#DigSportsDesk - The Lede

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NHL Accepts Expansion Apps from Groups from Quebec and Las Vegas

NEW YORK - The NHL recently confirmed that groups from Las Vegas and Quebec City were the only two organizations to submit applications for expansion franchises by the league's deadline. While the league sent application forms to 16 separate groups/individuals, none from Seattle formally submitted an application.

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    Bill Foley is leading the bid for Las Vegas, with ESPN reporting the group applied as "Black Knight Sports and Entertainment LLC," which includes the Maloof family.

    Quebecor Inc., a media company, said it has submitted its "candidacy for the NHL expansion process in order to bring the Nordiques back to Quebec City." The Nordiques left in 1995 to become the Colorado Avalanche.

    Ownership groups had to submit applications, along with the $10 million fee ($2 million non-refundable), by Monday. 

    None of the three groups that have discussed bringing the NHL to Seattle submitted a bid. Two groups previously had indicated they would not apply. The third, Connecticut-based businessman Ray Bartoszek, apparently balked at the expected $500 million price tag for a team on top of $500 million for a new arena, The Seattle Times reported.

    "Our purpose, in initiating the expansion process in the manner we did, was not only to explore the possibility of admitting new members to the NHL but also, at the outset, to set realistic guideposts to distinguish between bona fide expressions of interest (i.e., those which have at least substantial ownership capabilities and an arena or the realistic possibility of an arena) from those indications of potential interest which were, at best, merely hopes or aspirations," the league said in a statement. "Apparently, only Mr. Foley and Quebecor have the confidence in their ability to secure an arena and suitable ownership capability to move forward with this process.

    "We now intend to focus exclusively on the two expansion applications that have been submitted in accordance with the previously announced process. The process we have outlined for qualified applicants includes at least two more stages of documentation submission. We will provide no further updates until there is something substantive to announce."

    The NHL has said expansion would not occur until 2017 at the earliest.


NBA Draft Review

NEW YORK -- The Minnesota Timberwolves selected University of Kentucky forward/center Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick Thursday night at the NBA Draft.

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    Towns averaged 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 39 games as a freshman and was the Southeastern Conference's first-year player of the year. He helped Kentucky win its first 38 games before the Wildcats were upset by Wisconsin in the national semifinals.

    Towns, widely regarded as the top prospect in the draft, is expected to improve the Timberwolves' rim protection and space the floor for point guard Ricky Rubio and forward Andrew Wiggins. Minnesota had the worst record in the NBA last season and finished last in defensive efficiency, rim protection and defensive-rebounding percentage.

    Even though reports leaked out in the days leading up to the draft, Towns said he did not know the Timberwolves were going to take him until he reached the stage.

    "You have no idea," he said. "You have absolutely no idea, and then I think you're talking about the NBA, it's the greatest cover-ups ever when they're talking about who they're picking. They keep their cards really close to the chest."

    Minnesota had the first pick for the first time since entering the league as an expansion team in 1989.

    Towns was the third Kentucky player taken first overall in the past six years, joining New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (2012) and Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2010).

    Described as a player with a rare combination of size, skill and athleticism for a big man in addition to being an elite shot-blocker, Towns gives the Timberwolves hope they landed an upper-echelon frontcourt star like 1995 first-round pick Kevin Garnett, who will serve as a mentor to the rookie next season.

    As of the moment that Towns was drafted, the Timberwolves had the last three top overall picks on their roster. They acquired Wiggins and forward Anthony Bennett from the Cleveland Cavaliers in last season's blockbuster trade for forward Kevin Love. Wiggins was selected the Rookie of the Year, while Bennett was mentioned in trade rumors.

    The Los Angeles Lakers used the second overall pick on Ohio State freshman point guard D'Angelo Russell instead of Duke center Jahlil Okafor. Russell averaged 19.3 points, five assists and 5.7 rebounds in his only season for the Buckeyes. He was ranked 23rd in the nation with 95 3-pointers and is considered a gifted player with superior court vision who can play both guard positions.

    Many thought that the Lakers would use their highest pick since 1982 on Okafor to continue their tradition of big men such as Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal, but Los Angeles struggled at the point guard position last season with Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson during their worst season in franchise history.

    Russell will join a team that has shooting guard Kobe Bryant nearing the end of his illustrious career and a team that is rumored to be a potential destination for Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins if he is traded or a suitor for free agent forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who opted out of his contract with the Portland Trail Blazers.

    "Kobe is a great dude," Russell said. "Not knowing how much he has left in the tank is the scary thing, knowing how much he brings to the game and if he leaves what we'll lose. But I'm really looking forward to him taking me under his wing."

    Okafor went third to the Philadelphia 76ers, who in the previous two drafts acquired big men Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. Unlike those two players, who sat out their rookie seasons due to injuries, Okafor figures to contribute to the front line instantly.

    In his only year at Duke, Okafor averaged 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds. He was a first-team All-America selection and also was the first freshman to win Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors by displaying a polished post game with an effective back-to-the-basket game that resulted in him shooting 66.4 percent from the floor.

    "I've been playing basketball my entire life, so I feel comfortable doing what I'm asked of," Okafor said. "My bread and butter is the post. That's where I've always been, and that's where I'm most effective."

    Immediately after Okafor's selection, Embiid tweeted, " OK ... Lol"

    The New York Knicks, also coming of their worst season in franchise history, used the fourth pick on Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis, who has played three pro seasons with Cajasol Sevilla in Spain's ACB League.

    The 6-foot-11 Porzingis averaged 10.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in 21.7 minutes per game last season. He shot 47.2 percent and made 32 percent from 3-point range. Some experts compared his game to that of Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.

    With chants of "Let's Go Knicks" in the moments before the pick, crowd quieted before commissioner Adam Silver reached the podium. As Silver made the announcement, fans could be heard yelling "No," and loud boos rang down from the stands as Porzingis made his way to the stage in a crimson suit.

    "There's nothing I can do," said Porzingis, the second Lativan ever picked in the draft. "I was happy about it. I want to be a part of this organization, but I know fans are a little bit harsh sometimes, but that's how it is in New York, and I'm ready for it."

    The Knicks had their eighth lottery selection, but not one of those picks make an All-Star team since Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing. This was their first pick in the top five since they used the fifth overall pick on Kenny Walker in 1986.

    At No. 5, the Orlando Magic picked shooting guard Mario Hezonja of Croatia. The 20-year-old played last season for Spanish club Barcelona and declared for the draft April 23, one day after his team was eliminated in the Euroleague competition.

    The 6-foot-8 Hezonja has a decent wingspan and runs the floor well. He connected on 39.6 percent of his 3-point attempts.

    The Sacramento Kings used the sixth pick on Kentucky forward/center Willie-Cauley Stein. In three seasons in the Wildcats' frontcourt, Cauley-Stein averaged eight points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting 58.3 percent from the field.

    Cauley-Stein also was the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year and is the only player in Kentucky history to total 500 or more rebounds, 200 or more blocks and 100 or more steals. Cauley-Stein will be paired with Cousins unless there is a trade.

    The Denver Nuggets used the seventh pick on point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who originally committed to play for Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown at Southern Methodist University before being ruled academically ineligible. He signed with China's Guangdong Southern Tigers and averaged 18 points and 5.9 assists while being limited to 12 games last season.

    Mudiay could be seen as the eventual successor to Ty Lawson, who was Denver's first-round pick in 2009 but may get moved in the offseason.

    The Detroit Pistons selected Arizona forward Stanley Johnson with the eighth pick. Johnson was the Pac-12's Freshman of the Year, averaging 13.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. He and Okafor were the only first-year players to average that many points and rebounds.

    The Pistons selected the 6-foot-7 Johnson to join a frontcourt that includes Andre Drummond but may not include Greg Monroe, who is a free agent and has been linked to the Knicks.

    The Charlotte Hornets reportedly were discussing a potential deal with the Boston Celtics but used the ninth pick on Frank Kaminsky. The Wisconsin forward was the first senior selected. Last season, he was the national college player of the year, and he helped the Badgers advance to the NCAA championship game by averaging 18.8 points on 54.7 percent shooting.

    The Miami Heat used the 10th pick on Duke forward Justise Winslow, whom many thought would not fall to them. Regarded as an outstanding defender, Winslow averaged 12.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in his only season with Duke. During the Blue Devils' national championship run, he averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds.

    The Indiana Pacers used the 11th pick on Texas center Myles Turner, a highly regarded shot blocker. In his only season with the Longhorns, Turner averaged 10.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, with the latter figure leading the Big 12 Conference. He recorded at least five blocks nine times, and his 89 rejections were one shy of the school's freshman record.

