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Wilfork enjoying another standout season

Wilfork enjoying another standout season

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) His numbers don't leap off the page. They never do.

Yet as he has done throughout his entire nine-year career in New England, Vince Wilfork is leaving an unmistakable imprint all over the Patriots this season.

The only defensive player still on the roster from any of New England's championship teams is once again living up to the billing as one of the best nose tackles in the league. Wilfork is a stalwart force in the center of the Patriots' defensive line who's been instrumental in their much-improved rushing defense.

``I could care less about stats,'' Wilfork said earlier in the year. ``The only stat I care about is the W. We win, and I'm happy. We lose, and I'm not.''

The 6-foot-2, 325-pound Wilfork wasn't too jolly following New England's 41-34 loss to San Francisco on Monday night that snapped the Patriots' seven-game winning streak.

After back-to-back games against two of the top teams in the league - the first a possible AFC championship preview against the Houston Texans and last week's showdown a potential Super Bowl matchup - New England travels to Jacksonville to face the struggling Jaguars.

And after playing two teams that have combined for 22 victories, Wilfork isn't about to look past 2-12 Jacksonville.

The Jaguars, like every other team on New England's schedule, likely will find it impossible to overlook Wilfork.

``A lot of people might look at their record, but you can just tell, they just line up and they play football. They're old school,'' Wilfork said. ``They line up and they try to do things right and you can just tell, when they do the things right, they move the ball, they make plays.

``It's going to be challenging for us.''

Attempting to block Wilfork is always a tall order.

Just ask Patriots offensive lineman Nick McDonald, whose job is to help handle Wilfork each and every practice.

``Going up against (a guy) like that, you've got to play your best football. He's a tough player to defend,'' McDonald said. ``He's a great football player. He's a good leader. He's a guy that's been around the system for a long time and he does a lot of things well.

``He's a hell of a football player.''

When the stage is biggest, Wilfork seems to shine the most. Take two weeks ago, for example.

The mammoth man in the middle was credited with four tackles, one for a loss, a sack, one pass deflection and a forced fumble, igniting a stunning blowout of the first-place Texans in front of a national television audience.

He also was almost single-handedly responsible for bottling up running back Arian Foster, who for the third straight season has eclipsed 1,200 yards but managed just 46 yards on 15 carries against the Patriots.

Wilfork didn't even need to be standing on his large feet to make one of the more memorable tackles of his season, either. On the second offensive play of the game, Wilfork was blocked to the ground, but still managed to clamp his massive mitts around Foster's shin, dragging him down for a 1-yard loss.

``He's a unique player,'' McDonald said.

Wilfork by no means is your average pass rusher, barreling down the middle rather than from the side, and has totaled fewer sacks in his career (15) than some players have this season alone.

But then again, nothing about the four-time Pro Bowler is typical.

The surprisingly mobile veteran is enjoying a standout season for New England with 42 tackles, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, a pair of sacks and six passes defended.

``The athletic ability he has and the size he has is very rare, and just his passion for the game,'' McDonald marveled. ``Guys that have been around the league a long time like that and still have amazing passion and work as hard as he does, he's going to be successful.''

The offensive line also is benefiting from his presence.

``Going up against a guy like that . that rare athletic ability and size, the power he has, the quickness, it's definitely going to make you better,'' McDonald said. ``He's going to make everybody around him better, too.''

Wilfork is a major reason the Patriots have forced a turnover in 25 straight games and lead the league in turnover differential at plus-22, seven more than second-ranked Houston.

``That's one of the things that we do. That's one of our goals. That's one of the things that we work very hard toward. And it's paying off for us this year,'' Wilfork said. ``Hopefully we can continue to get our offense the ball. There's no other offense I would want to get the ball than inside (quarterback Tom Brady's) hands. The more we get our offense the opportunity with the ball, the better we'll be as a team, and we understand that.

``Our goal is to go out and create negative plays and create turnovers and give our offense the ball back.''

