Kevin Durant and the Warriors have already renewed acquaintances since his trophy-laden spell with the team concluded, but Tuesday sees Golden State meet his Brooklyn Nets with both harbouring realistic championship ambitions.

Durant's departure, coupled with injuries to other stars, most significantly Klay Thompson – who has missed the last two seasons – have seen the Warriors fall short of the playoffs in successive campaigns.

However, the team that reached five successive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019, winning three titles, are seemingly back among the NBA's elite having made an 11-2 start to the campaign.

With Steph Curry once again at his brilliant best after an MVP calibre campaign in 2020-21 and squad depth substantially improved from recent years, the Warriors, who hope to welcome Thompson back to the team for the second half of the season, look to have a roster capable of returning to the Finals.

Their championship mettle figures to be sternly tested by the Nets, who have won eight of their last nine to move to 10-4, a half-game back on the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Wizards.

Unsurprisingly it is Durant, the MVP of both his victorious Finals series with the Warriors, who is leading the Nets' charge.

He is first in the NBA in points per game with 29.6, just ahead of Curry (28.1), shooting 58.6 per cent from the field and 42.4 per cent from three-point range.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr believes this is a matchup of the two MVP frontrunners in Curry and Durant.

"Yeah, no doubt, to me they've been the two best players in the league so far," Kerr told reporters on Monday.

But Durant sought to downplay the significance of the high-profile clash.

"It's just another game," Durant said. "It's 15 games into the season and obviously they're the best team in the league and they're playing at an elite level, but it's a regular-season game.

"We obviously want to go out there and win in front of our home crowd, but we don't want to put too much pressure on ourselves and call this a Finals [preview]. We just want to build on who we are, figure out what we want to do out there and keep pushing."

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Golden State Warriors - Andrew Wiggins

It's easy to look to Curry here. After all, he is fifth in the NBA with 41 points/assists/rebounds per game.

But similarly crucial to Golden State's early-season surge has been former first overall pick Wiggins.

He is shooting a career-high 47.8 per cent from the field, while his recent aggressiveness in getting to the basket has been rewarded with a 35-point performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves and a 28-point effort in the loss to the Charlotte Hornets last time out.

Going against Durant and Co, the Warriors will need him to maintain that aggression.

Brooklyn Nets - Patty Mills

Mills exploded for 29 points in the Nets' win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, going nine of 12 from three-point range.

For the season, Mills is shooting 48.1 per cent from beyond the arc, putting him tied second in the league behind only Jonas Valanciunas (59.3).

In a meeting with the greatest shooter of all time in Curry, a continuation of that form from Mills would be extremely welcome for Brooklyn.

KEY BATTLE – KD to go at Green again

Durant and Draymond Green look to be friends again. A feud between the pair during the 2018-19 season appeared to contribute to Durant's departure at the end of that year, although the Nets superstar has since suggested – in an interview with Green – that the Warriors were to blame for mishandling the incident.

Green agreed; as he put it: "They f***** it up."

Still, all eyes will be on the duo every time they meet on the floor and with good reason. Green is among the best defenders of his generation; Durant is one of the very best scorers.

"Nobody is impossible to guard, but he is as close to impossible as it gets," Green said of Durant this year. Of course, it is not a matchup the forward will enjoy, but as Golden State's premier performer on that side of the ball – his defensive rating below 100 (97.8) for the first time since his Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2016-17 – Green will have to play his part.

 

 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nets won both meetings at a canter last season, even with Durant contributing – by his standards – a modest 42 points combined.

Unsurprisingly, the Warriors have the edge in the all-time series, up 54-39 – boosted by six wins in six in Durant's three seasons with Golden State.

Having raised eyebrows across the NFL universe by trading up for Jordan Love in the first round, the Green Bay Packers sprung another surprise in the second round of the 2020 draft, with the selection of a power running back by the name of A.J. Dillon.

It was a pick that prompted a variety of reactions, ranging from anger and bemusement to outright hilarity from those astonished the Packers, with Aaron Jones already established as their top running back and an obvious need at wide receiver, would take the Boston College star so high.

Yet as Green Bay prepare for potentially two weeks without Jones due to a knee sprain, the primary feeling in the Packers' front office may be vindication.

The Packers moved to 8-2 on Sunday with a hard-fought shutout win over the Seattle Seahawks in the snow at Lambeau Field.

With Aaron Rodgers looking rusty at best following his coronavirus-enforced absence, Dillon thrived in the kind of game for which he was made.

He ploughed in for the game's only two touchdowns to secure a 17-0 triumph for Green Bay, finishing with 66 yards on 21 carries.

That average of 3.1 yards per attempt is not an impressive one, but Dillon's performances in his second year in the league have been increasingly eye-catching.

Having averaged 5.3 yards per rush as a rookie on 46 carries, he is racking up 4.3 yards per carry on the significantly larger sample size of 97 attempts.

A slightly more granular look at his production reveals that Dillon is doing precisely what Green Bay drafted him for as a complementary piece to Jones.

Dillon is averaging 2.38 yards after contact per attempt, above the league-wide average of 1.91 yards for running backs. In essence, he is allowing the Packers to mix downhill thump into a scheme that has traditionally focused on wide zone runs.

Ahead of Week 10, Dillon had 20 iso runs, a staple power running play. On those attempts, Dillon had an average of 3.58 yards after contact on runs to the left tackle side (league average – 1.99) and 2.63 yards after contact on carries to the right tackle side (league average – 1.76).

Yet Dillon has also enjoyed success when asked to run outside zone, averaging 4.75 yards per attempt, 2.50 yards after contact and 3.80 yards on such carries where there was a run disruption by a defender prior to this Sunday.

Those numbers suggest Dillon, who also made an impact in the passing game against the Seahawks with two catches for 62 yards, is transcending the 'power back' label assigned to him coming out of college and making himself at home in Matt LaFleur's offense.

That apparent ability to excel on both power and zone runs will be a necessity if the Packers are to stay on course to be the NFC's number one seed over the coming weeks without Jones, as they face division rivals the Minnesota Vikings on the road before welcoming the Los Angeles Rams to Lambeau in a rematch of last season's NFC Divisional Round clash.

Those are two different beasts in terms of run defense. The Vikings rank 30th in rush yards per carry allowed, giving up 4.74 yards per rush, while the Rams (4.15) are ninth going into their Monday Night Football clash with the San Francisco 49ers.

The formulas for winning those battles with two extremely talented offensive teams may therefore be different. Yet if Jones is out for both games, then Green Bay may need Dillon to make the most of a skill set that is more versatile than most thought to ensure the Packers do not become overly reliant on reigning MVP Rodgers.

Green Bay's process in picking Dillon so early remains questionable but, should he succeed in that aim in Jones' absence, you will not find many questioning the results.

Even at the midway point of the NFL season, it is difficult to make definitive judgments about many teams in the 2021 campaign.

The AFC is a jumbled mess with no clear frontrunner, though the Tennessee Titans may feel differently after surging to the top of the conference with a 7-2 record. 

In the NFC, it is easier to discern the elite, but picking the teams who will claim the last two Wild Card spots from a crowded field is not a simple task.

What we can do, however, is look at the standings and see which teams are either over or underperforming.

Stats Perform has done just that by assessing the records of every team compared to their power rating, a model that, using X-info data, looks at seven different facets of each team: quarterback, offensive skill players, run blocking, pass blocking, pass rush, run defense and pass coverage, and the player rates associated with each.

These seven facets are weighted according to modelled importance, and then aggregated to a team-level rating.

And that process has produced some clear standouts who either have more wins than the model suggests they deserve or are failing to live up to its expectations.

Overperforming

New Orleans Saints – Power rating: 29th

If Sean Payton isn't getting Coach of the Year hype come the end of the season, something has gone severely wrong.

Payton has the Saints in position to claim an NFC Wild Card berth at 5-3 despite a quarterback situation most would struggle to overcome, with Trevor Siemian stepping in to replace the injured Jameis Winston.

The Saints' most pressing issue beyond signal-caller is at wide receiver. Their most targeted receiver, Marquez Callaway, is registering a burn – or, in other words, winning his matchup with his defender when targeted – 56.4 per cent of the time, below the average of 60.6 for wideouts (min. 10 targets).

