The cauldron of competition that is the NFC West produced the Super Bowl winner last season, and, at least from an internal perspective, the Rams’ biggest obstacle to repeating may be their age, given that their best players on both sides of the ball (quarterback Matthew Stafford, 34, and defensive lineman Aaron Donald, 32) are on the wrong side of 30.
But Los Angeles, as it has shown, is resilient as well as talented. Last year the Rams withstood a devastating midseason injury to receiver Robert Woods and the mid–Super Bowl loss of his replacement, Odell Beckham Jr. They had to wrangle safety Eric Weddle out of retirement for the playoffs. But led by coach Sean McVay, they made it work.
This offseason, L.A. brought in some fresh, if not necessarily young, reinforcements. It poached Bobby Wagner, 32, a six-time All-Pro at linebacker, from the Seahawks, and signed former Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson, a 29-year-old contested-catch specialist who could thrive with Stafford, as Kenny Golladay did in Detroit. With Cooper Kupp frequently drawing double coverage, Robinson could feast now that he’s a complementary receiver for the first time in his career.
The Rams’ biggest external obstacle is the 49ers, who had beaten them six straight times until L.A. won the NFC title game, 20–17. San Francisco was once again Super Bowl–caliber on the defensive side of the ball last year, with DeMeco Ryans unveiling a more aggressive scheme in his first year as coordinator. This year’s addition of former Chiefs cover artist Charvarius Ward should solidify the cornerback group, a must given Ryans’s tendency to blitz in big moments. On offense the Niners’ unique rushing attack, keyed by all-world left tackle Trent Williams, and a bevy of catch-and-run receivers, should have Kyle Shanahan’s scheme humming—but the wild card is the quarterback. Trey Lance’s big arm and mobility are prototypical for the modern NFL, and the reason that the Niners traded up to take him third in the 2021 draft. But is Shanahan ready to put his trust—and his realistic Super Bowl hopes—in the hands of the 22-year-old. Jimmy Garoppolo, who was part of two deep postseason runs with the Niners, is waiting in the wings.
The Cardinals, despite making the playoffs last season, seem shaky. Arizona flew out to a 7–0 start in 2021 but was playing with an efficiency that it couldn’t sustain. After a 4–6 finish, it looked overmatched in a 34–11 wild-card loss to the Rams. In an offense that uses the most four-receiver sets in the NFL, it’s a particular problem that All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins will be serving a six-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, while Christian Kirk left for Jacksonville, with Marquise Brown the only notable addition to the receiving corps. And how will a defense that lost its most important player, edge rusher Chandler Jones, to free agency recapture its early-season dominance?
For almost a decade, the Seahawks could bank on the trio of coach Pete Carroll, quarterback Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner to keep them in contention. Now only 71-year-old Carroll remains. Veteran Geno Smith will get the first crack at replacing Wilson under center, while on defense, Seattle will be lining up a number of unproven and mismatched parts where the Legion of Boom crews smothered opponents. Especially in this division, the going for the Seahawks will be awfully tough.
SI’S PROJECTED STANDINGS
1. San Francisco 49ers: 12–5
Best Case: All the hand-wringing over Lance’s inexperience seems silly in retrospect. His ability to stress defenses downfield and his threat to run open up new possibilities for the offense. With a defense that’s more than stout enough, the 49ers make it to the Super Bowl.
Worst Case: Lance struggles at times, and Shanahan decides he can’t afford to be patient, putting his young prodigy back on the bench. Shanahan’s system creates enough offense to get back to the postseason, but the Niners can’t score points like the other NFC bluebloods.
2. Los Angeles Rams: 11–6
Best Case: Things pick up right where they left off—except the Rams are healthier across the board and stay that way in 2022. Kupp and Robinson each top 1,000 yards and 10 TDs, Donald is still Donald and the Rams throw another February parade in Los Angeles.
