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Stifled Rodgers says loss may be good for Pack



Don’t tell Aaron Rodgers that Super Bowl LV is at Raymond James Stadium.

That hasn’t been the Green Bay Packers quarterback’s happy place.

Twice he has left Tampa, Florida, injured: a shoulder in 2008 and a calf in 2014.

He showed up there Sunday hoping for something different, saying this past week: “I’m hoping the third time is the charm.”

There was nothing charming about Sunday. Rodgers threw a pair of interceptions, including a rare pick-six, and the Packers (4-1) lost for the first time this season, 38-10 to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2).

“You don’t ever want to lose like this,” Rodgers said. “I felt like we needed a little bit of a wake-up call at some point this season because things have been so good and there’s been so much talk maybe outside the building about the ease with which we’re moving the ball on offense and scoring. I think we needed kind of a kick in the ass a little bit. There’s a little bit of wake-up to stop feeling ourselves so much and get back to the things that got us to this position. I think this would be, unfortunately but fortunately, something we can really grow from.”

Rodgers had been interception-free on his first 156 passes of the season, but on No. 157, he threw one to Bucs safety Jamel Dean. It turned into something even more rare for Rodgers: a pick-six. Before that play, Rodgers had thrown 6,214 times in his career and only two of those had been intercepted and returned for scores. On his 6,215th throw, it happened for a third time. That’s merely one pick-six for every 2,071 throws, but two of them have come at Tampa Bay (the other was his first ever, in 2009).

“That s— happens,” Rodgers said. “I haven’t had a lot of those over the years. But the wind was blowing pretty good right to left, and like I said, I felt good about the spot. I knew it was tight, we’ve hit throws like that, but I missed on my spot by probably a foot, or so. And the kid made a good play.”

Dean’s 32-yard interception return for a touchdown when he jumped an out route by wide receiver Davante Adams in the second quarter started a run of 38 consecutive points by Tampa Bay after the Packers led 10-0. Two passes later, Rodgers got picked off again — this one on another throw intended for Adams, a slant that appeared to be deflected by cornerback Carlton Davis or tipped by Adams. Either way, it landed in the hands of safety Mike Edwards.

It was just the second time in Rodgers’ career that he has thrown interceptions on consecutive first-half drives (and the first time in nearly seven years).

“Definitely swung the momentum in their favor and when we came back out. Give all the credit in the world to Tampa,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “The first [interception], Aaron threw with some anticipation, and the corner squatted all over it and made a good play. Second one, I knew we had a miscommunication out there. We weren’t in the right look. … Regardless, probably should’ve popped a timeout. Didn’t look right. Sure enough, it got batted around and got picked. A significant part of the game.”

Until those two throws, it looked like another Rodgers-led Green Bay masterpiece was in the works. The Packers dominated the first quarter with a field goal and a touchdown (a 1-yard run by Aaron Jones) on the first two drives. Even after it turned quickly to a 14-10 Bucs lead, Rodgers had his chances. He missed a wide-open Marcedes Lewis for what might have been a 75-yard touchdown to kill one drive, and then got sacked to end the next one after Jamaal Williams missed a blitz pickup.

“I don’t feel like we ever got into a rhythm, or even the 10 points to start the game,” Rodgers said. “We had off-scheduled plays to keep our drives alive. They deserve credit — they got us out of our rhythm.”

The Bucs’ swarming defense pressured Rodgers 12 times, the most anyone has gotten to Rodgers this season. Rodgers went just 2-of-7 for 10 yards with four sacks and a scramble when pressured. Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed Rodgers 17 times, and Rodgers went 5-of-14 with two sacks and both of his interceptions. It was tied for the most blitzes he has faced over the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Rodgers finished 16-of-35 for 160 yards without a touchdown and the two interceptions before coach Matt LaFleur let Tim Boyle finish the game. Rodgers’ passer rating of 35.4 was the second-lowest in a game he has started and didn’t leave because of injury. His only worse rating was on Dec. 14, 2014, at Buffalo (34.3).

Rodgers dropped to 1-3 against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium, but at least he came away healthy this time.