    The Utah Jazz used the 12th pick on forward Trey Lyles, the third Kentucky player to go in the first 12 selections. In his only season with the Wildcats, Lyles averaged 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds, though he produced 10 points per game during the NCAA Tournament. The 6-foot-10 Lyles will team with Frenchman Rudy Gobert, who emerged as a low-post threat on both ends after Enes Kanter was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    The Phoenix Suns used the 13th pick on guard Devin Booker, the fourth Kentucky player picked in the lottery. Booker averaged 10 points per game on 47 percent shooting. He will join a backcourt that contains former Wildcats Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder used the 14th pick on point guard Cameron Payne from Murray State. Payne boosted his stock considerably in the buildup to the draft as he worked out for several teams in the top 10. In his sophomore season with the Racers, he averaged 20.2 points and six assists and helped the Ohio Valley Conference school win 25 consecutive games at one point.

    The Atlanta Hawks selected Kansas forward Kelly Oubre with the 15th pick but sent him to the Washington Wizards for the 19th pick, which wound up being Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant. In his only season with the Jayhawks, Oubre averaged 9.3 points and five rebounds.

    The Boston Celtics used the 16th pick on Louisville guard Terry Rozier to add to a backcourt that includes Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart. Rozier averaged 17.1 points last year and was projected to go toward the end of the first round.

    The Milwaukee Bucks used the 17th pick on UNLV guard Rashad Vaughn. In his only season with the Runnin' Rebels, Vaughn averaged 17.8 points.

    The Houston Rockets used the 18th pick on Sam Dekker. The Wisconsin forward teamed with Kaminsky to lead the Badgers to the national title game and as a junior. He averaged 13.9 points and shot 41.7 from 3-point range during the NCAA Tournament.

    The Washington Wizards used the 19th pick on Grant but dealt him to Atlanta for Oubre. The Hawks then flipped Grant to the Knicks for guard Tim Hardaway Jr.

    The Toronto Raptors used the 20th pick on 6-foot-6 point guard Delon Wright from Utah. Wright earned the Bob Cousy Award as college basketball's point guard after averaging 15.5 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 56.1 percent.

    The Dallas Mavericks used the 21st pick on Virginia forward/guard Justin Anderson, who will join a team with four players currently under contract. He played at the same high school as Kevin Durant.

    The Chicago Bulls used the 22nd pick on Arkansas forward Bobby Portis. He averaged 17.5 points last season, becoming the first Razorback to reach 1,000 career points and 500 rebounds as a sophomore.

    With the 23rd pick, the Portland Trail Blazers chose Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who averaged 11.2 points last season. Their selection of Hollis-Jefferson came after forward Nicolas Batum was traded to Charlotte and Aldridge said he was opting out. There were reports that the Brooklyn Nets were trying to acquire Hollis-Jefferson's rights.

    At No. 24, Cleveland selected Duke guard Tyus Jones. The Cavaliers reportedly will trade him to Minnesota for the 31st and 36th overall picks in the second round Jones became the third Blue Devil selected. Jones was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament after scoring 23 points in the championship game.

    The Memphis Grizzlies used the 25th pick on LSU forward Jarell Martin, who averaged 17 points and nine rebounds.

    The San Antonio Spurs continued their trend of picking international players by using 26th pick on Serbian forward Nikola Milutinov.

    The Los Angeles Lakers added some frontcourt help with 27th selection when they used their second first-round pick on Wyoming forward Larry Nance Jr., whose father enjoyed a lengthy NBA career.

    The Boston Celtics spent the 28th pick on guard R.J. Hunter, who made a name for himself by leading Georgia State to a first-round upset in the NCAA Tournament.

    The Brooklyn Nets used the 29th pick on Syracuse forward Chris McCullough and the Golden State Warriors concluded the first-round by taking UCLA forward Kevon Looney.


Patriots MiniCamp: Pinned in a Corner

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Based on unusual events here Thursday, watch for hell to freeze over next. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, a self-described "tough guy to play for," was apparently so satisfied with the work of his team this spring that he cancelled the final day of mandatory three-day minicamp on Thursday, admitting, "We're not going to conquer the world." With the offensive program, 10 organized team activities (OTAs) and two days of minicamp in the books, New England will now disperse before returning to Foxborough for the opening of training camp in the final week of July.

"We've got a lot of stuff in," Belichick said. "We've done a lot of things. We've gotten into more situational football each day. We'll just keep building on that. It's good to expose it to them once and then the next time around hopefully it will come a little bit quicker.

"We're not going to conquer the world this week, but we can just keep pushing forward on all the basic situations and then as many of those extra ones as we can get to just puts us that much further ahead down the road."

Belichick will also step away from football for a short time in the next few weeks to recharge the batteries before the long stretch from training camp through, ideally, February as the team looks to defend its Super Bowl title in 2015.

"We've had a good, a busy offseason," Belichick said. "It's never really stopped since being in Arizona. We've got a lot done. We've got a long way to go, but yeah, it'll be good to just be able to get caught up on some personal stuff and obviously relax a little bit. Hopefully. that's what it'll be."

The busy offseason Belichick referenced included a lot of roster attrition in New England that leaves the defending champs with a lot of work left to do despite a productive spring.

In the free-agent fleeing of Darrelle Revis (16), Brandon Browner (9), Kyle Arrington (4) and Alfonzo Dennard (4), New England saw 33 starts at the cornerback position from a year ago vanish into opposing air. It leaves a cornerback depth chart that is highlighted by Super Bowl hero and 2014 undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler, third-year former third-round pick Logan Ryan and middling free-agent signings Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain and Derek Cox.

Putting more acute focus on the position is the fact that Butler was held out of six OTA sessions for arriving late to the first due to a cancelled flight. Upon his return to the field, he lined up at left cornerback with the top group that included returning safety Devin McCourty.

Still, cornerback remains a major question heading toward camp. In fact, the bulk of the uncertainties on the Patriots' roster remain as questionable today as they were before the kickoff of the offseason program, OTAs and minicamp.

Who will be the passing back? How about the starting jobs at right and left guard? Will the linebacker health - Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins all missed spring work - derail the front seven? Those all remain major concerns. Add in the unknown of how much time quarterback Tom Brady will miss to open the year and whether Jimmy Garoppolo is ready to lead the troops in his second season and the defending champs have as many unknowns to deal with come August as almost any Super Bowl contender.

The stars of New England's OTAs were the guys who should stand out. Brady looked good. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was the best player on the field at all times. Belichick was very much in control. Those are the constants. Those are the foundation blocks upon which 2015 will be built. Beyond that, there is still plenty to be decided before the Super Bowl XLIX champs are ready to begin the attempted march to San Francisco and Super Bowl 50.

--The Patriots had a minor scuffle at the conclusion of one 11-on-11 rep in minicamp action on Wednesday. It appeared that second-year center Bryan Stork was in the middle of the fracas, without a helmet that may have been knocked off in the pushing and shoving.
Belichick certainly didn't care for the extra-curricular activity in the non-contact, no-pads session.

"We don't really need that," Belichick said with an annoyed tone. "We're just trying to teach things. The competition will start in training camp. There will be plenty of it there. If these guys want to get after it and hit somebody, there will be plenty of chances in training camp - more than they want."


NBA Finals: GS is 40 Strong

Golden State Warriors Take First Title in 40 Years

CLEVELAND -- After it was over, after Klay Thompson released 40 years of frustration by flinging the basketball high into the air while his teammates stormed the court, Andre Iguodala left the mob to race after the ball and catch it.

It was a fitting moment for the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, who caught the Golden State Warriors when they were falling in this series. Iguodala scored 25 points Tuesday to become an unlikely MVP, and the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-97 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, securing the franchise's fourth championship and first since 1975.

"We were fortunate in a lot of ways this year," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. "Maybe No. 1 was health. And to win a title, there's obviously a lot of work, but a lot of luck as well, and we had a lot of luck on our side this year. And our guys took advantage of it. They were fantastic."

The last four decades of Warriors basketball were filled with mediocrity, blown draft picks and losing seasons. All of that is gone now, washed away by one of the league's rising stars and their rookie coach. Guard Stephen Curry scored 25 points and passed for eight assists, and Kerr won his first ring as a coach after earning five as a player. He made the successful transition from the broadcast booth to the bench, taking a team rich in talent and transforming it into an elite squad.

"I was blessed with an unbelievable group of guys my first year," Kerr said. "I can't believe how lucky I am."

Similarly, Curry's meteoric rise to stardom ends with his first championship the same season he won his first MVP award. However, Iguodala won the MVP of the Finals after not starting a single game in the regular season. He edged LeBron James in the media voting, 7-4, after his insertion into the starting lineup for Game 4 turned the momentum of the series.

The Warriors didn't lose a game with Iguodala in the starting lineup. He also took the overwhelming assignment of guarding James. Despite James' gaudy numbers, he shot only 38 percent when Iguodala was in the game, and the Cavs were minus-55 in point differential. When Iguodala sat, James shot 44 percent and the Cavs outscored the Warriors by 30.

