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Next great QB rivalry: Can Mahomes-Jackson become Brady-Manning?

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BALTIMORE — Toward the end of the 2018 NFL season — when Patrick Mahomes was launching bomb after bomb and Lamar Jackson was just starting to make his meme-making runs — a high-ranking Baltimore Ravens official stood on the practice field and made this keen observation:

The Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs landed the NFL’s most feared players because they showed no fear in drafting them.

Baltimore and Kansas City had the opportunity to play it safe a few years ago by sticking with winning, albeit not scintillating, quarterbacks. The Chiefs had a three-time Pro Bowl performer in Alex Smith, and the Ravens had a former Super Bowl MVP in Joe Flacco.

Instead, in the 2017 and 2018 drafts, these teams shocked the football world by aggressively trading up in the first round for two prospects who were deemed risks. Mahomes and Jackson went from being passed over for the likes of Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Rosen to being the past two NFL MVPs.

As the Ravens play host to the Chiefs under the national spotlight of Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), the question is no longer whether Mahomes and Jackson can make it as NFL quarterbacks. It’s whether everyone is witnessing the early stages of the league’s next great quarterback rivalry.

“These two are the future,” said retired All-Pro safety Eric Weddle, who has played against both Mahomes and Jackson. “You are not a smart individual if you didn’t put some money on these two having some amazing games over the next six to 10 years. It’s going to be Brady-Manning all over again.”

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning battled for AFC supremacy 17 times from 2001 to 2016. They combined for eight Super Bowl titles and eight NFL MVP awards. Their head-to-head clashes defined an entire era.

Scott Pioli, an NFL Network analyst who was a personnel executive for the Patriots from 2000 to 2008, cautions that it’s too early to compare Mahomes-Jackson — a budding rivalry heading into its third meeting — to the league’s all-time best quarterback duel. He believes it’s unfair to anyone to debate generations of football because today’s game is different from the one played in the 2000s.

“To me, it’s one of those things: Leave the comparisons behind and just enjoy it for what it is,” Pioli said. “Unintentionally, those comparisons cause people to have discussions and conversations that become disrespectful to other people’s greatness.”

Brady and Manning represent the old guard of pocket passers who stood in the face of blitzes and beat defenses purely with their arms and awareness. The way they dissected defenses proved to be methodical and surgical.

Mahomes and Jackson lead the new wave of quarterbacking, flush with imagination, mobility and unpredictability. When Mahomes and Jackson go on the run, defenses don’t know when Mahomes’ next no-look pass or Jackson’s dizzying spin move will get unleashed and immortalized on social media.

Beyond the way they play the game, what differentiates Brady-Manning from Mahomes-Jackson is when they played their games. Brady and Manning collided five times in the postseason, including four AFC Championship Games.

Mahomes and Jackson have delivered two entertaining meetings in the regular season — a combined 112 points and 1,718 yards — but they have yet to tangle when it matters the most. Jackson and the Ravens would’ve advanced to face the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game last season, but Baltimore was upset by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round.

“I would like to see them match up in a championship game before I proclaim that we’re going to see this year in and year out,” said Damien Woody, an ESPN analyst and former New England offensive lineman from 1999 to 2003. “When I played with the Patriots, it seemed like we were meeting the Colts almost every year in the AFC Championship Game. So, do I think [Mahomes and Jackson] have the potential to do that? Absolutely.”

A playoff meeting seems like an inevitable next chapter for two quarterbacks who’ve quickly rewritten the NFL history books:

  • By the age of 24, Mahomes became the youngest quarterback to win an NFL MVP award and Super Bowl ring. At the age of 22, Jackson became the youngest to win NFL MVP.

  • In 2018, Mahomes became the second player ever to throw 50 touchdown passes and for 5,000 yards passing in the same season, joining Manning. In 2019, Jackson became the first player to produce more than 30 touchdown passes and 1,000 yards rushing.

  • Mahomes (26-7) and Jackson (21-3) have a combined win percentage of .825, which is the best entering a matchup for two quarterbacks who’ve started at least 20 games in their careers, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

While Jackson has downplayed his matchup with Mahomes because they’re never on the field at the same time, he acknowledged this rivalry can be special.

“It’s really cool,” Jackson said. “I’m going against a great talent like him — a guy who can throw the ball anywhere he wants on the field and make things happen each and every game. It’s very exciting.”

Mutual respect

Just like Brady and Manning, there is a mutual respect, or envy in some regard, between Mahomes and Jackson.

Jackson first crossed paths with Mahomes at a quarterback camp in the spring of 2018, when Jackson had just finished his final season at Louisville and Mahomes had wrapped up his NFL rookie season. After watching Mahomes fling the ball around, Jackson wondered: “He’s awesome. How is he a backup?”

