Nationals

Broncos on verge of winning the West

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Broncos on verge of winning the West

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Before the season begins, almost every team puts these words near the top of a long list of goals: ``Win the division.''

That's all but a foregone conclusion in Denver, though when the Broncos wrap up the AFC West, there won't be much of a celebration. They didn't bring Peyton Manning to town just to win division titles and, given their six-game winning streak and the soft schedule ahead, this is a team that has every right to be thinking about bigger goals.

``Our goals are still alive ... and that is, win our division and get into the tournament,'' Broncos coach John Fox said. ``That's still our goal, and to us, the best formula is one game at a time and put all our focus and energy into that particular opponent. You guys can keep asking and I keep telling you the same thing, but that's the truth.''

A win over the Buccaneers (6-5) on Sunday or a San Diego loss to Cincinnati will wrap up the division for Denver (8-3), but the real race for the Broncos involves the rest of the AFC division leaders.

The Broncos have lost to two of them - Houston (10-1) and New England (8-3) - and have a Dec. 16 meeting against Baltimore (9-2).

A key advantage for Denver against the rest of those teams is the strength of their remaining schedules. Even with Baltimore and the Buccaneers, Denver's remaining opponents have a .400 winning percentage, easiest schedule of any team still in the playoff hunt. Houston's last five opponents are a cumulative .582. The Patriots' are .555 and the Ravens' are .582.

All of which means the No. 1 or 2 seed and a first-round bye remain very realistic possibilities for the Broncos.

Their thoughts on that?

Well, not much.

``What's important for us is to play better and try to win this game,'' Manning said, sticking to the rather dull, rather consistent party line pounded home by Fox at the start of pretty much every week. ``That's all we're focusing on.''

Since Manning brought it up, there is, in fact, plenty for the Broncos offense to work on.

Odd as it may seem for an offense ranked fourth in the league and averaging nearly 29 points a game, Manning and Co. have not looked sharp for an entire game since their 34-14 victory over New Orleans, on Oct. 28.

Denver's first three drives in last week's 17-9 victory over Kansas City resulted in a punt, a missed field goal and an interception. The Broncos didn't score until 18 seconds were left in the first half.

In the 30-23 win over San Diego the week before, Manning threw an interception that got returned for a touchdown and also got sacked for a safety. The Broncos settled for a field goal after getting a turnover at the San Diego 8.

Hovering over it all: Turnovers. Denver has committed at least one in its past 18 games, dating to the 11th game of last season, and have lost 13 fumbles this year, third most in the league.

Asked about the deficiencies in his postgame news conferences, Manning tends to bristle a little, stating, correctly, that any win in the NFL is a pretty one.

He also concedes there's a benefit to winning ugly - namely, that the good feeling of getting a `W' is tempered by the reality that there's still plenty of work to be done.

``The coaches challenge us to improve and we have the kind of players to challenge each other to improve and get better,'' Manning said. ``You're always trying to play that perfect game. Whether you can or you can't, you still strive for that. We still feel like we can improve as a team and we need to improve.''

As for what seems like the inevitable milestone of winning the division, not all the Broncos will completely overlook it.

``It's great for me,'' said safety Mike Adams, who spent his first eight seasons with San Francisco and Cleveland and has been on only one team that finished with a winning record. ``I've never been to the playoffs before.''

Dozens of the other Broncos have.

Last year, Denver lost its last three regular-season games, finished 8-8 and backed into the playoffs after getting help from several other teams. The Broncos won their first playoff game, then lost 45-10 to New England in the divisional round.

``It's a celebration, same as if you get a `W,''' defensive end Elvis Dumervil said of the division title. ``But not much beyond that. Because we did that last year and didn't get much from it. It gives you the right to get in the playoffs. That's an accomplishment. But clearly, there's more football after that.''

Notes: With 4,959 completions, Manning needs nine more to pass Dan Marino for second place on the all-time list. ... DE Robert Ayers missed practice so he could be with his family after the sudden death of his father last weekend. ... WR Brandon Stokley (wrist, hip) and OL Manny Ramirez (back) were the only players limited in practice.

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuna.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuna, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of.. 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuna is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuna has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuna has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuna is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuna’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history in Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuna’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuna is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, voters love a narrative though, and if Acuna comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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Need to Know: Redskins stock up, stock down after Jets game

Need to Know: Redskins stock up, stock down after Jets game

Here is what you need to know on Friday, August 16, seven days before the Washington Redskins host the Broncos in their third preseason game. 

Talking points

Here are some players who saw their stock go up during tonight’s preseason game against the Jets and others who experienced a stock drop

Up—Rookie nose tackle Tim Settle had himself another big game. The difference this time was that most of his snaps came against the Jets starting offensive line as opposed to the Patriots’ backups he saw last week. He mauled ex-Redskins center Spencer Long a few times and he moved over to tackle in a four-man front to generate some pass pressure. He is still learning. 

Down—Backup center Tony Bergstrom was physically manhandled a couple of times, making things difficult for Colt McCoy, some running backs, and Kevin Hogan. He also committed a flagrant holding penalty that negated a good Hogan run for the first down. His roster spot does not appear to be in any danger, but he has to do better.

Up—Cornerback Danny Johnson had some pressure dropped on him when the team cut Orlando Scandrick, moving Johnson from roster long shot to a player who may have to be counted on. He played well, making a key play in the second quarter. On third down, he made a good tackle to stop a third-down play short of the sticks. He knocked the ball out of the runner’s hands, but a quick whistle negated the turnover. 

Up/Down—Wide receiver Cam Sims had some wild swings. In the second quarter, he was open in the red zone and McCoy put a perfect pass into his arms. But the ball popped out and was intercepted. Turnovers will get rookie free agents cut. Sims made up for it later in the game with a key third-down catch later in the second quarter. Later, in the last seconds of the game, he pulled in a 20-yard pass to set up Dustin Hopkins’ game-winning field goal. In between, he grabbed a touchdown pass between two defenders, but that play was negated by an illegal formation penalty. 

Down—You hate to see a player’s stock go down due in part to an injury but that’s what happened with Byron Marshall. Even though he is OK, he left the game early, opening the door for Kapri Bibbs, his main competition for the fourth roster spot at running back, to have a good night. Bibbs caught seven passes for 47 yards. Before he left the game, Marshall put the ball on the ground on a kickoff return. Although replay showed that he was down by contact before fumbling it was close enough to cause concern. The competition for the fourth running back spot is tighter now than it was before the game. 

Up—Rookie safety Troy Apke had three tackles and he picked off a fourth-down Sam Darnold pass. Deshazor Everett gets an assist on the pick as he batted the pass up in the air. Apke is still has a lot to learn before he makes the transition from being a fast guy to being a good NFL player. 

Down—Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton had a chance to make a key third-down sack of Teddy Bridgewater that would have killed a fourth-quarter drive. But he went to the ground and missed the sack and Bridgewater made the completion to keep the drive alive. Hamilton gets credit for getting into the backfield, but he didn’t seal the deal. 

Bureau of statistics

Here are two preseason stats with the caveat that they are preseason stats. 1). In the first halves of their two preseason games with both sides playing mostly their first- and second-team players, the Redskins have outscored the opposition 26-6. 2). The Redskins have 216 rushing yards through two games. Last year they rushed for 103 yards in their first two preseason games. 

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The agenda

Today: Off day

Upcoming: Preseason Broncos @ Redskins (Aug. 24) 7 days; Final cut (Sept. 1) 15 days; Season opener @ Cardinals (Sept. 9) 23 days

In case you missed it

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page,Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler