All posts by phnseo

Conor McGregor’s chance to lure Khabib Nurmagomedov back; Max Holloway’s lock on title shot

The UFC’s 2021 debut on ABC was big news for everything that happened inside the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Saturday, and everything that didn’t.

Max Holloway put on one of the most punishing, one-sided displays of boxing in UFC history, landing a record 445 significant strikes in his unanimous decision triumph over Calvin Kattar. Despite absorbing all of that damage, Kattar stood up to the barrage and made it to the final bell.

But just as big as Holloway’s declarative statement for a return shot at the featherweight championship was, the biggest question going into the night centered around the recently retired Khabib Nurmagomedov.

While Nurmagomedov announced his retirement after defeating Justin Gaethje in October, Dana White has been actively trying to draw him back into the fold for one more megafight, with Conor McGregor the likeliest opponent.

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White promised an update on Nurmagomedov’s position on a return fight, and while there wasn’t a definitive answer either way, White’s assertion that Nurmagomedov could be persuaded back into action with a particularly dominant performance in either of two key fights at UFC 257 — set to be headlined by McGregor and Dustin Poirier — left the door open a crack.

With an eye toward the fallout of Saturday’s events, Brett Okamoto answer some of the UFC’s most pressing questions as they project what’s to come.

A rematch versus Khabib Nurmagomedov is Conor McGregor’s to lose

Okamoto: One million percent. Nurmagomedov has spent the past two years basically saying he has no interest in McGregor, but the narrative around McGregor has changed in the past two years. After Nurmagomedov defeated him in 2018, McGregor’s career was really up in the air. It was not a question of whether he was about to retire but rather what he wanted out of the sport at that point.

A money fight once a year? Or did he want to try and get back to where he was in 2016, at the top of the lightweight division?

Would that loss to Nurmagomedov reignite his desire to be the best in the world, the same way he was obsessed with evening the score with Nate Diaz in 2016? It appears to have done the latter. McGregor looks motivated, just as he appeared motivated in 2020, before circumstances out of his control interrupted his plans for the year.

If he looks great versus Poirier and someone hands him a mic, McGregor is going to be the obvious choice to fight Nurmagomedov; and based on White’s comments on the matter, I now expect Nurmagomedov to take that fight, if offered.

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Bills advance to AFC championship with 17-3 win over Ravens

In what was supposed to be a showdown between Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Taron Johnson literally stole the show.

If not for the wall separating the field from the stands in the back of the east end zone, the Bills cornerback might still be running after returning an interception 101 yards for a touchdown that propelled Buffalo to its first AFC championship game appearance in 27 years.

Johnson’s pick-6 of Jackson’s pass with 41 seconds left in the third quarter helped secure a 17-3 triumph over the Ravens in a divisional-round playoff game Saturday night.

“We’re excited. It’s not done yet, we’re not done yet,” Johnson exclaimed. “It’s just a blessing. Our defense stepped up to the challenge.” Johnson’s return matched the longest in NFL history and punctuated a stellar defensive outing in which Buffalo (15-3) limited the NFL’s top running offense to 150 yards on 32 carries.

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Jackson, last season’s NFL MVP, was sacked three times and did not return after sustaining a concussion following the final play of the third quarter, and two plays after Johnson scored. He finished 14 of 24 for 162 yards passing, while being limited to 42 yards rushing on nine carries.

Allen, an MVP candidate this year, finished 23 of 37 for 206 yards and a touchdown.

In a season in which the Bills relied mostly on their dynamic Allen-led offense to outscore opponents, the third-year quarterback was gratified to see Buffalo’s defense make a difference in a game the pass-happy attack was kept mostly in check.

The Bills advanced to the AFC championship game for the first time since 1994 on their way to making — and losing — their four consecutive Super Bowl appearance. Buffalo also extended a season in which it has broken numerous droughts by claiming its first AFC East division title in 25 years and, with last week’s victory over Indianapolis, winning its first postseason match since the same year.

