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National Sports Archives for 2016-01

JOHNNY MANZIEL BEING INVESTIGATED FOLLOWING ALTERCATION

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Before Johnny Manziel was found "safe and in no danger," police in Texas used a helicopter to help locate the Browns quarterback, who can't seem to stay out of trouble.

 

Manziel is being investigated by police in Fort Worth and Dallas following a disturbance early Saturday during which he may have assaulted his ex-girlfriend.

 

Manziel, who has had two tumultuous seasons in the NFL, was identified by police after they were called at about 2 a.m. to investigate a report of a possible assault at an apartment complex in Fort Worth. The officers didn't find the caller, but they spoke to an unidentified 23-year-old woman who said she was involved in a disturbance with her ex-boyfriend earlier that night in Dallas.

 

Sgt. Steve Enright later said the man was Manziel, the 23-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner who has made far more headlines for his off-field behavior since college than for anything he's done for the Browns.

There were no arrests, and it's not clear if Manziel has yet been questioned.

 

Police didn't say if the ex-girlfriend was injured. An ambulance was called, but she was not taken to a hospital. The police report said the woman was uncooperative with officers, who were unable to locate a crime scene. The woman told the officers she was involved in a disturbance with her ex-boyfriend earlier that night in Dallas and possibly other locations.

Fort Worth police are working with Dallas police to determine if a crime occurred.

 

According to a statement released by Fort Worth police, they used their Air One Unit helicopter to locate Manziel after his unidentified ex-girlfriend said she was concerned about his well-being. Police called Manziel's cellphone while searching for him before determining he was safe.

 

The Browns had no immediate comment. An email sent Saturday to Manziel's agent, Erik Burkhardt, was not immediately returned.

 

Beyond the legal matter, Manziel could face discipline from the league. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email the league is "aware and looking into it."

 

This is the second time Manziel has been investigated by police following an argument with an ex-girlfriend.

 

In October, police in Avon, Ohio, received an emergency call after Manziel and Colleen Crowley were spotted fighting as they drove near the quarterback's home on the west side of Cleveland. Manziel was not arrested but the matter prompted an NFL investigation to see if he violated the league's personal conduct policy.

 

Crowley had told police that Manziel hit her and pushed her head against a car window. The couple told police they had been drinking alcohol earlier in the day.

 

Manziel was later questioned by a league investigator and cleared - on the same day he was named Cleveland's starter for the final six games of the season - but it was another mark on his already tainted reputation.

 

Manziel spent more than 70 days in a Pennsylvania rehabilitation facility specializing in alcohol and drug addiction treatment last winter. He has never publicly disclosed why he was admitted to facility.

 

His latest off-field problem won't help his standing with the Browns, who seem to be distancing themselves from the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M.

 

As of Friday, new coach Hue Jackson had not yet been in contact with Manziel. The Browns were disappointed when the second-year quarterback, who was taken with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2013 draft, missed a scheduled medical treatment on the final day of the season.

 

Manziel was in concussion protocol at the time, and although he was not required to be at the Browns' home finale against Pittsburgh, the team was unsure of his location when reports surfaced that he was partying in Las Vegas. He was fined for not reporting to the team's facility on Jan. 3.

 

Earlier this week, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said he thought Manziel's relationship with the team could be saved, but his behavior may force the team to release or trade him.

 

"I think Johnny made progress on the field last year. I think that's undeniable," Haslam said Thursday night. "We have a certain expectation for our players and that includes Johnny, and he's got to live up to those expectations."

 

If the Browns want to release Manziel, the earliest they can do so is Feb. 8, the day after the Super Bowl, when the NFL's waiver system begins. Teams can't make trades until the new league year begins on March 9.

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LEBRON SAYS CRITICISM HE UNDERMINES COACHES IS UNFAIR

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) -- LeBron James disdains the notion he's a coach killer.

 

Widely criticized in basketball circles for a perception that he pushed for Cleveland's front office to fire David Blatt last week, James said the criticism that he undercuts coaches is unfair.

 

"But what can I do about it?" he said following shootaround on Wednesday as the Cavs prepared to play the Phoenix Suns.

 

Lebron

 

"I've never, in my time since I picked up a basketball, ever undermined a coach, ever disrespected a coach," he said. "You ask any of my little league coaches, my high school coaches, coaches I've played for in tournaments, camps, my NBA coaches, I've always respected what they wanted to do."

 

Blatt was fired Friday midway through his second season despite having them atop the Eastern Conference standings and leading the team to the NBA Finals last season.

 

Blatt's dismissal - he's the third coach fired on a team James has played on - led to some condemnation of the four-time league MVP. On Tuesday, a limited partner with the Heat said during an interview on Israeli radio that James tried to get Erik Spoelstra fired in Miami. Ranaan Katz later retracted his statement to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

 

Blatt was replaced by Tyronn Lue, his top assistant and a former NBA player who has known James since he was a 17-year-old high school phenom.

 

For many, Lue's ascension was the result of James not wanting Blatt around. There was an obvious disconnect between James and Cleveland's former coach, who was wildly successful in Europe and hired by Cleveland before James decided to return to the Cavaliers as a free agent in 2014.

 

The James-Blatt relationship was scrutinized during both seasons and when it finally collapsed, the LeBron-got-him-fired narrative gained traction.

 

Although James insists that he didn't do anything to weaken Blatt's authority, there were several incidents over the past 18 months that illustrate how he didn't do his former coach any favors. James usually referred to Blatt simply as "Blatt" and often ignored Blatt during games, preferring to discuss strategy with Lue during timeouts. James also famously changed a play designed by Blatt during the playoffs last season before hitting a game-winning jumper to beat Chicago.

 

James said his willingness to speak his mind has led to the criticism that he's not always on the same page with his coaches.

 

"I'm not the owner of a team, I'm not the GM of a team, I'm the player of a team," James said.

 

"People get it so misconstrued because I'm a smart basketball player and I've voiced my opinion about certain things, which I did when I was here my first stint with Paul Silas and Mike Brown. Which I did in Miami with Coach Spo. Which I did with Blatt and I'll do with T. Lue," he said. "And at the end of the day, they'll still have their final call. But, I don't know. What do you guys want me to do, turn my brain off because I have a huge basketball IQ? If that's what they want me to do, I'm not going to do it because I've got so much to give to the game.

 

"There's no difference for me telling my teammates or telling guys how to get better with their game. If I feel I got something that will help our team, ultimately, I like to give it. It helped me get two titles," he said.

 

Whether it's James' words or actions, everything about him is scrutinized. That's the price of being one of the planet's most popular athletes.

 

Still, James has been bothered by some of the recent vitriol directed at him.

 

"People want to throw my name in dirt for no particular reason, because of speculation or whatever the case may be," he said. "But you can't worry about it too much. I got 14 guys here. I got a fan base here and a fan base all over the world that loves what I do and they respect what I do and I can't worry about a select group of people that want to use their negative energy to take away my positive energy."

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CURRY DOES IT ALL AGAIN AS WARRIORS DISMANTLE SPURS, 120-90

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Stephen Curry and the dominant Warriors aren't just beating teams anymore, they're throwing staggering knockout punches against the NBA's best - make that second-best.

 

In a span of eight days, Golden State has 30-point wins over Cleveland, Chicago and San Antonio.

 

Curry

 

Curry scored 37 points and hit six 3-pointers in three scintillating quarters Monday night, and the reigning champions showed they still rule the West by routing the Spurs 120-90.

 

"No moment's too big, obviously," Curry said. "We know this is just another regular-season game, but there was some hype around it. Every time we have an opportunity to prove who we are and take another step in the journey, we're ready for it. It wasn't always that way. This core has been together for a while and understands how to mentally prepare for nights like this."

 

The NBA MVP had 15 points in the opening quarter, 18 in the third and shot 12 for 20 in Golden State's 39th straight home win at raucous Oracle Arena, where a star-studded sellout crowd saw a lopsided showdown in what was billed as a potential Western Conference finals preview.

 

The Warriors (41-4) snapped a 13-game winning streak by the Spurs (38-7), off to the best start in franchise history but without Tim Duncan this time. The teams had the highest combined winning percentage in NBA history for opponents meeting at least 40 games into the season.

 

Curry galloped down the court and pounded his chest after his second straight 3-pointer and 10th consecutive point put Golden State up 76-56 with 7:55 to go in the third. It was his 1,400th career 3 and he became the 26th player in NBA history to reach that mark.

 

Chants of "M-V-P!" came from every corner of the arena as Curry did it all for his highest-scoring total in 17 games against San Antonio - knocking down 3s from the baseline and hitting from 30 feet well beyond the arc. Coming off his second triple-double of the season when he banked in a half-court shot Friday against Indiana, the dynamic point guard had three steals early in the game to set the defensive tone. And the Warriors didn't relent after building a 62-47 halftime lead.

 

All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard scored 16 points for the sloppy Spurs, with Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala guarding him early. The Spurs lacked the presence of Duncan, out because of soreness in his right knee.

 

"They outplayed us in every single aspect of the game," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "Aggression was one."

 

Even coach Steve Kerr was in disbelief watching his current team thoroughly dismantle his old one on both ends - not to mention his mentor and good friend, Gregg Popovich. Kerr coached his second game back following a long leave of absence dating to Oct. 1 because of complications following two back operations.

 

Popovich understood the hype for one of the most anticipated regular-season matchups in recent memory.

"Why not? It's the two teams with the best record, playing it up would seem to be logical to me," he said. "We feel different going against a team that's the best team in the league. I get butterflies in my gut and excited about the game, and all that sort of thing. I don't feel like that every night."

 

Yet the Spurs are still right behind in the standings despite Golden State's NBA-record 24-0 start, so the Warriors wanted nothing more than to send a message that they plan to win another championship.

 

First, the Warriors are pursuing the Chicago Bulls' NBA record of 44 straight regular-season home wins from March 30, 1995 to April 4, 1996. They improved to 21-0 this season.

 

"It was like men and boys out there tonight," Popovich said.

 

FRIENDS FACE OFF

It's not always fun coaching against a friend. Ask Popovich.

 

Seeing Kerr is always extra special, and they talked both Saturday and Sunday nights ahead of this matchup.

 

"I've got a lot of close friends," Popovich said. "The closer you are to one of these guys, you win and you actually to some degree feel a little bit badly for your opponent, which sounds really unmanly in the macho world that we live in. If you lose, it doesn't hurt so much like a normal loss."

 

Kerr disagrees, saying, "I love Pop, that's my guy, but I don't feel that bad right now."

 

Ginobili stopped by Golden State's bench after a first-quarter timeout to give ex-teammate Kerr a hug and pat on the back.

 

Popovich was thrilled to see Kerr - who won two titles with the Spurs - back coaching.

 

"Steve's a different animal. He exudes a lot of confidence and he instills it," Popovich said. "A lot of people can't do that. There's no formula for it, but having Steve back is very, very, very significant for that club and that group of guys."

 

TIP-INS

Spurs: San Antonio committed a season-high 26 turnovers. ... The Spurs had won 23 of the previous 26 at Oracle and 54 of 62 overall in the series dating to April 4, 1998. ... David West had 12 points and five rebounds while starting in Duncan's place.

 

Warriors: Curry has 30-plus points in seven of his last nine games. ... Golden State is 25-2 vs. the West and has won 35 in a row at home against Western Conference teams in the regular season. ... Rap mogul Jay-Z sat courtside eight seats away from Warriors owner Joe Lacob, and rapper Drake also was in attendance.

 

UP NEXT

 

Spurs: Host Houston on Wednesday.

 

Warriors: Host Dallas on Wednesday.

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BRONCOS HEAP PRAISE ON PANTHERS LEADING UP TO SUPER BOWL 50

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- Nothing but compliments for Cam Newton after completely bashing Tom Brady.

And no, this nasty Denver Broncos defense hasn't suddenly turned soft. They're simply playing nice with the Super Bowl still two weeks away.

 

 

The pleasantries seem tame after all the trash talking Denver did before the New England game. The Broncos called Brady a crybaby for complaining to the officials over calls. They also accused tight end Rob Gronkowski of constantly pushing off to get open.

 

On Sunday, they backed up their words by constantly harassing Brady in a 20-18 win over the Patriots to earn a spot in Super Bowl 50 against Carolina (17-1).

 

Now, the Broncos (14-4) are pulling out the respect card, especially when it comes to Newton.

 

"He's probably the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL right now," Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib said.

Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware heaped plenty of praise on Newton, too.

 

"You can't rush timid because if you do that, he's one of those pocket quarterbacks that can get the ball deep down the field," said Ware, whose team will wear their white road uniforms on Feb. 7 in their record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearance. "You have to be able to get pressure on him, but you have to be decisive on how you're rushing. You can't be a wild rusher."

 

The Broncos certainly went wild against Brady, hitting him 23 times, all the more amazing given how quickly Brady usually gets rid of the ball.

 

And no one was in his face more often than Von Miller, who had 2 1/2 sacks and an interception on a pass intended for Gronkowski.

 

"We go out there and the scoreboard talks for itself," Miller said.

 

So good was defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' scheme that after the game, coach Gary Kubiak felt he had to give out several game balls.

 

"We've got to come up with a great game plan against them like we did against New England," Talib said. "We may switch it up here and there a little bit, but for the most part, we're going to get pressure on the quarterback and cover."

 

The Broncos are facing a different kind of QB in Newton. He's not like Brady, who will find seam after seam for big play after big play. Instead, Newton will take off if the pressure is too intense. In a 49-15 win over Arizona during the NFC title game, Newton rushed for two TDs and threw for two more.

 

"Super unique," Talib said. "I've never seen anybody who is that size. He can sit in the pocket and throw it, and then he can run, run wide out. He probably could play any position in the NFL that you wanted to. He's definitely a unique player."

 

Kubiak saw Newton last season when he was offensive coordinator in Baltimore. Newton completed 14 of 25 passes for 197 yards that day but was under duress for much of the game. Newton was sacked twice as the Ravens won 38-10.

 

The Broncos first-year head coach wouldn't mind a repeat performance.

 

"Having to tackle him out in the open field, having to defend the quarterback runs and those types of things will be something different for us," Kubiak said. "It's nice to have a couple of weeks."

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50TH SUPER BOWL: MANNING'S BRONCOS FACE NEWTON'S PANTHERS

Peyton Manning is the only five-time MVP in NFL history, one of the faces of the league and, at 39, the oldest starting quarterback to lead a team to the Super Bowl.

 

Slowed by age and injury, he is no longer the record-breaking passer he once was. Most folks figure Manning's fourth Super Sunday appearance will be his last game as a pro.

 

Cam Newton is at the opposite end of his career, just 26, making his debut in the big game. He also is expected to earn MVP honors for the first time, part of a new breed of dual-threat QBs as good at running as they are at throwing.

 

For the next two weeks, until Manning's AFC champion Denver Broncos (14-4) play Newton's NFC champion Carolina Panthers (17-1) for the Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara, California, on Feb. 7, most of the focus will be on the two quarterbacks who were No. 1 overall draft picks 13 years apart.

 

"Oh, wow," said Newton, whose Panthers opened as 4-point favorites with most bookmakers. "Playing 'The Sheriff.'"

 

That is a reference to Manning, who is 1-2 in past Super Bowls. He won a championship with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, lost with the Colts in 2010, and lost again with the Broncos in 2014.

 

But this is a different version of Manning.

 

Yes, he's still as good as anyone at diagnosing defenses and changing things up - or appearing to, anyway - at the line of scrimmage.

 

Yes, he's still out there yelling "Omaha!"

 

"He most certainly is a Hall of Famer," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.

 

But Manning is not quite as capable as he was, once upon a time, when it comes to putting the football exactly where he wants it, especially on deep routes.

 

This has hardly been a record-setting season for Manning - or, until now, one worth remembering. Overall, the bad far outweighed the good, including one game with a passer rating of 0.0, 17 interceptions to only nine touchdown passes in the regular season, being sidelined for six weeks with a series of injuries, getting relegated to backup duty in the NFL for the first time, and vehemently denying a report linking Manning's wife to the banned drug HGH.

 

"My role has been different and my contributions are different," Manning said. "But I'm fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to contribute still, in some way. And it's a great honor to be going back to the Super Bowl."

 

Here are some of the other story lines for the 50th Super Bowl, which will be Denver's record-tying eighth and Carolina's second:

 

SUPERMAN: Newton threw for 335 yards and two TDs, and he ran for 47 yards and a pair of scores, leading Carolina past the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 in the NFC title game Sunday night. It was the type of dynamic performance he put in all season, the sort of promise he showed while winning a Heisman Trophy in college at Auburn. "I keep saying it: We're not finished. We're not finished," Newton said.

 

MILLER TIME: Broncos linebacker Von Miller was terrific Sunday, getting 2 1/2 sacks and an interception in a 20-18 victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC title game. "I wanted to do it for Peyton," said Miller, who was injured and missed Denver's loss to Seattle in the 2014 Super Bowl.

 

DOMINANT DEFENSES: Both of these teams excel at defense. The Broncos led the NFL with 52 sacks and allowed a league-low 283.1 yards per game, then made life difficult as can be for Brady on Sunday, knocking him to the ground over and over. No one forced more turnovers than the Panthers, and only five clubs gave up fewer points (the Broncos were one, naturally). Against Arizona, Carolina produced seven takeaways.

