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NFL MVP watch: Who can catch Russell Wilson?

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Somehow in spite of COVID-19 outbreaks and the weekly shuffling of the schedule, the NFL has made it through six full weeks of the 2020 season. NFL MVP awards aren’t won on five or six games alone, but the leading candidates are starting to build their cases. So who is deserving of consideration through this point in the season?

A panel of eight analysts voted on the top 10 players in the MVP race. We then used those eight sets of rankings to determine our top five candidates overall, using Heisman Trophy-esque scaling for each ranking. We’ll also look at a few names who have seen their MVP stock either spike or plummet in the early going. Here are the top five players off to an MVP-caliber start.

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Top five | Just missed
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2020 stats: 1,502 passing yards, 19 TDs, 3 interceptions (plus 153 rushing yards) in five games

Seattle’s offensive philosophy has changed in 2020, and it has Wilson at the top of the MVP standings as the unanimous No. 1 candidate among our eight voters. The Seahawks’ quarterback has never received a single vote for the award but is looking to change that in his ninth season.

His most recent outing gave us one of many MVP-caliber moments. While he threw for only 217 yards in Week 5, Wilson led his team on a 94-yard, 102-second drive down the field late in the fourth quarter, while converting twice on fourth down, to come from behind and beat the Vikings in thrilling fashion.

Wilson has 19 passing touchdowns in his first five games of the season and needs four more on Sunday against Arizona to break the record Peyton Manning set in 2013 for the most through a team’s opening six contests (22). Wilson also leads the NFL in passer rating (129.8) and touchdown percentage (11.2%), and ranks second in completion percentage (72.8%).


2020 stats: 1,699 passing yards, 15 TDs, 1 interception (plus 165 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD) in six games

Mahomes became the fastest player in NFL history to reach 90 passing touchdowns (in 37 games) after he threw two of them in a Week 6 win over Buffalo. He started the 2020 season right where he left off, after winning a Lombardi Trophy and Super Bowl ring eight months ago.

But the scary part is the Chiefs don’t need their elite QB playing at an MVP level every week to win games. Kansas City leaned heavily on its rushing attack to beat the Bills. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chiefs’ 46 rushing attempts on Monday are tied for the most in a game by an Andy Reid team in his career as a head coach. In spite of teams trying to take away the Chiefs’ biggest strength, Mahomes still has the third-most passing touchdowns (15), ranks second in QBR (86.9) and is on pace for more than 4,500 passing yards this season.


2020 stats: 1,374 passing yards, 13 TDs, 2 interceptions (plus 45 rushing yards) in five games

Rodgers looked awful against the Bucs in Week 6 and was caught off guard — throwing two interceptions, which the Packers quarterback referred to as “an anomaly.” If that’s the case, we should expect to see him bounce back to where he was during his first four games — a stretch that included a 13-0 TD-INT ratio.

This season is shaping up to be special for the Packers, and Rodgers is still very much the engine that makes Green Bay’s offense go. He’s maximizing the talent around him, from Davante Adams to Aaron Jones, and ranks top-five in touchdowns, passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt, the latter of which is a great sign for the Packers offense considering Rodgers’ willingness to sling the ball downfield. Through five games, Rodgers has 19 passes of 20-plus yards and five of 40-plus yards.

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Rex Ryan asserts that defensive pressure on Aaron Rodgers is the key to defeating the Packers.

2020 stats: 1,368 passing yards, 13 TDs, 2 interceptions (plus 77 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD) in five games

Many expected Tannehill to decline after his career-best season in 2019. So much for that. Since replacing Marcus Mariota as the starter in Tennessee, Tannehill has led the Titans to an 11-3 record while throwing for 3,062 yards and compiling a 31-6 TD-INT ratio.

The Titans rank fourth in offensive efficiency this season, and though a lot of their wins have come on the back Derrick Henry, don’t overlook the type of performances Tannehill has strung together. That includes going 30-for-41 for 364 yards and four touchdowns in a wild win over Houston to get his team to 5-0.