"I'm not surprised because I'm that confident in my game," the veteran swingman said of winning the MVP. "I'm not surprised, but I would have bet on Steph. I would have bet on Draymond (Green). I was just happy for winning the ring. I didn't care about anything else. This is just a plus."

The Warriors dominated the regular season, winning a franchise-record 67 games while never losing three in a row. They went 16-5 in the playoffs, winning the last three games of the NBA Finals to close out the Cavs on the road.

"We found a recipe for success, and that's the most important thing for us," Curry said. "Now that we have this under our belt, I think we can actually appreciate what we were able to do this year from start to finish."

Cleveland's title drought, however, drags on. The city hasn't celebrated a championship since 1964, and not even James' return this season was powerful enough to end it. The star forward was sensational throughout the series and again in Game 6, finishing with 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. However, he received little help from an injury-ravaged roster throughout the series, and the Cavs remain without a championship.

James narrowly missed becoming the first player since 1969 to win a Finals MVP award in a losing effort after leading both teams in scoring (35.8 points per game), rebounding (13.3) and assists (8.8) throughout the series.

"It's not a great feeling when you lose," James said. "It hurts me. Just wasn't our time."


NHL Stanley Cup Final: Chicago Takes the Cup

CHICAGO -- The one word missing from the Chicago Blackhawks' legacy was added Monday.

"That's three Cups in six seasons. I'd say you have a dynasty," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the Blackhawks defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 Monday to capture the Stanley Cup in a six-game final series.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said, "This is a special group and I'm glad to be able to share the thrill of a lifetime with them. We have a great group, they love to compete, and that's what we love doing."

Quenneville just wrapped up his 18th year as an NHL head coach, and he led Chicago to championships in 2010, 2013 and now 2015. Chicago claimed the Stanley Cup at home for the first time since 1938. Defenseman Duncan Keith scored the game's first goal late in the second period, and center Patrick Kane sealed the victory with a goal late in the third. Chicago goalie Corey Crawford posted a 25-save shutout. 
Keith, who compiled three goals and 18 assists in the playoffs, was a unanimous winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy, indicative of the most valuable player in the postseason.

"We didn't want to wait around until Wednesday (for what would have been Game 7 at Tampa Bay)," Kane said. "We wanted to get it done tonight, and especially in front of our fans.

"I wanted to play my best game and control the puck as much as possible, and it turned out the way we wanted it to."

As for Bettman saying the Blackhawks are now a dynasty, Kane quipped, "We've won three in six years now. I think that's pretty good."

Blackhawks center Brad Richards, who won his second NHL championship -- coincidentally, the first was with the Lightning -- was ecstatic after leaving the ice.

"We just had a feeling tonight," Richards said. "We were very relaxed. It all worked out. I'm glad I can enjoy this one."

The championship is Chicago's sixth, including titles in 1934, 1938 and 1961 before the recent run. This year's final series was the closest in history, with every game but Monday's being decided by just one goal.

"Tonight, this is truly the Madhouse on Madison," Bettman said. "This was a great Stanley Cup final."

Kane's 15-foot wrist shot with 5:14 left in the third period provided the insurance Chicago needed to back up Keith's goal at 17:13 of the second period. Kane, a right winger, also assisted on Keith's goal, giving him a team-leading 11 goals and 12 assists (23 points) in the playoffs.
Forty-year-old defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who agreed to be traded from the Philadelphia Flyers to Chicago in February to give him one last chance at winning a Cup championship, will now be able to retire as planned with that elusive title properly secured.

"He deserved it, he's been waiting for it so long," Blackhawks center and team captain Jonathan Toews said. "Every (championship) has been special, but this makes it even more special when you can do something like that, to help a guy finally win one."

After lifting the cup to celebrate the championship, Toews skated over to Timonen to give him the honor of hoisting it next. Chicago made its biggest stand of the game late in the third period after left winger Andrew Desjardins went to the penalty box for tripping. The Blackhawks kept Tampa Bay from scoring, preserving Crawford's shutout. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who missed much of the series due to an undisclosed injury, stopped 30 shots.

Tampa Bay was penalized three times in the game, while Desjardins' penalty was Chicago's only infraction.


Jim Breuer on the Healing Power of Comedy & Sports

By Terry Lyons, Editor-in-Chief

Everyone knows that even the most talented athlete has put in long hours of practice and developed a mental toughness second to none. To prepare for competition, athletes spend exorbitant amounts of time on the practice field or in the weight room, just as their coaches do in the film room, looking for clues on how to perfect their offense or counter a defensive scheme. No matter how much talent a professional coach has on his roster or a player has in his God-given gene pool, there’s nothing that compares to preparation through practice, even if the ticket-buying public thinks they can just roll out the balls and play.

Now picture the life of a stand-up comic.

“Some people think what I do is … ‘Oh, yeah, just show up and be funny,’” said comedian Jim Breuer, one of Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All-Time, as he approached the May 29th debut of his “Comic Frenzy” one-hour special on EPIX (check local listings). “Comedy is on my mind 24/7,” he noted when asked of the comparisons between a stand-up comic and a pro ballplayer. “I’m always thinking, always creating and always developing in my head, and I need to a couple months ahead.

“I have this new special coming out now (on EPIX), but I’m plotting and planning for the future and trying to be ahead of the game,” continued Breuer, a Long Island native and ardent New York Mets fan. “You’re a writer, and you have to come up with new material to keep your audience. You want your new stuff to be even funnier. Otherwise, you’re dead. You’re dead in the water.

“It’s just like sports, really. Great, you hit the game-winning home run yesterday but today, you if blew the game with an error on what could’ve been an easy, game-ending double-play? Or, forget it if you’re a pitcher and you just got shelled in today’s game.”

So what’s is like to get shelled as a comedian?

“Thank God, at the stage I’m at now, (I know) I’ll rebound from this. And if I ever get that shelling, it might be from a private, bizarre gig that I probably shouldn’t be doing in the first place, like a small private party with eight people attending in somebody’s living room.”

Popular comedian Jim Breuer doesn’t have to worry about that scary scenario any more. After some 20 years in the business, he can command a stand-up comedy stage much like his favorite New York Mets pitcher, Dwight Gooden, commanded the mound in 1986. 

“Dwight Gooden was one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen in my life,” recalled Breuer, who attended many games at Shea Stadium from 1984 to the Mets’ world championship season of 1986. That’s when Gooden was enjoying a span of about 50 starts when he went 37-5 with a 1.38 ERA and 412 strikeouts in 406 innings pitched. 

“It was an EVENT! He’d show up, he sold out, and people came out just to watch him pitch. He was invincible, mowing people down. It was like watching a Mike Tyson fight (in his early days).”

While it’s fun to watch a game on TV, there’s nothing like attending the event in person. Breuer feels that live comedy supplies that same experience.

“What describes me best (and what portrays him at his best), is when you come see me live. Stand-up comedy is the best “a-game” that I put out there,” said Breuer, after being prompted for insight. “And the reason I feel this show is so good is that I did it 100 percent my way. I filmed it where I wanted to film it - on Long Island, in front of some of my hometown people. I hired the director I wanted to direct, and this is my personal project. I’m very excited about it.

“If someone wonders what I’m like, live, this (EPIX special) is a really great description.”

Comedian Jim Breuer's "Comic Frenzy" debuts May 29th on EPIX (Photo by EPIX)
 

It’s a rare comedic star who becomes an overnight sensation. The more typical path to stardom is similar to the long road an athlete must travel, where hard work, perseverance and dedication to the craft are what make a star a star.

“It comes with experience and it comes with confidence, especially confidence,” Breuer paused to emphasize. “It comes with a drive and determination.

“I went out there in 2008, and here we are, seven years later, and it’s my third or fourth special. But technically I started my career in 1989, so I’ve been around a while, working TV. When you finally find your voice and how you want to use it? It took me quite a while to find that. I was always a huge comedy fan, and I watched it since I was little,” he said, remembering watching Johnny Carson as a youngster, as well as the likes of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello on Sunday mornings.

“I loved it all. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles. I can remember Laugh In and Sonny & Cher. But Eddie Murphy? I went to see him at the Westbury Music Fair when I was about 17 or 18 years old and to see someone that young (Murphy was only 23 at the time), I could just taste it. He was the super-inspiration for me.”

The thrill of making people laugh the way Eddie Murphy could was the attraction to Breuer and drew him to a profession that, like professional sports, provides valuable entertainment value to the average fan.

“Music - Comedy - Sports, they all have healing power,” said Breuer. "They can heal a major part of you. They can be healers of pain or healers of (bad) memories. But they can create great memories…I think that’s why everyone relates to them.