 

CAROLINA'S STARTS: If the Panthers are able to get off to the sort of start they've made commonplace lately, they might not even give the Broncos a chance to make a game of it. In their two games this postseason, Carolina outscored its opponents 55-7 in the first half. That includes leads of 17-0 after one quarter and 24-7 after two against Arizona. "We wanted to start fast," Newton said. "We wanted to keep the pressure on."

 

INJURIES: Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said he broke his right forearm against Arizona - "I knew something was wrong," he said - but sounded like someone who plans to play in the Super Bowl. The Broncos, meanwhile, lost both of their starting safeties - T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart - to injuries during Sunday's game.

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GOSTKOWSKI'S PAT STREAK ENDS AT 523

DENVER (AP) -- An hour after the game, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski still felt the sting of a rare missed extra point.

 

Gostkowski sent his PAT wide right early in a 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the AFC championship game. It was his first missed PAT in nine years.

 

"I just feel terrible," Gostkowski said. "All day, these guys put their bodies and lives on the line, and for me to come out here and miss a kick, it's a nightmare scenario. I can't even explain how I feel right now. It's just a complete shock and I let a lot of people down."

 

His teammates weren't about to lay the blame at the right foot of Gostkowski, who had made an NFL-record 523 consecutive PATs.

 

"You definitely shouldn't put the heat on him. It's a team game," tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "You can't put it on the hands of Steph. There's no way."

 

Gostkowski said he just didn't "hit a good kick" following Steven Jackson's 1-yard touchdown run with 1:49 remaining in the first quarter. After the miss, the Broncos held a 7-6 lead.

 

Gostkowski's only other miss came in Week 17 of his rookie season in 2006 against Tennessee.

 

After Gronkowski caught a 4-yard TD pass with 12 seconds remaining in the game, the Patriots went for the 2-point conversion as they tried to tie the game. On the attempt, Tom Brady's pass was picked off.

 

"I should have been out there kicking the tying extra point and helping us go into overtime," Gostkowski said. "I had a good week of practice. Sometimes, things don't fall your way.

 

"It just stinks. It's a nightmare. You want to help your team win. You don't want to be the reason you lose."

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MANNING RIDES DENVER'S DEFENSE TO WIN OVER BRADY, PATS

DENVER (AP) -- If this 17th matchup with Tom Brady was indeed the final one, Peyton Manning got the last laugh - thanks to Von Miller.

 

The star of Denver's dizzying defense had 2½ sacks, an interception that set up a touchdown and a pass breakup in the Broncos' 20-18 win over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday.

 

"Hey, I tell you. I can do it all, baby," Miller cracked.

No joke.

 

The Broncos (14-4) beat the Patriots (13-5) for the second time this season, and they dethroned the defending champs by hitting Brady an incredible 23 times.

 

"He was rattled," Aqib Talib said. "I don't think I've ever seen anybody put that much pressure on Tom - ever. So, I think we did a hell of a job getting that pressure on him. That's why we're going to the 'ship."

 

Along with Manning, who was hit just four times.

"I've enjoyed playing on the same team as that defense," Manning said.

 

"I'm glad I haven't had to face them this season, I'll say that. They've been challenging to go against in practice, going back to training camp, but it is special to watch them work and watch them perform on Sunday."

 

Brady praised not only Denver's front seven, but its star-studded secondary.

 

"It was just tough for us to ever get in a rhythm," Brady said.

 

DeMarcus Ware and Derek Wolfe applied plenty of pressure, complementing a "No Fly Zone" secondary that was missing safeties T.J. Ward (ankle) and Darian Stewart (knee) by the end of the game.

 

Denver, which led the league in defense for the first time in franchise history, held on fourth down inside the 20 on consecutive drives before allowing Rob Gronkowski to haul in a 4-yard TD pass with 12 seconds left.

 

A bruised and battered Brady tried to hit Julian Edelman over the middle for the tying 2-point conversion. Talib batted the pass into the air and Bradley Roby intercepted it.

 

The Broncos needed one last big play to secure their spot in the Super Bowl and they got it from the unlikeliest of places - safety Shiloh Keo, a free agent who joined the team last month, smothered the onside kick.

 

"That was intense," Wolfe said. "But I didn't have any doubt in my heart. I knew we were going to win the game."

 

Talib said Denver's defense was fired up over being a 3-point underdog at home to a team they'd already beaten, 30-24 in overtime back in November.

 

"We're the No. 1 seed, got the No. 1 defense," Talib said.

 

Manning, who suffered through the worst season of his career and dealt with a tear in the plantar fascia near the heel of his left foot that cost him seven starts, improved to 6-11 against his rival with half of those wins coming in AFC championship games.

 

One was in Indianapolis the year he won his only Super Bowl ring and now he's beaten Brady twice in Denver for the Lamar Hunt Trophy.

 

So, two months shy of 40, Manning is going to Super Bowl 50 with the chance to become the first starting QB to win Lombardi Trophies for two different franchises.

 

"The big thing is we've got to win," Broncos boss John Elway said. "It's going to be a tremendous add to Peyton's legacy, but also the Broncos legacy, too. We've given ourselves and opportunity and hopefully saved our best for last and in two weeks go out beat a good football team."

 

The Broncos just don't get tight when the games get that way - Sunday's win was their NFL record 11th by seven points or fewer.

 

"We won a lot of games this year just grinding as a football team, playing great defense," coach Gary Kubiak said. "We played tremendous today in making the play at the right time."

 

Ware, an 11th-year veteran heading to his first Super Bowl, gave a speech to his teammates Saturday night. Tired, he tried to come off the field after Gronkowski's TD. Kubiak burned his final timeout instead.

 

"We weren't going to play another play without him out there, not if I could help it," Kubiak said.

 

Kubiak also had high praise for Miller, his fellow Texas A&M alum.

 

"Today," Kubiak said, "along with the defense, he was big time."

 

The pass rushers praised Denver's secondary for giving them the time to knock Brady around.

 

Brady misfired 29 times to go with his 27 completions and finished with a paltry passer rating of 56.4.

 

"They said we couldn't cover their receivers and their tight ends - and we shut them down," cornerback Chris Harris Jr said.

 

Wolfe said he could tell Brady was bothered after he clobbered him on the game's first series.

 

"That kind of got in his head: 'Oh, the D-line's here, they're ready to play,'" Wolfe said. "It sticks in anybody's head when you've got four or five guys that are coming to take your head off."

 

Wolfe, Miller and Harris were sideline spectators in the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago, and now they're leading Manning back with a chance to go out on top during a season when his skills and character were both questioned in media reports.

 

"God couldn't have written the story any better for Peyton," Harris said. "He gets hurt. Then they said he got HGH. And he loses his spot. He comes back. We're on our way to the Super Bowl. I can see a beautiful ending for Peyton."

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Cavaliers Fire Coach David Blatt in Second Season

CLEVELAND (AP) -- David Blatt's second NBA season seemed to be going better than his first. Now, it's over.

 

Blatt was fired Friday by the title-chasing Cavaliers, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. Blatt, who led the team to the NBA Finals last season, will be replaced by top assistant Tyronn Lue, according to the person, who spoke to on condition of anonymity because the team had not yet announced the move.

 

Blatt

 

Lue is to make his debut Saturday night when the Cavs host the Chicago Bulls.

Cavs general manager David Griffin was expected to speak with reporters at a news conference Friday evening at the team's training facility in Independence, Ohio.

 

Blatt's firing came one day after the coach was defensive before and after the Cavs beat the Los Angeles Clippers. Blatt had been bothered by criticism that his team - led by superstar LeBron James - received after a 34-point loss to the defending champion Golden State Warriors earlier this week.

 

Blatt was 83-40 with the Cavs.

Blatt seemed to be adjusting to the NBA game following his struggles in 2015. One of the most successful coaches in European history, Blatt was feeling good about the way his team was performing amid overwhelming expectations. However, there was an apparent disconnect between Blatt and his players.

 

The relationship between James and Blatt was a running saga last season as the Cavs got off to a disappointing 19-20 start. However, the two worked through their differences and won the Eastern Conference title. Despite injuries to All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs took the Warriors to six games before losing the title.

 

Following Thursday night's win over the Clippers, Blatt shared a moment with James at his locker. The pair shook hands and smiled at each other, without any hint that a coaching change could be forthcoming.

Moments earlier, Blatt was on the defensive given the Golden State blowout. He argued that although the Cavs were prohibitive favorites to return to the finals they deserved more credit than they were getting.

 

"It's about my team," Blatt said. "It's about my guys and I don't like it. I don't like it at all. My guys are out there fighting for the Cavaliers and doing the best job they can in a tough NBA - very tough - especially because this is a team that night after night has a target on its back.

 

"They go out there and they fight and they play and they deal with adversity like we've had to deal with all year. We are far from perfect and we are still not at our best, but it's not for lack of effort and it's not for lack of good group of guys that want to do their job as best as they possibly can and I think have done pretty well so far," he said.

 

Blatt said his team was doing well at 30-11 and in first place in the east.

 

"Nobody gave us that," he said.

 

Before losing to Golden State on Monday, the Cavs had just completed their longest trip this season, going 5-1 with the only setback against the San Antonio Spurs.

 

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WARRIORS COACH STEVE KERR TO RETURN FRIDAY AGAINST PACERS

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Coach Steve Kerr is returning to the Golden State Warriors' bench Friday night after a leave of absence dating to the first week of training camp in October as he recovered from complications following two back surgeries.

 

Warriors

 

The defending champion Warriors made the announcement Friday morning that Kerr would coach Golden State against Indiana at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors will try to win their 38th straight regular-season home game to tie the 1985-86 Celtics for third place on the all-time list for such unbeaten streaks. The Warriors went 39-4 in Kerr's absence. They are 19-0 at home this season and haven't lost at Oracle since a 113-111 overtime loss to Chicago last Jan. 27.

 

The 50-year-old Kerr said in mid-December that he was optimistic he would be back in the coming weeks. Kerr had been dealing with headaches and other issues after the operations - the first procedure causing him to leak spinal fluid - that followed Golden State's first championship in 40 years. He watched the Warriors' record 24-0 start from behind the scenes.

 

During a shootaround in Cleveland on Monday before Golden State's 132-98 blowout of the Cavaliers in an NBA Finals rematch, Kerr made an underhanded heave from half court that banked in. He raised his arms in triumph, kicked his right leg out and pumped his fist afterward. That video went out on social media, and had to alert many that he was close to healthy at last.

 

When he began the leave of absence, he initially had hoped to return by Jan. 1, but he did begin taking road trips in recent weeks to test his symptoms. He might still require a day off from time to time.

 

In his first season last year, Kerr guided Golden State to a franchise-record 67-win campaign and its first championship since 1975. Even during his absence, he addressed the team and offered input despite watching the games from an office in the arena or at home depending on how he felt. Being patient tested him, especially when he had to sit out the Oct. 27 opener against New Orleans after taking part in the pregame ceremony celebrating the championship season.

 

Interim head coach Luke Walton, who admirably led reigning MVP Stephen Curry and the champs in Kerr's absence, will return to his spot as top assistant and is sure to attract attention as a head coaching candidate immediately when openings emerge. Walton's father, Bill, broadcast the Arizona-Stanford game on Thursday night for the Pac-12 Networks and offered this message to his son through The Associated Press. "Tell Luke I love him," the proud Hall of Famer said.

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ANOTHER FEDERER MILESTONE: WIN NO. 300 AT A GRAND SLAM

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- The countless records and accolades accumulated over a long and illustrious career don't in any way diminish Roger Federer's satisfaction when he sets yet another benchmark.

 

Federer became the first man to win 300 Grand Slam singles matches when he beat Grigor Dimitrov, a player formerly dubbed "baby Fed" for the likeness of their styles, in the third round of the Australian Open on Friday.

 

Federer

 

The 34-year-old Federer already tops many "most of" lists in men's tennis - from the number of major titles won (17) to the number of consecutive Grand Slam tournaments contested (65). Yet he still gets a thrill from the numbers.

 

"It's very exciting, I must tell you," Federer told the crowd following his 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory over Dimitrov.

 

He compared the latest milestone to his 1,000th win in tour-level matches, which he sealed 12 months ago in Brisbane. "It was a big deal for me."

 

Federer is now 67 wins ahead of No. 2 and long-retired Jimmy Connors in terms of Grand Slam singles wins, so the mark is safe for a while.

 

"It's not something I ever aimed for but when it happens, it's very special," he said. "You look deeper into it, where it's all happened and how. So it's very nice."

 

Federer's next aim is to break a Grand Slam title drought that dates back to Wimbledon 2012. He reached two major finals in 2015, losing them both to Novak Djokovic, who has replaced him as the most dominant man in the draw. He could meet Djokovic in the semifinals.

 

Djokovic took care of the man who ended Federer's run in the third round here last year, the Swiss star's worst run at the Australian Open since 2001.

 

The No. 1-ranked Djokovic needed only 25 minutes to win the first set against No. 28-seeded Andreas Seppi but had a tougher time in the next two, saving two set points in the tiebreaker before winning 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (6). The five-time Australian Open champion was playing at the same time as Serena Williams, a six-time Australian Open winner, so he shuffled over to Margaret Court Arena.

 

He noted how he liked the renovation - the No. 2 stadium has had a roof installed since his last outing there.

 

"I played a quality player who took out Federer last year here and who has been on the tour for many years," Djokovic said. "It was a great test. It was a physical match. I'm just glad I got through."

 

After extending a streak of making the fourth round or better at every major since a third-round exit at the 2009 French Open, Djokovic will play No. 14 Gilles Simon in the Round of 16. Federer will play David Goffin.

 

Williams raced to a 6-1, 6-1 win in 45 minutes over 18-year-old Russian Daria Kasatkina on Rod Laver Arena to set up a fourth-round match with Margarita Gasparyan, whom she beat early at Wimbledon last year.

 

If the fourth-round results go on rankings, she'll meet No. 5 Maria Sharapova in a quarterfinal match that will feature both of last year's finalists. While Williams' form has been good, it hasn't drawn quite the same attention as her bright yellow crop top and pleated mini-skirt.

 

"I just wanted to push the envelope again, just bring pop culture to tennis, kind of make it really fun," she said. "It's definitely not built for warmth, but it's built for speed."

 

Sharapova had a milestone victory when she beat Lauren Davis 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-0 to record her 600th win at tour level, becoming the 17th and only fourth active women's player to reach the mark.

 

"I think it's a proud number," the 2008 champion and four-time Australian Open finalist said. She next plays No. 12 Belinda Bencic.

 

No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska advanced to a fourth-rounder against Anna-Lena Friedsam, who beat Roberta Vinci - the Italian player who ended Williams' bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2015.

 

Also progressing were No. 10 Carla Suarez Navarro and Russian-born Australian Daria Gavrilova, who held off No. 28 Kristina Mladenovic 6-4, 4-6, 11-9.

The home crowd couldn't quite lift No. 29 Nick Kyrgios, who was distracted by the noise and upset with the umpire in his late-night, four-set loss to No. 6 Tomas Berdych, a two-time semifinalist.

 

No. 12 Marin Cilic also lost but Kei Nishikori - whom Cilic beat in the 2014 U.S. Open final - advanced over No. 26-seeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and will next play 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

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ELWAY BUILDS A TEAM THAT WILL GO DOWN KICKING AND SCREAMING

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- John Elway's mind was still racing and he was trying to figure out what, exactly, was missing after another rough ending last season.

 

Hard to put his finger on it, but he knew this: "At least in the last game," he said, "you want to feel like you go out kicking and screaming."

 

Elway

 

So, out went John Fox. In came Gary Kubiak. And Elway, who had famously coined the term "There's no Plan B," in Denver when he signed Peyton Manning a few years before, had unwittingly created a mantra for the 2015 Broncos.

 

By most accounts, this year's Broncos do, in fact, go out kicking and screaming on most weeks - showing a fire that was strangely lacking under the teams coached by Fox, especially in the final games of each of his four seasons. In three playoff losses and another in the Super Bowl, those teams lost by an average score of 38-17.

 

How will this season end? And where? Still to be seen.

But Elway has reason to believe the end, whether it comes Sunday against New England in the AFC title game, or two weeks from Sunday in the Super Bowl, will include a bit more kicking and screaming. This team is 10-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and has rallied from 14 points down three times to win.

 

"If we didn't have that this year, we wouldn't be where we are," Elway said. "Kind of the guts of this team is the fact that we've been in tough football games and we've figured out how to win them."

 

On the road to figuring that out, the Broncos have also made it clear that there is a Plan B - something Elway completely dismissed when asked, on the day he signed Manning, what he would do if the quarterback's shoulder and neck didn't turn out to be as healthy as advertised.

 

As last season progressed, and Manning wore down, Elway became more focused on building a team that wasn't completely reliant on its QB throwing for 400 yards and four touchdowns every week. A running game was born.

 

If nothing else, last season's spiritless 24-13 loss to the Colts in the playoffs, with Manning at less than 100 percent, served as confirmation the Broncos needed more than a Hall of Fame quarterback to win the Super Bowl. The story line felt very familiar to Elway, who won both his championships at the tail end of his career - while buttressed by a strong running game and defense.

 

So he hired Kubiak, whose arrival brought with it a new focus on ball control and balance. The subsequent hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator made the Broncos more aggressive on that side of the ball. The defense was ranked first in yards allowed this season, scored five touchdowns and continually came up with timely, game-changing plays - see last week's, fourth-quarter, momentum-shifting fumble recovery in the win over Pittsburgh.