The Bills, have won eight consecutives to match their best streak since 1990 and will play the winner of the AFC’s other divisional playoff between Cleveland and Kansas City on Sunday.

The fifth-seeded Ravens (12-6) had their season come to an end after leading the NFL in yards rushing for a second consecutive year. Baltimore clinched its third playoff berth in three years by winning its final five regular-season games. The winning streak came after a 1-4 skid capped by a 19-14 loss at Pittsburgh on Dec. 2 in a game rearranged three times due to COVID-19 issues.

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Rockets rally past Spurs 109-105 in 1st game without Harden

Houston’s first game without James Harden went better than anyone could have expected.

Christian Wood had 27 points and 15 rebounds, and the Rockets rallied to defeat the San Antonio Spurs 109-105 on Thursday night in their first game since trading away the franchise cornerstone.

“It was fun. It was really cool stuff,” Houston’s first-year coach Stephen Silas said.

Sterling Brown, who took Harden’s spot in the starting lineup, had 23 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 36 minutes. Jae’Sean Tate added 13 points, 10 assists and five rebounds.

San Antonio forward Keldon Johnson had a career-high 29 points and Lonnie Walker IV added 16 points while tying a career-high with four 3-pointers. Houston sent Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team blockbuster trade on Wednesday. 

Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum and Rodions Kurucs, who the Rockets acquired along with numerous draft picks and draft swaps for Harden, are not with the team yet.

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It was Houston’s first match without Harden since 2012, when Oklahoma City traded its young guard to the Rockets primarily due to salary cap constraints.

Harden remained publicly quiet through months of rumors about his unhappiness with the Rockets, but he broke that silence following a second blowout loss to the Lakers on Tuesday. He bluntly said the Rockets were “just not good enough” and that he did not believe the situation could be fixed.

Houston showed otherwise, at least in their first chance to do so.

“We had a team meeting after that last game against the Lakers and we drew the line there,” Tate said. “Everybody has so much to prove.”

The Rockets were also without John Wall and Eric Gordon due to injuries. The upheaval led to more minutes for the remaining roster, and they took advantage of it.

“Spirit is something I believe a lot in and talk a lot about,” Silas said. “We had spirit tonight.”

Seven players scored at least nine points, with Mason Jones scoring a career-high nine points.

The Rockets staged a 15-2 run to lead 105-101 with 1:46 left.

“It’s got nothing to do with defense (or) offense,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the late swoon. “It has to do with between the ears and being ready to play. And we had four or five guys who were out to lunch.”

Brown had a wild, overhead shot land on the top of the backboard for an out-of-bounds call with 9.5 seconds remaining. San Antonio veteran DeMar DeRozan missed a 15-footer with 0.4 seconds left, and the Spurs fouled P.J. Tucker, who made two free throws to seal it.

DeRozan had 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his return from a two-game absence due to personal reasons.

The teams meet again Saturday at the AT&T Center in the finale of a two-game set in San Antonio.

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Packers host Rams with NFC championship game berth at stake

No NFL team scored more points during the regular season than the Green Bay Packers. Nobody has played better defense than the Los Angeles Rams.

That sets up an intriguing showdown of strength vs. strength when MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (13-3) host All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald and the Rams (11-6) in an NFC divisional playoff match Saturday.

“This is what you love,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “These are the type of matchups and opportunities that as a competitor, you can’t wait for.”

Both of these units are at the top of their game.

The Packers have won six consecutive games and have been held below 22 points just once all campaign. Los Angeles got to this point by sacking Russell Wilson five times in a 30-20 triumph at Seattle last week.

“They went to Seattle, played a familiar opponent and played really, really well, and they’re coming in with the confidence that they should have,” Rodgers said. “And we’re coming in with confidence as well, the season that we’ve had and what we believe we’re capable of.”

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Rodgers has set franchise single-season records for touchdown passes (48) and completion percentage (.707) this year while throwing just five interceptions for an offense scoring 31.8 points per game. Donald calls Rodgers a “great quarterback that’s playing lights out this year.”

Donald leads a defense that permitted the fewest points and yards of any team during the regular season.

