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Veteran Aaron Rodgers, rookie Dak Prescott highlight Packers/Cowboys matchup

Aaron Rodgers has been unbeatable on a seven-game run that carried Green Bay to the divisional round.

So was Dallas rookie Dak Prescott for 11 straight in the regular season, a surge that ultimately benched 10-year starter Tony Romo and led to the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the quarterback’s playoff debut Sunday against the Packers (11-6).

Rodgers plays at the home of the Cowboys (13-3) for the first time since winning his only Super Bowl following the 2010 season. And perhaps he’ll flash back to his first playoff game a year before that while watching his counterpart try to lead Dallas to its first NFC Championship Game in more than 20 years.

“There’s a lot of nerves in your first playoff game, you know there was for me,” Rodgers said of a 51-45 wild-card loss to Arizona seven years ago. “I think I threw a pick on my first play. So yeah, you’ve got to find a way to settle in.”

The two-time MVP has a good memory. He was right about that shootout loss, when he settled in and threw four touchdown passes after his only interception.

And Prescott, who had the lowest interception rate for a rookie in NFL history in the regular season, knows it’s about having a short memory now.

“We’re not putting too much pressure on ourselves, on this team or this situation,” Prescott said. “We’re continuing to be the same guys we’ve been all year. When it’s time to lock in, trust me we’ll be ready.”

Prescott and NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott will try to become the first rookie QB-RB tandem to win a playoff game in the Super Bowl era.

Two had a chance after the 2012 season — Andrew Luck and Vick Ballard with Indianapolis and Robert Griffin III and current Dallas running back Alfred Morris with Washington.

“I don’t view these guys as rookies,” said 14th-year tight end Jason Witten, set for his sixth trip to the postseason.

“They’ve had a lot of at-bats at the plate. They’ve shown it over the course of 16 games who they are and how they play. I think they understand they just have to be themselves.”

Here are some things to consider in the eighth postseason meeting between these storied franchises, two years after Green Bay’s 26-21 divisional victory made famous by Dallas receiver Dez Bryant‘s catch that wasn’t:

REMATCH: Prescott led a 97-yard scoring drive in just 33 seconds at the end of the first half at Lambeau Field in Dallas’ 30-16 victory in Week 6. Rodgers threw an interception and the Packers lost three fumbles. Elliott was the first 100-yard rusher of the season against the Packers. “That was really early in the season, so yeah they’re going to be a better team as we are,” Elliott said.

NO NELSON: The Packers might be in better shape this season without receiver Jordy Nelson, out because of a rib injury sustained in the 38-13 wild-card win over the New York Giants. Randall Cobb and Davante Adams combined for 241 yards receiving and four touchdowns against the Giants, and there are other proven options. “It hasn’t been just one guy all season, even with Jordy out there,” Rodgers said.

REINFORCEMENTS: The Cowboys will have four defensive linemen who missed the regular-season finale at Philadelphia mostly as a precaution: ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford and tackles Terrell McClain and Cedric Thornton. It’s the healthiest the Dallas defense has been all season. Cornerback Morris Claiborne, who missed the last nine games of the regular season with a groin injury, is expected to play.

TWILIGHT TIME: Pass-rushing Green Bay linebacker Julius Peppers has spent 15 years in the NFL without winning a Super Bowl. Peppers, who turns 37 on Wednesday, had limited snaps in the regular season to keep him fresh. He lost to New England with Carolina in the Super Bowl after the 2003 season. “Regardless of what stage he’s on, what team he’s playing for, he always seems to show up,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.

NOTHING NEW: Rodgers’ run of three straight games with four touchdown passes — and 19 without an interception during the winning streak — prompted plenty of questions of how the Cowboys would deal with it, and what might be different in how they approach defending him. Not much, Garrett seemed to suggest. “He’s been hot for about nine years,” the Dallas coach said.

Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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Patriots roll in second half to knock Houston out of the playoffs

Everybody’s pick to win the Super Bowl had trouble only for a half against the Houston Texans Saturday night.

The New England Patriots, ahead by only four points at halftime, outscored the Texans 17-3 going down the stretch to pull away. New England now plays the winner of the Kansas City-Pittsburgh game next week in the AFC Title game.

Quarterback Tom Brady threw two interceptions — equaling his season total — but also had 287 yards and two scores. Receiver Julian Edelman caught eight passes for 137 yards, and Chris Hogan caught four for 95 yards. Deion Lewis scored three times for New England. The Pats advanced to their sixth straight AFC title game.

“We’re going to have to play better, coach better than we did tonight,” Pats coach Bill Belichick said, “or there won’t be much left in our season.”