 

As the surest sign that things had changed, the Broncos went 5-2 when Brock Osweiler started in place of Manning over the second half of the season. Not a single one of those wins -or any of Denver's 13 victories this year - has been a runaway. Not a single one included a 35- or 40-point outburst that became common over 2012, 2013 and 2014.

 

"Every game is not going to be 'win by 30,'" linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "We've got to go out there and fight. Our team does a good job of fighting through it and making 'ways' out of 'no ways.'"

 

Yes, this year's team wins ugly. Those rallies from two touchdowns behind? They came against Kansas City, Cincinnati and New England. That's why the Broncos are playing the AFC title game at home.

 

"Believe me, we are battle-tested," running back C.J. Anderson said. "There are times, offensively, that we are like, 'What are we doing?' But we just fight and we grind."

 

Maybe Kubiak put it best when he was addressing the team in the locker room after last week's 23-16 victory over Pittsburgh.

 

The Broncos struggled for almost the entire 60 minutes - dropping passes, settling for field goals and allowing Manning to take a beating. They won a typical grinder of a game, set up when cornerback Bradley Roby, victimized on a couple of long pass plays, punched the ball out of a running back's hand to create the game's only turnover, which led to Denver's only touchdown.

 

"We kept battling and that's what we've been all year long," Kubiak told the players. "We've been a battling football team that there's no telling who's going to make the damn play."

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NFL'S FINAL 4 HAS NO OVERWHELMING FAVORITE

AP- The NFL has its final four, and the oddsmakers are forecasting tight games.

 

Considering that the divisional matchups all finished with one-possession results, this weekend's championship games should be just as close, right?

Well, maybe not in one case.

 

The 17th and possibly final installment of the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady saga appropriately takes place in a conference title game. This one is in Denver, where Brady is 2-6, including a loss this season when Manning was injured and Brock Osweiler was taking snaps.

 

So yes, there are some raised eyebrows when the betting line is placed at New England favored by 2 1-2 points in the Mile High City.

 

This is the third time Denver has been a home underdog since Manning came aboard in 2012. Houston won 31-25 as a 1-point favorite that year. This season, Denver took apart Green Bay 29-10 in November when the Packers were a 3-point choice.

 

But there are also these elements to consider:

-Of the four winners last weekend, New England looked the strongest.

 

-Brady's postseason pedigree is better than Manning's overall. He is 22-8 in the playoffs, including 4-2 in Super Bowls. Manning is 12-13, 1-2 in Super Bowls.

-Brady also is 10-6 overall facing Manning, but the record is 2-2 in the playoffs.

 

Of course, the Patriots quarterback is in his 10th AFC championship game, fifth in a row, and has gone 6-3. Denver's QB is in his fifth and is 3-1, including 2-1 against Brady. That offsets the indicators favoring New England just a bit.

 

-Health. Brady has a nagging ankle problem, but he didn't seem affected against Kansas City, and he's certainly closer to peak form than Manning.

-Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has never been in charge of a Super Bowl team. Bill Belichick has made a habit of it.

 

No quarterback has won five Lombardi Trophies, and Brady has that in his sights, too.

 

"It's a big football game, and he's played in a lot of them," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "Doing the things that you've done to get yourself in this position are really important. ... Even though these games have finality to them that some games in the regular season or preseason don't have, he approaches it the same way."

 

It seems as if much of America dreads another trip to the big game by Belichick's team. Time to swallow hard and ...

 

BEST BET: PATRIOTS, 24-13

 

Arizona (plus 3) at Carolina

Both clubs left their fans, neutral observers and probably themselves shaking their heads last weekend.

The Panthers, who had the league's best record at 15-1, pummeled two-time defending NFC champion Seattle 31-0 in the first half. Carolina's defense got consistent pressure on Russell Wilson and shut down the ground game. Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen were dominant on offense.

 

Then it all soured, the Seahawks scored the next 24 points and probably were an onside kick recovery away from forcing overtime. Newton admitted his team needs more killer instinct.

 

Arizona displayed that trait in overtime against Green Bay, sparked by Larry Fitzgerald's weaving 75-yard catch and run. But the Cardinals never should have needed the extra work, allowing a 60-yard completion on fourth down, then a 41-yard desperation TD pass on the final play of regulation.

 

Each team has an outstanding defense, but the feeling here is lots of points will be had in Sunday's late game.

The majority of those points will be scored by the hosts, who have won 12 in a row at home.

 

PANTHERS, 33-28

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2015 RECORD: Against spread: Week 2-2, Season (125-124-7). Straight up: Week 4-0, Season (161-103)

Best Bet: 8-10-1 against spread, 11-8 straight up.

Upset special: 9-9 against spread, 6-12 straight up.

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Reds Retiring Rose's No. 14, Inducting Him Into Team Hall of Fame

Reds announce Rose's No. 14 to be retired during team hall of fame induction weekend.
 
CINCINNATI (AP) - Pete Rose is headed into the team hall of fame in his hometown of Cincinnati, the Reds said Tuesday.
 
The Reds' announcement came after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred last month rejected Rose's application for reinstatement. Manfred concluded that baseball's career hits leader continued to gamble even while seeking to end the lifetime ban imposed in 1989 for betting on numerous Reds games while playing for and managing the team.
 
The Reds' team hall of fame induction is planned for the weekend of June 24-26. Rose, 74, began and played most of his career with his hometown team.
 
The National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 adopted a rule keeping anyone on the permanently ineligible list off the ballot. Rose said after Manfred's decision that he still held out hope he would one day be inducted into the national hall.
 
Manfred said last month that his decision continuing the MLB ban was separate from any determination on National Baseball Hall of Fame eligibility. He added that while Rose remains banned from working for any major league team or minor league affiliate, he could make ceremonial appearances with the commissioner's approval.
 
At the time, Reds' chief executive Bob Castellini said the club was pleased "to have opportunities to commemorate Pete's remarkable on-field accomplishments." He said any future celebrations involving Rose would be discussed first with the commissioner. Rose has rejoined his teammates from the 1975-76 world champions in recent years in on-field reunions and other ceremonies in Cincinnati.
 
On Tuesday, Castellini said in a statement that inducting Rose into the Reds' hall will be "a defining moment" in franchise history.
 
"He is one of the greatest players to ever wear a Reds uniform and it will be an unforgettable experience watching him being honored as such," he said.
 
Rick Walls, executive director of the Reds hall of fame and museum, said "in front of his fans and with his teammates, 'Charlie Hustle' will be recognized for his contributions to the rich and distinguished history of the Reds."
 
The club's hall of fame board chose Rose as the sole inductee for this year. Ken Griffey Jr., who will be inducted into the national Hall of Fame this summer, was among the latest inductees to the Reds' hall, which has 85 members.
 
It already has much of the "Big Red Machine" team including the late manager Sparky Anderson. Rose will be the last inductee from the regular starting eight of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, David Concepcion, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo and Ken Griffey Sr.
 
   
 

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EAGLES HIRE PEDERSON AS NEW COACH

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- The Eagles have hired Doug Pederson to be their coach.

 

Pederson was Kansas City's offensive coordinator the past three seasons.

 

Pederson accepted the offer to become Philadelphia's coach last week. The team had to wait for the Chiefs to be eliminated from the playoffs before making it official.

 

Pederson started nine games as quarterback for the Eagles in 1999. He replaces Chip Kelly, who was fired one game before completing his third season.

 

The Eagles interviewed six candidates, including two-time Super Bowl champion Tom Coughlin.

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MANNING, BRONCOS ROCK ON AFTER 23-16 WIN OVER STEELERS

DENVER (AP) -- This would've been no way to send Peyton Manning into the offseason.

 

Seven dropped passes.

 

A whiplash-inducing, blindside hit from an unblocked blitzer.

 

A flurry of field goals and a defense that gave up big chunks of yards too often.

 

All that ugliness got set aside thanks to the sort of comeback that has defined the Denver Broncos all season.

 

They rallied for a 23-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday to move themselves and their 39-year-old quarterback one win away from the Super Bowl.

 

The 17th edition of Manning-Brady is set for next Sunday. But before that, Manning will savor a win in Denver's 17th game of the season - one every bit as rough, rugged and up in the air as any of the previous 16.

 

"This was a dog fight, a grinder and went down to the last drive," Manning said. "If you can be in a lot of those games and win those games, it certainly gives you confidence and, hey, it's playoff football."

 

The Broncos (13-4) improved to 10-3 on the season in games decided by seven or less.

 

This one turned when Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby punched the ball out of Pittsburgh running back Fitz Toussaint's hands with 9:52 left.

 

Until then, Denver had settled for four field goals and trailed 13-12.

 

After the day's only turnover, the Broncos put together their only touchdown drive - 13 plays, 65 yards over 6:52, capped by a 1-yard run by C.J. Anderson. A 2-point conversion made it 20-13.

 

"Bottom line, you lose the turnover battle in a hostile environment against good people and it's going to cost you," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "And it cost us today."

 

Making his first start since Nov. 15, Manning finished 21 for 37 for 222 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. The totals might have been better were it not for seven drops from his receivers.

 

Next up, the Patriots, who fell 30-24 in overtime to Denver earlier this season, when Brock Osweiler was playing in place of Manning while he nursed his injured foot.

"They're one of the best teams in the AFC," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "Let's go out and play and see who wants the Super Bowl."

 

Things we learned from Sunday's game:

 

CLASSIC MATCHUP: The Patriots opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite over Denver, despite playing on the road. This will be a rematch from the AFC title game of two years ago, when Broncos receiver Wes Welker leveled then-Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, knocking him out of the game and opening things up in the secondary. Manning threw for 400 yards in a 26-16 win. The teams are different now.

 

"Our defense is guiding us. Let's make that clear. They played great all season," Manning said. "They were dominant today against a high-powered offense."

 

STEPPING UP: With no Antonio Brown (concussion), Ben Roethlisberger found another big-play receiver in Martavis Bryant, who caught nine passes for 154 yards.

 

"The plan for me was to stay focused - stay focused on my job and go out and handle my business," said Bryant, who also had two carries for 40 yards.

 

Bryant may have been so open because Denver's defense was in zone a lot, with Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. dealing with a sore shoulder.

 

"We were able to move the ball, and then we just ... we kind of get down there and hurt ourselves," Roethlisberger said. "Part of that was because they're the No. 1 defense in the world."

 

BIG HIT: The Broncos defense may have bent a few times, but was never upended. The same can't be said of their defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

 

The 68-year-old coach was taken out by Bryant after the Steelers receiver got pushed out of bounds on the Denver sideline. No damage done, though.

 

Phillips popped back up quickly and slapped his back side.

Head coach Gary Kubiak never even saw it.

 

"I can assure you he's fine," Kubiak said. "He's in there hollering. I just left him, so he's all right."

 

CAN'T-MISS McMANUS: Broncos kicker Brandon McManus went from missing kicks in five consecutive games down the stretch to making history Sunday: His 5-for-5 performance in tricky crosswinds helped Denver come away with points when the offense kept stalling.

 

"During warmups, we went out there and it was a pretty calm day - a nice, tempered day. We come out 7 minutes before kickoff and I see a 30 mph crosswind come in over the Rockies," McManus said. "So, I wasn't nervous at the time, but I knew it would make for an exciting day."

 

McManus is the seventh kicker to make all five of his field goal tries in a playoff game.

 

BUTTERFINGER BRONCOS: Denver's biggest bugaboo this season has been dropped passes, and that trend continued, with Demaryius Thomas, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman all letting passes bounce off their hands.

 

Emmanuel Sanders and Bennie Fowler each had two drops. Fowler made up for it with his 31-yard catch on third-and-12 to set up Denver's only touchdown.

 

"A couple of those were the wind, but as a receiver we should have still made those plays," Thomas said.

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PATRIOTS TO 5TH STRAIGHT AFC TITLE GAME, BEAT CHIEFS 27-20

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with two touchdown passes and reached over the goal line for another score Saturday to lead the New England Patriots into the AFC championship game with a 27-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

 

It's the fifth straight trip to the conference title game for the defending Super Bowl champions.

 

The Patriots (13-4) will meet the winner of Sunday's game between Pittsburgh and Denver for a spot in Super Bowl 50 as they try to become the first repeat NFL champs since they did it in 2003-04.

 

After spending the last two weeks recovering from knee and back injuries, Gronkowski had touchdown catches from 8 and 16 yards The All-Pro tight end had seven receptions for 82 yards.

 

Kansas City (12-6) had won a franchise-record 11 consecutive games, including 30-0 at Houston last week in the wild-card round.

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BRONCOS VOW NOT TO MAKE SAME MISTAKE AND OVERLOOK STEELERS

DENVER (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers stagger into Denver with an ailing Ben Roethlisberger, who won't have his leading rusher or his top receiver against the league's best defense Sunday.

 

So what?

 

The Steelers (11-6) are deep even without All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) and running back DeAngelo Williams (foot), and the Broncos insist Big Ben can go deep even with a sprained throwing shoulder.

 

The Broncos (12-4) swear they won't make the same mistake they did last year, either.

 

They were in this situation a year ago, coming off a bye and facing a banged-up opponent who was a big underdog.

 

Indianapolis 24, Denver 13.

 

"I think we were focused on New England," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "We just knew we were going to tear Andrew Luck and the Colts, get them up out of here and get ready to go to New England. So, when I look back on last year, there was a lot of, 'Next week when we go to New England we've got to play Gronk like this.' There was a bunch of future talk when we didn't even get the Colts yet."

 

The Broncos believe the coaching staff wasn't dialed in either, as coordinators Jack Del Rio and Adam Gase were interviewing for head coaching jobs, and John Fox let it be known even before kickoff that Chicago was his kind of town.

 

"I don't think we had all-the-way focus," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "Everybody had their minds set on trying to get paid, coaches were trying to leave and go get head coaching jobs. So, I mean, we had a lot of scrambling and stuff going on last year. I think this year everybody's more focused. Everybody's bought in."

 

Nobody's thinking about the AFC championship this time.

 

"Not a drop of overlooking guys," Talib said. "Not a drop of that."

 

Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, whose 80-yard TD in overtime was the dagger the last time these teams met in the playoffs four years ago, said, "All we're worried about now is the Steelers."

 

And there are plenty of good story lines for this matchup:

 

PRIMED PASSER: Peyton Manning's teammates say the five-time MVP looks like his old self - maybe even better - as he gets set for his first start in 64 days.

 

"Eighteen is a little more amped up, to be honest," C.J. Anderson said.

 

That could be because Manning has acknowledged this playoff run could be it for him.

 

Brock Osweiler started the last seven games for Denver while Manning was sidelined with a left foot injury, but Manning's epic cameo against San Diego secured the AFC's top seed and earned him the starting gig again.

 

"I think he's looked great," tight end Virgil Green said. "He's been throwing the ball very accurately, putting a lot of oomph on the ball, throwing the ball deep, short, medium. ... So, I think he's looked like the Hall of Fame Peyton he's always looked like."

 

REPLACING A.B.: Brown is out with a concussion courtesy of Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but with Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton combining for 163 catches and 14 TDs, the Steelers are confident they'll carry on just fine.

 

"We've got great wideouts," rookie Sammie Coates said. "We're going to go out there this weekend without our lead dog and we're going to fill in his shoes and make the plays we know we've got to make."

 

PAYBACK TIME?: The Broncos are still smarting from their 34-27 loss at Pittsburgh last month when Roethlisberger capitalized on Denver's dearth of safeties, and Steelers center Cody Wallace speared David Bruton Jr.

 

That drew a flag and a fine but no suspension, and the Broncos promised Wallace would pay the price next time they saw him.

 

"It's not going to be anything as far as cheap or anything," Stewart said. "We're going to get them between the lines, between the plays, the whistle. So, I mean, he's going to be sore after the game."

 

MOTHER & CHILD REUNION: Demaryius Thomas' mother will see him play in person for the first time Sunday.

 

Katina Smith was released from federal prison last summer when President Barack Obama commuted her sentence on drug trafficking charges. Smith went to a halfway house in Georgia and then home, but was restricted from traveling until now.

 

"I'll be excited, she'll be excited," said Thomas, whose mother and grandmother were arrested and incarcerated when he was 11 years old and he had to go live with an uncle.

 

DENVER DUO: Broncos pass-rushing partners DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are healthy again just in time to chase down Roethlisberger.

 

Ware will wear a brace on his left knee, the same one he used during his 20-sack season in Dallas, and Miller vows he won't be wolfing down any more mozzarella sticks at the movies after doing so forced him to miss Wednesday's workouts.

 

He'd gone to see "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" on his day off.

 

"The Force struck back," Miller said.

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STEELERS-BENGALS CLASH RESULTS IN $83,665 IN FINES

The NFL fined four players and two coaches a total of $83,665 for their actions in the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati wild-card game.

 

Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones was fined $28,940 for contact with an official, a foul that moved the Steelers closer for their game-winning field goal in the final seconds Saturday night.

 

His teammates Wallace Gilberry and Domata Peko were each fined $8,681. Gilberry's fine was for unsportsmanlike conduct and Peko's for unnecessary roughness.

 

Steelers guard Ramon Foster was fined $17,363 for unnecessary roughness.