2020 stats: 1,711 passing yards, 16 TDs, 4 interceptions (plus 143 rushing yards and 3 rushing TDs) in six games

Allen had bad showings in back-to-back losses to the Titans and Chiefs but remains in the MVP mix for now. The Bills’ QB led his team to a 4-0 start and emerged as an early favorite for the award upon completing 70.9% of his passes for 1,326 yards (nine yards per attempt) and 12 touchdowns along with a 122.8 passer rating. The way Allen performed early, albeit while beating up on teams like the Jets, Dolphins and Rams, had him in the same sentence with Wilson, Mahomes and Rodgers.

But as of late, that hype has dwindled. Though he has shown considerable improvement this season, Allen can’t turn in performances like he did against the Chiefs and the league’s 23rd-ranked defense (14-of-27 passing for 122 yards, 2 TDs, INT) if he wants to stay in the MVP conversation.


Just missed

Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: The 2018 Defensive Player of the Year is always in the mix here, though defensive tackles are rarely ever given the league’s highest honor. At 29, Donald hasn’t slowed down and leads the league in sacks with 7.5. He has been one of the most disruptive players in the NFL for years, ranking third in sacks through 100 games, and will continue to be in the conversation for the MVP as long as he has outings like he did against Washington (four sacks). That performance marked his fifth career game with at least three sacks, the most by any player since he entered the league in 2014.

Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans: Henry led the league in rushing in 2019 and has shown no signs of slowing down after signing a mega-extension this offseason. The 247-pounder rushed for 212 yards (an average of 9.6 yards per carry) and two touchdowns against the Texans, which was his third game with 200 yards rushing since 2018. Meanwhile, the rest of the NFL has had just three players reach that feat in the same span. He is looking to become just the fourth running back to earn MVP honors since 2001. The fact that Tennessee’s offense flows through Henry will continue to help bolster his chances, and many could argue the reason Tannehill is a strong early MVP candidate himself is because of what Henry has done to keep Tennessee undefeated entering Week 7.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Big Ben finished just outside of the top five after playing just six quarters last season. Roethlisberger’s arm strength isn’t where it was when he led the NFL in passing yards in 2018 — his 7.0 air yards per attempt are his lowest through the Steelers’ first five games since this was first tracked by ESPN in 2006 — but the way he’s playing has the Steelers off to a 5-0 start and in the conversation as the NFL’s best team. The Steelers QB is completing 69.1% of his passes (his best through five games since 2015), has thrown 11 touchdowns to just one interception and posted his eighth-highest QBR (60.3) through five games.

Also received top-10 votes: Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, Alvin Kamara, Myles Garrett, Derek Carr, Stefon Diggs, Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Cam Newton


Stock up

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens: The reigning MVP doesn’t look like he did last year at this point but looked more the part in the Ravens’ Week 6 win over the Eagles. Jackson rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown in the 30-28 win, which was the first time this season when his running ability appeared to be as big of a threat as it was last season. His passing has been all over the place, from a 275-yard, three-TD performance on 20-of-25 passing in a Week 1 win over the Browns to completing just 51% of his passes for 180 yards and 2 TDs in a victory over Cincinnati in Week 5.

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals: Murray took down San Francisco, last year’s Super Bowl runner-up, in Week 1 and has become a stealth candidate for the MVP award over the past few weeks. After dismantling the Cowboys on Monday night, the type of game he needed to further himself in the MVP mix, Murray became the third player in NFL history to record 30 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns in his first 25 career games.


Stock down

Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots: It may not be time for the Patriots to hit the panic button, but the same can’t be said for Newton’s MVP chances. He looked like he was back to his 2015 MVP form in New England’s first three games, even in a loss to the Seahawks in which he threw for 397 yards. Newton said he was “extremely frustrated” with his play after a Week 6 loss to the Broncos, and it’s not difficult to understand why. He’s an MVP-caliber player and isn’t consistently playing like one. His five rushing touchdowns and 56.3 rushing yards per game are great, but his passing is a mixed bag. He has just two passing TDs in four starts and ranks 27th in ESPN’s adjusted QB rating.

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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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