“At any time, at any quarter of the game, a different guy could make a big-time play for us,” Donald said. “It’s not just one or two guys. When you’ve got a group of guys – all 11 out there – who are pretty much playmakers who can make that game-changing play at any time, you’ve got a great group.”

This will be the first time the NFL’s top-ranked scoring offense and scoring defense have faced off in the postseason since the New England-Atlanta Super Bowl on Feb. 5, 2017. The Patriots had the top-ranked defense and the Falcons had the No. 1 offense that year.

This also will be the Rams’ first playoff game at Lambeau Field. These two franchises have met in the postseason just twice before, with the Packers winning 28-7 in Milwaukee on Dec. 23, 1967, and the Rams winning 45-17 in St. Louis on Jan. 20, 2002.

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Denver Broncos reach deal with Minnesota Vikings’ George Paton to be general manager

John Elway and the Denver Broncos wanted George Paton to be the team’s new general manager so much, Paton was given a longer deal than Elway ever had in the same job.

Paton, who has spent the past 13 years with the Minnesota Vikings, has agreed to a six-year deal to be the Broncos’ general manager, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The Broncos informed Paton’s hiring on Wednesday but did not disclose terms.

Paton had spent most of Tuesday in Denver for what was a second interview for him with team officials, and had returned to Minnesota Tuesday night.

Elway had promised to find the “best candidate, the best person” for the job. The Broncos also interviewed New Orleans Saints assistant general manager Terry Fontenot, Chicago Bears assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly, the New England Patriots’ Dave Ziegler and the Broncos’ director of college scouting Brian Stark.

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“Early in this process, it became clear why George has been such a coveted GM candidate for so many years. He is a proven evaluator who knows every detail of leading football operations,” Elway said in a statement.

“With his experience in all aspects of the job — the college and pro sides, salary cap, trades, working with the head coach and bringing the staff together — George is more than ready to succeed in this role. George has waited and worked for the right opportunity, which shows that he is smart and serious about winning. We’re thrilled to name George Paton as general manager of the Denver Broncos.”

Paton and Fontenot, who did his interview virtually because the Saints are still in the playoffs, were each interviewed a second time Tuesday.

Elway, who has been the Broncos’ top football decision-maker since 2011, announced Jan. 4 he was stepping away from the day-to-day personal operations but would stay as president of football operations at least through the final year of his current contract.

Elway also said he didn’t think the team’s current ownership battle between Pat Bowlen’s children would affect the Broncos’ ability to secure what he believed would be a top candidate. Paton’s six-year deal would likely bridge any potential change in the team’s ownership in the coming years.

Paton has control over the team’s roster, free agency and the draft. The Broncos have missed the playoffs in five consecutive campaigns since the Super Bowl 50 victory and finished this past season 5-11.

The team faces contract option decisions on linebacker Von Miller and Kareem Jackson, and Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons is scheduled to be among the team’s unrestricted free agents. A decision about the plan at quarterback also is among the front-burner issues for the Broncos.

The team has one of the youngest rosters in the league and enough salary-cap room to participate in the open market. Paton is widely considered among the top talent evaluators on the Vikings’ personnel staff, and his exit leaves Minnesota with a big void in the front office. Ryan Monnens, the current director of pro scouting, could be in line to replace Paton this offseason.

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Hubert Hurkacz beats Sebastian Korda in Delray Beach Open final for second career ATP Tour title

Hubert Hurkacz was too good for Sebastian Korda in the final at the Delray Beach Open and, on the last point, a little lucky.

Hurkacz hit a cross-court lob winner corner to corner to close out a 6-3, 6-3 triumph Wednesday for his second career ATP Tour title. With a laugh, he acknowledged he hit the last shot with more of his racket than intended.

“Most of the frame. A little bit of string,” he said. “I thought after I hit it, ‘Wow, it might be good.'”

It was, as were many of Hurkacz’s more orthodox shots. Seeded fourth, the 6-foot-5 Hurkacz displayed rangy defense and a wide variety of strokes when on the attack, even winning one point with a serve and volley on a second serve.