 

Earlier this week, the league suspended Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict three games without play for his conduct in the game, which Pittsburgh won 18-16 to advance to Sunday's AFC divisional round game in Denver. Burfict was flagged for a hit that knocked out Steelers star receiver Antonio Brown, who was ruled out of Sunday's game against the Broncos.

 

Although Burfict wasn't issued any additional fines this week, he'll miss out of $502,941 of his $2.85 million salary in 2016 if his suspension is upheld.

 

Jones apologized Friday for claiming Brown was faking a concussion at the end of the game, posting a video on Instagram in which he said "I apologize sincerely. Get well." Jones said in the aftermath of the loss that Brown winked at him before being helped off the field after taking a shot to the head from Burfict.

 

Also, Pittsburgh assistant coaches Mike Munchak and Joey Porter were each fined $10,000.

 

Munchak was penalized for pulling safety Reggie Nelson's hair on the sideline after a play concluded. Porter was fined for being on the field when Jones drew his into his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the closing seconds.

 

Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was not fined for knocking Bengals running back Gio Bernard with a helmet-to-helmet hit that wasn't penalized.

 

Also, Green Bay defensive end Datone Jones was fined $17,363 for his roughing the passer penalty on Kirk Cousins in the Packers' 35-18 wild-card win at Washington last weekend.

 

The Steelers and Bengals were fined a total of $118,649 in their previous game, a 33-20 win by the Steelers in Cincinnati on Dec. 13. Burfict was fined $69,454 for three separate infractions in that game, which started with a pregame skirmish at midfield when Burfict and Steelers linebacker Vince Williams got into it.

 

The Steelers were upset with Burfict for his actions in the Bengals' victory in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1. In that game, Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury on a tackle by Burfict, and some of the Steelers took exception to the way the demonstrative Burfict strutted after his hard hit.

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STEELERS WIDE RECEIVER ANTONIO BROWN OUT DUE TO CONCUSSION

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have ruled out All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown from Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game against Denver while he recovers from a concussion.

 

Brown left last weekend's wild-card win over Cincinnati after taking a shot to the head from Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Brown has not practiced all week while following the NFL's concussion protocol. The four-time Pro Bowler tied for the league lead with 136 receptions and was second in yards receiving with 1,834 this season.

Brown had made 55 consecutive starts for Pittsburgh.

 

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains questionable for the showdown with the Broncos. Roethlisberger is dealing with a sprained right shoulder. He was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday. The team hopes he can throw during Friday's workout

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49ERS HIRE CHIP KELLY AS NEW COACH

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -- The San Francisco 49ers hired Chip Kelly as their coach Thursday, finding a focused, football-first leader CEO Jed York is counting on to turn the once-proud franchise back into a contender.

 

York announced the move on Twitter and so did the team on its Twitter account.

 

"After a thorough search, Trent & I are thrilled to announce Chip Kelly as the new #HeadCoach of the @49ers," York wrote, referring to general manager Trent Baalke.

 

Chip Kelly

 

Kelly won't be introduced in a news conference until next week based on schedules.

 

The former Eagles coach will replace fired coach Jim Tomsula. Kelly emerged as the favorite among several experienced candidates that included former Raiders, Broncos and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, ex-Giants coach Tom Coughlin and former Raiders coach Hue Jackson, who was hired Wednesday to coach the Cleveland Browns.

 

The 52-year-old Kelly was fired by Philadelphia after Week 16 with one game left in his third season as coach. The former University of Oregon coach was 6-9 in 2015 following two 10-6 seasons, prompting Eagles CEO Jeffrey Lurie to make a change.

 

Hiring the offensive-minded Kelly could give the 49ers good reason to keep quarterback Colin Kaepernick to work his way back into the dominant, dynamic quarterback he was a few years back with his legs and strong arm. There has been thought that Kaepernick would be Kelly's ideal type of quarterback.

 

Deciding on the quarterback will be a major decision for Kelly in the coming months.

 

Former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert took over in November for the benched Kaepernick, who has since undergone shoulder and thumb surgeries. Kaepernick's $11.9 million salary for 2016 becomes fully guaranteed for injury come April 1, and there had been belief the team might try to trade him or release him.

 

Baalke interviewed Coughlin on Monday on the East Coast and Jackson on Sunday in Cincinnati. Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter also interviewed, last Thursday in Tampa, Florida.

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CURRY SCORES 38 BUT WARRIORS LOSE TO NUGGETS, 112-110

DENVER (AP) -- Stephen Curry was just about unstoppable in the fourth quarter, except near the very end.

 

Curry scored 20 of his 38 points in the final period but lost the ball under defensive pressure from Danilo Gallinari in the game's final moments, and the Denver Nuggets hung on to hand the Golden State Warriors their third loss of the season, 112-110 on Wednesday night.

 

"It was a great opportunity to try to tie the game or take the lead," Curry said about the last of his eight turnovers. "Got stuck between looking for the open man and handling the ball, and one little mishandle and Gallinari got it."

 

The defending NBA champion Warriors (36-3) had won seven straight since their previous defeat, 114-91 at Dallas on Dec. 30.

 

Harrison Barnes added 18 points and Klay Thompson had 17 for the Warriors.

 

Gallinari led the Nuggets with 28 points but it was his defense at the game's critical moment that made the difference, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

 

"Gallo has proven this year he can guard most players on the floor," Malone said. "And he did a great job. He got into a stance, forced a deflection, was first to the floor and comes out with the loose ball. Those are winning plays. Those are what separate teams and we had enough winning plays tonight where we were able to withstand the furious comeback that they made."

 

Will Barton added 21 points for the Nuggets, who snapped a four-game losing streak to the Warriors despite being outscored 37-29 in the final period.

A dunk by Brandon Rush gave the Warriors a 68-64 lead, but Denver outscored Golden State 19-5 over the last 5 1/2 minutes of the third quarter to take a 10-point lead into the fourth.

 

The Warriors, however, kept chipping away as Curry led the charge.

 

Layups by Curry and Andrew Bogut cut the deficit to 102-97 with 2:05 remaining. Curry and Barton then traded 3-pointers before Darrell Arthur hit a jumper with a minute left for a 109-102 Denver lead.

But the Warriors fought back, getting a layup from Barnes and a 3 from Curry sandwiched around a Nuggets turnover, pulling to 109-107 with 37.1 seconds left.

 

And it appeared the Warriors had the Nuggets right where they wanted.

 

"That fourth was a barrage of 3s," Denver forward Kenneth Faried said. "Steph stepped over halfcourt and made one and I was just like, 'Man, not this again.' But we held them off."

 

With defense.

 

With the Warriors in position to tie or go in front, Gallinari stole the ball from Curry.

 

"I think he lost the ball and it came towards me and I just dove to the ball," Gallinari said.

 

He started a fast break that ended in Gary Harris, who finished with 19 points, being fouled and making a pair of free throws.

 

Thompson hit a 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds remaining to pull the Warriors to 111-110. They fouled Gallinari intentionally and he made one of two free throws, but Thompson missed a long jumper at the buzzer.

 

"It felt good," Thompson said. "If I got my legs into a little bit more, I think it would have gone in. It was on line, it was just short."

 

The Warriors, who trailed by as many as 10 earlier, pulled to 55-54 at halftime on Barnes' jumper in the final seconds of the second quarter.

 

Gallinari had 15 points in the first half, including a reverse layup that preceded Barnes' final shot in the second quarter to keep the Nuggets on top at the break.

 

TIP-INS

 

Warriors: F Draymond Green was not available because of a scheduled rest day. ... Curry hit a 3-pointer in his 93rd consecutive road game, extending his NBA record. ... Leandro Barbosa returned from a shoulder injury, seeing his first game action since Christmas. ... Barnes scored in double figures for a third straight game.

 

Nuggets: F J.J. Hickson was sidelined after undergoing a root canal earlier in the day. ... Denver added depth at guard by signing Sean Kilpatrick to a 10-day contract. ... Jusuf Nurkic left early in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury.

 

UP NEXT

 

Warriors: Complete a back-to-back set by hosting the Lakers on Thursday night.

 

Nuggets: Continue an eight-game homestand against the Clippers on Friday night.

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MAYOR HOPES FOR FRESH START WITH CHARGERS ON STADIUM TALKS

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Mayor Kevin Faulconer left a message for Chargers chairman Dean Spanos on Wednesday, inviting him back to the negotiating table.

Spanos was still traveling back from Houston, where on Tuesday night he suffered a stinging defeat while still being granted the chance to leave San Diego for Los Angeles.

 

"I indicated I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get together and discuss things positively and collaboratively," Faulconer said at a news conference at City Hall, where he was joined by County Commissioner Ron Roberts and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.

 

Faulconer said the NFL's rejection of the Chargers' plans to build a stadium in Carson with the Oakland Raiders gives both sides the opportunity for a fresh start in what has been a bruising saga in San Diego that has damaged the team's relationship with what had been a loyal fan base.

 

But it's up to Spanos to decide if he wants to restart talks in San Diego with an extra $100 million from the NFL to go toward a replacement for aging Qualcomm Stadium, or come to an agreement with Stan Kroenke to join the St. Louis Rams in Inglewood.

 

NFL owners voted 30-2 to allow Kroenke to build a $1.8 billion stadium in Inglewood. The Rams are expected to play in the Los Angeles Coliseum beginning in the fall.

 

Spanos appeared stunned at a news conference in Houston on Tuesday night.

 

The Chargers walked away from talks with San Diego city and county leaders in June.

 

Mark Fabiani, the attorney who has led the Chargers' stadium effort on Spanos' behalf, declined to answer specific questions about San Diego on Wednesday.

"I will just reiterate what Dean said last night: The Chargers have been approved by the NFL to relocate to Los Angeles, and now that the NFL meetings are over Dean is going to take a few days to evaluate the franchise's new options," Fabiani said in an email.

Fabiani did not respond when asked if he and Spanos had met with Kroenke on Tuesday night to discuss a deal to be either a partner or a tenant in Inglewood.

 

The Chargers must notify the NFL by March whether they intend to move to Los Angeles for the 2016 season.

The Chargers have been trying since 2002 to replace Qualcomm. The long-running stadium saga turned nasty in the last year as Fabiani fiercely opposed Faulconer's proposals to keep the team.

 

Faulconer and Roberts issued a statement Tuesday night that had a bit of an edge to it, saying they "are not interested in a charade by the Chargers if they continue to pursue Los Angeles."

 

Faulconer had a little different outlook Wednesday.

"Today is an opportunity for a fresh start," he said. "I sincerely believe that we can create both success for the Chargers' organization and the San Diego region if we have a sincere commitment to work together, the city and Mr. Spanos."

 

Asked who had the leverage, Faulconer replied: "I don't think it's about that at all. I think it's about an opportunity for a fresh start. A lot happened this past year. But we do have on the table a plan that's viable, if we approach this in a spirit of openness and cooperation."

 

Faulconer and Roberts indicated that it could be difficult getting a measure on the June ballot, and that the November ballot seemed more realistic.

 

The leaders indicated they don't plan to move off their offer of a $350 million public contribution toward a $1.1 billion stadium at the Qualcomm Stadium site. The city-county proposal calls for the Chargers to contribute $353 million with the NFL adding another $200 million in a loan, plus the $100 million in new money. Naming rights could be credited toward the Chargers' portion.

 

Finances were never discussed during three brief negotiating sessions between the team and the city and county. Instead, the Chargers raised concerns with a hastily conducted environmental impact statement they felt could get tied up in court.

 

Faulconer's top political strategist, Jason Cabel Roe, has said that if the Chargers resume negotiations, they need to come without Fabiani because he has no credibility with elected officials.

 

However, Goldsmith said Wednesday he could work with Fabiani.

 

The Chargers have indicated in the past that they'd like a downtown stadium. But Faulconer and Roberts said that option would be more expensive and take longer.

Fabiani didn't answer a question about whether the Chargers would try to get their own initiative on the ballot.

 

Asked the odds of getting something done, Faulconer said: "Our chances of success when we work together are astronomically better."

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Cleveland Browns Hiring Hue Jackson as Head Coach

CLEVELAND (AP) - A person familiar with the decision says the Browns are hiring Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as their next coach.
 
Jackson will become the team's eighth coach since 1999 once the sides have finalized his deal, the person told The Associated Press on Wednesday on condition of anonymity because the team has not announced the hiring. 
 
The Browns were drawn to the 50-year-old Jackson because he has NFL head coaching experience, his deep knowledge of the AFC North and his strong record working with quarterbacks. 
 
Cleveland has the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft and will likely use it on a quarterback. 
 
Jackson spent the past two seasons overseeing Cincinnati's offense. He pushed quarterback Andy Dalton to his best statistical season and was known for his creative flair with unbalanced lines and unorthodox formations. 
 
Jackson replaces Mike Pettine, who was fired after going 10-22 in two seasons.
 
Press Conference starting at 6:30 PM tonight.

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NFL APPROVES RAMS TO LA, CHARGERS OPTION TO JOIN

HOUSTON (AP) -- The St. Louis Rams are moving back to Los Angeles and the San Diego Chargers will have the option to join them in a compromise approved by NFL owners Tuesday night.

 

The Oakland Raiders, who also wanted to move to the area, could take the Chargers' spot if they stay in San Diego, Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

 

The Chargers and Raiders wanted to share a new stadium in Carson, California, and the Rams wanted to move to nearby Inglewood, but neither option got the 24 votes needed for approval. After a day of negotiations in Houston, the owners approved the St. Louis move 30-2, with a first option for San Diego to share the $1.8 billion stadium Rams owner Stan Kroenke is building in Inglewood, California.

 

The decision ends the NFL's 21-year absence from the nation's second-largest media market.

 

"I often said over those 21 years what we need is a great facility," Goodell said. "The reason the two teams left in the 1990s ... was they didn't have an adequate stadium. I think what happened over the last years is we had two outstanding opportunities, both of these stadium projects were outstanding."

 

The Chargers and Raiders can continue to negotiate with their home cities, and the league will contribute $100 million if either team builds a new stadium in their current markets.

 

"I will be working over the next several weeks to explore the options that we have now created for ourselves to determine the best path forward for the Chargers," chairman Dean Spanos said.

 

Ray Perez, a 28-year-old Raiders fan from Sacramento who goes by the moniker Dr. Death, traveled to the Houston meeting in his usual Black Hole garb, was cautiously optimistic after hearing the news.

 

"I will not be completely, fully thrilled until the ink dries on paper and we know we're staying in Oakland in a new stadium," Perez said. "I'm very happy, very happy. But I'm not going to be overjoyed until we sign a stadium deal to keep the Raiders in Oakland with our own stadium."

 

The Chargers play 120 miles south of Inglewood in Qualcomm Stadium. The Raiders played in Los Angeles from 1982-94 and currently split a facility with baseball's Athletics, the last remaining NFL-MLB stadium.

 

"Relocation is a painful process. It's painful for the fans, for the communities, for the league in general," Goodell said. "In some ways a bittersweet moment, because we were unable to get the kind of facilities done we wanted in their markets."

 

The Rams -based in the LA area from 1946-94 - will play in a temporary facility - probably the Los Angeles Coliseum - until the new stadium is ready for the 2019 season.

 

"Today, with the NFL returning home, Los Angeles cements itself as the epicenter of the sports world," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. "We cannot wait to welcome the Rams, and perhaps others soon."

 

No NFL franchise has moved since the Houston Oilers went to Tennessee in 1997. The Raiders and Rams both left Los Angeles after the 1994 season.

 

In a report to all 32 teams days before the meetings, Goodell deemed the venues in all three existing cities inadequate and said the stadium proposals lacked certainty.

 

Kroenke has said St. Louis' economy makes it difficult for an NFL franchise to thrive there.

 

"We understand the emotions involved of our fans," he said. "We made a decision and worked long and hard at the various alternatives. When they didn't succeed, we worked this one to this point."

 

The St. Louis proposal calls for an open-air, $1.1 billion stadium along the Mississippi River north of the Gateway Arch to replace the Edward Jones Dome.

 

The plan includes $150 million from the city, $250 million from Kroenke, at least $200 million from the league, and $160 million in fan seat licenses. The rest of the money comes from the state, either through tax credits or bonds.

 

Goodell says NFL policy limits the league's contribution to $100 million, and Kroenke largely ignored the plan. The Rams have a year-to-year lease in St. Louis.

 

The Chargers and the city have been at odds since 2000, when owner Alex Spanos said his team needed to replace Qualcomm Stadium. That was just three years after the venue was expanded to accommodate the Chargers and Super Bowls.

 

The stadium saga turned nasty in the past year as Mark Fabiani, an attorney for team Chairman Dean Spanos, criticized Mayor Kevin Faulconer and his proposals. The city has claimed that the Chargers didn't negotiate in good faith and had several misrepresentations in their relocation bid.

 

Spanos has had the right to leave San Diego since 2008, but the team's efforts became more aggressive after Kroenke announced plans for the Inglewood facility. The Chargers have played in San Diego for 55 seasons after one year in Los Angeles when the former AFL franchise was born.

 

Oakland is still in debt from a renovation 20 years ago when the Raiders moved back from Los Angeles. City officials have said they won't seek help from taxpayers with a new stadium, and asked the NFL for more time to develop a project in a response to the Raiders' relocation plan.

 

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AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.

