The AFC North’s matchups against the AFC South and NFC North could lead to a better overall win total.

Oddsmakers expect a ditto of last season’s final AFC North standings, and we agree. Despite improvements throughout the division, Pittsburgh remains the class of the bunch.

The AFC North’s matchups against the AFC South and NFC North could lead to a better overall win total. That’s good news for the likes of Harbaugh and Lewis, who as noted need solid seasons to keep their names off the Black Monday watch list.

All these challenges would end a lesser franchise, but the Clippers have the advantage of having one of the best coaches in the NBA. Doc Rivers refuses to make excuses. His attitude permeates the locker room.

“We don’t change much about how we go about our business,” Rivers said. “We run the same sets, the same approach. Obviously, it’s a little different without Chris on the floor but we don’t do any major changes. Everything’s the same. We’re trying to pick off as many wins as we can and when everyone comes back, you hope that this makes you a better team.”

It also helps to have a veteran like Paul Pierce, who has won a title and been through the wars.

“I ain’t worried,” Pierce told Sporting News. “We are a championship-caliber team, I know it when I see it. We have everything we need to beat to anybody in the league and that includes Golden State. It sucks to have our stars hurting. But it gives other guys a chance to step up. That will only help us when the guys are back. Because now a bench guy will have confidence that he wouldn’t have otherwise had.”rangers_092-115x115

Young Yankees live their dream through support of familiar farmhand faces

Clint Frazier didn’t get to celebrate the night of his promotion to the majors.

There were too many boxes to check off on a suddenly existent to-do list. The outfielder had to race back to his Boston hotel room, pack a bag and get to bed. A 7 a.m. flight would deliver Frazier to Houston, where he would debut with the Yankees on July 1.

Orioles (vs. Rangers)
Status heading into series: 42-49, 9 back in the NL Central, 5.5 out of a wild-card spot
The bright side: The window on this current group is closing (more on that in a moment), and if they sweep the Rangers, one of the teams above them in the wild-card race, maybe it’s worth a push. That Orioles’ lineup is still powerful, with Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Johnathan Schoop, Manny Machado, Mark Trumbo and Trey Mancini leading the way.

On the other hand: Their rotation is kind of awful, and it’s hard to imagine that group making a playoff push. The Orioles just don’t have the prospects necessary — their farm system is in the bottom third of the majors in terms of talent — to trade for the starters they’d need to upgrade that group, either. Speaking of that, look at the group of players eligible to become free agents after either 2017 or 2018 — Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, J.J. Hardy, Wellington Castillo and Brad Brach. Moving those guys now or in the offseason would provide an instant influx of talent in the farm system and greatly improve the franchise’s chances of contending for a World Series title in 2019-20. broncos_006

76ers’ Markelle Fultz’s ankle sprain downgraded

Markelle Fultz and the 76ers have seemingly dodged a bullet.

The Philadelphia rookie and No. 1 draft pick is expected to bounce back after his ankle injury was downgraded to a regular left ankle sprain, ESPN reported Sunday, citing league sources.

According to the report, Fultz is walking without trouble but is likely finished with Summer League play.

Fultz also took to Twitter Sunday afternoon to reassure his fans that he was doing fine.

Fultz suffered the injury Saturday in the team’s Summer League game against the Warriors when he landed awkwardly while trying to block a shot in the third quarter. He had to be helped off the court and appeared unable to put any weight on his left ankle.

But the Jazz are paying him to be a low-end starter and difference maker in this deal. A guy who genuinely produces. And that’s where things get dicey. This seems like an overpay for what Ingles actually provides in terms of production. Last year, the Australian wing averaged 10.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists, relatively low numbers despite his efficiency. They’ll also be paying him for his age 30-33 seasons, which likely portends a decline given typical aging curves. Can the Jazz expect him to keep up this level of play?

Obviously, there is more to basketball than numbers. Ingles is considered a terrific teammate, and his play on the floor helps his teammates play better. Plus, the skilled nature of his game likely makes it so that it’ll age better than most. But there’s a lot of downside here.

It’s hard for me to say this given that Ingles is one of my favorite players to watch in the NBA, but on the whole, I’m not a huge fan of this deal. It’s not a disaster, and it’s not one that will be significantly problematic for the Jazz going forward. But it does seem to be an overpay for the older years of a wing, even if years 1 and 2 might end up being decent value-wise. jets_010

Ginobili also mentioned that San Antonio could utilize rotations without a true point guard.

Parker had been averaging 15.9 points during the postseason, a significant bump from the 10.1 he put up per contest in the regular season, before going down with 8:43 to play Wednesday. He’d already amassed 18 points and four assists before his injury. While the Spurs on’t be able to replace his veteran leadership and savvy, playing without him won’t be foreign territory for them, Parker missed 19 games during the regular season. San Antonio went 15-4 in those games.

Ginobili also mentioned that San Antonio could utilize rotations without a true point guard.

Rookie DeJounte Murray could be another option if coach Gregg Popovich decides to reach far down the bench.

