NFL

Stats Perform's NFL Friday Facts: Rivals Bears stand between Packers and first-round bye

By Sports Desk January 01, 2021

The Green Bay Packers will hope to seal the top seed in the NFC when they face rivals the Chicago Bears, but the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks will be ready to pounce on any slip-up.

A tie on Sunday would be enough for the Packers to secure a first-round bye in the postseason, though they would also receive it regardless of their own result if the Seahawks fail to beat the San Francisco 49ers.

If the Seahawks are to head straight into the Divisional Round, they need to beat the 49ers and hope the Packers lose and the Saints fail to win against the Carolina Panthers.

New Orleans, meanwhile, need a victory over the Panthers to coincide with the Packers losing to the Bears and Seattle beating San Francisco.

Division titles are up for grabs in the AFC South and NFC East, with the Tennessee Titans and Washington Football Team looking to hold on and top their sections, while the Cleveland Browns will be aiming to reach the postseason for the first time since 2002 when they face a Pittsburgh Steelers side without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

 

FEATURED GAME

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears – Sunday, 4.25pm

- This will be the third Week 17 meeting since 2010 for the long-time rivals, and the previous two were critical games. In the 2010 campaign, the Packers needed to beat the Bears at Lambeau Field to make the postseason; they won 10-3 and went on to win Super Bowl XLV. The teams met in Week 17 three years later in Chicago; the Packers' 33-28 success earned them the NFC North crown and eliminated the Bears. 

- A win over Chicago would secure the NFC's top seed for Green Bay – as well as a second consecutive 13-3 season. The Packers have posted back-to-back seasons of 13 or more wins only once, in 1996 and 1997 with Brett Favre at quarterback. In the Super Bowl era, only one team has had consecutive seasons with at least 13 victories and no Super Bowl appearance: the Saints of 2018 and 2019.

- Aaron Rodgers has 51 touchdown passes against the Bears in his regular-season career, second only to Favre's 60. Including the 2010 NFC Championship Game, Rodgers is 20-5 versus Chicago for an .800 winning percentage, the fourth highest by any QB versus a single opponent since 1950 (minimum 25 starts; postseason included).

OTHER KEY GAMES

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers – Sunday, 4.25pm

- Alvin Kamara rushed for six touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Day, tying the NFL record set by Ernie Nevers in 1929. Kamara's 58 scrimmage TDs rank as the third most by a player through his first four seasons all-time (Terrell Davis – 61, LaDainian Tomlinson – 60).

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers – Sunday, 4.25pm

- After hurting the Arizona Cardinals' postseason chances with a 20-12 win at State Farm Stadium on Saturday, the 49ers will hope to play spoiler for a second straight week. A win over Seattle on Sunday would give San Francisco a 4-2 record within the NFC West, which would be a division-best – even as they finish in last place.

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans – Sunday, 4.25pm

Tennessee will clinch its first AFC South title since 2008 with a win, or an Indianapolis Colts loss versus the Jacksonville Jaguars this week. A win over Houston would also tie the Titans franchise record for road wins in a season (currently 5-2: 6-2 in 1996, 2000, 2008).

Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts – Sunday, 4.25pm

Indianapolis and Jacksonville both have eight players with over 250 receiving yards this season, the only two teams in the NFL with as many. The Jaguars had never had eight players with 250 receiving yards in the same season before, while the Colts had it happen once before (2016, eight players). If they are to snatch the AFC South division title, Indianapolis need to win and hope Tennessee fail to match them, or tie and see the Titans lose.

Washington Football Team at Philadelphia Eagles - Sunday, 8.20pm

Washington have lost six of their past seven games against the Eagles, including three straight on the road. Their lone success came in Week 1 this year after they scored the final 27 points of the game and won 27-17. A tie would be enough for Washington to clinch the NFC East division title, as long as the Dallas Cowboys fail to beat the New York Giants.

