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TDs by Harris, Kuhn put Packers up 24-3 on Vikes

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TDs by Harris, Kuhn put Packers up 24-3 on Vikes

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) DuJuan Harris and John Kuhn had short touchdown runs, Kuhn caught a scoring pass from Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers took a 24-3 lead over the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night into the fourth quarter in their NFC wild-card playoff game.

Christian Ponder was inactive for the Vikings because of a right elbow injury so Joe Webb started at quarterback for the first time all season, and Rodgers made the passing gap between the two teams even wider. Rodgers went 19 for 26 for 260 yards and no turnovers, leading touchdown drives of 82, 62 and 80 yards.

With Adrian Peterson being boxed in by a fired-up Packers defense that he gashed for 409 yards rushing over the previous two meetings this season, Webb had to go to work in his first start of the season.

The results weren't pretty. Webb tripped over Clay Matthews to give the Packers star an easy sack early in the second quarter, and he was called for intentional grounding while being swarmed behind the line of scrimmage on the next play.

Webb ran five times for 60 yards, but he completed only seven of his first 20 attempts for a measly 61 yards. Peterson gained 69 yards on 19 carries.

Rodgers didn't let up after halftime. The Vikings had the Packers stopped for a field goal on fourth-and-4, but Jasper Brinkley was called for 12 men on the field when he couldn't make it to the sideline in time, and the penalty gave the Packers just enough yards to keep going. Rodgers found Kuhn open on the next play, and the fullback barged into the end zone by barreling over Jamarca Sanford at the goal line for a 24-3 lead.

The last time the Vikings were in a playoff game, they infamously were called for 12 men on the field, too, on offense that time in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game in New Orleans to push them out of field-goal range. Brett Favre threw an interception, and they lost to the Saints in overtime.

The Vikings finally made it across midfield again on the next possession, but on fourth-and-3 at the 38, Matthews took down Webb for another sack, forced the ball out and recovered it. After a Packers punt, Webb scrambled for a first down at the Green Bay 46. But on the next play, his long pass was intercepted by Sam Shields at the 8.

After the Vikings forced another punt early in the fourth quarter, Marcus Sherels fumbled, and the Packers recovered at the Minnesota 39.

Rodgers, who entered the game with the NFL's best postseason passer rating in history at 105.5 after seven previous playoff appearances, was in prime form. After a fourth straight punt by the Vikings, Rodgers got the Packers from their 38-yard line to the Minnesota 3 in three plays. He rolled right and threw a zinger to Jordy Nelson in the final minute of the first half to set up Kuhn's plunge.

On the previous drive, Rodgers found Greg Jennings open on fourth-and-5, and Jennings spun around Chris Cook to sprint up the sideline and reach the Vikings 2. Mason Crosby's field goal pushed the lead to 10-3.

Rodgers went 4 for 4 on the first scoring drive for the Packers, who used their hurry-up, no-huddle scheme they weren't able to make work in the noisy Metrodome last Sunday. The Vikings won that game 37-34 to force the rematch, the third time these border rivals have met in a five-week span.

The Vikings used a 33-yard field goal by rookie Blair Walsh on the opening possession to get in front early. Webb ran for 17 yards on third-and-3 to keep the drive alive, but his underthrow to Michael Jenkins bounced well short on third down to set up the kick.

Rodgers had his top four receivers healthy together for the first time since September, with Jennings, Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones all set to go against a Vikings secondary that had trouble keeping up in their game last week after veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield left with a broken right hand. Winfield returned for this one, but his ability to play his usual physical style was in question.

Rodgers focused more on his running backs early. Harris caught two passes for 28 yards and Ryan Grant had a 16-yard reception to put the Packers in position to take the lead. The on-field ruling on the scoring run by Harris was that he was down at the 1, but Packers coach Mike McCarthy challenged the play, and the call was reversed.

