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Steelers (5-0) play ‘varsity ball,’ wallop Browns

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PITTSBURGH — Before facing the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward said the team wasn’t focused specifically on targeting quarterback Baker Mayfield‘s bruised ribs.

But he did say the plan was to inflict “good punishment.”

And that’s exactly what the Steelers did, sacking Mayfield four times and intercepting him twice in a 38-7 win that gave Pittsburgh just the second 5-0 start in franchise history and first since 1978. It was also the Steelers’ first win against a team with a winning record this season.

“That was varsity ball today,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “They stepped up and stepped up big all across the board.”

It wasn’t all good news, though, as inside linebacker and defensive play-caller Devin Bush went out with a knee injury in the second quarter — one Tomlin later said appears to be “significant.”

The 2019 first-round pick played every defensive snap until the injury, and any time without Bush is worrisome for the defensive unit. Bush was replaced by Robert Spillane, who had just one defensive snap before this season.

But even without Bush, the Steelers kept dominating the Browns (4-2).

“As a D-line and as a defense you want to make sure he’s thinking about the rush,” Heyward said of Mayfield on Wednesday.

There’s little doubt that’s exactly what Mayfield was thinking about throughout the game until he was pulled late in the third quarter for Case Keenum. Mayfield was pressured on 52% of his dropbacks, the highest mark of his career.

The Steelers found early success with their blitz, getting a sack and a Minkah Fitzpatrick pick-six on their first two. Fitzpatrick’s interception and score, his first of each of the season, gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead just a few minutes into the first quarter. The Steelers have recording three or more sacks in six consecutive games, going back to the 2019 season-finale against the Ravens. The streak ties the longest in franchise history with the 1994, 2001 and 2004 seasons.

The Steelers are also only the second team in league history joining the 1985 New York Giants with at least three sacks an an interception in each of their first five games of the season. Before he was replaced with Keenum, Mayfield completed 10 of 18 attempts for 119 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 54.9.

The Browns entered the game with one of the league’s best rushing attacks, but it was completely shut down by the Steelers, who managed to balance bringing pressure on Mayfield with slowing Kareem Hunt better than they did a week ago facing running back Miles Sanders and the Eagles.

Hunt averaged 3.1 yards per carry, picking up 40 yards on 13 carries. Instead it was the Steelers who dominated on the ground, taking advantage of Cleveland’s sub-par safeties.

James Conner racked up 101 yards on 20 carries and scored the team’s first offensive touchdown of the day in the second quarter for a 17-0 lead. Receiver Chase Claypool and running back Benny Snell also managed to score rushing touchdowns in the blowout win.

After an anemic offense without Ben Roethlisberger (14 of 22, 162 yards, 1 TD) last season, the Steelers have scored at least 26 points in each of its first five games for the first time in franchise history. Last season, the team scored 26 or more points in just four games.

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Passan: Clayton Kershaw repairs his playoff legacy with Game 5 win

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Cali Kershaw, 5, a nuclear bundle of energy, jitterbugged around the room, under the table and over it, side to side, everywhere space permitted. Her little brother Charley, 3, tried to keep up, to the point that their father, Clayton Kershaw, felt the need to offer a nudge/apology. “You guys are maniacs,” he said.

It was about 30 minutes after he had won Game 5 of the 116th World Series, his second victory in it, one that pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink of their first championship in more than three decades. His hair long, his beard ever ratty, his face still cherubic, his resolve hardened, he hadn’t pitched his finest, and that was OK. Afterward, Cali had told him she was proud of him, and that was plenty.

A guy sticks around long enough, and you see him become the man he’s meant to be. Kershaw is 32 years old, past his prime, more craftsman than conqueror. And although there’s an almost-irresistible instinct to measure our greatest athletes against what they once were, and to nevertheless hold that as the idea of what they should be, it always felt unfair. Because for every unicorn who stares down Father Time and wins, a hundred others learn the vagaries of age, of regression, of a clock that ticks endlessly, and they don’t.