Hurkacz’s only other title was in 2019 at Winston-Salem, where he became the second Polish tour-level champion in the Open era.

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Korda was slowed by an upper leg injury that required treatment in the second set. He broke at love in the opening game but didn’t have a break-point opportunity the rest of the way versus Hurkacz’s strong serve.

Hurkacz said he was buoyed by the fans, even though there were less than 2,000 because of limits imposed due to COVID-19.

“It feels really amazing to win the title here,” he said. “It was really nice to play with a crowd. That was helpful. I enjoyed a lot playing here.”

Hurkacz didn’t drop a set in the tournament and benefited from the draw, becoming the first player since Steve Johnson at Newport in 2018 to win a title without facing a top-100 player. He’ll climb to 29th in the next rankings.

Korda, who had never previously reached even a quarterfinal, stamped himself as a young player to watch in 2021. He beat four players ranked in the top 100 and will climb to a career-best 103rd.

“It hasn’t fully sunk it how well I played this week,” Korda said. “Only good things are going to come from this for sure.” Korda, 20, is the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda, and the brother of LPGA Tour winners Jessica and Nelly Korda.

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Kyrie Irving not expected to rejoin Brooklyn Nets this week; NBA reviewing maskless videos

As the NBA is reviewing videos circulating on social media of a maskless Kyrie Irving at what appears to be a family birthday party, there is no belief the Brooklyn Nets guard will return to the team’s lineup this week, sources told ESPN.

Irving was already ruled out for the fourth consecutive game Tuesday night versus Denver, and sources said that, at a minimum, he is expected to miss Wednesday’s game against New York and Saturday’s against Orlando. His absence has been attributed to personal reasons.

In the videos — which started being widely shared Monday night — a smiling Irving is dancing with his sister Asia on a confetti-covered floor and clapping as she blows out candles. If the video is found to be recent, that behavior could be a breach of the league’s coronavirus protocols.

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The league’s COVID-19 guidelines forbid players from going to clubs, bars and lounges.

They also ban players from attending social gatherings of more than 15 people.

“We are aware of a video on social media featuring Kyrie Irving at a family gathering,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said in a statement Tuesday. “We are reviewing the circumstances with both Kyrie and the NBA in order to determine compliance with health and safety protocols.”

“Kyrie will have the opportunity to address his absence when he is ready to do so,” Marks added.

Nets coach Steve Nash, during his pregame media availability Tuesday, said he hadn’t seen the video in question and wasn’t going to expand on Marks’ statement.

Asked if he is confident Irving will return at some point this season, Nash replied: “Sure.”

On Tuesday night, Irving appeared to attend a virtual fundraiser for Manhattan District Attorney candidate, Tahanie Aboushi. Aboushi shared a photo from the event, which started at 7 p.m. ET, on social media.

The photo appeared to show Irving in one of the video boxes. The Nets tipped off versus Denver at Barclays Center 30 minutes after the fundraiser’s start time.

The investigation into the Irving videos at the family event comes during a turbulent week, as the league is reevaluating its coronavirus health and safety rules. The league has postponed three games this week as positive COVID-19 tests and contact-tracing quarantines mounted.

The NBA in conjunction with the NBPA announced tightened coronavirus protocols Tuesday, including further limiting movement for players and staff members on road trips. If a player misses a game for a COVID-19 violation, he would lose 1/72nd of his salary, according to league rules.

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Chuck Pagano to retire, while Chicago Bears likely to retain Matt Nagy, Ryan Pace

Chicago Bears defensive coordinator and former Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has decided to retire, league sources told ESPN, confirming multiple reports.

The Bears are likely to keep head coach Matt Nagy and general manger Ryan Pace, sources said.

Pagano, 60, spent just two seasons in Chicago after a six-year run as head coach of the Colts. He was hired by the Bears on Jan. 11, 2019, to replace decorated defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos.

In Pagano’s first season, the Bears’ defense lead the NFC in points permitted per game (18.6) and ranked second in the conference in net yards per game (324.1).

