Blackhawks

Falcons stunned by Cam Newton and the Panthers

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Falcons stunned by Cam Newton and the Panthers

From Comcast SportsNetCHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Cam Newton let teammate Greg Hardy handle the trash talk. Newton was busy setting records.Four days after Carolina defensive end Hardy promised "payback" and "punishment" for the Falcons over a loss at Atlanta in September, Newton threw for 287 yards and scored on a 72-yard run in a 30-20 victory.Despite playing without four starters and having 13 players on injured reserve, the struggling Panthers dominated the NFC South champions, just as Hardy said they would. Newton piled up a career-high 116 yards on the ground to become the first player with 250 yards passing, 100 yards rushing, a touchdown run and a TD pass in a game.The Panthers racked up 475 yards overall, avenging that Week 4 loss to Atlanta and snapping a five-game losing streak to their Interstate 85 rivals.Hardy was upset when television cameras caught Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan cursing at the Panthers sideline, telling them to get off the Falcons' field in Atlanta's 30-28 win. Hardy responded by saying last week the Panthers were a "better team" than the Falcons, adding a variety of trash talk.After Sunday's win Hardy turned the tables on the Falcons (11-2), repeating several times what Ryan said 10 weeks ago as he walked off the field. At one point Falcons kicker Matt Bryant returned fire at Hardy, saying, "Watch us in January."Hardy left the locker room before reporters were allowed in.It was Newton's first victory in four tries over his hometown team and he admitted after the game it was a special feeling."I think this game allows me to have a little chip on my shoulder," Newton said.Carolina's defense was superb through 2 quarters, helping build a 23-0 lead and a 356-86 edge in total yards.Carolina (4-9) came in with little to play for except to gain that measure of revenge on Ryan, who downplayed the war of words."I don't pay too much attention to it," said Ryan, who threw for 342 yards and two scores with one interception. "They were better than us today, that's for sure. They came out and played better than us. We're in a position in our season where we've got everything right in front of us, and we need to get back to work and worry about that."Said Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: "It's tough to say that we're overall better than the Falcons because they're 11-2, but I like Greg's confidence."The Falcons, of course, are headed to the playoffs and Sunday was a speed bump in what has been an outstanding season.However, the loss will certainly be of concern to Falcons fans that have witnessed good teams in the past under coach Mike Smith either fade late in the season or struggle in the playoffs.Smith said he'll use the loss as a "teaching point" and that "we have to play our best football here in the fourth quarter" of the season.It was all Carolina in the first half, beginning with the coin toss.The Panthers hadn't won a coin flip all year until Sunday, causing team captain Jordan Gross to exalt at midfield by thrusting both arms into the air. Including overtime, the Panthers were 0-13 on coin flips."I've never seen people cheering so loud for a coin toss," Gross said with a laugh.Carolina quickly took advantage, taking the opening kickoff and going 77 yards in 11 plays with Greg Olsen making a leaping grab in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.That set the tone for the first half.By the time Graham's Gano's third field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, the Panthers led 16-0 and had run 45 plays to Atlanta's 13, outgaining the Falcons 270-35.Led by Newton, who had some big runs on third-and-long, including a highlight-reel 14-yarder in which he avoided three tacklers on third-and-11, the Panthers had 15 first downs to Atlanta's two."Our offense today is what I kind of thought it would be all year long," Gross said. "We passed well. We threw the ball. We ran the ball well. We blocked well."Said Panthers coach Ron Rivera said: "This shows what we were capable of. That's the sad part."Carolina didn't let up in the second half.After the Panthers stuffed Atlanta on its first drive, Newton faked a handoff to DeAngelo Williams and raced 72 yards to the end zone, getting an assist from receiver Steve Smith, who took out two would-be tacklers with a big block around the 20. Newton somersaulted into the end zone for a 23-0 lead."I had a lot of practice blocking playing for (former Panthers) coach (John) Fox," Smith said, referring to Fox's tendency to run more than pass it while here in Carolina.Ryan threw two touchdown passes and Michael Turner ran for one, but the Falcons couldn't catch up.The Panthers put it away midway through the fourth quarter. After costly defensive holding penalty on cornerback Dunta Robinson, Williams caught a screen pass from Newton and raced 53 yards for a 30-13 lead.NOTES:The Panthers played without starters wide receiver Brandon LaFell, running back Jonathan Stewart, linebacker James Anderson and safety Charles Godfrey. ... Rivera ended his news conference early after starting to get emotional talking about the comeback of Thomas Davis, who has battled back from three torn ACLs to be a major contributor this season. ... Atlanta had won eight of the past nine games against Carolina before Sunday's loss.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.