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Halfway through season, NFC is dominant

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Halfway through season, NFC is dominant

Halfway through the season, something's missing - mostly - on a list of the league's elite teams.

The AFC.

It's difficult to make a case for including any team from the conference other than Houston among the league's best, while unbeaten Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Green Bay and the New York Giants could be considered in that category from the NFC.

Coming off three straight Super Bowl wins and four out of the last five, the NFC is playing some dominant football on both sides of the line.

In interconference play, it's up 23-13 on the AFC, led by the Falcons sweeping the AFC West, and the Bears going 3-0 against the AFC South - with Chicago meeting the Texans on Sunday in the biggest matchup of the season so far. The Bears are slight favorites in the showdown of 7-1 teams.

That's not too much of a surprise, really. Chicago is home and only Pittsburgh, 3-0 against the suddenly vulnerable NFC East, has showed strength among AFC teams when crossing over.

The NFC has outscored the AFC 1,012-767 in head-to-head matchups, and has a plus-30 turnover margin in those games.

``The quarterbacks as a group are deeper in the NFC,'' says former NFL executive Pat Kirwan, who has looked extensively at the differences in the conferences. ``The bottom teams in the NFL are all in the AFC: Jacksonville, Kansas City and Cleveland.''

Just as pronounced are the statistical rankings, with six of the top eight defensive teams coming from the NFC. In a league where just about everyone can play offense - sorry Jacksonville, your 117 points wouldn't cut it in the ACC - the efficient defenses tend to swing the pendulum of power.

But if you want offense, something the league is providing plenty of once again this year, note that seven of the 11 highest-rated passers are from the NFC, as are eight of the top 11 receivers. The ground game? Try the top four, led by Minnesota star Adrian Peterson, and six of the first 10 are NFCers.

There's far more balance to NFC attacks.

``I think the balance has to be more maybe not weekly but over the course of the season,'' said Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, whose team has averaged 36 points in winning three of the last four, two of those victories against - you guessed it - the AFC.

``You have to take what the defense gives you. Different weeks the defense is going to afford you different opportunities. I think that's the hardest thing, coaches being able to recognize it and if it's different than what they've shown, being able to adjust. And for your players being able to get that communicated to them and having a system that is flexible enough to change the game plan because of the way they are playing the offense.''

Back to defense, consider that seven of the top 10 players in sacks, and 11 of the first 15, are from the NFC. Six of the eight best sacks teams are from the conference.

Of the 19 players with at least three interceptions, 13 are from the NFC.

Get the picture? Well, half the picture considering we have eight more weeks left in the regular-season.

Kirwan cautions that the AFC, which had the edge in interconference play from 1996-2010 (the NFC edged it 33-31 last season) could turn it around before January.

``I will say with Peyton Manning and John Fox in Denver, Andrew Luck in Indy and with the Steelers' strong push,'' Kirwan said, ``they are helping the AFC close the gap.''

Defenses have not closed the gap in what every year becomes more of an offense-oriented league. Games are averaging 705 yards gained, nearly 12 ahead of the record pace of last season. Yards through the air is rising to the stratosphere, more than 17 yards a game higher than the 2011 record.

The Bears' defense is adding significantly to the points totals, which are not quite on a record pace and might slow down as cold weather hits in many NFL cities. Chicago has seven interception returns for touchdowns and eight scores on defense already.

``At any given time on Sunday, anyone on this defense can score,'' said star linebacker Brian Urlacher, who did just that last Sunday. ``We didn't have that back in the day.''

Here's another wrinkle. Consider that the NFC has been dominant even though three teams usually among the contenders - New Orleans, Dallas and Philadelphia - have fallen into mediocrity. Or worse.

The Saints, of course, have been damaged by the bounties scandal that cost them coach Sean Payton for the season. Having a sieve of a defense has exacerbated their fall to 3-5, leaving them on the very outer fringe of the playoff race.

That's also where the Cowboys and Eagles have plummeted to through eight games. Dallas has issues with fundamentals such as receivers running the right routes and actually holding onto passes. Philly's defense can't tackle anyone and the offense, specifically Michael Vick, keeps turning over the ball.

Still, they tend to keep games close, as do most teams except the Titans, who have allowed a ludicrous 308 points in going 3-6. Already, 31 games have had the winning points scored in the final two minutes or in overtime. Eleven of those were decided in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and 10 went to OT.

Among the players producing the heroics in those games have been a bunch of rookies in what might be the strongest freshman class in years. Five first-year quarterbacks have started and, generally, made an impact, with the Colts' Andrew Luck - top overall pick last April - noteworthy for his success. He's lifted Indianapolis into the playoff push after the team won two games last season.

