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NFC East doormat: Giants trying to shed ugly label vs. Eagles

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Giants are looking to do something Thursday they haven’t done often in recent years — beat the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox).

The Eagles (1-4-1) have won seven straight in the series. Injured Eagles tight end Zach Ertz and several teammates’ houses might as well have Giants doormats to greet guests. Ertz played and scored a touchdown in six of those seven wins (he missed last year’s season finale with an injury) and has been on Eagles teams that have won 11 of the past 12 against New York (1-5).

But the Eagles aren’t the only NFC East rival to dominate the Giants in recent years. The Dallas Cowboys have also won seven straight, including two weeks ago when backup quarterback Andy Dalton led a game-winning drive.

That’s 14 straight Giants losses to the Cowboys and Eagles dating to 2016, a skid matched only in the 1970s when the Giants had losing streaks of 12 games to Dallas and Philadelphia.

“It doesn’t sit well,” former Giants offensive lineman Chris Snee told ESPN of the current skid. “But it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t sit well with me. It has got to irk those players in the locker room.”

It would have been enough to make Snee’s former teammates Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul sick. Tuck wasn’t shy about the “hate” he had for the Cowboys. Pierre-Paul once ended a news conference by saying he still hates the Eagles, after trying throughout the 10-minute session to not say anything of the sort.

It’s not the same for the current Giants, who don’t know what it’s like to win a meaningful division game. Wide receiver Sterling Shepard is the only player on the roster to remember the last win against the Cowboys on Dec. 11, 2016, when Odell Beckham Jr.‘s 61-yard catch-and-run on a Sunday night proved to be the difference.

To these Giants, Thursday is just another game, albeit one in the division. Most don’t seem to know (or care) about the Giants’ struggles against their NFC East rivals. Maybe it’s the recent results or, more likely, the changing times with transient players.

“That was my first time hearing it,” veteran safety Logan Ryan, in his first season with the Giants, said of the 14 straight losses. “I know we lost 11 of the last 12 or whatever it may be [to the Eagles]. That has no significance to this [game]. Streaks all come to an end.

“I remember when I got to Tennessee, there was not one good streak ever. We lost this many to Indy and never beat [former Colts QB] Andrew Luck and never beat this [team], and then we’re in the AFC Championship. I really don’t care. It’s going to come down to me and [Eagles quarterback] Carson Wentz and the Giants and the Eagles and everyone else out there who’s playing in the game. Salute to [former Eagles safety] Brian Dawkins, [former Giants pass-rusher Michael] Strahan and all these guys, but they’re not going to help us.”

Ryan grew up in South Jersey among Eagles fans and still downplays this game. Giants coach Joe Judge, born and raised an Eagles fan in the Philadelphia suburbs, has downplayed it as well — even though he starts most weeks with a dissertation to his players about the history of Giants football.

“I don’t really think about that at all, actually,” Judge said of needing to beat the Eagles or Cowboys. “Our goal right now is to prepare for this year’s Eagles team. This is a different team than it was in the past. We’re a more improved team than we were in Week 1 and we’re [a more] improved team than we were seven days ago.”

Special games

The Eagles and Giants have produced some of football’s most memorable moments. There has been the Miracle at the Meadowlands (Giants QB Joe Pisarcik’s fumble), the DeSean Jackson punt return (2010), the Chuck Bednarik-Frank Gifford hit (1960), the Jason Sehorn interception (2000 playoffs) and Osi Umenyiora’s record six sacks in a game (2007).

Bottom line, these were always special games that created memorable moments.

“The Eagles were kind of always the thorn in our side,” Snee said. “To me, those were the games that we got up for … The proximity. The history. There was legitimate dislike amongst the two teams. I don’t know if that still exists or not. It stinks, because it takes away from that rivalry.”

Whether it was the dislike of former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan and his tactics, or Strahan’s rivalry with Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan, there always seemed to be a storyline in a series Philadelphia leads 87-85-2.

The Cowboys had a different dynamic, dominating the series, 69-46-2. But the same dislike was there and the Giants had their moments prior to this recent skid.

The Giants were the ones that spoiled the opening of Jones’ house, AT&T Stadium, during the 2009 season.

“First win in new stadium,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning scribbled on the wall afterwards. It still wasn’t the Giants’ most memorable victory in the Manning era against the Cowboys.

“I don’t think [the opening of AT&T Stadium] trumps the ’07 playoffs,” Snee said. “It was the playoffs. The arrogance. There was a lot of arrogance with that [top-seeded] Cowboys team.”

This wasn’t anything new. As legendary Giants linebacker Harry Carson explained, the Cowboys had that big gaudy star on their helmet. They came to the opening of Giants Stadium in 1976 and “looked at us as the team they played at homecoming.”

The Giants, at that time, didn’t have the full respect of the Cowboys. It would take years before it was earned. It’s similar to where the Giants are now, with the NFL’s worst record since the start of the 2017 season (13-41).

It took until 1980, when Phil Simms became the quarterback, that the Giants were able to beat the Cowboys and end a 12-game skid from 1974 to 1980. It took until the ’81 season for New York to beat the Eagles after 12 straight losses.

When these Giants do reach that point (they hope with Daniel Jones at quarterback), it will be a significant step. Getting back to being a serious contender begins with winning your own division.

“It was special,” Carson said of beating the Eagles and Cowboys in the early 80s. “Back then, everyone wanted to play the Giants. … In college, you want to play against that team that is a doormat.

“That is what the Giants were at that time. They were sort of like a doormat of the division. … And [rivals] sort of chalked it up as an automatic win. When we got to the point where you couldn’t just chalk it up … you develop more respect for one another. But also you saw those teams play with a deeper respect for you.”

Starting a streak of their own

Winning four straight and 11 of 15 against Washington is all that has kept the Giants from total NFC East incompetence. That respect Carson mentioned is what Judge and the Giants are trying to earn.

Thursday night is an opportunity to start a streak of their own. On Sunday the Giants won their first game under Judge, and the Eagles are decimated by injuries. Ertz is among the starters who will miss the game, and Philadelphia’s offensive line is hobbled. But Wentz has beaten the Giants playing with a makeshift supporting cast before. Look no further than Week 17 last season with the playoffs at stake and no Ertz.

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Field Yates and Matthew Berry explain why fantasy managers should hang on to Zach Ertz, although he’s expected to be out for two to three weeks.

Can he do it again? It might be up to the Giants (many who endured those two December losses to the Eagles last season) to decide they have had enough of being third-class citizens in the NFC East.

“You come to a point when you get your faced smashed in. Someone puts an orange in your face and rubs it all over your face. At some point, you get tired of that,” Carson said. “You want to rub that orange or lemon back in their face. So when you come to a point where you feel there is a change in the attitude and the locker room and you’re playing against the Cowboys [or Eagles], you really want to shove that s— back in their face.

“But, again, it’s those guys that are fortunate enough to be around for years and be able to experience what they’ve gone through and then a year or two later be able to play well and redeem themselves.”

Jones is one of the guys the organization expects to have around for years. He missed the first matchup last year, but played in the season finale, so he experienced his first taste of losing to Philadelphia.

Maybe that was enough for him and the rest of this core group of Giants? At some point, this Big Blue nightmare has to end.

“When they’ve had enough, they’ll decide. So it’s up to them. New guys, old guys in the locker room, it doesn’t matter,” Snee said. “When you’re tired of being a punching bag, you’ll step up and do something about it.”

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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+
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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.”

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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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