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GUTSY PLAY HELPS TIDE BEAT CLEMSON 45-40 FOR NATIONAL TITLE

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Alabama needed it all to win the toughest national title game it had ever played during the Nick Saban dynasty. All of its power. All of its speed.

 

Even one gutsy trick.

 

Derrick Henry, O.J. Howard and Kenyan Drake hit No. 1 Clemson with long touchdowns, and Alabama outlasted the dynamic play of dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson to win the College Football Playoff championship 45-40 on Monday night.

 

The Crimson Tide (14-1) won its three previous championship game appearances in runaway fashion. This game was an instant classic - a relief for fans who sat through the blowouts that turned the New Year's Six lineup into a dud. It finally broke open on perhaps the boldest call of Saban's career.

 

"This was a great challenge for us," Saban said.

With 10:34 left in the fourth quarter and Alabama having just tied the game with a short field goal, Saban took a gamble to try to keep the ball away from Watson and the Tigers. He called for an onside kick called Pop Kick from Adam Griffith and Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey caught it over the shoulder at midfield.

 

Tide turned.

 

"I think that changed the momentum of the game, and our guys finished it," Saban said.

 

Moments later, Alabama took back the lead. For the second time, Clemson (14-1) lost track of the tight end Howard in coverage and Jake Coker hit him in stride deep for a 51-yard touchdown to make it 31-24 with 9:45 left.

 

Clemson and Watson proved to be every bit Alabama's equal. The Tigers just kept coming.

 

Watson led Clemson to a field goal to make it 31-27, and boom! Another Alabama big play. Drake broke free and streaked down the sideline for a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown, diving the last 5 yards to the pylon.

Watson threw his third touchdown pass to make it 38-33 with 4:40 left, and then Alabama went back to its workhorse Heisman Trophy winner. Henry plunged into the end zone for his third touchdown of the game to make it 45-33 with 1:07 left.

 

"We stand toe-to-toe with everybody in the country," coach Dabo Swinney said. "This program doesn't take a backseat to anybody."

 

Watson threw another touchdown pass to cap a wild 40-point fourth quarter, but would not get another chance. Clemson's onside kick went out of bounds. Coker took a knee and after a two-year drought that felt like eternity in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was back on top.

 

After a loss to Ole Miss in mid-September, there were doubters. Saban used them to fuel his team.

The Crimson Tide became the second team in college football's poll era, dating back to 1936, to win four titles in seven seasons.

 

Alabama joins Notre Dame, which won four titles from 1943-49. For Saban, it is his fifth national championship - four in his nine seasons at Alabama - leaving him only one short of former Tide coach Bear Bryant for the most titles in history.

 

Watson gave the Tide all it could handle, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and conjured up memories of Vince Young's miraculous performance for Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl that derailed Southern California's dynasty.

 

The sophomore, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, had 478 total yards against a loaded Tide defense that was the toughest in the country and bested Young's 467 yards against the Trojans. But Watson couldn't finish the job the way Young did in Pasadena, California.

 

Instead, Saban and the Tide raised another trophy, its first in this new playoff system, and got another confetti shower. It is the Tide's 11th national title in the poll era - 10 AP and one coaches' poll - more than any other school.

 

The Tide hit Clemson early with Henry, who scored the game's first touchdown on a 50-yard burst through the middle. He finished with 158 yards on 36 carries. Howard was the offensive player of the game with five catches for 208 yards, including a 63-yarder that set up Alabama's final score.

 

After Watson and walk-on Hunter Renfrow hooked up for two touchdown passes to give Clemson a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, Henry tied it up with a 1-yard plunge.

 

Back and forth it went.

 

Alabama had never been challenged like this in a championship game under Saban. Alabama pulled away from Texas for Saban's first Tide title. Alabama blanked LSU for No. 2 and crushed Notre Dame to repeat.

 

Trying to become the first FBS team to go 15-0, Clemson did not crumble under the force of Alabama's might.

 

But all those five-star recruits and future NFL players that dot the Alabama roster showed they also have plenty of resiliency and toughness. And Saban, the quintessential CEO coach, showed he had a little riverboat gambler in him.

 

That onside kicked stunned the stadium and Clemson, and brought a big grin to the face of the country's most serious coach.

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Browns Pause In Search For Next Coach

 
    CLEVELAND (AP) - The Browns' coaching search has gone strangely quiet.
 
     After interviewing seven candidates last week, the team did not conduct any meetings on Monday, a break that could indicate they have someone in mind to become their eighth coach since 1999.
 
     Cleveland's search committee was back at the team's headquarters to regroup after a busy few days talking to prospective coaches. 
 
Browns
 
     The Browns met with Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson on Sunday, shortly after the 50-year-old visited with the San Francisco 49ers about their vacancy.
 
     Jackson and Jacksonville offensive assistant Doug Marrone are the only coaches the Browns have met with thus far who have NFL head coaching experience.
 
     Jackson's familiarity with the AFC North could give him an edge over the other candidates. The Browns also met on Sunday with Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who took a break from preparation from this week's playoff game against Seattle to speak with Cleveland executives.
 
    
 

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'BAMA ON VERGE OF UNPRECEDENTED RUN, WITH CLEMSON IN THE WAY

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Regardless of the outcome of Monday night's College Football Playoff championship game between No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama, a case can be made that no team in the history of the sport has had a better run than the Crimson Tide under coach Nick Saban.

 

If Alabama beats the Tigers to win a fourth national title in seven seasons, the argument may be settled.

There was talk early in the season after Alabama lost to Mississippi that the Tide dynasty was in decline. Now Alabama (13-1) is one victory away from an unprecedented achievement.

 

The Tide can become just the third school in college football's poll era, dating back to the creation of The Associated Press media poll in 1936, to win four championships in a 10-year span.

 

Notre Dame won four in seven seasons from 1943-49, but big-time college football is hardly comparable now to then. Those Fighting Irish didn't play in bowl games and never needed more than nine victories to be the best in the country.

 

Miami won four championships in nine seasons (1983-91), but none of those teams had to play more than 12 games.

 

Alabama's four championships under Saban, who took over in 2007, have all come in at least 13-game seasons.

 

"I mean, it's incredible," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday during a news conference with Saban. Swinney heaped so much praise on his counterpart during the half-hour session with reporters that Saban looked a little uncomfortable.

 

"Coach Saban, what he's done, I mean, he's one of the greatest coaches that ever coached the game," Swinney said.

 

Saban also has a BCS title from his time at LSU, giving him four overall. Only former Alabama coach Bear Bryant with six has more.

 

"This is the first one I've sniffed as a coach, and he's going for his fifth," said Swinney, who is in his eighth season at Clemson. "It's incredible."

 

Clemson has one national championship to its credit. Behind Danny Ford, an Alabama native and former Tide player for Bryant, the Tigers won the title in 1981 by beating favored Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers are back on the biggest stage and again being led by an Alabaman and former Tide player. Swinney grew up near Birmingham and played for Alabama when Gene Stallings was the coach in the early 1990s. He was on the Tide team that won a national championship in 1992, upsetting Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama then went through a long dry spell until Saban arrived.

 

"People will say, well, anybody can go win at Alabama," Swinney said. "Not everybody can coach a great team. Not everybody can coach a great player, and I think he has a gift to be able to do that."

 

Under Swinney, the Tigers have won at least 10 games each of the last five seasons, just like Alabama. And Clemson has its own shot at history: If the Tigers win the national title, they would become the first team to achieve a 15-0 season.

 

"We want to be a program that is competing at this level on a consistent basis and I think to do that, you've got to be a top-10, top-15 type program year in and year out," Swinney said.

 

Alabama has been even better than that. Since going 7-6 in Saban's first season, the Tide is 97-12 and has never finished out of the final AP top 10.

 

No surprise: Saban has not been part of the legacy talk this week. Pondering his place in history won't help his players Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.

 

"I owe them as the leader of the organization," Saban said. "I owe them our best as coaches and people who can support them to give them the best opportunity to be successful in the next challenge that they have.

 

"So I've got no time to think about that stuff."

 

Some other things to know about the second College Football Playoff national championship game.

 

DESHAUN FOOTBALL: If Clemson is going to beat Alabama and break down a ferocious Alabama defense, Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson will lead the way. The sophomore is the most talented quarterback Alabama has faced and he poses a threat running and passing.

 

Watson set the Atlantic Coast Conference mark for total offense with 4,731 yards, 1,032 of those coming on the ground.

 

Dual-threat quarterbacks give most defenses trouble and Alabama is no exception. Watson said in preparation for the Tide, he watched Alabama's loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in 2012.

 

Watson ran for a career-best 145 yards in Clemson's 37-17 Orange Bowl semifinal victory against Oklahoma.

HEISMAN HENRY: The Crimson Tide used Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who has set Southeastern Conference records for rushing yards (2,061) and touchdowns (25), as a complimentary part of its offense in beating Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.

 

Henry had 20 carries for 75 yards. Don't be surprised if the Tide goes back to a heavy dose of Henry, who carried 90 times combined in the final two regular season games, to help control the clock and keep the ball away from Watson and Clemson's up-tempo spread offense.

 

HOLD THE LINE: Alabama's defensive line is the best and deepest in college football, led by All-American A'Shawn Robinson. The line has helped the Tide lead the nation with 50 sacks.

 

Clemson has some talented defensive linemen, too, though not quite as many as Alabama. That depth could be tested because All-America defensive end Shaq Lawson sprained his knee against Oklahoma and missed most of the Orange Bowl. He is expected to play, but how much? And how effective will he be?

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STEELERS PULL OUT IMPROBABLE 18-16 WIN OVER BENGALS

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Ben Roethlisberger couldn't throw. Antonio Brown couldn't stand without help.

And in the end, it didn't matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading to Denver after the Cincinnati Bengals did what they always seem to do this time of year: they imploded.

 

Spectacularly.

 

Chris Boswell kicked a 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining as Pittsburgh somehow pulled out an 18-16 victory in an - really, just pick whatever synonym for "ugly" that works - AFC wild-card game Saturday night.

 

Pittsburgh (11-6) moved into field goal position thanks to consecutive 15-yard penalties on the Bengals, one on linebacker Vontaze Burfict and another on cornerback Adam Jones. Burfict dropped his shoulder and hit a defenseless Brown in the helmet as the All-Pro receiver came across the middle, and Jones lost his cool after getting into with Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter when Porter came onto the field as Brown was being tended to by trainers.

 

Boswell drilled his fourth field goal of the game on the next snap to give the Steelers their first playoff victory since the 2010 AFC championship.

 

"We won the game, that's all that matters," Roethlisberger said.

 

Pittsburgh bolted off the field without so much as shaking hands while the Bengals vented their frustration after easily the most painful of their eighth straight postseason losses. Jones took to Instagram calling out Porter, a post Jones later deleted.

 

Cincinnati might want to do the same after somehow losing despite rallying from a 15-point deficit to have the lead and the in Pittsburgh territory and the lead with 1:30 to go.

 

Then the Bengals turned into ... the Bengals.

Hill was stripped of the ball by Ryan Shazier while trying to run out the clock. The Steelers recovered at the Pittsburgh 9 and Roethlisberger and his aching right shoulder returned for a last-gasp drive. Unable to pass with any real authority, he still managed to get the Steelers near midfield with 22 seconds to go when he threw high to Brown in Cincinnati territory.

 

"It's hard to put into words," said Hill. "Words don't do anything at this point. It's on me. I take full blame for it."

 

He had plenty of help from two of his volatile teammates, both with a history of questionable decision-making.

 

Burfict, whose sack of Roethlisberger sent the quarterback to the locker room, lowered his shoulder as Brown landed. The volatile linebacker earned a personal foul. Jones compounded the problem when he lost his cool while jawing with Porter, easily putting Boswell within field goal range after Cincinnati's eighth - and final - flag of a ghastly night that ended with an unthinkable collapse.

 

"We destructed on ourselves," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

 

Pretty much.

 

Roethlisberger finished 18 of 31 for 229 yards and a touchdown in rainy conditions. Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 123 yards rushing filling in for injured DeAngelo Williams. Brown caught seven passes for 119 yards but was also diagnosed with a concussion.

 

Still, that production didn't look like it would be enough. AJ McCarron put together an improbable comeback after Martavis Bryant's somersaulting touchdown grab gave the Steelers a 15-0 lead heading into the final quarter.

 

Cincinnati (12-5) ripped off 16 straight points, the last six on a 25-yard strike from McCarron to A.J. Green that put the Bengals in front. They missed the 2-point conversion but had seized momentum completely, something that seemed near impossible after running back Gio Bernard was knocked unconscious by Shazier and fumbled late in the third quarter, a hit that seemed to ratchet up a game that was already contentious all the way to the edge ... and maybe beyond.

 

When Burfict intercepted Landry Jones on Pittsburgh's possession after Green's score, Cincinnati and Lewis appeared ready to end the sixth-longest postseason drought in NFL history.

 

And just as suddenly as it appeared, the Bengals' resolve vanished.

 

Hill had the ball tucked in his left arm when Shazier somehow clawed it out as Cincinnati tried to bleed the clock and the Steelers recovered at the Pittsburgh 9 with 1:23 left.

 

Just enough time for Roethlisberger - with a hefty assist from the Bengals - to send the Steelers to Denver and a rematch with the Broncos, whom Pittsburgh beat 34-27 on Dec. 20 with Brock Osweiler at quarterback instead of Peyton Manning.

 

"There's no quit in this team," Roethlisberger said.

Another long winter looms in Cincinnati.

 

The Bengals controlled the AFC North, easily winning their fourth division title under Lewis even with QB Andy Dalton breaking his right thumb during a loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 13. Yet all a dozen wins did was set them up for a third showdown with their longtime tormentor in an increasingly acidic rivalry.

 

Pittsburgh survived a bumpy four months that included significant injuries to Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell, center Maurkice Pouncey and left tackle Kelvin Beachum. The Steelers needed a win in Cleveland and a Buffalo upset of the Jets on the final Sunday to make the playoffs for a second straight year.

A trip to Cincinnati hardly seemed a problem: The Steelers have lost in Paul Brown Stadium only three times since it opened in 2000, a sea of Terrible Towels turning the Bengals' home into Heinz Field West. It served as the launching point of a Super Bowl run in 2005.

 

Both teams pledged to be on their best behavior with so much at stake, and for a while tempers were kept largely in check. There were no pregame fisticuffs this time - unlike Pittsburgh's previous visit - thanks in part to assistant coaches on both sides creating a black-clad DMZ at midfield.

 

The first personal foul penalty came from an unlikely source, Pittsburgh Hall of Fame offensive line coach Mike Munchak, flagged for grabbing Reggie Nelson's hair after the safety found himself mixing it up with a couple of Steelers after pushing Todman out of bounds.

 

McCarron, so effective while replacing Dalton, could do little. The Bengals managed just 56 yards of total offense yet trailed just 6-0 as the Steelers and the league's third-ranked offense could muster only a pair of Boswell field goals.

 

As the game proceeded, it got more testy, nearly out of control in the fourth quarter. And it cost the Bengals dearly.

 

"It was a really emotional game, I'm not surprised," Shazier said. "They seen the dam breaking and their emotions got to them."

 

---

 

AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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CHIEFS BEAT TEXANS 30-0 FOR FIRST PLAYOFF WIN SINCE 1994

HOUSTON (AP) -- After 22 years without a playoff victory, the Kansas City Chiefs were determined not to give up the lead this time.

 

The Chiefs had enough points to win after jumping ahead 7-0 in the first 11 seconds, and they used relentless pressure, five turnovers and a ball-control offense to dominate the Houston Texans 30-0 in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs on Saturday.

 

They were especially cognizant of not letting up after blowing a 28-point lead in a loss to the Colts in their last playoff appearance in 2013.

 

"What happened to us a couple years ago, everybody remembers that even the coaches included, so our entire mentality is about finishing," quarterback Alex Smith said. "The mentality doesn't change."

 

They finished off the Texans early, and they had the hometown fans booing by the second quarter. Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer had the worst game of his career with four interceptions and a fumble.

 

Houston's defense kept the Texans close in the first half, but J.J. Watt left with an injury in the third quarter, Jadeveon Clowney never even put on his jersey and the Chiefs were able to close the game out in the second half.

 

The Chiefs extended their NFL-best winning streak to 11 games and will face New England on Saturday.

"We wanted to come in and dominate," Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. "Right now we are locked in and ready for next week.

 

On the opening kickoff, Knile Davis got three good blocks around the 10-yard line and then simply outran the rest of the defenders for the 106-yard kickoff return score, the second-longest kickoff return TD in postseason history.

 

"It was a huge deal, man. It set the tempo," Davis said. "It quieted everybody, kind of made everybody relax."

The defense took over after that, forcing Hoyer into a fumble and a three of his career-high four interceptions before halftime to help the Chiefs (12-5) take a 13-0 lead.

 

"I made some bad decisions that really hurt the team," Hoyer said.

 

Houston coach Bill O'Brien said he never considered benching Hoyer, but backup Brandon Weeden told a different story, saying he was warming up late in the game.

 

"We had talked about me going in there with Brian," Weeden said. "Brian wanted to finish the thing out. I don't blame him."

 

Smith threw a touchdown pass late in the third and Spencer Ware added a 5-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 27-0.

 

Travis Kelce, who also had more than 100 yards receiving in the first meeting with the Texans this year, had another big day, finishing with eight receptions for 128 yards.

