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NFC wild card is NFL's version of Groundhog Day

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NFC wild card is NFL's version of Groundhog Day

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) It's not just wild-card weekend in Minnesota and Green Bay.

It's Groundhog Day.

Six days after facing off in the regular-season finale, and five weeks after their first meeting of the season, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers are at it again Saturday night. This is no yawner of a sequel, though, not when the stakes are win or winter vacation.

``Like I tell the team, it doesn't matter who comes out of that tunnel, I don't care what color they have on,'' Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. ``It's about fundamentals, matchups, and that's what we're focused on. We're playing at home, it's going to be a great environment. ... The Vikings obviously have done a great job to get into the tournament, and we respect that, but this is a different deal.

``This is what everybody's been fighting for, and this is what we're excited about.''

Minnesota (10-6) and Green Bay (11-5) split their first two meetings, with the Vikings' victory last Sunday in Minneapolis giving them the last wild-card spot. It also dropped the Packers from the No. 2 to the No. 3 seed, and forced the NFC North champs to work a weekend they were hoping to have off.

At least neither team had to scramble to dig up film or scouting reports.

As division rivals, the Packers and Vikings already know plenty about each other. After playing twice in December, they know each other so well they could probably call each other's plays. There won't be any big surprises, no new wrinkles to the offense or defense that the other hasn't already seen.

``So much familiarity with the team that we are playing because of the number of times we have played them in the last month and a half,'' Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. ``So not a whole lot that needs to be discussed as far as getting motivated to play this game.''

The Vikings game plan will be simple: Give the ball to Adrian Peterson and get out of the way.

That's the plan pretty much every week, but particularly against Green Bay. He's rushed for 409 yards in their two games, more than some running backs manage in 16, and is averaging a whopping 7.4 yards per carry. He had the longest run of his career, 82 yards for a touchdown, in the Dec. 2 game, and a career-high 34 carries on Sunday.

Peterson has gained more yards against Green Bay (1,442 in 12 games) than any other team, and he chews up the Lambeau Field grass as easily as the Metrodome turf.

``It's just the rivalry,'' he said. ``There's more emphasis on that game because we know that's a team that we have to beat in order to accomplish our goals we've set forth.''

Yeah, but the Packers had a goal last weekend, too, and that didn't help against Peterson.

``We had the right calls, we just need to be a little smarter as far as where we fit and then a little more accountable and reliable as far as what we do,'' Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. ``There were a couple of times where, perhaps playing somebody else, we could fall inside somebody else's gap. With this team, they'll make you pay and that's exactly what happened.

``It was a good test and obviously we'll come back here ready.''

Now, having the Vikings come to Lambeau for the playoffs would seem an advantage for the Packers. Minnesota hasn't won in Green Bay since 2009, the last year the Vikings made the playoffs, and the Packers have won 20 of their last 22 games at home.

But the Packers have lost their last two home playoff games, including last year to the Giants when they were the NFC's No. 1 seed.

``It's not something we've thought about or really talked about since probably April,'' Aaron Rodgers said. ``We want to be playing the right way obviously. We had a good stretch there. We won nine out of 11 games and played a lot of really good opponents, tough opponents, tough games on the road.

``I like the way we're playing,'' he added. ``I think we have the right mindset, a good group of leaders in this locker room and a lot of guys who've won a lot of regular season, a lot of postseason games. We're excited about our team and excited about our opportunity in front of us.''

Especially since Green Bay's high-powered offense is finally at full strength.

The Packers' top four receivers - Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb - have played less than three full games together this season, with Jennings (torn groin muscle), Nelson (hamstring) and Cobb (ankle) missing a total of 13 games. But all are healthy now, and the Vikings got an idea of how tough it will be to contain them last week, when the Packers piled up 405 yards of offense and scored 34 points.

Expect this week to bring more of the same.

``We'll tweak our offense, they'll tweak their defense. Each team's going to look at what transpired on Sunday and try to make some adjustments to make sure they're better than they were on Sunday,'' Green Bay offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. ``Playing outside, it can be a different type of game depending on what the weather's like. But it's still going to be a battle. They're a good defense, we're a good offense. They run the ball on offense, we've got to play on defense.

``It's the same type of game. Just different location.''

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Predicting the 2018-19 NBA awards and the NBA Finals: LeBron James will win MVP

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USA Today Sports

Predicting the 2018-19 NBA awards and the NBA Finals: LeBron James will win MVP

With the 2018-19 NBA season kicking off this week, it seems like a good time to put my predictions out into the universe. 

I am fortunate to be a voter for both the All-Star teams and the NBA Awards, but I can assure you of this: much of this is impossible to forecast. I decided to only include the first team selections for All-NBA, All-Defense and All-Rookie because the less I predict, the less I get wrong.

With that said, here is how I expect the major awards, plus the NBA Finals, to shake out... 

MVP: LeBron James, Lakers

Going to L.A. to play with such a bizarre supporting cast was all by design so he could win his fifth MVP award, right? Okay, maybe not. But if LeBron carries that team to even a fifth seed the trophy should be his.