Worst Case: They call it a Super Bowl hangover, but it’s more a combination of age, injuries and signs of burnout on the coaching staff. The Rams turn it on just enough in December to sneak into the playoffs as a wild card but go out with a one-and-done whimper.
3. Arizona Cardinals: 9–8
Best Case: Kliff Kingsbury updates his offense with some Shanahan-like concepts, helping Kyler Murray catch opponents off guard early. Hopkins’s midseason return gives the team another shot in the arm, as the Cards finally finish strong en route to a surprise division title.
Worst Case: The Air Raid–style offense continues to look stale, especially with a dearth of quality receivers. The defense is unremarkable without Jones. Murray unfollows the team’s social media accounts on Thanksgiving, though in a way it’s a welcome distraction from the subpar jokes about the team’s ill-fated “homework clause,” since removed from Murray’s contract.
4. Seattle Seahawks: 3–14
Best Case: Carroll built this program around competition, and the Seahawks take on a scrappy personality as they did in his early years in Seattle. There’s no postseason berth, but they avoid 10 losses and the franchise is reinvigorated heading into 2023.
Worst Case: The overmatched Seahawks don’t just lose often; they lose ugly. The Island of Misfit Toys that makes up the defensive roster allows the most points in the NFL. Carroll, after 12 seasons in Seattle, won’t be back to decide on the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft.
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Panthers outlast Hurricanes in 4th OT in 6th-longest game in NHL history
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers seemed determined to keep playing. And playing. And playing.
The teams opened their Eastern Conference final playoff series with Florida’s 3-2 victory in four overtimes early Friday, with the game ranking as the sixth-longest game in NHL history.
Matthew Tkachuk’s goal came at the 19:47 mark of the fourth OT to end this one, which marked the 15th four-overtime game in NHL history and the longest game in franchise history for each team.
The longest game in NHL history came on March 24, 1936, when the Detroit Red Wings beat the Montreal Maroons 1-0 in the sixth overtime on Mud Bruneteau’s goal at 116 minutes, 30 seconds of extra play.
Florida’s previous record for longest game was 104:31 in Game 4 of the 1996 Stanley Cup final against Colorado. Carolina’s previous record was 114:47 for Game 3 of the 2002 Stanley Cup final.
The only good news for the teams is they had an extended break before this series began. Carolina closed out New Jersey exactly a week earlier, while Florida eliminated Toronto a day later.
But this game ended roughly six hours after Thursday night’s puck drop, and the teams have a Game 2 in less than 48 hours.
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Barcelona says probe found no evidence of corruption by club
MADRID (AP) — The investigation ordered by Barcelona into its controversial payments for refereeing reports found no evidence of corruption by the club, president Joan Laporta said Monday.
Laporta reiterated that the club’s payments over several years to the company owned by the vice president of Spain’s refereeing committee were only for technical reports and not to influence referees. He said he believed there were no ethics breach and that Barcelona was the victim of a campaign to hurt its reputation.
“This is one of the most ferocious attacks in our history,” Laporta said. “I ask FC Barcelona supporters to be as united as ever in defense of our crest, our essence, and our ownership model. No campaign to discredit us will prevent us from continuing to be an organization of reference in the world of sports that is beloved and admired by millions of Catalans and by many more millions of people around the world.”
It was the first time Laporta spoke at a news conference to give explanations after it became public that the club paid 7.3 million euros ($8 million) from 2001-18 to the company of then committee vice president José María Enríquez Negreira. Prosecutors have accused Barcelona of alleged corruption in sports, fraudulent management, and falsification of mercantile documentation.
Barcelona opened the probe to look into the actions of all the different presidential administrations that made payments over the years, including Laporta’s first at the club. The investigation was conducted by an external company.
The club said the probe found that “no conducts of a criminal nature associated to sporting corruption have been identified, nor are there any grounds to investigate any form of criminal activity associated to bribery.” It added there was “official documentation on the invoices and payments” for the services of “scouting and advice regarding referees, which are common practices in the professional sports sector.”