That has led New Orleans to lean on running back Alvin Kamara and the defense.

Kamara is unsurprisingly making the most of his significant opportunities as a receiver, his big-play percentage of 23.6 fourth among backs with at least 10 targets.

The defense is allowing a league-low 3.19 yards per carry and leads the NFL in run disruption rate, but comparative struggles against the pass (6.92 yards per play) and in getting after the quarterback could spell trouble if Siemian cannot maintain a surprisingly strong start to his time under center.

Cincinnati Bengals – Power rating: 23rd

The Bengals have been brought back down to earth with a bump over the past two games, losing to the New York Jets before being blown out by the Cleveland Browns.

First in the AFC before that slump, they are now last in the AFC North but, with a 5-4 record, they can still be considered to be outperforming expectations.

The problem area for the Bengals continues to be the trenches. Joe Burrow has been sacked eight times over the past two games, Cincinnati's struggles up front reflected by a ranking of 21st in pass protection win rate.

Things have been worse up front on defense, the Bengals 30th in pass rush win rate despite the best efforts of Trey Hendrickson, who has beaten a pass blocker on 28 of his 43 pressures.

Burrow has the best percentage of well-thrown balls among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. He is delivering an accurate pass on 84.4 per cent of attempts.

His second-year leap is no mirage and has been aided by the outstanding rookie season of former LSU team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, eighth among receivers (min. 50 targets) with 3.5 burn yards per route. Yet, without improvement in other areas, elevating the Bengals back to the postseason could prove too much of a challenge for that truly dynamic duo.

Arizona Cardinals – Power rating: 16th

The Cardinals being this low down the list may be difficult to reconcile given they are 8-1 and just convincingly beat the San Francisco 49ers with their backup quarterback.

Yet holes have emerged on a defense now without J.J. Watt, whose addition had proven so critical to the interior of the D-line.

Arizona's defense is allowing 4.81 yards per rush, the second-most in the NFL, with the Cardinals in 22nd in run disruption rate.

Their pass rush win rate position of 24th belies the production of Markus Golden (nine sacks) and Chandler Jones (six), with those numbers suggesting the Cardinals' strength against the pass is more a product of the impressive play of a secondary that has surpassed expectations.

Though there is reason for doubt when it comes to the Cardinals' defense, this is a team that will go as far as Kyler Murray and the offense.

Murray is firmly in the MVP mix with a well-thrown percentage of 81.3, and receivers DeAndre Hopkins (80.9) and Christian Kirk (79.2) are each in the top five among wideouts (min. 10 targets) for burn rate.

With an offensive line ranked eighth in pass protection win rate doing an excellent job of keeping Murray clean, the Cards have an offensive recipe well suited to winning in 2021.

Yet their power rating and performance on defense indicates this team is not as complete as their record suggests.

Tennessee Titans – Power rating: 18th

Five straight wins, including victories over the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams, and the Titans are only 18th?!

It may be difficult to believe, but Tennessee's position in the bottom half of the NFL by power rating is one mirrored by the Titans' spot in Stats Perform's Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE) rankings.

EVE looks at several factors to train a model to predict yardage output for any game situation and then compares the projected yards to the actual yards gained or prevented in those situations.

The Titans are a disappointing 17th in EVE, despite Ryan Tannehill enjoying a season that has seen him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 83.5 per cent of his passes.

But Tannehill is now without his security blanket with Derrick Henry, who was threatening Eric Dickerson's rushing record and averaging 3.05 yards per carry on disrupted runs, and is throwing to a receiving corps that has just one member, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (63.6), with a burn percentage above 60.

Their stunning primetime win in Los Angeles was largely a product of turnovers and a startling amount of pressure from the defensive front, and the latter appears unlikely to be sustainable.

In the bottom half of the league in pass rush win rate (31st) and run disruption rate (27th), the production the Titans have got from the likes of Harold Landry, Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons has not been the result of consistent dominance up front.

The story is the same for an offensive line ranked 29th in pass protection and 17th in run block win rate. Beyond Tannehill and Henry, areas where the Titans consistently excel are not obvious. The receivers will need to step up or the defense will need to prove a breakout performance against the Rams was not an anomaly for Tennessee to turn the doubters into believers.

Underperforming

Kansas City Chiefs – Power rating: 3rd

The uneven nature of the Chiefs' performances to this point makes them moving to 5-4 last week actually seem pretty impressive.

Yet, for all their issues on defense, and the doubts about an offense lacking the explosiveness of years gone by, the Chiefs should have fared even better over the first nine games, at least according to their power rating.

Though Kansas City only managed 13 points in their win over the Green Bay Packers, it is the Chiefs' offense that provides the most cause for optimism.

Patrick Mahomes' well-thrown percentage of 79 is above the league average of 78.5 for quarterbacks with a minimum of 10 attempts, and he is being well protected by the Chiefs' reworked offensive line.

The Chiefs rank fourth in pass protection win rate and first in run block win rate, with their rushing average of 4.62 yards per play the eighth-best in the NFL.

It is those game-changing downfield shots that are conspicuous by their absence for the Chiefs, with Tyreek Hill's underwhelming big-play percentage of 24.8 illustrating their struggles in that regard.

But this remains a team set up for offensive success, and if a defense that has not allowed a 300-yard passing game since Week 5 can continue making incremental improvements, Kansas City could yet enjoy the season many envisioned.

San Francisco 49ers – Power rating: 8th

A route to contention is not as easy to plot for the 3-5 49ers, who continue to beat themselves with mistakes that negate their overall efficiency.

The 49ers are eighth in EVE, with their position in offensive yards over expected (eighth) and yards allowed under expected (14th) painting the picture of a top-half team on both sides of the ball.

Yet a turnover differential of -9 that is superior to only that of the New York Jets (-12) makes a losing season a more realistic possibility for the Niners than a playoff push.

The offense is the primary source of hope. Deebo Samuel is on pace for over 1,800 receiving yards and his 4.1 burn yards per route are second for receivers with at least 50 targets, while George Kittle had a 100-yard game on his return from injury last week and ranks second among tight ends (min. 10 targets) with 3.1 burn yards per route.

With rookie Elijah Mitchell impressing at running back, Brandon Aiyuk emerging from Kyle Shanahan's doghouse and a line ranked in the top 10 in pass protection and run block win rate, the Niners theoretically have the offense to compete with anyone.

Poor execution has prevented them from doing so. If the Niners are to somehow stay in the hunt, the turnovers must stop, but change is also required on defense.

The 49ers have struggled to disrupt the run, and disappointing secondary play has limited the impact of a stellar season from Nick Bosa, whose adjusted pass rush win rate of 41.09 per cent is way above the average of 21.88 for edge rushers.

Time is running out for San Francisco to figure it out; if the Niners cannot do that, it will be another frustrating year for a team too talented to be struggling this much.

Minnesota Vikings – Power rating: 10th

It has been a typical Vikings season, with a talented and potent offense seeing their efforts go largely unrewarded as they have flirted with both triumph and disaster late in games on a near-weekly basis.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins might have an MVP case were the Vikings in a better position to contend. He has been extremely accurate, posting a well-thrown percentage of 81.8, and has generally avoided turnover-worthy plays, throwing just four pickable passes on 285 attempts.

Dalvin Cook's missed tackle per touch rate of 0.269 is the best among running backs with at least 50 carries, and Justin Jefferson is again one of the league's elite separators at receiver, as evidenced by his burn rate of 72.1 per cent.

Yet the Vikings are only 13th in offensive yards over expected, speaking to an issue that continues to hold this team back, with Minnesota again in the lower reaches of the league in pass protection win rate.

It has been a different story on the other side of the trenches, the Vikings seventh in pass rush win rate, though the absence of Danielle Hunter with a torn pectoral muscle may see them lose that position.

Soft against the run, allowing the third-highest yards per rush (4.77) in the NFL, the Vikings are a team whose lofty power rating is easily explained through a loaded passing game and a pass rush that has excelled through their first eight games.

But their 3-5 record is reflective of an incomplete team that maintains an obvious weakness in the trenches and lacks the defensive solidity to put games to bed. The Vikings may be a top 10 team on paper, but it is tough to trust them to perform to that standard consistently.