Quarterback Brock Osweiler threw three interceptions and was sacked three times.

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Falcons follow quarterback Matt Ryan to big win over Seattle

If your vote isn’t in for Matt Ryan as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, it might be time to buy a stamp.

Ryan, the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons who threw 38 touchdowns in the regular season, was stellar Saturday night as the Falcons beat Seattle 36-20 to advance to the NFC Championship Game. The Falcons will play against either Dallas or Green Bay next week.

Ryan threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns against the vaunted Seattle secondary. In short, he doomed the Legion of Doom.

“Matt just had a terrific week naturally,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn. “I felt the energy from the receivers right from the beginning from our warm up today. I thought they looked great. For Matt and his preparation, he stayed on exactly the same path that he had been on during the regular season, so it was something that we spoke about now. I thought he was on it like he has been the entire year.”

Rookie Keanu Neal of Florida led the Falcons with 11 tackles, including 10 solos.

Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw for 225 yards, but he suffered two interceptions.

Seattle has become one of the most controversial teams in the NFL with outspoken corner Richard Sherman and defensive end Michael Bennett. That doesn’t count recently retired Marshawn Lynch.

Against Atlanta, however, there wasn’t much to say. Former FSU running back Devonta Freeman rushed for 45 yards and caught four passes for 80.

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No. 9 Florida State getting big contributions from its bench

Florida State sophomore Terrance Mann has dubbed the ninth-ranked Seminoles’ bench the “Boom Squad.” So far the nickname has proven to be appropriate considering how productive the reserves have been in conference play.

The Seminoles’ reserves are averaging 22.5 points and the team is 16-1 and off to a 4-0 start in Atlantic Coast Conference play for the first time in school history.

They are one of two ACC teams that have 12 players averaging in double figures in minutes played. The other is 11th-ranked North Carolina (15-3, 3-1 ACC) — and FSU plays the Tar Heels Saturday in Chapel Hill.

“They are like a second starting unit because it wears other teams down which we use to our advantage,” Mann said. “They bring everything — energy, scoring and defense.”

With the depth and no set rotation, coach Leonard Hamilton has often subbed three or four players at a time to get the freshest combination on the court. According to KenPom’s minutes analytics, FSU is the only ACC team to not have anyone play more than 70 percent of their team’s minutes. The past three seasons, Hamilton has had three or more players do that.

The Seminoles have seen 41 percent of playtime go to bench players, which is sixth among Power Five conference schools and 22nd in Division I.

“We haven’t had a lot of quality depth the past couple years,” Hamilton said. “We just now have our full complement that allows us to use everyone. We’re fortunate that those guys are not coming in just to spell guys but contributing at a high level and improve.”

While Florida State’s bench has been mostly populated by newcomers, it has also had a nice mix between youth and experience.

Senior Jarquez Smith (6-foot-9) and sophomore Christ Koumadje, who is the tallest player in program history at 7-4, provide plenty of size in the frontcourt. Koumadje is fifth in the conference in blocks with 24 while Smith is averaging 10 points and 4.5 rebounds in the past two games.

Freshmen CJ Walker and Trent Forrest have been effective at both ends of the court. Walker leads the team in free throw percentage (80.8 percent) and Forrest is sixth in the conference in steals with 28.

“We know when we come in, we’re going to try to make something positive happen. So I just feel like we’ve accepted the role and we enjoy it,” Forrest said.

Sophomore PJ Savoy, who is a junior college transfer, has added the biggest offensive impact with his perimeter shooting off the bench. He is 22 of 50 on 3-pointers during the team’s school-record, 12-game winning streak including a pair of 3-pointers during Tuesday’s 88-72 win over No. 7 Duke.

Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said after his team lost last Saturday that he thinks this is the best team Hamilton has ever had.

“I think they can play a lot of different ways,” Williams said. “I don’t necessarily look at it as a platoon but if you are platooning, obviously that means there are a lot of different options relative to what’s going on in the game.”

The advantage in bodies has been apparent during the second half of games. In conference play, the Seminoles have outscored teams 43-34 after halftime.

If there is a team though that can match FSU’s depth it is the Tar Heels, who have four players averaging in double figures and six averaging at least 7.2 points overall. UNC has the ACC’s top scoring attack at 89.3 points with FSU second at 86.7.

The Tar Heels though will be thin up front with freshman forward Tony Bradley Jr. out due to a concussion. Isaiah Hicks has frequently battled foul trouble while junior swingman Theo Pinson has played in only two games after missing the first 16 due to October foot surgery.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he considers Saturday’s game to be a challenge due to Florida State’s length and depth.

