Cubs

Did Peyton do enough to win MVP?

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Did Peyton do enough to win MVP?

From Comcast SportsNetDENVER (AP) -- Peyton Manning figured one one-handed catch deserved another.So, up the ladder he went -- throwing the ball high in the back of the end zone to Demaryius Thomas.Thomas leaped and brought it down with his right hand, then got both feet down inside the line for a touchdown. With that, he joined Eric Decker in Denver's one-handed-touchdown club Sunday and gave the Broncos another otherworldly highlight to go with their home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after a 38-3 runaway over the Kansas City Chiefs."They claim they can do that all the time," said cornerback Champ Bailey, who got to watch the replays of both catches about a half-dozen times on the scoreboard. "They say they practice that. I don't see it. But as long as they do it on Sunday, I'm all for it. Those are some great, hard-working boys and I expect nothing less."Manning, in search of his fifth MVP award and, yes, a second Super Bowl title, finished 23 for 29 for 304 yards, three scores and a 144.8 passer rating. One of his main competitors for the award, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, ran for 199 yards to reach 2,097 for the season in a 37-34 win over Green Bay that secured a playoff berth.That one went down to the wire. Manning was out of his game by the fourth quarter.This was the second straight Sunday he used a grey-and-orange glove to prepare for the cold, playoff weather he could face at home the next two games."I threw it OK today, I guess," said Manning, who finished the season with 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns and a 105.8 passer rating, all second best in his 15-year career.Thanks to Houston's 28-16 loss to Indianapolis before the Broncos kicked off, Denver (13-3) will be the top seed for the sixth time. The Broncos made the Super Bowl four of the previous five times they've had home-field advantage.Though the Chiefs (2-14) gave the Broncos as tough a tussle as anyone during their 11-game winning streak -- in a 17-9 loss last month -- this wasn't expected to be much of a game. It wasn't.Leave it to Manning, ever the perfectionist, to ramp up the degree of difficulty.On the 16-yard touchdown to Decker, Manning slightly overthrew the pass but Decker reached out with his left hand, brought the ball into his helmet, had it pinball against his facemask twice, then cradled it with both hands as he was falling to the ground."Peyton throws the ball up, giving us a chance to make a play. It's our job to catch it," Decker said.The 13-yard touchdown to the 6-foot-3 Thomas mirrored a TD pass Manning threw to Decker last week against Cleveland: high in the back of the end zone where only his receiver could catch it."That was probably the limit right there," Manning said. "But I've seen him in practice. He can jump. He can really elevate. It's hard to throw it over his head, I'll say that."The Thomas touchdown made it 28-3 and the celebration was on. The only trip the Broncos will have to make on their road to a championship would be to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. They'll open the playoffs at home Jan. 12 against Baltimore, Cincinnati or Manning's old team, the Colts.Coach John Fox, in search of his second trip to the Super Bowl, won his 100th career game. Thomas and linebacker Wesley Woodyard congratulated him with a big splash of orange Gatorade at the end."It's an accomplishment, but it's something that was a lot of people's work. It wasn't one guy," Fox said.Nor would Manning take all the credit for all he's accomplished in this, a comeback season in which he didn't know what to expect.This marked his 73rd three-touchdown game, surpassing the record held by Brett Favre. Manning closed the regular season only 41 yards short of his career high."It's been a gratifying regular season," Manning said. "I will admit that. It is certainly more than I expected. I'm grateful and humble for it."On the other end of the spectrum are the Chiefs, who, like the Broncos, had five Pro Bowlers on their roster, but finished with 119 yards of offense and wrapped up the first pick in next year's draft.Coach Romeo Crennel watched the game from the sideline, leaning on a crutch, after having his knee drained of fluid earlier in the week. Many in Kansas City expect him to be unemployed soon."I told him it's been a long one," Chiefs defensive lineman Shaun Smith said about his postgame conversation with Crennel. "Sorry it didn't turn out the way (we wanted). I have faith in you and that's all that matters."The Broncos swept their division games for the first time since 1998 -- the last time they won the Super Bowl.John Elway retired after that one. Now, he's back, running Denver's front office, and he signed Manning with only one goal in mind: a third Lombardi Trophy.For a brief glimmer, this could have been a game. The Broncos led 7-0 when Ronnie Hillman fumbled and Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers picked it up and was sprinting toward the end zone.Manning cut off the Flowers return, allowing tight end Joel Dreessen to drag down Flowers at the 12. The Chiefs settled for a field goal and the Broncos scored the next 31 points.Notes: Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles had 53 yards to finish the season with 1,509. ... Broncos FS Rahim Moore got his first career sack and Von Miller had one to bring his season total to 18. ... Hillman wasn't seen against after his fumble. Lance Ball replaced him as Knowshon Moreno's backup and led the team with 66 yards on 15 carries.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jon Graff, Matt Buckman and Scott Changnon rattle off their main takeaways from the weekend’s Cubs Convention, including the funniest moments and how the players engaged with fans and each other throughout the three days at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Plus, which players — besides Kyle Schwarber — made the most of the offseason and are primed for a breakout in 2018? The crew gives its take, with options including Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and Jason Heyward.