The recent history of the New York Knicks is littered with abysmal play, a never-ending coaching carousel and a general lack of excitement for a fanbase starved for a winner.

But all that can be forgotten now that Madison Square Garden is rocking again in support of a team on the rise with a chance to make noise in the NBA playoffs.

After ending a seven-year playoff drought in a surprising first season under head coach Tom Thibodeau in 2020-21, New York is eager for more and might have enough to warrant the newfound optimism surrounding the franchise.

While the Knicks' first postseason appearance since 2012-13 was a short one – a first-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks – it signalled a rebirth for a franchise that had a league-worst .330 winning percentage (184-374) during a run of seven consecutive seasons without playoffs from 2013-14 to 2019-20.

A 41-31 record last season was New York's best since they went 54-28 in 2012-13 and those 41 wins surpassed their total from the two previous campaigns combined (38-110). Maybe that record can be at least partly attributed to a fluky, COVID-19 riddled campaign where the Knicks caught opponents by surprise, but a 25-11 home record and a 25-17 mark against the Eastern Conference shouldn't be overlooked.

Thibodeau was clearly the main catalyst for the reversal, bringing his trademark defence to a team that ranked 17th in opponent scoring (106.1) the previous seven seasons before his arrival. In Thibodeau's first term at the helm, the Knicks led the NBA in that category (104.7) as well as opponent field goal percentage (44.0) and opponent three-point percentage (33.7). He was named NBA Coach of the Year for the second time (Chicago Bulls, 2011).

Besides the obvious difference in the on-court product, Thibodeau brought instant credibility to a franchise that employed six different coaches since the 2012-13 playoff appearance. His .587 career winning percentage (400-282) ranks seventh among active coaches (minimum 100 games).

While team defence and the superb play of Julius Randle carried the Knicks last season, an offensive injection was needed to take the next step.

Bringing in the starting backcourt of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier has made the Knicks a more dangerous perimeter shooting team after Atlanta exposed New York's glaring lack of scoring depth in the playoffs.

In the five-game loss to the Hawks, the Knicks failed to break 100 points in the final three games and shot just 39.8 percent from the field overall. That wasn't a surprise considering New York ranked 26th last season in scoring (107.0), 21st in field-goal percentage (45.6) and 21st in field goals made (847).

Walker is a four-time All-Star who has been one of the NBA's most consistent point producers over the past decade. The Charlotte Hornets' all-time leading scorer, Walker averaged at least 20 points in five straight seasons from 2015-16 to 2019-20 before slipping to 19.3 last season with Boston.

Fournier was acquired in a sign-and-trade with the Celtics after spending the bulk of his career with the Orlando Magic. He has shot at least 40 percent from three-point range in three separate seasons, including knocking down 41.3 percent last season with Orlando and Boston.

Fournier is averaging 13.8 points this season while connecting on 36.1 percent from downtown, starting all 12 games in the backcourt with Walker.

The three-point shot has become a much bigger part of the Knicks' arsenal compared to last season. After taking 30 three-point attempts per game last season, the Knicks have put up 38 threes per contest so far in 2021-22. That plus-eight increase is by far the biggest of any team this year with the Minnesota Timberwolves (6.8) coming next.

The volume of three-pointers has led to an offense that is averaging 110.8 points through 12 games this season, which is the seventh highest in the league. The last time New York averaged more than 110 points per game for a full season was the Patrick Ewing-led 1988-89 team (116.7).

Randle remains the leader and focal point for New York, emerging last season as an All-Star for the first time and winning the NBAs Most Improved Player award in a runaway. Randle set career highs last season in scoring (24.1), rebounding (10.2) and assists (6.0) and while his scoring has dipped to 21.9 this term, that is to be expected with more offensive options on the roster.

Still, Randle is one of five players this season leading their teams in points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game, along with Luka Doncic, Paul George, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Randle could become the first player in franchise history to lead the Knicks in points, rebounds and assists in two different seasons.

In just his third season with the Knicks, he already has 15 games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds. Only Ewing (148) and Carmelo Anthony (29) have more such games for the franchise since Ewing joined New York in 1985.

Randle's value to the Knicks was on display in last Friday's stunning comeback win at defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks. Randle outplayed two-time NBA MVP Antetokounmpo in the second half and finished with 32 points and 12 rebounds as New York overcame a 21-point deficit for a 113-98 win.

That marked the first time in franchise history that the Knicks overcame a 20-point deficit to record a double-digit victory since the NBA began tracking play-by-play in boxscores during the 1997-98 season.

Another key to that win was the stellar play of veteran guard Derrick Rose, who matched a season high with 23 points to go with eight rebounds, four assists, two steals and zero turnovers. He finished with a plus-31 for one of the best marks in the league this season and not far behind his league best-tying plus-34, accomplished in a 121-96 victory over Orlando on October 22.

Rose has played the role of super substitute this season, averaging 13.3 points while shooting 48.9 percent (22 for 45) on three-pointers while amassing a plus-95 rating that is tied for ninth in the NBA.

The Knicks nearly did it to Milwaukee again on Wednesday, erasing a 24-point deficit before falling short in a 112-100 loss. Walker and Fournier combined for just four points, but Rose and Immanuel Quickley totalled 40 off the bench to spark the comeback.

Bench scoring has been another key to New York's early season rise on offense. The Knicks rank sixth in the NBA in scoring from reserves (39.6), with Rose, Alec Burks and Obi Toppin the main contributors.

Quickley has come alive recently, looking more like the player he was last season. The second-year guard has averaged 12.3 points on 48.5 shooting in his past four games after scoring 5.3 in his first eight contests.

Getting the best version of Quickley would help ease the pressure on Walker and Rose and would go a long way toward keeping the veteran duo fresh for the second half of the season.

RJ Barrett has been limited to 30 points in his last three games after he reeled off five consecutive games of at least 20 points, matching the longest streak of his young career. During that stretch, the 21-year-old averaged 25 points on 51.7 percent shooting (45 for 87) and 5.8 rebounds while knocking down half his three-point attempts (16 for 32).

Barrett's continued evolution as a scorer and complement to Randle's power game will be key for the Knicks and the early returns are promising. After shooting 49.1 and 51.1 percent at the rim in his first two seasons, Barrett has raised that number to 57.6 this season as he learns how to finish at the hoop and maximise his considerable physical tools.

As necessary as the improved offense was, it has come at a cost on the opposite end.

New York ranks 22nd in scoring defence (109.6) and that doesn't sit well with Thibodeau, judging by his recent postgame comments. That needs to be cleaned up if the Knicks are to compete against the best teams in the east for the long run.

The Eastern Conference appears to be much improved this season, with top contenders Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Miami leading the way. Cleveland, Chicago and Washington seem to have made huge strides and the Knicks are also in that mix of potential playoff teams.

Only the most diehard Knicks fan would dare dream of a championship this season but it's not a joke anymore to suggest that just maybe there could be one on the horizon.

We're officially past the halfway point of the NFL season, meaning we are also heading into the home stretch of the fantasy campaign.

If you're in the cellar of your league, then it's probably time to take things a little less seriously, maybe find ways to have some fun with your lineup.

But if you're still firmly in the mix, then you can ill afford to make bad decisions as to which players to slot into the starting spots.

As always, Stats Perform is here to provide a helping hand with a look at four offensive players and a defense worthy of selection in Week 10.

 

Quarterback: Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Do not let the Chiefs' performance against the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers fool you.

Yes, the Chiefs have improved somewhat on defense of late, but they are still one of the league's worst at defending the pass.

They have given up 7.49 yards per pass play this season, while the Raiders are fifth in yards per pass play on offense (7.40).

No quarterback in the NFL has attempted more passes of 21 air yards or more than Carr (41), and he is averaging 16.4 yards per attempt on those throws.

Motivated to bounce back and claim a key win in the division after a shock loss to the New York Giants, expect Carr to be aggressive and, crucially, successful in attacking a vulnerable opponent.

Running Back: James Conner, Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers

Conner leads the NFL in touchdowns with 11 after his hat-trick in the Cardinals' win over the San Francisco 49ers last week.

He will likely get the bulk of the workload in the run game for at least the next few weeks, Chase Edmonds having gone down with an ankle injury at San Francisco.