The acceptance phase is the hardest, and it’s where Kershaw, he of the worst October reputation this side of the house that gives out Mounds on Halloween, lives today. He isn’t what he once was, and he doesn’t need to be, because what he is impelled the Dodgers to a 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night that left them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988 and him oh so close to getting sized for the ring that has eluded none of his pitching peers.

Here’s what Kershaw is: good enough, which is, when one is surrounded by the talent the Dodgers possess, good enough too. He is capable of excellence, and he is prone to failure, and he is usually closer to the former than the latter. He is not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character: Kershaw and October Kershaw, transmogrifying into a fateful creature when the calendar turns. He is flawed, in need of careful handling, prone more to reliability than anything.

He is, in other words, a dad. And every October, it seems, reminds of that, because Kershaw is the sort of father who brings his kids up to the podium after good days. In 2017, when he still possessed the blessed arm that flung lightning bolts, Cali first sat alongside him at a postgame news conference. And in 2018, Charley joined them. Neither was anywhere to be seen in 2019, because Kershaw wouldn’t dare expose them to the frailty of baseball, which last year damn near broke him. He’d blown a lead, blown a series, and said: “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason.”

What they said was that he wasn’t meant for October, that he was a choker, that he didn’t have what it takes. No matter what he said, Kershaw never believed that. Nobody reaches the heights he has — three National League Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a regular-season career ERA of 2.43 — without the conviction of his ways. If there was some October bugaboo, be it mental or physical, it would not be impenetrable. He was a pitcher. And pitchers find their way.

This postseason has been his rejoinder. Altogether, 30 ⅔ innings, 23 hits, five walks and 37 strikeouts with a 2.93 ERA and four wins. In Game 5 of the World Series, 5 ⅔ innings, five hits, two runs, two walks and six strikeouts. Yeoman’s work for someone whose greatest attribute no longer is what his left arm can produce but the toil it takes to ensure it produces at its apex.

The appreciation cascaded through Globe Life Field on Sunday, with most of the 11,437 there wearing Dodger blue and bequeathing Kershaw something in what was presumably his last outing of 2020: a standing ovation. He had held the 3-0 lead the Dodgers spotted him. He worked around a rough third inning in which he yielded a pair of runs. He turned a first-and-third-with-no-outs mess in the fourth into a neat little escape act, securing the inning’s final out when he heard first baseman Max Muncy yell: “Step off!”

Behind Kershaw’s back, Rays outfielder Manny Margot had taken off on a dead sprint, the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since Lonnie Smith in 1982. Kershaw fired the ball home, just in time for catcher Austin Barnes to swipe a tag inches before Margot’s fingers slid across the plate. In the fifth, Kershaw would break the all-time record for strikeouts in the postseason. Come the sixth, he had turned two pitches into two outs when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ascended the dugout steps and walked toward the mound.

And what greeted him was fascinating: boos. Not just catcalls or hisses. Real, actual, loud boos, from all corners of the stadium. It was October, and Dodgers fans were livid that Clayton Kershaw was being taken out of a game. So were the Dodgers infielders. They asked Roberts to stick with Kershaw. He refused. They wanted to believe Kershaw was his best self. Roberts believed Kershaw had done plenty.

As he walked off the mound, the cheers began. They grew louder. A 5 ⅔-inning, two-run outing is not typically the thing of which ovations are made, and yet it is just as infrequently made of a fastball that sits in the 91 mph range, too. This was thanks not just for Game 5 but for caring enough to make Game 5 possible — for not bowing out of the weirdness that is pandemic baseball and not resigning himself to the story others wanted to write for him.

“It feels pretty good. It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said. “Anytime you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much. That is what you work for. That is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like, too. I will definitely take it when I can get it.”

Roberts’ retreat to the dugout brought on another wave of jeers, even though this had been the plan all along, a plan Kershaw had grown to understand, because age for him may have an inverse relationship with talent but it’s got a direct one with wisdom. Kershaw, ever a dogged competitor, always wants more. He simply has grown to accept that more isn’t always possible or right.