“Consulting on technical-refereeing issues does not constitute any type of illegal act,” Laporta said. “Consulting, as is done by the big clubs, that was carried out transparently, with the corresponding invoices, at least in my first mandate as president.”
The probe found 629 technical refereeing reports and 43 CDs that the club received over 18 years for what Laporta called “market price.” More reports were likely lost over time, he said.
“I reiterate with all my resolve, I am convinced that FC Barcelona has not committed any crime of sports-related corruption. I hope that sooner rather than later, it is fully exonerated,” he said. “Accusations must be proven. We live by the rule of law, which guarantees among its basic principles the presumption of innocence.”
He said that if there were any irregularities committed by Negreira, Barcelona would be a victim of them. He also said Negreira was not in a position to directly influence referees, and that it was Negreira’s son who actually produced the refereeing reports.
“I dare anyone to show an instance in which Barcelona was favored in a match because of these payments,” Laporta said. “We will allow the justice system to do its work and I’m sure that Barcelona will be cleared. I am fully convinced that FC Barcelona has never performed any act with the intention of altering the competition to gain an advantage.”
The Spanish league, Real Madrid and other clubs have been among those taking part in the legal proceedings against Barcelona. Laporta criticized league president Javier Tebas for making accusations against Barcelona, and also took a shot at rival Madrid.
“Everyone knows that Real Madrid is a club that is historically favored by refereeing mistakes,” he said.
Laporta said Barcelona has always been a club that takes pride in its values, and it would never want to win anything with outside help.
“Throughout its 123-year history, FC Barcelona has always been a model of fair play, both on and off the field,” he said. “If we have won for so many decades, it has undoubtedly been a result of effort, talent and knowledge.”
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Silicon Valley councilman indicted in 49ers report leak
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A Silicon Valley city councilman has been charged with perjury after he allegedly lied about leaking a grand jury report to the San Francisco 49ers last year that detailed a purportedly unethical relationship between the team and the city council, prosecutors said Friday.
Santa Clara City Councilmember Anthony Becker is accused of providing the secret report titled “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Santa Clara City Council” to the team’s former top spokesperson and a local media outlet in 2022, days ahead of its official release.
Becker then allegedly lied to the grand jury about the leak, prosecutors said, prompting the criminal charges.
The 49ers play in Levi’s Stadium in the city of Santa Clara, about 35 miles (56.33 kilometers) south of San Francisco. Santa Clara County is broadly considered home to Silicon Valley.
The city of Santa Clara owns the stadium and leases it to the team; fighting between the two groups has led to ethics complaints, legal disputes and years of bad blood.
Al Guido, the team’s president, and Larry MacNeil, the former CFO who worked extensively on the team’s stadium project, were named in the indictment as witnesses who spoke to the criminal grand jury for Becker’s indictment.
“The 49ers have cooperated fully with the District Attorney’s Office in their investigation, and will continue to do so,” team spokesperson Brian Brokaw said in a statement Friday. “However, because this is an ongoing legal matter, the organization is not able to make any further comment at this time.”
Prosecutors say the team has bankrolled Becker’s political career by spending $3.2 million through independent expenditure committees for his 2020 city council race, which he won, as well as his unsuccessful 2022 mayoral bid.
The “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” report alleged that Becker and four other councilmembers regularly voted “in a manner that is favorable to the 49ers” and would routinely meet with the team’s lobbyists but not disclose what was discussed.
Becker faces a felony charge of perjury under oath, as well as a misdemeanor charge of willful failure to perform duty. He is scheduled to be arraigned Monday.
Becker did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday, and it was not clear whether he had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.
“Councilmember Becker violated the public’s trust,” Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in a statement. “That an elected official would commit perjury and lie under oath before the grand jury strikes at the very heart of our justice system and requires accountability.”
Representatives for the Santa Clara City Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.