Nationals

JJ Watt building off big moment in 2011 playoffs

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JJ Watt building off big moment in 2011 playoffs

HOUSTON (AP) With one mighty swat, J.J. Watt knocked down Andy Dalton's pass, intercepted it and returned it for a touchdown in last year's playoff win over Cincinnati for one of the biggest plays in Texans history.

A year later, the second-year defensive end is one of the league's top defenders, and he'll need another big game to help Houston - which lost three of its last four regular season games - regain its form in a wild-card playoff rematch against Cincinnati.

Watt wasn't too keen on reliving that play Tuesday, though.

``That was last year and this is this year,'' he said. ``I have things to focus on this year. It was a great play, a huge moment in my life, but I'm looking forward to making bigger moments this year.''

He's had plenty of them so far this season, leading the NFL with 20 1/2 sacks. He also had 39 tackles for loss, 16 passes defended, 107 tackles and four forced fumbles.

``You are watching something special,'' coach Gary Kubiak said. ``If you probably went and broke down what's happened over a period of the first two years in this league for a player, I'm not sure many guys could put up the numbers he's put up.''

Watt was having a solid rookie season for Houston in 2011 and had started each game for the Texans. But he was largely unknown outside of Houston before his interception return gave the Texans their first lead in a 31-10 win over the Bengals. It was the first playoff win in franchise history and a play Kubiak called a ``game-changer.''

``He's been really consistent,'' Kubiak said. ``He was a (darn) good rookie. During the playoffs last year, he raised his level of play. He found another gear as a player. It's continued through this season.''

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis remembers the play from Watt well, and has watched him change the course of many other games with his playmaking ability.

``It's kind of a big dagger for us,'' Lewis said. ``We never really overcame it. He's done that a lot. He's made the big sacks and sack fumbles ... you can't put on the tape where he's not doing that.''

Watt finished 2 1/2 sacks shy of breaking Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record of 22 1/2. He was named to his first Pro Bowl recently, and is a top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. But Watt isn't concerned with individual accolades.

``My season's been a lot of fun, and it's been great. But if we don't go out there and win, if we don't go out there and take care of business in the playoffs, it's just going to be another season for me,'' he said. ``I appreciate all the support I've gotten, all the love I've gotten and obviously the awards and everything, but I want a Super Bowl. That's it.''

The Texans lost to the Ravens in the second round of the playoffs last season. Now they're looking to put the disappointment of the last month behind them when they host the Bengals on Saturday.

Houston intercepted Dalton three times and sacked him four times in last year's win. Watt believes making the Bengals quarterback uncomfortable will again be the key to success.

``The only way I know how to stop a quarterback-receiver combination is to not let the quarterback get it out of his hands, and that's where I come in, and that's where the defensive line comes in,'' Watt said. ``We need to put pressure on him. We need to get after him. We need to fluster him.''

The Bengals are acutely aware of the problems Watt can create. Rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler might know what to expect better than anyone. He, like Watt, went to school at Wisconsin and the two have trained at the same gym.

``(He's) long, athletic, strong,'' Zeitler said. ``He does it all. Watching him on film, it's just insane the things he can do. It's going to be a very tough challenge. We are going to have to put a lot of effort toward stopping him.''

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

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Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Back before all this mania, Miami, as putrid as its season would be, loomed as a factor.

Handling the Marlins would be key for any contender. It wasn’t a question of winning, but of how much winning would occur against one of the league’s worst teams.

Following Friday’s 6-4 win in a sparsely attended Marlins Park, the Nationals moved to 14-3 against Miami this season. They are 16 games over. 500 for the year. They are plus-11 against Miami alone.

Asdrúbal Cabrera homered again, Trea Turner hit two homers, and Daniel Hudson pitched two innings to earn the save. So, the Nationals, 84-68, hold a one-game lead for the top wild-card spot. Milwaukee won again, joining a long list of teams to beat up on the Pittsburgh Pirates since the post-All-Star-break portion of the schedule began. Pittsburgh may be the league’s worst team, at the moment, and the Brewers host it for two more this weekend.

Trouble is brewing for Chicago. It lost again to St. Louis -- this time a 2-1 mid-day defeat in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have lost four in a row. They are three games behind the Nationals and two behind the Brewers. Their path to 90 wins, which may ultimately be the threshold for postseason entrance, is narrowing.