"Sports, music and comedy, everyone needs them."


DeflateGate: Is It Time to 'Fess Up?

By TERRY LYONS, Digital Sports Desk Editor-in-Chief

Some roads are paved by an overnight construction crew with a slab of blacktop. Some roads are paved brick-by-brick, by skilled workers who toil for hours on end to be sure each piece of stone is laid perfectly in unison with the next, all cemented in a pavement that will last for generations to come. Today, there is a new road being paved from Park Avenue in New York to Foxboro, Massachusetts. It might be cheap asphalt or it might be everlasting cobblestone. Only one thing is for sure, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the foreman on the job.

Over the course of more than 100 days, the National Football League and the New England Patriots have been on far opposite ends of a legal tango trying to uncover the facts behind a relatively stupid aspect of league rules involving the proper amount of air in a game ball. While airing that controversy out, the NFL has cautiously detoured, carefully dictating the road that Brady will soon walk down.

New England Patriots QB Tom Brady
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

 

This week the NFL, via a team of hired-gun lawyers and investigators, handed down a 243-page report, authored by an independent sleuth but powered by NFL league counsel Jeff Pash’s checkbook. The Wells Report, camouflaged with legal mumbo-jumbo, uncovered and delivered a “more probable than not” scenario to implicate two New England Patriots game-day employees for their role in tampering with game balls and deflating them to illegal levels of PSI (pounds per square inch) and much to Brady’s liking for a game played on a cold, damp winter evening. The report also stated that Brady “was, at least, generally aware” of the incident. Although the Wells Report left “reasonable doubt” for a level of proof mandatory in a court of law, the investigation left little to the imagination for the all important court of public opinion.

Why is this crazy incident and the Wells Report so important?

On one side of that document, the newfound Magna Carta for NFL integrity because of the fact the alleged perpetrators tampered with the GAME BALLS, is a model sports franchise, model owner and model quarterback with a (real) supermodel wife. The New England Patriots are not only the reigning Super Bowl champions for the NFL, the most powerful, profitable and influential sports league in word history, but they also represent the sport in nearly every fraction one can imagine.

The team owner has been the foundation of the franchise, etched into the New England community for rescuing a franchise that nearly moved down 95 to, god forbid, Hartford, Connecticut. But, more than that, Robert Kraft, along with a very small handful of other NFL team investors, is the face of NFL ownership with visions of man-hugs dancing in our heads, even after contentious labor negotiating sessions, when Kraft was the savior of the NFL as labor stoppage threatened the 2011 NFL season.

The team’s head coach, Bill Belichick, has carved his own legacy in stone as he is certainly on the Mt. Rushmore of the NFL’s greatest coaches ever, alongside Lombardi, Halas, Shula and Landry. Belichick out-smarts, out-prepares, or simply out-coaches his opponents on a scale unimaginable in the modern-day era of salary cap and free agency. His legacy, while secure, was tarnished severely back in 2007 when the NFL levied a $500,000 fine for an unfair videotaping incident known to all as “SpyGate.”

The team’s quarterback and leader, Brady, is amongst the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Period. Off the field, Brady fast became the poster-boy for what the NFL likes to portray as its model citizen. Brady’s good-looks, his storybook romances and media-friendly demeanor are fed to sports fans on a weekly basis every autumn. Most importantly, on the field of play, Brady has backed it up with a decade-plus of winning ways, complete with IV Super Bowl Wins and III Super Bowl MVPs. With it all, Brady has enjoyed endorsements, fame, good fortune and extremely positive public relations throughout his career.

On the other side of the document is the NFL and its Commissioner Roger Goodell, accusing its model citizens of cheating.

As the Patriots camp reacted to the Wells Report, the model team owner put out his statement, noting, “to say we are disappointed in its findings, which do not include any incontrovertible or hard evidence of deliberate deflation of footballs at the AFC Championship game, would be a gross understatement.” Then both Brady’s agent and his father took similar positions to put up a smoke screen of plausible deniability, all using Nixonian-like phraseology, while failing to come out and plainly state - “We didn’t do it.”

As fate would have it, Brady was booked at a Salem State University speaking series, where he had the nerve to helicopter in to sit alongside media maven Jim Gray for a show right out of “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” On that set, Brady smugly glossed-over the news of the day, claiming he hadn’t had time to fully digest and read the account that will undoubtedly be attached to his lifelong resume, nevermind (potentially) negatively impact the 2015 New England Patriots season, depending on yet-to-be prescribed NFL discipline via fine or suspension.

Tom Brady orchestrating the Patriots offense
Getty Images

 

Brady’s continuous, ill-advised steps, from his initial press conference just days after the Deflategate controversy broke to his disingenuous remarks at the bewitched Salem State appearance, place Brady in a precarious position, both in terms of fighting the NFL on the matter of discipline and on his trial in the all-important court of public opinion. While his actions can not be properly compared to the utter depths of sports malpractice, orchestrated somewhat recently by Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong for cheating their sports and fellow competitors by constant denial of utilizing performance enhancing chemistry, the fall-out might be as impactful were it not for the mountain of goodwill Brady has previously built up.

Says sports media guru and former White House Director of Communications Kevin Sullivan, "While it's still unclear what exactly Brady's role was, he has too much personal goodwill in the bank and too much success on the field for this to seriously damage him. Deflategate will be part of his legacy, but more likely as a footnote than a headline.”

With that in mind, it might be time for Brady, Belichick, Kraft and the New England Patriots to set the record straight or  ‘fess up. Even if they have ballboys Jim McNally and John Jastremski text it to us.


 

Nassau Coliseum Memories

 

By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Sports Desk

It was a scene straight out of Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” as my Mom drove up Hempstead Turnpike, past Borelli’s Pizza and across Meadowbrook Parkway, to the brand new arena, glowing in splendor in the vast nothingness of Mitchell Field. As she maneuvered past the parking lot attendants and made a u-turn to drop-off the pack of 13-year olds, her maternal instincts kicked-in and the familiar phrase of “Be Careful” echoed out as the car doors opened. Unlike Frances McDormand’s portrayal of Elaine Miller, mother of William, in the motion picture, my Mom, now 90-years old - God bless her, wasn’t worried about her son doing drugs at a rock show. She was worried about her 13-year old running from the car, so excited to attend the first New York Islanders regular season game ever played.

Now, in 2015, it would be real easy to “Google” - New York Islanders - Nassau Coliseum - First Game - and get some details, but this reporter is going to wing it and encourage the Internet trolls to add comments to correct any wrong-doings of this column. I will trust my memory.

The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

 

The Islanders lost, 3-2. Eddie Westphal, the captain stolen from the Boston Bruins in the dispersal draft, scored the Isles’ first goal. Our tickets were $6.00 face value a hefty price tag for a Newsday paperboy and a considerable increase over the $3.25 student tickets we had purchased to attend the Tuesday night game against the Los Angeles Kings to be staged a few nights later. It was a cool October Saturday night and the buzz outside the arena was noticeable. The opponent was the equally inexperienced Atlanta Flames as the schedule-maker at the National Hockey League brilliantly plotted to have one of the two fledgling NHL expansion clubs get a “W” on their very first outing.

Sports marketing and retailing had yet to be realized in the manner they are today. I wore an Islanders pull-over sweat shirt, ordered from a Sears-Roebuck catalog. There was no such thing as a replica jersey. At that time, if you were to purchase such a thing, you had two choices and they were a Gerry Cosby’s sporting goods store in Westbury or one at Penn Station, adjacent to Madison Square Garden in New York, home of the “hated” New York Rangers. To obtain a New York Islanders jersey, one with Westphal’s No. 18 or Gerry Hart’s No. 2 or Brian “Spinner” Spencer’s No. 9, you had to have it custom made at Cosby’s or mail away to purchase it from stores in Sherbrooke, Ontario, Canada, the real home of ice hockey. The concession stands at the new Nassau Coliseum had little to offer at the time, maybe a foam cut out of a finger or a poster or two.

Instead, we cut out photos from SPORT magazine or, maybe a rare color shot in the New York Times Sunday magazine as colorized newspaper publishing for the six-day-a-week Newsday had yet to come to fruition. We all chose our favorite players, who were cast-a-ways from that God-awful NHL dispersal draft. One of my friends decided Garry Howatt, the feisty forward, would be his guy while another picked Germaine Gagnon. Everyone liked Billy Harris, the Islanders’ top rookie pick, and we all thought Gerry Desjardin would get the job done in goal. He would be the brick wall, the stopper.

Upon entering the Coliseum, the smell was “new,” probably from the 15,000+ newly installed seats. Keep in mind, this wasn’t the very first sporting event at the new Nassau Coliseum. We'd already attended the New York Nets vs. Pittsburgh Condors basketball game before the Islanders were to play their first regular season game ever. It was new because this game actually counted and it counted just the same as so many of the painful nights ahead when Long Island’s very own expansion team would endure such inaugural year misery. Time passed quickly and more memorable nights for Islanders fans were in the glory years ahead.