Take a listen below:

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

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USA TODAY

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

Circling back around from the playoffs to the Bears, or at least to the Bears using the current postseason as a bit of a prism, magnifying glass, measuring stick, all of the above:

The ultimate question, obviously meaningfully unanswerable for perhaps another 10 or 11 months, revolves around expectations that were ushered in along with Matt Nagy and the rest of his coaching staff. One early guess is that there’ll be an inevitable positive bump in the record, the only true measuring stick. Depending on changes in practices, strength training, luck, whatever, Nagy might fare better than John Fox simply by virtue of having a presumably healthier roster — pick any three Bears who were injured during the 2017 season: Leonard Floyd, Cameron Meredith, Eric Kush, Kyle Long, Pernell McPhee, Mitch Unrein, Kevin White and Willie Young — and a broken-in Mitch Trubisky from the get-go.

This is far from a given, however. Far, far from a given for the Bears. Of the 10 coaches hired in the 50 years since George Halas stopped, only Fox, Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt improved on the winning percentage of their immediate predecessor. All dipped, save for Jack Pardee, who in 1975 equaled the 4-10 finish of Abe Gibron before him. And Pardee was getting Walter Payton in that year’s draft, so things started looking up in a hurry.

And maybe that should be the expectation for Nagy, who projects to get some or all of Fox’s wounded back, plus a draft class beginning with No. 8 overall.

Better Bears record in 2018? Maybe, but ...

The Bears are perhaps something of an anomaly (imagine that) in the near constant of incoming coaches failing to improve matters in their first years. One of the more memorable aspects of this writer’s first year on the Bears beat (1992) — besides the obvious pyrotechnics of Mike Ditka’s epic final season — was the startling turnarounds effected by first-year (and first-time) NFL coaches that year, with several teams on the Bears’ schedule that year, meaning there were chances to study those in depth.

Consider: Bill Cowher took the Steelers from 7-9 to 11-5, Dennis Green took the Vikings from 8-8 to 11-5, Mike Holmgren took the Packers from 4-12 to 11-5, Bobby Ross took the Chargers from 4-12 to 11-5, and Dave Shula took the Bengals from 3-13 to 5-11.

The Bears played all but the Chargers that year, losing twice to Green, once to Holmgren and defeating the Cowher and Shula teams. Holmgren’s Packers didn’t make the playoffs, but he had to make an in-season quarterback change, which worked out pretty well long-term (Brett Favre).

Bears coaching-change history notwithstanding, the Nagy bar should be well above the five wins of Fox’s 2017. Nagy is a first-time head coach, but none of Cowher, Green, Holmgren, Ross or Shula had ever been NFL head coaches previously, either. Green and Ross had been college head coaches, albeit Green with a losing record and Ross barely .500 in those tenures.

And those coaches were taking over in the last year before the advent of free agency, which began in 1993. The Bears “landed” Anthony Blaylock and Craig Heyward. The Vikings secured Jack Del Rio. The Packers, Reggie White.

Odd years coming

Expectations vs. results will be interesting to observe in quite a few places this season. In some spots, the situation wasn’t completely broken but they “fixed” it anyway, in the dubious tradition of the Bears axing Lovie Smith after consecutive seasons of 11-5, 8-8 and 10-6 — two more wins (29) than Fox and Marc Trestman had combined (27) over the next five years.

Sometimes that sort of thing can work out. Phil Jackson did get the Michael Jordan Bulls to the next level that Doug Collins hadn’t. And Joe Maddon got the Cubs over the Rick Renteria hump, though adding Kris Bryant, Dexter Fowler and Jon Lester probably helped, too. Fox got the Broncos into a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning, but Gary Kubiak won one with Manning. Fox’s Broncos went against the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, one of the top 10 defenses of all time, while Kubiak had the good fortune of instead having one of the all-time great defenses in 2015.

But back to current NFL case studies:

— The Lions fired Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season, his third winning year out of four there, two of those going to the playoffs.

— The Titans concluded their playoff year with the exit of Mike Mularkey, his reward for a second straight 9-7 that reversed four straight losing years under others.

— Chuck Pagano had five .500-or-better seasons with the Colts, didn’t have Andrew Luck all year, and was fired two years after going 5-3 with Matt Hasselbeck filling in for Luck.

What the expectations are in those venues is their business, just as it was when Phil Emery launched Smith in a fashion similar to the Titans with Mularkey. Smith didn’t reach the 2012 playoffs but would have been fired for anything short of a Super Bowl appearance, as Mularkey was for only winning one playoff game with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback.

All of which makes the Nagy/Pace Era more than a little intriguing. Nagy takes over a team with a No. 2-overall quarterback, as Mularkey did with Mariota. Some of Mularkey’s undoing traced to failing to maximize Mariota with an offense suited to how his quarterback plays his best, and force-fitting a player into a scheme is high-risk at best.

That doesn’t really apply in the case of a conservatively wired Fox, who directed that the offense be kept under ball-security control with a rookie quarterback. Fox and Dowell Loggains arguably were as constrained by Trubisky as he was by them.

But Nick Foles flourished with the Eagles under Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson, struggling a bit under Jeff Fisher. Case Keenum, a teammate of Foles when the Rams played in St. Louis, was so-so under the defense-based Fisher with the Rams, yet went supernova this year under the defense-based Mike Zimmer with the Vikings, which speaks to the value of the right coordinator irrespective of the head coach’s offensive or defensive background.

In the end Nagy’s achievements will be player-based. They always are. What he can do with what he’s got and given, via draft, free agency or whatever, vs. the successes and non-successes of others in his situation, is the work in progress now.