Mahomes and Jackson have followed a similar trajectory. Both began their rookie seasons as backups and then won NFL MVP in their first full seasons as starters.

After Mahomes followed up his MVP award with a Super Bowl title, Jackson said, “I’ve got to win the Super Bowl. I’ve got to get where he’s at.”

Some say Brady and Manning drove each other to greatness. Could the same be said of Mahomes and Jackson?

“It’s something that comes with the competitiveness of it,” Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “Is it something I’ve heard Lamar talk about? No. Is it something you’ll probably hear Patrick Mahomes talk about? No. I think it’s only natural in this profession that you kind of feel and understand.”

Mahomes and Jackson have gotten to know each other through similar endorsement deals, and they’ve shown how much they appreciate each other’s games over the past year.

In a 23-3 win over the Denver Broncos last December, Mahomes sidestepped a defender to throw a pass to convert a 2-point conversion. A miked-up Mahomes said on the sideline: “Did I look like Lamar with that juke? That’s as close as I can get right there.”

A few months later, Jackson repaid the compliment when asked what would be one aspect of Mahomes’ game that he would take.

“I want that cannon,” Jackson told Bleacher Report. “He’s got a cannon arm.”

The styles of Jackson and Mahomes are more similar than many like to admit. Mahomes is an underrated runner who leads the NFL in scramble yards (325) since returning from a knee injury in Week 10 of last season (Jackson has 271 scramble yards over that span). Jackson is an underrated passer with a league-best 82.4 QBR from within the pocket since the start of last season (Mahomes is fifth with 77.0).

The true common ground between Mahomes and Jackson is the end result. Jackson (winner of 13 straight) and Mahomes (eight in a row) hold the two longest active win streaks in the regular season. Heading into Monday night, it will have been 323 days since either lost a regular-season start.

Just like Brady and Manning, the success of Mahomes and Jackson will continually be measured against the other.

“When Brady’s going up against Payton Manning and basically you guys are on the same level,” Woody said. “They don’t want to lose to the other one. They know how important it is to their legacy, so I can definitely forsee the same type of thing happening here.”

The future of the rivalry

It can be argued that Mahomes and Jackson can’t officially have a rivalry until Jackson beats him.

In the NFL’s greatest quarterback battle, Brady dominated by winning the first six meetings with Manning and finished with an 11-6 edge. This shaped the careers of Brady, who became known for racking up the rings, and Manning, who became known for racking up the records.

If Jackson loses for a third straight time to Mahomes, would he be considered the “Manning” in this matchup?

“Yeah, I think that could be a fair kind of attachment to each player,” said Dan Orlovsky, an ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback. “It would become a fair point and/or criticism as well.”

Since taking over as the Ravens’ starting quarterback in the middle of 2018, Jackson is 0-2 against the Chiefs and 21-1 against the rest of the NFL in the regular season.

Mahomes knows Jackson’s motivation level on Monday night. In 2018, Mahomes went 13-5 as a starter (including postseason), but two of his losses came to Brady.

“I understand he’s going to be driven,” Mahomes said. “Whenever you play another team that is of his caliber and our team coming off a Super Bowl win, it’s going to be a great game. You want to go out there and find a way to win. That goes every single week, but especially this one because you know you’re probably going to play this team in the playoffs.”

In a reminder that the league is cyclical, Orlovsky was outspoken this offseason that Brady go to the NFC to have a better shot at getting to the Super Bowl again. Brady went from competing in the NFL’s best quarterback rivalry to being advised to go elsewhere because of Mahomes and Jackson.

“This is the next big quarterback rivalry,” Orlovsky said. “There’s no question about it, because if you look at the rivalry between Tom and Peyton, it wasn’t just the quarterback. They were remarkable, but it was the coaching staffs that both had. It was the front office and organizations they both had. That really sets those guys up for the long term, sustained success, and they both have that.”

In five to 10 years, who will come out on top of this rivalry? Nearly all of the experts pointed at Mahomes.

It’s based on a concern about Jackson’s running and how that will affect his durability for the long term. “When I think about Lamar, I wouldn’t change anything with the way he’s playing,” said Jeff Saturday, an ESPN expert who played Manning’s center for 12 seasons. “But sustainability, does it shorten his career? History would say probably. You wonder how long. I would just ride it until you can’t do it anymore.”

Monday night marks another step in the rivalry between Mahomes and Jackson. It’s the first time they will play each other in front of national television audience.

Mahomes and Jackson have thrived as prime-time players. When playing under the lights, Jackson has averaged 36.5 points and Mahomes has scored 31.7 points per game. That’s the two highest totals by starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era.

“The whole world is watching you,” Jackson said. “It’s just time to put on a show.”

It’s Mahomes-Jackson, Round 3.

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

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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.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

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.”

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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

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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

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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.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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