The Mets won their third consecutive game. They are hanging around, 3 ½ games behind the Brewers with nine remaining on the schedule. Their wild-card elimination number is six.

News for Philadelphia is more dire. The Phillies dropped to 78-74 Friday night following a 5-2 loss in Cleveland. They are now five behind Milwaukee. Their wild-card elimination number is a mere five. 

Which brings us to the more detailed math portion of this program. Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Nationals, 96 percent

Brewers, 84 percent

Cubs, 15 percent

Mets, 5 percent

Phillies, less than one percent

Coming up Saturday:

St. Louis at Chicago, 2:20 p.m., Hudson (16-7, 3.35 ERA) vs. Quintana (13-8, 4.37)

New York at Cincinnati, 4:10 p.m., Wheeler (11-7, 4.09) vs. DeSclafani (9-9, 3.93)

Washington at Miami, 6:10 p.m., Strasburg (17-6, 3.49) vs. Yamamoto (4-5, 4.87)

Philadelphia at Cleveland, 7:10 p.m., Vargas (6-8, 4.48) vs. Plesac (8-6, 3.64)

Pittsburgh at Milwaukee, 7:10 p.m., Marvel (0-2, 9.00) vs. Davies (10-7, 3.70)

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Beyond the Scoreboard: NLL changes and social responsibility

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USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the Scoreboard: NLL changes and social responsibility

By Rick Horrow

Podcast edited by Tanner Simkins

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE FULL PODCAST

  1. SportsBusiness Journal lauds corporate social responsibility. Amidst a recent roundup of sports CSR initiatives, SportsBusiness Journal noted that the first project on which educational platform developer EverFi collaborated with a sports property was “a financial literacy program that regional bank BBVA offered for use by elementary school students in a handful of NBA markets, including Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix.” When Houston hosted the NBA All-Star Game in 2013, league sponsor BBVA arranged for Rockets star James Harden to appear at a participating school. “While it’s cool to have a BBVA banker come into the classroom, it’s even cooler if James Harden shows up,” said Jon Chapman, co-founder and president of global partnerships for EverFi, which has developed online educational modules on topics ranging from financial literacy to STEM to anti-bullying, branded for presentation by teams, leagues, and sponsors. After Houston, EverFi developed educational modules for the NHL and NHLPA around science, technology, engineering and math; for the NFL and the United Way around character development and African American history; for MLB focusing on learning loss during summer vacation; and with MLS around anti-bullying. We look forward to celebrating a Sport Business Handbook event with EverFi at their Washington, DC headquarters on October 2
  2. The National Lacrosse League announces details for the 2019-2020 season, which include divisional realignment, playoff format and schedule type after the addition of two expansion teams and new market Halifax. The league will feature 13 teams in the upcoming season after fielding 11 last year. To accommodate the addition of expansion teams, the New York Riptide, Rochester Knighthawks, and new market Halifax Thunderbirds, as well as maintaining an eye towards continued expansion, the NLL will shift to a three-division format in 2019-2020. “The league has had unprecedented expansion over the last three years. With two more teams coming in this year along with a new market in Halifax, we felt the need to reexamine conference alignments, schedule and playoff formats to prepare for future expansion. We also wanted to create exciting rivalries for the fans, the best travel scenarios for teams and players and competitive match-ups for our 13 franchises,“ said NLL Commissioner and Sport Business Handbook contributor Nick Sakiewicz. Along with unprecedented expansion, the NLL is clearly looking at unprecedented success.
  3. Cal Ripken, Jr.’s celebrity golf tournament draws in legendary athletes across major U.S. sports leagues. According to the Patriot News, the event, featuring such legends as Julius Erving, Lawrence Taylor, Ozzie Smith, and Jim McMahon, was held to benefit the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation. The inaugural golf outing was held in 2011, and since then, the event has raised several million dollars for the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation. The principal goals of the foundation are to utilize baseball- and softball-themed programs in an effort to build character and teach life lessons to underprivileged children. Founded in 2001, the Foundation has served kids in all 50 states and in other countries such as Canada and Nicaragua. With over 20 Hall of Famers across the NFL and MLB, the event has an impressive amount of star power to help draw attention to giving back to those less privileged through baseball and softball.