Those moments from the early 1980s are the times being remembered now, as the Nassau Coliseum hosts its final New York Islanders regular season game. The team will soon be moved to the hip, (wink, wink) center of the ice hockey universe in Brooklyn, and Long Islanders who want to watch their team will have to “change at Jamaica” on a Long Island Rail Road train to Brooklyn. The young fans from Ft. Green and Flatbush will experience the first-ever Islanders NHL regular season game at the Barclays Center, the team’s new home. The memories of the old Brooklyn Dodgers in baseball and the new Brooklyn Nets for basketball will now mesh with a sport entirely foreign to Kings County. The memories of the Islanders and the Nassau Coliseum will shutter when the team either wins the Stanley Cup or is eliminated from the 2015 NHL Playoffs, the former being a storybook final chapter but the latter being more likely this spring.

My memories rush by, as if I were dying an instant death and my life’s best moments were flashing before my eyes. I close those eyes and I can picture Bobby Nystrom’s overtime goal to clinch the 1980 Stanley Cup championship against the Philadelphia Flyers. That moment was the culmination, but, I still and equally cherish — the journey. Thinking of that, my mind conjures up the sight of J.P. Parise’s goal against the New York Rangers in 1975, again in overtime, but instead it was scored at Madison Square Garden to close out a series that allowed the Islanders to turn the corner towards legitimacy. That ’75 Islanders team accomplished the impossible, coming back to beat the Rangers, then doing the same against the Pittsburgh Penguins, going down 0-3, but winning the series in seven games, a feat only accomplished once before, by the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Isles did the same thing against the big, bad Flyers in the very next series, only to fall short in Game 7, the Islanders had truly arrived and it was now a matter of time and overcoming the Flyers and a great Montreal Canadiens team to the north.

Retired Islanders' Legends
Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

 

Just how did they go from expansion babies to Stanley Cup contenders in just three years? My mind wanders to seeing coach Al Arbour behind the bench and team GM Bill Torrey walking the concourse, a concourse poorly designed with too few restrooms and no amenities to speak of from an era of arena design drawn before the days of The Palace of Auburn Hills and luxury boxes on three levels. Torrey and Arbour were the masterminds and we loved them, almost as much as we loved our parents.

My mind rushes to seeing “No. 5,” the great Denis Potvin - the key piece of the soon-to-be-built - and “get this” - the NY Islanders dynasty. Potvin would become the cornerstone, the captain and the best hockey defenseman I’d ever seen, because the Bobby Orr I chose to compare to Potvin was one with knee injuries and a Chicago Black Hawks jersey, not the Bobby Orr - the greatest player of all-time - from his heyday with the Boston Bruins. My mind rushes to watching “No. 19,” Bryan Trottier and his mack truck, bone crushing, body checks and his wizardry in guiding the Islanders first line with wingers Michele “Mike” Bossy from Lavelle, Quebec and Clark Gillies of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Bossy was the goal-scorer the Islanders desperately needed and Gillies became the enforcer who went skate-to-skate and duked it out with all the bullies of Broad Street, like the Flyers’ Dave Schultz, or even Boston’s invincible Terry O’Reilly.

My mind also rushes to visions of the guys who were in the trenches for the Islanders, the guys who brought team chemistry and that extra boost. They were as valuable as Potvin, Trots and Bossy and their names were Wayne Merrick, Nystom, Lorne Henning, maybe even Anders Kallur. My mind envisions the toughest of defensemen, in Potvin, of course, but also in his brother, Jean. The defensive alignments escape me, but I can remember Dave Lewis and Dave Langevin. And, after the Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Olympics, I remember a young Ken Morrow joining the crew, straight from the gold medal stand in Lake Placid and solidifying a team defense in front of goalkeepers Billy Smith and the popular Glenn “Chico” Resch. 

Going back to Torrey, I remember being sad to see the likable Billy Harris traded across the country to the LA Kings, but was happy to see the defense shored up with Lewis and a second-line center brought forth with Butch Goring joining the corps. Torrey had a way, much like basketball great Red Auerbach of the famed Boston Celtics, to secure that one extra piece, that one spark plug or trade deadline gem. In addition to Goring, I knew great things would happen when the Islanders obtained “No. 27” John Tonelli - not only because he wore the same uniform number that I did (truth be told, I also admired Toronto’s Darryl Sittler) - but because he would add extra goal-scoring and toughness, much like Goring did.

The visions are not all about Stanley Cup Championships and ice hockey games. My memories are equally vivid from New York Nets games against Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and the Kentucky Colonels or of David Thompson and the Denver Nuggets or Moses Malone, the youngster straight out of high school, playing for the Utah Stars. As the youngest member of what was certainly a “basketball family,” we probably attended twice as many Nets games as I did Islanders. Similar to the Isles, the Nets delivered in a big way. They stepped up from dark days of Lavern Tart and Joe DuPre in the old Island Garden with the team coached by York Larese to better days with Rick Barry and coach Louie Carnesecca, lured from St. John’s to the pros. The Nets of Coliseum fame were either championship contenders or ABA champions, led by Coach Kevin Loughery and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, of course, and some of my favorites like Ollie Taylor or Wendall Ladner, who died so suddenly and shockingly in an airplane crash at JFK airport.

I loved the Nets of ABA days with John Williamson and John Roche at guard, St.John’s very own Billy Paultz, “The Whopper,” at center and Tom “Trooper” Washington alongside The Doctor at forward. When the Nets and the ABA merged into the NBA in 1976-77, we went from the highly anticipated pairing of “Doctor J and Tiny A (Nate Archibald) in the NBA” to the likes of Bubbles Hawkins as Archibald blew-out his Achilles’ and Erving was sold, shipped and sent to the Philadelphia 76ers right at the peak of his career. The Nets were in financial ruin and their ownership group, headed by Roy L.M. (Let’s Move) Boe was about to relocate the team to Piscataway, New Jersey just to break my heart, I was sure.

Of course, the Coliseum was not just a sports arena. It was a concert hall, too. I caught my very first Bruce Springsteen show on New Year’s eve 1980 at the building, and many more Springsteen shows after that, from "The River" to "Tunnel of Love" and well beyond. We saw “Chicago” - not the Black Hawks, not the Bulls - but the most popular rock band of the ‘70s, and we caught the Allman Brothers, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Elton John and Billy Joel. We watched St. John’s in the ECAC basketball playoffs and an occasional regular season college game, including one that stands out that was an utter annihilation of the Redmen by No. 1 Oregon State.

More importantly, one of the most lasting images I will ever have of the Nassau Coliseum was a simple public address announcement made at an Islanders game against the old California Golden Seals, they of Carol Vadnais and white skates. The public address bellowed the news that the Viet Nam war was over and I remember the game stopping after a whistle, the announcement, and the players all banging their sticks on the ice or against the boards. My cousin, Air Force pilot Kevin Cheney, was going to come home soon. The next summer, they threw a ticket tape parade for the returning POWs. I remember THAT like it was yesterday.

 

 

The closing of the Coliseum is long overdue. I hear they’re thinking of reducing it in size, a bit, refurbishing and updating the old, cement barn, built to resemble The Spectrum in Philadelphia or The Summit in Houston, the modern day marvels of the 1970s arena design. They can do what they want. I hope they make it a town hall for Long Islanders. I hope they make it more affordable and family friendly for ice shows and the circus. I hope they find an indoor lacrosse team or an ECHL ice hockey club. Billy Joel can still play and so can Elton. Sadly, though, too much time has passed for Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. Too much time has passed for Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Too much time has passed for the Allman’s and too much time passed for the likes of the late Brian “Spinner” Spencer, who was once my pen pal as he did time, awaiting the death sentence in a Florida jail after his post hockey life had spun way out of control and into the depths of drug abuse.

My memories are alive and well, unlike Spencer, who was shot and killed in a drug deal gone terribly wrong a few years after being exonerated of the crime he was accused of committing. My memories of a young, hard-hitting fan favorite, my “Spinner" Spencer, along with my fond memories of the Long Island’s very own Islanders and Nets and the dump called the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, will live on forever.