Defensive player of the year: Anthony Davis, Pelicans

This always goes to a big man and Davis finished second last year. He's probably going to have a monster season overall.

All-NBA first team: G Stephen Curry, G James Harden, F LeBron James, F Giannis Antetokounmpo, C Anthony Davis

All of these guys are going to make the All-NBA team, it's just a matter of which tier. The toughest one to leave off was Joel Embiid, but you can only pick five.

Rookie of the year: Deandre Ayton, Suns

Luka Doncic has become a popular pick here, but Ayton averaged 18.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per game in the preseason. If that is any precursor whatsoever, he's going to be tough to beat.

Sixth man award: Austin Rivers, Wizards

Rivers is a starting-caliber guard now back to playing off the bench. He should help John Wall and Bradley Beal a ton this year and we know he will get buckets. If he can maintain anything close to his scoring average from last season (15.1), he will be on the short-list for sure.

Most improved: Brandon Ingram, Lakers

Though L.A. has a lot of questions, Ingram seems most likely to benefit from James' ability to make those around him better. He should thrive in a secondary scoring role.

Coach of the year: Billy Donovan, Thunder

The Thunder won 48 games last season, but could improve a lot in Year 2 with Paul George. They have loads of talent and Dennis Schroder will fit nicely on their bench.

Executive of the year: Sam Presti, Thunder

You may be sensing a theme here. I see the Thunder becoming the clear-cut No. 3 team in the West and Presti will get plenty of praise for retaining George and getting something legitimate back for Carmelo Anthony.

All-rookie team: Luka Doncic (Mavs), Miles Bridges (Hornets), Marvin Bagley III (Kings), Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies), Deandre Ayton (Suns)

This is shaping up to be a really good class. Guys like Mo Bamba (great song), Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Wendell Carter Jr. will likely be in the mix as well. 

All-defensive team: G Chris Paul, G Klay Thompson, F Draymond Green, F Anthony Davis, C Joel Embiid

Thompson should finally get his due this year. He is clearly one of the best defenders at his position, but hasn't received the proper recognition for it.

NBA Finals: Warriors over Celtics, 4-2

Picking the champion of the 2018-19 season is too easy and no one should feel good about that. Sports are better when they aren't predictable. But who will finish second is where it gets interesting. I see the Celtics being that team and winning two games in the Finals, though it won't be a close series.

 

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Peter King awards two Ravens with weekly honors for defensive performance vs. Titans

Peter King awards two Ravens with weekly honors for defensive performance vs. Titans

The Baltimore Ravens' Week 6 dominate performance over the Tennessee Titans is gaining national attention. 

A historic game that displayed the offense and defense firing on all cylinders, it's hard to pinpoint who had the biggest impact. 

So in his latest edition of Football Morning in America, NBC Sports' Peter King awarded not one, but two Ravens with weekly honors.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Za'Darius Smith

Against the Titans, Smith led the Ravens defense with three sacks and five tackles in their historic 11-sack game. On of three Defensive Players of the Week, King explained why Smith's performance stood out.

In the most dominant defensive performance of this ultra-offensive season, the Ravens shut out Tennessee 21-0 and had 11 sacks. Another one of GM Ozzie Newsome’s draft gifts that keeps on giving, Smith (2015, round four, Kentucky) contributed three sacks of Marcus Mariota and five tackles in a virtuoso game. Net passing yards for Mariota: 51.

Smith, who's entering the final year of his rookie NFL contract, has shown over six games he deserves to get paid in the offseason. So far this season the 26-year-old has 20 combined tackles, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble. 

COACH OF THE WEEK: Don "Wink" Martindale

In his first season as defensive coordinator, Don "Wink" Martindale has seamlessly made the transition from linebackers coach to leading the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense (12.8). But what impressed King the most from the 21-0 shutout was how Martindale's squad got to Mariota from every direction. 

When a unit records more sacks (11) than completions allowed (10), the leader gets an award. Those are the rules. Martindale’s pass rushers got to Marcus Mariota every possible way—up the middle, around the edges, in the pocket, on bootlegs, you name it. The total set a new franchise record and was one short of the single-game NFL mark of 12. And it came with a familiar face watching: Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees used to hold the same position in Baltimore. Shout out to the Ravens social media team for renaming the account RavenSSSSSSSSSSS, one ‘S’ for each sack.

This Ravens defense, who has always been known for its dominance, is ranked first in points allowed (12.8), first in yards allowed (270.8), second in passing yards allowed (188.0) and third in rushing yards allowed (82.8) heading into Week 7. In addition, they have yet to surrender a second half touchdown all season. Trusting of the talent this roster holds, the respect "Wink" has for his players is equally reciprocated. 

"It was really emotional when they told us we had 11 sacks," linebacker Patrick Onwuasor said postgame. "We just went out there and we were like, ‘We have to get Coach Wink . We have to put the Gatorade on him.’ So, we tried to turn him around so he couldn’t see it coming, and we had to get him real good."

Martindale will now face the No. 1 scoring offense in the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. 

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