For Rodgers, this game was another benchmark in his stellar career. Despite leading the Packers to a Super Bowl championship after the 2010 season, he had yet to win a playoff game at Lambeau Field. After rolling through the regular season at 15-1 in 2011, the Packers were upset here in their first postseason game by the eventual champion New York Giants. But Rodgers, despite all the injuries to his receivers this year, posted the NFL's best passer rating for the second year in a row.

Webb became the first quarterback in 20 years to start a playoff game without starting any games during that regular season since Frank Reich did so for Buffalo, according to STATS. Reich led the Bills to their famous comeback victory over Houston that year.

These teams squared off for the second time in seven days, so there wasn't much either side could do to surprise the other - except, perhaps, make a quarterback switch just before the game.

After preparing all week for Ponder, whose second-year struggles peaked in a loss here on Dec. 2 when he threw two interceptions inside the Green Bay 20-yard line, the Packers defense suddenly faced a totally different player in Webb.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sixth-round draft pick in 2010 was athletic enough to play some wide receiver at Alabama-Birmingham and even take a few turns there with the Vikings last year before becoming a full-time quarterback this season as the backup to Ponder.

Webb had three starts over his first two NFL seasons, the first coming at Philadelphia on Dec. 28, 2010. The Vikings beat the playoff-bound Eagles that night 24-14, and Webb passed for 195 yards and ran for a touchdown.

Ponder was hurt last Sunday when Packers safety Morgan Burnett delivered a jarring hit on a blitz, but he finished the game with a career-high 120.2 passer rating and three touchdowns in the 37-34 win. His elbow just didn't improve enough during the week, however, for the Vikings to put him in.

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Free Agency Bracket: Noel Acciari vs. Marcus Kruger

Free Agency Bracket: Noel Acciari vs. Marcus Kruger

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s matchup:

Region: Fourth line forwards

Noel Acciari vs. Marcus Kruger

 

2018-19 stats

 

Noel Acciari (27 years old):72 games played with the Boston Bruins, 6 goals, 8 assists, 14 points, 12:59 TOI

 

Playoffs: 19 games played with the Boston Bruins, 2 goals, 2 assists, 4 points, 13:10 TOI

 

Marcus Kruger (29 years old): 74 games played with the Chicago Blackhawks, 4 goals, 8 assists, 12 points, 10:25 TOI

 

Playoffs: None

 

Hockey-Graph contract projections

 

Noel Acciari: 2 years, $1,180,934 cap hit

 

Marcus Kruger: 1 year, $861,030 cap hit

 

The case for Noel Acciari

Plays a lot bigger than his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame. A perfect fit at right wing on the fourth line for Washington. The native New Englander, who played at Providence, is a home-grown Bruin and might not want to leave home, but Boston also might not have the cap space to give an obvious fourth-line player a decent raise. The Capitals might not, either, but for now, they really only have to add in RFA Jakub Vrana’s new contract and figure out what they’re going to do with RFA Andre Burakovsky. 

 

Acciari is renowned for his character and toughness. He was a college captain for Providence and helped the Friars win an NCAA title in 2015. There’s never been a shot he’s unwilling to block. Acciari sustained a broken sternum in the second round against Columbus and a blocked shot with his right foot in Game 7 of the Cup Final left him in a walking boot.  

 

Acciari’s offensive upside is limited, but he did have 10 goals in 2017-18. He was a key player for the Bruins in the past two Stanley Cup playoffs and chipped in two goals in this year’s playoff run that came within a game of a championship. Acciari would help on Washington’s penalty kill, too. In 111:52 he was only on the ice for 11 power-play goals against. Only two Boston forwards were on the ice more short-handed.  

 

The case for Marcus Kruger

 

A different skill set here for the smaller Kruger (6-foot, 186 pounds). Don’t expect even double-digit goals from him, either. But Kruger will likely cost less than $1 million and can be a valuable penalty killer, where Washington needs help. That’s huge for a team that is now dealing with an $81.5 million salary cap, which is $1.5 million less than expected. Add in the overage bonus for defenseman Brooks Orpik from last season and you’re in trouble at just over $80 million.   