On the Rise in AL

(From Wire Service Reports)

Will Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien establish himself as an effective every-day player? Can Kansas City Royals second-year right-hander Yordano Ventura live up to his "ace" nickname? Can Boston Red Sox righty Matt Barnes be effective out of the bullpen

The answer to these questions are yes, according to The Sports Xchange's network of baseball correspondents brought to you by DigitalSportsDesk, who predict each American League team's on-the-rise player.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

HOUSTON ASTROS: CF Jake Marisnick doesn't project to be even an average hitter (ZIPS predicts Marisnick to post an 81 wRC+ this season), but his defensive acumen in center makes him a valuable asset for a team searching for means to suppress runs. Marisnick saved 14 runs over 534 innings last season, and if he sticks as a regular, that total will surely rise. While spring training stats should be taken with a grain of salt, Marisnick did hit .303/.400/.485 through his final weekend in the Grapefruit League. Should his bat develop, the Astros would be elated.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS: DH/1B C.J. Cron got his feet wet in the big leagues last season and has shown signs this spring he may be ready for a breakout season. Cron hit .256 with 11 homers and 37 RBIs in 79 games last season but never got to settle in and get consistent playing time. This year, Cron will be the Angels' primary designated hitter, will spell Albert Pujols at first base and will bat cleanup when the club is facing left-handed pitchers. He's had a big spring, hitting .421 with three homers, eight doubles and a 1.225 OPS.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS: SS Marcus Semien spent his first two major league seasons as a utility infielder for the Chicago White Sox, making 50 appearances at third base, 29 at second and six at shortstop. This year, he'll open the season as the A's starting shortstop and will get a chance to establish himself in the major leagues at one position. Semien has good power for a middle infielder -- he hit six home runs and drove in 28 runs in 64 games last year. He hit two home runs and four doubles in his first 19 spring training games for the A's. The biggest question is whether Semien can be a solid defensive shortstop, day in and day out, over a full season. He had a strong spring training defensively, but the true test is yet to come.
SEATTLE MARINERS: C Mike Zunino wasn't drafted for his bat when the Mariners selected him third overall in the 2012 draft, but he showed some unexpected power and a knack for timely hits last season. What he didn't show was any kind of consistency. The Mariners need Zunino to improve on his .199 batting average if they want to get any kind of contribution from the bottom of their batting order.
TEXAS RANGERS: 2B Rougned Odor was supposed to spend 2014 in Double-A but instead played in 114 games in the majors at 20, making him the youngest player in the majors. Odor didn't just play either; he hit .259 and showed power, swatting nine home runs and collecting 48 RBIs. The 15 homers he totaled, with six coming at Double-A, are a sign of what's to come too. Odor showed more progress at the plate in the spring, keeping his average over .400 throughout Cactus League play.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

CHICAGO WHITE SOX: LHP Jose Quintana, 26, has been one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball the past two seasons. He's led the White Sox in quality starts, including 66 percent (21) of his 32 outings in 2014, but has just an 18-18 record in that span to show for it. He took 17 no-decisions last year, and four times left games with the lead, only to watch the Sox lose. Perhaps no pitcher was happier to see the Sox sign LF Melky Cabrera and DH Adam LaRoche, who should give 1B Jose Abreu more protection. That might lead to more run production in Quintana's starts.
CLEVELAND INDIANS: RHP Carlos Carrasco, whose career seemed dead in the water early in the 2014 season, rallied late in the season for such a strong and impressive finish that he will start the 2015 season as the No. 2 starter in the rotation. In Carrasco's last 10 starts last year he had a 1.30 ERA and opposing teams hit .179 against him. In 40 appearances overall, 14 starts, he had a 2.55 ERA. He could be poised for a breakout season in 2015.
DETROIT TIGERS: 3B Nick Castellanos had a solid rookie season in 2014, hitting .259 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs. But he struggled defensively after his third position change in three years -- third, to the outfield and last year back to third. Castellanos, 24, spent some time working on his crouch and first step in an effort to get better at third. He is a diligent worker on offense and has a good idea of what's going on at the plate, leading to the belief his production at the late will take an uptick this season and beyond.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: RHP Yordano "Ace" Ventura went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA as a rookie last season. He threw seven scoreless innings against the Giants in Game 6 of the World Series. He threw seven no-hit innings against the Mariners in spring training. Manager Ned Yost named Ventura, 23, to be the Opening Day starter. Ventura's fastball has been clocked in three figures. He could be the staff ace for several years.
MINNESOTA TWINS: SS Danny Santana took the American League by storm last season after debuting in the majors on May 5. If not for Jose Abreu's monster season on the south side of Chicago, Santana certainly would have been in the mix for the AL's Rookie of the Year Award. In 405 at-bats (101 games), Santana hit .319 with seven homers and 40 RBIs. He also stole 20 bags and scored 70 runs. With the Twins continuing issues in center field, Santana played primarily in the outfield last season, but Molitor has shifted Santana back to his natural shortstop spot. He responded with a great spring, hitting .333 in 57 at-bats with three steals.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

BALTIMORE ORIOLES: OF Alejandro De Aza has the power and speed to find an everyday role with the Orioles this season. The club acquired him in August for RHPs Miguel Chalas and Mark Blackmar. De Aza finished with a slash line of .293/.341/.537, three homers and 10 RBIs in 20 games, helping Baltimore make a run to the American League Championship Series. He will likely start in left field and bat leadoff against right-handed pitchers. De Aza does need to improve defensively, but he could become the perfect complement to center fielder Adam Jones.
BOSTON RED SOX: RHP Matt Barnes came to camp as a starter and appeared ready to leave Florida as a member of the Boston bullpen. Barnes, 24, is one of the club's top prospects. Slowed by a bout with food poisoning late in camp, Barnes had a 5.25 ERA in seven Grapefruit League games through April 1. He appeared in five games in relief for Boston last year, recording a 4.00 ERA. In 23 games (22 starts) for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2014, Barnes went 8-9 with 3.95 ERA.
NEW YORK YANKEES: 2B Rob Refsnyder remains someone on the rise for the Yankees even though he will open this season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The Yankees knew Refsnyder could hit and he validated that by batting .333 (13-for-39) in spring training. However, the fielding is still a work in progress for the converted outfielder. Refsnyder made six errors in spring training, but INF Brendan Ryan's calf injury might put him in the mix for Opening Day. If Refsnyder is not there for the season opener, he likely won't appear in New York unless incumbent Stephen Drew falters or gets hurt.
TAMPA BAY RAYS: RHP Jake Odorizzi had a solid rookie year last season, going 11-13 with a 4.13 ERA in 31 starts. Particularly impressive was Odorizzi's 174 strikeouts in 168 innings, with just 59 walks. He also allowed 156 hits, which were less than one per inning. A split-finger pitch learned from RHP Alex Cobb during spring training last year gave Odorizzi something off speed to disrupt the hitters' timing and became a strikeout pitch as the season went on. There is seemingly room for improvement, too, as Odorizzi is just 25.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS: RHP Miguel Castro burst into prominence with a sensational spring training. The 20-year-old's fastball was timed at 100 mph. With a plus changeup at 83 mph and a decent slider, Castro was baffling hitters. The native of the Dominican Republic, who is 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, figures to be a reliever this season, but he has been a starter and that could be his future. He was 8-3 with a 2.68 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) last season at short-season Class A Vancouver, Class A Lansing and Class A Dunedin.


On the Rise in NL

From Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez looking healthy and taking better care of his aging body, to Milwaukee Brewers hard-throwing right-hander Wily Peralta filling the "ace" hole in the rotation, to young Miami Marlins left fielder Christian Yelich preparing to take his game to the next level, there are a number of players who could be on the rise this season.

Below is each National League team's player most likely to fit into that category, according to The Sports Xchange's network of baseball correspondents.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: CF A.J. Pollock appears to be on the verge of a breakout season, and all that seems to stand in the way is health. He has made a steady progression. Pollock made the team in 2013 because of spring injuries and played so well -- 28 doubles, eight homers, 38 RBIs -- that he stayed the whole season. He was hitting .316 with 16 doubles, six homers and eight stolen bases the first two months of last season before suffering a broken hand when he was hit by a Johnny Cueto pitch on May 31. He is the D-backs' best defensive outfielder and will play almost every day.
COLORADO ROCKIES: RF Carlos Gonzalez is coming off a miserable season that saw him set career-lows in games played (70) and batting average .237 and finish with a paltry .723 OPS. But he is playing at about 210 pounds this season, down from 235 after being more diligent than ever about his body and his conditioning. A healthy left knee enables the left-handed hitting Gonzalez to put weight on his back leg, which he was unable to do most of last year, and drive the ball. There's no doubt about his talent. Gonzalez won a batting title, three Gold Gloves and has twice been an All-Star. He was an elite player when healthy and should be so again.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: C Yasmani Grandal was the key player the Dodgers received back from the San Diego Padres in the trade that sent former MVP runner-up Matt Kemp south. The Dodgers think they got a young catcher with tremendous upside offensively who might have been undervalued after two difficult seasons with the Padres. Grandal served a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's performance-enhancing drug policy, then sustained a severe knee injury within a month of his return. Grandal had reconstructive surgery and raced through his rehab in time to open the 2014 season in the Padres' lineup. He hit just .225, and his defensive skills eroded as a result, but the Dodgers expect much more.
SAN DIEGO PADRES: 3B Will Middlebrooks is coming off two injury-plagued seasons that saw the one-time Red Sox top prospect morph into a suspect. However, Middlebrooks had an outstanding spring with the bat and in the field -- looking more like the player who hit .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs in 75 games as a rookie in 2012 rather than the .213 hitter of the past two seasons.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: RHP Yusmeiro Petit pitched well enough as a starter in 2014 to be a serious candidate for a spot in this year's rotation. The problem was: He pitched even better out of the bullpen, and that is where Giants manager Bruce Bochy considers him most valuable. While most observers fear ace LHP Madison Bumgarner might get overworked this season, Petit actually is a greater possibility for overuse. After all, while Bumgarner likely will pitch just once every five games, Petit is a candidate to get used in any of the other four.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