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Wizards' NBA Bubble Awards: Thomas Bryant was the clear MVP

Wizards' NBA Bubble Awards: Thomas Bryant was the clear MVP

The Wizards closed out their 2019-20 regular season on Thursday with a much-needed win, as they finished the year 25-47 and their time in the NBA's restart bubble 1-7. 

Those final eight games, though, were about much more than wins and losses. The team was evaluating their young players as they look ahead to next season when the expectations will be raised significantly.

Just looking at those eight games, here are some awards and superlatives for what we saw...

Most valuable: Thomas Bryant

This is a very easy call, it was a unanimous vote. Though Bryant wasn't the only young player who looked good in Orlando, he was by far their best player overall.

Bryant leaves the bubble with eight-game averages of 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.4 steals per game. Those are big-time numbers, even if they were compiled on a team that went 1-7. Bryant took on a larger role in the offense and increased his volume while remaining efficient. He shot 53.2 percent overall and 40.5 percent from three.

Bryant took a big step forward. He was healthy after dealing with a foot problem earlier this season, and delivered. The Wizards have a legitimate starting center they can pencil in for next season, hopefully with the green light to take more threes.

RELATED: WIZARDS FINALLY WIN IN BUBBLE

Most improved: Jerome Robinson

This was one of the more unexpected, yet pleasantly surprising developments for the Wizards in the bubble. Robinson, who had spent his entire career to this point backing up really good players, finally got a chance to spread his wings. And, boy, did he.

Robinson found a newfound level of consistency, averaging 14.8 points while shooting a solid 36.7 percent from three. He reached double figures in scoring in seven of the eight games after only doing that four times in his previous 88 NBA appearances. 

Given the small sample size, and the stakes, it probably isn't enough to truly guarantee him a role going into next season. But he has absolutely earned a chance to compete for the back-up role behind Bradley Beal.

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Most intriguing: Troy Brown Jr.

Brown had a tremendous start in the bubble, but slowed down late as he was thrown into the fire as the starting point guard. Though he struggled in that role, it was an invaluable experience that he can take a lot of lessons from.

Overall, though, Brown made clear improvements in his game. He thrived with a greater share of the play-making duties and was able to showcase his skills as a passer and ball-handler.

It was enough to warrant some focus by the Wizards' coaching staff next season. Though they will have John Wall and Beal coming back, they have to find a way to incorporate Brown's strengths. That may come in a bench role as the primary ball-handler in the second unit.

Needs most improvement: Admiral Schofield

Not all of the Wizards' young players displayed growth in the bubble games and included in that group is Schofield, the team's 2019 second round pick. Unfortunately for him, it was all juxtaposed with the breakout performance of Bol Bol, whom the Wizards passed on to select Schofield out of the University of Tennessee.

Schofield averaged only 2.7 points in 12.6 minutes while shooting 29.4 percent from the field. He looked uncertain on the floor and continues to sort of float between roles with no defined path towards stability in the rotation.

Keep in mind, though, Schofield is just starting out his NBA career. He was a second round pick and those guys take time. He has the physical tools, the work ethic and the smarts to make it in this league. But there is no question this will be an important offseason for the guy.

Best moment: Moe Wagner vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The most memorable image from the Wizards' time in Orlando was definitely the ejection of the league's reigning MVP in their penultimate game. Antetokounmpo has since been suspended by the league for it.

He lost his cool and headbutted Wagner, who now has another notch on his belt in his neverending quest to get under the skin of his opponents. He is a pest and an effective one at that.

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Nationals did it first: Dugout dance parties sweep MLB

Nationals did it first: Dugout dance parties sweep MLB

The dancing revolution is underway. After the Nationals hosted dugout dance parties to celebrate home runs on their way to winning the World Series last season, other MLB teams have begun to host dance parties of their own while avoiding high fives and fist bumps.

Though Bryce Harper and the Phillies’ form could still use some work, the trend is starting to spread as the Mets only added the dancing to their home run celebrations this week. It’s no surprise that the Padres, one of the youngest teams in the majors, joined in as well.

Of course, the Nationals have kept dancing into 2020 as well.

As long as baseball is being played, the party will keep on rolling.

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