His next assignment is a Panthers defense that has given up 100 yards rushing in three of their past four games. Back him to produce and find the endzone again at home.

Wide Receiver: Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team

Back off the bye and ready to mount a charge for the one seed in the NFC, the Bucs could hardly ask for a better opponent.

Washington's pass defense has conceded 109 plays of 10 yards or more this season. Only the Indianapolis Colts (110) and Miami Dolphins (112) have been more generous in that regard.

Leading Tampa Bay with 69 targets so far this season and with Antonio Brown unlikely to feature, Godwin is the top candidate to be the latest wideout to capitalise significantly on Washington's unexpected defensive frailties.

Tight End: Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Detroit Lions

Freiermuth may be the answer to fantasy managers' prayers when it comes to the famously top-heavy tight end position.

He has emerged as a key weapon for Ben Roethlisberger in recent weeks, scoring three touchdowns in his past two games.

A matchup with a Detroit defense giving up the most yards per pass play in the NFL (8.28) could provide a recipe for a career day.

Defense: Cleveland Browns @ New England Patriots

The Browns defense did an excellent job frustrating Joe Burrow and Co. in their thumping win over the Cincinnati Bengals last week.

This week, they get a favourable matchup in the form of the Patriots. Yes, the Pats are 5-4, but they rank 20th in yards per play (5.46), are tied sixth for the most giveaways (14) and lead the league with 60 negative plays on offense.

Look for Cleveland's defense to enjoy another successful day on the road.

Pakistan have taken on all comers in the T20 World Cup and will look to end Australia's hopes of winning a maiden title at the semi-final stage on Thursday.

Babar Azam's side made a statement when they hammered fierce rivals India by 10 wickets in their opening match of the tournament and they have never looked back, winning all five Super 12 games.

Australia qualified as runners-up to England in Group 1 as they strive to win the T20 World Cup for the first time and have come out on top in their previous two T20Is against Pakistan.

Pakistan had won five in a row versus Australia in the shortest format prior to those two losses.

Matthew Hayden stated that he believes being a "warrior of Australian cricket over two decades" can give Pakistan an edge in his role as batting consultant for this tournament.

Pakistan's only T20 World Cup title was won back in 2009 and they were beaten by Australia in a semi-final the following year.

Stats Perform usese Opta data to preview the second semi-final at Dubai International Stadium on Thursday, with the winner facing England or New Zealand at the same venue three days later.

Brilliant Babar leading by example

Pakistan's classy run machine Babar has been outstanding with the bat and his captaincy in this tournament.

The prolific skipper has made four scores of least 50 in this tournament, only the third player to do so in a T20 World Cup. Australia great Hayden (four in 2007) and India captain Virat Kohli (four in 2014) are the other two.

Babar is the leading run-scorer in the competition with 264 from five innings at an average of 66 and a strike rate of 128.15.

Paceman Shaheen Afridi has been magnificent with the ball, forcing a false shot from a batter with 44 per cent of his 120 deliveries – the highest rate of any player at the Super 12 stage to bowl more than a single innings.

Haris Rauf has also made a big impact and is Pakistan's leading wicket-taker with eight to Afridi's six for the only team with a 100 per cent record in the Super 12s.

 

Zampa providing Australia x-factor

Spinner Adam Zampa has been one of Australia's leading lights on their run to the last four.

The tweaker has claimed 11 wickets at an average of just 9.90, with only Sri Lanka's Wanindu Hasaranga (16) having taken more scalps. His figures of 5-19 against Bangladesh are the best in the tournament.

Zampa has finished four of his five innings in the tournament with a bowling economy below six runs per over after having done so only once in his 17 innings prior. 

Paceman Josh Hazlewood has also maintained his outstanding form on the back of an Indian Premier League triumph with Chennai Super Kings.

Hazlewood has taken eight wickets with a strike rate of 11.87, delivering with the new ball time and again, and Australia will be looking for him to make early inroads along with Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc.

 

Europe's qualifying section for the 2022 World Cup reaches its dramatic climax over the next week, with eight more nations set to secure their places in Qatar.

There will be 50 matches played during this international window, during which the outcome of all 10 groups will be decided, with Denmark and Germany the only European nations to have already booked their tickets.

Indeed, the other eight group winners will seal automatic qualification for Qatar 2022, while another 10 nations will advance to March's play-offs as the runners-up.

The 10 second-placed teams will be joined by the two best group winners from the 2020-21 Nations League who have neither already qualified nor sealed a play-off spot via the group stage.

With plenty of excitement and drama guaranteed, Stats Perform takes a closer look at the most eye-catching fixtures, permutations and milestones.  

800 up for Ronaldo?

Another day and another milestone approaches for Cristiano Ronaldo, who is just two goals away from taking his career tally to 800.

The Portugal skipper could hit the landmark when his country face the Republic of Ireland on Thursday – failing that, they host Serbia three days later.

Should Portugal take maximum points at the Aviva Stadium, Fernando Santos’ men would then guarantee top spot in Group A by avoiding defeat against Serbia on Sunday.

 

Deja vu for Italy?

The reigning European champions missed out on the finals last time around, sparking a cultural reset that ultimately culminated in their brilliant Euro 2020 success earlier this year. But their place in Qatar is still far from secure.

Level on points with Switzerland at the top of Group C with two games remaining, the Azzurri must beat the Swiss when they face off on Friday and avoid defeat against Northern Ireland three days later to guarantee qualification. 

Four years ago they were fell to Sweden in the play-offs – failure this time around would be an even bigger shock.

Work to do for the Dutch

The Netherlands were also absent from Russia in 2018 and, despite leading Group G, they are not home and dry just yet.

Louis van Gaal’s side travel to Montenegro on Saturday while second-placed Norway host Latvia.

Just two points separate the top two, who lock horns at De Kuip on Tuesday in a game that will more than likely decide who wins the group.

Spain to avert Swede success?

The 2010 World Cup winners are not yet guaranteed a top-two finish in Group B, although they will be by avoiding defeat away to Greece on Thursday.

Spain are two points behind leaders Sweden, who travel to Georgia on the same day. They go head-to-head in what will surely be the group decider on Sunday, assuming they take maximum points three days earlier. 

 

France looking to avoid the Blues

The reigning world champions and recently crowned Nations League winners are not quite over the line in Group D, despite holding a three-point advantage and game in hand over second-placed Ukraine.

However, Les Bleus will secure top spot with a win over Kazakhstan on Saturday or, failing that, taking maximum points away to Finland on Tuesday. 

Who will top Group H?

Russia and Croatia are guaranteed top-two finishes in Group H, but with just two points separating them, the identity of the group winners is still very much up in the air.

After facing Cyprus and Malta respectively on Thursday, the two nations collide in Split on Sunday with one of them booking a place in Qatar and the other heading for the play-offs.

Second place up for grabs in Group J

Eight points clear of the chasing pack in Group J, Germany secured qualification with flying colours. But the battle for second place is not quite as straightforward.

Occupying second are Romania (13 points), followed closely by North Macedonia and Armenia (both 12), while Iceland (eight) still have an outside chance as well.

Armenia and North Macedonia face off on Thursday with Romania hosting Iceland.

The group then reaches its climax three days later as North Macedonia and Iceland lock horns, while Armenia host Germany and Romania travel to Liechtenstein – expect a rollercoaster ride in Group J!

The 2021 WTA Finals look set to be a fitting end to a fascinating season on the Tour.

The 50th year-ending championships, which will take place in Guadalajara instead of Shenzhen due to coronavirus restrictions, will see eight of the top-10 ranked players come together in two round-robin groups, with four semi-final places up for grabs.

Six of the eight competitors will make their debuts at the event, while only two grand slam finalists from this year – and just one champion – will be present. With world number one Ash Barty withdrawing because of concerns around possible quarantine issues, it really does feel like an open draw.

Stats Perform looks at the eight Finalists and the key data you need to know before the action gets underway...

Group Chichen Itza

Aryna Sabalenka (1)

World number two Sabalenka is the top-ranked competitor in Guadalajara, with 44 match wins this year and titles in Abu Dhabi and Madrid, where she beat Barty.

