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Chargers’ playoff hopes dealt massive blow with stunning loss to Texans

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Chargers’ playoff hopes dealt massive blow with stunning loss to Texans

HOUSTON — After a loss to the lowly Houston Texans on Sunday, Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley was quick to remind his players they still have plenty to play for.

“This is the tough side of the NFL,” Staley said. “It’s been a fight this entire season for us. It’s going to continue to be that way. We still have a lot in front of us.”

Rex Burkhead ran for a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns, and the Texans took advantage of three turnovers to beat the Chargers 41-29 with both teams missing more than a dozen players because COVID-19 protocols.

The Chargers’ playoff chances took a serious blow with the loss. Outside linebacker Joey Bosa, running back Austin Ekeler, receiver Mike Williams and center Corey Linsley were among the major contributors on the COVID-19 list for LA (8-7), which entered in second place in the AFC West.

Rex Burkhead rushed for two touchdowns against the Chargers.
AP

“We had tons of guys out, they had tons of guys out,” Los Angeles cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “A lot of guys had an opportunity to step up and show what they could do, and we couldn’t really do that today. I don’t think we took full advantage of the opportunity we had.”

Houston (4-11) had 16 players miss the game on the COVID-19 list — including top receiver Brandin Cooks, center Justin Britt, defensive end Jonathan Greenard and kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn — but managed to win consecutive games for the first time this season. The Texans beat Jacksonville last week.

Justin Herbert looks on from the bench during the fourth quarter of the Chargers' 41-29 loss to the Texans.
Justin Herbert looks on from the bench during the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ 41-29 loss to the Texans.
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Coach David Culley was impressed with the players who filled in for the missing starters.

Nico Collins (12) celebrates after his fourth quarter touchdown during the Texans' 41-29 win over the Chargers.
Nico Collins (12) celebrates after his fourth quarter touchdown during the Texans’ 41-29 win over the Chargers.
USA TODAY Sports

“Those guys came in and they showed that they were ready to do what we needed to get done,” he said. “This team is so resilient. They’ve never really worried about what happens on the outside, all we’ve tried to do is just get better.”

Burkhead had TD runs of 25 yards and 1 yard as the Texans, who entered the game ranked last in yards rushing, ran for a season-high 189 yards. Rookie Davis Mills threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns.

“We played our most complete football game,” Culley said.

Jonathan Owens intercepts Justin Herbert near the end of the first half of the Texans' 41-29 win over the Chargers.
Jonathan Owens intercepts Justin Herbert near the end of the first half of the Texans’ 41-29 win over the Chargers.
USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers’ Justin Herbert threw for 336 yards with a garbage-time touchdown and two interceptions. Justin Jackson ran for 64 yards and two touchdowns and had 98 yards receiving filling in for Ekeler, but his fourth-quarter fumble led to a Houston field goal that hurt LA’s comeback bid.

On the Chargers’ next possession, Jackson scored on a 9-yard run and Herbert connected with Jared Cook on the 2-point conversion to get the Chargers within 27-23.

But Mills hit Nico Collins for a 13-yard touchdown with less than three minutes left to extend Houston’s lead to 34-23. Tavierre Thomas effectively ended with a pick-6 for 48 yards with just under two minutes to go.

Staley took responsibility for the loss, which came after last week’s overtime defeat to Kansas City.

“I didn’t coach well enough,” he said. “I didn’t put our guys in a good enough positions to be consistent in the game, and that’s why we lost.”

Burkhead’s second TD, a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter, made it 24-15.

Three plays later, DeMarcus Walker stripped the ball from Jackson and the ball was recovered by Jonathan Owens, who also created another turnover late in the second quarter that helped Houston take the lead for good. Owens picked off Herbert at the goal line with about four minutes left in the first half.

Owens’ girlfriend, Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles, attended the game and was seen on the in-stadium video board clapping and cheering after the interception.

The Texans cashed in on the miscue with a 94-yard drive capped by Mills’ 41-yard touchdown pass to Chris Conley for a 17-12 lead at halftime.

Dominik Eberle, signed this week with Fairbairn on the COVID-19 list, made his first NFL field goal on the first attempt of his career — a 51-yarder that cut LA’s lead to 12-10 in the second quarter. He finished 2 for 3 on field-goal attempts.

Dustin Hopkins connected on field goals of 50, 46 and 35 yards for the Chargers.

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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