 

Kruger played seven seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and one disappointing one with the Carolina Hurricanes. Kruger has plenty of Stanley Cup experience, too, playing for Chicago’s 2013 and 2015 Cup winners. He has 87 postseason games and a triple-overtime game-winner in the Western Conference Final to his name in 2015 in Game 2 of that series against Anaheim. 

 

A defensive specialist, only two Blackhawks forwards played more short-handed minutes than Kruger (132:46) last season. There is risk here. Kruger was traded to Carolina in 2017-18, but was placed on waivers after 48 games and spent the rest of the season in the AHL before being traded to Arizona and then back to Chicago. But part of that stemmed from how much he was making on a $3.08 million cap hit. At a bargain-basement price, Kruger is more palatable. 

 

Who’s your pick? Vote here.

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Rui Hachimura is a 'late bloomer' in basketball, but the Washington Wizards like that

Rui Hachimura is a 'late bloomer' in basketball, but the Washington Wizards like that

Rui Hachimura was introduced to the sport of basketball at 13 years old after spending his childhood on the baseball diamond, emulating Ichiro Suzuki, as many kids in Japan do. Just eight years later, Hachimura has charted his own path as the first Japanese-born lottery pick in the NBA after the Washington Wizards drafted him at No. 9 overall.

That trajectory is important to note when considering Hachimura's age. He is 21 years old, which is on the older side for an NBA draft prospect in the age of one-and-dones. But, you could say he's only eight in basketball years.

That's not a technical term used by NBA front office executives, but the fact Hachimura is a "late bloomer" was one of the biggest selling points for the Wizards. That's how interim team president Tommy Sheppard described him on several occasions the night of the draft and the day after. And even majority owner Ted Leonsis referenced it when asked about the pick in an interview with the Washington Times over the weekend.

While reason may suggest a younger player has higher upside, the Wizards are looking beyond simple age. In Hachimura, they believe they have a player who could benefit from not having the year-round strain of AAU basketball in his past.

"When you come to the game a little bit later, maybe you don't have some bad habits that you accumulate. You don't have a lot of extra miles," Sheppard said. 

"Those kinds of things resonate with us. You have to be healthy to play in the NBA, and there are so many players in this particular draft that for whatever reason, there are a lot of sad faces tonight because I think medical held a lot of people back. He has a clean bill of health, and that's exciting to us."

Sheppard could have been referencing any number of prospects who carried the label as an injury risk into draft night. With the ninth overall pick, the Wizards took Hachimura over Duke's Cam Reddish, who has several red flags, injuries among them. In the second round, they passed on Oregon's Bol Bol, who had a stress fracture in his foot, in favor of Admiral Schofield.

But health isn't the only potential benefit of picking up the game at a later age. Sheppard alluded to the development of bad habits. He thinks Hachimura is more of a blank canvas for the coaching staff and that could work in their favor long-term.

Sheppard made a comparison for Hachimura that was interesting for several reasons.

"With [Raptors forward] Pascal Siakam, you see what happens when guys come to the game a little late and what he was able to do. It's not the same, but if you ask me of someone who's story his reminds me of, it could remind you of something like that," Sheppard said.

Siakam's name was invoked over and over during the pre-draft process but more often to draw a parallel for Sekou Doumbouya of France. Sheppard was more so comparing the development track for Hachimura than the playing style, but it holds some weight.

There have been some famous cases of late bloomers in NBA history. Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Joel Embiid reportedly didn't start playing basketball until high school.

Duncan may be a good example of avoiding bad habits, as he is considered one of the most fundamentally sound players of all time. Olajuwon might be the most skilled big man in NBA history, and Embiid has a chance to become an all-time great.

What gives the Wizards hope that Hachimura will reach his potential and someday enjoy breakout success like Siakam has is his work ethic. The Wizards did deep background research on Hachimura, including through discussions with his college coach, Mark Few of Gonzaga.

They believe they found something in Hachimura that other teams may have overlooked.

"The things that you hope for and that you're optimistic about, they seem to be there. So, we're excited about that," Sheppard said. "It's really up to Rui and how bad do you want to be good?"

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