 

The victory breaks a streak of eight straight playoff losses by the Chiefs and is their first postseason win since beating the Oilers in Houston on Jan. 16, 1994. That team was led by Joe Montana and Marcus Allen.

"Was it 1994? I didn't feel it, but I know how important it is, too," coach Andy Reid said. "You get to the playoffs, and first round, if things don't go well, that rips your heart out."

 

Hoyer was 15 of 34 for 136 yards as Houston (9-8) lost a home playoff game for the first time. Hoyer's performance cast more doubt on his future as the starter.

 

Watt missed most of the second half after injuring his groin in the third quarter. Last year's Defensive Player of the Year and the NFL sack leader didn't have a sack as Houston's defense played well but couldn't hold off an offense that got so many extra chances because of turnovers.

 

Watt returned a few plays after he was initially hurt, but soon left the game again when he was pushed to the ground by the head by tackle Eric Fisher.

"That's just a dirty play," Watt said. "But the injury was before that moment."

 

Fisher said he didn't know the play was over. Kansas City receiver Jeremy Maclin strained his right knee on the same play and didn't return.

 

The Chiefs capped that drive when Smith found rookie Chris Conley in the back of the end zone for 9-yard touchdown that extended the lead to 20-0.

 

Houston defensive end Jared Crick got a personal foul late in the third quarter when he hit Fisher after a play, in an apparent retaliation for the Watt hit.

 

Down 7-0, the Texans were driving when Hoyer was sacked by Allen Bailey and fumbled. Dontari Poe recovered it at the Kansas City 42 and the Chiefs extended their lead to 10-0 on a 49-yard field goal.

 

Trailing 13-0, a 49-yard run by Alfred Blue got Houston to the Kansas City 13. The Texans got a first down at the 2 and Watt and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork came in on offense, with Watt lined up as the wildcat quarterback and Wilfork blocking. Watt took the direct snap but had nowhere to go and lost a yard on his first career carry. Hoyer was intercepted on the next play by Josh Mauga.

 

Hoyer had also struggled against the Chiefs in the season opener, being benched in the fourth quarter of a 27-20 loss.

 

NOTES: Clowney, the top overall pick in the 2014 draft, was inactive with a foot injury. ... Maclin will have an MRI on Sunday. ... Kansas City right tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif suffered a concussion in the first half.

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THE TIDE TRAIN SHOWING NO SIGNS OF SLOWING DOWN

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- The five-star recruits keep rolling into Alabama, replenishing the roster every time the NFL prospects funnel out.

 

Football

 

Sounds simple, right? Alabama's formula for success goes way beyond that revolving door of talent but it's a pretty good starting point. Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide show no signs of slowing down either on the field or on the recruiting trail in a program where anything short of a national title is all but treated as a failure.

 

"They just have outstanding players and they're supremely coached," said Gene Stallings, who coached Alabama to the 1992 national championship. "That's a tough combination to beat."

 

It is indeed. Ask Auburn, Michigan State, Notre Dame, LSU and just about anybody else who's had to try since Saban's run of domination began in 2008, his second season in Tuscaloosa.

 

Look beyond the question of whether Saban can bring a fourth national title back to Tuscaloosa in Monday night's game with Clemson. The more notable topic might be, when will this annual run of title contention end already? That may depend on how much longer the 64-year-old Saban sticks around.

 

It's been two years since he won a national championship, after all. It only seems like an eternity for a program that had collected three of four through 2012 while going 97-12 over the last eight seasons, easily the most wins in the FBS during that span. Boise State is second with 90.

 

Saban does have the task each season of battling the big heads and stamping down any sense of entitlement among his players. Sometimes, he's more successful - like this season - than others.

 

"Whatever has been accomplished in the past certainly doesn't have anything to do with what the future holds," Saban said. "The future is really in front of our team and our players all the time."

 

He sticks to his famed "Process" - a blend of fundamentals, focus and psychology covering everything from recruiting to offseason conditioning. It's worked for three national titles at Alabama and the 2003 crown at LSU.

 

With a win over the Tigers, Saban could join fellow Alabama icon Bear Bryant as the only major college coach to win five national titles.

 

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was on the staff of two national championship teams under Pete Carroll at Southern California, so he has an idea of what it takes even if he so far hasn't been able to translate that as a head coach at USC or Tennessee.

 

"You can't compete all the time like this without a system, without a process, whatever that is," Kiffin said. "Pete Carroll used to say that anyone can do it one time, but if you're going to have a championship program you have to do it again and again and again. That's the real sign.

 

"Here we're in the middle of a dynasty because of the process with different players and different coaches. He's had a number of coaching changes. It all goes back to coach Saban and his philosophy, and the players buy into it."

 

The latest coaching change comes with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart leaving to take over the Georgia program after the championship game. Saban has already hired Jeremy Pruitt.

 

The far bigger talent defection comes on the field.

Once again, the Tide will likely lose a number of high NFL draft picks early, potentially including juniors like Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen.

 

No problem, really. The backups at all three positions include former five-star recruits for a program that has won six of the last eight national recruiting titles according to Rivals.com.

 

"If there's a catnip for recruits, it's winning national championships," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals. "You can be consistent in recruiting five- and four-star athletes to the program if you're in the discussion every year as a national championship contender.

 

"And Nick Saban is that guy. A down year is a two-loss season."

 

NFL offensive lineman Barrett Jones was part of the 2008 recruiting class that really got things rolling for Saban at Alabama. The group included players like wide receiver Julio Jones, tailback Mark Ingram and safety Mark Barron.

 

Barrett Jones said Saban has been able to create a culture where the focus is on doing the little things and ignoring the scoreboard.

 

The challenge is sustaining and recreating that each season.

 

"Now, they expect us to be a national contender every year, and it's pretty amazing in this day and age," said Jones, who was part of all three national championship teams. "I think more and more teams and more and more conferences are starting to catch up to the way we do things and try to replicate it. It's a compliment to us.

"It's definitely competitive, but nobody does it better than coach Saban."

 

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LINDSEY VONN FASTEST IN LAST WORLD CUP DOWNHILL TRAINING RUN

ALTENMARKT-ZAUCHENSEE, Austria (AP) -- Lindsey Vonn prepared for a record-equaling 36th women's World Cup downhill victory by posting the fastest time in final training on Friday.

 

Vonn Ski

 

The four-time overall champion from the United States stood up out of her tuck well before finishing, leading Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany by 0.28 seconds.

 

Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein, who led Thursday's training, was 0.59 behind in third, and overall World Cup leader Lara Gut of Switzerland trailed by 0.80 in fourth.

 

"I was still a bit tired from the jet leg this morning but I was relaxed at the start and had a good run," said Vonn, who returned to Europe two days ago after spending a week with family and friends in the United States.

 

"I can do better, like staying in my tuck until the finish," she said. "But I am ready."

 

By winning on Saturday, Vonn would match Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell's record of 36 downhill victories. That feat, however, doesn't put nearly as much pressure on Vonn as did chasing Moser-Proell's overall best mark of 62 wins last year.

 

"This year is definitely easier," Vonn said. "I just try to win as many races as I can, and I don't think about titles and records now."

 

Having won two downhills this season, Vonn shares the lead in the discipline standings with Switzerland's Fabienne Suter, who is out injured. In the overall standings, Vonn trails Gut by 158 points.

 

In an unusual format for a downhill, Saturday's race will consist of two runs on a shortened course. Only the top 30 from the first run will be allowed to start in the second. It's the first such format on the women's World Cup circuit in 14 years.

 

This weekend's races were moved from St. Anton 12 days ago, leaving local organizers just over a week to create course conditions that match World Cup standards. They had to lower the start because of insufficient snow quality in the upper section.

 

A super-G on the same course is scheduled for Sunday.

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GRIFFEY ELECTED TO HALL WITH HIGHEST PERCENTAGE, PIAZZA IN

NEW YORK (AP) -- Ken Griffey Jr. was considered Mr. Clean during 22 years in the major leagues, untainted by accusations of drug use as he climbed the home-run list during the height of the Steroids Era.

 

He nearly made a clean sweep in Hall of Fame voting.

Griffey received 437 of 440 votes in his first appearance on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot, a record 99.3 percent.

 

Hall of Fame

 

"It's real simple," he explained after Wednesday's announcement. "I've always said that I've got to look my kids in the eyes and you want to play fair."

 

Mike Piazza, the top offensive catcher in baseball history, was elected, too, and will be inducted along with Griffey in Cooperstown on July 24. Among the many muscled sluggers whose accomplishments were questioned during a time when chemists preyed on clubhouses, Piazza was made to wait until his fourth appearance on the ballot. After falling 28 votes shy last year, he was selected on 365 (83 percent).

 

He wouldn't say whether he was upset about being sullied by suspicions.

 

"That's the freedom we have," Piazza maintained. "You can say these things, and that's the country we live in."

Griffey topped the previous high percentage of 98.84, set when Tom Seaver appeared on 425 of 430 ballots in 1992. The identities of the three writers who did not vote for Griffey was not immediately known.

 

"I can't be upset," he said. "It's just an honor to be elected, and to have the highest percentage is definitely a shock."

 

A player needs to appear on 75 percent of ballots to gain election. Jeff Bagwell missed by 15 votes and Tim Raines by 23. Trevor Hoffman, second on the career saves list and appearing on the ballot for the first time, was 34 short.

 

Total ballots dropped by 109 from last year after writers who have not been active for 10 years were eliminated under a rules change by the Hall's board of directors. With a younger average electorate, Roger Clemens rose to 45 percent and Barry Bonds to 44 percent, both up from about 37 percent last year. Clemens has denied using performance-enhancing drugs, and Bonds said he never knowingly took any banned substances.

 

"They were Hall of Famers before all this stuff started," Griffey said.

 

Mark McGwire, who admitted using steroids, received 12 percent in his 10th and final ballot appearance.

 

Half of baseball's top 10 home run hitters are not in the Hall: Bonds (762), Alex Rodriguez (654), Jim Thome (612), Sammy Sosa (609) and McGwire (583). Rodriguez, who served a yearlong drug suspension in 2014, remains active. Thome's first appearance on the ballot will be in 2018.

 

Griffey believes drug-testing, which began in baseball in 2003, should eliminate the possibility of stigma for the current generation of players.

 

"There won't be any questions and you'll know from here on out," he said.

 

Some players who admitted using steroids claimed they chose the needle because of pressure to compete. Griffey said he never was tempted.

 

"I also had a dad that said you're never going to be the biggest, you're never going to be the strongest and you're never going to be the fastest," he said. "There's always going to be someone in each of those categories, but the one thing they can't do is outwork you."

 

"I never really worried about what somebody else was doing, because it was out of my control," he added. "I was already popular. It wasn't that I needed to jump out and surprise people."

 

Griffey and Piazza had contrasting treks to stardom. Griffey was selected first in the 1987 amateur draft and became the first No. 1 to make the Hall. Piazza was taken by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the 1,390th pick on the 62nd round in 1988; since the draft started in 1965, the lowest draft pick elected to the Hall had been John Smoltz, taken with selection 574 on the 22nd round in 1985.

 

"It crystalizes how special this game is," Piazza said. "It separates it from other sports. Athletic talent definitely helps, but it's not the only thing that can make you successful."

 

Griffey was known simply as "Junior" by many as a contrast to his father, three-time All-Star outfielder Ken Griffey, who played alongside him in Seattle during 1990 and '91. The younger Griffey became a 13-time All-Star outfielder and finished with 630 homers, sixth on the career list. After reaching the major leagues in 1989, he was selected for 11 consecutive All-Star Games in 1990.

 

Wanting to play closer to his home in Florida, he pushed for a trade to Cincinnati - his father's old team and the area he grew up in- after the 1999 season. But slowed by injuries, he never reached 100 RBIs again after his first season with the Reds, and he moved on to the Chicago White Sox in 2008 before spending his last season-plus with the Mariners.

 

Griffey is likely to become the first player in the Hall with a Mariners cap. He wouldn't say whether his bronze plaque should portray the look he's most known for.

 

"I haven't really thought about the hat backwards," he said.

 

Piazza said he was directed not to speak about the hat on his plaque, which ultimately is decided by the Hall. After reaching the major leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1992, Piazza was dealt to Florida in May 1998 before he could become a free agent, then traded eight days later to the Mets.

 

He played for the Mets' 2000 National League champions and remained with New York through 2005, hitting a memorable go-ahead home run in the first game in the city following the 2001 terrorist attacks. During a career that ended with San Diego in 2006 and Oakland the following year, he hit better than .300 in nine straight seasons and finishing with 427 home runs, including a record 396 when he was in the game behind the plate. A 12-time All-Star, Piazza had a .308 career batting average.

 

While 6-foot-3, Piazza claims to not have a distinctive athletic body.

 

"When you see a basketball guy out there or a football guy, you kind of know it," he said. "And baseball guys, I think that's why the public relates to us."

 

NOTES: Alan Trammell received 41 percent in his final ballot appearance. ... Curt Schilling rose from 39 percent to 52, Edgar Martinez from 27 percent to 43 and Mike Mussina from 25 percent to 43. ... There were two write-in votes for Pete Rose, who never was allowed on any Hall ballot because of his lifetime ban from baseball.

 

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BROWNS' QB JOHNNY MANZIEL CITED FOR EXPIRED LICENSE PLATES

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Johnny Manziel's troubles keep piling up.

 

The embattled Browns quarterback was cited for driving with expired license plates last weekend, when he failed to report to the team's facility for a medical assessment and was seen having some fun in Las Vegas.

 

According to police in North Olmsted, Ohio, Manziel was stopped at 8:28 a.m. Saturday while driving on Interstate 480. Police gave him a traffic ticket for the expired plates, an offense that carries a $125 fine.

 

Johnny Football

 

It's the latest issue with the 23-year-old, whose future in Cleveland is uncertain at best following a second straight problematic season.

 

Manziel was in the NFL's concussion protocol last week after the team said he got hurt in a Dec. 27 game at Kansas City. He wasn't required to be at Cleveland's season finale Sunday because of the head injury, but owner Jimmy Haslam said Manziel failed to report to the team's facility for a required medical assessment.

 

For several hours Sunday, the Browns weren't certain of Manziel's whereabouts and couldn't confirm if he was in Vegas. He did return to Berea, Ohio, on Monday and was in attendance for team meetings when Haslam addressed the players following the firings of coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer. Manziel did not come into the locker room to speak with the media.

 

Haslam refused to comment on Manziel's outlook with the Browns, who selected him with a first-round draft pick in 2014 and have remained supportive of him during two turbulent seasons. Manziel spent 73 days in a rehab facility during the offseason for an unspecified condition.

 

The Browns have seemingly grown tired of Manziel's act.

 

During a news conference following Sunday's 28-12 loss to Pittsburgh, Haslam was short with his responses to questions about Manziel. Haslam said any decisions about his prospects will be handled by the next coaching staff, newly appointed executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and the new general manager.

 

Haslam did say Manziel would have to meet certain unspecified conditions to stay with the Browns.

"I think we will expect that of everybody," he said. "We certainly expect that of Johnny, too."

 

Adding to Manziel's issues, Cavaliers star LeBron James ended his business partnership with him Wednesday. James' marketing group, LRMR, had been handling endorsement opportunities for the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.

 

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BONDS, CLEMENS LIKELY TO GET BOOST FROM HALL VOTE CHANGES

NEW YORK (AP) -- Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other tainted stars of the Steroids Era appear likely to get a boost in Hall of Fame balloting, but not enough to enter Cooperstown this year.

 

Ken Griffey Jr. seems assured of election on the first try Wednesday, possibly with a record vote of close to 100 percent. Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines also were strong candidates to gain the 75 percent needed for baseball's highest honor.

 

Following the elimination of about 100 retired baseball writers from the electorate, Bonds and Clemens were on track for a 5-10 percentage point increase. After drawing about 37 percent of the ballots last year, they were in the 51 percent range this year according to www.bbhoftracker.com , which tabulated public votes adding to more than 40 percent of the total.

 

Last July, the Hall's board of directors cut eligible voters from approximately 575 to roughly 475 by purging writers who had not been covering the game for more than a decade. Previously, the electorate included people who had been active members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America for 10 consecutive years at any point.

 

"We have a somewhat different electorate," John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, said Tuesday. "I think possibly the current electorate was not content to keep kicking the PED crowd down into a hole and leaving the Hall of Fame with a crater in its plaque room."

 

Marc Maturo, a reporter covering New York baseball for Gannett in the 1970s and '80s, was among those who lost voting rights. He said he would have voted for Bonds, Clemens, Griffey and Raines.

 

"The whole process I think was done too quickly, wasn't given enough thought," he said.

 

Now a writer for the weekly Rockland County Times, Maturo pointed out players who received one or two votes in recent years, such as Armando Benitez, Aaron Boone, Bret Boone, Darin Erstad, Kenny Rogers, J.T. Snow and B.J. Surhoff.

 

"They call these courtesy votes or friendship votes," he said, "That should eliminate you. They're not Hall of Famers by anyone's imagination. But people vote for them. To me, that's wrong."

 

A 13-time All-Star who is sixth with 630 homers, Griffey was a lock to be inducted at Cooperstown on July 24. The former Cincinnati and Seattle star appeared on all 194 ballots counted by bbhoftracker and could challenge the record of 98.84 percent set by Tom Seaver when he was picked by 425 of 430 voters in 1992.