“It’s effective for them defensively because they have good feet and then the length, so they bother your shot,” he said. “They use their length and athleticism and their brain, because I think they’re a really intelligent team too.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Lightning loses despite retiring the jersey of Marty St. Louis

Turns out, maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning should have brought back Marty St. Louis … and given him a uniform.

Despite the charge the team got from retiring the jersey of St. Louis – the only retired number in franchise history, the Lightning could not maintain its energy and fell, 3-1, to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Bolts started well, getting off a season-high of 19 shots  in the first period, and taking a 1-0 lead on Jonathan Drouin’s goal. But the Blue Jackets came back to take a 2-1 lead on a power play goal by Nick Foligno. Josh Anderson and Boone Jenner also scored for the Jackets.

“First of all, they’ve got a really good team,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, whose team fell to 20-20-4. “They reeled off 16 in a row for a good reason. It’s too bad that we only had the 1-0 lead (after the first period). I thought we deserved a little bit better fate. I thought we played well. It was just tough for our guys to sustain it. They turned up their game a notch. We tried, it was just a little tougher for us to get the inside after a while and we weren’t getting our shots through. It was a little bit of bad breaks. We had a tough turnover there on the first one, but, ultimately, it’s a wide shot by 20 foot that goes off our back, lands in front and it’s 1-1. And then ultimately, it came down to special teams. They got the big goal on the power play, and we couldn’t kill it off. And then we couldn’t get the power-play goal when we needed it at the end.”

The Bolts have now lost five of their last six.

“We had a good first (period), you know, and then it was pretty ordinary after that,” said the Bolts’ Brian Boyle. “You know (Alex Killorn) stands in there and does a great job, fighting is something he doesn’t do a whole lot of. The power play after that wasn’t good enough. I think we kind of lost momentum there, and after that we just weren’t quite as good as we were in the first.”

“Results are really all that matters, and we’re working at it. They’re certainly not blowouts, but I mean we’re not setting the bar that low. We need to change our attitude a little bit and kind of find our mojo and carry ourselves with a little bit more confidence and know that we can score quick goals, we can come from behind and we can jump out to leads.”

After Ben Bishop’s return Thursday night, Andrei Vasilevskiy returned in front of the net. He stopped 28 shots, but it wasn’t enough. Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo stopped 31 shots.

The Bolts now have a six-game road trip, starting with Monday afternoon’s game against the L.A. Kings.

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Florida schools’ in-state bowl wins will only help recruiting

We are less than three weeks from National Signing Day for college football. Florida’s power schools will, of course, do well, while South Florida is a finalist for the biggest remaining prize.

Florida, Florida State and Miami each posted impressive bowl game victories in their home state, something that can perhaps sway an undecided star player. Better yet, it can impress an in-state junior or sophomore enough to put your school on the list for a future signing day.

The Gators’ rout of Iowa in the Outback Bowl, Miami’s romp over No. 12 West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl, and the Seminoles’ squeaker over Michigan in the Orange Bowl were huge for all three programs. It did not take the Hurricanes long to begin using their bowl trophy as a recruiting tool.

Before bowl season, all three were having good recruiting years. The 2017 Florida State recruiting class is ranked sixth by Rivals.com and seventh by ESPN.

Yes, Alabama has the top-rated class.

Florida is ranked 18th by both outlets, while Miami is 13th by ESPN and 14th by Rivals. None of the other Florida schools are ranked in the top 40, but Central Florida is rated 53rd by Rivals.

USF is a finalist along with FSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma and LSU for defensive tackle Marvin Wilson from Houston, Texas. He has already visited the first three, but will travel to LSU on Saturday and USF next Friday.

Statements from Wilson indicate LSU and FSU are currently his top two. Whomever Wilson selects, that school’s class ranking will rise accordingly.

Another top defensive tackle is Aubrey Solomon of Leesburg, Ga. He will visit Southern California on Friday, Auburn next Friday and Florida on January 27, only five days before he will make a decision.

The top remaining Floridian is defensive end Jarez Parks of Sebastian, Fla. He is visiting Florida on Friday and Auburn next Friday. His visit to Tallahassee came during the Florida State vs. Florida weekend.

There is plenty of competition for high school talent, but especially in Florida. The available talent is at the top of the charts.

National Champion Clemson always recruits Florida hard. Winning that championship in Tampa can only help their long-term prospects.

Former Gator Coach Will Muschamp is bringing a couple of Florida recruits to his new home at South Carolina. The Gamecocks have the 11th-best class.