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Chicago’s defense again appeared to be the club’s strength in the early parts of the 2020 season, but the group’s performance leveled off as the year wore on. Chicago ended the regular season 15th in run defense and 11th versus the pass as the Bears (8-9) backed into the playoffs in Week 17.

Chicago was eliminated from the postseason by the New Orleans Saints in a 21-9 loss Sunday in the Superdome.

In six seasons as head coach of the Colts, Pagano went 53-43 in the regular season and 3-3 in the playoffs.

The fates of Nagy and Pace had been unclear after the Bears lost eight of 11 to end the year and concluded 1-7 versus playoff teams in 2020.

Nagy — named NFL Coach of the Year in 2018 — has guided the Bears to two postseason berths in the past three years. Pace just completed his sixth year as Chicago’s general manager.

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Sebastian Korda, Hubert Hurkacz advance to Delray Beach Open final

Building on momentum from the French Open, American Sebastian Korda has reached his first ATP Tour final.

Korda, the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda, defeated Cameron Norrie of Britain 6-3, 7-5 in the Delray Beach Open semifinals Tuesday night.

Korda’s opponent Wednesday will be No. 4-seeded Hubert Hurkacz, who defeated American qualifier Christian Harrison 7-6 (4), 6-4.

Korda, 20, is a former world No. 1 junior who earned his first three tour-level wins in September at the French Open to reach the round of 16.

“For me the biggest thing was getting my consistency up,” the 6-foot-5 Florida native said. “Before, I would miss balls I don’t miss now. It’s super big for me to be playing these matches, and getting a feel for my body and growing into my body.”

Korda trained in December with Andre Agassi, and they talked by phone after his latest triumph.

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“He’s super pumped,” said Korda, who arrived at Delray Beach ranked 119th. In his first career quarterfinal, he beat No. 2-seeded John Isner on Monday.

Against Norrie, Korda squandered two match points serving at 5-4 and lost the game, but broke back and then easily served out the match. He lost only seven points on his first serve.

Hurkacz’s only other career final came in 2019, when he won at Winston-Salem to become the second Polish tour-level champion in the Open era.

He’s ranked 35th, and his success at Delray Beach means he might be seeded at next month’s Australian Open. That would permit  him to avoid such title contenders as Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic in the first round, he noted.

“Obviously it’s a step forward, and I want to be playing better and better,” Hurkacz said. “It’s a great start of the year.”

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Ex-Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn reaches deal to become Dallas Cowboys DC

The Dallas Cowboys have hired Dan Quinn to be their next defensive coordinator, the team informed Monday night.

Quinn agreed to a three-year deal, a source told ESPN, matching the length of Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s new contract. Both coordinators will be signed through the 2023 season.

Quinn takes over for Mike Nolan, who was fired last week by head coach Mike McCarthy, and inherits a defense that had one of the worst seasons in Cowboys history.

Quinn was fired as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons five games into the 2020 campaign after having held the job since 2015. He posted a 43-42 record and took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in his second season.

Going with Quinn signals a return to the scheme the Cowboys employed from 2013 to 2019 under Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard.

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Quinn, 50, was the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014, before becoming Atlanta’s head coach.

He employed a 4-3 scheme that mostly used a single-high safety look and helped the Seahawks to consecutive Super Bowl appearances. The Seahawks finished No. 1 in yards and points allowed in his two campaigns.

Team owner and general manager Jerry Jones was eager to move away from the scheme the Cowboys used in McCarthy’s first year because he thought it was too simplistic. Nolan brought in a hybrid defense designed to use multiple coverages and disguises to confuse offenses, but that never really happened.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Nolan and the defensive staff had to implement their new defense virtually, without any benefit of on-field work until a shortened training camp started. The early results were disastrous, with the Cowboys allowing at least 34 points in five of the first six games.

Nolan simplified the scheme early in the season, but the defense never really took hold. The Cowboys permitted the most points in franchise history (473) and concluded with the 31st-ranked run defense.

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