Robert Griffin III in Washington and Russell Wilson in Seattle have provided all kinds of excitement at the position, but don't think only young QBs are making headlines. From running backs Doug Martin in Tampa and Trent Richardson in Cleveland to Bucs safety Mark Barron and Patriots DE Chandler Jones, it's been a rocking half-season for rookies.

``I don't really know if there's something in the water or what. The rookies are definitely making a huge impact this year,'' Dolphins running back Reggie Bush said.

So are Manning and Peterson in their comebacks from major injuries and surgery. Now that Manning is approaching full health and a symbiotic relationship with his receivers, the Broncos have started looking like Super Bowl material. Peterson, coming off left knee surgery, returned to the lineup in less than nine months and has been, well, as sensational as ever.

For all the NFC superiority, the great comebacks, the offensive explosions and the remarkable rookies, the first half of the 2012 season might be most remembered for the opening three weeks of replacement officials. Indeed, if the Packers miss the postseason and the Seahawks make it, Seattle's 14-12 victory in Week 3 on a last-second desperation pass that sparked the end of the lockout of the regular officials will be revisited endlessly.

Thankfully, there's nearly two months of action left to dim the memories of those blown calls and indecisive non-calls. Eight weeks of points galore, perhaps. Of record-setting performances, for sure.

Maybe even an AFC revival.

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Five observations from Wizards' season-opening loss to the Miami Heat, as Kelly Olynyk steals the game

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USA TODAY Sports

Five observations from Wizards' season-opening loss to the Miami Heat, as Kelly Olynyk steals the game

The Washington Wizards opened their 2018-19 regular season with a 113-112 loss to the Miami Heat on Thursday night. Here are five observations from the game...

Olynyk does it again: A ghost from the Wizards' past returned on Thursday night to spoil the season opener in Washington, a game that up until very late seemed destined to go their way. The Wizards got several key stops late in the fourth quarter, but failed to box out Kelly Olynyk, who reeled in a Dwyane Wade miss and dropped in a go-ahead layup with 0.2 seconds remaining.

Olynyk had been booed all night by Wizards fans every time he touched the ball. Though he has changed teams, they still remember his dustup with Kelly Oubre Jr. back in the 2017 playoffs when he was with the Celtics. Olynyk heard it all night, but ended up sealing the win. Man, what a gut punch for the Wizards to start the season off.

Wall looked good: He may be wearing a headband and sporting a new hairstyle, but the John Wall who showed up on Thursday night to carve up the Heat defense looked awfully familiar. It was a version of him we didn't see much of last year in what amounted to a lost season due to missed games and injury-hampered play.

Wall looked a lot like the All-NBA force we saw two years ago when he put up career numbers and had the Wizards on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals. Against Miami, he got to the rim with little to no resistance and collected 18 points in the first half alone. He finished with 26 points, nine assists, three rebounds, three blocks and one steal. He shot 9-for-16 from the field.

One of the most intriguing parts of this season as it pertains to Wall is the potential he has with Dwight Howard, who in theory should make things a lot easier for him as a lob-devouring pick-and-roll monster. But Wall showed vs. the Heat he has the same spark we have seen over the years, the electric driving ability that was missing for so much of last season. 

He can create his own offense whenever he wants to. Imagine when he has Howard's help setting screens and drawing attention in the paint.

No Howard: Howard was a gametime decision and the Wizards ultimately made the call to sit him out. They say he's feeling great and getting better, but just hasn't had enough practice time to jump into the regular season line of fire.

It seems like Howard is very close and could be ready on Saturday when the Wizards host the Raptors. If not, he will still travel with the Wizards on their five-game road trip through the Western Conference.

With Howard out, head coach Scott Brooks appears to have more trust in Jason Smith to be the backup center rather than Thomas Bryant. Though he did go small with Markieff Morris or Jeff Green at center, that was only after Smith got into foul trouble.

Howard's absence was seen especially in the rebounding category. The Heat beat the Wizards on the glass 55 to 40 and Miami had 22 offensive boards. Though we haven't seen Howard in action with the Wizards, it's a safe bet they would have done better rebounding the ball with him on the floor.

Foul troubles: Howard's absence was compounded by key Wizards players racking fouls at an accelerated rate. Ian Mahinmi, who started for Howard, got his fourth just 15 seconds into the second half. By the end of the third quarter, Morris, Jason Smith and Bradley Beal also had four fouls by the end of the third quarter. Beal finished with five. 