ELSEWHERE…

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants – Sunday, 1.00pm

Daniel Jones has not thrown an interception in 162 consecutive pass attempts, the longest active streak in the NFL and the third-longest streak by a Giant in the past 30 seasons (Eli Manning – 176 in 2014, Phil Simms – 173 in 1993). To reach the playoffs, Dallas needs a win and for Washington not to match them, or a tie and a Washington loss. New York need a win and a Washington loss.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns – Sunday, 1.00pm

Nick Chubb is averaging 5.45 yards per carry this season and has run for 11 touchdowns. He is set to will become the second player in NFL history with 5.0+ yards per carry and 8+ rush TDs in three straight seasons, joining another Browns player in Leroy Kelly (1966-68). With a win or a Colts loss on Sunday, the Browns would snap their 17-season playoff drought, which is tied for the longest in the NFL since the merger (1970-86 Saints, 2000-16 Buffalo Bills).

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    Eric Weddle is showing "great energy" after coming out of retirement and is primed to play a part against the Arizona Cardinals, says Sean McVay.

    In a stunning move, six-time Pro Bowler Weddle re-joined the Los Angeles Rams this week for the playoffs, having previously retired after the 2019 season.

    The safety will make his comeback against NFC West rivals the Cardinals on Monday, which will be 750 days since his last NFL appearance.

    The roster move with Weddle came with the Rams having issues in their secondary.

    Jordan Fuller was ruled out for the season due an ankle injury, while free safety Taylor Rapp has not cleared concussion protocol and will miss the game.

    That could lead to significant snaps for the 37-year-old Weddle, who quit two years ago after 13 successful seasons in the league.

    Rams head coach McVay revealed there are a range of outcomes over how involved Weddle will be in his first game back but is convinced the veteran will be ready.

    "He's done a great job," McVay said, per ESPN, when asked about Weddle's progress. "He's brought a great energy. He's a great communicator. He's a great leader. 

    "He'll be ready to go. What exactly that role looks like, we're still working through, but I do know as a competitor when he's out there, if he's going and he gets into the flow, he's gonna want to go.

    "If he's feeling good and there's no risk and we're in a good flow, we'll kind of just take it a snap at a time. 

    "It's hard for me to realistically put a parameter around it because this is something that's never been done before. 

    "It could be 10 [snaps]; it could be 30. I think in a lot of instances too, it depends on what kind of personnel groupings we're presenting to the Cardinals' offense as well.

    "[Rapp] is a big loss. He's doing everything in his power to get back as quickly as possible, but we have got a lot of confidence in Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess as well."

     

    Weddle discussed his return earlier this week, insisting he had kept physically fit in retirement.

    He said: "Even though I haven’t been playing football, I still train like I’m playing football.

    "It [returning] was never even a remote possibility ever over the last year and a half because I was pretty much set in my decision and very happy. 

    "This is by no means me having an itch or anything like that. It was just the opportunity of a lifetime.

    "I just kept coming back to I would regret it if I didn’t come and take this chance to try to help out the guys that I love, a coach that I love and try to help this team out, whatever role that is.

    "It didn't take much persuading. It was kind of just going through the avenues with all the coaches and reaching out to some players.

    "I didn't want to come in and ruffle any feathers or be someone who gets in the way, but once all that was on the same page, it was a no brainer in my mind."

    The Rams are at home for the Wild Card game after edging the Cardinals to win the NFC West.

    Two games between the teams in the regular season were split, with each team winning on the road (37-20 Cardinals in L.A., 30-23 Rams in Arizona).

    Arizona fared well on the road this season, going 8-1, but struggled to a 3-5 record at home.

    Per Stats Perform data, in modern NFL history (since 1933), the only other team to have as many as five more road wins than home victories in a season is the Miami Dolphins, who went 6-2 on the road and 1-7 at home in 2010.

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    This could be Smith-Schuster's last game with the Steelers given he is due to enter free agency after the season, while eyes are also on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is expected to retire after the playoffs.

    "He had a pretty significant injury," Roethlisberger told 102.5 WDVE this week about the receiver's possible return.

