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The 2021 NFL season kicks off tonight
Here are a few key things to know as the league’s expanded 17-game schedule opens with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers facing the Dallas Cowboys at 8:20 p.m. ET:
Tom Brady might be amortal. No human can ever fully escape the spectre of death. But some believe that, with a few more scientific breakthroughs, dying of natural causes could one day become a thing of the past — at least for those with the resources to pull it off. If a bus hits them, yeah, they’re still toast. But these people won’t be killed by illness, disease or the natural ravages of aging. Like a good car, they’ll pretty much run forever with the proper maintenance. Which brings us to the question: are we sure Brady hasn’t already achieved this? At 44, as he gets ready to start his NFL-record 300th regular-season game tonight, the Tampa Bay QB looks fitter than when he first became a starter with New England 20 years ago. And he’s still playing at a high level. In his first season in Tampa, Brady threw for 40 touchdowns (his second-highest total ever) and won his record seventh Super Bowl along with his fifth Super Bowl MVP award. His Buccaneers have a good shot to repeat this year. And if they don’t, no big deal — Brady probably has five or six more good decades left in him.
Bill Belichick struck back. After an unprecedented two-decade rule that included six Super Bowl wins and nine appearances in the big game, the iconic New England coach’s empire crumbled last year after he decided to part ways with Brady. Anyone wondering whether it bothered Belichick to miss the playoffs while his longtime QB immediately won a Super Bowl without him got their answer when the Patriots spent an NFL-record $160 million US in guaranteed money on free agents this off-season. Belichick also hopes he’s found the next Brady in Mac Jones, the first-round pick who beat out the since-cut Cam Newton for the starting QB job.
Aaron Rodgers’ future in Green Bay is in Jeopardy!. The reigning MVP spent part of his off-season auditioning to replace the late, great Alex Trebek. He did fine in his guest-host spots, but Rodgers dipped to Mike Richards levels of likability with some of his other behaviour this summer. Despite having one of the best receivers in the league (Davante Adams), a great running back (Aaron Jones) and a competent head coach (Matt LaFleur), Rodgers lashed out at Packers management for not supplying him with enough talent, and for (OK, this is a fair criticism) spending last year’s first-round pick on an apparent successor at quarterback. With Rodgers clearly unhappy in Green Bay, and Adams’ contract set to expire, there’s a Last Dance vibe around the Packers this season.
How ’bout them Cowboys? No, I’m genuinely asking. Because no one seems to have any idea how this season is going to turn out for America’s Team™. If star quarterback Dak Prescott is truly recovered from the disgusting leg injury he suffered 11 months ago, Dallas could bounce back and contend for its first Super Bowl title since its ’90s glory days. If he’s not, the fantastic receiver tandem of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb will go to waste again and the $6.5-billion franchise’s season will go up in flames — along with a million fantasy teams’.
The apocalypse is upon us. How else to explain that the Buffalo Bills and the Cleveland Browns — two of the most inept teams of the past couple of decades — are now among the best in the league? Under new head coach Kevin Stefanski last season, the Browns made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, upset the Steelers in round 1 and then nearly toppled mighty Kansas City. Now they have a shot at stealing the AFC North from Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Meanwhile, Buffalo suddenly looks like a… model franchise? The Bills have a savvy GM, a solid head coach, a brilliant offensive co-ordinator and a franchise quarterback in Josh Allen, who they developed from raw prospect into MVP runner-up last year. Buffalo went 13-3 (its best record since Jim Kelly was running the K-Gun in the early ’90s), won its first division title in a quarter century and got within one win of the Super Bowl before getting spanked by K.C. This year, there’s real hope that the Bills can finally erase the hurt from their four consecutive Super Bowl losses more than a generation ago.
Two Canadians are set to play major roles. Reigning Lou Marsh Trophy co-winner Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is back on the Kansas City offensive line after taking a year off from protecting Patrick Mahomes to focus on his medical work, which included treating COVID-19 patients. In Pittsburgh, second-year receiver Chase Claypool looks to build on an at-times-spectacular rookie season that saw him score nine touchdowns — including four in one game. Another Canadian to keep an eye on is rookie Chuba Hubbard. He’s the backup to one of the best running backs in the league, Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, so playing time might be hard to come by. But Hubbard rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns for Oklahoma State in 2019, and he could start off as the Panthers’ kickoff returner.
Leylah Fernandez can reach the U.S. Open final tonight. The 73rd-ranked Canadian teenager is the Cinderella story of the tournament after knocking off defending champ Naomi Osaka, No. 16 seed Angelique Kerber and No. 5 Elina Svitolina in consecutive matches. Fernandez, who had never gone past the third round of a Grand Slam before, now faces No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals at 7 p.m. ET. The 23-year-old Belarussian rolled through her last four matches without dropping a set, but she’s in uncharted waters too, having never reached a Grand Slam singles final. The other women’s semifinal features an even more improbable gate-crasher than Fernandez. Toronto-born Emma Raducanu, who represents Great Britain, is ranked 150th and became the first qualifier to reach the U.S. Open semis in the professional era. Unlike Fernandez, Raducanu has faced a relatively soft slate of opponents. She beat No. 11 seed Belinda Bencic in the quarters, but her semifinal tonight vs. No. 17 Maria Sakkari will be the only other time she’s met a seeded player in this tournament. The two other Canadians who reached their U.S. Open semifinals play Friday. Men’s No. 12 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime faces No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, while Gabriela Dabrowski and her Brazilian teammate Luisa Stefani take on a pair of Americans in women’s doubles. The times for both matches are still TBD.
Andre De Grasse finished the season strong. It’s been quite the summer for Canada’s biggest track star. He won his first Olympic gold medal, in the 200 metres, and repeated as bronze medallist in both the 100m and 4x100m to become the most decorated Canadian male Olympian of all time. De Grasse also qualified for the Diamond League Final in the 100m and 200m events, which were held today in Zurich. Despite the races going off just a little more than an hour apart, De Grasse made a serious run at the double, finishing second by a narrow margin in both. In the 100, he ran a personal-best-matching time of 9.89 seconds, but was clipped at the line by Olympic silver medallist Fred Kerley (9.87). He also lost the 200 by just two hundredths of a second, with Olympic runner-up Kenny Bednarek beating De Grasse on fresh legs. Canada’s Aaron Brown finished fourth in the 200. Two other Canadians made it to the Final in their event. Marco Arop placed fourth in the men’s 800m, while Django Lovett also missed the podium in the men’s high jump. Read more about the Diamond League Final and watch highlights here.
The Canadian men’s soccer team scored a big win without Alphonso Davies. With the young star out after suffering a minor injury in Sunday’s 1-1 draw vs. the United States, Canada grabbed its first win of the final round of regional World Cup qualifying by beating El Salvador 3-0 last night in Toronto. With one win and two draws through three of its 14 matches in this round, Canada is in second place — behind Mexico and ahead of the U.S. The top three teams qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, while the fourth-place team gets another chance via an intercontinental playoff. The next batch of qualifiers is a month away, with Canada playing at Mexico on Oct. 7, at Jamaica on Oct. 10 and vs. Panama on Oct. 13 in Toronto. Read more about how the Canadian team is proving it’s more than just Davies in this analysis by CBC Sports contributor John Molinaro.
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