CHICAGO CUBS: OF Jorge Soler, a 23-year-old Cuban defector who signed a nine-year free-agent deal with the Cubs in 2012, appears set in right field and is projected to bat second. Last year, he quickly moved through Double-A Tennessee and landed at Triple-A Iowa, where he played in 21 games and batted .282. He spent the last five weeks of the 2014 season with the Cubs, hitting .292 in 89 at-bats through 24 games. He reached safely in 20 of his first 23 career games and became the first Cub with 18 RBIs in his first 27 games since Mandy Books in 1925. Soler hit .340 in 17 spring training games.
CINCINNATI REDS: OF Brennan Boesch was signed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training camp in November. The 29-year-old might have bashed his way into a reserve outfield spot. Boesch batted .389 with four homers and 15 RBIs with a .667 slugging percentage in his first 19 Cactus League games, pretty much assuring him a spot on the Reds' Opening Day roster. The Reds are Boesch's fourth organization since 2006. He would be a viable left-handed bat off the bench for a club that lacks bench power.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS: RHP Wily Peralta, a hard-throwing 25-year-old, enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, finishing 17-11 with a 3.53 ERA in 198 2/3 innings covering 32 starts. With RHP Yovani Gallardo gone, Milwaukee lacks a true "ace," but the belief is that Peralta has the stuff and mindset to slide into that role in the not-so-distant future. Through two-plus major league seasons, Peralta has a 30-27 record with a 3.83 ERA in 70 games (69 starts).
PITTSBURGH PIRATES: LF Starling Marte has already established himself as a good major league player, hitting .291 with 13 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 135 games last season while also playing superb defense. However, at 26, Marte hasn't reached his peak yet and many scouts and statistical analysts believe this is the year he breaks out into a superstar. Thus, it would not be a surprise if he finished the year with a .300 batting average, 20 homers, 40 steals and his first Gold Glove.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: RHP Carlos Martinez won the No. 5 starting spot, just as the Cardinals hoped he would and just as he wanted to. Biding his time as a reliever for most of the past two years, Martinez longed for the chance to start every fifth day, and he will get it. Wearing No. 18 in honor of the late Oscar Taveras, Martinez must prove he can pitch with precision as well as power so that he can give the club six inning or more every fifth day. Martinez, 23, went 2-4 with one save and a 4.03 ERA in 57 games (seven starts).

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

ATLANTA BRAVES: SS Andrelton Simmons has been one of the top defenders in baseball since he came up to the majors in 2012, winning a Gold Glove in each of his two full seasons. He took a step back at the plate last year, though, and hopefully will benefit from the extra time put in working with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. The spring results were encouraging.
MIAMI MARLINS: LF Christian Yelich just signed a seven-year, $50 million contract extension -- and it appears to be a wise investment for the Marlins. Yelich, 23, is mature beyond his years. His eye at the plate -- his ability to lay off balls and swing at strikes -- is so advanced that it has startled veteran scouts. As Yelich gets older, that pitch recognition figures to get even better, and the respect he will get from umpires will improve, too. Add to that, Yelich's speed and ability to steal bases and his developing offensive game.
NEW YORK METS: RHP Rafael Montero allowed just one run and struck out 14 batters over his final 11 2/3 innings last September. He surged into contention for either a late-inning bullpen role or a rotation spot by striking out nine and walking just two over nine innings in his first three Grapefruit League appearances in March. He struck out six over six scoreless innings against the Marlins on March 30. With RHP Vic Black nursing a shoulder injury, the Mets will go the old-fashioned route by easing Montero into full-time major league duty as a reliever before eventually transitioning him back to a starter.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: RHP Ken Giles had a dominant rookie season in 2014 as he went 3-1 with a 1.14 ERA in 44 relief appearances. The hard thrower struck out 64 in 45 2/3 innings while giving up 25 hits and walking 11 for an outstanding 0.788 WHIP. The best part for the Phillies is that Giles is just 24 and figures to get even better with more experience. He will begin the season as the primary set-up reliever but will move into the closer's role if RHP Jonathan Papelbon is traded.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS: C Wilson Ramos injured his left hand and had to leave the Opening Day game last year in New York against the Mets. He missed 74 games last season but still hit .267 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs in 88 games and 341 at-bats. Ramos, in 2013, hit .272 with 16 homers and 59 RBIs in 287 at-bats and he played in 78 games. He hit .265 in 83 at-bats during 25 games in 2012, and then followed that up by hitting .272 with 16 homers and 59 RBIs in 287 at-bats in 78 games in 2013.

 


NFL: Combine Give-Away/Take-Aways

INDIANAPOLIS -- While there was a lot of action on the field Saturday from the offensive skill players at the NFL Scouting Combine, the defensive prospects were focused on the interview portion of the process, including several potential first-round picks.

  •  

    Here are five takeaways from Saturday's media session:

    1. Washington OLB Shaq Thompson -- It was the first question asked: What position are you? And unequivocally and unmistakably, Thompson answered: "Outside Linebacker."

    Thompson quickly denied the rumors that he would also be participating in running back drills and said his return to offense was "out of the question." He plans to tell NFL teams that he wants to stay at linebacker instead of moving to safety or offense.

    "It's where I feel most comfortable," Thompson said on why he's so adamant on staying at linebacker. "I like to be up by the line of scrimmage. I feel like I'm physical enough. I'm not the biggest guy, but I have a lot of heart."

    With experience at both inside and outside linebacker, Thompson said he doesn't have a preference and he has talked to both 3-4 (inside Will) and 4-3 teams (outside Sam). He said his best strength is making plays in space and being a team leader, having fun and beating up the ball carrier, which sounds very similar to the player he patterns his game after: Lavonte David.

    "He's a little bit taller than me," Thompson said. "But we have the same attributes, the same speed. We can cover tight ends and running backs. I feel like I can do the same things."

    Although the size doesn't stand out, Thompson said height is overrated at the position. And both he and UCLA's Eric Kendricks will have to battle the "undersized" labels.

    "Being too short is overrated," Thompson said. "You have a lot of short linebackers out there. London Fletcher was 5-9 and he brought a lot of inspiration to us. I don't feel height makes the player. Both Eric and I have a lot of heart and toughness. He's a great linebacker, size doesn't matter."

    2. Washington CB Marcus Peters -- A prospect with considerable baggage, Peters did his best to quell the concerns about his character on Saturday, saying he made his mistakes and has to grow from them.

    "It was just a miscommunication, mostly on my behalf," Peters said regarding his dismissal from Washington. "I didn't take the coaching transition too well."

    Peters was kicked off the team in November after several altercations between him and the new coaching staff, although he did call the reports of him choking a coach on the sidelines "false." Since leaving the Huskies program, he has been enjoying family time at home, especially with newborn son Carson, who was born last fall. Peters has also received advice from an unlikely source: Seattle Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch.

    "That's someone that has mentored me throughout my whole life," Peters said. "I watched him grow up playing Pop Warner football. I watched him in high school and I watched him through college. And I got a chance to play at Washington and he played for Seattle."

    Peters said his talks with Lynch are personal, but it was encouraging to hear that he did reconcile with the Washington coaches and will participate at the school's Pro Day on April 2.

    "I recently went up there a couple of weeks ago and had a real good conversation with Coach (Chris) Petersen. We sat down and talked about everything that happened," Peters said. "I sincerely apologized to him again for what I put him and the team through this year. But it was a good conversation and he welcomed me to the Pro Day."

    Peters' mea culpa has mended things at Washington, but is it enough to convince NFL teams he's worth an early first round pick? Time will tell.

    3. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory -- After weigh-ins, Gregory created some buzz on Friday but for the wrong reason. He tipped the scale at only 235 pounds, a lighter weight than most expected for his 6-foot-5 frame. But according to Gregory, NFL teams aren't worried about it and know he will get bigger, although it might be tough for him to keep on the added weight.