The Belarusian boasts formidable weapons: Sabalenka has won 71.1 per cent of first-serve points and has an average of 8.4 forehand winners per match on the Tour this season, both of which are best figures among the eight Finalists.

She has only played two matches since losing to Leylah Fernandez in the US Open semi-finals, though, both of which were at last month's Kremlin Cup in Moscow.

Did you know? Since the start of 2018, Sabalenka has won the joint-most matches (three) in WTA Tour main draws after losing the first set 0-6. At the same time, she is 9-13 in three-set contests in 2021.

 

Maria Sakkari (4)

The nearly-woman of 2021, Sakkari has reached more semi-finals this year (seven) than anyone else on the WTA Tour, including at two of the four slams, but made it to just one final (in Ostrava, where she lost to Anett Kontaveit).

Still, this has been a historic year for the 26-year-old, who became the first Greek woman to reach a major semi-final, enter the top 10 and qualify for the season-ending championship.

Since the start of the US Open, Sakkari has lost only four of 14 matches, a run that includes the semi-final of the Kremlin Cup where she retired due to dizziness.

Did you know? Nobody has won more Tour-level matches against top-10 opponents this year than Sakkari (seven, level with Barty and Jessica Pegula). Before 2021, her record in such matches was 10-13.

 

Iga Swiatek (5)

Swiatek, the 2020 French Open champion, is the youngest competitor at these Finals at 20 years and 170 days old (as of the tournament's end). She is just the second player born this century to reach this event, after Bianca Andreescu in 2019.

Although unable to get beyond the quarter-finals of a major this year, Swiatek did win titles in Adelaide and Rome, where she inflicted a double bagel on Karolina Pliskova in the final.

Her success in Australia was her first on a hard court, a surface on which she won 19 of 28 matches this year.

Did you know? Swiatek has won 58 per cent (28 of 48) of her matches this season in straight sets, the highest ratio among the Finalists.

 

Paula Badosa (7)

A successful year for Badosa has been built on clay: she won a Tour-leading 17 matches on the dirt in 2021, reaching the French Open quarter-finals, the last four in Madrid and Charleston and winning the title in Belgrade.

This has been a breakthrough season for the 23-year-old across all surfaces, though, one that culminated in a record-breaking three-set win over Victoria Azarenka in the final at Indian Wells last month.

Badosa clinched that match after a third-set tie-break. She has won four deciding sets in that fashion this year, the most of anyone on the WTA Tour.

Did you know? Badosa has won seven matches (excluding the Olympics) after dropping the first set in 2021. Nobody else has as many come-from-behind victories among the Finalists.

 

Group Teotihuacan

Barbora Krejcikova (2)

The only major singles champion from 2021 at these Finals, Krejcikova has enjoyed a remarkable rise this year.

Along with success at Roland Garros, where she also triumphed in the doubles, the Czech won titles in Strasbourg and Prague; only world number one Barty (five) and Kontaveit (four) have won more this year.

Among the eight finalists, Krejcikova boasts the highest break-point conversion ratio (49.7 per cent, or 142/286) and break-point saved figure (66.4 per cent, or 150/226) for this season. She has become a clutch competitor and will be hard to stop in Mexico, both in the singles and the doubles.

Did you know? Krejcikova has won six matches against top-20 opponents in her career. All six of those wins were in 2021.

 

Karolina Pliskova (3)

Pliskova boasts impressive experience of the year-ending event: she is only the fourth player to qualify for five or more WTA Finals since the current format was introduced in 2003 (after Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova and Azarenka).

Beaten in her three Tour finals this year, including Wimbledon, the 29-year-old will be desperate to go at least one better than her three consecutive semi-final appearances at this event.

Pliskova begins against Garbine Muguruza, a player she has beaten twice before at the season-ending tournament.

Did you know? Pliskova leads the Tour for aces this season with 364, hitting a year-best 21 in her round-of-16 match with Jelena Ostapenko in Stuttgart. It's the fourth time in the past six seasons Pliskova has been top of the aces standings.

 

Garbine Muguruza (6)

This is the first time since 2000 that two Spanish players have contested the Finals. Back then, it was Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Muguruza, champion in Dubai and Chicago this year, has won more matches on hard courts (34) than anyone else in 2021 aside from Kontaveit. She also boasts the best average for successful net approaches this year (3.0) among the Finalists, which will make her a challenging obstacle in what will be her first Finals since 2017.

The former world number won made a career-high four Tour finals this year and won more than one trophy in a season for just the second time, sending her back into the top 10 for the first time since 2018. 

Did you know? Muguruza boasts a 10-1 record in WTA tournaments in Mexico, winning back-to-back titles in Monterrey in 2018 and 2019.

 

Anett Kontaveit (8)

With a Tour-leading 37 hard-court wins this year and on a formidable run of form, Kontaveit could spring a surprise at her first Finals.

After losing her fifth match in a row to Ons Jabeur on August 17, the Estonian went on a run of 26 wins from 28 matches, lifted four titles and broke into the top 10 for the first time. It was Jabeur she edged out for a place at this tournament after she won her fourth title of the year at Cluj-Napoca.

Along with Barty, Kontaveit is the only player to reach six Tour-level finals this year, while nobody at the season-ending tournament has won more titles (four).

Did you know? Kontaveit has hit the most backhand winners (293) on hard courts on the WTA Tour in 2021, averaging nearly six per match.

 

New Zealand suffered a heartbreaking defeat to England in the 2019 Cricket World Cup final but they have a chance to gain a measure of revenge on Wednesday.

England were crowned 50-over world champions at Lord's in the most dramatic fashion, with a Super Over needed to finally separate the two teams in a thriller.

The Black Caps and England do battle in the semi-final of the T20 World Cup at Zayed Cricket Stadium after qualifying from the Super 12 stage along with Pakistan and Australia.

England have won six of the past nine T20Is against New Zealand, including another Super-Over triumph in their last meeting in November 2019.

They have also won three of their past four T20 World Cup matches against New Zealand, one of those coming in a semi-final five years ago.

The top-ranked side in the world will have to do without explosive opening batsman Jason Roy, who joined paceman Tymal Mills on the injury list when he suffered a torn calf in the loss to South Africa on Saturday.

New Zealand took second place in Group 2 by beating Afghanistan on Sunday, their fourth win in a row after starting with a defeat to Pakistan.

Stats Perform looks at selection decisions to be made in Abu Dhabi and pick out who might be the key players in a blockbuster last-four showdown.

In a tumultuous week, there was a lot of noise, from relatives of football players and one of the greatest basketball players ever, hinting that Baker Mayfield was the problem for the Cleveland Browns.

Turns out, it might actually have been Odell Beckham Jr.

It remains to be seen whether Mayfield can be the long-term answer at quarterback but, with Beckham getting his wish and being allowed to move on to as yet undetermined pastures new, Cleveland's signal-caller and the Browns flourished in Week 9.

Cleveland stomped Cincinnati 41-16 on the road sans Beckham in what was a clear case of addition by subtraction.

One of the biggest stars of that stunning blowout win was a receiver likely to receive an increased role in Cleveland's passing attack in the wake of Beckham's departure, with Donovan Peoples-Jones stepping up and delivering a huge play in a season that has provided more evidence he was a steal for the Browns in the sixth round of last year's draft.

 

Peoples-Jones proves his worth

Peoples-Jones broke the game open in the second quarter with a 60-yard touchdown catch from Mayfield, giving the Browns a two-touchdown advantage that the Bengals never threatened to eat into.

It served as a demonstration of Peoples-Jones' strengths as a route-runner, the former Michigan star getting separation from Eli Apple with a corner-post route as the Browns struck gold on a play-action shot against quarters coverage.

Mayfield's deep ball was not deadly accurate, but Peoples-Jones did an excellent job of adjusting his route to flight of the throw to haul it in and stroll into the endzone.

Targeted just three times in the game, Peoples-Jones finished as the Browns' leading receiver with 86 yards, taking full advantage of his limited opportunities.

His second and final catch of the day saw Peoples-Jones display those same traits that shone through on his touchdown, helping the Browns convert on third-and-11 in the fourth quarter with the game in hand.