All in all, it was a physical game between the teams, one that included a confrontation in the third quarter between Wall and Derrick Jones Jr. that resulted in a technical foul for Wall. It all started when Smith and Hassan Whiteside got tangled up on the floor. Wall came over and gave Jones a shove and some words to follow.

That play likely would have resulted in a technical foul last year as well, but it's worth noting the league has expanded its definition of 'hostile acts.' That type of stuff will not fly at all anymore. 

It was an interesting chicken-or-the-egg situation on Thursday because the quick whistles definitely contributed to some frustration between the teams.

Otto still deferred: Much of the talk about Otto Porter Jr. in recent years has been the need for him to shoot more often. He's the most efficient player on the Wizards, yet is the clear No. 3 option in the offense. That chatter reached a new level this preseason as Brooks joked to Wizards beat writers that they have permission to yell at Porter if he doesn't shoot.

So far, it was much of the same for Wizards swingman. He took seven shots in the game and only had three at halftime. Two of those came on the same play, as he missed a layup and then sank the putback. Porter didn't attempt a single three and had only nine points.

The Wizards want Porter to take more shots than he did last season (11.5 FGA/g), but it won't be easy. Keep in mind he posted that number when Wall missed 41 games and with Marcin Gortat as the center. Howard didn't play in this one, but when he returns he is going to expect more shots than Gortat was used to.

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NBA, G League to offer $125,000 contracts to elite prospects

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USA Today Sports

NBA, G League to offer $125,000 contracts to elite prospects

The G League will begin offering "select contracts" worth $125,000 next year to elite prospects who are not yet eligible for the NBA, a move that could slightly lessen the handful of one-and-done players at the college level.

There is no determination yet on how players will be identified as potential targets for such a contract. The G League said Thursday that it is establishing a working group to develop that process and other criteria, and that there will be no cap on how many players could be signed to a select deal.

"We recognize that talent assessment is inherently subjective," G League President Malcolm Turner said. "But as the name would suggest, this working group will be charged with identifying the relevant pool of players who may be offered a select contract. It's not as if any player can unilaterally raise their hand and dictate that they will join the league playing under a select contract."

Players will be eligible to sign the select deal if they turn 18 by Sept. 15 prior to the season that they would spend in the G League. The move follows recommendations released earlier this year by the Commission on College Basketball, a group that was chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and was tasked with reforming the college game.

The commission report said "elite high school players with NBA prospects ... should not be `forced' to attend college."

Turner said the move addresses that concern.

"We've tried to answer the basketball community's call for an alternative in a timely and thoughtful way," Turner said.

Players who receive the select contracts all will become eligible for the NBA draft the following year. Their rights would not be retained by an NBA club beforehand, no matter which G League affiliate they wind up with.

Under current rules, players are not eligible to enter the NBA draft until they are a year removed from high school -- though that is expected to change through an amendment to the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players in time for the 2022 draft.

The G League has allowed 18-year-old players in the past, but never before under any elite designation.

While it is apparent there are still details to be ironed out -- such as how these select players will be allocated to G League teams -- NCAA President Mark Emmert said he appreciates the G League's plan.

"Obtaining a college education continues to provide unmatched preparation for success in life for the majority of student-athletes and remains an excellent path to professional sports for many," Emmert said. "However, this change provides another option for those who would prefer not to attend college but want to directly pursue professional basketball."

And this could put the G League and some big-name NCAA programs on a collision course.

Players can sign letters of intent to play for a Division I school in the 2019-20 season starting next month, and there's nothing to suggest that some of the top recruits -- whether they've signed or not -- won't consider going to the G League for $125,000 instead of college next season. That means the potential is there for some awkward situations if a player signs with a school, and later backs out of that commitment to turn pro.

The G League's working group is expected to be formed and functioning within the next couple of weeks, but it's unclear when the process of players contacting the league and vice versa will begin. It is expected that there will be an advisory council to tell athletes who contact the G League about their potential eligibility for a select deal, much like how college football players can ask about their potential NFL draft status.

"There might be some collision points, but our role and what we intend to do is educate and inform the marketplace," Turner said. "We're also not going to be targeting those who have already made their decisions."

Earlier this year, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James called the NCAA model "corrupt" and said he would suggest to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver a plan to expand the G League and turn it into more of a farm system with an eye on truly preparing young talent for the NBA.

"As the NBA, we have to figure out a way that we can shore up our farm league," James said in February, when he was still with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "And if kids feel like they don't want to be a part of that NCAA program, then we have something here for them to be able to jump back on and not have to worry about going overseas all the time."

Through the first two nights of this NBA season, 35 rookies -- most of them having left college early -- made their debuts. Of the 35, only five scored more than 10 points in their first game.

 

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