 

Piazza was at about 86 percent in his fourth appearance after falling short by 28 votes last year, when Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio became the first quartet elected by the BBWAA in one year since 1955.

 

Bagwell, in his sixth appearance, and Raines, in his ninth, were in the 76-77 percent range. Last year, the actual percentage was about 5 percent under the pre-announcement figure on the vote-tracker.

 

Bonds, the only seven-time MVP, and Clemens, the only seven-time Cy Young Award winner, are both making their fourth appearance and are eligible for up to six more years.

 

Reliever Trevor Hoffman, on the ballot for the first time, was at 63 percent on the vote-tracker and seemed likely to fall short.

 

Mark McGwire, one of the first big stars to admit using steroids, was at 13 percent in his final ballot appearance - nearly half his peak of 23.6 percent in 2008. Alan Trammell, also on for the last time, was at 44 percent. Sammy Sosa was at 8 percent in his fourth attempt.

 

Following the board's decision not to accept the BBWAA's recommendation that voters be allowed to select up to 12 candidates rather than 10, next year's ballot could force more tough decisions. Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero and Magglio Ordonez are eligible for the first time.

 

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TITLE GAME TESTS TIES IN ALABAMA HOMETOWN OF CLEMSON COACH

PELHAM, Ala. (AP) -- Two autographed photos of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hang on a wall above the used stoves and plumbing hoses in Jason Miller's hardware store, even though this is the heart of Alabama football country.

 

Miller is pulling for the top-ranked Tigers against Alabama in Monday's title game even though he calls himself a "huge" Crimson Tide fan.

 

Miller is definitely in the minority among Tide fans in rooting for Clemson to beat coach Nick Saban's team, but he's hardly alone around here in being a big fan of Swinney, who attended high school in Birmingham's southern suburbs before going on to play at Alabama and then coach. The matchup between Clemson and No. 2 Alabama in the national championship game is testing ties and allegiances in a way that's just a little bit awkward for some.

 

"Everybody talks about it being crazy, me pulling for Clemson, but it's not for me. This is family," said Miller, whose M&M Hardware in neighboring Alabaster was once owned by Swinney's late father. He considers Swinney more a brother than a football rival, texting and talking regularly with the guy everyone around here calls "Dabo," not coach.

 

For many Alabama fans, Swinney is their second-favorite coach behind Saban, who's after his fourth national title at Alabama. Area Facebook feeds, coffee shops and store aisles are full of 'Bama fans who say they'd be rooting for Clemson if only Swinney's team wasn't playing the Tide.

 

"I'm pretty red-and-white and I want Alabama to win, but I love Dabo and want him to do well," said Alabama fan Herman Watts, who has known Swinney for decades. "But both can't win, can they? So we've got ourselves a situation."

 

Swinney knows he's got some secret fans. That's just fine with him.

 

"There's a lot of closet Clemson fans at Alabama. They don't want to admit it, but there's a bunch of them," he said. "I think we've kind of become a team in that state where people pull for. Kind of gives them another team."

 

Swinney, 46, grew up in Pelham and played football at Pelham High School before enrolling at the University of Alabama and joining the football team as a walk-on under then-Alabama coach Bill Curry. Swinney made an impression on Curry assistant Tommy Bowden and eventually earned a scholarship as a receiver under Alabama coach Gene Stallings.

 

Swinney was part of Alabama's 1992 national championship team that defeated Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl and, afterward, worked as an assistant at Alabama under Stallings and Mike DuBose, recruiting Watts' son Tyler Watts to Alabama as a quarterback.

When Bowden was hired as head coach at Clemson and needed a receiver coach he called Swinney, then working for a commercial real estate company in Birmingham. Swinney accepted and later replaced Bowden in 2008.

 

In Pelham, a Birmingham bedroom community of about 23,000 people at the southern end of the Appalachian foothills, Swinney has a reputation as a faithful, determined guy who married his high school sweetheart and hasn't forgotten the folks back home. When Tom Causey was hired as Pelham's football coach a year ago, Swinney got in touch.

 

"He called and wished me well," said Causey, whose brother played at Alabama with Swinney. "He absolutely loves Pelham."

 

"I grew up across the street from him and he's just the greatest guy," said Angie Kimbrel. "We're the biggest Alabama fans you could ever meet. Nick Saban is awesome. But we love Dabo. If we were going to have to lose, it would be nice to lose to him."

And Pelham loves Dabo.

 

Dave Smith, who publishes Pelham's city news magazine, put Swinney on the cover as a hometown hero after the 2012 season, but he isn't rooting for Clemson against 'Bama.

 

Yet like other Crimson Tide fans, Smith sees a time when Alabama might consider Swinney for its coaching job should Saban call it quits.

"I'd say if he continues on that track, he'd be a logical choice to step in and continue the winning tradition at the Capstone," said Smith.

 

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NO. 1 KANSAS OUTLASTS NO. 2 OKLAHOMA 109-106 IN 3 OVERTIMES

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) -- Perry Ellis is a man of few words, and nobody would have blamed him if Monday night's instant classic between top-ranked Kansas and No. 2 Oklahoma had rendered the senior forward speechless.

 

Instead, Ellis perfectly described how the Jayhawks pulled it out: "Just heart."

 

"All of us together," Ellis said after his team's 109-106, triple-overtime victory in a matchup of national title contenders. "There were so many plays going both ways. We just kept fighting."

 

Ellis had 27 points and 13 rebounds for the Jayhawks (13-1, 2-0 Big 12), who had chances to win in regulation and the first two overtimes. Wayne Selden Jr. added 21 points and Devonte Graham had 20, including the go-ahead free throw in the final extra session.

 

Buddy Hield had a career-high 46 points for Oklahoma (12-1, 1-1), but he made two crucial turnovers in the final extra session, then missed a potential tying 3 at the buzzer.

 

"Craziest game I've ever been a part of," said Frank Mason, who forced Hield's final turnover and made two free throws for the final margin. "Just proud of my teammates, never giving up."

 

Jordan Woodard hit six 3-pointers and had 27 points for the Sooners, who were trying to extend their best start in 28 years. Ryan Spangler finished with 14 points and 18 rebounds.

 

It was a fitting conclusion for the first 1 vs. 2 matchup in two years, and the first pitting teams from the same conference since Ohio State and Michigan State of the Big Ten met on Feb. 25, 2007.

 

Woodard's final 3-pointer gave the Sooners a 106-104 lead, and they still led 106-105 when Hield was stripped by Mason with 17 seconds left. Graham took a pass in transition and was fouled at the other end, converting both free throws to give Kansas the lead.

After the Sooners called a timeout, Hield threw the ball away on the ensuing inbounds pass, and Mason added two more free throws with 8.6 seconds left for the final margin.

 

"I wish I had one more overtime," said Hield, who hit eight 3s and finished 13 of 23 from the field. His 46 points matched Wayman Tisdale for the sixth-highest scoring game in school history.

 

The Jayhawks looked like they would end it in regulation after Hield made two free throws with 21.3 seconds left to tie the game 77-all. But after Mason charged the lane with 6 seconds left and missed the shot, Kansas forward Landen Lucas was called for a foul on the rebound.

 

Khadeem Lattin went to the line at the other end with 2 seconds left, but the 52-percent foul shooter clanked the front end of a 1-and-1 off the iron to force overtime.

 

The teams traded baskets in the extra session, and Ellis hit a 3-pointer from the wing to tie the game 86-all with 1:15 left. Both teams squandered chances to take the lead, and Selden's open 3-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer came up short to force a second overtime.

 

Kansas had the final shot in the second overtime after Isaiah Cousins missed at the rim and Spangler couldn't get his tip to go. Mason again drove the left side of the lane, but this time he pulled up for a short jumper that was never close, and the game was headed to a third OT.

 

The game shaped up as one between the brilliance of Hield and balance of Kansas.

 

The Jayhawks controlled most of the first half, hitting seven 3-pointers and twice taking an 11-point lead. But every time things got comfortable, Hield put everyone back on edge.

 

The senior answered with two foul shots when Kansas took a 24-16 lead, then provided a long jumper a couple of minutes later. But it was his 3-pointer when the Jayhawks had established a 32-21 lead late in the first half that once more changed the complexion of the game.

 

After trading baskets, the Sooners closed the half with an 18-3 charge.

 

Woodard hit consecutive 3s and scored nine points during the run, but it was Hield who scored the final three from the foul line. The first two came after coach Bill Self bolted off the Kansas bench to protest a foul and was hit with a technical foul with 3.9 seconds remaining.

 

The Sooners slowly stretched their 44-40 halftime lead to 10 early in the second half, only for the Jayhawks to storm back before a frenzied, sold-out crowd packed inside the old fieldhouse.

 

It turned out both teams were only getting started.

"Given what's at stake and the stage and all, I don't know that I've been in one better," Sooners coach Lon Kruger said. "It was terrific, a grind both ways."

 

THREE OTS: This was the second 1 vs. 2 matchup to go three overtimes and Kansas was in both. No. 1 North Carolina beat the second-ranked Jayhawks 54-53 in triple overtime in the 1957 NCAA championship game.

 

TIP-INS

Oklahoma: Hield played 54 minutes, Spangler played 51 and Woodard 50. Woodard fouled out in the final seconds of the third overtime. ... Oklahoma finished 16 of 33 from 3-point range.

 

Kansas: Ellis played 53 minutes. ... Mason finished with 15 points and six assists. ... The Jayhawks were 11 of 22 from beyond the arc. ... The Jayhawks had 12 shots blocked by Oklahoma.

 

QUOTABLE: "We beat a team that could win a national championship." - Self.

 

UP NEXT

 

Oklahoma hosts Kansas State on Saturday

 

Kansas is at Texas Tech on Saturday.

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CHARGERS, RAIDERS, RAMS FILE FOR RELOCATION TO LOS ANGELES

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams filed for relocation to the Los Angeles area on Monday night, trying not to be left out in the race to return the NFL to the nation's second-largest market after a 21-year absence.

 

The Chargers want to partner with the AFC West rival Raiders on a stadium in Carson.

 

Chargers chairman Dean Spanos has had the right to leave San Diego since 2008, but the team's long, contentious efforts to replace aging Qualcomm Stadium became more aggressive after Rams owner Stan Kroenke announced plans to build a stadium in Inglewood.

 

The NFL confirmed it received the applications to move for the 2016 season. They will be reviewed by league staff and three committees of owners that will meet in New York on Wednesday and Thursday. All owners will meet in Houston next week and are expected to vote on whether to allow any of the teams to move. A team wanting to move needs 24 of 32 votes.

 

Los Angeles has been without the NFL since after the 1994 season, when the Raiders moved back to Oakland and the Rams moved to St. Louis. The Rams had been in the L.A. area since 1946.

 

The Chargers and City Hall have been at odds since 2000, when team owner Alex Spanos said the team needed a new stadium. That was just three years after the stadium was expanded to accommodate the Chargers and Super Bowls.

 

The stadium saga turned nasty this year as Mark Fabiani, an attorney for Dean Spanos, attacked Mayor Kevin Faulconer and his proposals to keep the team.

In a video posted on the team's web site, Dean Spanos blamed "the inability of the city at the political level to get any kind of public funding or any kind of vote to help subsidize a stadium."

 

The Chargers' filing came hours after Spanos' son, John, the team's president of football operations, thanked fans for "your unwavering support and passion" in a statement in which he expressed support for beleaguered coach Mike McCoy and general manager Tom Telesco. McCoy will return despite the Chargers going 4-12, their worst record in 12 seasons. Telesco had his contract secretly renewed last summer.

The Raiders and Rams were both 7-9.

 

The Chargers walked away from negotiations with the city and county in mid-June.

 

In the three brief negotiating sessions between the Chargers and city and county officials, the team mostly focused on what it called a flawed environmental impact report for a new stadium. The team did not negotiate finances, but it has said in the past that it expects a public contribution of at least 60 percent.

 

Under the city and county's proposal, public funding would be capped at 32 percent, with the team being responsible for overruns.

 

The Chargers claim 25 percent of their fan base comes from north of San Diego County, although they've declined to offer proof.

 

Oakland has expressed interest in building a new stadium for the Raiders at the Coliseum site but has no funding plan as of yet.

 

The Rams currently have a year-to-year lease with the Edward Jones Dome.

 

Kroenke has ignored efforts by a St. Louis task force that is proposing a $1.1 billion stadium along the Mississippi River, not far from the Rams' current stadium built in 1995.

 

The Rams have had 12 consecutive non-winning seasons, including a 15-65 record from 2007-11 that is the worst five-year stretch in NFL history. Out of 21 seasons in St. Louis, they've fielded four winners, including the 1999 Super Bowl title team and 2001 team that lost to Patriots in the Super Bowl.

 

The St. Louis stadium task force said in a statement it had anticipated the filing "for more than a year" and was "extremely confident" its proposal would be "well received as the league weighs its options in the weeks ahead."

 

Rams coach Jeff Fisher was head coach of the Houston Oilers when they relocated to Tennessee in the 1996, and that could happen again.

 

"I shared with the team today, I've been through this experience before," Fisher said earlier Monday. "We have to take the approach and with the assumption that everything's taking place here in St. Louis until we're told otherwise."

 

Safety T.J. McDonald's father, Tim McDonald, was a rookie defensive back on the Cardinals in 1987 in their final year in St. Louis before owner Bill Bidwill moved the franchise to Phoenix.

 

"That's kind of crazy," said T.J. McDonald, who's rehabbing from shoulder surgery. "He's told me a lot of stories, too many to try to remember."

 

Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said the demands of the season kept it from being too big of a distraction.

"Really, it'll become a big distraction now as you sit with nothing to do and you realize it's what, two weeks or not even (that) away from the decision," Laurinaitis said. "Everyone's just kind of fatigued about it, to be honest. Everyone wants closure to it all, just wants to know one way or another."

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CAROLINA AND DENVER WRAP UP NO. 1 SEEDS FOR PLAYOFFS

(AP) - Carolina closed out its remarkable season by wrapping up home-field advantage in the NFC. Denver turned to Peyton Manning to take advantage of New England's slip-up in the AFC. And Rex Ryan made certain to continue the New York Jets' playoff drought.

 

Carolina and Denver wrapped up the No. 1 playoff seeds in each conference by winning at home on the final day of the regular season on Sunday. Carolina routed Tampa Bay 38-10, while Denver edged San Diego 27-20 to win the AFC West title.

 

"We find our edge playing in front of the home crowd," Carolina QB Cam Newton said. "Everything here feels just right. We don't have travel to a hostile environment. This is our house - and it's hostile."

New England will be the No. 2 seed in the AFC after losing at Miami, while Arizona will have the other bye in the NFC despite getting routed 36-6 by Seattle.

 

Denver's victory finally settled the AFC playoff picture. Cincinnati is the No. 3 seed and will host AFC North rival Pittsburgh in a wild-card game on Saturday night, while AFC South champion Houston is the No. 4 seed and will host Kansas City, winners of 10 straight games. The Texans and Chiefs will play the first game of the playoffs on Saturday afternoon.

 

New England will host the early game on Saturday, Jan. 16, with Denver hosting the lowest remaining AFC seed in the late game on Sunday, Jan. 17.

 

The NFC playoff picture was settled late Sunday night when Minnesota beat Green Bay 20-13 to win the NFC North. The Vikings will host Seattle in the early game Sunday, while Green Bay will travel to NFC East champion Washington for the late Sunday game. The Redskins closed the season with their fourth straight win on Sunday beating Dallas.

 

Arizona will host the late game on Saturday, Jan. 16, while the Panthers will host the lowest remaining seed in the NFC in the early game on Sunday, Jan. 17.

 

The highlight of the day was Ryan and the Buffalo Bills stopping the Jets from making the playoffs and gave the Steelers the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Bills beat the Jets 22-17, while Pittsburgh knocked off Cleveland 28-12, the only results that would have gotten the Steelers into the postseason. The Jets have not made the playoffs since 2010.

 

"I've got a lot of friends over there, and I want them to be successful, but not at my expense," Ryan said.

Ryan has plenty of friends in the Steel City now.

"A lot of thanks to coach Ryan and the rest of the Bills and everybody in Buffalo," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I know they're excited about 8-8 and we're excited they got us in."

 

New England had a chance at home field in the AFC, but flopped in Miami getting beat 20-10. Denver struggled in the first half against San Diego before inserting Manning in place of Brock Osweiler at quarterback and holding on late for the seven-point victory.

 

"Wherever we play, we play," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.

 

Houston also clinched the AFC South with its win over Jacksonville and will host Kansas City after the Chiefs beat Oakland for their 10th straight victory.

 

Houston avoided the headache of possibly having to look at eight different tiebreakers against the Colts by beating Jacksonville 30-6 to win the AFC South, making Indianapolis' victory over Tennessee moot. The Colts entered the day with the slimmest of chances to win the division, but a Texans loss was needed. Houston is the fourth seed.

 

"We are not happy with just winning the AFC South," Houston wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. "There are bigger goals ahead of us."

 

Seattle rebounded from last week's loss at home against St. Louis with one of its most dominant victories of the season, winning big at Arizona. The Seahawks led 30-6 at halftime and won for the sixth time in seven games. It'll be their second trip to Minnesota in about a month. Seattle beat the Vikings 38-7 on Dec. 6.