This time, he defeated man coverage with a jab step to the right and swim move akin to that of a pass rusher, gaining outside leverage and separation before looking the ball into his grasp and hanging on despite a thumping hit from Bengals safety Jessie Bates II.

That ability to create separation has been a constant for Peoples-Jones this season. He has produced a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, 77.8 per cent of the time, the league average among receivers with at least 10 targets is 60.5.

Peoples-Jones' burn yards per target average of 17.91 is third among receivers who meet that 10-target threshold, while his big-play rate of 48.3 per cent is fifth.

Targeted only 18 times this season, those gaudy numbers are partially a product of a small sample size, but his 2020 performance in those same metrics suggests he would continue to perform efficiently with a more substantial role in the offense.

While his burn percentage of 65 was not as impressive, Peoples-Jones ended last season third in burn yards per target (17.11) and ninth in big-play rate (42.6 per cent).

Peoples-Jones is proving himself as a consistent downfield threat who wins with route-running, size and concentration at the catch point. His is a skill set conducive to long-term success, and that is something he should be able to enjoy playing on an offense where the strength of the run game gives the Browns plenty of strong passing game looks.

Bengals mauled by Browns run game

Like so many before them, the Bengals had no answer for Nick Chubb and the Cleveland running game. Chubb racked up his third 100-yard game of the season, averaging a remarkable 9.79 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns.

He ripped off runs of 23, 22, 13 and 10 yards along with a 70-yard score that illustrated just how devastating the Browns' ground game can be when at its best.

Running from a three-tight end set, the Browns pulled right guard Wyatt Teller to the second level, where he executed a devastating block on Bates. Left tackle Jedrick Wills and left guard Joel Bitonio were similarly ruthless against Logan Wilson and Josh Tupou while tight end Austin Hooper and center J.C. Tretter sealed off their defenders.

That opened a gaping running lane for Chubb, who burst through into the secondary, with the aid of impressive downfield blocking from Harrison Bryant, and surged clear, leaving helpless defenders in his wake.

Chubb is now tied for the league lead with 22 rushes of 10 yards or more and, as that touchdown showed, he and the Browns can produce those backbreaking plays even when lined up in an obvious run formation against a defense playing a safety in the box.

With Cleveland consistently carrying that threat on the ground, receivers can benefit, with the danger posed by Chubb and Co. facilitating a play-action game that can deliver the kind of results Peoples-Jones produced on his touchdown.

It has been an uneven season for the Browns but at 5-4 they are still in the mix in a muddled AFC and still have a formula for success as long as that rushing attack is functioning as it did in Week 9.

That formula does not require Beckham. It is one that can work with young wideouts like Peoples-Jones, who has the traits to excel for a long time at the highest level and has proven he deserves increased opportunities.

When the Browns traded for Beckham back in 2019, he looked like a potential missing piece for a team primed to consistently contend. However, Peoples-Jones' performance in the first game since his contentious departure should leave Cleveland confident the void he leaves will not be at all difficult to fill.

The weekend's fixtures in the Premier League felt like they could be pivotal for so many teams, especially near the top of the table.

It proved to be a mixed weekend for the title chasers with Manchester City beating Manchester United with ease, Chelsea throwing away two points at home to Burnley, and Liverpool losing their unbeaten start to the season against an in-form West Ham.

Deeper impacts were felt at the other end of the table as both Aston Villa and Norwich City felt the need to sack their bosses, despite the latter actually winning their first game of the season.

Find all that and more as Stats Perform looks at the quirky Opta facts behind the weekend's action.

 

United soft and unstable

The Premier League's favourite Jekyll and Hyde team, Manchester United, were at it again on Saturday as they 'entertained' neighbours Manchester City.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men had dusted themselves down following their last home game against Liverpool where they were dispatched 5-0 to win well at Tottenham, and then rescue a vital late point at Atalanta in the Champions League. But the 2-0 defeat to City was another reminder of how far they are off the title contenders.

To emphasise the need for improvement at Old Trafford, Eric Bailly's own goal to open the scoring on Saturday meant that United are now without a clean sheet in their last 14 home games in all competitions. The only longer run in the club's history without a home clean sheet was a 21-game stretch between April 1958 and March 1959.

In the Premier League era, only under David Moyes (1.18) have United conceded more goals per game than under Solskjaer (1.13). 

Solskjaer may point to the fact that the away team has won nine of the last 12 meetings between United and City in all competitions (D1 L2), including each of the three games in 2021. Perhaps it would all have been fine for the Red Devils had Saturday's game taken place at the Etihad?

Villa hate Fridays

Aston Villa were a team on the rise and Dean Smith was doing a great job at his boyhood club, until they were not, and he was not.

The Villains began the season well enough, with notable victories at home to Everton and away at Manchester United. Then, before you knew it, they had lost five league games in a row, leading to Smith being relieved of his duties on Sunday.

Could it have been the day of the week's fault, though? Heading into the game, Aston Villa had won none of their previous 13 away top-flight matches played on a Friday (D3 L10), with their last win coming in April 1950, a 4-1 victory at Charlton Athletic.

Unlucky for some? It certainly was for Smith and Villa, with the record now at 14 games.

Newcastle cannot buy a win

Excitement continues at Newcastle United right now as the club eagerly anticipates the January transfer window, with an opportunity to finally flex their financial muscle.

However, that remains almost two months away and the Magpies could be in a bit of trouble by then as their 1-1 draw at Brighton on Saturday meant that they are now 11 games into the season and still waiting for their first league win, the only team yet to register a victory.

It is now their longest winless run from the beginning of a league campaign, and most concerning of all to the new owners at St James' Park will be that each of the last four Premier League sides to endure a similar start to a top-flight season have gone on to be relegated. Then again, none of those sides have the wealth Newcastle do now. Then again, is Eddie Howe the right manager to turn their form around? 

Only Norwich City (26) have conceded more goals than Newcastle (24) this season, while the Magpies' opponents have had a league-high 21.6 expected goals. Howe's Bournemouth side conceded at least 61 goals in each of their five seasons in the top flight. 

Norwich's unconventional response to first victory

Unlike Newcastle, the Canaries finally won their first league game of the season on Saturday, and then sacked head coach Daniel Farke immediately after.

The 2-1 success at Brentford was Farke's 49th and final Premier League game in charge at Carrow Road. His 12.2 win percentage is the second-worst of any coach to preside over 40 or more matches in the competition. Only John Gorman at Swindon Town in 1993-94 achieved a worse win percentage (11.9).

It seems the decision was taken before the game, with Norwich bottom of the Premier League table having lost eight of their first ten games since promotion back to the top flight.

One bright spot other than the three points though was the fact that it was the first time they have scored more than one goal in a game in 28 attempts in a Premier League match.

Hope for whoever comes in to replace Farke, at least.

Juventus' long domination of Serie A finally ended last season thanks to Inter, but their success never looked likely to be the start of a new monopoly in Italy's top flight.

With Inter not only losing their mastermind Antonio Conte but also arguably their two best players in Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, Simone Inzaghi was always going to have a tough task on his hands in their attempts to successfully retain the Scudetto.

Milan fans will have watched on frustrated last season, their own improvement paling in comparison to that of their bitter rivals, who finished 12 points clear of the Rossoneri at the top.

Of course, Milan only secured a top-four finish at all on the final day of the season – but there is much cause for optimism at the club and Sunday's Derby della Madonnina suggested the positivity is well-placed, even if Stefano Pioli's team only got a 1-1 draw.

Let's not forget, Milan's record in this fixture has been dreadful in recent times. Inter won five of the past six in Serie A, while the Rossoneri's run of three successive home defeats in the derby was their worst such run since 1934.

Milan went into the match knowing a win would take them top after Napoli dropped points against Hellas Verona, but arguably the most important thing here was to avoid a defeat – victory for Inter would have brought them to within three points of their bitter rivals.

And to be fair to Inter, they looked every inch a side out to win.

It didn't take long for one of the main pre-game narratives to come into focus as Hakan Calhanoglu, playing his first derby for Inter since leaving Milan in pre-season, won a penalty from Franck Kessie and then stepped up to take the resulting kick.

His celebration left no doubt about his thoughts on the jeers being aimed his way, as he cupped both ears in the direction of the home fans, with the Turkey midfielder becoming only the fourth player since 1994-95 to score in his first Milan derby after making his previous appearance in the fixture for the other team.