The same can’t be said for at least one other key member of the offense. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari left in the second half with a chest injury and did not return. The Packers finished the game with Rick Wagner at left tackle. They also finished the game without a pair of defensive starters: DT Tyler Lancaster (shoulder) and safety Darnell Savage (quadriceps).

Although Bakhtiari couldn’t finish the game, LaFleur said the preliminary indication is that it’s not a long-term issue.

While there’s still a long way to go, this game could have implications down the road, especially when it comes to playoff-seeding tiebreakers. Under Rodgers, the Packers have played in four NFC Championship Games. All of them have been on the road. If this loss means the Packers would have to go back to Tampa before the Super Bowl, they might not have to worry about where the final game of the 2020 season will be played.

“You can never really get comfortable in this league,” LaFleur said. “As soon as you get comfortable, you get your butt whipped.”


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Larson reinstated to compete in NASCAR in 2021



CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Larson can return to NASCAR competition next season following a long suspension for using a racial slur while playing a video game.

He was suspended in April for after he used the n-word while playing an online racing game in which viewers could follow along. He was dropped by his sponsors and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing.

Larson, who is half-Japanese, spent the last six months immersed in diversity programs that helped him gain an understanding of racial injustice. He did not apply for reinstatement until last week and the clearance came Monday.

“The work I’ve done over the last six months has had a major impact on me. I will make the most of this opportunity and look forward to the future,” Larson said.

Larson has spent significant time with retired soccer star Tony Sanneh, whose foundation works on youth development and empowerment in the Minneapolis area. Larson also met with former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee and visited her foundation in East St. Louis, and also spoke with Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track & Field who also runs a NASCAR-sanctioned team that is part of the stock car series’ diversity program.

Larson continued work he’d already been doing with the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia. The nonprofit helps minorities advance in motorsports and Jysir Fisher, one of its students, had celebrated with Larson in victory lane following a win in Delaware last October.

He put the work in unpublicized in an effort to prove his motives were sincere.

“NASCAR continues to prioritize diversity and inclusion across our sport. Kyle Larson has fulfilled the requirements set by NASCAR and has taken several voluntary measures to better educate himself so that he can use his platform to help bridge the divide in our country,” NASCAR said in a statement.

Larson also has spent the time away from NASCAR racing sprint cars, his passion, with a phenomenal success rate. He’s won 41 times so far this year and rebuilt a devout fanbase along the way.

The time at the dirt tracks made for a blissful summer for Larson and his family, which accompanied him nearly every weekend. His two children were victory lane fixtures and his wife ran his souvenir challenge.

Despite the enjoyable family time, Larson insisted he wanted to return to NASCAR.

He was considered the top free agent prospect before his firing, which ended eight seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson has long been considered a future star for NASCAR and presumably had his pick of cars for 2021.

Instead, he’s hoping sponsors will agree to back him for a return to NASCAR. Larson is thought to be getting an open seat at Hendrick Motorsports, although the car number and sponsor affiliations are not clear.

Among the hurdles Larson must clear is that Hendrick is tied to Chevrolet, one of the brands that cut ties with Larson in April. The current opening at Hendrick is also an entry that relied on heavy sponsorship from Chevy related partners and products.


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The Most Vulnerable Incumbent In The House Is A Democrat, But Republicans Are Defending More Competitive Seats



In the face of a whirlwind presidential campaign and massive fundraising numbers coming out of marquee U.S. Senate contests, it’s easy to overlook what’s happening in the race for the U.S. House of Representatives. That might be because Democrats look like strong bets to hold onto power there. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast is most confident about the House, as the Deluxe version of our model gives Democrats a 95 in 100 shot at retaining control of the House, better than Joe Biden’s 88 in 100 chance of winning the presidency or the Democrats’ 74 in 100 chance of capturing the Senate.1

However, even if Democrats do hold onto the House, that doesn’t mean they’ll retain every seat they control. In fact, there are a number of seats they might lose, including that of Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the most vulnerable House incumbent seeking reelection in 2020. The Deluxe version of our House forecast only gives him about a 1 in 4 shot of winning in Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District against Republican Michelle Fischbach.

