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Manning has gone from MVP to playing like rookie

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Manning has gone from MVP to playing like rookie

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) With the New York Giants at 6-2 and holding a big lead in the NFC East, two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning was a legitimate candidate for league Most Valuable Player.

Not anymore. After two straight losses and some pathetic offensive play, Manning is now hearing the other side of the equation from fans and critics.

His golden arm appears tired and his play is reminiscent of his rookie season when teams like the Ravens made him look like a deer caught in a car's high beams.

It's the price of playing in New York and Manning actually smiled when reminded of his so-called downfall as the Giants (6-4) headed into their bye week Monday, coming off a dreadful performance in a 31-13 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

``You trust your skills, you trust your past experience and know that football is a crazy game,'' Manning said after the team held its final meeting before dispersing for the week. ``And it's tough and it's hard; sometimes as a player you forget that because sometimes as a player you go out and you are catching every break, and even plays where guys shouldn't be getting open, they're getting open because the defense is making a mistake and you are hitting them, and everything is going you're way.''

That has not been the case for really the past three weeks.

Manning has hit 54 of 99 passes for no touchdowns and four interceptions in a win over Dallas and losses to Pittsburgh and the Bengals.

It's a sudden flip-flop that is hard to explain for an offense that was one of the most explosive in the league for half a season.

``All the sudden defenses are playing things really well and you're not catching breaks, and it seems like, `How are we going to get a first down? Are we going to be able to score points this week,' " Manning added. ``So it is just a matter of fighting through it and keep working hard, keep staying committed to your reads and making good decisions and not forcing things when things are tough. Sometimes you need to be reminded of that. We've had a good reminder of that and now it's a matter of relearning that and taking those experiences and getting better.''

The big mistakes Manning made Sunday came by forcing two third-quarter passes under pressure that were intercepted. It led to touchdown drives of 12 and 16 yards and put the game out of reach.

Manning plans to get away from the area this week and not throw a ball until next Monday. However, he insisted his arm is fine and that he threw with ball well Sunday.

Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and coach Tom Coughlin said Manning made a couple of bad plays on the interceptions, and he knows that.

Gilbride said Manning probably tried to do too much after running back Ahmad Bradshaw lost a fumble in the red zone that could have gotten the Giants within 17-13 early in the third quarter.

``He's always going to get a lot of the credit, maybe more than he deserves when things are going well, and he's always going to get more of the blame when things are not going well,'' Gilbride said. ``He had some decisions yesterday that he would like to have back, and I think that's probably indicative of us pressing to get back to where we were. Certainly, if we give him the time and the protection, I have no doubt in my mind that he'll put the ball where it needs to go, accurately, correctly and give guys a chance. It comes down to protection. It comes down to the guys doing a better job getting open, getting separation. Believe me, it's a collective process out there. We're all in need of doing better.''

Coughlin refused to point a finger at Manning for the offensive woes.

``He's not alone. He's not alone,'' Coughlin said. ``We have a lot of people that aren't playing as well as they're capable of playing. That's got to change,''

There will be no quarterback controversy with this team. Veteran David Carr is the backup and there is no thought of making a switch.

The Giants have become notorious for their November swoons and this is just the latest.

``It's been a couple of weeks, but I don't think anyone in this locker room will point any fingers,'' guard Kevin Boothe said. ``Maybe others outside this locker room might, but we're a confident and proud group. We'll turn it around. We just haven't played well the last few weeks and lost the last couple. We still have everything in front of us and we'll continue to play.''

Tight end Martellus Bennett said the offense just has to execute better and someone has to be the spark for that.

Manning is the likely candidate. Despite the two bad weeks, he has thrown for 2,641 yards, 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and that's without much of a running game.

Bennett said blaming the quarterback is like blaming the point guard in basketball when things go south.

``He has always played well whenever we have needed him to,'' Bennett said. ``We have to make plays for him. It's just not on him. It's everybody in this offense. If he makes a throw and he's having a tough game, we can't drop them. We have to make a play for him, and get him going sometimes, too.''

Manning wanted to see the bright side.

``We're still in a good position,'' Manning said. ``If you said after 10 games, we'd be winning our division, you take that every time.''

---(equals)

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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

This is not a tweet I expected to read in May of 2018.

On the heels of their latest injury, the team is adding uber-prospect Juan Soto to the roster. It's unclear how much playing time he'll receive early on, but it's hard to imagine the team would be willing to start his service time clock and mess with his development track simply to sit him on the bench. He'll likely play, and make an impact on the team for as long as he's in D.C.

Let's not bury the lede, though. As you probably noticed in the tweet, Juan Soto is 19-years old. He was born in October of 1998, making him the youngest player in the majors, and bringing us one step closer to the first big-leaguer born in the 2000s. 

As incredible as it is for Soto to make the majors as a teenager (Bryce Harper and Time Raines are the only other teenagers to play in the majors in franchise history, which is pretty good company), what might be even more stunning is how quickly this came together for him. 

This will already be Soto's fourth different level of professional baseball this season alone, having spent time with the low-A, high-A, and AA clubs so far. In his entire life, Soto has just 35 plate appearances above class-A, which is almost unheard of for a player getting promoted to the big league roster.

He's hit everywhere he's been, with his career OPS in the minors a whopping 1.043 (his lowest  wRC+ at any level is 132), though it remains to be seen if his prodigious bat is ready for Major League pitching. Still, simply being in the majors at such a young age is a great sign for his future.

Not that anybody should put Hall of Fame expectations on a kid who hasn't even faced a pitch in the majors yet, but Soto's meteoric rise gives him a better chance than most at greatness. Just last month, when discussing the dynamic Braves duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Hall of Fame-expert Jay Jaffe did some research on young stars making the big leagues, and the numbers are promising.

According to Baseball Reference (and we're just going to take their word for it), there have been 19,261 players in the history of Major League Baseball, and 226 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a minuscule 1.1%.

But, of every player to ever record 100 plate appearances as a 19-year old (a number Soto should easily hit if he stays up all season), the number of players who eventually made the Hall of Fame jumps to 24%. If Soto is only up for a cup of coffee this year, and next year is when he's here to stay, you can move up the list to players who recorded 100 PA in their age-20 seasons, and the number is still 19%.

Plus, that percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades, as there are 18 active players to reach the benchmark, including future locks Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout, and guys who are young but on the right track (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, and Giancarlo Stanton). Acuna, Albies, and Rafael Devers could find their way on the list one day as well. Considering only three of those names need to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day, it's safe to say that percentage is only growing.

That's a lot of stats that look nice for Soto and the Nationals, but obviously, we're at least a decade away from having a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame chances. Still, it highlights what we've known about him for quite some time. Juan Soto is a special, generational talent, and his rise to the big leagues as a teenager is worth writing home about.

What he's done so far is historic, and even if the move seems premature, it's plenty cause for excitement about the future of baseball in D.C.

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