It was the kind of start you hope from every derby match, with the emotions and intensity turned right up inside the first 10 minutes, and Milan were certainly up to the challenge.

Their response was quick – though they had more than a helping hand. Fikayo Tomori was the man who ran off in joyous celebration as the Inter net bulged, though replays amusingly showed he didn't even touch the ball as Stefan de Vrij put past his own goalkeeper.

The gripping end-to-end nature of the match soon brought another twist.

Matteo Darmian darted onto the ball, surging inside Fode Ballo-Toure and into the box, luring the Milan left-back into a clumsy lunge. Penalty.

But Calhanoglu didn't fancy the opportunity to get a second, instead allowing Lautaro Martinez to step up, and the Argentinian failed to beat Ciprian Tatarusanu in the Milan goal.

 

Milan started to fade towards the end of the first half, with Inter creating two more fine opportunities just before the break and then remaining in the ascendancy in the second period.

Martinez saw a stinging drive go just over and then Calhanoglu inexplicably failed to get a volley on target at the back post as he blasted across the face of goal.

But Pioli's substitutions worked very well. Ismael Bennacer's introduction brought a little more poise and intricacy to the Milan midfield, while Alexis Saelemaekers showcased his trademark endeavour.

In fact, the Belgian went closest to breaking the deadlock as his long-range effort came back off the post and Kessie put the rebound wide.

Inter managed to hold on in the face of the late onslaught, and while a point seemed a fair result, it's already a fourth draw for Inzaghi's men. That's five matches they've failed to win, and although they remain third, you get the feeling they need to start turning those into victories if they are to stand a chance of retaining the title.

They certainly have the personnel to do so, while Milan's showing provided a little more evidence that last season's second-place finish wasn't a fluke, with this the first time in the three-points-for-a-win era that the Rossoneri have amassed as many as 32 points from their first 12 matches.

Of course, Napoli will hope to prove otherwise, but there remains the very real possibility that the Scudetto will be staying in Milan at the end of the campaign.

The second derby of the season will likely have some say in which of the two clubs prevails, and that in itself is glorious.

It had arguably lost much of its lustre in the eyes of the neutral in recent years, with the collective standard of their squads somewhat lacking in comparison to the fixture's glory days back in the early 2000s and it rarely having relevance due to Juve's domination.

But one thing Sunday's contest showed is that the Derby della Madonnina is once again becoming Italy's most relevant fixture.

"There is a great talent here. He has a great future but it all depends on him," Zlatan Ibrahimovic said of Rafael Leao after Milan beat neighbours Inter in the derby last October.

Ibrahimovic knows what it takes to reach the top better than most.

There has been no doubt about Leao's quality, the 22-year-old has pace to burn and an arsenal of attacking weapons up his sleeve. But he has split opinion since being prised from Lille in 2019 – a result of mixed performances amid hype and expectations after Milan made a significant investment.

However, after an inconsistent start in the north of Italy, Leao is now flourishing under the guidance of Zlatan and Stefano Pioli as part of the Rossoneri dream of conquering Serie A for the first time in over a decade.

Deployed as a left-sided wide forward or lone striker, Leao has showcased his ability with the ball at his feet, leading the league this season in average carry progresses (9.1 metres), shot-ending carries (14), goal-ending carries (two) and total chance created carries (17) – Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne and Juventus star Federico Chiesa are just some of the names left behind on those lists.

A key member of Milan's Scudetto charge, Leao has a chance to further enhance his growing reputation on the big stage when city rivals Milan and champions Inter meet in a blockbuster Derby della Madonnina on Sunday.

Another off the long list of Sporting CP's famed production line, Leao dazzled in Lisbon, where he drew comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo before his time at Estadio Jose Alvalade ended abruptly in 2018. After players and coaches were sensationally attacked by fans at the club's training facility, Leao terminated his contract prior to moving to Lille on a free transfer.

 

"The first time I saw Rafael was when I took the job as the technical director of the Sporting academy. Every time I saw Rafael in his first few sessions for the Under-17s, he was different and he was special. You know, at Sporting, we've created so many good players – like Ronaldo and [Luis] Figo. Because of that, we are qualified to see when we have special talents in front of our eyes. Then it was easy to see, Rafael was different from the others," Luis Martins – Leao's first coach at Sporting – told FTF.

After eight goals and two assists in one season with Lille, Milan came calling and splashed out around €30million to usher in a new era for the Italian powerhouse, desperately craving a return to their glorious past after years in the wilderness.

Following a tough start to life under Marco Giampaolo, Leao showed glimpses when Pioli stepped into the Rossoneri hotseat, but he was far from convincing, proving a frustrating figure due to the consensus that he lacked consistency.

Leao only managed one goal in his first 19 appearances for Milan across all competitions. While he ended his debut campaign with six Serie A goals at an average of 232 minutes per goal and a sole assist, there were already questions whether the Portuguese was a future star or a gamble that hadn't paid off.

The key takeaway was Leao's involvement in Milan play. In 2019-20, he was the orchestrator of just 58 sequences in open play. In those 31 appearances, not one of those sequences started and ended in a goal. For context, he tallied nine goals and six assists the following season.

A raw talent finding his feet, Leao shot conversion rate was 17.7 per cent, well down on the 27.6 per cent mark he reached the season prior with Lille.

"It's true, I expected more from him tonight. When coming on, he was meant to give changes of pace, fresh energy, work with the team," Pioli said after a loss to Lazio in November 2019 as Leao was eventually linked with a move away heading into 2020-21. "He has a lot of potential, but he absolutely has to do more. His contribution tonight was not up to his standards."

 

Leao has seemingly heeded the advice of those around him, delivering on a more regular basis just as his team-mates are under Pioli's watchful eye.

Capable of delivering an incredible pass, Leao has mastered the art of attacking space with his blistering pace and it has well and truly come to the fore since 2020, with his 21 dribbles this season only exceeded by Sassuolo's Jeremie Boga (24) among forwards. Leao has also scored the most goals from fast breaks in Serie A (three).

Despite not yet having a fixed position at Milan, Leao's movement – predominantly on the left flank – has him first for carries with a shot (14), carries with a goal (two) and fourth for total carries by distance (1995.79) in the league this season.

"The Leao project goes on regardless of the role. He continues his growth and maturation, as is normal for such a young player," Pioli said in April.

"Then it is difficult to establish what Rafael's final role will be. The growth of a player allows you to find a job and a position. The important thing is the growth of its value, then we will evaluate the position along the way."

Leao's rise and development has been evident since the turn of the year, having become the second-youngest foreign player to score 10-plus Serie A goals for Milan back in January, older only than Alexandre Pato.

No one has scored more goals for Milan this term – level with France World Cup-winning striker Olivier Giroud on four goals through 11 matchdays – than Leao, who has outperformed his xG (2.6) while scoring every 205 minutes in Italy's top flight (more frequent than the likes of Chiesa, Tammy Abraham and Alvaro Morata among forwards) with a shots to goal conversion rate of 18.2 per cent.

It's not just the goals when it comes to the new and improved version of Leao. The two-time Portugal international has become more of a team player, leading the way at San Siro in attacking sequence involvements (40) across shots (25), chances created (seven) and build-up to shot (eight), ahead of Alexis Saelemaekers (38), Davide Calabria (33), Brahim Diaz (30), Ante Rebic (24) and Theo Hernandez (24) in 2021-22.

Leao has gone from prospect to genuine star, and as he takes centre stage in one of football’s most historic fixtures, the sky is the limit.

David de Gea leapt to his right and tipped Kevin De Bruyne's shot around the post. "Vamos!" he bellowed to team-mates gathered for the Manchester City corner, banging those overworked gloves together.

Cristiano Ronaldo, who had just congratulated the Manchester United goalkeeper on his latest brilliant save, gazed around the penalty area, shaking his head.

The reactions looked different but echoed the same feeling, presumably the one felt by the 70-odd thousand United fans inside Old Trafford. It's the same thing they felt when losing 4-0 at half-time to Liverpool. It's largely the same thing they felt seven years ago, when consecutive home defeats to Liverpool and City sounded the death knell for the David Moyes era.