Taken with the 29th overall pick, the 6-5, 170-pounder gives the Spurs a leaner, longer, more athletic look at point guard, but he has played just 24 minutes in eight playoff games. His brightest moment this season came during a four-game period in January, during which he played extended minutes while Parker was sidelined with an ailment. In that stretch, Murray averaged 13.2 points and three assists while helping the Spurs extend a winning streak to five games.

He then had 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists in Game 1 against the Celtics before his outstanding Game 2 showing. If Rondo does not play again in the playoffs, the Bulls now must figure out whether the last 15 games of good Rondo is enough to outweigh the months of headaches he gave Bulls coaches.

There’s some positive feeling on that from Rondo. And now that the Bulls now have a better grasp on how to handle his quirks, they might be more inclined to keep Rondo on board—especially if they decide against trading star Jimmy Butler and eschew the notion of a full rebuild altogether.

Paul Millsap heading to Nuggets on 3-year, $90 million deal

Maybe Paul Millsap didn’t need any convincing, or maybe the Denver Broncos’ recruiting pitch was really that good.

Whatever the reason, the 6-9 forward has agreed to join the Nuggets on a three-year contract worth $90 million. The deal was first reported by The Vertical.

The Nuggets got a boost from some members of the Broncos, who joined several high-level Nuggets representatives as Millsap visited Denver on Saturday. The four-time All-Star must have been impressed because the 32-year-old is ready to join his third team.

Entering his 12th NBA season after the Jazz selected him in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft, Millsap averaged 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists last season for the Hawks.

The new deal marks a huge pay raise for Millsap, who averaged just under $20 million over the last two seasons.

The Nuggets will probably still have to make a move or two to clear up cap space to make room for Millsap’s contract.

Griffin is much in the same boat as Paul. Griffin could sign something like a four-year, $175 million deal with the Clippers, $40 million more than any other team could manage.

But this is also Griffin’s first foray into free agency. A team with space to add him as a second option could significantly raise its ceiling. Griffin has extended his shooting range and improved his passing every season, so he would instantly improve many offenses.

The biggest question, though? What are teams willing to pay Griffin? He’s 27 years old with a long list of injuries, and his athleticism could be on the decline as a result. He’s also never been a great defender. He’s obviously a top talent, but there are a lot of variables at play here.chargers_003

Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers have become putting-team-on-back models

Jordy Nelson may not play for the Packers this week, either. Rob Gronkowski definitely wont play this week for the Patriots.

Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, respectively, miss their favorite targets in mind and spirit, for sure but theyre getting by on the field without them. That tells you not only a lot about their almost-otherworldly quarterbacking skills, but about the state of their receiving corps for much of this season.

In Bradys case, That’s been the state of his receivers the bulk of his career. He might be the all-time leader in making lots out of a little. In terms of this weekends conference championship games, he doesnt have, and mostly hasnt had, the benefit of an Antonio Brown or a Julio Jones to which to throw.

Lots of Chris Hogans, Brandon LaFells, Reche Caldwells and Jabar Gaffneys but a Randy Moss and Wes Welker for only a comparatively short time. And no Gronk since essentially the midway point of this season.

That leaves the Redskins in a tough spot with Cousins. Let him walk, and they need to start all over trying to find a competent starter. Pay him what he wants, and live with the limited ceiling he’s already shown in his game.

Cousins is no longer a young QB who can develop much more. He’ll turn 29 next August, and the prime and peak is already here.

New football league reportedly eyeing Johnny Manziel, Ray Rice among other big names

Spring Football, an independent league set to debut this April, could use a few high-profile players to create some buzz and help jump-start the league.

League CEO Brian Woods told The Associated Press this week the new venture has reached out to representatives of former NFL star Ray Rice and former Texas star Vince Young to gauge their interest.

He also issued a public invitation/challenge to former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who is trying to resurrect his football career at age 24.

The reason Taylor sat for the final game reportedly is the fact that the team would owe him $30.75 million if he can’t pass a physical before the next league year. Taylor had been dealing with a groin injury, and reports claim he’ll need surgery to repair it in the offseason.

I’ve heard things about the injury clause, I don’t put much weight behind that, it was the situation all year, Taylor said about his injury being the reason for the benching.

The quarterback does not believe the benching was fair and feels the move says more about his future in Buffalo than anything else.

Tyrod on if he takes the benching as the team lacking confidence in his future here: That’s fair to say. That’s what I think it showed.

The Bills have an option on Taylor’s contract, which will determine whether he remains in Buffalo. The team has to make a decision on that option by March 11, and if the Bills decide to keep him, Taylor will earn a $15.5 million option bonus along with a $12 million base salary with $3.25 million of his 2018 salary fully guaranteed.nike_chargers_1026

There was one question they wanted answered: Was manager Mike Matheny about to be fired?

Career highlights: Three-time MVP winner; 14-time All-Star; nearly 700 home runs, more than 2,000 RBIs and 3,000 hits; member of 2009 World Series champion Yankees.