Peterson’s chances come down partly to the makeup of his rural district in western Minnesota. The 7th Congressional District is 26 points more Republican than the country as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric,2 making it the most GOP-leaning House seat held by a Democrat. Seeking his 16th term in office, Peterson has won past elections as a Democrat thanks to his moderate views, his anti-abortion stance and his focus on agricultural issues. And as the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, he’s been very attentive to farming interests, especially the sugar beet industry, which is important to his constituency. Still, the rightward shift in his district in the last decade or so narrowed his margin of victory to about 4 points in 2018.

But beyond the seat’s increasingly deep red hue, Peterson is up against his most daunting challenger in years. Fischbach served as the state’s lieutenant governor and, before that, as president of the Minnesota Senate. And unlike recent Peterson opponents, Fischbach has nearly matched his fundraising. On top of that, Republican groups have spent $5 million on her behalf, while Peterson has received a little less than $4 million in outside support. It’s no wonder then that the expert handicappers at The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all rate this race as a toss-up, which factors into the Deluxe version of our forecast.

However, despite Peterson’s trying circumstances, the good news for Democrats is that his vulnerability makes him a rare bird in 2020. Of the most endangered Democratic-held House seats, Democrats are clear underdogs in just Peterson’s district. In fact, as the table below shows, Democrats are slightly favored in most competitive seats they are defending (races where they have less than a 3 in 4 shot of winning). Just two other Democratic incumbents face toss-up races: Rep. Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District and Rep. TJ Cox in California’s 21st Congressional District.

Endangered Democrats are still mostly favored

Democratic-held seats that Democrats have less than a 75 in 100 shot of winning in the Deluxe version of FiveThirtyEight’s House forecast, as of 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 19

District Democratic Incumbent Partisan Lean Win chance Rating
MN-07 Collin Peterson R+26 24% Likely R
OK-05 Kendra Horn R+13 49 Toss-up
CA-21 TJ Cox D+9 53 Toss-up
UT-04 Ben McAdams R+19 63 Lean D
NM-02 Xochitl Torres Small R+10 64 Lean D
SC-01 Joe Cunningham R+18 64 Lean D
CA-48 Harly Rouda R+8 66 Lean D
GA-06 Lucy McBath R+15 68 Lean D
NY-22 Anthony Brindisi R+12 69 Lean D
NV-04 Steven Horsford D+2 70 Lean D
IA-02 OPEN R+3 71 Lean D
NY-11 Max Rose R+7 72 Lean D
NJ-07 Tom Malinowski R+6 72 Lean D
CA-39 Gil Cisneros R+1 73 Lean D
TX-07 Lizzie Fletcher R+12 74 Lean D

Horn’s race is particularly close, as the district is still heavily red (13 points more Republican than the country as a whole) and she won in 2018 by just 1 point. Meanwhile, Cox is defending more Democratic-leaning turf, but he’s faced scrutiny over owing back taxes and is running against former Republican Rep. David Valadao, whom Cox edged out by a slim margin in 2018 (less than 1 point). And in California’s top-two primary system back in March, Cox trailed Valadao by 11 points, which could be a poor harbinger for the freshman incumbent.

These three seats, plus the others where Democrats are marginally favored, could be especially vulnerable if things go better for Trump than currently expected. Nevertheless, Democrats are helped out by the fact that they have incumbents running in all but one of these seats, and 12 are freshmen incumbents who have raised huge sums of money.

By comparison, Republicans find themselves defending far more vulnerable seats than Democrats despite controlling fewer seats overall. This is mostly thanks to redistricting, retirements and the Democratic-leaning electoral environment. As the table below shows, GOP candidates are underdogs in three Republican-held seats, roughly 50-50 in nine others and have less than a 3 in 4 shot of winning in 13 more.

Republicans hold more vulnerable seats than Democrats

Republican-held seats that Republicans have less than a 75 in 100 shot of winning in the Deluxe version of FiveThirtyEight’s House forecast, as of 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 19

District Republican incumbent Partisan Lean Win chance Rating
NC-02 OPEN D+20 <1% Safe D
NC-06 OPEN D+19 <1 Safe D
TX-23 OPEN R+4 27 Lean D
NY-02 OPEN R+7 43 Toss-up
CA-25 Mike Garcia R+2 45 Toss-up
VA-05 OPEN R+7 48 Toss-up
IN-05 OPEN R+15 54 Toss-up
NJ-02 Jeff Van Drew R+5 53 Toss-up
PA-10 Scott Perry R+11 55 Toss-up
GA-07 OPEN R+18 56 Toss-up
NE-02 Don Bacon R+5 58 Toss-up
TX-24 OPEN R+17 60 Toss-up
CO-03 OPEN R+15 60 Lean R
NY-24 John Katko D+6 60 Lean R
TX-22 OPEN R+19 64 Lean R
OH-01 Steve Chabot R+8 65 Lean R
AZ-06 David Schweikert R+16 66 Lean R
IL-13 Rodney Davis R+8 67 Lean R
NC-08 Richard Hudson R+8 67 Lean R
TX-21 Chip Roy R+20 69 Lean R
MN-01 Jim Hagedorn R+12 70 Lean R
MO-02 Ann Wagner R+17 70 Lean R
MI-06 Fred Upton R+3 72 Lean R
AR-02 French Hill R+11 73 Lean R
MT-AL OPEN R+18 73 Lean R

Two North Carolina seats are almost surefire Democratic pickups due to court-ordered redistricting, while retiring Rep. Will Hurd’s seat in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District is leaning toward the Democrats, too. Retirements and primary losses have left five of the nine GOP toss-up seats open, which helps Democrats even if the incumbency advantage isn’t what it once was. Lastly, the 13 seats that lean toward Republicans are all seats that could conceivably flip toward Democrats if 2020 is another “blue wave” election.

Put it all together and you can see why the Democrats’ chances of holding onto the House look pretty good, even if they do have the most endangered incumbent up in 2020.


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Belichick effusive in praise for ‘great’ TE Kittle



SANTA CLARA, Calif. — New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has coached and coached against his share of elite tight ends in a professional career that began in 1975.

But when Belichick looks the San Francisco 49ersGeorge Kittle, he sees one who stands with — and above — the rest.

“Kittle is a great player,” Belichick said. “He does everything well. I’d put him right at the top of the league there, period. His ability to run, catch, get open, after the catch, block, he does everything at a high level. He’s as good as anybody that I’ve coached or as good as anybody that we’ve played against.”

That’s high praise from Belichick who has been the head coach of the Patriots since 2000 and spent most of the rest of his career as either a defensive coordinator or a defensive position coach.

It’s particularly notable since Belichick coached four-time All Pro Rob Gronkowski in New England from 2010 to 2018. Gronkowski is regarded by many as the elite tight end of his generation after earning five Pro Bowl berths, three Super Bowl rings and landing a spot on the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team.

Gronkowski joined quarterback Tom Brady in signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason after taking a year away from the league.

“He’s as good as anybody that I’ve coached or as good as anybody that we’ve played against.” Patriots coach Bill Belichick on 49ers tight end George Kittle

Speaking to Bay Area media on Monday in advance of the Patriots-49ers game set for Sunday, Belichick was effusive in his praise for Kittle, who owns the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in his first three NFL seasons (2,945) and the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a season (1,377).

But, according to Belichick, it’s Kittle’s ability to do everything well combined with coach Kyle Shanahan’s ability to put him in position to succeed, that sets him apart.

“If you pay too much attention to him, he creates opportunities for some of their other outstanding players,” Belichick said. “And if you don’t pay enough attention to him then he can kill you. So, he’s in a great system, he’s a great player. I don’t think there’s a tight end in the league, and we’ve seen a lot of good ones and had a lot of good ones, but I don’t think there’s anybody in the league that does everything overall as well as he does. He just really doesn’t have any weak points at all. Just outstanding at every phase of the game.”

This season, Kittle has 30 catches for 380 yards and two touchdowns. He ranks second in receptions and yards among all tight ends despite missing two games with a sprained left knee.


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