Tampa Bay built off a momentum-shifting event that happens less frequently than Christmas. The Packers are 18-5 over the last two years (counting postseason). Chalk this one up, move on and see the Bucs again in January. I still like the Packers to hold off the Bears in the NFC North.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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