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    Chiefs QB Mahomes has thrown for two touchdowns and four interceptions in his two Super Bowl appearances, but in his six other playoff games, he has thrown 15 touchdown passes and no picks. 

    Per Stats Perform data, Mahomes is just the second player ever (after Drew Brees) with 17+ passing touchdowns and no more than four interceptions in his first eight playoff starts.

  • Australian Open: Amid a crisis, a tennis tournament, as stars hunt grand slam glory Australian Open: Amid a crisis, a tennis tournament, as stars hunt grand slam glory

    The tennis season has begun with Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty, Paula Badosa and Thanasi Kokkinakis among the champions at small-scale events in Australia.

    Yet there has been one dominant story in the sport and little else has had a look-in in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

    Now that Novak Djokovic knows his fate, there is the welcome prospect of eyes turning to matters on the tennis court, rather than the Federal Court.

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    Djokovic absence blows open men's draw

    As defending champion Djokovic heads for home, it is worth a reminder of how he has dominated this tournament.

    Nine of his grand slam titles have come in Melbourne, and he has taken the trophy in each of the last three years, helping him cosy up alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 majors, an all-time record they share. Of the 'Big Three', only Nadal is in the draw this year, with Federer currently on the injured list.

    Djokovic has the highest win percentage in the Open Era (since 1969) at the Australian Open, among players with 20 or more wins (91.1 per cent – W82 L8). He was hoping to join Nadal (13 French Opens) and Margaret Court (11 Australian Opens) in the exclusive club of players to reach double figures for singles titles at one slam.

    The Serb was also aspiring to become the first man in the Open Era to win four consecutive Australian Opens. It happened once before the tour turned professional, with Roy Emerson winning five in a row from 1963 to 1967. Djokovic has left Melbourne with the title every time that he has made it through to the semi-finals.

    So who takes the title now?

    Only Bjorn Borg (89.2 per cent) has a higher winning percentage in grand slam matches than Nadal (87.7 per cent) and Djokovic (87.5 per cent) in the Open Era, among players with 100 or more wins. So why not Nadal?

    The 35-year-old and Djokovic have carved up 12 of the last 14 grand slam titles, Nadal winning four of those (three French Opens, one US Open). He is battling back from a foot injury lay-off and coronavirus, and might need to get the early rounds out of the way without undue stress to stand a chance at the business end.

    The two exceptions in the Nadal-Djokovic sequence of slam dominance have come at the US Open, with Dominic Thiem winning in New York in 2020 and Daniil Medvedev triumphing at Djokovic's expense in last year's Flushing Meadows final. Thiem is not in Australia, but world number two Medvedev is, looking to become the third Russian man to win two slams, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin.

    The last man other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back slam singles title was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000), but that is Medvedev's objective now, and he has the game to pull it off.

    Nadal has reached at least the quarter-final stage in 15 of his last 16 grand slam appearances, winning six of those majors (four French Opens and two US Opens), so he may well be a factor.

    Who else is in the frame? Alexander Zverev probably, having reached the quarter-finals in Australia in the last two seasons (SF in 2020 and QF in 2021). He won the Olympic Games and ATP Finals titles last year, so a grand slam is an obvious next step. He might want to keep double faults in check though, having served a tour-high 113 in slams last season.

    Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the Australian semi-finals in 2019 and 2021, so throw him into the mix too, and Matteo Berrettini might be a threat. The Italian, a runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon in July, served more aces than any other player in grand slams last year (311 aces, 16.4 on average per match).

    Others have more modest ambitions

    Andy Murray is back at the Australian Open for the first time since 2019, when he lost in the first round against Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets and was more or less given his last rites as a tennis pro after the match, having indicated he was close to retirement.

    The five-time Australian Open runner-up last won a match in this tournament in 2017, when he reached round four. A tough opener against Nikoloz Basilashvili awaits.

    Spanish 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez will make his 80th appearance in a grand slam and become the second man in the Open Era with 80 or more appearances at the four majors, after Federer (81).