For those that follow recruiting closely, this will be an interesting three weeks.

 

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Goaltender Ben Bishop returns as Lightning beat Buffalo, 4-2

Well, hello there, Ben Bishop.

And welcome back.

Bishop, who has been out since Dec. 20 with a lower body injury, finally returned to the lineup after missing the last nine games and two periods for the Tampa Bay Lightning. And Bishop played well, improving his record to 10-10-2 in a 4-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.

The win broke a four-game losing streak for the Bolts. Buffalo narrowed the lead to one goal in the third period, but the Lightning held on.

“I thought Bish had a lot to do with that,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “The saves he made. The way he played the puck. I don’t know how many he stopped behind the net.”

Ondrej Palat scored twice for Tampa Bay. Nikita Kucheerov scored his 17th, and Anton Stralman scored an empty netter.

“Palat was a beast,” Cooper said. “He was all over the ice.”

Bishop said he wasn’t particularly rusty “after that first goal.” He stopped 26 of 28 shots.

The Bolts are home tonight against Columbus.

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Bucs retain defensive coordinator Mike Smith with extension

The Tampa Bay Bucs have made their first big off-season signing, and it isn’t a player.

The Bucs signed defensive coordinator Mike Smith to an extension shortly after Smith withdrew his name from consideration from the (now Los Angeles) Chargers.

Tampa Bay came on late in the season in their 6-2 second half. They had 29 takeaways, and they led the league in third-down defense.

The Bucs started the season slowly with new corners and new defensive ends. Smith, 57, interviewed for the Jaguars and Chargers head coaching jobs, bringing an impressive resume. He went 66-46 as head coach of the Falcons from 2008-14, reaching the playoffs four times including the NFC Championship Game in 2012.

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Lightning prepared to raise Marty St. Louis’ jersey to rafters

Three years ago, he went away angry.

Three years ago, a lot of Tampa Bay Lightning fans felt he had pulled out on the team.

But tonight, Marty St. Louis returns home for the team’s first jersey-retiring ceremony before the game against Columbus. Finally, the team and its star have reconciled.

“I don’t think even when you’re done playing and you’ve done some great things” St. Louis said, “it’s nothing you hope for. This is an add-on you never felt coming. I’m so flattered and honored. I feel good about what I’ve done. But there are people who want to recognize me for it is something I’ll remember forever.”

St. Louis, an afterthought when he entered the league, always played with a chip on his shoulder, as if he had something to prove. He was undersized as a player, but he showed he was big enough.

“You always feel you have something to prove,” St. Louis said. “It’s hard to make it to the NHL, and it’s hard to be an elite player. It’s even harder to stay there. Every year, kids are pushing you trying to get to there. I took pride in that. I think I was my biggest critic. I was trying to show people I could still do it. I think I was an impact player longer because of that mentality.”

St. Louis looks back on his days in Tampa fondly.

“My wife and I talk about it all the time,” St. Louis said. “We grew up here. We had just gotten married. All of our kids were raised here at a young age. We have a lot of friends of the family who are here. I matured here. It will always be home. It was home. Always be a special place.”

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Rays trade pitcher Drew Smyly for Mallex Smith, prospects

The Tampa Bay Rays, still trying to escape from the AL East cellar, have added some speed to their roster.

The Rays traded pitcher Drew Smiley for young outfielder Mallex  Smith and prospects Carlos Vargas and Ryan Yarbrough. Smith will fit into a suddenly crowded outfield, which also will feature free agent Colby Rasmus, signed two days ago.

Smith stole 16 bases for the Atlanta Braves last year. He has 299 steals in the minor leagues.

Smith, 23, would help the Rays’ outfield makeup by added speed and defense. Rasmus, too, is considered a plus outfielder. He hit .238 last year.

You have to give up something to get something,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said on the team’s website. “But the type of deal we made, the return we got, we thought was something that made sense for us. We’re eager to see how it plays out from here.

“We are heavier with starting pitching than we are in some other areas. And this is an opportunity for us. One of the goals we set out to accomplish this winter was to put ourselves in position to be competitive in 2017, and we’re really doing everything we can to increase competition within our group, be more dynamic and have a greater mix and see how it shakes out.”

Smyly was available because of the Rays’ glut of starting pitchers and his salary. He was schedule to make $6.9 million this season through arbitration. Acquired from Detroit at the July 31, 2014 trade deadline in the David Price trade, Smyly was 15-15 with a 3.95 ERA in 49 starts with the Rays, including 7-12 with a 4.88 ERA last season.

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