How much longer can this go on?

It was the 5-0 scoreline that was most damaging about the game last month against Jurgen Klopp's side, and the reason Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came as close as he did to losing his job. The Manchester derby was, in essence, no different; it was a thrashing in all but the scoreboard.

And it will prompt the same question.

The 3-0 win over a miserable Tottenham secured Solskjaer's position for at least another week and saw Antonio Conte, his most obvious and available replacement, head to north London. Yet, as the United manager likes to say, "one swallow doesn't make a summer". He knew there had to be sustained improvement, that wins over Atalanta in the Champions League and Manchester City were vital to show he could arrest a decline that has seen his United become the first to concede in 13 consecutive home matches for the first time since the 1950s.

Instead, United repeated the 'Liverpool Week': a poor Champions League performance salvaged by Ronaldo, and utter embarrassment at the hands of their domestic rivals.

Solskjaer had won four of his first eight meetings with Pep Guardiola, giving him the best win rate of any manager to face the City boss at least five times. He'd also presided over a four-game unbeaten league run against their neighbours, whose recent success relative to United – nine major trophies since the Red Devils last won anything – has seen them go from noisy to ear-splitting. The last time these teams met in front of a full crowd, a muddied Scott McTominay slid across the soaked turf after lobbing Ederson in the final seconds, a striking visual metaphor for Solskjaer's team: imperfect, unpolished, but going somewhere.

In the second half of Sunday's game, after Eric Bailly's senseless own goal and a gift for Bernardo Silva, Solskjaer's tenure entered a perverse kind of scoreline purgatory: would he be safe if it finished 2-0, or 3-0, or 4-0? Was it not bad enough that City could come to Old Trafford and treat it as a training exercise, limiting their opponents to one shot on target?

This is what Solskjaer's United have become: a listing wreck, held together by default. Results are bad, but not quite bad enough; supporters are fed up, but they won't turn on a club legend; the owners fear the risk of change more than the cost of inaction.

"I give up," said former captain Roy Keane on Sky Sports. Solskjaer won't; not after nearly three years in charge. The pedestrian, goalless second half against City will probably count in his favour with the board, too.

But 'only' losing the derby 2-0 cannot ever be acceptable. It certainly isn't what Ronaldo signed up for, and as long as things persist as they are, he'll be shaking his head for many months to come.

It is the one question that has dominated the 2021 NFL season: what is wrong with the Kansas City Chiefs?

The Chiefs, expected to return to juggernaut status after completely remodelling their offensive line in the wake of their blowout Super Bowl loss, have lurched from one unconvincing performance to another this campaign.

They sit at 4-4 heading into a matchup with the 7-1 Green Bay Packers that has lost a significant amount of its prestige due to Aaron Rodgers being ruled out after testing positive for coronavirus.

A 20-17 victory over the New York Giants on Monday did nothing to calm concerns about Kansas City and this weekend's visit of Green Bay may provide the answer as to how broken this Chiefs team really is.

Heading into a clash that could play a critical role in determining the direction of the 2021 Chiefs, Stats Perform assesses whether a contender that has often looked more like a pretender is as broken as many believe.

Explosives in short supply

The offense was expected to be at its devastating best in 2021 following the reconstruction of the offensive line.

That has not come to pass. The Chiefs have moved the ball efficiently for the most part of the season, they are ninth in yards per play with 5.99, but have seen turnovers continually undermine their production, which has tailed off to 4.84 yards per play over the last two weeks.

Patrick Mahomes has thrown a league-leading 10 interceptions, though a deeper dive into his performances this year strongly indicates he should not have thrown anything close to that number.

Indeed, Mahomes has delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 80.5 per cent of his passes this season, down from 81.1 in 2019 but significantly up from 76.7 in 2020, while his pickable pass percentage of 1.99 is the seventh-best among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts.

Mahomes has thrown six turnover-worthy balls in 2021 with those numbers reflective of a series of accurate passes that have clanked off the hands of his receivers and into the arms of grateful defenders.

Does that mean the receiving corps is to blame for the Chiefs' struggles?

Not necessarily.

Star wideout Tyreek Hill has been credited with five drops and has played a part in some of those Mahomes' interceptions but the speedster is still consistently creating separation.

Hill has produced a burn, which is where a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 71.9 per cent of his targets. That is well above average among receivers (minimum five targets) of 61.1. With his 3.0 burn yards per route superior to the league-wide average of 2.3 for his position, Hill is still a huge problem for opposing defenders along with tight end Travis Kelce.

The metrics suggest Kelce's play has tailed off a little. His burn percentage has dropped from 72.3 in 2020 to 67.6 this year and he is putting up 2.6 burn yards per route compared to 3.1 last year. He is still on the right side of the ledger in each of those categories, however.

Where there has been a clear drop-off from Kansas City's chief offensive weapons, is in explosive plays.

Hill delivered a big play on 35.6 per cent of his targets last season but is doing so 23.8 per cent of the time this year, comfortably below the league average of 29.1 for receivers. Kelce's dip is less dramatic, going from a big play rate of 36 per cent in 2020 to 28.9 in 2021.

That is compounded by the lack of depth the Chiefs have at receiver. Their investment in Mecole Hardman as a second-round pick in 2019 continues to look ill-advised. He is averaging a disappointing 1.7 burn yards per route while Demarcus Robinson (0.8) has also struggled when it comes to creating clear separation.

Byron Pringle is third among receivers with at least 10 targets with a big-play rate of 49.8 but with a relatively small sample size of 22 targets. He has a strong case for a greater role in a Chiefs offense that is turning the ball over and getting a declining rate of explosive plays from its top weapons.

And yet it is still not their biggest problem.

Dismal defense

The Chiefs not living up to their extremely high standards would not be receiving the same level of scrutiny if Kansas City did not also possess the worst defense in the NFL.

That defense is allowing a league-high 6.43 yards per play, they are third-worst in the NFL against the pass (7.79) in that regard and fifth-worst (4.64) versus the run.

Kansas City's defense is one with problems in essentially every area. Their front has found it difficult to generate pressure, ranking 29th in pass rush win rate according to Stats Perform data.

Their issues in that regard forced their hand in trading for Melvin Ingram, who through seven games with the Steelers had a win rate of 30 per cent, above the average of 21.88 for edge rushers.

Yet there are also glaring concerns in the secondary.

Of the four Chiefs' cornerbacks to have been targeted at least 10 times, only Rashad Fenton (1.71) has a burn yards allowed per snap rate that is the right side of the league average of 1.97.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is the play of much-maligned safety Daniel Sorensen, who has given up a big play on 37.8 per cent of his targets, the third-highest rate among players at his position.

As such, Sorensen can expect to be attacked consistently by the Packers' offense, which should still have plenty of confidence of moving the ball despite Rodgers' absence.

All you need is Love?

The Packers have not been efficient, ranking a disappointing 20th in yards per play, but may have found a winning formula on the ground, having rushed for at least 100 yards in five of their last six games. 

Given the Chiefs' deficiencies in stopping the run, Kansas City can expect to see heavy doses of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon.

Yet at some point, the Packers must put their faith in Rodgers' backup Jordan Love in his first start, providing Steve Spagnuolo's defense with cause for optimism.

In his final season at Utah State in 2019, Love delivered a well-thrown ball just 66.74 per cent of the time, putting him significantly shy of the average of 73.20 per cent for Power 5 and Group of 5 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. His pickable pass rate of 8.21 per cent was the third worst.

And he deteriorated under pressure, his well-throw rate dropping to 54.89 and his pickable pass percentage increasing to 12.03 when under duress.

With limited NFL experience to his name, the Chiefs will hope the accuracy issues and his troubles against pressure continue at the NFL level.

But the impact of any inability to deal with the pass rush from Love will not be felt if the Chiefs cannot drastically improve their success in defeating opposing pass protectors.

The Chiefs are clearly a long way short of their usual standards but, with Mahomes more accurate than in recent years and their top receivers still getting separation from defenders, to label them broken may be a stretch.

However, if they cannot get the job done in a high-profile matchup that has, at least on paper, drastically tilted in their favour due to the controversy surrounding Rodgers, then it will be a fitting adjective for a team long since associated with much more complimentary language.

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