The fortunes of Roberts have been inextricably tied to Kershaw. They have shared some of their worst moments, and because of that, Roberts didn’t deviate from the plan for Kershaw to face between 21 and 24 batters. After his 22nd hitter, having thrown 85 pitches, 56 of them for strikes, most on a slider that had seen far better days, Kershaw turned the ball over to Dustin May, whose fastball registers 10 mph higher on the radar gun than Kershaw’s.

“He just grinded,” Roberts said. “He willed himself to that point. And I will say, it wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs and I give him all the credit.”

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Joc Pederson and Max Muncy hit solo home runs, while Clayton Kershaw strikes out six batters in the Dodgers’ Game 5 win vs. the Rays.

For anyone who sees this as pedestrian because it isn’t up to some standard he himself long ago abandoned, consider: What Kershaw manages to do now, diminished, is still extraordinarily impressive. It’s just in a less obvious way. It’s a three-dimensional view of the pitcher — of where he is in time, what the reasonable expectations for that are, how he has evolved — in a world that gravitates toward the easiest evaluation, which is to digest numbers and spit them out absence of context.

This is no absolution of Kershaw. He has failed in October. He has blown games, series, seasons. In Game 5 of the 2017 World Series against Houston, his implosion may have cost the Dodgers a ring. In Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against Boston, he couldn’t stop the Red Sox’s coronation. In Game 5 of the 2020 World Series, though, the day after the Rays walked off the Dodgers in gut-shot fashion, Kershaw calmly salved wounds — his teammates’ day-old and his years-old.

Now, barring Roberts going off-script and calling upon Kershaw to pitch on short rest for the first time this season in a potential Game 7, it is up to the 27 other Dodgers to give Kershaw what he has done his best to give them. Never had he won two games in postseason series until he took Games 1 and 5 of this World Series. A victory in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Wednesday would make take him off the list of three-time Cy Young winners without a championship. He’s the only one of 10. And of pitchers who have won at least four ERA titles but no World Series title. He’s one of 10 there, too. Likewise, 10 pitchers have won an MVP in the post-1961 expansion era, and Kershaw is the only without a ring.

Sometime in the next 72 hours, all of that can go away, and it would bring him back into that room, sitting at the table, speaking to a camera but really to the world. He’d tell them what it finally feels like to be a champion, how all of this was so worth it. And right there alongside him would be Cali and Charley, amped up like they’ve got a Red Bull IV, because their daddy, the one who has finally grown into what he’s meant to be, had made them proud.

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Murray: Beating Seahawks a ‘big step’ for Cards

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Of all the players to lead the Arizona Cardinals to an overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks, it was one of the most unlikely.

Rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons intercepted Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson with 1 minute, 4 seconds left in overtime on his fifth snap of the game. Simmons didn’t play in the first half.

That led to Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez redeeming himself after missing the potential winning field goal earlier in overtime, making a 48-yard kick with 20 seconds left in the extra period to give Arizona a 37-34 win while handing the Seahawks their first loss of the season.

Arizona improved to 5-2, holding on to second place in the NFC West with the 4-2 Los Angeles Rams playing Monday night. Seattle leads the division at 5-1.

Coach Kliff Kingsbury nearly cost the Cardinals the game earlier in overtime when he iced Gonzalez with 2:47 left on second-and-15. Gonzalez made the initial kick but it didn’t count, then he missed the next one.

“It was pretty bad, pretty much a complete debacle,” Kingsbury said of the series of plays that led up to him icing Gonzalez. “But luckily those guys bailed us out. I got conservative and went for the field goal and then we did not execute our center-left play, get our quarterback blown up and then we were about to get a delay of game and had to take a timeout, kind of freeze our own kicker.

“So, it was about as bad of a coaching job as possible by me. But our guys kept fighting, kept believing and found a way to get it done.”

Then came Simmons’ pick after a touchdown by Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf was nullified by a penalty.

“Couldn’t be happier for Isaiah,” Kingsbury said. “He’s a guy, due to not having an offseason or really a preseason, we’ve tried to put him in positions to be successful and work him in there but you saw tonight the ability he has to make that play in that situation was huge and will do wonders for him moving forward.”