 

"These guys are confident that we can go wherever we got to go," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.

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BROWNS CLEAN HOUSE, FIRE COACH MIKE PETTINE, GM RAY FARMER

CLEVELAND (AP) -- The Browns changed uniforms to start the season and their coach and general manager to end it.

 

Hours after a 28-12 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the season finale, owner Jimmy Haslam fired coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer following their second straight losing season in charge.

It's almost a tradition.

 

Pettine went 3-13 this season and 10-22 in two years, dropping 18 of his final 21 games after a promising 7-4 start in 2014. Pettine's job security had been in doubt for months, and not even Haslam's vow at the start of training camp not to "blow things up" could stop another regime change in Cleveland.

 

Pettine was the team's seventh full-time coach since 1999, and the team has changed coaches and GMs five times since 2008.

 

"I don't think any of us anticipated going 3-13," said Haslam, who after firing Pettine returned from the team's headquarters in Berea, Ohio, to FirstEnergy Stadium to speak to the media. "I certainly didn't and I don't think anybody in our building did. Mike and Ray understand. They understand it's a bottom-line business and you're paid to win games, and losing 18 of 21 is not acceptable. They get that and they understand that and they're first-class guys. I hate it for them and obviously hate it for us."

 

A former defensive coordinator, Pettine's ouster can be partly linked to the performance of his defense, which ranked at or near the bottom in the league in nearly every statistical category. He's the fifth Cleveland coach in eight years to lose his job following a season-ending loss to the Steelers.

 

Haslam said the team will begin an immediate search for its eighth full-time coach of the expansion era. The Browns have hired Korn Ferry, an executive search firm, to assist with a quest that's been as perplexing for Cleveland's front office as the one for a franchise quarterback.

 

"We want to get the right person," Haslam said. "I don't know if it's going to take two weeks or two months."

Haslam's already fired three coaches and three GMs since buying the team from Randy Lerner in 2012.

 

"The blame for the franchise doing so poorly lays right here with me, because at the end of the day it's our job to put the right people in the right place and provide them with the resources," Haslam said. "I think we've done the latter. But the fact in the two full seasons we've owned the team we've won seven games and three games is unacceptable. We accept full responsibility for that. This has been much harder than we thought it would be, and there's a definite learning curve. I think we've found in life you often learn the hard way, and this has certainly been an example of this."

 

Potential candidates include Chicago offensive coordinator Andrew Gase, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, former Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, and former Buffalo coach Doug Marrone, now an assistant in Jacksonville.

 

Once the Browns have their new coach, the plan is to hire a GM. Haslam said Sashi Brown has been promoted to vice president of football operations and will have control over personnel decisions and the 53-man roster.

 

Haslam still believes the Browns are attractive to quality candidates and downplayed the idea the team needs to make a "splash" with its coaching hire.

 

Following Sunday's game, the 50-year-old Pettine said he understood change was looming - and inevitable.

 

"It should be a topic of speculation, given what our results have been," Pettine told reporters. "It is a bottom-line business and you guys don't have a column in the newspaper for moral victories. Our record is that we have won three of our last 21 games. That is just not good enough."

 

It hasn't helped that the Browns lacked talent, especially offensive playmakers and that's partly Farmer's fault.

 

The Browns have whiffed on high draft picks, wasted money on a defense that showed little improvement, and remain at the bottom of one of the NFL's toughest divisions.

 

Farmer, too, was suspended for the first four games this season for texting to the sideline during 2014 games.

 

One of his biggest mistakes over the past two years appears to be drafting quarterback Johnny Manziel. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner hasn't lived up to expectations on the field and continues to be a headache off it. He spent 73 days in a rehab facility during the offseason, got benched by Pettine for two games during the year for misbehavior and missed Sunday's game with a concussion. While his teammates finished the season, Manziel was reportedly in Las Vegas.

 

Haslam wouldn't comment directly on Manziel's whereabouts or his future in Cleveland. He did say the 23-year-old failed to report to the team's facility on Sunday for treatment.

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BROWNS DON'T KNOW IF MANZIEL MADE TRIP TO VEGAS

CLEVELAND (AP) -- The Browns are searching for a new coach, general manager - and Johnny Manziel.

 

His weekend itinerary remains a mystery.

 

The team doesn't seem to know whether their polarizing second-year quarterback, who sustained a concussion last week in Kansas City, went to Las Vegas on Saturday as his teammates got ready for their season finale.

 

Manziel was not going to play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers because he's in the NFL's protocol on head injuries. And while Manziel wasn't required to be at the stadium, owner Jimmy Haslam wasn't sure of the 23-year-old's whereabouts.

 

"I'm not exactly sure where Johnny is," Haslam said Sunday night. "Haven't talked to him. I know our football people will be on top of that."

 

Haslam said Manziel failed to report to the medical staff - as required for players with concussions - for treatment at the team's facility on Sunday.

 

USA Today quoted an employee and patron who said they saw Manziel at Las Vegas' Planet Hollywood on Saturday. The report said that Manziel, who sustained his head injury while rushing for 108 yards last week against Kansas City, ate at a restaurant in the casino and sat down at a blackjack table.

 

Typically, players who have concussions are sensitive to noise, light and are encouraged to rest as they recover. The Browns do not require concussed players to be at the stadium for home games.

 

While his teammates ended a 3-13 season, which was followed by the firings of coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer, Manziel was not at FirstEnergy Stadium as the Steelers beat the Browns 28-12.

 

But as always, Manziel was a topic of conversation.

As social media caught wind of his reported trip to Vegas, Manziel posted a photo on his Twitter account Saturday night of him lying on the floor with his dog. He used the hashtag #SaturdayNights.

 

Manziel had a second turbulent season with Cleveland, which drafted him in the first round in 2014. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner started six games, and while he did show progress on the field, he continued to be a distraction off it.

 

Before he was fired, Pettine said Manziel needs to address personal issues.

 

"Here is a guy that has an NFL skillset," Pettine said. "He's very talented. If you spend some time with him, he's a likable guy. You root for him, but there are problems there. We'll talk as we're headed to the offseason about getting addressed to make sure that, I said this before, we want to make sure that all of our places are grounded or in good shape as people first, players second. I don't think you can be as effective as you can be as a player if things aren't right off the field and he's a good example of that."

 

Manziel spent 10 weeks in a rehab facility last winter specializing in drug and alcohol abuse. He began the season as Josh McCown's backup, eventually took over as starter and was benched two games by Pettine after a video surfaced of him partying in Austin, Texas, during the team's bye week.

 

Haslam would not speculate on Manziel's future with the team, deferring any decision to his next coach and GM.

 

"That will be completely their call," Haslam said. "Ultimately, as the owner you do have say. I just don't think right now is the time to comment on that. There will be plenty of time to work on that over the next several months."

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NO. 7 OHIO STATE BEATS NO. 8 NOTRE DAME 44-28 IN FIESTA BOWL

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Ezekiel Elliott bulldozed his way into the end zone in the first half, showing off his strength as Ohio State's drive capper.

 

He flashed his speed in the second, becoming the show stopper as he raced up the middle for a long run.

Those skills should translate well in the NFL. They certainly worked out for the Buckeyes over the past three seasons.

 

Elliott ran for 149 yards and matched a Fiesta Bowl record with four touchdowns to close the curtain on his college career, sparking No. 7 Ohio State's prolific offense in a 44-28 win over Notre Dame on Friday.

 

"With all due respect to all the other running backs in Ohio State history, my first-round draft pick, I'd pick Zeke Elliott," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "He's as good as any running back I've been around."

 

The Buckeyes (12-1) were left out of the College Football Playoff thanks to an inopportune loss. They may leave the desert wondering what could have been after blowing past another late-season playoff contender.

 

Ohio State rolled past the Fighting Irish (10-3), quick-hitting its way to one scoring drive after another and 496 total yards.

 

Elliott, who's leaving school early for the NFL, scored on three short runs first half and left Notre Dame defenders flailing as he raced past them for a 47-yard score to open the second.

 

J.T. Barrett gave the Buckeyes some balance, throwing for 211 yards and a score with 96 yards rushing in the highest-scoring game against Notre Dame's defense this season.

 

Ohio State's seniors finished 50-4, tying the FBS record set by Boise State's 2011 class for most wins in a four-year span.

 

"It's been a wild journey with this team, something I couldn't even imagine," Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple said.

 

The Fighting Irish had some good offensive moments behind DeShone Kizer after Buckeyes star defensive end Joey Bosa was ejected for targeting in the first quarter.

 

They just couldn't keep up with the blistering Buckeyes after a string of injuries, including do-everything linebacker Jaylon Smith to a knee injury in the first quarter.

 

"The guy is so impactful on our defense," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "You lose a guy like that early on, it significantly affects what you're doing defensively."

 

Notre Dame missed its CFB chance by four points; two-point losses to Clemson and Stanford.

 

Ohio State lost to Michigan State in its penultimate game and had to watch the Spartans join fellow one-loss teams Alabama and Oklahoma in the playoff.

Those just-misses turned the Fiesta Bowl into a talent show, with NFL-caliber players dotting rosters from both teams.

 

Two of the best players were gone before the first quarter ended.

 

Smith, the Butkus Award winner as the nation's best linebacker, had to be helped off four minutes in after suffering what Kelly said was a significant leg injury.

Bosa, projected as a top-10 NFL draft pick, was gone a few minutes later after driving the top of his helmet into the chest of Kizer, long after the Notre Dame quarterback had released the ball.

 

"That was a kidney shot right there, but I guess it was the right call," Meyer said.

 

Ohio State had its way with Notre Dame's defense without Smith in the lineup, racing down the field for scores like a 7-on-7 drill.

 

Elliott, another potential first-round pick, was the Buckeyes' punctuation mark, scoring on a pair of 1-yard runs and another from 2 yards. Barrett accounted for the other score, finding Michael Thomas on a 15-yard TD to put Ohio State up 28-14 at halftime.

 

Elliott showed off his speed to open the second half, blurring through a hole for his 47-yard touchdown to match the Fiesta Bowl record set by Arizona State's Woody Green against Missouri in 1972.

 

"He's a physical back. He makes his presence known," Notre Dame defensive lineman Sheldon Day said. "He did some special things with his feet today."

 

Notre Dame took advantage of Ohio State's Bosa-less defense a few times, though not enough to keep pace with the Buckeyes.

 

Kizer was the key, moving the Irish down the field to set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Josh Adams and on another drive that he capped himself with a 1-yard score. It was his 10th rushing TD, most by a Notre Dame quarterback in one season.

 

Kizer connected with Chris Brown on a 4-yard touchdown pass to open the second half, pulling the Irish within a touchdown.

 

After a quiet first three quarters, Will Fuller finally got a chance to show off his speed, using a quick move to create space before racing off on an 81-yard touchdown. The second-longest TD reception in Fiesta Bowl history pulled the Fighting Irish within 38-28, but they got no closer.

 

Kizer threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-37 passing, but had an interception and lost a fumble.

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OHIO STATE STAR BOSA EJECTED FROM FIESTA BOWL FOR TARGETING AND TWEETS

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Ohio State's NFL-bound defensive end Joey Bosa was ejected from the Fiesta Bowl in the first quarter for targeting.

 

 

The penalty came when Bosa lowered his head and hit Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer in the midsection with the crown of his helmet with 5:26 left in the first quarter. The contact occurred well after Kizer had released the ball.

 

 

 

Bosa and Ohio State teammate running back Ezekiel Elliott announced Thursday that they would make themselves available for the NFL draft.

 

The 6-foot-7, 275-pound Bosa was a second-team AP All-American and, for the second year in a row, was voted Big Ten defensive lineman of the year.

 

Scouts consider Bosa a potential top-10 draft pick, possibly even as No. 1.

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TENNESSEE ROUTS NO. 12 NORTHWESTERN 45-6 IN OUTBACK BOWL

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Joshua Dobbs threw for 166 yards and ran for two touchdowns Friday, helping Tennessee cap its best season in eight years with a 45-6 rout of No. 12 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

 

Bowl

 

Dobbs scored on runs 14 and 18 yards, while Jalen Hurd ran for 130 yards and one TD for the Volunteers (9-4), who finished with at least nine wins for the first time since 2007.

 

Northwestern (10-3) sputtered offensively and was unable to keep up with the stronger, faster Vols defensively in falling short on a bid to finish with a school-record 11 victories.

 

Dobbs completed 14 of 25 passes. The dual-threat quarterback ran 12 times for 48 yards, including a highlight-reel burst around right end in which he dove for his second TD after picking up a bobbled snap and tight-roping his way up the sideline to make it 31-6 early in the fourth quarter.

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TV RATINGS FOR COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF DOWN 36 PERCENT

DALLAS (AP) -- Television ratings for the College Football Playoff semifinals dropped approximately 36 percent from last season when they were played on New Year's Day instead of New Year's Eve.

 

ESPN announced the overnight ratings Friday.

 

The Orange Bowl between Clemson and Oklahoma, which kicked off about 4:10 p.m. ET on ESPN, drew a 9.7 rating. The first semifinal last season, the Rose Bowl with Oregon and Florida State on New Year's Day, earned a 15.5.

 

The Michigan State-Alabama Cotton Bowl drew a 9.9 rating for ESPN compared to 15.3 for Ohio State-Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last Jan. 1.

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ALABAMA KNOCKS OUT MICHIGAN STATE 38-0 IN COTTON BOWL

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) -- The loss still stung. It burned Alabama so badly to be beaten in the College Football Playoff semifinals last year that the Crimson Tide was determined to handle its business differently this time around.

 

The players said they were more focused and promised to be more prepared, more precise in their execution and more relentless in their effort.

 

Nick Saban said he saw something in his team coming into the Cotton Bowl that he had never seen before. Michigan State claimed it was ready for a 15-round brawl, but the Tide knocked out the Spartans early on Thursday night like a nonconference cupcake.

 

No. 2 Alabama 38, No. 3 Michigan State 0.

 

Alabama (13-1) will face No. 1 Clemson (14-0) on Jan. 11 in Arizona looking for its fourth national title in nine seasons under Saban.

 

"I think last year when we came to this game, we were just happy to take part in the game," Saban said. "I think this year we wanted to sort of take the game and really thought our guys had a vision of what they wanted and everybody paid the price for what they had to do in preparation."

 

The Tide took it but not the way it had done for so much of this season - at least offensively. Instead of pounding away at a Michigan State defense that was stacked to stop Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry from running wild, Alabama aired it out.

 

Jake Coker played the game of his career, hooking up with Calvin Ridley for two touchdowns, and going 25 for 30 for a career-best 286 yards. Conventional wisdom on beating Alabama was to take away the run and make Coker, the promising Florida State transfer who sat the bench most of last season, win the game.

Clemson might have to come up with a new plan.

"He's a great quarterback, he's a great leader, and he can make things happen when we need them," receiver ArDarius Stewart said.

 

The Tide looked like a team with no weaknesses against overmatched Michigan State (12-2). The freshman Ridley was brilliant, streaking by defenders on deep throws and outfighting them on jump balls. He caught eight passes for 138 yards. Jonathan Allen and the ferocious Tide defensive front sacked Connor Cook four times and allowed the Spartans only one trip into the red zone - which ended with Cyrus Jones intercepting a pass at the goal line.

 

Jones added a high-stepping 57-yard punt return touchdown for the Tide, which hardly even had to use the 242-pound Henry. He ran 20 times for 75 yards and scored two touchdowns. The last made it 38-0 halfway through the fourth quarter. The celebration at that point was pretty tame on the Alabama sideline.

 

The 'Bama fans were having fun, though, breaking out the "S-E-C!" chant and singing along to "Sweet Home Alabama" with that familiar "Roll Tide Roll!" AT&T Stadium in North Texas - where Alabama started its season by blowing out a Big Ten team (Wisconsin) - had turned into Tuscaloosa west. Happy New Year, indeed.

 

"This is a special team that I couldn't be prouder of," Coker said.

 

The Tide is the only team to be playing in the College Football Playoff each of its first two seasons.

 

Last season the Crimson Tide couldn't get past the semifinals, upset by Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Heading into another game as a big favorite against the Big Ten champions, the Tide players said all week that the focus was better and their attitude more serious.

"This is no surprise," Allen said. "We had great practices every day. We worked our butts off and this is what you get when you work hard."

 

The Tide players talked about how some players were too concerned about where they would be drafted or partying on Bourbon Street last season. In chilly Dallas there was nothing to do but practice and that was fine by them. The players set the curfews this week. In by midnight the first two days in town and by 11 p.m. the last two.

 

"Maybe we were a little bit too complacent, and I take responsibility for all that," Saban said about last year's game. "The whole time we were here, it was total focus on winning the game."

 

Michigan State embraced its role as the underdog and came in expecting to slug it out with the Tide. The Spartans offensive line watched video of the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight to prepare.

 

"If we were sitting in here and we lost by five points, people might be saying nice things about you a little bit more but we wouldn't feel any better," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

 

Alabama broke through in the second quarter by going deep to Ridley for 50 yards to the 1. Running behind the blocks of defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, Henry punched it in for his SEC-record breaking 24th touchdown, and with 5:36 left in the first half it was 7-0 Tide.

 

It felt like more.

 

"It was like they didn't want to take on any blockers on," Reed said. "I think they were scared."

 

It would only get worse. It was Alabama at its best and it looked downright terrifying to be on the other end.

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