    Do not expect an Australian to be men's champion, by the way. The last time an Australian reached the men's singles final was 2005, when Lleyton Hewitt lost against Safin, and the last home champion was Mark Edmondson in 1976.

    Barty backed in stacked women's draw

    For the first time since 1997, neither Serena nor Venus Williams will take part in the Australian Open. Yet the women's tour is in rude health, even without those great bastions.

    Ash Barty is world number one and a standout pick for many, only enhancing her claims after winning an Adelaide International title in the run-up to this fortnight.

    But there is staggering depth on the women's side at present, and Barty will face stiff competition.

    Incredibly, the last five grand slam finals have featured 10 different women, and teenager Emma Raducanu's against-all-odds US Open triumph in September shows best of all that new stars are emerging.

    Yet since 2000, only three non-seeded players have reached the women's singles final at the Australian Open: Serena Williams in 2007, Justine Henin in 2010 and Garbine Muguruza in 2020. 

    Barty could become the first Australian to be women's champion since Chris O'Neil in 1978, and the first to reach the final since Wendy Turnbull lost to Hana Mandlikova in 1980.

    The Queenslander is the top seed, and the last time the number one failed to reach at least the fourth round at Melbourne Park was in 1979, when Virginia Ruzici lost her opening match. Barty ended a long wait for an Australian winner of the women's title at Wimbledon last year, so why not closer to home as well?

    Naomi Osaka is back, so what should we expect?

    Truth be told, that's hard to know. Osaka took time out from tennis after the US Open to focus on her mental health and enjoyed hanging out with friends, before deciding she missed tennis enough to go back on tour.

    She had three wins at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament recently before withdrawing from a fourth match, saying her body had "got a shock" from the intensity. As defending champion in the season's first major, she has a target on her back and will need to find a way to handle that.

    Over the past six seasons, only Osaka has managed to win back-to-back grand slam singles titles among the women, and she has done so twice (US Open 2018 and Australian Open 2019, plus US Open 2020 and Australian Open 2021).

    The last player to win back-to-back women's Australian Open singles titles was Victoria Azarenka (2012 and 2013), so it does not happen regularly.

    Osaka has an 85 per cent win rate at this tournament: since 2000, only Jennifer Capriati (90 per cent) and Serena Williams (89 per cent) have had a higher win percentage in the main draw.

    You want challengers to the big two? Try sticking a pin in the draw

    The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which goes to the champion, is a trophy that upwards of a dozen women will seriously believe they can win.

    Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semi-finals of the last two slams but is mired in some kind of hellish serving groove, having made 74 double faults in her last four matches and lost the last three in a row.

    Anett Kontaveit won a tour-high 39 matches on hard courts last year but has only been to one grand slam quarter-final – last year in Australia, losing to Simona Halep.

    What about Ons Jabeur, who matched Kontaveit for a tour-high 48 wins across all surfaces last year? The Tunisian is queen of the drop shot, making 147 successful such plays on tour last year, more than any other player, and recently reached the top 10 in the WTA rankings for the first time.

    Maria Sakkari reached two slam semi-finals last year, the first of her career, and the form of Barbora Krejcikova and Badosa in the past week in Melbourne marks them out as contenders. Both are recent fast-risers, Krejcikova already with a French Open title to show.

    WTA Finals champion Muguruza could be the second Spaniard to twice reach the Melbourne title match, after Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (1994 v Steffi Graf and 1995 v Mary Pierce). Spain has never had an Australian Open women's singles winner: former French Open and Wimbledon champ Muguruza is an authentic contender.

    Halep was runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in 2018, a semi-finalist in 2020 and quarter-finalist last year, and a Melbourne Summer Set title was a handy warm-up for the Romanian. Consider her, too.

    Monica Seles, in 1991, was the last player to triumph on her debut in the main draw, but she was already a grand slam winner (1990 French Open). Given the strength of the line-up, the prospect of a bolter coming through this field is unlikely, even if the example of Raducanu tells us anything is possible.

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