It was just another typical Cardinals-Seahawks game — full of drama, twists and turns.

Arizona had not beat Seattle at home since 2012. Since then, Arizona had gone 0-6-1 at home against the Seahawks, including the 6-6 tie in 2016, also on a Sunday night. However, Arizona is 5-2 in Seattle during that span.

Then Sunday night happened.

Both teams combined for 1,091 yards — 572 by Seattle and 519 by Arizona — the most in a regular season game since 2013.

And Arizona held Seattle, the highest-scoring team in the NFL, to just a touchdown in the second half.

Seemingly, every time the Cardinals came within a score, they couldn’t keep the Seahawks from scoring.

When they were down 10-7 in the first quarter, the Seahawks scored twice to go up 20-7.

When they were down 20-14 in the second, the Seahawks scored to go up 27-14.

When the were down 27-24 in the third, the Seahawks scored to go up 34-24, only to see Arizona scored 13 unanswered.

The Cardinals couldn’t get to Wilson during regulation but sacked him twice in overtime.

“These are the games you honestly dream about growing up, watching Sunday Night Football, last week playing on Monday,” quarterback Kyler Murray said. “These are the games that you want to be a part of and to be a part of these games, you gotta win and you gotta keep winning.

“So, I’m just super proud of the team, the way we fought, not giving up, no matter the circumstances, just keep battling, keep battling. And that’s what we did. So, I think that’s huge for us to take that next step.”

Murray threw for 360 yards, three touchdowns and an interception on 34-for-48 passing. He also had 67 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.

When the Cardinals needed Murray the most, he came through.

Arizona came within 34-31 with 2:33 left in the game on Christian Kirk‘s second touchdown of the game, and his fourth in the past two weeks. After forcing Seattle to punt, Murray orchestrated a 54-yard drive in eight plays that took 52 seconds to get the Cardinals into field goal range. He did it through an 11-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald, a 15-yard run of his own, a 16-yard pass to Kirk and a 12-yard run by running back Chase Edmonds. Then Gonzalez hit a 44-yard field goal as time expired to send the game into overtime.

“I don’t think I smiled all game, honestly,” Murray said. “Just because it just felt like we just had to have your head down, just keep grinding just because when you’re playing Russell, anything’s possible, and I think everybody saw it tonight.

“For me, personally, my mindset was just move the ball, do what I do. Move the ball, be myself and lead the guys down the field, make smart decisions, take care of the ball. Whatever I see, go with it, trust it, and do it with conviction and let my guys — obviously we got a lot of playmakers on my team or on the offense — get the ball in their hands and let them do what they do.”

DeAndre Hopkins had 10 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Running back Chase Edmonds, who had two of the biggest plays in overtime, caught all seven of his targets for 87 yards. Larry Fitzgerald had 62 yards while catching all eight of his targets.

The game was moved to Sunday night amid concerns the Buccaneers-Raiders game might have to be postponed because of a positive coronavirus test on the Raiders and additional players being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list as a result of contact tracing.

The Cardinals head into their bye week before hosting the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 8. Arizona travels to Seattle on Nov. 19, a Thursday night, for their second meeting of the season.

Kingsbury called Sunday night’s win “big” because of what it did for Arizona in the NFC West standings. The Cardinals are 2-0 in the division.

“Wanting to be the best, you got to beat the best,” Murray said. “And that’s just the nature of this game. In any sport, you got to beat the best. So, I think it was a big, big step for us.”

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Kershaw lifts L.A. to edge of WS title, feels ‘good’

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ARLINGTON, Texas — As Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts strolled to the mound with two outs in the top of the sixth inning, a chorus of boos rained down from the crowd at Globe Life Field. Even though this was Game 5 of Major League Baseball’s first neutral-site World Series, Dodgers fans have overrun the stadium, and they let their feelings be known: They did not want Roberts to remove Clayton Kershaw from the game.

Roberts did not abide, and as Kershaw strode off the mound, it was to a sound too often unfamiliar to him in October: cheers. If ever there was a postseason to huzzah the Dodgers’ left-hander, of course, this is it, and his plenty-solid performance in Game 5 laid the foundation for the Dodgers’ 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday.