    "I can probably say it is a little harder to maintain," Gregory said. "But I have always been able to put on weight real quickly and lose it real quickly."

    Gregory plans to be heavier for Nebraska's Pro Day and is confident that he can carry and play with added muscle mass, saying he has weighed anywhere from "230 to 258" pounds in the past. He revealed that while he has received positive feedback and he isn't worried about it affecting his draft projection, some teams have been "stuck" on the lower weight. Gregory has the pass rush ability to be appealing to any scheme but also admitted the lighter weight could be a turnoff for some teams.

    "I've had a mixture of both," Gregory said when asked about the teams interested in him and the schemes they run. "But with the weight right now, I am sure a lot of 3-4 teams will look at me instead of the 4-3 teams."

    While his size isn't imposing, Gregory does play stronger than he looks, which can be attributed to the emphasis on fundamentals he learned at Nebraska. And he thinks players at the next level can take that for granted.

    "Even at 235 pounds, I still think I set the edge pretty well because of my technique," Gregory said. "I use my strength well for what I weigh. I just did 24 on the bench so I'll only get stronger."

    4. Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- With 40 straight starts under his belt, few thought Ekpre Olomu would face durability questions during the draft process, but after a knee injury during December practice, everything changed for the former Ducks defensive back. Nonetheless, Ekpre-Olomu is staying positive after surgery eight weeks ago.

    "I'm not really too worried how it will affect my draft stock," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I'm more worried about once I get there, how I'm going to move on from there, and how I'm going to perform once I get onto the team."

    Ekpre-Olomu said he feels great and the doctors tell him the knee is healing ahead of schedule. Although the reality is, he likely won't be ready for the start of the 2015 NFL season, which will put him at a disadvantage, missing rookie minicamps, training camp and the preseason. So how does he plan to compensate while on the sideline?

    "I'm going to have to be determined to learn the playbook and make sure all those mental reps those guys are getting on the field," he said. "I have to make sure I'm getting a double amount because I'm not going to actually be on the field. You just have to work as hard as you can every day."

    Ekpre-Olomu cited his instincts and quickness as his best strengths, which fits what the tape says. The bigger question might be, is he ideally suited to stay outside or might he be better inside as a nickel cornerback in the NFL?

    "I'm a versatile player," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I was able to play nickel throughout my career at Oregon and it is going to help me in the long run because now the league runs through the slot receiver. If you can have a guy that can cover the slot and shut him down, it helps the team. And that's all you're looking forward to, trying to win games for the team."

    5. Virginia DE/OLB Eli Harold -- One of the most fascinating aspects of the NFL Draft process is learning about a player's journey to this point. And Harold is no exception. The former Virginia player lost his mother to cancer while he was in high school, something that forced him to grow up at an early age.

    "Growing up without a father and having a mother really doing everything for you, it's pretty tough when you lose her," Harold said. "She was my rock. She would be proud of me right now."

    Harold's mother was diagnosed with yellow jaundice when he was just 14 years old and that would later turn into pancreatic cancer. She died a year later and Harold's older brother acted as a father figure, giving him a support system. Now, Harold just wants to leave a lasting legacy for his mom.

    "The man upstairs blessed me, I'm going to do it for my mom," Harold said. "I just want to show the world that I can do more than just having my hand down. So tomorrow is the day. It's the proving ground and I'm psyched for it. That's what I worked all my life for."

    Harold thought he was ready for the NFL game and left Virginia early to follow his dreams. He launches himself off the line of scrimmage and plays with a relentless motor that pops on film. But even Harold admits he needs to get bigger. Currently at 247 pounds, he ideally wants to get to 255 for the next level.

    "I feel like being in the league, you have to be a little bit bigger than what I am now," Harold said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes. My pro day is March 2 and I'm going to go back and try to bulk up a little bit and show the scouts I can play and not lose a step with the weight on."

    (Recap by Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, owned and distributed by The Sports Xchange in cooperation with Digital Sports Desk.)


Up Next

(Wire Service Report)

NFL: Looking to Sept 201

After applying the NFL's official formula to determine common opponents for the 2015 season, the winners are:

The NFC East and the AFC South. Those are the two divisions whose teams must each play every team in the NFC South, a division without a winning team this year and a pathetic combined record of 22-41-1. The losers, determined by flipping the same logic, would be the be the AFC West and NFC West, whose 2015 schedules are tied to the AFC North, which sent three teams to this year's playoffs and finished regular season with a combine 38-25-1 mark. The NFC West itself will once again be a tough division because it not only plays against the NFC North (38-25-1 this year) but plays twice against each of its divisional rivals (NFC West was 37-27 this season). For those who do not have the NFL's official schedule abacus, here are the basics elements: Every team plays 16 games as follows:

--Home and away against its three division opponents (6 games).
--The four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle (4 games).
--The four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle (4 games).
--Two intraconference games based on the prior year's standings (two games). These games match a first-place team against the first-place teams in the two same-conference divisions the team is not scheduled to play that season. The second-place, third-place, and fourth-place teams in a conference are matched in the same way each year.

Beginning in 2010, a change was made to how teams are paired in the schedule rotation to ensure that teams playing the AFC and NFC West divisions would not be required to make two west coast trips (e.g. at San Francisco and at Seattle), while other teams in their division had none (e.g. at St. Louis and at Arizona).

The official 2015 schedule, with playing dates and times, will be announced in the spring.

NFL Kickoff 2015 Weekend will begin on Thursday night, Sept. 10, and the regular season will conclude on Sunday, Jan. 3.

Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, will be played on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016.

Here are the 2015 matchups by formula:
--AFC EAST intraconference vs. AFC SOUTH
--AFC EAST interconference vs. NFC EAST
--AFC NORTH intraconference vs. AFC WEST
--AFC NORTH interconference vs. NFC WEST
--AFC SOUTH intraconference vs. AFC EAST
--AFC SOUTH Interconference vs. NFC SOUTH
--AFC WEST intraconference vs. AFC NORTH
--AFC WEST interconference vs. NFC NORTH
--NFC EAST intraconference vs. NFC SOUTH
--NFC EAST interconference vs. AFC EAST
--NFC NORTH intraconference vs. NFC WEST
--NFC NORTH interconference vs. AFC WEST
--NFC SOUTH intraconference vs. NFC EAST
--NFC SOUTH interconference vs. AFC SOUTH
--NFC WEST intraconference vs. NFC NORTH
--NFC WEST interconference vs. AFC NORTH

Here are opponents for all teams in 2015:
AFC EAST
--1. New England Patriots. Home: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins; Away: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants.
--2. Buffalo Bills. Home: Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants. Away: Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins.
--3. Miami Dolphins. Home: Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants. Away: Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins.
--4. New York Jets. Home: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins. Away: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants.

AFC NORTH
--1. Pittsburgh Steelers. Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers. Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks.
--2. Cincinnati Bengals. Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Houston Texans, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks. Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers.
--3. Baltimore Ravens. Home: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks. Away: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers.
--4. Cleveland Browns. Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers. Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, New York Jets, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks

AFC SOUTH
--1. Indianapolis Colts. Home: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Away: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers.
--2. Houston Texans. Home: Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Away: Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers.
--3. Jacksonville Jaguars. Home: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers. Away: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
--4. Tennessee Titans. Home: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers. Away: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

AFC WEST
--1. Denver Broncos. Home: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings. Away: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions.
--2. Kansas City Chiefs. Home: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions. Away: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings.
--3. San Diego Chargers. Home: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions. Away: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings.
--4. Oakland Raiders. Home: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings. Away: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions.

NFC EAST
--1. Dallas Cowboys. Home: New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, New York Jets. Away: New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins.
--2. Philadelphia Eagles. Home: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins. Away: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, New York Jets.
--3. New York Giants. Home: Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, New York Jets. Away: Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins.
--4. Washington Redskins. Home: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins. Away: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, New York Jets.

NFC NORTH
--1. Green Bay Packers. Home: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers. Away: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders.
--2. Detroit Lions. Home: Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders. Away: Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers.
--3. Minnesota Vikings. Home: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers. Away: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders.
--4. Chicago Bears. Home: Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders. Away: Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers.

NFC SOUTH
--1. Carolina Panthers. Home: Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts. Away: Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.
--2. New Orleans Saints. Home: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans. Away: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts.
--3. Atlanta Falcons. Home: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts. Away: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.
--4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Home: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans. Away: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts.

NFC WEST
--1. Seattle Seahawks. Home: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers. Away: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals.
--2. Arizona Cardinals. Home: St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals. Away: St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers.
--3. San Francisco 49ers. Home: Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals. Away: Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh Steelers.
--4. St. Louis Rams. Home: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers. Away: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals.