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Stifled Rodgers says loss may be good for Packers

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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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Joe Thornton spoke to Joe Montana about leaving Bay Area

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While considering a move to the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent, center Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks sought as much advice as possible.

He spoke with family and friends. He spoke with Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, former San Jose teammates who left the team via free agency. But Thornton said the most memorable guidance he received was from another Bay Area sports legend.

“I actually talked to Joe Montana. I think Joe gave me some good advice. He just talked about leaving San Francisco and going to Kansas City,” said Thornton, who signed a one-year deal with the Leafs on Friday.

In 1993, Montana requested a trade from the 49ers, who shipped the 37-year-old quarterback to Kansas City, where he finished his career with the Chiefs.

“I had so many people I talked to over the last week. I’m just blessed I had a chance to talk to some great people. He was one guy who offered me some good advice,” Thornton said.

Thornton, 41, is skating with HC Davos in the Swiss National League in preparation for the upcoming NHL season. His contract with the Leafs is for $700,000.

The decision to join Toronto ended Thornton’s 15-season run with the Sharks. In 1,636 games with San Jose and the Boston Bruins, he amassed 1,509 points — most among active players. He’s 14th all time in career points and seventh in career assists (1,089). He won the NHL scoring title and MVP honors in 2005-06.

“The emotions I feel are appreciation and reflection. It’s hard to put into words what Joe meant for this franchise over 15 seasons,” San Jose general manager Doug Wilson said. “I think there are very few players in pro sports that can alter a franchise the way he did.”

Thornton praised the organization and the fans in San Jose.

“They loved me and I loved them right back,” he said. “The Shark Tank was one of the best buildings to play in, and we had a lot of memories there.”

But after he and Wilson were unable to find a landing spot for Thornton on a contender at the most recent trade deadline, the veteran center found one through free agency.

“It was probably the hardest hockey decision I ever had to make. But with the roster [the Maple Leafs] have, the guys that they picked up this offseason, they’re ready to win now and I’m ready to win,” Thornton said.

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Zeke on Dallas loss: ‘I’m sorry; this one is on me’

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was not blaming any part of the 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Dak Prescott‘s absence. He was putting it all on himself.

“I don’t think we can use that as an excuse,” Elliott said of not having Prescott because of a compound fracture and dislocated right ankle. “I’m just going to keep saying it over and over — I started the game out with two fumbles, gave the ball away and gave them all the momentum they need to go take off. I want to say I’m sorry and this one is on me. I need to be better.”

Elliott finished with 49 yards on 12 carries and caught a team-high eight passes but for just 31 yards. However, it was fumbles on back-to-back drives in the first and second quarters that changed the complexion of the game.

The first fumble came after catching a short pass from Andy Dalton on second down, but safety Budda Baker stripped the ball free and Jordan Phillips recovered. Eleven plays later Kyler Murray and Christian Kirk hooked up for a 6-yard flip for a touchdown.

Two plays into the next possession, Elliott fumbled again with Phillips poking the ball free at the Dallas 30. Five plays later, Kenyon Drake scored the Cardinals’ second touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

“I mean, when you’re fumbling every game obviously teams are going to lock in on it and go for it even more,” Elliott said. “That’s even more of a reason I need to figure it out, man. I don’t want to keep talking about it, but I’ve got to figure out a way to figure it out.”

When the Cowboys took the field after Elliott’s second fumble, Tony Pollard was the running back. When Elliott returned to the field after eight snaps, there was a murmur among the crowd.

“Every player that plays in this league, no different on our football team, if you don’t take care of the football, it does affect your opportunities,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Tony got an opportunity and I thought he did some really good things with his opportunities.”

Elliott has lost a career-high four fumbles in six games and the opponents have turned every takeaway into a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the other top-10 rushers have combined for three lost fumbles in nearly 900 fewer touches this season. Elliott has 133 touches, while the nine other backs have 1,014 touches.

“I’m giving the ball away,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t helping my team. I think they did the right thing and gave some of those reps to TP, but I can’t do that. I have to be a guy this team can lean on, especially at times like right now with so many of our starters hurt and not playing. So it’s not acceptable and I need to figure it out.”

Elliott said he focuses on keeping the ball tight in practice. The Cowboys do ball-handling drills every day in practice.

“I just got to have a short memory,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to get that behind me and play some good ball and get on a roll.”

Elliott has gone a career-long six games without a 100-yard outing. He had a five-game drought in Weeks 10-14 last season. He had not gone more than two games to open a season without a 100-yard game to his credit.

Some of that can be pinned on a defense that has struggled, but 84 of the 218 points the Cowboys have allowed this season have come off turnovers.

“He understands that. He knows that,” Dalton said. “Zeke’s going to get this thing fixed.”

He also knows he needs to get it fixed quickly.

“At the end of the day, Zeke is our bell cow, and we need to get it right,” McCarthy said. “He’s part of the plan. He’s going to be part of the success. We have to get it right. We have to take care of the football and that’s for everybody that touches the football on our team.”

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Allen says Bills ‘can’t afford’ his recent struggles

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After a 4-0 start to the season during which Josh Allen resembled a possible MVP candidate, the Buffalo Bills have now dropped two games in a row, with their struggling quarterback acknowledging, “This team can’t afford to have me play poorly.”

Playing in his second consecutive prime-time game Monday night, Allen completed just 14 of 27 passes for 122 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs in a performance reminiscent of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. Although he threw two touchdown passes, he also recorded his fourth interception of the season and missed receivers throughout the game, culminating in a 26-17 loss in Orchard Park, New York.

The third-year quarterback took responsibility for his performance, directly tying his team’s success — or lack thereof — to his play.

“We weren’t good enough — I was not good enough. I got to do a better job, it’s plain and simple,” Allen said. “I didn’t play very good tonight. I know that. I understand that. This team can’t afford to have me play poorly.

“Early on just not being as accurate with the ball as I should have been. Making the right reads, making the right throws, and we turned it on a little too late there.”

Through the first four weeks of the season, only Dallas‘ Dak Prescott threw for more yards than Allen’s 1,326, and only Seattle‘s Russell Wilson and Green Bay‘s Aaron Rodgers threw for more touchdowns than Allen’s 12. After failing to eclipse 300 passing yards in a game during his first two professional seasons, Allen did so in three consecutive outings to open 2020, including a career-high 415 yards against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2.

However, he looked far from an MVP candidate during a 42-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 5; he completed 26 of 41 passes for a then-season-low 263 yards, two touchdowns and season-high two interceptions.

Against the Chiefs, Allen’s 122 passing yards marked his lowest total since Week 6 of his rookie season, excluding a Week 17 game against the New York Jets last season when he played only one series.

Allen and the Bills get a bounce-back game against the winless Jets in Week 7 before hosting the New England Patriots in Week 8.

Buffalo has publicly stated its goal of winning the AFC East for the first time since 1995, and in order for the Bills to do so, Allen must return to a level of play comparable to what he showed during the first four weeks of the season.

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