The win, on the heels of the Dodgers’ brutal Game 4 loss a day earlier, gave L.A. a 3-2 advantage in the series and put them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988. They can lock up a title in Game 6 on Tuesday night.

“It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said of walking off the mound to a standing ovation. “Anytime you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much — that is what you work for, that is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like too. I will definitely take it when I can get it.”

If this was Kershaw’s last appearance in the 2020 postseason — there’s always a potential Game 7 relief appearance looming — there’s a good argument that it’s his finest playoffs yet. His shakiness in Game 5 evened out in the middle innings — he even foiled the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since 1982 — and by the time Roberts yanked him, Kershaw had retired eight batters in a row to gussy up a final line of 5⅔ innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and 6 strikeouts. In total, he has thrown 30⅔ innings in these playoffs, allowed 23 hits, walked 5 and struck out 37 with a 2.93 ERA and four wins.

Though the jeers that greeted Roberts on his way to the mound were even worse as he returned to the dugout, his maneuvering in Game 5 worked far better than his bungling the day prior — even if it placed the Dodgers in one particularly hairy situation. Dustin May, the fireballer who replaced Kershaw, struck out Rays cleanup hitter Manuel Margot on a 101.5 mph fastball to end the sixth and threw another scoreless 1⅓ innings afterward.

He exited with a runner on first when Rays manager Kevin Cash pinch hit left-handed hitter Ji-Man Choi, which prompted Roberts to go to lefty Victor Gonzalez. Cash immediately pinch hit right-hander Mike Brosseau, who mashes lefties, and he walked. Up stepped Randy Arozarena, the Rays’ best hitter and a right-hander as well.

On the first pitch, Gonzalez induced a fly out. Brandon Lowe floated a ball to center field for the third out. The Dodgers had escaped, and Blake Treinen — not Kenley Jansen, who blew Game 4 — came on in the ninth and recorded the save.

“We stuck with the plan so credit to Doc for that one,” Kershaw said of Roberts. “DMay came in and threw the ball awesome, Victor same way and Blake, too. Unbelievable job by those guys tonight, which was huge.”

The Dodgers had played nine innings of clean baseball less than 20 hours after their two-error debacle with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning allowed Arozarena to pound home plate for the winning run and Brett Phillips to airplane into the outfield after dropping the single that led to the chaotic series of events evening the series.

Mookie Betts ripped a leadoff double off Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, Corey Seager plated him with a single and Cody Bellinger‘s two-out infield single scored him, giving the Dodgers a 2-0 advantage. Joc Pederson‘s home run in the second extended it to 3-0 — the same lead he had and frittered away in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series.

World Series Game 5s, in fact, had been a bugaboo for Kershaw. The Boston Red Sox tarred him with four runs in four innings of the 2018 World Series, and he was beginning to bend in the third inning Sunday. Kevin Kiermaier singled, Yandy Diaz tripled him in and Arozarena drove him in to cut the lead to 3-2.

“I didn’t have my stuff like I did in Game 1,” Kershaw said. “My slider wasn’t there as good as it was, so fortunate to get through there.”

The key moment came an inning later. Margot drew a leadoff walk, stole second and advanced to third on a bad throw. Hunter Renfroe walked. With runners on the corners, Joey Wendle popped out and Willy Adames struck out. With Kiermaier at the plate and down 0-1, Margot dashed for home. Kershaw recognized it in time and threw to catcher Austin Barnes, who slapped a tag with Margot’s fingertips inches from home plate.

From there, Kershaw cruised, passing Justin Verlander for the most strikeouts all time in the postseason with 206. Kershaw, circa 2020, is more craftsman than conqueror, and though this wasn’t the coronation he wanted nor the dominant start he desired, it was plenty good — something well worth cheering.

“Kersh, a lot of credit goes to him for what we’ve been able to do in this World Series,” Treinen said. “There’s a tough narrative on him. He’s a phenomenal pitcher on the biggest stage.”

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