Even before he admitted in 2009 that he had used PEDs, A-Rod was among the most divisive and controversial figures in sports. A one-year suspension tied to the Biogenesis scandal further tarnished his legacy.

OK, blast from the past question here. Bernie Bickerstaff was just a great guy, pro’s pro and taught me a lot about how to ask smart questions. I’m sure you had the same experience. What stands out to you about your time in college interviewing Bickerstaff after Swarm games?

There was one question they wanted answered: Was manager Mike Matheny about to be fired? The Cardinals were coming off one of the worst road trips in franchise history, an 0-7 stretch that included five games lost after the team rolled out to at least a two-run lead, and a game in which a 5-10 utility infielder who was released near the end of spring training — Scooter Gennett — hit four home runs in one game for only the 17th time in MLB history.

If that wasn’t rock bottom, Cardinals fans didn’t want to know what rock bottom looked like.

And when Mozeliak started out talking about the disappointment that the 2017 season has been, it seemed possible. And when he said, “I feel like standing up here and doing nothing and hoping for a different outcome is just not the right strategy,” it almost sounded likely.

Nicole Adell took the job as principal at Newburg Middle School in downtown Louisville in July 2013. She didn’t accept this new position because she thought it would be easy. She took the job because she knew it would be challenging. She has dedicated her life to education, and Newburg needed someone like Nicole Adell.

“Everywhere that she goes, she puts her stamp down,” Jordon says of his mom. “She works so hard that she changes the people around her, and she changes the attitudes that the students have when they come to school, and the teachers. That’s something that’s really tough to do.”nike_cardinals_526

Patriots owner Robert Kraft says Roger Goodell is welcome in Foxborough

Roger Goodell said Wednesday that he’d return to Foxborough if invited. Well, Mr. Commissioner, consider the invitation sent.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement to ESPN that Goodell would be welcome at Gillette Stadium. Should the Patriots beat the Falcons on Sunday in Super Bowl 51, Kraft even set a date.

Foster later retweeted several messages from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blasting the DOJ’s decision. The serious nature of the topic aside, it’s nice to see Foster has found a pastime to keep him busy in his retirement.

Foster retired in December at age 30 after eight NFL seasons, spending most of his career with the Texans before finishing in Miami last year. The four-time Pro Bowler finished with 8,873 yards and 68 touchdowns.

Freeman, who says he wants what is best for his future but also the team, could resort to a holdout or a trade request to land a new contract. That could be hard for the team to pull off, however, if Blank offers Ryan a massive deal.

“When Matt was being interviewed this week, somebody asked him, ‘What do you think about Tom Brady, his age, being 39 and will be 40 in August?’ and Matt said, ‘I’d like to play as long as Tom,”’ Blank said.

“That’s when I jumped up off the sofa and starting clicking my heels. We have a lot of young talent on both sides of the ball. But to have our quarterback in place for an extended period of time will be incredible news for Atlanta. Matt is in great shape and takes wonderful care of himself. So, I’m excited.”

Despite Freeman’s stellar play, he’s losing carries to the bigger and younger Tevin Coleman. In the NFC championship game against the Packers, Freeman got 14 carries to Coleman’s 11. Giving a running back in a timeshare an “elite” contract seems unlikely, but this will be an interesting storyline to follow this offseason. seahawks_102

Offseason showcase (showdown): Rams’ Cody Davis on ‘Price is Right’

The major factors that often doom repeat bids are but a blip on the Patriots’ radar. The salary cap can get squeezed as players’ contract demands grow following championships, so naturally, some key players depart via free agency.

This is less of an issue for New England, as Belichick usually finds perfect players at affordable salaries via the draft, free agency, trades and the waiver wire to replace the departed. He plugs them into the system once they’re coached up by his outstanding assistants, who like Belichick are great at teaching and developing players.

Supplemental offseason income, come on down!

Rams defensive back Cody Davis is taking full advantage of his move to Southern California, appearing on an episode of “The Price is Right” that aired Friday.

Host Drew Carey seemed impressed when Davis told him what he does for a living, and the four-year NFL veteran then acquitted himself well in a friendly game of Punch-A-Bunch.

Unless Romo agrees to a major pay cut, the financial outlay will be significant. Even if the Cowboys end up cutting Romo, he and his agent will expect starter money elsewhere. That essentially would be his $14 million base salary (plus incentives if he has a good season) to get him to the market rate of $20 million-plus for veteran starters.

Personally, I would steer clear of Romo. But if a team decides to take the risk, it likely will attempt to negotiate a lower base salary (in the $10 million-$12 million range) and a significant per-game bonus to reward him for staying on the field, plus major playoff incentives.

But Romo’s agent will fight that structure and want a significant guarantee, which, again, is a big risk for a team. Whatever team brings in Romo had better be sure it has a stout supporting cast. That means a strong offensive line with excellent blocking tight ends and backs who know how to pass protect.